Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Greasewood, The Perfume of the Desert

When I purchased five Greasewood bushes (Larrea tridentata) for my garden, my husband couldn’t understand why I would actually pay for the ubiquitous desert plants. He thought the scraggly shrubs were a waste of money because they weren’t much to look at, and they were so common where development hadn’t occurred that he thought of them as desert weeds.

I, on the other hand, love the Greasewood, alternately called Creosote or Chaparral. I’ve never met anyone who grew up in the desert southwest who didn’t appreciate the pungent, astringent odor of Greasewood and damp soil after a desert rain. Perhaps it is because rain is so rare that anything associated with it is memorable, or else it’s that clean, crisp perfume of creosote that permeates the air. As a Midwest native, my husband associates creosote with telephone poles, not rain. When he thinks of rain, he recalls the smell of fresh green grass. In the many years he’s lived here, he’s still unimpressed with the smell of the desert after a rain.

The Greasewood’s small resinous leaves feel sticky and it is the resin that perfumes the air during periods of high humidity or after a rain. In the desert, the Greasewood will only get three or four feet tall and wide. When planted in a garden where water is available, it can reach up to 12 feet in height. My Greasewood shrubs, planted two years ago, are now reaching five feet high and wide.

Greasewood competes for water with other desert plants. Its extensive roots system puts out chemicals that repel the growth of surrounding vegetation, allowing the Greasewood to take advantage of the limited moisture without competition from other plants. Cacti can grow near the Greasewood, and the shrub will act as a nurse plant to the small cacti.

Soon, our rainy season will begin here in the Arizona desert. Even as temperatures reach 118˚ and the small increase in humidity can make this season almost unbearable, I do look forward to the coming rains, just for a whiff of that wonderful fragrance.


Anonymous said...

I have two greasewoods that I kept as part of our landscape when our house was built. In the area they are located I planted red orelanders behind them to accent them with color and I planted cactus under and near them.

Anonymous said...

I just bought a 5-acre lot near Wickenburg to build a house & hangar on, and it is covered with Greasewood bushes. I appreciate them also! Looking forward to applying some extra water, in hopes of some 10-footers!

Anonymous said...

I am originally from the Mojave Desert in So. Cal. I have lived for the past 30 years in the Santa Cruz Mts. approx. 8 miles east of Santa Cruz Ca. I loved the smell of the desert when it rained. Would Greasewood survive where I live now? It rains here a great deal during the winter months.

Aiyana said...

Are you in USDA Zone 9? This bush will grow in Zones 7-11, according to Desert Tropicals. If you don't see it in undeveloped areas close to you, then it's probably not something that will do well. I suppose you could try it and see if it will survive. Since it needs no extra water in very dry desert areas, if it gets a lot of water it will get huge. It produces a herbicide that prevents plants from growing below it. That is to stop competition for water.