What is that smell? Creosote

Feb. 24, 2003

The other day I got a note from a guy who said he doesn't like the name of the White Tank Mountains and they should be renamed. It was such a dopey idea I just tossed it out, and now I can't remember what new name he suggested.

The White Tanks, by the way, were named either for a natural tank, or waterhole, surrounded by whitish rocks, or for a man named White who dug a well on the north side of the mountain as a watering stop for stagecoaches.

Take your pick.

Anyway, this guy who wants to rename the mountains came to mind when today's question came in, although it isn't really a question.

After finishing a long car trip around your state, I think that instead of the saguaro cactus, your official state plant should be the creosote bush. It looks like you have a lot more creosote than cactus.

Great, now we've got visitors telling us what our state symbols should be.

For starters, the saguaro is not the official state plant. Its blossom is the state flower. Creosotes are actually pretty interesting. If there were such a thing as an official state smell, it would be the way the desert smells after a rain, and that aroma comes from the way water mixes with the chemicals in the waxy coating on creosotes leaves. That aroma is about as Arizonish as it gets.

Do not misunderstand. I am not suggesting that we need an official state smell. You never know when someone in the Legislature is going to latch on to something like that and waste everyone's time arguing about it.

Anyway, this is kind of cool: Botanists believe that creosotes release a kind of poison or inhibitor from their roots to keep other plants from crowding them or soaking up their water.

And they are tough. Creosotes may be the most drought-resistant plant we've got. They flourish in areas that receive as little as 2 or 3 inches of rain a year, and they can go without rain for two years or so. When it's dry, they drop their leaves or even some of their branches to cut down on water usage. When it rains, they grow like crazy.

Creosotes can reproduce with seeds, but mostly they send out runners under the ground that turn into creosote clones, which means a patch of creosote could really be just all one big plant. There's a patch in the Mojave Desert that has been radiocarbon dated about 11,000 years old.

Still and all, we can't very well have some scraggly old shrub for a state symbol, can we? What would the other states say?

Reach Thompson at or (602) 444-8612.

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