Plant of the Month: Ironwood — The Desert’s Oldest Nurse

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Could 12, 2022

Feeling melancholy as you sweep up the spent yellow petals of your Palo Verdes? I perceive why: when the “month of monochrome yellow” is behind us, the baking summer season is upon us, and most vegetation (and folks!) sober as much as put together. Don’t despair but, although—late spring wildflowers nonetheless encompass Saguaros wreathed like brides with white blooms. And, now could be the time for Desert Ironwood to take the stage, it’s purple blossoms really easy on the attention in spite of everything that yellow… and what a very outstanding tree.

The Ironwood (Olneya tesota) is the one species in its genus and is known as for its extraordinarily dense heartwood that’s so heavy that it doesn’t float. This density is regarded as why the tree is so sluggish rising, rather more so than its extra sprightly neighbors, the Mesquite and Palo Verde. As well as, Ironwood heartwood is nearly non-biodegradable on account of mineral deposits, and since they resist saprophytes (a plant, fungus, or microorganism that lives on useless or decaying natural matter) and are poisonous to termites, useless timber persist lengthy after life has left them. They bear witness to abandon happenings like silent stones, worn solely by wind and water.

The Ironwood’s purple flowers are a welcome addition to any panorama. Picture by Donna DiFrancesco.

In life, the Ironwood supplies riches each above and under the soil. As a result of it’s a wickedly thorny and densely branched tree, over 500 desert critters (some 250 of them plant species) discover safety beneath these sheltering, but unforgiving, arms. The area beneath the Ironwoods’ beneficiant cover is dwelling to so most of the desert’s banal miracles: seeds sprouting, tiny hummingbirds fledging, rabbits escaping a coyote’s snapping maw. As if that wasn’t sufficient, Ironwoods additionally present nutritious pods that mature in mid to late summer season when little else is on the market.  At and under the soil, the Ironwood acts as a habitat-modifying keystone species by enriching the soil with nitrogen (as do Mesquite and Palo Verde) making germination and early development doable for a lot of desert vegetation. Additional, the Ironwoods’ diffuse cover moderates floor temperatures by about 10 levels, thereby defending plant kids from desert extremes. Though well-known for these capabilities as a “nurse tree”, scientists are simply discovering how long-lived the timber may be—some have been dated to 800 to 1,500 years previous—making Ironwood the primary and oldest desert nurse tree! The take-home message right here is that if you plant an Ironwood, it can most likely be round, doing great things, for a LONG time!

For Arizona’s birds, Ironwoods present not solely safety however a bountiful provide of bugs drawn to the timber’ ample blooms. Gardeners discover that Ironwoods can coax even desert die-hards just like the tiny Black-tailed Gnatcatcher and the beautiful, considerably vocal Ash-throated Flycatcher from the lonely wilds to the suburban yard. Your backyard regulars like Abert’s Towhee, Verdin, and Northern Mockingbird may even respect this tree.

The Ironwood will get its identify from its dense, sturdy wooden. It is among the heaviest woods on the planet and can sink when dropped in water. Picture by Steve Prager

Clearly, Ironwoods have excessive ecological worth, however moreover attracting cool birds, what can this tree do for the house gardener? Rather a lot, it seems: for one, they’ll survive in very dry circumstances–Ironwoods’ drought tolerance rivals superstars like Creosote (Larrea), so that is no desert light-weight.  Do word that if water-starved, Ironwoods will lose each single tiny grey-green leaf, however will bounce again to life with the primary drenching monsoon. Ironwoods additionally make glorious specimen timber, if you’re affected person sufficient to allow them to develop into their allure. Though their pure behavior is brushy-based, they are going to tolerate pruning and may be gracefully manicured into sinuous backyard backdrops thereby highlighting their elegant silver-grey bark. Keep in mind, too, these beautiful purple flowers that appear to look proper on cue submit “yellow flower time” to distract us (at the very least momentarily) from the approaching summer season inferno. Talking of which, as you put together your self for the summer season warmth, discover solace in that it’s going to not final endlessly – however your newly planted Ironwood will come fairly shut. Completely satisfied planting!

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Do you know that as much as 70 % of water use is outside? That’s why we love desert vegetation and have them every month. You possibly can study extra about Ironwood and different vegetation on our Arizona Low-Water-Use Plants web page. Go to our web page on Choosing and Planting Low Water-Use Plants for recommendations on plant choice and plant correctly. Additionally, you should definitely learn via all of our featured Plant of the Month blogs!

Water – Use It Correctly is proud to characteristic visitor bloggers who write about matters associated to water and water conservation. The creator of this weblog submit, Cathy Sensible, is the schooling director with Audubon Arizona, whose mission is to guard birds and the locations they want, immediately and tomorrow, utilizing science, advocacy, schooling, and on-the-ground conservation.

Photographer Steve Prager is a vital hen space program affiliate & instructor/naturalist with Audubon Arizona. 

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