Greasewood (Larrea tridentate) also known as chaparral, la gobenadora, creosote, or shegoi, is a love poem to survival. Common to the Chihuahuan, Sonoran and Mojave deserts, greasewood thrives where little else can survive, shaping to a situation, becoming what is needed.
Unfazed by dry heat, tolerant of freezing temperatures, the roots of these plants travel the depth of a 15 story building in search of water. Greasewood’s phreatophytic roots are able to find deep desert water tables and pump this moisture back up to be released and used in surface soils. Up top, woody surface roots grow vast networks of tiny root hairs in immediate response to rain. When no rain comes, plants shed their leaves and even branches, conserving moisture and protecting the life of their ancient root balls.
Greasewood can live for thousands of years through the connected and expanding ring of its clonal colony daughters. One famous greasewood plant in the Mojave desert is dated at 11,700 years old, making it one of the oldest living beings on our planet. Classed as antibiotic, antiviral and antifungal, Greasewood is a sacred and healing plant to the Tohono O’odham nation, used as medicine for a wide variety of complaints. We love it for its fragrance and skin repairing qualities.
Many ranchers consider greasewood noxious and invasive, as it can encroach on livestock’s grassland. The land we harvest on has been historically overgrazed, allowing only rugged greasewood to remain and hold down the soil providing shelter and food for rodents, birds and other desert dwellers. In some areas, greasewood acts as a nurse plant, providing shelter for the germination of other plants such as saguaro.
However you feel about greasewood, you cannot ignore its perfume. This curious plant carries the smell of desert rain in its leaves, making us remember water even in the hottest, driest times. In the summer monsoon season, even before first drops hit hot ground, greasewood offers up its fragrance to the coming storm, blending its resinous scent with the storm’s cool ozone and the dry, earthy petichor of our desert country’s earth and rocks.
Desert plants have strong aromatics to discourage animals from munching their precious greenery. But with greasewood, I can’t help but think it’s more than that. Perhaps the fragrance of this plant is both a mirror and an offering to the rain, reminding us all to keep our eye on the gathering good that covers us and dumps -- in its season.
Rain’s perfume is intensely regional. On the northern mesas here, rain is sagebrush and hot, clean dirt. Higher in our desert’s mountains, rain brings a chorus of sweet, dry pine needles and wet green meadows. But on the dry, southern badlands, rain is all Greasewood.
Heading out to harvest in late summer, we start out from our campsite in the morning when the soil is still cool to the touch. We prune damaged branches, cutting at the nodes that promote growth, only collecting a bit from each plant, thanking as we go. Stretching out to the horizon in every direction, as far as you can see, is bare, dry earth, rocky alkaline outcroppings and scrubby greasewood, desolate and perfect under a turquoise blue sky.
We harvest until the sun demands we stop. Almost at mid-sky, the heat is unbearable and beautiful --radiating from beneath and above, inside and out. We sit in the shadow of a giant rock on the last cool piece of ground, drinking water, chewing on honey mesquite pods collected the day before, watching the horizon, our hands fragrant and tingling with greasewood oils.
This is the moment we wait for. A gathering of clouds in the southwest -- lumpy, grey, larger than mountains at the horizon. A wind stirs the heat, sweeping its fingers through miles of greasewood brush, perfuming its offering up to the darkening sky. A coyote on a nearby hill pauses in her walk, lifts her head and sniffs the breeze. The desert is waiting – holding its breath. And then, almost intangibly, the moment shifts, the desert exhales, and we are surrounded -- suspended -- in this incredible fragrance of expectation, ecstatic longing and hot need.
This is the smell of rain in the desert. It comes before a drop ever hits the dry ground. It is billions of tiny stomata opening their mouths to catch the promised water -- releasing the musty, sharp, resinous and cool -- the most uniquely Greasewood perfume to the clouds.
Thunder claps, winds thrash and wail and the sky dumps. The greasewood brush turns a visibly brighter shade of green in the wet and arroyos quickly fill to rushing. Our rock shelter is far above the flood, and we observe the show in safety from our shallow cave. And then the rain stops as suddenly as it started.
It’s cold now and the vastness of this desert glistens. We share a thermos of hot tea and watch the black clouds break open, sending down slivers of brilliant light and rainbows. This beauty is unreal. We sit in silence, finally gathering our full harvest bags and heading back before the heat returns in full.