Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography

Cholla and creosote

with 28 comments

Cholla Remains and Flowering Creosote 3314

In the Rincon Mountain District of Saguaro National Park outside Tucson on October 3, 2014, I was fascinated by the highly textured remains of this cholla cactus. I don’t know which species of cholla it was, but I do know that the plant with the yellow flowers behind it was a creosote bush, Larrea tridentata.

© 2015 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

January 26, 2015 at 5:13 AM

28 Responses

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  1. Nice combination. I had a “Schwartzman sky” yesterday but the strong winds prevented me from doing anything with it.
    In this cold weather, creosote means something entirely different here.

    Steve Gingold

    January 26, 2015 at 5:33 AM

    • Can I collect royalties from photographers who put that kind of sky in their pictures?

      I originally imagined that people started calling this plant a creosote bush because they derived creosote from it, but apparently it’s only the smell of the plant that reminded them of creosote. The informative article at


      mentions the build-up of creosote in chimneys, and that’s what I assume you were referring to when you mentioned cold weather up there. Something else I learned from that article is that creosote “is the compound responsible for the preservation and the flavor of meat in the process of smoking.” In fact, according to the article, the very word creosote derives from Greek elements meaning ‘meat preserver’.

      And we’re off on a good living and learning morning.

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 26, 2015 at 6:50 AM

  2. Very cool. I see that you and Steve G., between you, answered my next question about creosote. I’m not sure I want smoked meat now… although mesquite is quite nice. Or perhaps you are saying that creosote is the name of the smoke compounds, regardless of the wood used? And you thought all was clear! 🙂


    January 26, 2015 at 9:08 AM

    • I burn only the best cherry, maple and oak, Melissa. No mesquite here in the great Northeast. 🙂

      Steve Gingold

      January 26, 2015 at 9:17 AM

    • Yes, it’s all clear—as clear as smoke! The only things I knew about creosote were from the article I linked to, but here’s another article I just found that tells a little more:


      Steve Schwartzman

      January 26, 2015 at 9:51 AM

      • Thank you for the link. I’m house-shopping, as you’ve no doubt guessed, and this looks like it could be a burning issue for me. 🙂
        Sadly, I don’t think I could afford your area, fun as that would be. I’m looking for a wee cottage in a tourist town I can sell my paintings for. I found one in Michigan for under $30,000!!! I’m sure there is a catch…


        January 26, 2015 at 12:43 PM

        • My buddy did that…although the touristy thing is a little slow. He specializes in photographing moose and had the opportunity to buy a two family house in Northern Maine for the price range you are talking about. The first floor is his gallery and the second floor the home. They are not getting rich….at least they haven’t said they were…but getting by well enough. There is an effort to get a large chunk of privately owned land designated for a national park. If that happens then the touristy thing will work a lot better. There is a lot of resistance from old paper mill workers who think a mill will return some day…it won’t…but the momentum is building. If it were not for the occasional annual ten feet of snow or more we might consider the move too.
          The catch is that for that price the place needs a lot of work. He put in more than he bought it for, but it is now very nice and no mortgage. 🙂

          Steve Gingold

          January 26, 2015 at 1:16 PM

          • Yes, that is it exactly. I’m not looking to get rich, just get by doing what I do. I learned long ago that I’m not really employable, so the paintings really have to carry my weight. The 10′ of snow is a stopper, though, isn’t it? Hm. If only I could find the cottage/gallery in, say, Carmel!


            January 26, 2015 at 2:53 PM

          • Good for your buddy, whose story is a-moose-ing. On the other hand, winter lasting for half a year, often with ten feet of snow, wouldn’t be amusing.

            Steve Schwartzman

            January 26, 2015 at 2:57 PM

        • $30,000 would be quite a catch—assuming there’s no catch. For your sake, let’s hope for the first catch.

          You’re right that Austin isn’t cheap anymore. In fact, of all the large cities in Texas, it now has the highest cost of living.

          Steve Schwartzman

          January 26, 2015 at 2:50 PM

          • Yes, that is what I understand. Although I like it that Austin is committed to staying artsy. I saw a sign that read, “Keep Austin Weird”…did you post that, or did I see it somewhere else?


            January 26, 2015 at 2:54 PM

            • I can’t remember if I ever mentioned that motto, but it has been around here for several decades.

              Steve Schwartzman

              January 26, 2015 at 3:02 PM

  3. Cyclopean!


    January 26, 2015 at 2:30 PM

    • Good for you: I was waiting to see if anyone mentioned the “eye” up there on the cholla. It reminds me of the eye on the pyramid on the back of the dollar bill.

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 26, 2015 at 2:52 PM

  4. The “eye” was the first thing that struck me in this pic, followed closely by the striking texture of the outer skin. It’s one of those pictures where your eyes keep being drawn to examine the details. The yellow flowers are a decorative “shawl” or “robe for the cactis and of course your blue skies are legendary.


    January 26, 2015 at 6:47 PM

    • It was the texture that grabbed me first, and then came the eye (and there are intimations of two other eyes and a mouth a little further down).

      If I can quote the legendary songwriter Irving Berlin:

      “Blue skies smiling at me,
      Nothing but blue skies do I see.”

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 26, 2015 at 8:16 PM

  5. The Cholla cactus looks as though it has been daubed with creosote, the coal tar type. According to one of your links, the creosote bush is very hardy and, in a competition for scarce water resources, it will win. Judging by the state of the cactus, the creosote won the fight for water in this case. It may even have sucked the cactus dry?


    January 26, 2015 at 9:20 PM

    • Yes indeed, the creosote bush is hardy and widespread, growing in many parts of the American Southwest; that includes western Texas, where I first encountered it years ago. You raise an interesting hypothesis about this creosote bush having robbed the cholla of enough water to kill it. I wish I could tell you how likely that is, but I haven’t spent much time in the desert and don’t know the habits of these plants. I can say that you’ve got a good imagination in seeing this cholla daubed with coal-tar creosote.

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 26, 2015 at 10:19 PM

  6. I recognized this as a cousin of our Texas cholla, the walking stick cactus I found in the hill country. I went for a bit of a browse, and now I’m wondering if this specimen might be the cactus described here. The eighth commenter on the page, from San Antonio, adds some information that makes me think this might be the so-called Tree Cholla:

    “I have not grown this plant, but have observed many cultivated tree cholla growing in landscapes.

    “Tree cholla’s native range extends from Arizona (eastern Cochise County), across southern New Mexico into Kansas, southern Colorado, Texas, Oklahoma and southward into northern Mexico. In Texas, it inhabits the grasslands in West Texas (Big Bend Region) and west of San Saba, and Burnet, Bexar, and Victoria counties.

    “It is an arborescent (tree-like) plant that can attain a height of 10 feet or more and has a distinct woody trunk…”

    In any event, it’s an impressive plant, and lovely with the creosote bush.


    January 27, 2015 at 8:49 AM

    • This cholla was in the national park, so I’m inclined to think it grew naturally, although that’s not guaranteed to be the case. Eastern Cochise county (which I looked up on a map) would be too far east to include Saguaro National Park, but the information you quoted gives me hope of finding Cylindropuntia imbricata an hour or two west of Austin, given that Burnet County borders Travis County on the west.

      Whatever kind of cactus this was, you’re right that it impressed me and I had fun playing (visually) with its texture.

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 27, 2015 at 9:25 AM

  7. The interesting complexity of our world just never fails to amaze me.

    Charlie@Seattle Trekker

    January 27, 2015 at 11:38 AM

  8. I photographed one of these in a botanical garden in Arizona and had no idea what it was. Thank you for posting and solving the mystery!

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