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Edible and Medicinal Plants at Joshua Tree National Park: Mojave Desert

by: Jill Richardson

Mon Apr 08, 2013 at 18:55:28 PM PDT

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As I noted in my previous post on Southern California's Juniper-Pinyon Woodland, I spent my weekend camping at Joshua Tree National Park. The park is home to three different ecosystems, and I visited two of them. (The third, which I missed, is the Sonoran Desert.)

This is the second of two posts on Joshua Tree, and it covers the Mojave Desert. Specifically, it covers Creosote Bush Scrub, a desert plant community dominated by the Creosote Bush, and Desert Palm Oasis, home to the California Fan Palm. Photos of the former were taken at Indian Cove and along the 49 Palms hiking trail. The 49 Palms trail ends in a desert palm oasis, and that is where I took photos of the California Fan Palm.

Jill Richardson :: Edible and Medicinal Plants at Joshua Tree National Park: Mojave Desert
The Indian Cove campsite is some 20 miles east of the Juniper-Pinyon woodland at Black Rock. It's also lower in altitude - 3200 feet as opposed to 4000 feet above sea level. The 49 Palms hike is even further east from Indian Cove. All three sites are along the northern edge of the park.

As noted before, you are not allowed to eat or collect the plants within the national park. And, when you see the size of the plants at Indian Cove and 49 Palms, you probably wouldn't want to harvest any of them - except creosote - even if it were allowed. These plants live in an incredibly difficult environment, and many of them are absolutely tiny. There were no Joshua Trees, but there were Mojave Yucca plants, and they were all much smaller than the ones found at Black Rock.

Medicinal or not, picking leaves of some of these plants could probably kill them. I would bet that they do not grow very much each year. This is a very brittle environment, not one that would recover quickly from disturbances. Fruits and beans are another story - those you can collect and eat without killing the plant - but you must also consider that the plant needs these to reproduce and there are likely critters around that rely on them as food, too.

Here's a view of the desert at Indian Cove. It's a popular site for rock-climbing.

A view of the desert

Here's a view along the 49 Palms hike.

Creosote Bush
I think it would be fair to say that the specific plant community we visited was Creosote Bush Scrub. We were literally surrounded by Creosote Bush (Larrea tridentata) everywhere we looked, and they were the tallest plants around. In fact, they were the only plant in the area where I felt that one probably would not harm the ecosystem if they collected some of the leaves to use medicinally.

A flowering creosote bush

A creosote bush that is not flowering

Most of the plants in this shot are creosote

Creosote Bush is one of the most important medicinal plants of the American Southwest. It's in the Caltrop family (Zygophyllaceae) and it's sold as herbal medicine under the name "Chaparral." According to Mountain Rose Herbs:

Now found throughout the Southwestern US, chaparral actually originated in Argentina several thousand years ago. The stems and leaves of the bush are covered with a sticky resin that screens leaves against ultraviolet radiation, reduces water loss, and poisons or repels most herbivores. This resin is used in herbal medicine and to protect wood from insects. It received its name "creosote bush" due to the smell that comes from it when it rains. Its extremely bitter taste keeps it safe from animals that would otherwise graze upon it. It is also regarded as one of the most adaptable desert plants in the world; it was one of the first to grow back in Yucca Flats after the 1962 nuclear bomb tests done there.

The bad taste of chaparral is legendary. My ethnobotany instructor said that this plant cured his kids of just about every illness. They'd tell him they were too sick to go to school, he'd offer them some creosote tea, and suddenly, the kids felt good enough to go to school again. Apparently, school was a better option than drinking the tea.

In the book Medicinal Plants of the Desert and Canyon Southwest, Michael Moore says "Practically speaking, a tea made from Chaparral is nearly undrinkable. I would go so far as to say that if you like its taste you may need professional counseling." He also points out that the nicknames for this plant Gobernador (Governor) and Hediondilla (Little Stinker)  refer to its ability to form almost a monoculture in the desert and it's strong smell, respectively.

Let's cover plant recognition before discussing this plant's uses. The plant has yellow flowers:

Creosote flowers

Creosote flowers

Creosote flowers

Flowers with my hand in the shot so you can get a sense of their size

Many of the plants I saw had tons of buds but no flowers. In the pictures below, you can also see the resin on the leaves. I've read that when you collect creosote leaves, you end up with this sticky resin all over your fingers and no amount of normal washing will get it off. High proof alcohol does the trick. Since I didn't feel like having sticky hands, I did not test this out myself.

Creosote bush leaves and buds

The same photo, zoomed out

Creosote's furry-looking seed pods are also easy to recognize. However, as this excellent page on creosote explains, few of these seed pods actually germinate. Once they do, they grow very slowly. But creosote can also reproduce by cloning itself. One enormous ring of creosote clones has a diameter of 45 feet and it is 11,700 years old!

Creosote seed pods

When a creosote bush has no buds, flowers, or seed pods, you can also recognize it by the unique appearance of its branches, which look like they have black rings on them.

Creosote branches

The same shot, zoomed out. Can you see how it appears that the wood is almost striped with black rings?

So you know that these trees are common, resinous, useful, and nasty-tasting. But what are they used for, and how? Michael Moore says that creosote's medicinal uses come from "its ability to inhibit aerobic combustion in the mitochondria of cells." Applied to skin, it slows down the rate of bacterial growth and kills the bacteria. That makes it a good wound-dressing... very handy, since I'd imagine the rock climbers at Joshua Tree would often need that.

Moore also writes about it as useful for joint pain, allergies, autoimmune problems, and PMS. Charles W. Kane, on the other hand, recommends it for rheumatoid arthritis, asthma, psoriasis/eczema, herpes and/or cold sores, cuts/abrasions, venomous and non-venomous insect bites, and actinic keratosis. I've also seen it recommended in a tea recipe for curing hangovers, although how someone would actually get it down as a tea, I don't know.

Moore also mentions "other uses," such as keeping massage oils from going rancid, or even - perhaps - inhibiting growth of nasty weeds like Bermudagrass. I admit, I find this idea tempting.

Cat's Claw Acacia
The second plant I was looking for was cat's claw acacia, Acacia greggii. You can recognize it by its bipinnately compound leaves and it's thorns that are shaped like cat's claws. I figured it'd be easy to spot. It was... but it was WAY smaller than I'd envisioned it. Every "tree" I saw was little more than a single tiny branch sticking out of the ground. (The Charles W. Kane book describes it as "a large shrub or multi-trunked small tree occasioning 15-20 feet in height.")

Cat's Claw Acacia

Cat's Claw Acacia - bipinnately compound leaves and thorns that look like cat's claws

The acacias were not flowering during my visit, but I've read that the flowers are in dense, cylindrical spikes of tiny flowers. This was news to me, because the spikes of flowers simply look like catkins, like one finds on a willow tree, when I look at them. The spikes look similar to the flowers of other acacias. Acacias are legumes, and the seedpods definitely look beanlike. The pods are flat and twisted.

Do not confuse Cat's Claw Acacia with mesquite, major plant of the Southwest, including California's deserts. Both are legumes with pinnately compound leaves and bean-like seed pods. The mesquites in Southern California have long, straight thorns, compared to the "cat's claw" thorn shape of the acacia. I looked for mesquite, which has edible seeds that were historically collected in the summer and eaten by Native Americans, but I did not see any.

So what is acacia used for? Here's what Charles W. Kane says:

Acacias are simply mild astringents, nothing more, nothing less. Their best use is as a topical wash or powder for redness and skin irritation from insect bites, sunburn, scrapes, and abrasions.

To use it, you use the leaves - fresh or dried - externally as an infusion or a poultice.

California Fan Palm
Unlike the two species above, the California Fan Palm (Washingtonia filifera) provides FOOD. The palm fruit is edible, and it was a favorite of the Native Americans around here. It's believed that the Native Americans actually planted some of the palm oases, since they are located far enough apart that it would be physically impossible for the seeds to be scattered by, say, coyote droppings.

The palms thrive in desert areas where there is a year-round source of underground water. As we hiked the mile and a half trail to the oasis, you could see it rise out of the desert almost like Emerald City. As you neared it, you could see that, in addition to the palms, there seemed to be some other green plants taking advantage of the underground water too. Unfortunately, time was tight so I didn't see what those plants were.

The palm oasis, far away, in the center of the photo.

A closer shot of the palm oasis. It looked almost like Emerald City rising up out of the desert.

You can see some of the green plants that are growing near the oasis. There's likely some underground water that allow them to survive here.

California Fan Palm

California Fan Palm

I kept an eye out for Jojoba, Simmondsia chinensis, a plant used for its oil, which is valued in cosmetics. And I found it! I've read some accounts saying that the Native Americans would eat this.

Medicinally, it's used topically as an astringent. It's also slightly antimicrobial. A decoction or poultice of the leaves can be used for cuts, burns, or rashes. You can also use it internally for mouth inflammations and sore throats, or diarrhea.

Jojoba bush

Leathery, ovate green-grey leaves

Jojoba flowers. The plant is dioecious, meaning that each plant is either a male or a female. Therefore, these flowers are one or the other, and you'll also find jojoba with flowers of the other sex.

I also found Brittlebush, Encelia farinosa, which is in the Sunflower Family. The plant's appearance differs based on water availability and elevation. Here, there is apparently not much water, so the leaves are grayish white and small instead of large and green.

Brittlebush, Encelia farinosa

Brittlebush is used medicinally for hayfever, sinus infections, poison ivy, and arthritis. It's not recommended to take this before bed or while pregnant or nursing.

As noted in the previous diary, cacti are useful in a number of ways. Some are edible or bear edible fruits, some are medicinal, and some can provide water if you're out stranded in the desert and dehydrated. The Indians also used cactus spines as fishhooks.

Here are some of the cacti I ran into at 49 Palms. I also saw plenty of Chollas and Beavertails but apparently I didn't bother getting pics of those.

Some sort of barrel cactus?

Likely the same species, in bloom

I'm putting my money on Hedgehog Cactus, Echinocereus engelmannii

Other Plants
I took photos of other plants as well, just to give a sense of some of the biodiversity of the area.

This one has pretty little pink flower buds

A strange looking flower that I didn't get the best picture of

A woody plant with some sort of fruit on it.

Desert Mistletoe. I love these pretty red berries! The mistletoe is parasitizing some other plant.

Same plant as above, zoomed out

The same plant as above, zoomed out

Apricot Mallow

Apricot mallow, zoomed in. Not the best photo - sorry!

A pretty little flower in the Sunflower Family

So that's it! I should add, however, that many desert plant seeds do not germinate unless there's a LOT of rain (relatively speaking, for the desert) and you can have seeds waiting around for 50 to 100 years for the right conditions before they germinate. So the photos I took show you what's there now, but if you can catch it in a year with an abnormally large amount of rainfall, you'd see a LOT more.

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I love the desert... (4.00 / 1)
Too bad I may never see one again.  Don't think much traveling is in my future, or at least not anytime soon.  As in, like, decades.

But that's okay, I'll live.  And learn to love the deciduous forest again, I guess.  ;)

Not sure when (or if) I'll be able to do it, but the idea of walking the entire Appalachian Trail one of these years appeals to me.

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