Creosote, also known as Cresotebush and Greasewood, is one of the most common shrubs in the Trans-Pecos. This rugged survivor has earned its place in the Chihuahuan Desert landscape. Early Spanish explorers called it gobernadora (governess), likely a reference to the shrub’s dominance throughout the desert.
To say that creosote is a hardy shrub is understating its ruggedness and determination to live. Twenty of twenty-one creosote shrubs growing at the center of the 1962 thermonuclear explosion at the Yucca Flat test site in Nevada re-sprouted ten years after the blast. If the world ever gets into a nuclear free-for-all, creosote and roaches may be the only survivors.
The leaves of the shrub are covered with a sticky and smelly resin which early settlers likened to the smell of creosote, a derivative of wood tar. Hence, the name. This tar-like odor is especially strong after a rain or when the leaves are crushed. These foul-tasting resins also make the creosote of little use to man or beast in the way of foodstuffs.
Several species of insects — including beetles, praying mantises, and grasshoppers — depend on the creosote for their survival. Some of these insects, like the creosote bush katydid, are monophagous. That’s a scientific way of saying that they feed only on this plant.
Mexicans and Native Americans who have lived in regions where creosote is endemic discovered medicinal value in the creosote. They developed an antiseptic to treat everything from arthritis to saddle sores, minor cuts and bruises, and bites on both themselves and their animals.
According to Native American and Hispanic folk traditions, tea made from creosote leaves were widely used to treat colds, stomach problems, gas pains, and more. In 1962, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued a warning against the internal use of creosote-based products.
Desert dwellers also found other uses for creosote. Hispanics of the Big Bend region used the roots of the shrub to dye blankets brown. The Apache applied the plant’s sticky gum to wounds to stop the bleeding. Southwestern tribes made a glue from the sticky substance that they used to mend pottery and to waterproof baskets. And, because the resinous leaves ignite easily, they are useful for starting cooking fires.
Desert survival is not easy for humans, animals, or plants. So, the next time you are in Far West Texas and see creosote shrubs carpeting the landscape all the way to the horizon, reflect for a minute on what it takes to make it in such a tough environment. Although not the prettiest bush on the landscape, creosote is worthy of a little respect.