Desert Willow: A Texas Native

It looks like an orchid, doesn’t it?

It isn’t, and it isn’t a willow, either. Chilopsis linearis is actually in the begonia family, along with the catalpa tree and the trumpet vine. But the leaves look willow-ish and the native peoples used it in the same way they used willows. Close enough. 

Here in the Texas Hill Country, we’re on the eastern edge of the desert willow’s range, which extends all the way to the Pacific and south into Mexico. This little tree is pretty enough to grace urban landscapes and doesn’t require much water. (It does very well on our 30″ a year.) It has been grown as far north as Kansas, although it does best in Zones 7-11.

But there’s more to this plant than a pretty face. Throughout the Southwest, native people used the flowers, leaves, and bark in hot poultices to treat rheumatism and skin infections, and as a tea to soothe coughs. Research indicates that a tea brewed from the flowers  can produce an infection-fighter antioxidant and may help to regulate glucose metabolism. The flower blossoms and seed pods are edible and were used as food. Strips of bark were beaten into a fabric-like material for shirts and breechclouts and twisted into cordage to make nets. Small branches were used in basketry and larger branches as frames for dwellings. An all-around-useful little tree.

The French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss liked to say that some animals–frogs, for instance–“are good to think on.” They are “natural mediators” that link nature and culture and carry messages for and about the peoples who valued them.  For us modern folk, the desert willow is mostly a decorative magnet for bees and hummingbirds and a welcome patch of leafy shade on a hot afternoon. But I like to think about the usefulness of this little tree to the resourceful people who moved through Meadow Knoll in centuries past. It’s a bridge from my world to theirs, giving me a glimpse into the lives of people who loved this land and depended on it in a different way than I do.

Book report. Whew. I’ve been working on the latest (#9) novel in the Dahlias series. If there are no distractions this week, I’m hoping to hand it off to my copy editor by this time next week. In the meantime, the Enterprise novella trilogy is coming out: Deadlines is available now, Fault Lines will be available next week, and Firelines the first week of August. You can have all three novellas–in both print and digital formats–on August 18. This is the second of my Pecan Springs novella trilogies and features Jessica Nelson, a crime reporter at the Enterprise. The first trilogy gave Ruby Wilcox a chance to tell her story.

And yes, there will be another China Bayles novel–in 2021, I hope.

Talent search. I want to put in a quick plug for the Story Circle Network, which I founded back in 1997. My special area of responsibility includes SCN’s book review program, which focuses on indie-published books by, for, and about women. We’re expanding our review team and I am looking for volunteer book reviewers. If you are a woman who writes reviews for your blog or for Amazon/Goodreads/NetGalley or other publications and would like to help support our mission by reviewing for us, I’d love to hear from you. (You can use the contact form here.) Reviewers get free books (of course), publications for their portfolios, gold stars for their Outstanding Literary Citizen badge, and my enduring gratitude. Oh, and they also get free Story Circle membership bonus months. Such a deal!

Reading note. It is what you read when you don’t have to that determines what you will be when you can’t help it.–Oscar Wilde

13 comments on “Desert Willow: A Texas Native

  1. I loved the Ruby trilogy and don’t mind reading on the e Reader. However, I have purchased all of your books in the paper version in the past. Last year when I was downsizing my home, I passed them all on to my local struggling library and they put them all right into their collection! Mysteries are very popular in my small community of many older folks. Thanks for all the pleasurable reading over the years!

  2. Yippee-Skippey! I just got notified that my library has agreed to order The Crystal Cave Trilogy: Omnibus Edition, and I’ll get to be the first one to check it out! Given current budget challenges I was afraid they would decline my request, but Eureka! It was granted! I’m currently set with the news two Dahlias for our week at the lake. Maybe by the time I get back I will get to dive into Ruby’s world.
    And my MN neighbor who winters in AZ now knows about a lovely new plant for her garden three zones warmer than this one! Something to look forward to!

    • Thanks for requesting that library order, Peg! Lots of authors/publishers are wondering whether it’s possible to print library editions (in either hardcover or paperback) over the next year or two, given Covid-closings and cutbacks. I’m one of them. We can only print what libraries will buy. Otherwise, sadly, the books end up in the warehouse. 🙁

  3. Such a gorgeous flower! Appreciate the education on this little tree, Susan. I grew up loving catalpas and trumpet vine, but never would have thought they were related to the desert willow. Probably because that common name suggests it’s in the willow family – another reminder that it’s good to know the Latin name.

    I always appreciate your thoughtful connection to people who were in that area before you. Thinking of their self-sufficiency, their growing knowledge and creativity, is humbling. I had to stop and feel how centuries later we are the result of such efforts. Thanks for the reminder.

  4. Hi Susan, I always enjoy the information you share. The Desert Willow must have been very important to the people who knew how to use it. I really enjoyed learning more about Ruby and am looking forward to Jessica’s turn in the spotlight (I will wait until I can get all three and then gobble them up). Another Dahlias and then a possible China next year! Thank you for continuing to write these character’s stories. I’m sure you too get attached to your favorite series and can relate. I hope you are enjoying the summer.

  5. We have desert willows growing in our front yard in Tempe AZ. They smell divine and look pretty too. Nice to hear of their medicinal uses.

  6. So much info and use for one plant. The Desert Willow is a wonder of nature, surviving such conditions. I always marvel at what grows in AZ on my yearly drive from Flagstaff to Phoenix to visit my family. I take Amtrak from Chicago to Flagstaff since I’m not a fan of air travel. Mother Nature is a marvel, I’m glad we didn’t name it “Father Nature”.

    • I think the natives were ultra-resourceful and super-inventive. They put plants, animals, the land to as many uses as possible. Grateful to the ethnobotanists who do the research and bring us the information!

  7. This desert willow kinda looks like a single hollyhock to me. We’re zone 7 here in Delaware. I wonder if I could try one of these.

  8. I loved reading about the desert willow and seeing the lovely clear picture. I live in St. Louis and readily see the relationship to the catalpa and trumpet vine which we have here. I am wondering if I could grow a plant here!
    And I am looking forward to the book of the Lines stories.

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