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May 10, 2005

DESERT BLOOM: Desert Trees


Desert Willow

With all the excitement about the Las Vegas Centennial - concerts, parades and such - I thought that it was my horticultural duty to think and talk about the trees that were here when this town first became a city.

I make a big deal about the fact that this place is, before anything else, in the middle of the driest desert of North America, and that's something I never want to understate. Four inches of rain a year, for heaven's sake. But when this desert springs crossroad got incorporated into a city, there were actually some trees here. In fact, some trees had evolved in this dry, even brutal terrain.

When people were walking around this area two hundred years ago, they didn't see a lifeless valley. They obviously didn't see the Strip, either, but they did see a variety of plants.

One of those plants, and it's one that's been brought now into the horticultural mainstream, is the desert willow. I know you've seen them. This has those lovely little orchid shaped flowers that appear in mid to late spring. So pretty! For those of us who are not native to Southern Nevada, and that means more than 75% of the population, the desert willow is not the same as the 'Weeping Willow' that we'd find growing in the cool, moist eastern US. Quite different.

We're pretty familiar with the sundry landscape acacias, and at least one of them is native - the cat claw. Would you care to guess where that name comes from?? There are two kinds of native Mesquites, and you can find them here for sale - one is the screwbean, the name describes its seedpods are very tightly coiled, a lot like springs. The other is the honey mesquite, but I wouldn't urge you to look for honey in it. These are mighty spiny plants.

But spiny or not, how did these trees do it? How could they survive with scarce rainfall, low humidity, intense sunlight, poor soil - conditions that would kill most of the fuss pot plants we insist on trying.

First, if you look at the leaves, you'll see that they tend to be small and slender. This way they lose less water. And since they're very flexible, they can even escape some direct sunlight. But even more than the leaf formation, the story of their survival is underground. Deep underground. The mesquites, the catclaw acacia, the desert willow, these all have the capacity to send roots down - as much as 80 feet deep. They can literally pull water up from the water table.

Some other native trees developed the exact opposite strategy. Instead of producing roots that go mining for water, these'll live along rivers and places where they can find water close to the surface. Remember that Las Vegas means 'the fertile valley', so there was some surface water around. A species of ash tree, Velvet Ash (which some people call 'Arizona Ash') would certainly have been here when folks were creating a city. And Coyote willow, which will only grow in swampy areas, that's a native here. Black willow (or Goodings willow) is another wetland dweller that evolved in the desert Southwest. Even though these two are wetland trees, they aren't Weeping Willows either. Although you can unfortunately buy them here, Weeping Willows simply aren't designed for this climate.

What people would not have commonly seen 100, 200, or 500 years ago in the future Las Vegas would have been tall graceful trees with thick trunks. Before we came around with design plans for residential landscapes, the true native trees tended to look more like big shrubs. A lot of these trees have multiple trunks. They didn't evolve with access to resources that would let them develop into the lofty, stately trees we look for. No, these were not the kinds of trees where you'd sit and relish the shade.

In fact, I've been told that it was the desire for shade in the desert that caused settlers to bring the cottonwoods down here, about 150 years ago. I used to think that these poplars were native, but I asked my friend Dr. Teri Knight about it. She knows these things (in fact, she gave me most of the information for today's show) and she told me that it was Mormon farmers who ferried those trees from up in Utah down to here when they were setting up farms. So now we all know.

Those people a hundred years ago preparing to convert Las Vegas from a desert oasis into a metropolis would've seen trees. But except for the cottonwoods, they wouldn't have seen shade trees. Times and landscapes - they change.

For KNPRs Desert Bloom, this is Dr. Angela O'Callaghan of the University of Nevada Cooperative Extension. Happy birthday, Las Vegas!

For more information you can check out Norm Schilling's list of Norm's Favorite Desert Trees.

See discussion rules.


AngelaFeb 19, 2015 | Tricky Spring
If you're thinking that our warm weather means your plants are safe from a late frost, you're probably right. But then again, you never know. It only seems that Jack Frost has skipped a visit to Southern Nevada this year. Here's Angela O'Callaghan with Desert Bloom.

NormFeb 14, 2015 | Selective Pruning
Norm Schilling guides gardeners to keep up as Spring approaches. Selective pruning will keep things on track in the yard.

NormJan 21, 2015 | Prepare for Spring Now
Don't look at the calendar. Look at your plants to tell you what do to in the yard right now. Your plants think Spring is near, so use this time to transplant and prune. Desert Gardener Norm Schilling tells us what to look for.

NormDec 30, 2014 | Winter and Citrus
Citrus can thrive in Southern Nevada - even in our cold - when you choose the right varieties. Norm Schilling tells us how.

AngelaDec 13, 2014 | To Prune or Not to Prune
As winter draws near, leaves begin to fall. And the bare view may prompt some excessive pruning. It's tempting, but your plants may appreciate a little restraint. Here's Angela O'Callaghan with Desert Bloom.

NormDec 6, 2014 | Prepare Your Plants for Cold Weather
It's not cold . . . yet, but Norm says be ready and your yard will appreciate it. Don't let a cold snap cost you your investment in plants in your yard. Norm Schilling has some ideas to get ready.

AngelaNov 25, 2014 | Evergreens
As we head into the holiday season, more attention is given to 'evergreens.' Too many cones on a pine tree might be a sign of weakness. Angela O'Callaghan tells us all about evergreens on Desert Bloom.

NormNov 14, 2014 | Fall Colors
Even in the desert, Fall colors can brighten your landscape. Here's Norm Schilling with Desert Bloom.

NormOct 28, 2014 | Fall Colors - Web Only Edition
With glorious weather for our yards to fall back into bloom, Norm has some additional suggestions for color to add to the profusion of blooms for this time of year. (Web-only content)

NormOct 7, 2014 | Second Spring
The call it a "second spring" Norm Schilling has some plan ideas to make Fall colorful in your yard. He has a checklist of plants looking their best, because now is the time to plant in Southern Nevada.

AngelaSep 30, 2014 | Fountain Grass
A weed by any other name is still a weed even if it doesn't look like one. If only everything in our gardens thrived as well as weeds. Here is Angela O'Callaghan.

NormSep 15, 2014 | Desert Heat
Norm describes a significant casualty of the desert heat. There's going to be a big gap in Norm's Yard and a lesson on the reality of our desert landscape.

AngelaAug 12, 2014 | Organic Pesticides
Choosing a method for ridding your garden of an unwanted guest, be it bug or weed, is not always a simple choice. But the more you know, the better it goes. Here's Angela O'Callaghan

NormJul 28, 2014 | Lose that Lawn
We know, it's a desert out there including every place there's a lawn. Norm Schilling reminds us all the ways he wants you to consider losing the lawn... permanently.

AngelaJul 14, 2014 | Protect Fruit Trees from Birds
If you put a good deal of care into growing fruit trees, there are likely some birds who will take advantage of your effort. Here's Angela O'Callaghan.

NormJul 10, 2014 | Palm Care, Part 2
To keep, or not to keep. Norm Schilling ponders his palm trees, on this edition of Desert Bloom.

NormJun 10, 2014 | Palm Care
Norm Schilling has mixed feelings about how we use Palms in our yards. Full grown palm trees transplanted into the entry way of a mall is a common sight that tells Southern Nevadan's "something" is nearly open for business. He reminds us that those palms come with challenges.

AngelaJun 3, 2014 | Hot Weather Plants
As temperatures across the Valley begin to climb, you might be wondering what will survive in your garden in the months ahead and what probably won't. There are some 'sweet' options. Here's Angela O'Callaghan

NormMay 20, 2014 | Desert Color
Norm Schilling just got back from Belize and has some ideas for lush leaves in your desert yard. He reflects on some well suited plants to provide color and variety in this edition of Desert Bloom.

AngelaMay 6, 2014 | Emerald Ash Borer
Raising a healthy shade tree in the Mojave is not always easy. And if one particular insect makes its way here, it could get even harder. Here's Angela O'Callaghan with Desert Bloom.

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