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Sonora Desert Plant Life 


Barrel Cactus

Name(s): Barrel Cactus, Compass Cactus

When you imagine a desert, what do you think of first? Maybe it's sand, heat, or Gila monsters, but most likely it's cactus. Cacti are probably the most memorable characteristic of the desert. In all of the Speedy Gonzales cartoons, Speedy is always leading his unsuspecting predators into a cactus. And what is in the background as Wily Coyote accidentally blows himself up with Acme dynamite? Cacti of course!    

American deserts is the barrel cactus. The Barrel cactus can be easily distinguished from other cactibecause of it cylinder-shaped body. The cactus usually reaches from around five to eleven feet tall, and at that height it is one of the largest cacti in the North American deserts. This cactus is really a man-sized (or bigger) cylinder with numerous parallel ridges that run down the sides. These ridges are topped with dangerously sharp 3-4 inch spines. The barrel cactus is also a flowering plant. It has rings of yellow-green or red blossoms at its top.

Like many plants of the world, this cactus has numerous uses. Native Americans who lived in the desert found the barrel cactus very useful. In the vast untamed land and scorching heat, you couldn't really hop in your air-conditioned car and cruise down to the local A&P. The Native Americans had to look hard to find food. The barrel cactus provided some very important provisions for them. They stewed the Barrel Cactus to make a cabbage-like food. They got water to drink from the pulp and they made fish hooks from the spines, which are pointed at the end. The pulp is also made into "cactus candy".

The Barrel cactus is found in the Mojave, Sonora, and the Chihuahua deserts. These deserts are found in the land of Speedy and the Roadrunner: Baja, Arizona, California, Texas, and Central Mexico. The barrel cactus grows in the desert washes and slopes, but can also be spotted growing along canyon walls.

The barrel cactus is my favorite of all the cacti because it is very beautiful, but can really make you sore if you step too close. So keep an eye out for this cactus if you're anywhere in the vicinity of the southwest part of America. Just think, if you are ever stuck in the desert, you know what plant to boil for dinner.

Brittle Bush

Names: Incienso, White brittle bush
Genus: Encelia
Species: farinosa

The brittlebushis a common plant of the Mojave and Sonoron deserts. It is a small deciduous shrub which grows as a low, roundish mound 2 to 5 feet high. Brittle branches sprout from a woody trunk. The leaves have serrated edges, and are broader at the base than at the tip. They are about 1 to 4 inches long. The leaves are covered with a thick mat of short hairs giving a gray-green appearance. Many desert plants have this kind of hairy leaf. The hairs form a blanket over the leaves and act an insulating layer against the heat and cold. They also trap any moisture that is in the air, and reduce the amount of water lost to dry air.

The brittlebush flowers from March to June, turning the desert bright yellow. It's a member of the sunflower family and its flowers resembles the sunflower, only in miniature form.The flower is disk shaped, on long bare stems, rising several inches above the mound of white leaves, giving an impression of a layer of color over the plant.. It has a solitary head with a dark yellow-orange to purplish mound of disk-corollas from which radiate 1 inch yellow rays with a lobed, squared off tip.

Brittlebush can be found growing in the coastal chaparral and interior valleys of southern California, east to the creosote bush scrub, Death Valley through the Mojave Desert and the Colorado Desert, and south to Baja California. It likes to grow in dry slopes and washes. In most of these areas, the brittlebush and creosote bush dominate the vegetation.

Brittlebush has had many uses in the past. The stems of the brittlebush secrete a clear resin which was used by Native Americans from the Southwest as a glue and also as a gum. Ground up it was used by the Seri Indians of Mexico as a toothpaste. They also would sprinkle the paste on sores or heat it and spread it on their bodies to relieve pain. The early Spanish missionaries burned it as an incense.

Mule deer and desert bighorn sheep browse on it, and kangaroo rats will eat its seeds, but aren't all that fond of it. Other than that, it isn't used for domestic livestock. Brittlebush is most useful for rehabilitating landscapes, and stabilizing disturbed areas. It is used in Arizona to minimize erosion near highways. It can be easily transplanted and grows well from seeds. The brittlebush is very abundant and is not on the endangered species list.

Desert Ironwood
Names: Arizona Ironwood, Palo-de-Hierro, Palo-de-Fierro
Genus: Olneya

The desert ironwood only grows in the washes and valleys of the Sonoran Desert below 2,500 foot elevation. The Sonoran Desert is located in southwestern Arizona, southern California, and the northwestern part of Mexico. The Sonoran desert is known as a hot, dry desert. The vegetation is mostly desert scrub. The boundaries of the ironwood's habitat and that of the Sonoran desert are almost the same. Desert ironwoods are usually found in sandy washes where water is available.

Desert ironwoods are from the pea family and their leaves and flowers resemble those of the sweetpea. They're the tallest trees in the Sonoran Desert, reaching heights of 15 to 25 feet, but they can grow as tall as 30 feet. Usually they grow as small, sparse trees. They are very slow growing, with bluish gray-green leaves, and a wide, spreading crowns. They are one of the longest living trees in the Sonoran desert, and can live as long as 1,500 years, although those are very rare.

The desert ironwood, or palo fierro in Spanish, provides desert plants and animals with the food and shelter they need to survive. Its importance comes from the part it plays in the survival of over 500 plants and animals in the Sonoran Desert. As the desert ironwood grows, it alters the environment around itself, and creates a micro-habitat. Its dense canopy shades the ground under it, bringing temperatures down at least 15° F. Its seeds provide food for many doves, quail, and small rodents. Insects thrive in the ironwood canopy, which also attracts birds and reptiles. They make their home under and in the ironwood, providing prey for cactus owls, hawks and coyotes. Its

nitrogen-fixing nodules on the root system, and nutrient-rich leaf litter fertilizes the soil around it. Native bees pollinate the ironwood flowers, which are also used as medicine.

Chain Frut Cholla

Names: Hanging Chain Cholla, Jumping Cholla, Cholla                                      Brincadora, Vilas de Coyote

The chain fruit cholla looks as much like a tree in the desert as a cactus possibly can. It has a central trunk from which sprout many spiny "branches". It is commonly found in dry, sandy soils of bajadas, valleys floors, and plains of the Sonoran and Chihuahua Desert, south Arizona and northwest Mexico. It is found at elevations up to 4,000 feet above sea level.

The chain fruit cholla is a shrubby cactus. It has many segmented,irregular, drooping branches. These are covered with a dense layer of sharp spines. These spines have a straw-colored sheath when young which turns a dark gray as they mature. The sheath acts to reflect sunlight and prevent over heating. As the cholla gets older the spines fall off and leave a rough and scaly bark on the trunk and old branches. It is the largest of the cholla, and can grow to a height of 15 feet, and be 6 feet across

The segmented branches have light-green leaves about 1/2 inch to 1 inch long when they are young. One inch long white and pink flowers streaked with lavender bloom from June to August. The flowers bloom at the end of the branches and on old fruit. The pear shaped fruit is about 1.5 inches long and half as wide. Clusters of these fruits sometimes stay attached for many years. New flowers will bloom on them every year and the chains grow longer with every year, sometimes as long as 2 feet. That is why they are called chain fruit cholla.

The chain fruit cholla is also called jumping cholla because the segments break off easily when brushed up against and stick to you,

giving you the impression that the cactus jumped at you. They attach themselves to desert animals and are dispersed for short distances. The ground around a cholla is usually covered with segments that have fallen off the parent. The fruit is not always fertile and the cholla relies mainly on fallen stem joints and fruit to take root and grow new plants.

During droughts animals like the Bighorn Sheep rely on the juicy fruit for food and water. Large forests of chain fruit cholla grow in Arizona. The cactus is not considered to be vulnerable or endangered, mostly because they grow in inaccessible and hostile places of the desert.

Creosote Bush

Genus: Larrea
Species: tridentata
Parts Used: leaves

The Creosote Bush is named that way because it smells a lot like the creosote tar that is used on telephone poles to preserve the wood. This shrub is mostly found in the southwest part of America and the northwest part of Mexico. You will most likely spot this plant in the desert slopes and plains of Utah, Nevada, California, Arizona, New Mexico and, Texas.

The bush's leaves were made into antiseptics and emetics by desert Native American desert tribes. Antiseptics destroy germs, and emetics induce vomiting to clear the stomach of poisons. Although they are no longer used for medical reasons today, they did greatly help the Native Americans in times of sickness.

Well, I have told you of the way that the leaves of the Creosote Bush can be used, but I have not told you about how the bush looks. The Creosote Bush is unique. The bush is a robust shrub that grows very abundantly. The bush is basically a group of 4 to 12 plants that shoot up from one plant in all directions. Some bushes are thought to be thousands of years old.

The Creosote Bush has small (1-2 inch) pointy green leaves that are covered with a varnish. These leaves grow directly from the branches of the bush. The Creosote Bush has flowers that also grow along the stems. These flowers are yellow and about the same size of the leaves. The fruit is small and round with gray or white hairy tufts growing from them.

This bush is very useful to us in our everyday lives just as it was to the Native Americans of the desert. It is, like many other plants, a contributor to the world in a small, but important way.

Crimson Hedgehog Cactus

Names: Hedgehog Cactus, Claret Cup Cactus, King's Cup Cactus, Mound Cactus
Genus: Echinocereus
Species: triglochidiatus
Parts Used: pulp, flowers and stems

There are many different kinds of hedgehog cacti. The Crimson hedgehog cactus is a small barrel shaped cactus that grows in clumps of a few to a hundred stems. The stems are cylindrical in shape and are up to 1 foot long and 1 to 2 1/2 inches thick. There are about 9 or 10 ribs on the stem. This cactus has no leaves and has chlorophyll in the stems. The stems of this Crimson hedgehog are

shorter and more tightly packed together than other hedgehog cacti.

Echinocerens comes from the Greek word for hedgehog, echinos. Early settlers thought the spines of the cactus made it look like a hedgehog. Triglochidialus means "three barbed bristles". The hedgehog cactus has clusters of three spines along its ribs. Each spine can be 2 to 3 inches long.

The flowers are a beautiful deep red, with many petals that form the shape of a cup. The fruits are red, and edible. The flowers bloom from April through June, and are the first to bloom in the desert. Unlike other cacti, they stay open at night, and bloom for about 3 to 5 days. This species is the only red-flowered hedgehog. They also have pink or lavender anthers.

Not only are the flowers open at night, but so are the plant's pores, or stomata. They use the cool night temperatures to exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide. During the day the plants do their photosynthesis, but they keep their stomata closed so they won't lose any moisture.

Some Native Americans collect the flowers stems, burn off the spines and mash them. Sugar is added and then it is baked to make sweet cakes.

The plants grow in middle elevations of deserts and mountain deserts. They often grow against rocky outcroppings. They can grow in colder climates because the stems clump so closely together. This reduces surface area through which it can lose heat. It can grow in elevations from 3,020 to 7,915 feet. This plant is native to the American continent.


Names: Candlewood, Slimwood, Coachwhip, Vine Cactus, Flaming Sword, Jacob's Staff
Genus: Fonquieria

The Ocotillo has many interesting names such as Candlewood, Slimwood, Coachwhip, Vine Cactus, Flaming Sword and Jacob's Staff. The Ocotillo is indigenous to the Sonoran Desert, which is located in the Southwestern United States and Northern Mexico at latitude is 23° to 33° North and longitude 107° to 112°West.

The terrain of the desert is open and very rocky, and its soil is well drained. The elevation of the Sonoran Desert is about 5,000 feet. The average yearly temperature is 90°F, and the average yearly precipitation is less then 10 inches.

There are many plants indigenous to Sonoran Desert; one of interest is the Ocotillo, or Vine Cactus. The Ocotillo prefers to grow in the Sonoran and Chihuahuan Deserts of Southeast California to West Texas and south into Mexico.

The Ocotillo is abundant in the Southwest because the soil is well drained on rocky slopes, mesas, out washed plains and desert grasslands. The ocotillo is deciduous, drought tolerant shrub. From its root crown it grows stems that can be any where from 9 to 30 feet tall. These stems grow in an "S" like pattern making the shrub look like an inverted funnel. The stems are covered with spines that can be 1.5 inches long. The leaves of the shrub are thick and leather like and grow several times in the growing season depending on the amount of rainwater available. The leaves are narrow 2-inch ovals, which can sprout within 3 day of a rainfall. The leaves turn brown and fall off when water is scarce. When the leaves die the stalk and part of the steam become woody and form spines. In the spring the Ocotillo produces flowers, which are tube like and bright red. The flowers are 1/2 to 1 inch in size with 5 lobes curled into 10-inch clusters. They can be seen from March to June and even later depending on rainfall. The Ocotillo can be leafless for a long time, because the roots are deep and do not get much water.

The Ocotillo has adapted to its environment by shedding its small leaves during dry spells. It can also grow new leaves 5 days after getting water. It has a shallow, but wide root system, which it uses to gather rainwater. It produces food because the Ocotillo can perform photosynthesis during dry spells.

The Ocotillo is pollinates by hummingbirds that like the honey nectar it produces. They feed on the flowers during their travel north from Mexico to the mountains of the Western US.

The Ocotillo is very plentiful and not endangered because it's the only Fonquieria to be cultivated. The plant is easily grown from seed and cuttings and sold as nursery stock. The shrub is often use as "fencing" because its spines stop people and animals from passing through. The Ocotillo can be planted at anytime of the year.

The Ocotillo is a desert success story. It is a plant that has adapted to its environment, and it is useful to both animals and mankind.

Palo Verde

Names: Yellow Palo Verde, Foothills Palo Verde, Littleleaf Palo Verde, Green Stick
Genus: Cercidium

The yellow palo verde is a very strange looking shrub or small tree which grows in the Sonoran Desert of the southwestern United States and northern Mexico. It has adapted in unique ways to survive the killing heat of the desert sun.

Palo verde, or "green wood" in Spanish, has a thin, almost waxy looking green bark studded with large of thorns. The smooth greenish trunk and branches have for a large part taken over the photosynthesis. The green bark contains chlorophyll, which gives it the ability to carry on photosynthesis when the tree has shed its leave during dry, hot periods. This way the tree doesn't have to shut down completely and can still store up energy in its roots. The tree has a very deep root system to access any underground water supply. Palo verdes are "branch deciduous", meaning theat they may shed some of their branches during severe droughts, becoming a smaller tree.

The palo verde has low hanging, dense and twiggy branches and a strange irregular shape. Six to four major stems sprout out about 8 inches (20 cm) from the ground. The crown is 12 to 18 feet (3.7 - 5.5 m) wide. Palo verde can get to be 10-20 feet tall, but grow very slowly and are considered climax species in the Sonoran Desert.

Its leaves are compound and pinnate, and about 1 inch (2.5 cm) long, with tiny, round leaflets. The palo verde is drought deciduous, and drops its leave during dry, hot periods. This is an adaptation that prevents water loss through transpiration for some desert plants.The flowers of the palo verde are 1 inch solitary blooms that flower in late spring. The small, pale yellow flowers grow on the edge of a branch, and are pollinated by insects. They may not flower every year, depending on the rainfall.

The one to five seeds are contained in 2 to 3 inch (4-8 cm) long pods which pinch in between each seed. Seeds are produced when the spring has been wet and cool. They ripen in July, and cling to the branches. Rodents will often cache the seeds underground, where some of them will germinate after a rainy season. The seedlings are very sensitive to drought for the first two to three months of their lives, and only about 1.6% will survive after germinating. Those that do surviveusually have germinated under triangle bursage.

The palo verde is a very important tree in the Sonoran Desert ecosystem. The black-tailed gnatcatchers use the palo verde as nesting sites, and the Gambell's quail use them as roosts. White-throated woodrats also use them for shelter. Desert bighorn sheep, mule deer, jackrabbits and other rodents browse on its leaves. Javelinas like to eat the seed pods. The canopy cover reduces the temperature below the palo verde which is very important for the germination of other desert plants. The palo verde is the primary nurse plant for the saguaro cactus.

Palo verdes grow in arid to semiarid climates with mild winters and hot summers, and two distinct rainy seasons. They are found on gradual to steep lower mountain slopes and alluvial outwash plains at altitudes of 1,000 to 4,000 feet (305-1,219 m). They are the dominant species of the Arizona Uplands of the Sonoran Desert.

The seeds can be ground up and used for flour. The Seri Indians of northern Mexico used the seeds and flowers as a food source, and made necklaces out of the seeds. Red dye can be made from the flowers. Palo verde wood is only good for fire wood, and the tree is not an endangered species.

Saguaro Cactus

Genus: Carnegiea
Species: gigantea

The Saguaro Cactus has a smooth and waxy skin and is covered with two-inch spines that are located on the tree's vertical ribs. In May and June, the Cactus bears creamy white flowers with yellow centers that measured about three inches. The Saguaro Cactus flower can be found on the end of the branches. The flower only opens on cooler nights and is closed during the heat of midday. The stem of the cactus can be 18 to 24 inches in diameter, The Cactus and its branches grow upright as do all cacti in the southwestern U.S. When it rains the Saguaro Cactus soaks up water and holds it in its ribs. Since it does not rain a lot in the desert, the cactus uses the water that it stores when it doesn't rain. The Saguaro Cactus is Arizona's state flower. The average lifespan for a Saguaro cactus is about 200 years.

The Saguaro Cactus lives in an especially rocky terrain consisting of desert slopes and flats. The Saguaro cactus also lives in bajadas or lowlands. The cactus likes a hot, dry climate. It does not need a lot of water to survive. The Saguaro Cactus lives only within the Sonoran Desert of southeastern California, southern Arizona, and northwestern Mexico. In the Sonoran Desert, the Saguaro Cactus can grow in very limited areas below elevations of 3,500 feet.

The Saguaro Cactus can absorb a lot of water because the ribs on the plant can expand. The Saguaro Cactus has an amazing root system. The root system is very shallow for such a tall, heavy plant. The Saguaro Cactus has one tap root that is only about three feet long. It also has two sets of radial roots. One is a thick root system, which is only about one foot long, and there is also a thinner root system that grows to a length equal to the height of the Saguaro Cactus.

The Saguaro Cactus has a very strong framework consisting of three different structural features. There is a woody tissue that runs parallel up and down the Saguaro to form a cylindrical shape. There is also a thick whitish pith, and a fleshy tissue. Downward pointing spines make it easier to direct rainwater into the depressions of the cactus. The spines help to cool the outer skin. The spines also help redirect the wind and insulate the plant. Many animals eat the Saguaro Cactus; the Long-Nosed bat, bees, wasps, ants, and butterflies drink the nectar of the Cactus flower. Small animals such as the Pack Rat, and Pocket Mice will come to eat the Cactus. Gila woodpeckers like the interior of the Saguaro Cactus because it is the only plant it can hollow out for their nest in the desert. The woodpecker will drill 2 to 3 holes before it decides to live in one. It will peck right into the soft tissue that is used to store water. The cactus will fix the damage by sealing up the inside with "callous scar tissue" and that stops water loss. The Saguaro Cactus is protected by the United States government, because the Saguaro Cactus was beginning to disappear from the landscape. There is a national park to protect the Saguaro Cactus. The name of the park is Saguaro National Park.

Soaptree Yucca

Genus: Yucca
Species: elata

Imagine bumping down a dusty desert road, looking at the wide open land stretching out in all directions. Along the sands are plants, some squatting in the burning sun, others standing tall, watching the sky for a chance of rain. As you speed along, you notice an exotic looking plant growing in the mesas and washes of the desert. You turn to your driver and inquire about the plant. The driver tells you that it is the Soaptree Yucca.

The Soaptree Yucca is commonly found n the Sonora and Chihuahua deserts, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and northern Mexico. Thanks to its exotic look, the plant has been introduced to eastern soil, and can be found growing in climates that are not just hot and dry like the desert.

The Soaptree Yucca is a tall 10-18 foot plant with palm treelike leaves. These leaves are at the base of the plant. They are very similar to those of a palm tree in the respect that the green leaves of the Soaptree Yucca are long and triangular shaped and are not wide. The stalk that shoots up from the leaves is a twig-thin stalk with small white flowers growing at the top. The plant's fruit is also on the stalk and is a brown capsule until the summer, when it splits into three sections that contain black seeds.

Maybe you are wondering why the plant is call the "Soaptree" Yucca. There is a logical reason. Inside the roots and trunk of the plant is a soapy substance. This substance was commonly used as a substitute for soap. In a drought, ranchers use the plant as an emergency food supply for their cattle. In the days when Native Americans dwelled in the deserts, the fiber of the Soaptree Yucca's leaves were used to weave baskets. This plant gave them a head start to finding enough food, because the Native Americans most likely used the baskets to collect food. The Yucca is also used for decoration in many American gardens. So this plant's leaves, roots, trunk and stalk have been useful to humans since the time of the Native Americans.

The Yucca is a very climate compatible plant because if you look hard you can find it almost anywhere.

Jumping Cholla

Names: Teddybear Cholla, Silver Cholla, Cholla Guera
Genus: Opuntia

From a distance the jumping cholla, or teddy bear cholla, looks like a fuzzy, soft plant with many short, fuzzy branches looking like teddybear arms, growing from the top. As you get closer you realize that the cuddly looking plant is completely covered with silvery spines. If you are unlucky enough to touch the spines, you will find yourself painfully stuck to a spiny segment that seems to have "jumped" off the plant. Segments will also "jump" when stepped on and attach themselves to your leg.

The segmented joint of the jumping cholla separate easily when brushed up against. These segments can be found littering the ground around the cholla. There they take root and grow, sometimes forming large forests of cuddly looking teddy bear chollas. Although the jumping cholla has flowers and forms fruit, the fruit is usually sterile, and the plant relies on the dropped stems to propagate.

It's dense, 1 inch spines completely hide the stem. The cylindrical segments are light to bluish green. They are about 10 inches (25 cm) long, and 2.5 inches (4 cm) in diameter. The jumping cholla can be 3 to 7 feet (1 to 2 m) tall and has a single trunk with short branches at the top. The spines on young branches are silvery white, and have a detachable, papery sheath. As they age, they become dark chocolate brown to black in color.

The jumping cholla blooms from February to May. The greenish-yellow flowers grow at the end of the stems. They are about 1.5 (2 cm) inches in diameter. The fruit is less than 1 inch (2.5 cm) in diameter, and sometimes has spines growing on it.

The jumping cholla have developed several adaptations to survive in the arid desert environment of its habitat. The thick covering of spines shades the plant from the desert heat. They also prevent animals from eating them. The stems are separated into segments that store water and allow for photosynthesis. They separate easily so that animals, and even a strong windcan disperse them away from the parent cholla.

Jumping chollas grow on the valley floors of the Sonoran Uplands at 100 to 2,000 feet (30 to 600 m), the Mohave Desert, California, and Sonora, Mexico.

Trangle-Leaf Bursage

Genus: Ambrosia

Triangle-leaf bursage is a native plant of the Sonoran Desert and can be found throughout southwestern Arizona, USA, south into Sonora and Baja California, Mexico.

Triangle-leaf bursage can be found growing in upper and lower bajadas, lowland creosote growths and desert grasslands. It grows at altitudes of 1,000 to 3,000 feet on open flat, spaces, and steep, gravely hillsides. Triangle-leaf bursage prefers to grow in coarse soils with a high pH where rainpercolates quickly and drains away. It is the dominant plant in the Upland Subdivision of the Sonoran Desert where it gets two rainy seasons. It is found growing with palo verde, mesquite, ironwood and mixed varieties of cacti.

Triangle-leaf bursage is a small, round shrub about 1 1/2 feet tall and 2 feet wide. It has many slender and brittle branches that grow from the base to create a dome-like crown. The crown contains many old, dead growth.

Young branches and leaves are hairy and resinous, but become smooth with age. The triangle shaped leaves are about 1 inch long and 1/2 inch wide. The margins are serrated but can sometimes be smooth. They have a gray-green color on top and are white and fuzzy underneath. Triangle-leaf bursage is drought deciduous and will lose its leaves during the dry seasons.

Triangle-leaf bursage has small, 1/4 inch wide yellow-green flowers without petals. They grow in pairs from the end of growth spikes and flower from February to July. Bursage gets its name from its burr-like seeds. The round seeds are covered with hook-tipped spines that attach themselves to the fur of passing animals. The plants produce many seeds after both summer and winter rains.

For a desert plant it has a short life-span, only 50 years. Its most significant function is as a "nurse plant" for other species. Because it prefers to grow in open, sunny areas, it is one of the first plants to populate an empty space too hot for other seedlings. Once it is established, it provides a microhabitat for the seedlings of other species and protects them from herbivores with its tangle of branches. In time the area becomes populated with many different species of desert plants.

Triangle-leaf bursage is well adapted to desert life. Because of its long taproot and well-developed lateral roots it can survive with very little precipitation. During droughts the tiny rootlets that grow on the main root system after it rains die off. When it grows among creosote bush and jumping cholla, bursage has a very distinct root zone. No other plant will grow near triangle bursage roots, cutting down the competition.

The triangle-leaf bursage is a member of the Sunflower family and a cousin of common ragweed.

Velvet Mesquite

Common Names: Common Mesquite, Arizona Mesquite

Velvet mesquite is one of the most common, and important plants of the southwestern deserts of the North American continent. It is useful to humans and essential to the survival of wildlife in the desert. Birds, insects, and mammals eat the beans, seek shelter under its canopy, and benefit from the leaf litter and nutrient rich soil under the tree. It grows at elevations below 4,000 to 5,000 feet in desert washes and grasslands. It is the dominant tree species along streams and river beds. There the velvet mesquite forms dense thickets and woodlands, or bosques, from the Spanish word for

forests. Velvet mesquite ranges from central and southern Arizona, extreme southwestern New Mexico, and adjacent northern Mexico. It can be found growing in the Chihuahua, Sonoran, and Mojave deserts. The only desert it doesn't occur in is the Great Basin Desert because the temperatures are too cold.

There are three common species of mesquite; the honey mesquite (Prosopis glandulosa), screwbean mesquite (Prosopis pubescens), and velvet mesquite. The velvet mesquite is the largest of the mesquite species. It is a low-branched, broad spreading thorny shrub or small tree with a well-developed crown. It can grow as a single-trunked tree about 30 feet tall, and just as wide, with a two feet diameter trunk. When young growth is damaged by frost, fire, or browsing, it will sprout multiple trunks from dormant buds on its stem under the ground and form a shrub.

The bark of velvet mesquite is reddish-brown and smooth when young. On older trees the bark becomes gray-brown, rough, thick, and shredded into long, narrow strips. Young, green branches grow in a zig-zag pattern and may be photosynthetic. Two inch-long yellow thorns grow in pairs at the base of each leaf on the young branches.

Leaves grow alternately on the branch. The leaves themselves are bipinnate, compound, about 3-6 inches long, and pointed. The leaf has two sets of compound leaves, usually with four major leaflets and 10-20 narrow minor leaflets 1/3 to 1/2 inch long, which grow opposite each other on the stem. The leaves are dark to dusky green with a gray, hairy surface and paler undersides.

The flowers are yellow-green, drooping catkins about 2-3 inches long. The flowers have bell-shaped calyces, and 5 petals. The flowers are tiny, but there are hundreds in a catkin. The velvet mesquite is pollinated by insects. The seeds are

contained in straight or slightly curved, flat seed pods about 3-8 inches long. They grow singly, or in drooping clusters. Seed pods are straw colored, and are covered in short, velvety hairs when young. They mature 7-9 weeks after flowering. In Arizona they mature in July and drop in September. The beans are sweet to the taste. The seed pods are a nutritious source for wild life. Wild turkeys, ground squirrels, jackrabbits, woodrats, javelinas, coyotes and mule deer all benefit from the leaves, flowers and seeds of the velvet mesquite. Studies have shown that when available, 80% of a coyotes diet is made up of mesquite pods.

Mesquite are members of the legume, or Fabaceae family. Like most legumes they restore nitrogen to the soil. Nitrogen-fixing bacteria in the soil form a mutualistic relationship with nodules on the mesquite's roots, which frees nitrogen for plant consumption.

The velvet mesquite is winter deciduous. This means it loses its leaves during the winter months of December through February. Because of its large root system it can keep most of its leaves through summer drought periods. In warmer regions the leaves stay on until just before new leaves grow in the spring.

Velvet mesquite has a massive root system which can grow down as far as 50 feet to reach the water table. The taproot can be as big around as the trunk itself. A second, lateral root system, spreads out beyond the crown 6-12 inches below the soil surface to catch and absorb any rain that may fall. Small pinnate leaves reduce the surface area exposed to damaging ultraviolet rays from the sun. Small fuzzy hairs on the leaves and young pods deflect the sun's rays, and further protect them. Large thorns on young branches protect the tree from over eager browsers.

Mesquite, along with desert ironwoods are considered to be "nurse trees" to other desert plants like the saguaro, organ pipe cactus, and may succulents and forbs. Its nitrogen-rich soil feeds young seedlings while the canopy provides shelter and shade. Its foliage provides cover for large animals like javelinas and mule deer as well. Many species of rodents dig their burrows under the mesquite tree. The temperature under the tree can be 15° F cooler than the surrounding desert.

Native Americans used mesquite pods as a staple food. They made tea, syrup, and ground meal called pinole from various parts of the tree. Mesquite bark was used to make baskets, fabrics and medicine. The wood of the mesquite tree burns slowly and is used as firewood, and to make an aromatic charc

oal for barbecuing.The velvet mesquite is abundant in its habitat, although mesquite bosques are in decline because of falling water tables and invasion by tamarisk trees. The shrubby form of mesquite has been invading grasslands throughout the southwest. Velvet mesquite is a tough desert plant, well adapted to the harsh conditions of its desert habitat.


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