Gertrude Stein’s famous line “A Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose,” may have been intended for something other than desert plants. Often interpreted as “things are what they are,” desert roses are also just that - Rose Family members that share floral similarities with their fanciful garden cousins.
Three common roses that grow here in Canyon Country are blackbrush, serviceberry and cliffrose.
Blackbrush (Coleogyne ramosissima) is a low-growing shrub in the Rose Family that may dominate vast tracts of open desert benchlands. The shrub’s gray-green appearance darkens during a rainstorm, hence, the common name. Blackbrush often forms a monoculture across the landscape. This abundance indicates that the plants are wind pollinated, because other vegetation does not restrict pollen movement.
During years of above average winter or spring precipitation, the plants will produce an abundance of yellow flowers that cloak the plants. The solitary, ½ inch-wide flowers arise from the thin, spiny branches.
The flowers produce fairly large egg-shaped seeds that are enclosed in a woody sheath and do not disperse well from the parent plant. Seedling survival rates are also generally minimal. Though the recruitment level is low, this testifies to the hardy and long-lived nature of the plant.
The genus name comes from the Greek words meaning “sheathed fruit,” and “ramosissima” which means “many branched” in Latin. Although livestock tend to avoid the many-branched blackbrush, deer and bighorn sheep utilize the small leaves for forage, especially in winter.
Cliffrose (Purshia mexicana) is another shrub that may explode with white or cream-colored blossoms in the spring. You may smell this plant long before seeing it; the flower’s sweet aroma is overpowering. Unlike blackbrush, cliffrose does not grow in vast monocultures, but is randomly distributed.
Unlike the smooth, hard seeds of blackbrush, cliffrose seeds are slender, sharp-tipped and sport a long, feathery tail that helps “auger” the seed into the ground. Native Americans collected cliffrose leaves to brew a refreshing tea and shaggy bark to use as a soft lining.
Cliffrose may enter into a second blooming phase later in the summer if there is sufficient soil moisture.
The scientific name honors Frederick T. Pursh (1774-1820) a preeminent botanist who authored one of the earliest flora texts of North America. The species name “mexicana” refers to the plant’s southwestern distribution.
Serviceberry (Amelanchier utahensis) also blooms in the spring, with small clusters of white flowers appearing before the leaves emerge. The flower’s five petals are thin, and the flowers form a stark contrast to the plant’s reddish bark. The fragrant flowers also attract insect pollinators, and the small fruits were collected by Native Americans and mixed with meat and animal fat to form pemmican.
Growing in dry, well-drained soils, serviceberry is a host plant to apple-cedar rust, a fungus that shows up as orangish spots on the plant’s leaves and berries. Mule deer, porcupines and bighorn sheep browse on the shrub, and birds and other wildlife species consume the ripe berries.
There are other desert roses that grow here in Canyon Country like wild rose, mountain mahogany and rockmat, a mat-forming perennial that grows in moist alcoves. Though these roses differ from one another, they do share certain characteristics. The big one being that roses elicit amorous emotions, and such responses to these beautiful desert flowers indicates that spring is alive and “a bloom” in the desert.