January 5, 2018

Smoke trees in full indigo bloom are a desert paradox

Smoke trees.

Words by Ruth Nolan
Photographs by Millicent Harvey
Desert Sun Magazine

When it comes to iconic desert trees, Palm Springs is famous for its palm-filled canyons, while the Mojave Desert is home to the ubiquitous Joshua tree. The sultry smoke tree also fills our washes and age-old flood plains, holding its rightful place as one of the most iconic shrub-like trees of the Coachella Valley and vast tracts of the California and Arizona deserts.

The low-voiced, puff-shaped smoke tree (Psorothamnus spinosus) enchants through different seasons – a winter-long, half-dead appearance of tangled brown branches and scant white-green, tiny leaves, and then this: a short, late spring season of vivid, dark blue-violet colored flowers bursting from its seeming passivity that startle the desert sky and passersby with an unmistakable presence and unanticipated beauty.

Smoke trees in full indigo bloom are a desert paradox. Viewed from a canyon overlook down into a desolate, bone-dry desert wash, the purple hues burst from the trees below, making them sag with top-heavy abundance and the weight of their odd, proliferate beauty. The clusters of vivid color, illuminated by the desert’s fabled light and contrasted with stark, brown canyon walls and barren sand, resemble a bigger version of dark purple Fantasy grapes, grown and harvested in many eastern valley vineyards. They offer a sense of visual abundance and reassurance that this is, after all, a desert of life – as well as promises of ephemeral and lasting, if briefly witnessed, magnificence.

Walk up close to one of these powerfully blooming trees, and you’ll see that the indigo flowers are, individually, quite small, and resemble flowers on a pea plant, to which smoke trees are, incidentally, related. The desert at your feet will be covered with a sweet purple carpet of fallen and quickly drying blooms. This past May, as desert temperatures began to climb into triple digits and most of the seasonal visitors had already departed, smoke trees filled Coachella Valley washes with brilliant indigo hues for a few short weeks before fading back into hushed tones.

These vibrant colors are among the fleeting beauty of all desert flowers, and offer deeply satisfying and inspirational views that keep many of us here, year after year, through unbearably long summers of staggering and dangerous heat, and prolonged months without rain. Smoke trees, in all their full-bloomed glory, offer a long drink of cool beauty to all thirsty souls in the desert who have waited so long to sip.

A wise teacher

Smoke trees don’t announce themselves with the sort of loud, outward pronouncements made by palms or Joshua trees. Instead, they weave their way into one’s consciousness, waiting patiently for the intrepid sort of desert rat or visitor who has time to notice, and maybe explore, the magic held within the smoke.

Inside the rugged, forested feel of a single tree or, more likely, a cluster of trees – spaced, like most desert plants, a respectful distance apart and running predictably up and down the wash or flood plain that nourishes its lifespan and offspring – you’ll see desert light filtering in. It gently touches the brown, seemingly lifeless lower branches and illuminates the iridescent, wintergreen-toned upper branches, bringing the purple flowers to brilliant life as if in a cloud.

Each baby tree, brought to life from the odd but vital process of scarification, in which its seed is scratched from the violent movement of sand and rocks during flash floods, sinks a tap root deep into the earth until it finds water. In this sense, the smoke tree is also a wise desert teacher and flood zone signifier: Seasoned campers know not to set up camp wherever there are smoke trees, although for the vast majority of time, water is not to be seen or found in what appears to be an extremely arid land.

The time of flowering for smoke trees is brief, only a few weeks from mid-May through early June, and like many desert plants, their yearly time of blooming can be either abundant or sparse, depending on rainfall, soil temperatures and other factors. This past bloom in spring was one of the most fantastic in recent memory.

Symbol of silence

For most of the year, smoke trees quietly and instinctively scale back their presence, in a process known as “die-back,” common to many other desert plants. While waiting patiently in the rain shadow looming above our canyons and washes, smoke trees take on the brittle appearance of being almost dead, or dying. In fact, the process of dropping most of its tiny light green leaves, except in the top branches of the trees, is what helps the smoke tree survive and even thrive.

The appearance of the smoke tree in winter and other dry months is what has evoked its iconic name: These are times when it appears most like wisps of smoke wafting across canyon floors and washes. But to those who listen, and look, and wait patiently, the very desert-defining presence of the smoke tree comes vividly alive.

The collective voice of these near-invisible trees was certainly heard by the many plein-air, impressionistic desert artists of the earlier to mid-20th century. Dubbed the Smoke Tree School, painters such as Carl Eytel, John Hilton and Carl Bray – whose home and gallery are commemorated along Highway 111 in Indian Wells – brought the smoke tree, in both its more ghostly, silent and wildly blossoming violet-hued incarnations to life, and memorialized the timeless feel of the untouched desert in paintings that emblemize its ubiquitous presence.

The song of this year’s splashy, violet-blue smoke tree super bloom may have faded away, but its melodic imprint remains. Like all desert plant life, its time of flowering is brief, and perhaps memorialized all the more because of its brevity.

The smoke tree remains, at all times of year, a symbol of the silence and adaptability to times of overabundance and drought that are endemic to desert living – and a talisman of renewal, transformation and hope. It represents many qualities that so many of us come here for: a rare, tranquil stillness and the graceful surrender to the splendor of the desert’s wide open and seemingly endless girth, one tempered only by mountains, canyon walls and precious dearth.

Explore More