The Mystery of the Arrival of Tamarisk in the United States

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Editors’ Note: In the Fall-Winter edition of the green line, an article appeared regarding a recent executive order on tamarisk issued by Governor Owens (v. 14, n. 3, p.10). John Erdman, Ph.D., Scientist Emeritus in Plant Ecology, U.S. Geological Survey, provided additional perspectives.

“In scanning the fall-winter issue of the Colorado Riparian Association’s the green line, the article on Owens’ executive order on tamarisk caught my eye. The statement that “(Tamarisk) was imported from Eurasia to help stabilize streambanks in Arizona and for use as an ornamental” doesn’t tell the whole story. That it was used as an ornamental most likely goes back to 17th-century times when the Spanish settled the coast of what is now California.

“The misperception of a relatively late introduction of tamarisk is also found in the forward of In the Footsteps of John Wesley Powell (Stephens and Shoemaker, 1990). That book states: ‘But even in these remote reaches, the most obvious change is man-caused; the dense thickets of tamarisk lining the river banks were nowhere in sight when Powell’s parties passed through. Tamarisk, a Middle Eastern exotic planted for windbreaks in the Imperial Valley around 1900, has now spread throughout the entire Colorado River system.’ ”

Courtesy of William Weber, Ph.D., Professor and Curator Emeritus, Herbarium, University of Colorado at Boulder, Dr. Erdman noted that, in the latter half of 1776, the explorer Escalante’s journal included the following: “We named the place San Donulo, or Arroyo del Taray (tamarisk), because here there were trees or growth of this designation.” This entry occurred during Escalante’s failed attempt to find a route from Santa Fe NM to the California coast. (Arroyo del Taray is in Arizona just south of the Utah border.)

Although Dr. Erdman noted “early explorers were keenly observant and could distinguish between willow and such a unique-looking plant as tamarisk,” he also indicated his own searches found “taray” associated with Tamarix africana and T. gallica, and “…’taray, taraya (wild tree related to the willow)’…” and “taray” associated withEysenhardtia adenostylis, as well as a reference to “taray/tamarisk” in a discussion of ancient Aztec herbal remedies, which places the plant slightly earlier than a 20th century introduction.

Courtesy of Don Hazlett, Ph.D., an ethnobotanist with New World Plants and People, Dr. Erdman also noted that the taray name is used for several non-tamarisk plants in Mexico and Central America, including: Eysenhardtia adenostylis and E. polystachya, as well as Caesalipinia bonducella, Amyris elemifera, and Salix taxifolia. Dr. Hazlett concluded by mentioning “the always-present question that arises when all we have to go on is a plant’s common name.”

Apparently the arrival of tamarisk in the United States remains a mystery. Many thanks for Drs. Erdman, Weber, and Hazlett and all the others who took the time.