Two More Death Valley Shrubs


desert holly, Yuma desert holly,
silver holly
Atriplex hymenelytra
(formerly Chenopodiaceae)

Desert holly, a shrub that can grow to three feet tall, has leaves that bear a slight resemblance to the familiar Old World hollies (Ilex species), but they aren’t closely related at all. It can be found in the Mojave desert in California, Nevada, Utah, and Arizona, where it’s listed as Salvage Restricted.  It’s highly tolerant of alkaline soils and is highly drought resistant.


Going on a tangent… Arizona has different conservation nomenclature from the Eastern states. According to the Arizona Cooperative Extension, there are four levels of protected native plants. “Salvage Restricted” is the second level: “This large group of plants are subject to damage and vandalism. This is a large list of species with 32 plant families represented, the largest being numerous species of cacti.”


sprucebush, pygmycedar,
desert fir, desert pine
Peucephyllum schotii

At a first, distant glance this plant looks similat to creosote bush, but up close you can see that the leaves and flowers are clearly very different. Despite the common names, it isn’t a spruce, cedar, fir, or pine.  It’s in the aster family, but has only disk flowers (no rays). It grows in the Mojave and Sonora deserts and can reach heights of 10 feet.


Two Death Valley Shrubs, One Community


As I drove and hiked and poked my way through eastern Death Valley, I kept seeing this shrub. It seemed like it was everywhere. Later research confirmed my informal observations: 70% of the Mojave desert is covered in well-spaced stands of it, and indeed the plant community is named for it: creosote bush scrub, which occurs in elevations below 3,500′ in areas with very hot summers, winters that don’t quite get to freezing, and extremely low average annual rainfall amounts (0-2″ in dry years, up to 8″ in wet years).

Larrea tridentata (Zygophyllaceae) is evergreen, can grow up to ten feet tall (usually it’s much shorter), is considered weedy by some authorities, and ranges from California southeast to Texas.  The more I read, the fascinated I became. Here are a few random facts.


Common names include creosote bush, governadora, greaswood, guamis, hediondilla, and confusingly, chaparral (confusing because it is not a part of the chaparral plant community).

Creosote bush was used by native peoples as a medicinal for treating respiratory conditions, various inflammations, viral and fungal infections, arthritis, and many other things. It has analgesic, antidiarrheal, diuretic, and emetic properties.

The plant is allelopathic, meaning it engages in chemical warfare, by releasing chemicals through its roots to inhibit the growth of other plants, including, possibly, other creosote bushes.

Most young creosote bush plants are established under a canopy of burrow bush.

In addition to sexual reproduction, creosote bush reproduces vegetatively. The resulting clonal colonies can live thousands of years, making them among Earth’s longest-living organisms. One colony has been estimated to be 9,400 years old.


Another species is co-dominant with creosote bush in its community; that one is known by the common names white bursage, burro bush, and burro weed.  I didn’t see as many of these plants, but as soon as I saw one up close, I had an unpleasant suspicion that it was closely related to a much-hated plant back home.

I was right.  Burrow bush is Ambrosia dumosa (Asteraceae), in the same genus as giant ragweed (A. trifida). And just like giant ragweed, it produces a very fine pollen that’s dispersed by the wind, making it a potent allergen.


Burrow bush grows in the Mojave and Sonora deserts.  It grows to about three feet tall, and is drought-deciduous (meaning it drops leaves in extremely dry conditions).




For more information about these plants, their communities, ecology, and so on, visit the following websites:

US Forest Service: creosote bush  burrow bush
Medicinal Plants of the Southwest
California Plant Names

More Tiny Flowers

Back to the Potomac Gorge and my continuing fascination with little bitty things…


Lewiston cornsalad, mâche,
and a host of others
Valerianella locusta

These pretty little flowers belong to one of my favorite salad greens… I think. Thing is, this species is almost impossible to tell apart from the S1 listed (eg, endangered) V. chenopodifolia (goosefoot cornsalad), without a close examination of the seeds. And by close examination, I mean a hand lens might do it.  A microscope would make it easier.


I’ve seen this same patch of plants in the same place on the Billy Goat C trail every year, but have never managed to catch it in seed. Although V. locusta is an invasive alien, this patch seems pretty well behaved. So I sent these pictures to some experts and asked for their opinion. They believe it to be V. locusta, which if nothing else is supported by the odds.


Oh well, I would love to have found an S1 species.  But hey, if I did, it would look just like this one.



southern chervil, hairyfruit chervil
Chaerophyllum tainturieri

The feathery foliage of this species can form large carpets on the floors of moist woodlands, but you really have to be looking close to see the flowers.


Although it’s in the same family as the culinary chervil (Anthriscus cerefolium) you may be familiar with, it’s in a different genus. I’d love to know if it’s edible; the internet hasn’t coughed up an answer yet, and I will not trust a source that doesn’t identify a wild plant with a proper botanical name. I certainly am not about to sample it to find out. There are many delicious plants in the Apiaceae, like carraway, carrot, celery, cilantro, cumin, dill, lovage, parsley…. There are also poisonous ones, like giant hogweed, poison hemlock, water hemlock, and something called “deadly carrots” (Thapsia species).

This chervil can be found from Maryland south to Florida, into the midwest and parts of the Great Plains, and even as far southwest as Arizona.


And Then There Was THIS Weird Plant

desert trumpet
aka Indian pipeweed
Eriogonum inflatum

Can you believe I’m still not done with the Death Valley report?

Every once in awhile a plant interests me for some reason other than the flowers.  I love the finely-cut foliage of Thalictrum species, for instance, or the growth habit of Sedum ternatum.


Though the minuscule flowers are lovely, the main attraction of this strange plant is the swollen stems below the nodes. For years people believed that the swelling had something to do with the life cycles of wasps and gall insects, but this notion was proven false by the University of Maryland’s Dr. James L. Reveal, who showed that these nodes are actually carbon dioxide tanks, so to speak. I haven’t been able to find out why a plant would need to store carbon dioxide, and annoyingly can’t find the papers in which Dr. Reveal published this information.


The genus name is from the Greek words for wool (erio) and knee (gono), though this particular species does not actually have woolly knees. It’s a perennial that can grow up to 2′ tall, and is a very common plant in the deserts of California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado.



The unswollen parts of the stems are slender, making this a difficult plant to photograph.



Mid-April Update, Potomac Gorge


miterwort, aka bishop’s cap
Mitella diphylla


The wildflowers continue to start blooming about two weeks earlier than last year. I’m told that twinflower is done and gone to seed already. Bloodroot is done, too, and so is cutleaf toothwort, though slender toothwort is just starting. Trout lilies are done in some locations, but still going strong in others. Virginia bluebells are waning.



early meadow rue (male flowers)
Thalictrum dioicum



Everything else I’ve posted about in the last few updates is still going strong. To that list, add:



early meadow rue (female flowers)