The Creosote Bush

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By Russell Almaraz

Creosote BushThe creosote bush is one of the most common and widespread desert shrubs. They are also one of the most long lived plants in the world. The Preserve has only one individual specimen. We are fortunate that it may be the largest in the Antelope Valley. It is located next to the bridge on the Creosote Loop Trail. Its large size probably is attributed to an abundant source of subsurface water. Another large creosote bush near Victorville California, a part of a clone-family called the King Clone, is estimated by the Bureau of Land Management to be 11,700 years old.

The Creosote Bush is characterized by having small resinous evergreen leaves that help limit water loss in the hot and dry climate. The gummy secretion on the leaves makes them appear varnished and gives off the distinctive strong creosote-like odor, especially after it rains. This creosote odor may have inspired its common name, which is a petroleum derived wood preservative, but it does not actually come from the creosote bush.

The yellow flowers bloom in profusion especially following a wet winter. Following a very wet season, flower buds are produced over several months, thus making for a long flowering period with some flowers going to seed as fuzzy seed balls as new flower buds were opening. These flowers are important to a number of bee species, some of which time their emergence from underground burrows to coincide with the flower bloom. The fuzzy seed balls break into crescent shaped pods which easily stick to fur or clothing or blow in the wind, allowing for seed transport and dispersal.

In the Prime Desert Woodland Preserve, the creosote bush is a component of the Joshua Tree–California Juniper Woodland. The large size of the one bush in the Preserve makes it similar in appearance to the more abundant California juniper. To tell the difference, notice the foliage: the juniper lacks leaves; instead it has scale-like foliage with either bluish-green berries or small brown cones indicating female or male junipers. Both shrubs provide important habitat for small animals, reptiles, and birds. They dig burrows among the shaded roots and seek cover from predators in the tangle of branches.

The roots of the creosote bush and California juniper serve an important function for the desert ecosystem. Their spreading roots hold the soil together to help prevent erosion by wind and water. Their branches and foliage also act as wind-breaks that reduce the speed and erosion potential of the wind. Where the natural vegetation is lost and there is little to hold it in place, sand blow-outs occur that degrade soil fertility and make the land non-productive and useless.

We are fortunate to have a prime specimen of the creosote bush at the Preserve. Observe how the birds and small animals make use of the cover its branches provide. Some of the mysteries that often puzzle visitors are why there is no other creosote bush on the Preserve, because they usually occur with many others of their species. And why is this lone bush so huge? Can you speculate on some logical answers?