Creosote Bush a Killer Plant?
IN THE DESERT — Anyone who has ever wandered into an Arizona desert has undoubtedly encountered the rather plentiful, but inconspicuous, plant known as the creosote bush. They’re not much to look at — spindly shrubs that stand anywhere from three to six feet tall and measure about two to 10 feet across. The stems carry small resinous leaves and, in the spring, they bear little yellow flowers. But that undistinguished exterior conceals a long-living plant with deadly instincts.
Although the bushes grow in somewhat orderly patterns across the desert, much like manmade orchards, there’s a reason for the spacing. For a long time, botanists thought it was because the creosotes has the ability to grow poisonous shoots that killed any plant that took root in its territory. They do have some ability in that area by producing chemicals that inhibit the growth of certain other plants. But now scientists believe that the root systems of the mature creosote bushes are so efficient at absorbing water that there’s none left for any other seeds, so they can’t germinate. Either way, nobody messes with the creosotes when it comes to protecting their territory.
Two other things about the creosote bush. First, they can live a long time. One grouping in the Mohave Desert of California has been around for an estimated 11,700 years. Second, despite the name, they don’t produce the creosote used to preserve railroad ties. That smelly stuff comes from a certain variety of pine tree.
We have Creosote bushes all over our property, in the front and back yards. We love them all, as part of our naturalized landscape. And after the rains, the fragrance is unbelievably awesome!
My mom had a pet creosote that she watered with all her other plants. It grew as tall as the roof of the house. I love the creosote’s waxy, brilliant leaves after a rainy season. There is nothing like that fragrance – pungent, yet fresh and alive. In the city or suburbs, you don’t get that very often because creosote is usually not considered a nice landscape plant, even in xeriscapes. I miss it.
In among the creosote’s root systems is a favorite spot for ground squirrels to make their home. I’ve seen huge colonies of their holes beneath a widespread patch of creosote (no, they are not prairie dogs). There will usually be rabbits and sometimes snakes living in there, too. When I was a kid, a horse I was riding hit one of those patches at a dead run and flipped end over end, sending me flying. I had the wind knocked out of me and was dazed. I tried to roll over and couldn’t, so I thought I was paralyzed until I finally realized that I’d been thrown beneath the branches of a big creosote bush and was wedged in against its base. (It’s funny now, but, back then – not so much.) Luckily, the horse had not snapped a leg and I just had some scrapes and bruises. We both learned a lasting lesson about steering clear of those big ground squirrel condo developments.
Before someone wonders about it, creosote and greasewood are not the same plant.
Sam, wonderfully written, I have enjoyed reading your experience, you are a gifted writer.
Sounds accurate, other than the fact that creosote and Greasewood ARE in fact the same plant…..
Sorry, they are not related except incorrectly in colloquial speech. In fact, when it is used for medicinal purposes, creosote is sometimes referred to as “chaparral,” but chaparral is actually a desert area (mostly in southern California) in which several different plant species grow.
Creosote bush: Larrea tridentata
Greasewood: Sarcobatus Vermiculatus
One of the first things I learned from my dad, when we moved to Arizona, years ago, was that creosote and greasewood were the same thing. I didn’t know until years later, when I took Botany in college, that my dad was wrong.