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


Endemic – restricted to one area. A species that is endemic to a place (Death Valley, for example) will be found nowhere else.


On my last morning in Death Valley I decided to re-visit a few highlights. I went to see the globemallow again, and to see if the nearby beavertail cactus buds had opened yet. Nope. But before that, I visited a particular trail that had a good number of gulches with a good variety of flowering plant species. I was on my way back to the car when I caught sight of this.



Death Valley sage, Salvia funerea, Lamiaceae


Death Valley sage is of course endemic to Death Valley.  It’s a shrub that can grow to about 4 feet tall, but usually is shorter. This specimen was a little more than knee-high. The pale-green foliage looks silvery from the short white hairs all over it (hence another common name, woolly sage).

I’d seen a few of these over several days, but this was the only one flowering. Those purple flowers are slightly smaller than a pinky-nail.



Craters and Poppies


Ubehebe Crater, in the northeastern part of Death Valley National Park, is a beautiful and fascinating geological feature, the remains of a volcanic explosion that happened only 300 to 800 years ago (estimates vary).  The crater is about half a mile wide and 600 feet deep, and there’s a trail that circumnavigates the top.



The area is covered in cinders and colorful gravel and only very few plants. Actually it was a great place to get specimen photos, since the plants grew so sparsely, and almost always well apart from each other.



I was poking about, alternately admiring the flowers and gaping at the geology, when (yet another) yellow flower caught my eye.



This is Mojave gold poppy, aka desert poppy, Eschscholzia glyptosperma (Papaveraceae).  I saw maybe half a dozen of them in a small area between the parking lot and the viewing area at the top of the crater. Note the elongated seedpod above the flowers in the photo to the right.

Apparently this poppy is common across the Mojave desert, but I didn’t see them anywhere else during my trip.


Small But Showy


lesser mohavea, aka golden desert snapdragon
Mohavea breviflora


And back to Death Valley…

Like so many other flowers I saw in Death Valley, lesser mohavea is found in the Mojave Desert of California, Nevada, Utah, and Arizona. It’s an annual, growing to about eight inches tall.

Of course the common name makes me wonder, is there a greater mohavea? Apparently not. There’s only one other species in the genus (M. confertiflora), and its common name is ghostflower.



Bigelow monkeyflower
Mimulus bigelovii


While there are only two Mohavea species, there are 70 some Mimulus species, all but four of which are found in the western US. (I wrote last July about Allegheny monkeyflower and winged monkeyflower.) M. bigelovii has about the same range as lesser mohavea, stands at about the same height (though it can flower when much smaller), and is also an annual.


I’m All Ears


desert paintbrush (see below)
Castilleja species
[Scrophulariaceae in some older references]


When hunting wildflowers, obviously you have to keep your eyes open, and sometimes it helps to keep your nose open. But sometimes it pays to keep your ears open, too.

On my second day in Death Valley, I was waiting in line for the only loo in the lower Dante’s View parking area (loos are hard to come by in Death Valley) when I overheard the woman behind me say to her friend “did you see the Indian paintbrush?”

“No, where?” says the other woman.

“Right over there, behind my car,” says the first.

Well.  I wasn’t going to lose my place in line, but as soon as I finished that task I joined the small crowd gathered around this plant, the only specimen I saw on the trip.


Just like with the past few plants I’ve posted about, I had a bit of trouble nailing down which species this is. I finally decided on Castilleja applegatei ssp. martinii (one of four subspecies) because that’s the one in the pamphlet I purchased at the Furnace Creek Visitor Center; the description reads “May grow through shrubs for support; in mid to high elevations.” As you can see this was growing through a shrub, and that parking lot is a little under 5000′ above sea level.

However… I can never leave good enough alone.  Calflora doesn’t show that species growing anywhere near Dante’s View. A little more research, and I came up with another ID: C. chromosa. Which is a name no longer accepted by ITIS, which calls it C. angustifolia var. dubia.  Which is plausible. I don’t have the details to say which species it is.

About the common names… seldom have I seen so many variations.  These two species may be known variously as:

  • desert (Indian) paintbrush
  • wavyleaf (Indian) paintbrush
  • pine paintbrush
  • Martin’s paintbrush
  • showy northwestern (Indian) paintbrush

I dunno. Maybe I should just call it “paintbrush” and be done.