Creosote (CREE-uh-sote) is an evergreen shrub of Southwestern Deserts of the United States. Though one of the most commonly found shrubs, it also happens to be remarkable in many ways. The foliage gives off a strong fragrance after the rain that many people find refreshing and associate with the smell of the desert. Others consider the odor too pungent, hence the Spanish word for creosote, hediondilla, meaning "little stinker." Native Americans found numerous uses for creosote, including using resin from the branches as a glue, and tea made from the leaves as a cure-all medicine.
But perhaps the most outstanding feature of creosotes is their longevity in harsh desert climates. Individual plants can live 100 to 200 hundred years, and the plant often clones itself. The oldest known ring of creosote clones, named King Clone, is 11,700 years old and lives in the Mojave Desert. The creosotes pictured here are all in the Sonoran Desert at Sabino Canyon.
Creosotes are extremely heat and drought tolerant and can survive for two years without water. A sticky resin coating on small leaves helps the plant to conserve moisture. In hot weather, pairs of leaves fold together lessening exposure to the sun. And, on extremely hot days, the creosote might drop some of its leaves to further cut down on water loss.
Small yellow flowers bloom mostly in the spring, but can appear throughout the year following rain. The delicate flowers have five petals which are twisted slightly like fan blades.
Pea-sized fuzzy fruits eventually split into five sections and fall to the ground.
Most wild grazing animals don't like the taste of creosote plants and avoid eating them, but the shrub is important to smaller desert wildlife. Reptiles and rodents live in burrows under the canopy of the plant. Bees feed on the flowers. A small gnat-like insect, named creosote gall midge, creates walnut-sized outgrowths at the tips of plant stems. The creosote midge larvae live inside the gall and don't seem to bother the plant too much.
Besides creosote gall midges, there are also creosote grasshoppers and walkingsticks. We found this creosote walkingstick on a juniper in our yard.
Creosote bushes sometimes provide shade and shelter to young cacti the way mesquite trees often do. Below is a creosote acting as a nurse plant for a barrel cactus.
Splashing the landscape with bright green color, creosotes make it hard to resist taking a stroll among them.
Creosotes undoubtedly have important lessons to teach about acceptance, tolerance, determination, and purpose, but for now it seems like enough to simply enjoy and admire their presence.