Humble creosote bush produces a fragrant aroma when it rains in Arizona’s Valley of the Sun

The humble creosote bush is the plant responsible for the “desert rain” aroma that some fragrance makers try to replicate. In Arizona, we get the real thing every time it rains in the Valley of the Sun.

creosoted plant with flowers on its branches
Creosote bush begins second bloom of the year after monsoon rain showers bring breath new life into the desert.

I captured the image of this one blooming in mid-July about a week after some generous monsoon rain showers soaked the desert in Phoenix.

Creosote bushes line a hiking trail that cuts through Phoenix Mountains Preserve.

A creosote bush by any other name is still a creosote bush

  • The Latin name for the plant is Larrea tridentata.
  • Common nicknames: creosote bush, greasewood
  • Some people who appreciate the plant’s medicinal properties call it chaparral.
  • In some parts of Mexico, they call it Gobernadora, the Spanish word for governess, because of its ability to secure more water by inhibiting the growth of nearby plants.
  • In Sonora, it is more commonly called hediondilla; Spanish for smelly.

My first impression of the creosote bush

When I saw my first creosote bush shortly after moving to Arizona, I immediately drew a connection to the weak, scrawny pine tree Charlie Brown picked out in the classic Peanuts Christmas episode.

This plant is anything but weak and scrawny. Although a drought-tested creosote may look a little anemic at first glance, it’s far from lifeless. They’re able to withstand long periods of drought and high temperatures. Some of them live more than 200 years.

According to the reputable Siphon Draw blog, the creosote plant is able to conserve water by “breathing“ only in the early morning when humidity levels are relatively high.

About that “desert rain” aroma, I’d have to say it’s an acquired scent. My initial response was not favorable. Having moved to Arizona from Colorado, my sniffer had become accustomed to the smell of pine permeating the air after a good rain. To me, the creosote smelled like wet dirt. It still does, but I’ve come to appreciate it over the years.

Check this out!

There’s a ring of creosote bush “clones” in the Mojave Desert of California that is reportedly thousands of years old. Read all about it.

Medicinal uses of creosote

Long before we could drive up to a pharmacy window purchase medicine, people often relied on plants to cure their ails. Some still do.

In his book Gathering the Desert, Gary Nabhan claimed that indigenous people used creosote to treat the following afflictions and diseases:

  • Colds, chest infections or lung congestion
  • Intestinal discomfort or stomach cramps associated with delayed menstruation, consumption, cancer, nausea, wounds, poisons
  • Swollen limbs due to poor circulation
  • Dandruff, body odor, distemper, and postnasal drip.

Like many plants in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona, the creosote bush is one that you might walk past and not give it due consideration. Now that you know how resilient, aromatic and beautiful a “greasewood” can be, hopefully you can appreciate it more next time you see one.

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