As a kid, summer, and freedom from school, was magical. Best of all was when the monsoon rains started and the desert near our home responded with summer growth and flowers (and mud to play in). The grace note woven inexorably through my memories is the fragrance of rain-soaked creosote bushes. It wafted through our lives in summer.
I have a vivid recollection of the first time I heard “The desert smells like rain.” I was eight, sitting very quietly in the dark of our backyard while grownups visited (it was past my bedtime). A dear family friend took a deep breath of the night air filled with the fragrance of moist creosote and said in a nostalgic voice, “The desert smells like rain.” Now, half a century later, I wonder if he was quoting a long ago friend or time-lost grandparent.
I Told You That So I Could Tell You This
You can easily add a creosote or two to your garden now – in the summer months.
Creosote (Larrea tridentata) is a unique desert shrub that rewards extra water by adorning its branches with masses of vivid yellow, star shaped flowers. Flowers are replaced by charming fuzzy grey seed pods that dry up and blow away, if the lesser goldfinch don’t eat the seeds first. Plus every time it rains, creosote fills the air with a heavenly scent like no other on earth.
How to Plant Creosote
Creosote is easy to grow, but tough to get started. If you find plants in a nursery, be very careful to transplant with the root ball intact. I am beginning to think that creosotes failure to thrive when transplanted is because it is sensitive to direction, like many cacti – but I have no hard evidence.
Soil for Creosote
Almost any desert soil is fine for creosote, but some drainage is necessary. Thus if your yard is a caliche “bathtub” you will need to break a hole through the caliche to make a drain hole. Refill the hole with rough rocks and gravel, or even sand. This drain hole will plug back up with caliche in a decade or so. Ideally, mark your drain hole somehow – it is easier to dig out the second time.
Fast Way to Mature Creosote Plants
Faster than starting with a plant in a pot is to grow a creosote from seed. Collect hands full of the fluffy grey seed pods. Gently pull the pods off the parent shrub over something that catches the tiny seeds, like a coffee can.
Bury a handful of seedy fluffy material where you want the shrub to grow. Cover seed with a quarter inch of soil to hide it from the birds. Let the monsoons do the rest! Or you can be the rain and sprinkle the soil over the seeds lightly with water every few days.
Once you see the first few leaves poke out of the soil, water a little more often, but avoid over watering. Creosote roots can pull water out of very dry soil, but too much watering drowns the plant.
Creosote can be considered a herb. It is used medicinally, for crafts, and can be used as a dye. This is covered more fully in Father Kino’s Herbs: Growing and Using Them Today and perhaps in a future post on Savor the SW (savorthesw.com).
Want to learn more? Look for my free lectures at your local Pima County Library branch, Tucson Festival of Books and other venues. After each event I will be signing copies of my books, including Father Kino’s Herbs: Growing and Using Them Today (Tierra del Sol Institute Press). This link is to Amazon and if you buy the book there I will get a few pennies. But better yet – visit a local source and help our local economy – like Antigone Books, Mostly Books, Tohono Chul Park, Tucson Botanical Gardens, or Rillito Nursery.
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