Cochise County Plants: The Mexican Buckthorn, Condalia Warnockii Kearneyana

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It’s definitely in Cochise County, and I think it’s a Condalia warnockii kearneyana. Mexican buckthorn entries online, including photographs, seem to fit the numerous plants of this type we have growing on our “back 40”, one mile north of the Mexican border.

There is, however, one worrisome detail: The thorns on the plants in our area are a brilliant red color at the tips, as if they’d been freshly dipped in blood. Photos on other sites show none of that coloration–so if you happen to be a horticulturist or plant expert or simply a knowledgeable desert rat, let me know if I’m wrong. There just aren’t that many pictures of these plants you can Google unless you happen to be a search keyword wizard.

For now, we’re going with the Mexican buckthorn, also known as the Mexican crucillo (meaning “cross”) or, sometimes, frujillo.

The thorns definitely qualify as cross-like.

Red-tipped thorns on a Mexican buckthorn, Condalia warnockii kearneyana, in Cochise County, Arizona.

Red-tipped thorns on a Mexican buckthorn, Condalia warnockii kearneyana, in Cochise County, Arizona.

This plant is also apparently known as Kearney’s snakewood, but don’t ask me why. I don’t have a clue.

What we do know is that this species seems to thrive “out back”, mostly off by itself in the desert with few other plants in close contact. There are exceptions, but they’re few and far between…and mostly dead. Whether or not the Mexican buckthorn is capable of killing off its competition, who knows?

At a distance, these sturdy bushes–most of them running to heights of eight feet or so–could be mistaken for certain wide-spreading junipers. Up close, they’re nothing like the evergreens.

They have narrow, trough shaped, obviously deciduous leaves. We’ve yet to see one of these buckthorns look winter naked and leafless, but our southern Arizona winters are not exactly harsh by Eskimo standards. They’re apparently capable of “pretending” to be evergreens in that they “never go naked”, at least on this acreage.

At a distance, the Mexican buckthorn could almost be mistaken for a spreading sort of juniper, but Condalia warnockii kearneyana is definitely no evergreen.

At a distance, the Mexican buckthorn could almost be mistaken for a spreading sort of juniper, but Condalia warnockii kearneyana is definitely no evergreen.

Strangely enough, this bush aka tree (take your pick) is so densely foliaged that despite having paid a bit of attention to an individual here and there over the past four and a half years, I didn’t realize the plant produced either thorns or berries until (Ahem!) today.

There’s nothing like a bit of camera work to help a fellow focus his attention.

There aren’t a whole lot of berries left on the buckthorns at this time of year, and they’re extremely tiny (the berries, not the overall buckthorns). One berry is roughly the size of a carpenter ant’s head, easy to overlook as they’re pretty much invisible to my eyes, even with glasses on, unless I’m within a few feet of the tree.

Naturally, the berries shown in the next photos are much larger than life size. Most of them are red, but some have aged enough to turn black.

Mexican buckthorn berries, red phase.

Mexican buckthorn berries, red phase.

At least one Mexican buckthorn berry still shows some green, but the curve of the wood is what caught the photographer's eye for this picture.

At least one Mexican buckthorn berry still shows some green, but the curve of the wood is what caught the photographer’s eye for this picture.

Mexican buckthorn berries in green, red, and black phases.

Mexican buckthorn berries in green, red, and black phases.

This picture contains buckthorn berries in all of the above colors...plus orange.  You may need a magnifying glass to spot them all, though.

This picture contains buckthorn berries in all of the above colors…plus orange. You may need a magnifying glass to spot them all, though.

Curiously enough, that last photo also makes it obvious that this individual Mexican buckthorn tree is getting into the late autumn mood and has indeed lost a lot of its summer leaves. The odd thing is that the naked eye didn’t pick that up at all.

Truthfully, it seems I need a camera just to make me aware of my surroundings as they are, not as I “expect” to see them!

Another detail brought out by the camera: Parasites. Well…they may not be parasites, but the cream colored “webby-cocoon-looking-stuff” hanging out high in various Mexican buckthorn trees reminded me uncomfortably of the horribly damaging tent caterpillars that used to invade our favorite choke cherry tree stands in Montana.

The only way to deal with those tent caterpillars was to burn ’em out.

These web-cocoons aren’t that overwhelming. It looks likely the trees will survive their most likely unwelcome guests. But I would like to know what sort of bug makes those “bug houses” so I could at least flip them the bird.

Cream colored web-cocoon structures abound in the higher reaches of the Mexican buckthorn trees.  What sort of creature does that?  And will it end up damaging or killing the trees?

Cream colored web-cocoon structures abound in the higher reaches of the Mexican buckthorn trees. What sort of creature does that? And will it end up damaging or killing the trees?

Close up of the web-cocoon mass found in many (if not all) of the Mexican buckthorn trees on our property.

Close up of the web-cocoon mass found in many (if not all) of the Mexican buckthorn trees on our property.

And…one last look at those glorious Mexican buckthorn thorns, bloody red tips and all.

Mexican buckthorn with its red-tipped thorns on glorious display.

Mexican buckthorn with its red-tipped thorns on glorious display.