From southern California to Arizona, it is the very face of the desert. Yet, like anything so common, creosote bush (Larrea tridentata) is easy to ignore as the spectacular ornamental shrub that it is. That's too bad, because it would make a great addition to your desert-garden landscape.
The drought and heat tolerance of creosote is renowned. Plants are documented to endure up to 3 years between waterings. Newly planted creosote needs to be watered just as any other woody shrub does, but once established, natural rainfall is sufficient. Creosote achieves it finest form in full sun. The plants are hardy to 0F.
As a garden plant it is unrivaled not just for its toughness and beauty but for the connection it provides to the natural desert of the area. And despite a lot of folklore to the contrary, other plants grow fine under creosote. The light shade of its open branches and its lean watering requirements make it particularly suitable companion to small cacti, aloes, agaves, and other succulents.
Creosote bloom in the spring and are in bloom for up to 2 months. Flowers are small with five bright, yellow petals. They are profuse on the plant and are followed by a rounded pod of 5 compressed nutlets. The fruit is coated with fine, white hairs that glow when wet or backlit. Numerous birds favor the fruit, but especially the tiny verdin (shown here on a cactus).
In the winter and spring, creosote bushes are lush with their small, rigid leaves that are coated with an aromatic resin. Once the weather turns hot, creosote begins to shed leaves. This is the plant's chief strategy for enduring the long, dry desert summer. It essentially becomes dormant through the summer.
Pruning live wood of creosote is difficult and rarely needed. Also, the live wood is extremely hard. In long spells of dry weather, plants often lose a branch or two, and taking off these dead branches is the only pruning that these plants require.
There are more legends, stories and fairy tales about creosote than almost any other desert species except perhaps saguaro (Carnegiea gigantea). It has an equally impressive list of medicinal and other uses among Native American tribes.