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Mojave Desert Plants > Trees

Desert Willow

Chilopsis linearis


COMMON NAMES : desert willow, desertwillow, flowering willow, flowering-willow, willowleaf catalpa, desert catalpa, catalpa willow, false-willow, bow willow, mimbre, Flor de Mimbre, jano

TAXONOMY : The currently accepted scientific name of desert willow is Chilopsis linearis (Cav.) Sweet [17,27,49].

Chilopsis linearis (Cav.) Sweet
ssp. linearis
var. linearis - Chihuahuan Desert
var. tomenticaulis Henrickson - eastern Mexico
ssp. arcuata (Fosberg) Henrickson - Sonoran and Mojave Deserts

Desert willow is distributed from southwestern and Trans-Pecos Texas west to extreme southwestern Utah, southern Nevada, and southern California [21]. It is also found in northern Mexico.

FRES30 Desert shrub
FRES33 Southwestern shrubsteppe
FRES40 Desert grasslands

7 Lower Basin and Range
12 Colorado Plateau
13 Rocky Mountain Piedmont

K027 Mesquite bosque
K041 Creosotebush
K042 Creosotebush - bursage
K043 Paloverde - cactus shrub
K044 Creosotebush - tarbush
K054 Grama - tobosa prairie
K058 Grama - tobosa shrubsteppe
K059 Trans-Pecos shrub savanna
K061 Mesquite - acacia savanna

Desert willow sometimes codominates desert washes and water courses with other phreatophytes [see SITE CHARACTERISTICS for a list of codominant plants].


SPECIES: Chilopsis linearis

WOOD PRODUCTS VALUE : Desert willow is occasionally used for fence posts and fuel [14,46].

IMPORTANCE TO LIVESTOCK AND WILDLIFE : Livestock: Livestock generally do not browse desert willow. It is consumed only when other forage is scarce [18,46].

Wildlife: Various species of birds eat desert willow seeds [12,46]. Hummingbirds are attracted to the showy flowers and feed on the nectar [3,12]. Mule deer eat small quantities of the leaves and fruit [34].

PALATABILITY : Desert willow is considered to be unpalatable to livestock and low in palatability to wildlife [5]. The presence of cyanogenic glycosides may account for its low palatability [50]. Following fire, however, tender sprouts may be highly palatable. Two months after a July wildfire in southern California, 55 percent of available desert willow sprouts were browsed by mule deer, bighorn sheep, and cottontail rabbits, but this use declined to about 1 percent within 1 year [41].

NUTRITIONAL VALUE : The sucrose in desert willow nectar is a good energy source for bees and hummingbirds [3].

COVER VALUE : Desert willow provides nesting sites for desert songbirds and cover for other wildlife species [20].

VALUE FOR REHABILITATION OF DISTURBED SITES : Desert willow is used in soil stabilization plantings. It is often used along highways and in well-drained barrow ditches [36]. Numerous cultivars are available, including 'Barranco', released by the Soil Conservation Service [40], and 'White Storm', 'Dark Storm', 'Marfa Lace', 'Alpine', and 'Tejas', released in 1988 from the Texas A&M Research and Extension Center [36,39]. It is usually transplanted from nursery stock. Removing competing vegetion around transplants and irrigating during the first season after transplanting is recommended [48]. Methods for growing seedlings in a nursery have been discussed [15,48]. Plants may be successfully propogated by both softwood and hardwood cuttings [7,48].

OTHER USES AND VALUES : Desert willow is cultivated as an ornamental because of its attractive flowers [38]. It has been used for roadside beautification, border rows, screenings, and mass plantings [48]. In the 1930's the Civilian Conservation Corps planted desert willow in shelterbelts [35]. Indians used the wood to make bows and baskets [35,46].

OTHER MANAGEMENT CONSIDERATIONS : Use of desert willow by livestock generally indicates overbrowsing or overstocking of the range [45,48].


SPECIES: Chilopsis linearis

GENERAL BOTANICAL CHARACTERISTICS : Desert willow is a large deciduous shrub or small tree that may grow 10 to 30 feet (3-9 m) tall, and often has a leaning trunk and an open, spreading crown [18,25,46]. Basal diameter of the trunk rarely exceeds 5 inches (12.5 cm) [14]. The dark brown bark is very thin, up to about 0.25 inch (6.3 mm) thick [14]. Pale green willowlike leaves are about 5 inches (12.5 cm) long and less than 0.5 inch (1.25 cm) wide with smooth margins [27,46]. The pink to light violet flowers are 1.25 inches (3.2 cm) long and wide, and occur in clusters up to 4 inches (10 cm) long at the end of the twigs [25]. The fruit is a narrow, elongated two-celled podlike capsule 4 to 10 inches (10-30 cm) long [48]. First year twigs are green but later turn gray to reddish-brown [46].

Henrickson [13] provides a key for separating subspecies and varieties.

Undisturbed State: Phanerophyte (microphanerophyte)
Burned or Clipped State: Hemicryptophyte

REGENERATION PROCESSES : Desert willow reproduces sexually by producing abundant seed. Flowers are primarily pollinated by numerous species of bees and hummingbirds [3]. Large numbers of flowers are produced continuously over several weeks [31]. Desert willow flowers are self incompatible. Fruit set may be limited by insufficient amounts of outcrossed pollen and by inadequate movement of pollinators between trees [31]. Fruit production does not appear to be limited by inadequate moisture, probably because plants are primarily found along washes.

Several 0.33 inch (8 mm) long, light brown, oval seeds are encased within a two-celled capsule [26]. Seeds have a fringe of soft white hairs at each end which aid in wind dispersal [26,30]. Seeds do not display dormancy, and probably only remain viable until the spring following dispersal [26]. There are between 50,000 and 100,000 seeds per pound (110,200-220,400/kg) [26,45]. Germination has been reported between 40 and 60 percent [45]. Commercial seed has shown 92 percent purity and 87 percent soundness [26].

Sprouting: Following damage to the above ground portion of the plant, such as by fire, most plants regenerate by sprouting from the root crown [41].

SITE CHARACTERISTICS : Desert willow primarily occupies dry washes, intermittent streams and other water courses, and moist canyons in deserts and mountain foothills [4,16,18,27,35,49]. These sites generally have underground water available year-round. Plants can withstand seasonal flooding quite well, and often occupy the middle of drainage channels, sometimes covering broad expanses in wash areas [10,16].

Soils: Sites are mostly well drained, neutral to basic and mildly saline [48]. Soils are mostly sandy to gravelly alluvium [29,35,48].

Associated species: Common associates of desert washes include blue paloverde (Cerdidium floridum), desert ironwood (Olneya tesota), catclaw acacia (Acacia greggii), smoketree (Dalea spinosa), mesquites (Prosopis spp.), desertbroom (Baccharis sarothroides), netleaf hackberry (Celtis reticulata), littleleaf sumac (Rhus microphylla), Arizona walnut (Juglans major), velvet ash (Fraxinus velutina), spitleaf brickellia (Brickellia laciniata), cottontop (Digitaria californica) and southwestern condalia (Condalia lycoides) [4,10,16,29,31,48].

Elevational range by location:
below 4,000 feet (1,219 m) AZ [18]
below 5,000 feet (1,524 m) CA [27]
below 4,920 feet (1,500 m) UT [49]

SUCCESSIONAL STATUS : Desert willow sometimes invades freshly deposited channel sediments following seasonal water runoff. As plants develop they may trap sediments, leading to the formation of islands within the channel [10].

Desert willow plants are long-lived and help stabilize the banks of water courses. Desert willow is a component of desert wash communities that are somewhat stable.

SEASONAL DEVELOPMENT : Since desert willow is primarily restricted to washes or water courses with available underground water, it is able to maintain a full compliment of leaves during the summer months even though it is not well adapted to high temperatures [4]. Plants are winter deciduous and drop leaves in late fall following the first hard frost [6]. Leaf drop may be photoperiodically controlled, as plants in temperature controlled greenhouses lose their leaves during the winter [6].

Flowering occurs mostly in May and June but may occur later in the summer after rain [46]. Most fruits ripen from late summer to fall, and the capsules persist overwinter [46,48]. Under extremely dry conditions, plants may fail to form fruits [31]. In a wash near Tucson, Arizona, flowering occurred mostly in May and June, and most fruits were mature by September 2 [31].

Flowering time by location is as follows:
May - September s CA [27]
April - August AZ [18]
April - September w TX [32]

FIRE ECOLOGY OR ADAPTATIONS : Desert willow primarily occurs in washes wich rarely burn [48]. It is able to sprout from the root crown following top-kill by fire [41,42].

IMMEDIATE FIRE EFFECT ON PLANT : Most fires probably top-kill desert willow. In southern California, a July wildfire in a chaparral-desert ecotone resulted in nearly all desert willow plants being charred and defoliated, but less than 10 percent of the plants were killed [41].

PLANT RESPONSE TO FIRE : Following top-kill by fire, desert willow survives by producing numerous root crown sprouts. Following a July wildfire in southern California, more than 90 percent of desert willow plants survived [41]. These residual plants started sprouting within 2 months after the fire. Plants developed a multistemmed growth form and averaged 171 sprouts per plant 10 months after this fire.

References for species: Chilopsis linearis
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7. Everett, Percy C. 1957. A summary of the culture of California plants at the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden 1927-1950. Claremont, CA: The Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden. 223 p. [7191]
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