At the same time most native desert plants are shutting down in preparation for the searing heat of summer, Desert Willows, aka Chilopsis linearis, are emerging from a cool winter season of dormancy. Named for their long, slender willow-like leaves, Desert Willows are one of the only Sonoran desert natives that bloom throughout the summer. They are also one of our only winter deciduous natives, dropping their leaves in late October, and not renewing them until late spring.
Flamboyant pink flowers burst forth in May, scenting the air with sweet perfume to attract pollinators, mostly large bees and the occasional hummingbird. The ruffled blossoms and luxurious leaves seem extravagant in the arid climate where water conservation is the primary adaptation of desert plants. Desert willows grow naturally along arroyos and streams, insuring that moisture is plentiful. They do especially well in well-watered suburban landscapes.
Known as chimov by the Hualapai people and aan by the Pima tribe, Desert Willow is not a true willow in the botanical sense, but a member of a family of tropical plants called the Bignonias, named after Jean-Paul Bignon, a Frenchman who served in the royal court of King Louis XIV of France. The family of over 650 species includes several domesticated trees, shrubs and vines that have been imported to the Phoenix area from all over the world, including Jacaranda from Brazil, Cat-claw Vine from Mexico, plus Catalpa, Calabash and Trumpet Vine from southeastern North America. Horticulturists in Uzbekistan developed a popular hybrid between catalpa and desert willow known as “Chitalpa.” The “Rio Salado” variety of desert willow is a cultivar with deep purple and magenta flowers.
Indigenous people used the leaves for medicinal purposes as an anti-fungal, a good treatment for athlete’s foot and candida. Teas made of leaves, bark and flowers have been used to treat coughs; poultices can help heal cuts and abrasions. The flexible limbs are excellent for making bows and baskets. Although humans have not used Desert Willow for food, birds and insects thrive on the nectar and other wildlife feast on the leaves.
At summers end, long skinny seedpods dangle from the tips of desert willow branches where flowers once were, soon to dry and split open to release hundreds of feathery seeds that are carried by the wind to chance landing in a sunny spot next to a desert stream.