As a species known to endure a surface thermonuclear explosion conducted by the Atomic Energy Commission on Yucca Flat, Nevada in 1962, the creosote can be seen as a testament to desert survival.
The stark scenic drive along California State Route 247 (locally known as Old Woman Springs Road) leads you to a section of land off Bessemer Mine Road that is casually cordoned off with steel fence stakes held with double strands of lax barbless wire. No postings designating ownership or signs warning trespassers appear directly from the road. Nothing seems to signify anything of importance within. For the most part, the site is easy to dismiss or disregard entirely. But here is something special, something unusual. Contained within the fenced area is a shrub considered to be among the planet’s ancients: the King Clone Creosote. Contemplation of this particular clonal organism and others like it may hold the key to understanding this place, its secrets, and our own relationship within this desert over time.
For the record, clonal colonies of genetically identical individuals originating from a single ancestor are not uncommon in nature and occur in many plant, fungi and bacterial species throughout the world under certain environmental conditions. In the plant world individual parts of the clone which reproduce vegetatively—as opposed to sexually germinating from seed—are referred to as “ramets.” Long-lived clones are more rare and include neighboring Mojave yucca clones (Yucca schidigera) in Johnson Valley with the oldest of these estimated to be about 2,000 years old. Not all creosotes reproduce clonally and the majority seen throughout the Mojave Desert are unique, genetically diverse plants.
Dr. Frank Vasek of the University of California, Riverside along with several of his colleagues first identified King Clone in the early 1970s. The group was conducting multiyear environmental field research for hire for various proposed gas and electrical lines planned throughout the Mojave Desert by Southern California Edison. At one point, Vasek’s research partner, Hiram Johnson, noticed an anomaly in one of the photos he had been studying from U.S. Air Force high-altitude aerial imagery of Lucerne Valley taken during the 1950s. From the privileged view up above, the outline of an oddly circular creosote ring appeared, suggesting in its shape a singular organism.
Excited, the researchers traveled to the location to further investigate, locating a group of medium- to large-sized creosote rings, some with average diameters of 15 meters and larger that featured bare-open centers. The largest of the bunch, referred to as King Clone, measures about 22 by 8 meters, appearing as more of a rectangle from satellite view. A research effort led by Dr. Vasek was thus set into motion to learn how the Lucerne Valley creosote clones developed over time as well as their actual age.
Initial research focused on the study and development of creosote seedlings into mature plants in order to determine their rate of growth. Consequent research examined annual growth rings found in the woody base stem crowns to estimate the growth rates of non-clonal mature plants. To do so, a 12-year-old creosote grown from seed at the UC Riverside Botanic Garden was sacrificed and studied. Additional investigations offered insight into how mature creosote plants begin to segment and produce multiple lobes, each sprouting its own stems and branches. Still, Dr. Vasek states, “The exact point at which a segmenting old individual plant becomes an incipient clone is problematical. After segmentation occurs and the ramets grow apart, the clonal nature of the group becomes clear.”
Dr. Leonel Sternberg, a UC Riverside biology researcher and former student of Vasek, confirmed through a molecular testing technique known as “genetic fingerprinting” that individual ramets sampled from any one clone of the eight clones studied were genetically identical for the two enzymes tested and therefore shared a single, common ancestor. The non-clonal neighboring individual seedlings were genetically diverse. The genetic puzzle was solved but the actual age of the clones was still a mystery.
Field observations suggested that as a creosote clone spread out over time it would gradually leave a bare, sandy void containing “long deceased remnants of an earlier, smaller stage of the clone’s existence.” Additionally, if old growth could be located therein and radiocarbon dated, estimates could be made to determine the average growth rate of clonal individuals within the study group. Vasek devised a field instrument specifically for this purpose. As specimens were unearthed, careful measurements were taken at the location of the found wood sample to the outer edge of the living clone. In dividing this measurement by the carbon-dated age of the sample, he was able to determine an average long-term growth rate of 0.66 mm per year for the clones he sampled, confirming that some of the Lucerne Valley creosote rings were indeed thousands of years old.
Large creosote clones are known in other areas of the Mojave. These include a colony in the Kramer Hills, a robust group located in an escarpment below Walker Pass where the Eastern Sierra meets the desert. Clones are found in several locations throughout the Argus and Slate Ranges within the China Lake Naval Air Weapons Station’s land holdings. In an email exchange Vasek stated, “the Slate Range contains rather few large clones, but these are located in sandy areas above the old Pleistocene beach lines, and most probably date from that Epoch.”
Vasek’s discovery illuminated profound evidence on what we consider life itself: rather than limiting mortality of an organism to the lifespan of a single plant, these clonal species suggest vast, existential possibilities of lineage that encompasses all biology—plant, animal or human—on this planet.
Having discovered such a profound living treasure, it is hard to understand why no state or federal agency at the time was interested in protecting Lucerne Valley’s King Clone and the other surrounding clones. In spite of this, a localized grass roots campaign initiated during the early 1980s led by Boron’s Desert Empire Gardening Club, with support from the Nature Conservancy, successfully raised the $17,000 to purchase the 17 acres where King Clone is located in an effort to protect the clones from future development, off-roading and other potentially destructive activities. Today the site is listed as an ecological reserve protected by California of Department Fish & Wildlife. The other ancient clones located throughout military-controlled and public lands of the Mojave Desert remain vulnerable.
The original creosotes believed to have colonized this part of the Mojave originated from the Lower Colorado region when the last glaciers retreated at the end of the Pleistocene nearly 12,000 years ago. It is speculated that their ancestors migrated northward from South America. In Gathering the Desert, author Gary Nabhan states that Papago creation legend asserts that greasewood was the first life form arising out of the mound of earth that Earth Maker had shaped when life began. From the branches of this plant, the first animal originated, a tiny scale insect (Tachardiella larreae) that produces a lac or resin which hardened to become the crust of the earth.
Physically, adult creosote is a one- to three-meter-tall evergreen with tiny, waxy green leaves, ringed bark displaying small seasonal yellow flowers with white furry seed pods. It is an exceptionally hardy, drought-tolerant plant, thriving in the most inhospitable of climates. It is the predominant plant throughout nearly all North American deserts, appearing as evenly spaced colonies throughout. Creosote has evolved mechanisms of survival that include the production of toxic chemical secretions that inhibit growth and competition from neighboring plants (including its own progeny), resinous properties that repel potential herbivores from dining on its foliage. Also present are 49 volatile hydrocarbon oils with over 360 other chemicals and compounds that make creosote unappetizing to nearly all insects except for the Creosote Bush Grasshopper (Bootettix argentatus) that has adapted to the plant’s chemical defenses with digestive enzymes that allow it to live and feed exclusively on its host plant while mimicking it as dead stems or, in the male’s case, young green leaf sprays with camouflage mirroring the creosote’s dark resin patches (known in ecology as crypsis). More than 20 species of bees collect and feed solely on the pollen and nectar of creosote bush. A variety of desert birds, reptiles and other animals take shelter and nest within the shade and protection of these bushes.
The combination of oils and waxes (with additional phytochemicals and compounds that make up 10 to 20 percent of its dry weight) protects the plant by deflecting ultraviolet radiation and heat exposure, overall transpiration and water loss. Additionally, these properties produce creosote’s distinctive odor that emanate and fill the surrounding desert with a uniquely sharp medicinal scent that occurs after one of the sudden ephemeral desert downpours. I personally gauge true desert lovers on whether or not they enjoy this smell as it serves for me to embody one of the many sensual paradoxes that define this arid, complex region. Either you “get” this desert or you do not.
The Native Peoples of the Southwest, such as the O’odham, along with the early Jesuit missionaries, have long considered greasewood a medicinal cure-all for various ailments—colds, respiratory infections, intestinal and stomach pain, menstrual cramps, general nausea, diarrhea, kidney stones, arthritis, infertility, syphilis, dandruff and many other conditions including parasitical worms in both humans and animals. Salves concocted with various parts of the plant were used to treat rashes, venomous bites and open wounds. Creosote poultices were applied to ease swollen limbs and rheumatism. Teas were brewed and taken to induce vomiting. The O’odham collected lac from Tachardiella larreae as a sealant for pottery vessels.
Up to ten percent of creosote’s dry weight is comprised of a powerful antioxidant, known as NDGA, that is believed to have antibacterial, antifungal, antiviral, analgesic and anti-inflammatory properties. Some recent studies have shown creosote’s effectiveness as an antiviral treatment against HIV, herpes simplex, human papilloma virus and possibly cancer and neurogenerative diseases. But, in contrast, other studies confirm reports of liver and kidney toxicity and even death when internal creosote treatments were taken too often or in too high of dosage. Although herbalists market creosote-based alternative remedies as “Chaparral” (a misnomer) and extoll its many healing qualities, the American Cancer Society’s website warns that it is “considered a dangerous herb that can cause irreversible, life-threatening liver damage and kidney damage.”
As a species known to endure a surface thermonuclear explosion conducted by the Atomic Energy Commission on Yucca Flat, Nevada, in 1962, the creosote can be seen as a testament to desert survival. Of the 21 original creosotes present before the test, 20 of them regrew and survive to this day. King Clone may not have been so lucky—nearly 15 meters away from the clone, just outside the fence line, lays a mining access road that surely swept several ancient clone rings into oblivion when it was initially graded. The bordering Johnson Valley off-road public lands recreational destination is held in check by a rickety fence, a poor deterrent for a few rogue yahoos hell-bent on destroying something possibly 12,000 years old that keeps them from riding through their desert paradise at will.
 For more information on long-lived clones and other ancient organisms, see Rachel Sussman’s The Oldest Living Things in the World (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014).
 Frank Vasek, interview with the author in Davis, California, June 25, 2014. For further reading see F.C. Vasek, “Creosote bush: Long-lived clones in the Mojave Desert,” American Journal of Botany, (1980): 67.
 Vasek, interview.
 Vasek, interview.
 From an email exchange with the author dated August 13, 2014. No hard data confirming these particular creosote clones is available.
 Gary Paul Nabhan, “The Creosote Bush Is Our Drugstore,” Gathering the Desert (Tuscon: University of Arizona Press, 1986),
 Nabhan, “The Creosote Bush Is Our Drugstore.” Note that black-tailed jackrabbits and desert woodrats of the Mojave Desert are also known to browse creosote with low resin content.
 Jack Copeland, “Creosote Medicine,” Marfa Public Radio, December 16, 2010, http://marfapublicradio.org/blog/nature-notes/creosote-medicine.
 “Ancient remedy ‘shrinks cancer,’” BBC News, August 4, 2004, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/health/3555566.stm.
 Copeland, “Creosote Medicine.”