Creosote (Larrea tridentata) is easily one of the most ubiquitous plants in the Mojave desert and I think that might ultimately be what makes it so endlessly fascinating. There’s a pretty short list of plants on this planet that can not only tolerate brutal temperature changes and near-barren soil conditions but that will actually thrive in it. Larrea tridentata is a badass in horticultural terms and she smells really nice when you scrunch up her leaves or when it rains. I think it’s safe to say not many badasses out there smell as nice as a creosote bush after a rain.
So let’s get started with the pretty amazing story of Larrea tridentata and how it spreads first of all. While the plant can grow from seed it happens infrequently in the wild and the plants that do germinate have a pretty low survival rate. This means the most common means of propagation for creosote is cloning and it can take a long time for them to do it (a plant is generally decades old before it even begins the cloning process). Eventually the clones will grow to form a large ring of creosote bushes with individual plants living up to a hundred years and the ring itself going on for thousands of years. In fact, the ‘King Clone’ is a creosote ring in southern California that’s been estimated at 9,000-11,000 years old, making it one of the oldest living organisms on the planet. It’s currently unmarked for its own safety because there are people too stupid to appreciate beautiful living things.
But let’s not focus on that. Next time you (a delightful soul who does appreciate beautiful living things) are in the desert and you’re surrounded by creosote, start looking for the rings. They’re easy to spot once you know what you’re looking for and it’s fun to see plants growing in such a weirdly sweet pattern. It’s kind of like they’re holding hands or something. Whatever the case it at least looks like a very friendly way to grow and I like it.
Having said that, I wouldn’t want you to go away thinking that Larrea tridentata is always so kindly toward its neighbors. There’s been a ton of research into how plants communicate with one another over the past several years and it’s been noted that creosote bush has the ability to inhibit the root systems of other plants within its vicinity, including other creosotes. It’s certainly not the only plant that does this but it does seem to be particularly effective at the strategy, which leaves more resources for its own self in the end.
Sidenote: if the concept of roots communicating with one another rings your bell at all, there’s a really great article about the relationships that develop between trees in old forests at Smithsonian.com that I can’t recommend highly enough.
Creosote can get anywhere from 3′ to 13′ tall and nearly as wide, making it one of the few sources of shade in the desert for smaller animals. It also often serves as shelter for desert tortoises due to its long, shallow roots that provide stability to the soil and allow the tortoise to burrow beneath them.
Probably the easiest way to identify creosote is by the unique marks its leaf joints make on its bark. The black rings on the lighter bark always brings to mind Beetlejuice’s pants for me, though I do acknowledge that Beetlejuice’s pants were striped vertically and not horizontally like the creosote bush. So there’s really no reason for Beetlejuice’s pants to enter my mind but they do and there it is. And now you know.