Here in the Arizona Desert, we get very little rain.
So plants adapt themselves to these conditions. As with all
plants, the Chaparral or Creosote Plant “breathes”
in carbon dioxide through the openings on the underside of the
leaves. This is called Stomata. But that means the plant loses
water. So in order to adapt, the Chaparral opens its stomata
only in the morning when the humidity is relatively high and
water loss is low. The plant undergoes photosynthesis and shuts
down as the sun rises higher in the sky.
The intelligence of this
plant maximizes the amount of sunlight it receives by facing
southeast. The branches and leaves grow in a shape meant to
capture as much of the morning sunlight as possible, thus saving
water in the plant. As the heat of the day increases, the stomata
close and shut down the process of photosynthesis. Desert plants
are always about conserving water not depending on the sunlight
for their growth.
Creosote bushes are cone
shaped so the rain can channel down the stem and go deeper into
the soil for the roots to absorb. It can also grow into the
shape of an upside down bowl that allows leaves and other organic
material to collect under it, creating rich soil for the plant.
The bush grows in orderly patterns across the desert, spacing
itself equidistant from the other chaparral plants reflecting
its conservation of water. In deep sandy soils the plant can
also obtain water using its tap root. While the creosote bush
thrives in the desert, overtaking ecosystems and turning them
into a shrub-land, the mother plant sends out runners and new
baby plants begin growing, thus keeping all the new shoots in
a community, equidistantly surrounding the mother plant, like
a closely knit family.
It was believed that
the bush had the ability to grow poisonous shoots that killed
any plant that got in its way. However, now scientists believe
that the root system of the mature bushes are so efficient in
absorbing water that there's no water left in the soil for other
plants to germinate, which explains their shallow root system.
Either way, Mother Nature has protected this plant for 11,700
years. It is one of the longest-lived plants in the world.
Since nutrients are rare in the desert the Chaparral plant gets
nutrients from microbial algae, fungi and bacteria living on
the plant. The Creosote bush tolerates drought better than any
other shrub in North America. It can actually survive for up
to two years without rain. And after each heavy rain, it bursts
forth with beautiful yellow flowers.
Perhaps one of the most
interesting things about the Creosote plant is that stays green,
has no thorns, spines or spikes like other desert plants and
no insects that readily eat it or totally destroy it.
The Smell of Desert
So why does the desert smell a certain way after it rains? It's
because this plant contains volatile oils, mostly terpene (a
compound that is found in pine trees), limonene (citrus), camphor
(found in pine trees and rosemary), methanol (wood alcohol)
and 2-undecanone (found in spices).
And just to set the record straight .... the plant does not
produce the creosote used to preserve railroad ties or outdoor
wood. That stuff comes from a certain variety of pine tree.
The plant produces a
range of compounds that protect it from insects and pathogenic
fungi. These compounds also prevent herbivores from eating it,
except for Jackrabbits and hikers, the only known mammals known
to eat the leaves of the plant. The flower of the Creosote bush
attracts bees that feed on the flowers and the creosote katydid
and creosote grasshopper use it as a food source.
Creosote stores water like other types of cacti. It retains
moisture and nutrients in the crown of the plant so it can bloom
even if it doesn't rain. Seasonally it blooms in the spring
and opportunistically after any rain of an inch or more. It
is not unusual to see the Chaparral plant blooming in late summer
after the monsoon rains. Interestingly, the plant protects its
blooms from pollination of insects after a blossom is fertilized
by rotating a quarter of a turn, making it less conspicuous
to other insects.
of this Sacred Plant
Back in the 1930's people used Nordihydroguaiaretic acid, a
powerful antioxidant the bush uses for protection, to keep food
from spoiling. Then in the 1970's the FDA discontinued the use
of it in foods. However recent research indicates that this
chemical has the ability to reduce cancerous tumors in animals.
Many Native Tribes consider the Creosote a sacred plant. According
to their stories, Earth Maker took soil from his breast, scattered
it and planted the Creosote plant.
It was often taken internally for gastrointestinal problems
by chewing and swallowing the gum. Tea infusions were used for
bowel issues, improving the flow of urine and food poisoning.
It also has decongestant properties that may relieve symptoms
of colds, asthma and respiratory infections, heartburn and indigestion.
Other remedies included disinfectant, deodorizers and treatment
for dandruff. Several tribes even used infusions to treat cancers
and tumors. It can also be used as a deodorant, in oral health
to treat toothaches and treating saddle sores on horses.
Creosote’s anti-inflammatory properties made it useful
in poultices, infusions, and decoctions applied directly to
aching joints to relieve the pain of rheumatism, arthritis,
sprains, bruises, abrasion wounds, burns and fungus. It is said
that one can bathe in a tea to ease sore areas of the body.
The plant can also be turned into a liniment or salve and rubbed
on the skin to ease pain and protect from the sun, as the Natives
would literally strip the leaves off the plant and rub it on
the skin for themselves and their animals.
Despite the FDA's discouragement of the use of this plant for
health benefits, due to possibility of toxicity to the liver,
people still make teas for arthritis and other illnesses externally
as the Native Tribes did for generations and generations, with
no harm to them.