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Monday, 4 March, 2002, 14:25 GMT
Old plant smells record
Bush, BBC
The creosote bush: A clone of an ancient plant
test hello test
By Maggie Shiels in California
line
In the middle of the Palm Springs Desert in Southern California, US, the sun beats down at temperatures of over 45 degrees Celsius.


This is one of the 10 great deserts of the world and now this has really put us on the map

John Sallot, Palm Springs Desert Museum
The 160-kilometres-per-hour (100 miles per hour) winds that howl through the nearby mountain pass are so strong that rocks have been polished smooth by the sand carried in the powerful gusts.

But despite all this, scientists believe a group of bushes that have clung to the earth and survived these inhospitable conditions could be the oldest living plant on the planet.

Carbon dating tests are expected to show that the creosote bushes are even older than a gnarled clump of the same plant, said to be almost 11,700 years of age, in the nearby Mojave Desert.

This latest discovery was made by Jim Cornett, the curator of natural science at the Palm Springs Desert Museum, when he was flying over the Palm Springs area recently. The creosote bush (Larrea tridentata) stuck out like a sore thumb.

Ugly plant

"We spotted these very strange, long lines of bushes from the air," he told BBC News Online. "Normal bushes grow in circular patterns but these were straight lines - some over 50 feet in length.

Bush, BBC
Jim Cornett spotted the bushes from the air
"And so after seeing them from the air, we got on the ground and realised the only way they could have grown in a line like that, and very long, is that they had to have been very old."

Simply put, the longer the bush the older it is. So far seven have been located and Mr Cornett believes this stretch of desert is home to many more.

On the face of it these creosote bushes, which are very common in the desert, are not very impressive. They look like trees that have been buried sideways under sand with their branches sticking up. The roots are dry and gnarly and the leaves small and arid.

But there is more to this find than the grandiose claim of the Earth's oldest living plant. Mr Cornett says this unassuming shrubbery could hold secrets about earthquakes, flash floods and even global warming.

Geological history

"If this plant proves to be more than 11,600 years old," stated Mr Cornett as he surveyed his find, "it will tell us that the Palm Springs desert has been there for more than 11,600 years. Right now, we didn't think that was true. We thought the desert in this area was less than 10,000 years of age."

Creosote bush
Can survive without rain for up to two years
Gives off a smell similar to the wood preservative when wet
Grows to a height of about 3m, with an extensive network of roots to take up any available water in the soil
A bush will send off new shoots that are genetically identical (clones) of the original bush; and each daughter bush will do the same
Although the original plant may live for only 100 years, some of the clones may date back 10,000 years or more
He added: "Because this shrubbery has had its roots and wood tissue growing in the desert soils not far from the San Andreas fault, the growth pattern of the roots may tell us something about the frequency of major earthquakes in the area, and also about the frequency of very large floods."

Remarkably the site, which is a 10-minute drive from the town of Palm Springs, is also a local dumping ground. Just metres away from these shrubs, old busted-up couches and TV sets are strewn about.

The main road is only a few hundred metres away, as is the Interstate highway. But moves are underway to clean the area up and protect the shrubs. In the meantime, Mr Cornett said he was pretty relaxed about the possibility of these bushes being picked apart by collectors or souvenir hunters.

"The good thing about this is that it's a very ugly plant, and the fact that it's been used as an unofficial dump site means most people will just drive by," he reasoned.

On the map

For the Palm Springs Desert Museum, the discovery of what could be the world's oldest living plant has been a real boost. Spokesman John Sallot said they had been blown away at just how much press attention the story had generated.

TV, BBC
There is pressure to clean up the site
"Initially, I saw this story as a great one for local TV and local newspapers. But we've been talking to people from all over the world - from Australia, Europe, New Zealand and all over the States.

"This is one of the 10 great deserts of the world and now this has really put us on the map."

Of course the one thing that would cement that boast would be confirmation from the scientific tests that are being carried out in Florida. The final results are not expected for another year.

In the meantime, the museum is planning an exhibition honouring the creosote bush, one of the desert's most commonplace plants.

Mr Cornett said: "All this just goes to prove that the desert is a real living entity."

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 ON THIS STORY
Jim Cornett
"The longer they are, the older the bush is"
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