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November 20, 2001
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When I travel through the desert, and by that I mean the area beyond the spread of Las Vegas development, I see plants. Now, these are not the big maple trees I saw during my many years in upstate New York and in New England. So what? Many remarkable plants - the Joshua trees, mesquites, barrel cacti, yuccas, and tons of spring and fall flowers - have established a kind of harmony with this harsh environment.

What we find in the desert is not a dense forest of broad leaves, nor a rippling sea of tall grasses, but rather, a stately parade of individuals growing in an unforgiving, dry terrain.

Given that there's so little nourishment available for plants here in the Mojave, it probably is best that they're so sparsely distributed. So maybe we think of them all out there as rugged individuals. That is what they look like. But are they? Really?

"Sharing" isn't a term we throw around much when we’re talking about horticulture. Still, what if each of those plants is not surviving because it's the toughest, but rather because it has created good relationships with other forms of life - maybe even forms we can't see with our naked eyes?

This may sound surprising, and you might think that it's quite unlikely, but more and more, scientists are not thinking of plants as living in some kind of solitary splendor. Rather, there's a developing vision of plants coexisting with certain microbes in the soil. Having relationships with bacteria and fungi results in the plants being able to obtain bigger and better supplies of water and nutrients. In fact, without these interactions among the various organisms, our beautiful desert could become totally barren - just a lifeless wasteland.

Bear with me for a second while I explain - this is science but it's not awfully complicated. Specialized bacteria have the ability to take nitrogen out of the air and transform it into compounds that leguminous plants then use to make proteins. The very proteins that we need for life. It's through these rhizobacteria most of the usable nitrogen on our planet gets fixed. A lot of exquisite desert plants have special interactions with these nitrogen-fixing bacteria. Mesquite, acacia, cassia, indigo, bird of paradise and many others are legumes. They permit selected bacteria to live in nodules on their roots, with the result that they have first dibs on those essential nitrogen compounds.

In addition to these important associations with bacteria, it turns out that maybe 90% of all the plants on earth have some kind of an arrangement with fungi. You know, molds, mushrooms - fungus. There are a couple of groups of essential fungi that produce long threads that go through the soil. These threads pull critical nutrients from the soil and make them accessible to the plants, which in turn use them for growth.

The plant roots, on the other hand, produce compounds that these microbes in the soil need for their own life and development. It's a mutually beneficial arrangement that’s called mycorrhizae, and in the desert, it really is a matter of life and death for those plants we admire so much.

What's even more startling is the fact that these fungi can help plants to interact with each other. Different plants have different needs and resources, and they use those threads that the fungi produce as highways to deliver assets from one plant to the other. You might say they are sharing the wealth so that all are helped. It could be, too that our own landscape plants rely on these same types of affiliations for their well-being.

There are some sites on the Internet where you can buy spores of certain fungi to get the associations started, but this is not a "one size fits all" kind of situation. Plants and fungi are selective about who they are going to form relationships with. Not all fungi will benefit all plants, so it might be just as well to use a little of the native soil and count on promoting the population of fungal spores that already exists there.

If we are going to keep our native plants alive and perhaps benefit our own landscapes, it's important that we don’t break these associations by killing off the necessary microbes. Pesticides can cause real damage to them. If you must use a fungicide or a weed killer in your landscape, please, be very careful. Read the label and make sure that you are using the right product for your problem. Call the Cooperative Extension master gardener hotline before applying any chemical that might kill off critical bacteria or fungi. The number there is 257-5555.

For KNPR's Desert Bloom, this is Dr. Angela O'Callaghan of the University of Nevada Cooperative Extension. Take care.

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Archives

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
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NormJul 10, 2014 | Palm Care, Part 2
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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.

NormApr 22, 2014 | The Right Plants
Our current warm spell gives the impression that some plants can thrive when they aren't really suited to our desert. Norm Schilling has some examples.

NormMar 24, 2014 | Spring Garden Party
Spring is here and the garden is blooming . . . so invite some friends to enjoy the rewards of gardening!

AngelaMar 10, 2014 | Lady Banks
If you love roses, but don't care for thorns, you may want to call on 'Lady Banks.' Here's Angela O'Callaghan with Desert Bloom.

NormFeb 26, 2014 | Signs of Spring
It may be February, but if you are paying attention, signs of Spring are visible. Dwarf peach and Mexican plum trees are in bloom. Vibrant Red Spraxis can be seen among the falling Almond blossom. Watch gardening expert Norm Schilling transplant an offshoot. Check out the slide show of photos taken from his backyard.

AngelaFeb 18, 2014 | Mulch is for Winter
Rewards for using mulch in your landscape can be had year-round. Mulch is about mulch more than just "good looks" according to Angela O' Callaghan. In any climate, and certainly in a desert, mulch is an ecologically sound way to conserve our limited soil moisture and to control weeds.

NormFeb 4, 2014 | Investing for Spring
Temperatures are scheduled to stay cool this week, but Norm Schilling finds his yard is ready for Spring. He reflects on techniques to keep older trees healthy even as the surrounding yard may change. Bigger, older trees may need more water.

AngelaJan 13, 2014 | Freezing Temps
If your garden looks like it's been zapped by Jack Frost, there's still a chance that all is not lost. Delicate desert plants can suffer chill damage even when the temperature stays above freezing. Well-established plants should survive.

NormDec 31, 2013 | Leave the Leaves
Just because most of the leaves have fallen from the trees, it doesn't mean you have to rake them all up. Norm Schilling says it's better to use the leaves as mulch to protect the plants and make rich soil. Some woody plants can be pruned now, while others should wait another month or two.

AngelaDec 13, 2013 | Winter Greens
It is the season to enjoy some winter gardening. In Southern Nevada, a cold-snap does not have to mean that your garden is done for. Angela O'Callaghan gives a few cold facts.

NormDec 3, 2013 | Winter Watering
After a recent rain followed by a cold snap this week, Norm Schilling digs in to figure out how much water is needed this time of year. Touch the leaves to get a feel and don't water much at all for the next few months.

AngelaNov 18, 2013 | Herb Gardens
Our desert environment may be hard to handle for many plants, but it is possible to grow your own herbal remedy. The healing properties of some herbs are still widely recognized. Even though we rarely have to rely on them to deal with our infirmities, Angela O'Callaghan says many herbs are pretty and simple to grow.

NormNov 5, 2013 | Fall Color
Our second Spring is in full bloom. Norm Schilling shares his favorite plants that are bringing color to the yard right now, including Chocolate Flower, Mexican Bush Sage, Autumn Sage and ornamental grasses.

AngelaOct 29, 2013 | Pumpkins
Halloween just wouldn't be the same without the jack-o-lantern. But there's more to the tradition of decorating squash than meets the eye. Angela O'Callaghan says pumpkins are more than decorations for a single day. They're food, and a very good food at that.

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