Trees and Shrubs

Arizona Sycamore
Arizona sycamores shed their bark giving a mottled look.

Sharlot Hart

Arizona Sycamore (Platanus wrightii)

This tree is the most conspicuous at the monument, both because of its size (up to 80 feet tall), and by its appearance. The white, brown, and green bark sets this tree apart. The constantly shedding bark creates an ever-changing mosaic of color. While other species of sycamore can be found in North America, in Arizona this tree can only be found along riparian corridors. The extremely large leaves reveal that this tree is a tree that must have its roots in permanent water in order to survive. The tree uses an amount of water, by weight, equal to the weight of the leaves every hour of the day. The main beams of the Castle are made of sycamore.

Arizona Walnut
Squirrels love eating the walnuts from this tree each summer.

Sharlot Hart

Arizona Walnut (Juglans major)

This tree is a type of black walnut, which produces a nut a little smaller than its east coast cousin. The edible nut contains the anti-fungal agent juglone, and the husk is used to produce brown dyes. The nuts are harvested in the late summer and fall by both people and squirrels. The flavor released from cracking these small walnuts is well worth the effort. Shells have been found in archaeological sites, letting us know that the prehistoric Sinagua harvested them as well.

Cottonwood at Montezuma Well Picnic Area
Cottonwoods and other water-loving trees grow along a historic irrigation canal near Montezuma Well's picnic area.

Case Griffing

Cottonwood (Populus fremontii)

This is another of the riparian-dependent trees of the monument. It is considered the tree of life, an indicator of water and healthy riparian environments. While the wood is unpopular for building and burns too cool for reliable cooking, the trunks are often hollowed out to make drums and the roots are carved to make kachina dolls. Children collect seeds from the cottony pods, called heesoli, and chew them with honey. In the spring, the air is filled with the white, cottony fluff that gives this tree its name.

The berries on this hackberry are not quite ready... they'll turn more red before being edible.

Sharlot Hart

Netleaf Hackberry (Celtis laevigata var. reticlulata)

The Netleaf Hackberry is a host plant for the caterpilar of the Hackberry Emperor Butterfly. In the fall, the plant produces high-calcium berries that people eat raw or in jelly. The berry can be picked before the first frost when it turns red. The leaves treat indigestion, the bark can be woven into a sturdy pair of sandals, and mix of leaves and bark makes a dark brown and red dye. Mites and fungi often form bushy growths in Hackberry branches called "witches' brooms." The smooth, gray bark of the hackberry becomes warty with age.

A picture of a Velvet Ash Tree in the fall.
Velvet Ash Tree

CC BY 2.0
Bettina Arrigoni

Velvet Ash (Fraxinus velutina)

This spreading tree with a rounded crown is named for the velvety texture of its leaves. The sturdy wood makes ideal walking sticks and bows. The bark is used medicinally, boiled into a tea to aid digestion, or in greater quantities as a laxative. Ash trees grow up to 30 feet tall and are often planted in southwestern cities for shade.

One-Seed Juniper growing on the rim of Montezuma Well
This one-seed juniper on the rim of Montezuma Well catches the first rays of  the morning sun.

Case Griffing

Oneseed Juniper (Juniperus monosperma)
The Oneseed Juniper provides fuel, shelter, light, and healing. The berries have fed both humans and animals throughout time. The wood is selected for roof beams, fence, posts, and torches. The Hopi boil the branches for stomach ailments, headaches, and colds. Oneseed Juniper treats pneumonia and indigestion, but too many berries can act as a laxative. The twigs and branches have been burned to purify places and people.

Mesquite Beans
These mesquite bean pods are ready to eat!

Velvet Mesquite (Prosopis velutina)
The Verde Valley is home to mesquite bosques, Spanish for "small forests." This sprawling tree was a critical resource for Verde Valley people. This tree produces an edible bean, which has been an important food source for both people and animals. The seeds and pods were ground into meal and baked into cakes that provided a staple protein. A tea of the bark, leaves, and pods has been used for stomach disorders, and sucking on a hard candy of the sap reduces heart burn. Honey from bees which seek the mesquite flower is also very popular.

Desert Willow
Desert willow put out beautiful purple-ish flowers in the spring.

Sharlot Hart

Desert Willow (Chilopsis linearis)
This tree can reach 25 feet tall and grows where water is close to the surface. The orchid-like flowers, which bloom April through August, are fragrant and stunning in hues of white, yellow, and pink. Dried willow leaves treat fungal infections. Desert Willow has been used as roofing material, and powdered or made into a wash for skin infections.. Young shoots are excellent for basket weaving, and the supple wood was a source for bows. The flowers have been brewed into a tea for relieving coughs.

Mormon Tea on the rim of Montezuma Well
Mormon Tea takes its name from early pioneers who used the plant for its medicinal properties.

Case Griffing

Mormon Tea (Ephedra viridis)
This plant, also known as joint-fir, has no noticeable leaves. Its green bark contains chlorophyl which allows for photosynthesis to occur. A tea of the joints has been used for stomach disorders, rheumatism, and as a decongestant for colds. New world ephredras contain psuedoephedrine, while old world ephedras contain ephredrine.

Creosote bush
Creosote bushes have small, fragrant leaves and fuzzy seeds.

Sharlot Hart

Creosote bush (Larrea tridentata)
Among the oldest plants on earth, some stands of Creosote grow in the same place for thousands of years. The roots agressively soak up water, and a resin coating on the leaves reduces moisture loss and gives the plant a distinctive smell that intensifies after rain. This plant produces a toxin through the root system that very few plants can tolerate, this eliminates competition for rainfall. It is the most wide-spread of the desert shrubs, and can be found from west Texas to central Nevada, often forming pure stands. It is a veritable "medicine chest" and has been used for upset stomachs, coughs, and colds. It contains nordihydroguaiaretic acid which is being studied for its anti-cancer properties.

Saltbush flowers
Saltbush flowers turn yellow as the seeds mature.

Sharlot Hart

Four-wing Saltbush (Atriplex canescens)
Named for the four-winged bracts on its fruit, the common high desert shrub provides food and medicine and is burned during ceremonies. The leaves, young shoots, seeds, and fruit are edible. Ashes from burned suuvi leaves make a baking soda and enchance the blue coloring of Hopi piki bread, along with fortifying baked goods with calcium and minerals. The chewed roots have been used on insect bites. A lukewarm tea can be used for nausea and vomiting, and a hot tea can be used to break a fever.

Mahonia leaves look like holly
Mahonia leaves have their own defence - they are just as pokey as holly.


Red Barberry (Mahonia haematocarpa)
You can guess why this vibrant plant is sometimes called desert holly. Even though the bright red berries look festive, they have a bitter taste and are sweetened when used to make jams. The plant detoxifies the blood, acts as an antiseptic, and has antimicrobial properties. The roots and bark can be processed to make a brilliant yellow dye. In spring you will notice an abundance of bright yellow flowers on this common shrub.

Catclaw Acacia
Catclaw acacia is named for the thorns which look like cats' claws.

Sharlot Hart

Catclaw Acacia (Acacia greggii)
Watch out! The Apache name for this large shrub, ch'il gohigise, means "a bush that scratches you." Notice its sharp, claw-like thorns. On long journeys, ancient travelers relied on the fruits for food. The green seed pods can be eaten fresh or dried, or ground into flour to make mush, cakes, or bread. The branches make good drumsticks and furniture. Bees that feed on the blossoms produce a delicate and distinctive honey. A poultice of ground pod and water has been used for muscle pain, bruises, and sprains. A warm water infusion of stems and branches has been used for coughs and throat irritations.

Last updated: April 29, 2021

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