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Plants of the Western Slope July 19, 2017

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Photo by Randy Sunderland Desert Sweet

Desert Sweet

What a delightful fragrance... and it's just as pretty as it is sweet! And as I gaze at this lovely Desert Sweet, I again realize that it only took 20 years to grow taller than I am. We ordered it from the Great Basin Plants Company and when it came to us, it was all of four inches tall! Now it has spread out over the rocks, brushes the car every time we pass by, and is nearly 15 feet in diameter.

Although this plant is not native to Colorado, it occurs in Arizona, California, Oregon, Wyoming and Utah. It grows from 4,000 to 7,000 feet in elevation, and there are plantings in Delta. If you take Stafford Avenue and turn onto Cottonwood Street (where the medical buildings are), there are four Desert Sweet plants on the left and three more on the right. This is right at the intersection with Cottonwood and 3rd Street. If you're lucky, you can slow down to observe them.

Ours is in full bloom with 4-inch long pyramids of delicate white blossoms, each a half-inch wide. There are five petals and many stamens, so I'd guess it to be in the rose family (which it is). The leaves are finely divided into segments, very small, and very fragrant. So we have Desert Sweet. The pyramids of blossom remind me of the mountain spray or rock spiraea but that plant has broad, notched leaves.

Actually, when Desert Sweet was first found in 1857, it was considered to be a variety of spiraea. The fern-like leaves look a bit fuzzy (hence, the common name fern-bush). I touch one. It's sticky and my fingers smell sweet. I remember sniffing at this plant last winter and looking at the glandular hairs with my hand lens. Within the dried leaves were tiny new leaves with the sweet fragrance. In late winter, the tiny leaves grow and replace the dried ones. Even in winter the plant is aromatic.

I've read that cattle don't graze on Desert Sweet although other livestock and wild creatures do. And I recall my pleasure in finding this handsome shrub as a landscape planting in Delta. And names: our plant is Chamaebatria millefolium which means dwarf bramble or shrub with many small leaves. Ours gets water regularly so it's not a "dwarf"!

Read more from:
Surface Creek
Evelyn Horn, Plants of the Western Slope
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