| Creosote Bush, Larrea tridentata
Common names: Chapparal, Greasewood, Gobernadora
The Creosote Bush is the most characteristic feature of North America's hot deserts. It is one of the best examples of a plant that tolerates arid conditions simply by its toughness. It competes aggressively with other plants for water, and usually wins, accounting for its prevalence in many arid locations of the southwest.
This medium-to-large evergreen shrub has numerous flexible stems projecting at an angle from its base. It is usually less than 4 feet high, but can grow to 12-foot heights with abundant water. Its small (1/4 to 1/2 inches), pointed, yellow-green leaves have adapted to conserve water and dissipate heat. The bush may lose some of these waxy, resinous leaves during extreme drought, but never loses them all. These leaves are especially pungent after a rain, and have been used as antiseptics and emetics (vomit inducer) by native peoples. Its foliage provides refuge for crickets, grasshoppers and praying mantids.
George Wharton James wrote in Wonders of the Colorado Desert, published in 1911, that "Its leaves are small, covered with a resinous substance; and, particularly when bruised and crushed, exhale a singular but very agreeable and refreshing odor."
But not everyone regards the commonest of the Colorado Desert plants. The Spanish word for the plant, hediondilla, means "little stinker." However one regards the odor of the graceful creosote bush, its other characteristics, not the least of which is longevity, are remarkable.
It is possible that creosote bushes seen at the turn of the century are still alive today. When older stems in the middle of the plant die off, new growth comes up around the edge. This process allows a plant, which is essentially a clone, to be a century or more old. Able to dictate water rights, it is believed that the creosote produces a toxic substance to prevent other plants from growing too close. Only when the soil below a creosote has been cleansed by rain will other plants grow for a brief time beneath them.
The creosote, with its gray stems ringed with black, is abundant from southern California to western Texas. It can be found on the plains, in sandy desert washes and on rocky dry slopes up to 5,000 feet. It can grow to 15 feet high.
Bees are among the 100 animal species which time their Spring emergence to coincide with the profuse bloom of these bright yellow flowers bursting with pollen and nectar.
The yellow flowers have turn to round, white, woolly seed-vessels which are its fruit. Resins on the leaves help prevent water loss, and the dropping of leaves provides another means of conserving energy. After dry spells have forced other plants into dormancy, the hardy creosote continues to make the sugars needed for growth. Desert grasshoppers and a walking stick exclusively munch on creosote, but the resinous foliage is a turn-off to most mammals and insects. It is believed that the same chemicals which repel these animals have made it a pharmacy for Native Americans.
The Cahuilla and others made a medicinal tea from creosote stems and leaves in the belief it was good for colds, stomach cramps, as a decongestant and even a cure for cancer. The tea, sweetened with honey, was also taken as a general health tonic upon waking. At the turn of the century, Anglos considered creosote a remedy for consumption (tuberculosis), and it was given to horses with colds or distemper.
Range: All four southwestern deserts. Southern Nevada, extreme southwest Utah, southeastern California, southern third of Arizona, southern New Mexico, into west Texas and south into Mexico.
Habitat: Well-drained slopes and plains up to 4,000 feet. Often the most abundant shrub, even forming pure stands.
Flowers: Inch-wide twisted, yellow petals bloom from February-August. Some individuals maintain flowers year round. After the Creosote blooms the flower turns into a small white fuzzy fruit capsule that has about 3 seeds. You can find these seed capsules on the ground under the creosote bushes.
Fruit: Globose, hairy, reddish-white.
Other names: Candlewood, Slimwood, Coachwhip, Vine Cactus, Flamingsword and Jacob's Staff
Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts of southeast California to west Texas and south into Mexico.
Open, stony, well-drained desert slopes below 5,000 feet.
Red flowers are 1/2 to 1 inch in length, with five short lobes curled back into 10-inch clusters. They appear at the ends of branches March through June or later, depending on rainfall.
The Ocotillo is a bajada resident that can be relied on to bloom annually, even without leafing in particularly dry springs. It is an
inverted, funnel-shaped desert plant with several woody, spiny, whip-like, straight branches angling outward from the base and rising as high as 20 feet.
Ocotillo are leafless most of the year, except immediately after rain; the leaves then quickly wither after the soil dries out. These narrow, oval leaves are about 2 inches long, appearing in bunches above spines. Mature plants have as many as 75 slender branches (canes). Planted in rows, Ocotillo become living fences.
Members of the Ocotillo Family (Fouquieriaceae), there are 11 species of the Fouquieria genus, most of which occur in Mexico. The Ocotillo is the northernmost of these species. The Boojum Tree (F. columnaris) is a close relative occurring in Baja. .