Creosote Rings Preserve
Larrea tridentata - Creosote bush
by Frank Rodrigue

A short drive east from Lucerne Valley, California exists what is believed to be one of the oldest living plants on earth. Creosote bushes, sometimes referred to as greasewood have been found in the Mohave desert near Old Woman Springs and dead pieces of the wood have been radiocarbon dated to be over 9,000 years old. One particular bush, named King-Clone has received world-wide attention.

My first visit to find these Creosote Rings, September 2002:

As I walked around in the fenced preserve area I wondered if this was real or just some kind of  excuse to take away a portion of our public lands. The rings of creosote bushes certainly are not easily spotted in the area, especially if you are not sure what you are looking for. I was disappointed to find the area was very parched from the hot dry summer. On my first visit I didn't know what to look for. All I knew was this was the area fenced off because of the Creosote Rings, whatever they are. I suspect it may take more than one visit to spot the rings as I have not seen one yet. Maybe they are only visible from the air? I will be back because I am determined to find the Creosote rings and the King-Clone.

Second visit, equipped with a camera and information I learned from the Internet, October 2002:

This trip I had a much better idea what to look for. I was alone so there were no distractions. I started at the south end and worked my way north until I saw the first one. Before I knew it they were everywhere. This area is full of these circular groups of Creosote bushes, usually built up on a mound of sand. As I continued north they started getting bigger and more pronounced as a ring. This area is so very dry, everything looks dead. The centers of these Creosote rings contained only a few pieces of dead wood and sand. The information I learned from the Internet all started to fall into place. Next I excitedly walked back to retrieve my Jeep and grabbed the camera. I have since created a photo tour because I wanted to share this with those who may not have the time or ability to visit this area in person. For those who do want to see this marvel in person the pictures will save you a lot of time locating them.
I hope you enjoy it.

Read the details about the exciting discovery of King-Clone in an online excerpt from the book "Gathering The Desert" by Gary Paul Nabhan.

Here is a reprint from an article that appeared in the Leader Newspaper as submitted by my good friend, Pat Judkins.

Taken from an article in The Leader newspaper issue of November 13, 1980:
Creosote Bush May be Oldest Organism
"The earth's oldest living organism may be the scraggly creosote bush, according to an article by Janet White which appeared in the November 11 issue of the U.C. Clip Sheet, a weekly newspaper published by the University of California. Writes White'; 'University of California botanist Frank Vasek has shown that creosote bushes growing in circular clusters are direct offshoots or 'clones' of a single individual. Some may be more than 10,000 years old, twice the age of the fabled bristlecone pine and three times that of the massive redwood trees, previously thought to be the world's oldest living things.

A scrawny plant that appears to suffer a slow starvation on the desert floor, the creosote is, in fact, a champion of survival according to Vasek's findings published in the 'American Journal of Botany.'

'The oldest we found, dubbed King Clone, is 11,700 years old by our estimates,' Vasek said. ' We believe it was one of the first life forms to colonize the Mojave Desert when the last glacier receded, and has been a continuous resident there ever since.'

Creosote, which gives off a distinctive tar-like scent after a rain, has been hiding its longevity 'in plain sight,' Vasek said. Its meager aspect is so commonplace that rings of creosote are routinely overlooked by desert watchers and scientists alike.

A reporter's question in 1974 first drew Vasek's attention to the mystery of creosote's age.

Vasek was the first to see a ring of separate creosote bushes as all part of the same living thing. He theorized that the entire distance to the center of the creosote ring was at one time solid wood, the outer ring of bushes comparable with the outer layer of living bark on a redwood tree.

But proving his theory became a detective story, because the inside wood and therefore the growth record, had long since rotted away. Vasek had to determine if all the bushes in a ring were genetically the same. If they were, the age of that single individual could be estimated by the rate of growth of the plant outward from the center.

Leonel Sternberg, a botanist then working as a graduate student in Vasek's lab, was able to 'fingerprint' bushes. He used a test involving plant enzymes to show that plants in a ring had identical characteristics but always differed from other plant clusters. Vasek measured the growth rate two ways, getting similar results. One was by counting growth rings in existing bushes -- which like trees add one ring a year -- and measuring the distance of annual growth. The second was radiocarbon dating of wood chunks excavated from the center of the rings, and measuring their distance from living bushes.

Both methods showed the creosote grew about 0.7 millimeters (1/3 inch) per year."

Creosote Rings Preserve Location

Here is some interesting information about the Creosote bush I found at the DesertUSA Website. Visit their website for more information about the fascinating desert around us. You will also find a very well-written article titled "On the Trail of the Creosote" with text by Linda McMillin Pyle and photos by DesertUSA Photographers.

(reprinted with permission)

All four southwestern deserts. Southern Nevada, extreme southwest Utah, southeastern California, southern third of Arizona, southern New Mexico, into west Texas and south into Mexico.

Well-drained slopes and plains, especially those with a layer of caliche, up to 4,000 feet. Often the most abundant shrub, even forming pure stands.

Inch-wide twisted, yellow petals bloom from February-August. Some individuals maintain flowers year round. After the Creosote blooms the flower turns into a small white fuzzy fruit capsule that has 5 seeds. You can find these seed capsules on the ground under the creosote bushes.

Globose, hairy, reddish-white.

The Creosote Bush is the most characteristic feature of North America's hot deserts. It is one of the best examples of a plant that tolerates arid conditions simply by its toughness. It competes aggressively with other plants for water, and usually wins, accounting for its prevalence in many arid locations of the southwest.

This medium-to-large evergreen shrub has numerous flexible stems projecting at an angle from its base. It is usually less than 4 feet high, but can grow to 12-foot heights with abundant water. Its small (1/4 to 1/2 inches), pointed, yellow-green leaves have adapted to conserve water and dissipate heat. The bush may lose some of these waxy, resinous leaves during extreme drought, but never loses them all. These leaves are especially pungent after a rain, and have been used as antiseptics and emetics by native peoples. Its foliage provides refuge for crickets, grasshoppers and praying mantids.

How to grow from seeds.

Place several of these seed capsules in a shallow pan cover with boiling water. Let them soak over night, and then place a few seed capsules in a pot with soil and start to water. Thin out the extra seedlings and plant.
-- A.R Royo
Creosote Rings Preserve Location: In the California Mohave desert between Lucerne Valley and Johnson Valley on Highway 247. Head north on Bessimer Mine Road. Approximately .6 miles from the highway on the east side of the road you will find the beginning of a fenced area, triangle shaped, protecting the ancient Creosote rings. The rough dirt road is accessible with any vehicle that has good ground clearance, 4wd is not necessary. You must park and walk in. Good Luck!
Take a photo tour .
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A reply from Southern Israel. Hezi Yizhaq has a theory that makes sense. See for yourself

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