Curse of the Tamarisk
“This stream of warm water, flowing down from a gully that headed up in the Funeral Mountains, had a disagreeable taste, somewhat acrid and soapy. A green thicket of brush was indeed welcome to the eye. It consisted of a rank, coarse kind of grass, and arrow-weed, mesquite, and tamarack (sic). The last-named bore a pink, fuzzy blossom not unlike pussy-willow, which was quite fragrant.”
Zane Grey, describing Furnace Creek Wash on a March 1919 visit to Death Valley.
Native to the Eastern Hemisphere, the tamarisk family of plants includes more than 50 species. They inhabit areas ranging from Spain and northern Africa to Asia. Several species of tamarisk were brought to the United States beginning in the early 1800s for ornamental plantings, erosion control, shade, and windbreaks. By 1913, it had invaded the California desert. In Death Valley, tamarisk was planted by pioneers, the CCC, and even by the National Park Service during its early tenure of this park. Today, tamarisk is one of the most abundant riparian plants throughout the arid southwest.
Unfortunately, tamarisk’s curse was not recognized soon enough. In the west, wherever tamarisk gains a foothold, it crowds out native plant and animal communities. It consumes excessive amounts of water, the key to life in the desert, and salinizes soils where its salty leaves drop.
Two types of tamarisk threaten Death Valley’s precious, native wetlands; saltcedar (Tamarix ramosissima) which are deciduous shrubs, and athel (Tamarix aphylla), an evergreen tree species. Both have scaly branches that resemble conifers, hence the name saltcedar. Only the saltcedar has feathery pink flowers that produce a mind-boggling number of seeds. These small, fluffy seeds can float on the wind which allows them to sprout at surrounding water sources. The athel’s seeds do not germinate and are not as invasive.
In 1972, the National Park Service began a tamarisk removal project at Saratoga Spring to return the area to a more natural condition. More recent removal projects have been at Eagle Borax Works, Warm Springs Canyon, the sand dunes near Stovepipe Wells, and other sites.
The ongoing habitat restoration project in Furnace Creek Wash (along Highway 190 east of the Furnace Creek Inn) began in 1999. The National Park Service has removed a large stand of athels , as well as date and fan palms. While not as insidious as tamarisk, the non-native palms also have adverse affects on native populations.
After these invasive species are removed, native plants will be able to re-establish themselves. To enhance the recovering plant community’s diversity, native plant seeds will be collected from the area and grown in a nursery to be outplanted.
Death Valley and other national park areas protect native ecosystems and processes. The Furnace Creek Wash project is an example of how we are attempting to reverse past actions that could destroy resources the parks were created to preserve.