Skip to main content

Desert Ironwood Is a Super Tree for the Southwest

Virtues: Desert ironwood is a slow-growing but beautiful small tree with great ecological importance. This Sonoran Desert native feeds bees, birds and other small wildlife when other food sources are scarce, and it serves as a “nurse plant” for other desert plant species by providing a stable microclimate and enriching the soil with nitrogen.

desert ironwood

Common name: Desert ironwood, palo fierro

Botanical name:Olneya tesota

Exposure: Full sun to light shade

Season: Spring, for flowers; year-round for wildlife value

Flowers/fruit: Bright pink-purple flowers open in abundance in early to mid-spring. These look similar to the flowers of sweet peas. Several kinds of bees rely on these flowers for food. Long seedpods ripen in late summer and feed birds and small mammals when there’s little else for them to eat.

Foliage: Small, grayish green, fine in texture. The leaves are shed for a brief period then quickly replaced, especially with rainfall or irrigation.

Habit: Desert ironwood grows as a large multistemmed shrub or a small tree with a twisted architecture. It can reach 30 feet tall with a 30-foot-wide crown, but often stays smaller.

Origins: Sonoran Desert of Arizona, USA

How to grow desert ironwood: Site in full sun or light shade. It can easily survive drought, but supplemental water will encourage it to grow larger and produce more trunks. If multiple trunks and sprouts at soil level are not desired, these can be removed easily.

Read in depth about the desert ironwood at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum’s website.

Image credit: GHayes / iStock / Getty Images