Long before we learned to recognize the creosote bush, (Larrea tridentata), we knew what it was to us -- the essence of the desert. Distinctive, sweet and fragrant to our noses, we found other historic travelers of the desert had differing opinions on the aroma of the plant.
George Wharton James wrote in Wonders of the Colorado Desert, published in 1911, that he was in accord with Fremont who said "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, and one of the oldest, with such poetic ardor. Carl Eytel, the illustrator known as the "artist of the palm," found the odor very offensive. J. Smeaton Chase describes it as "having a strong tarry odor." 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. Also called greasewood, 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. Still, thankfully, ubiquitous, the plant can be found in many places but I would like to share a few of our favorite trails along which it grows abundantly.
Walking along the South Lykken Trail in Palm Springs after a recent rain, we were rewarded with a full-dress show of new, deep green, waxy leaves and yellow flowers. The bees, buzzing and humming, 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.
On the Murray Canyon Trail in the Indian Canyons, the creosote's adaptability gave it a different appearance. Now the yellow flowers have turned 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.
Another favorite place for viewing is the Living Desert Wildlife and Botanical Park in Palm Desert. A creosote bush was featured on the guided tour of the botanical gardens, and we were invited to crush and smell the leaves. Later, at the Park's nursery, the plant propagator helped us pick out several small creosote bushes to plant in our xeriscape garden on the coast. So far, even with the advent of El Niño weather, our experiment with growing creosote bush has been successful and a tribute to its adaptability. When the breeze blows at night it wafts the heavenly essence of the desert.
Creosote is a great teacher and example for humans. There are times when we could drop our leaves, so to speak, to conserve energy, and then when a cleansing rain comes along we can sprout, nurture and renew ourselves.
South Lykken Trail in Palm Springs
The South Lykken trail has a trailhead on both north and south ends. The north end starts at the parking lot at the west end of Mesquite Road and South Palm Canyon Drive. The south end is on South Palm Canyon Drive across from the old Canyon Hotel. Follow the dike to the trailhead. Picnic tables are located at both north and south ends of the trail.
Murray Canyon in the Indian Canyons
The Indian Canyons are 3 miles south of where Palm Canyon Drive South and Palm Canyon Drive East intersect on Palm Canyon Drive South. Enter the Aqua Caliente Reservation through the toll gate, and follow the sign to the right to Andreas/Murray Canyons. Indian Canyons information is 760- 325-3400. They are open daily in fall/winter from 8 AM to 5 PM and during daylight saving hours until 6 PM. Fees are $5.00 adults, Senior 62+ $2.50, Children 6-12 $1.00, Equestrians $6.00, Students and Military $3.50. Season passes and group rates are available.
Living Desert Wildlife and Botanical Park in Palm Desert
To reach the Living Desert Wildlife and Botanical Park, turn right on Portola from Highway Route 111 in Palm Desert. It is located at 47-900 Portola Avenue. 760-346-5694.
- Shrubs and Trees of the Southwest Deserts, Janice Emily Bowers, 1993, Southwest Parks and Monuments Association
- The Anza-Borrego Desert Region, Lowell and Diana Lindsay, 1988, Wilderness Press
- Temalpakh, Cahuilla Indian Knowledge and Usage of Plants, Lowell John Bean and Katherine Siva Saubel, 1972, Malki Museum Press
- The Wonders of the Colorado Desert, George Wharton James, 1911, Boston Little, Brown, and Company
- Plants for Dry Climates, Mary Rose Duffield and Warren D. Jones, 1981, HPBooks
- Our Araby, Palm Springs and the Garden of the Sun, J. Smeaton Chase, 1920, Star-News Publishing Company
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