If you live in a naturally hot and dry climate and are looking for an interesting low-maintenance plant for your garden, the creosote bush might be a perfect choice. These characteristic desert plants of the American Southwest are easy to grow where many other plants can’t.
Read on to learn how to grow and care for this interesting shrub.
What Is A Creosote Bush?
Larrea tridentata, commonly known as creosote bush, guamis, hediondilla, governadora, or greasewood is an American native shrub of the Zygophyllaceae family.
These evergreen shrubs reach about 13 feet (4 m) tall at most, but they are pretty slow growing and make a fine shrub in the 3 to 5 feet (0.9 to 1.5 m) height range. These plants grow from multiple stems and tend to clone themselves, radiating outwards as the parent plant dies.
This is a slow process, however, and the oldest known clones are estimated to be over 11 000 years old!
Creosote bush seeds need specific circumstances to germinate and mature into established plants because young plants only survive after long periods of unusually wet weather. This is why plants in the wild are often all of the same age.
These plants occur on well-drained soils on desert flats in the American Southwest in the states of California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas, extending south into Mexico. In these areas, the plants are associated with the smell of rain.
As an adaptation to their natural desert environment, creosote bushes have small, waxy leaves that can fold over to reduce their sun exposure and conserve water. The foliage consists of shiny light to dark green compound leaves with two leaflets about ¼ inch (6 mm) long, that are oppositely arranged.
The leaves are resinous and sticky and give the plant its characteristic creosote smell. These plants also have interesting, light grey stems that have a jointed look as a result of dark rings at the nodes.
Creosote Bush Flowers
Creosote bush flowers are found singly in the leaf axils. Each flower measures about an inch (25mm) across and has 5 petals.
The flowers are yellow and bloom most profusely in spring, although occasional flowering takes place in the summer and fall as well. Flowers give way to small fluffy white fruits that turn reddish with age. Each capsule produces 5 seeds when mature.
How To Grow A Creosote Plant
The creosote bush can be grown from seed, although the seeds tend to be slow to germinate. Germination tends to be greater when seeds are scarified or abraded, but success of up to 90% has been achieved with intact seeds. Seed can be collected from ripe fruits in the late spring and summer and will keep for as long as 8 years in a dry indoor environment.
These plants grow best in dry to lightly moist and well-drained soil. The substrate can be sandy, gravel, or rocky but neutral to alkaline soils are preferred.
The creosote plant is extremely drought resistant once established, but young plants are surprisingly sensitive to drought. This is why seedling success is so low in nature because long periods of unusually wet weather are required for establishment.
Mature plants that are given too much water tend to grow tall and thin so it is better to not water these plants too regularly. For the same reason, these plants are not really suited for gardens in high rainfall areas.
These plants should be grown in full sun and are hardy down to USDA zone 7. One thing to consider when planting creosote bushes in your garden is that other plants might not grow well under or near them. This is partly due to their very efficient and competitive root system.
Care and Maintenance
Creosote plant is a slow to moderately slow-growing shrub. These low-maintenance plants are long-lived, surviving for over a century before cloning.
They can be sheared, pruned as a neat, rounded shrub, or even trained as a small tree. Fertilizing is not necessary and these plants are naturally pest and disease resistant. They are, however, susceptible to pests known as creosote gall midges which cause the growth of galls on the plant.
Creosote Bush Uses
The Larrea tridentata is best suited for use in xeriscapes and gardens in dry, low-rainfall areas. There they can be used in borders and rock gardens or left to naturalize. They make an interesting specimen plant and can be grown as an informal hedge.
Although it is considered dangerous and toxic in modern medicine, this plant has a long history of medicinal uses. It is used to treat a variety of conditions including snakebite, tuberculosis, menstrual cramps, and as a poultice on wounds.
Few animals feed on the bitter leaves of the creosote bush but the flowers are popular with pollinators like bees and other insects. This plant is deer resistant.
For gardeners in the dry, American southwest, the creosote is a tough, low maintenance but attractive evergreen shrub that will thrive where many other plants can’t survive. These interesting plants may be slow-growing, but they certainly do add character and color to the landscape.
- Marshall, K. A. Larrea tridentata. In: Fire Effects Information System.
U.S. Department of Agriculture
- Busing, R. T. Larrea Tridentata: The Woody Plant Seed Manual.
- California Native Plant Society. Creosote Bush
*image by shahla_bluerich/depositphotos