While I’m doing New Mexico nature writing, let’s consider the creosote.

A friend at work asked me this afternoon why creosote survived in Isleta, the pueblo south of Albuquerque, which my friend rightly thought was far north of its natural range.

As it happens, I had a paper on my desk that offers a bit of an answer.

Creosote is a spindly desert shrub that has always been dear to my heart. It’s the dominant species on the landscapes of the big deserts of southeastern California, where we used to camp winters when I was a kid. They arrange themselves spatially with a sort of rhythm that dominates the landscape.

My friend was right. Isleta, up around 5,000 feet in elevation (1600 meters) is pretty much at the top of their range, and they’re a very recent arrival. Farther south, packrat middens at the Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge, north of Socorro, show they’ve been in residence for something like 2,500 years. But up the road at Isleta, they’re a more recent arrival, maybe less than 200 years.

Why? In part, us. To quote from the Duran et al. paper:

Rangeland overgrazing resulting from high stocking rates of cattle, sheep and horses in the late 19th century coupled with extended drought periods have created conditions conducive to desert shrub invasions into formerly grassland habitats.

Creasote bush – Larrea tridentata – is one of the first species to move in, followed by cactus (Opuntia) and Yucca.


  1. I was born in the desert,Trona,calif Ilove the smell of the cresote bush when it starts to rain what a smell

  2. I have heard from more than one person (including a couple botanists) that creosote bush was also scattered along the present-day Tramway Blvd corridor, plus along I-25 to the north of Bernalillo, prior to all the development since the 80’s.

    Larrea presently occupies similar sites (complete with gravelly soil over caliche) from parts of Kirtland AFB to just north of Salas Canyon on the W end of the Manzanos.

    While central NM is probably the coldest climate that Larrea grows, it tends to thrive and reseed here in gardens, unless they are not established, over-watered, or on too odd a soils type. I hear they are also tricky in Las Cruces, where they are a dominant plant.

    The mountains and highlands surrounding Abq to the west, north and east are a serious climatic barrier to cold air invasion that usually stops northward spread of the Chihuahuan Desert climate and species. We are still more like Las Cruces than Taos, though some people do not want to believe that and ignore climate and vegetation data.

    A cool plant, and awfully green for being so drought tolerant. Too bad it is so picky when it is being established even though it spreads on its own so well, but then again, so is Baileya multiradiata.

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