Add Creosote So Your Patch of Desert Smells Like Rain

You can easily add a fragrant – low-water creosote bush to your landscape or garden now – in the summer months.

Fragrant Memories of Summer

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 and signified the joy and freedom of summer.

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Creosote bush responds to the summer rains with blooms. You can also water the shrub to encourage early blooms. Here the buds are almost ready to pop open!

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 long 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 can clearly recall the nostalgia in his voice, and I wonder if he was quoting a long ago friend or time-lost grandparent.

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Just a few days later!

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.

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Each fuzzy puff contains 5 seed chambers.

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.

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In the wild, creosote has a harder life than in our landscapes, and you can see their distinctive branches better.

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.

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These balls are the result of creosote midges. they don’t contain seeds.

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 act like rain and sprinkle the soil with a hose every few days.

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Creosote can grow several feet in the first year – the will slow later.

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.

Harvest & Use Creosote

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 my book Father Kino’s Herbs: Growing and Using Them Today and perhaps in a future post on Savor the SW (savorthesw.com).

It is wonderful to add native plants to your yard. They require so little care, but do attract our native birds.

Peace, Jacqueline

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More about overall care of your land and landscape in this book: Month by Month Gardening for Arizona, Nevada, and New Mexico (Cool Springs Press).  This link is to Amazon and if you buy the book there the Horticulture Therapy non-profit Tierra del Sol Institute will get a few pennies – at no extra cost to you.

© Article copyright Jacqueline A. Soule. All rights reserved. You must ask permission to republish an entire blog post or article. Okay to use a short excerpt – but you must give proper credit to Gardening With Soule. You must include a link to the original post on our site. No stealing photos.

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