Ode to the Creosote Bush

A desert tortoise pauses under the shade of a creosote bush.

A desert tortoise pauses under the shade of a creosote bush.

The southwest desert is thought of as a barren landscape by many, yet you may be surprised to learn that the Mojave Desert is diverse with plants and animals, all conditioned to survive the extremes of this environment. The desert tortoise is a keystone species of this desert and well adapted to an arid climate. Desert tortoise burrows offer protection for other desert species from predators and harsh weather conditions, and they disperse seeds from the native plants that they eat, repopulating the desert ecosystem with them!

Although it’s unlikely you’ll have a random encounter with a desert tortoise in the wild, it is common to see Larrea tridentata, commonly known as the creosote bush. This is a dominant shrub of the desert southwest and where desert tortoises tend to build their burrows due to the soil stability resulting from the creosote’s root system.

A creosote bush provides shelter for ground dwellers.

A creosote bush provides shelter for ground dwellers.

The creosote bush is also the most drought-tolerant of the desert southwest, with a waxy coating on its leaves that prevents water loss. During times of extreme drought, old branches and roots of creosote bush die back, returning only when it rains. Although, this shrub isn’t a primary food source, is does provide shelter to many animals.

As a desert dweller, rain is rarely in the forecast for me, but when it is, my senses are stimulated by the refreshing odor in the air, and I have often wondered, what causes the rain to smell? Well, the unique camphor-like odor in the air is from the creosote bush! When it rains, this waxy layer on the leaves volatilizes, producing the smell of rain.

I’ve called the desert southwest my home for a majority of my life, yet I continue to learn and appreciate the wonder of the desert around me every day!

Pamela Flores is a research associate at the San Diego Zoo Desert Tortoise Conservation Center in Las Vegas, Nevada. Read her previous post, Students Help Desert Tortoises.

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