Many people think of a barren wasteland when they think of the desert,but from the soil springs forth all manner of growing life. Some of these plants you'll run into around the ranch. On second thought, don't run into the prickly ones.
Cat-claw Acacia, Acacia greggii
Also known as "wait-a-minute" bush because the "claws" grab you fiercely and don't give up their hold easily. Cat-Claw Acacia is a common shrub found in the washes of the Colorado Desert. The branches are armed with short curved spines, much like a cat's claw. This large shrub or small tree grows up to 20 ft high.
Bark gray to brown and scaly. Spines brown to gray, curved and appear singly along branches. Flowers are pale yellow, forming dense, cylindrical, clusters to 2.5" long in late spring. Fruit is like a flattened string bean. Its flowers attract a wide variety of insects.
Joshua Trees, Yucca brevifoliaJoshua trees belong to the Lily family. They were named by Mormons who, when they encountered this giant yucca tree, thought that it resembled the arms of Joshua beckoning them farther west. One of the most beautiful spectacles during spring in the Mojave is the creamy white blossoms of the Joshua tree. These white candles can be seen from February to late April.
Many members of the wildlife community depend on Joshua trees for food and shelter, but only the yucca moth has evolved a life-style very closely tied to the Joshua tree. The female moth has special organs with which to collect pollen from Joshua trees and other yuccas. She carefully spreads her hoard of pollen onto the receptive surface of the flower and lays her eggs in the flower's ovary. When the larvae hatch they feed on the flower's seeds. Without pollination, moth larvae would have no seeds to eat. They eat only a few, leaving plenty to shake free from the fruit and grow into the next generation of Joshua trees.
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.
aka Candlewood, Slimwood, Coachwhip, Vine Cactus, Flamingsword and Jacob's Staff
Range: Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts of southeast California to west Texas and south into Mexico.
Habitat: Open, stony, well-drained desert slopes below 5,000 feet.
Flowers: 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.
The timing of the Spring Wildflower season varies from one year to the next. Preceding rains and temperatures are key factors in affecting the blooming period. Plant species and elevation add further variation to the mix.
Paloverde means "green stick" in Spanish, referring to the smooth, green bark in which photosynthesis takes place. This allows the tree to drop its leaves (drought deciduous) to conserve water, yet still photosynthesize. Grows 30'-40' high. Bark bluish-green and smooth. Spines are small (0.25"), green, and straight. Flowers are bright yellow and 5-petaled (all petals are bright yellow in contrast to Foothills Paloverde that has its largest petal white). Flowers in spring (April). Fruit is a flat pod starting green and turning yellow. Fabaceae (Legume) Family. Blue Paloverdes need more water than other Paloverdes and thus tend to be more restricted to washes and roadsides. The seeds are very hard, thus are not as easily eaten by humans. The seeds need to be scarified (abraded, as occurs in flash floods or digestive tracts) or weathered underground a few years before germination occurs. The flowers are an important source of nectar and pollen for many species of solitary bees, as well as other insects.