The Amazing Creosote Bush

Cluster of Creosote Blossoms

A Cluster of Creosote Blossoms

The most common plant in the Northern Chihuahuan Desert is, by far, the Creosote bush. It thrives in nearly every habitat the desert has to offer, and in many areas is one of only two or three species to be found. In severely damaged habitats it is sometimes the only plant able to grow. Creosote and an unrelated plant, tarbush, are defining plants of the Chihuahuan Desert.

Creosote is so common in its range it goes largely unnoticed, even by naturalists. Yet this plant is extraordinary by almost any standard one might care to apply. Creosote is the most drought-tolerant plant in North America. It can live with no rain at all for more than two years and survives even prolonged droughts handily. In fact, Creosote fares poorly in years when rainfall is abundant. In the Big Bend area, for example, Creosote did very well during the drought of 1960 to 1967; when the rains returned in late 1967, Creosote’s range began to shrink, and continued to shrink until 1981 when rainfall amounts dropped to normal.

View of Creosote Growing as a Monoculture

Creosote Flats North of the Chisos Mountains

Desert plants have evolved a number of strategies for survival in the desert. Creosote is remarkable in the range of adaptations it has evolved and the number it employs. It is this combination of adaptations that allows Creosote to live where practically nothing else can. There are areas north of the Chisos Mountains where the only plant living is the Creosote bush.

Many desert plants use tap roots to reach moisture that lies deep beneath the surface and that doesn’t run off or evaporate readily. Others use thin, fibrous roots that grow just beneath the surface to capture rainwater quickly. Creosote uses both; it can catch water from brief rains and from deep underground resources as well. Its taproot can reach depths of 10 feet; it is so tough it can penetrate caliche, something that few plants can do. The shallow root system penetrates only a few inches into the soil but may spread out to cover as much as 50 square yards. These roots hydrate quickly and are capable of using even brief rains.

Like cacti, Creosote stores water, minerals, and vital nutrients for dry spells. Retaining moisture and nutrients in its crown allows Creosote to bloom whether it rains or not. So Creosote blooms both seasonally (in the spring) and opportunistically after any rain of more than an inch. Quick to capture water, and quick to bloom, Creosote is nevertheless careful with its blossoms. Since there is no value in attracting pollinating insects after a blossom is fertilized, the petals of a fertilized blossom rotate a quarter turn thus making them less conspicuous. Insects then visit unfertilized blossoms preferentially. Because Creosote blooms both seasonally and opportunistically, it is not unusual to see plants during the late-summer monsoons putting out new shoots, blooming, and setting seed at the same time. The following photograph shows this condition. Here you can see an unfertilized blossom (top blossom), a fertilized blossom (below) lush green sticky leaves and ripening seed pods all on the same stem.

Creosote Growing, Blooming, and Setting Seed Simultaneously

Here you can see Creosote blooming and setting seed simultaneously. The top blossom is unfertilized; the one below is fertilized.

Oddly, Creosote uses the “C3” photosynthesis process which is not very productive during much of the day. Creosote compensates for this by positioning its leaves so that they get the most sun early while it is still cool. Supporting stems grow in the shape of a flat fan which serves to orient the leaves in the correct direction.

Image of Creosote Fronds Facing East

Creosote Fronds Facing East

Creosote plants adjust their shape to fit the microhabitat in which they live. In the driest climates, limbs grow straight and at a funneling angle that allows the leaves to collect rain and channel it to the plant’s crown. In wetter areas, the plant assumes a rounder shape, casting a broader shade and keeping surface root temperatures lower.

For further protection Creosote coats its leaves with resins and other chemicals that retard evaporation and give the plant such a nasty taste that few animals will eat it. Resin content of the leaves may be over 25% by weight in young leaves, dropping to around 11% when the leaf gets old. The most desirable leaves (the tender young ones) are the worst tasting. Kangaroo rats, starving wood rats, and desperately thirsty jack rabbits that do venture to eat Creosote prefer to eat the older leaves that are less efficient at photosynthesis.

Like many leafy desert plants, Creosote sheds leaves during particularly dry spells, and like others it withdraws important nutrients from the leaves before shedding them. But Creosote is exceptionally efficient at this process reabsorbing three-fourths of its phosphorus and over half of its nitrogen before dropping a leaf. The fallen leaves accumulate under the shrub along with other wind-blown detritus and creates an ecological microcommunity that is specific to the Creosote bush canopy, sheltering and feeding beetles, millipedes, pocket mice, and kangaroo rats.

Creosote and most dryland grasses simply don’t get along well. In the presence of Black Gramma for example, Creosote seeds will not germinate. Conversely, wherever Creosote lives, most grasses are conspicuously absent. Ironically, this aversion to grass has served Creosote well in recent times, for wherever ranges are overgrazed, Creosote habitat is created, a situation the shrub is quick to exploit. Once established, Creosote is practically impossible to remove, so to lose a range to Creosote is to lose it forever.

Perhaps the most remarkable adaptation of Creosote is its’ longevity. It clones itself starting from the crown, often growing in rings like a donut. These rings grow extraordinarily slowly; a 20 foot ring may be 3,000 years old or more. Using radiocarbon dating, one shrub in the Mojave desert has been assayed at 11,700 years of age and one shrub in the Sonoran desert near Yuma, Arizona is thought to be 18,000 years old. If you consider rings of clones to be part of the same plant, these creosote bushes are the oldest living things on earth!

Medicinal Uses

Long before the Spaniards arrived, native Americans used Creosote for a wide range of ailments. Now modern laboratories are confirming what the Indians had learned from experience. Today, creosote is known to possess analgesic, antiseptic, antiviral, and antibiotic properties.

Creosote contains a mixture of resins and “phenols.” Phenols are compounds that occur widely in foods and tend to be quite chemically active. Phenols are responsible for the bite in chili peppers, the sting in clove oil, and the smokey flavor in coffee and whiskey. Some are powerful antioxidants and antiseptics. Creosote also produces 18 distinct flavones, chemicals found in grains that are known to have beneficial effects against atherosclerosis, osteoporosis, diabetes mellitus, and certain cancers.

Possibly the most important chemical creosote produces is a compound known as NDGA. NDGA is a potent antioxidant. It is believed to suppress the formation of free radicals in bodily cells and thereby promote longevity. It was widely used as a food preservative until the 1950s. NDGA has been shown in the lab to suppress HIV replication in infected human cells and to disturb the metabolism of some cancers.

The Tohono O’odham Nation considered Creosote a sacred plant. In their cosmology, Earth Maker took soil from his breast, scattered it about, and the first plant to grow was Creosote. Creosote was the most important plant in Tohono O’odham pharmacology and is still used throughout the Southwest.

Creosote was often taken internally for gastrointestinal problems. People chewed and swallowed the gum to control dysentery and intestinal spasms. They drank infusions for bowel complaints and old men drank Creosote tea to improve the flow of urine. In cases of suspected poisoning infusions could also be used to induce vomiting.

Creosote was widely used in treating respiratory problems. It’s decongestant properties were relived symptoms of colds, asthma, and respiratory infections. Decoctions of the gum were often taken for colds. Horses with colds, distemper, or runny noses often found creosote in their feed.

Infusions, or teas, were made by soaking the Creosote plant and used to treat bowel complaints. Old men used them as a diuretic, and healers administered them in cases of suspected food poisoning to make the patient vomit. Parents washed children’s impetigo sores with infusions while others used them as disinfectants, deodorizers, and a treatment for dandruff. One tribe even used infusions to treat cancer, an interesting application, because extracts of Creosote have recently been found to kill some types of cancer cells in the lab and even to inhibit the growth of HIV. Creosote is too toxic to be useful in cancer and HIV therapy yet, but further study may reveal new compounds for the treatment of these diseases.

Creosote’s anti-inflammatory properties made it useful in poultices, infusions, and decoctions applied directly to aching joints to relieve the pain of rheumatism, arthritis, sprains and bruises.

Natives used decoctions of leaves, stems, and gum as an antiseptic – they gargled it for sore throats, prepared decoctions for collar sores on draft animals, and made poultices for scratches, wounds, sores, and bruises. It is particularly good for encouraging healing of difficult abrasion wounds.

Indians dried and powdered creosote leaves and rubbed them on infant’s navals to promote healing. Women used decoctions to relieve premenstrual cramps and made beds of fresh branches and leaves to relieve birthing pains.

Even today, people use this plant. The FDA discourages the use of “Chaparral” (dried leaves ground to a powder) because of reported toxicity to the liver, people still make teas for arthritis, sore throats, and respiratory infections and use decoctions externally for the same purposes as natives used it thousands of years ago.

Desert hikers and other desert lovers would be well advised to learn more about this remarkable plant – it can bring a world of relief to anyone injured or unwell and far from modern medical care.


About aneyefortexas

Retired writer/teacher/photographer, now photographing the Chihuahuan Desert at the Big Bend Ranch State Park, Texas.
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39 Responses to The Amazing Creosote Bush

  1. 1 says:

    The 20-year-old only penned a new contract with Toulouse last summer, which runs until 2020.

  2. Charlotte Ocean Lowe says:

    I’ve transplanted five creosote bushes, two small and three, rangy, and about four ft. tall. We watered heavily now for about a week and a half and they appear to be getting browner. Scrap the twig and its still green. Should we not water as much (have done deep drip and direct circle around the plant watering)? Have heard don’t fertilize–true?

    • I’ve never tried it, but I’ve never known anyone to successfully move a large plant. I’ve seen a couple of successes with very small, young plants. This is a desert plant and it hates being wet. (It hates grass, too). I would start with as large a root ball as possible, build a well drained mound if possible, and don’t water at all right away. Once the plant has developed a few new adventitious roots, water sparingly, once a month or less for the next few months. I think fertilizer would be harmful, but that’s just a guess. Just think desert. Hot, very dry, full sun, sandy gravelly soil, and neglect is needed. Frequent changes of moisture can kill the plant — it grows a new set of roots near the surface when it rains, and that is a biologically expensive proposition. You can’t grow these plants in pots because the moisture regime in a pot is too variable, and the plant dies of exhaustion.

  3. Carole larsen says:

    I have a thick row of creosote bushes, pretty tall and full. Could it be cut like a hedge?

    • I think that the plants would survive such surgery. I know a fellow in Terlingua who has pruned his Creosote into
      fantastically beautiful “bonsai” forms. Very Japanese …

  4. Joni says:

    Thanks for the info.
    Please revise this article to refer to Indians in the present tense rather than the past tense. We’re still around.

    • My apologies. I wouldn’t want to make you extinct! But the first reference is in past perfect meaning that you guys
      discovered this long ago. The second is more problematic. I’m just assuming that most modern folk don’t make bedding
      for delivering babies out of creosote any longer. Am I wrong?

    • Brendon Rundell says:

      “Even today, people use this plant. The FDA discourages the use of “Chaparral” (dried leaves ground to a powder) because of reported toxicity to the liver, people still make teas for arthritis, sore throats, and respiratory infections and use decoctions externally for the same purposes as natives used it thousands of years ago.”

      There needs to be some note on the FDA’s classic tactic of calling something toxic because it’s a threat to their business. I’ve seen it time and again where they take a powerful natural medicine and extract and isolate a compound and feed some poor rat a toxic dose and then say, “here’s evidence.” Also people who are desperate for a cure go out a buy a concentrated form of a plant and don’t know how to use it. Voila, they get poisoned and they say, “see, more proof.” Creosote is just as toxic as water or any or substance when taken in overabundance. It takes a little knowledge but the people that have the knowledge they don’t ask for advice, they give them casinos and say ‘rely on us to protect you.’

      • Brendon Rundell says:

        sorry,…I never got to the point. I use it in part with other herbs to cleanse the blood from time to time. Doctors hate it when your white blood cell count drops instead of going higher.

  5. Chris J. Durden says:

    I have been using *Larrea tridentata* leaves, dried, heated on the comal for inhalation of the smoke, for over ten years to alleviate occasional symptoms of bronchial asthma with fantastic results. Very little is needed. (Before that I had been suffering on medication for years with ever increasing strengths and side effects). I usually gather from bushes in the Eagle Mts. of West Texas. There are at least 3 strains in North America, (Mojave, Sonoran, Chihuahuan plus the virtually unstudied populations East of the Pecos) with different chromosome numbers.
    Creosote bush is relatively new to North America as it appears in the fossil record (old packrat nests) only in the latest Pleistocene. Ours is closely related to *Larrea divaricata* of South America and was perhaps brought to us by early indigenous people some 12,000 years or more ago.

    • Thank you for your interesting and informative comments. I too have largely abandoned modern medications for asthma. I put a few drops of Tea Tree Oil on a handkerchief by my pillow at night. Now I want to try your method of heating on a comal. Seems like it should be a great idea!

  6. Fred Lamb says:

    Fantastic article, great photos. Thank you

  7. Paloma says:

    Consider making an edit, regarding the use of the word “Papago” to refer to the Tohono O’odham. Papago is a derogatory word that Spanish missionaries labeled us with during their conquest of our lands. It translates to “bean eaters”. In 1986, the tribe changed our name from the settlers’ name of Papago Tribe of Arizona to the Tohono O’odham Nation, which is how we refer to ourselves. Tohono O’odham means desert people.

  8. Pam says:

    Can I grow creosote in Huntington Bch. on a small hill for drainage, in a my dessert garden? Could they become invasive?

    • If you could get it started, I suppose you could. This plant has an extraordinarily extensive rood system and I have never succeeded in transplanting one. You cannot even start them in containers as the plant cannot cope with the wide and frequent changes in soil humidity there. It would certainly never become invasive.

      • I have grown creosote bushes as house plants for up to 5 years before they died. Sunset magazine had an article about how to do it about 40 years ago. You find a very small plant in the spring. Take a 5 pound coffee can that you’ve cut both the top and bottom out of. Press the can into the soil with the plant in the center. Push, or hammer, the can all the way down into the dirt. Then use a shovel to dig under the plant, can and all. Put the plant in a very deep pot. Use soil from the same area to fill in around the plant.
        I grew up in the California Mojave desert and love creosote bushes. Since I now live in Idaho, I try to keep one growing in my house. I love the smell when you water them! Good luck!

      • Melissa says:

        I transplant creosote often, in fact they’re easy to transplant in my area. I build homes & a certain amount of ground must be disturbed. We simply move creosotes out of the driveway to fill in on top of the septic system, put water on it for a couple weeks & they’re great. If we don’t put water on them (sometimes we can’t), they turn brown and take a lot longer. We have had great results turning them into cute little bushes like a desert sage, just by cutting them down, they come back green and bushy.

  9. I think this is one of the most vital info for me. And i’m glad reading your article. But should remark on some general things, The web site style is ideal, the articles is really nice : D. Good job, cheers

  10. I live in the North Texas area…can this plant survive here? If so where could I get seeds. Thank You

  11. Kelly says:

    Simply fascinating. I don’t want to sound like a conspiracy theorist, but why isn’t this being researched? Why are we not seeing products made from Creosote? I mean it’s only logical that this plant might hold the cure for the two diseases that cause responsible for the most deaths in the world, Cancer and HIV! I believe NO I KNOW that the government already HAS the cure for HIV and many Cancers. If you research you will find hundreds, YES hundreds of Plants that fight the very diseases we are currently suffering from, why you ask, well its very easy GREED! You see the FDA has BANNED these miracle healing plants, quite simply because you can’t make money from a natural plant, which grows wild and free. Pharmaceutical companies spend millions coming up with synthetic derivatives of these plant, for example the poppy the flower that is the basis for opiates and many others, the drugs used to treat people with HIV or Cancer is a multi-BILLION dollar industry alone, if these people were cured the Pharmaceutical companies and the FDA would lose BILLIONS upon BILLIONS of dollars. There are so many plants out there that have the ability to cure so many illnesses BUT the FDA FORBIDS them from being researched, used, sold and advertised or introduced I can’t seem to find the right word I’m looking for, basically the FDA doesn’t want us to know about them, suppressing knowledge is a key factor. Many of us stumbled upon this site and I don’t know about you, but I though WHY wasn’t a discovery of plant that has the ability to kill certain cancer cells and suppress the HIV virus FRONT PAGE NEWS? My curiosity peaked I did a simple Google search on healing plant OMG!! what I found made me so angry, billions of people are suffering while there are plants out there which can cure, suppress, alleviate and so much more. I feel like I walked into some cloak and dagger novel, some other world where the government hides the cures for diseases, allowing billions of people suffer and die while they make billions upon billions of dollars. A government that spends billions researching plants that ARE the cure only to spend billions creating synthetic drugs that instead of curing the disease, it suppressed it only enough to guarantee the long term utilization of the synthetic drug.

    As I looked back at what i had written and I came to a horrible realization, I was NOT walking into some fictional novel I was instead waking up and seeing the reality It is our world, the one WE live on and it is not some fantasy Government it’s our government that is doing it. I think I knew all along I just didn’t want to believe that the government was capable of this. I think my use of the word government is wrong, after all what is our government? The government is made up of department each gears to a specific area, the FDA is the department responsible for this act against humanity, but who is this FDA? Back to Google I went and what I learned terrified me to the very core, they make the CIA and the FBI look like keystone cops, they can make laws WITHOUT any approval from other government departments including the President!!! If you have read through what I have written I urge you to look up the FDA and see for yourself, but I warn you its disturbing and I don’t think I will ever be the same now that I have both eyes open. Good Luck

    • InternetPerson says:

      Even though the FBI and CIA have been found to make themselves ‘above the law’, they do not in fact create laws. Just because you read something on the internet doesn’t make it true. I agree that there is shady business going on in our government, banks, and with big pharma, FDA etc. but you should not make unsubstantiated claims and spread misinformation. When you do that, it does make you sound like a conspiracy theorist and people are less likely to listen to what you have to say. Especially ranting off, putting words in ALL CAPS and just generally being EXTRA !!! does not help to prove your point.

  12. marv cj says:

    is this plant used for the treatment of railroad ties??

  13. msaxon says:

    I just moved to the area (Marfa) and am fascinated by your writings. The photography is amazing and the information is well laid out. I am very happy to have found this blog.

  14. Francis says:

    I just learned many new things reading your page. Very interesting and beautiful pictures.

  15. Carmen N. says:

    Wonderful article and fabulous pictures. Keep up the good work!

  16. David C. says:

    Very nice; Creosote Bush is one of my favorite plants and highly underrated!

    My house is near it’s northern limit, and what little of that species was once scattered about, is now all city and removed forever. Those I planted over a decade ago mostly established well…tough to establish in my experience here and even El Paso.

  17. Pingback: Thriving in the desert « Big Bend Now

  18. dallas baxter says:

    This is a terrific beginning. The writing is good, the pictures fabulous. Thanks for working to help us know more about the wonderful Chuhuahuan Desert.

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