Cochise County Plants: Crucifixion Thorn (or Allthorn), Koeberlinia Spinosa

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We have several Koeberlinia spinosa plants thriving on our Cochise County acreage, but the crucifixion thorn, or althorn (and it is indeed “all thorny”) proved surprisingly difficult to identify online. After finally stumbling on the idea of searching “thorny shrub”, it wasn’t so bad, but before that?

Get one itty bitty thing wrong in your search terms and you’re out of luck.

Okay. Enough whining. Time to talk about the plant.

Crucifixion thorn, Koeberlinia spinosa, growing in southern Cochise County, one mile north of the Mexican border.

Crucifixion thorn, Koeberlinia spinosa, growing in southern Cochise County, one mile north of the Mexican border.

There were several reasons for the crucifixion thorn’s ability to elude identification for as long as it did, to wit:

1. The woody trunk system was so “hidden” from casual observation by the abundant green thorny branch system that I forgot it even existed. When I finally got around to really studying the pictures I’d taken, though, it was obvious.

A look at the woody trunk system of this crucifixion thorn species.

A look at the woody trunk system of this crucifixion thorn species.

2. I hadn’t seen clearly what was in front of my eyes. Despite obviously being a woody shrub (obvious to a shrewder observer), it initially struck me as a cactus-like succulent. Which perhaps explains why I initially misjudged so many attractive women during my younger years, not seeing what’s right under my nose….

Despite clearly being a woody shrub, the crucifixion thorn initially fooled my less than discerning eye into thinking it was a cactus-like succulent.

Despite clearly being a woody shrub, the crucifixion thorn initially fooled my less than discerning eye into thinking it was a cactus-like succulent. Never mind the old morning glory vines winding through there.

With a vibrant sky as a backdrop, this crucifixion thorn shrub thrusts its spines in every direction.

With a vibrant sky as a backdrop, this crucifixion thorn shrub thrusts its spines in every direction.

3. Having failed to deeply inspect every photo before beginning my species search, I’d thought wrong about the berries of this plant. Frankly, I’d believed it had white berries. Every online source I could find, though, insisted stubbornly that Koeberlinia spinosa berries are actually black. Not until much later did perusal of the photos clear up the mystery. The berries are black. The white “berries” I’d seen were probably not berries at all but, more likely, leftover flowers that were ready to become berries but never quite made the grade. Other photos found online do show the plant flowering, and the base portions of those flowers look “white berry-like”, so…?

Birds do like the berries, and the plant flowers early–in March–so our feathered friends had plenty of time to pick the crucifixion thorn bushes clean before the Canon PowerShot camera got to them the following February. Of course, if I’m paying attention and catch them in flower next month, and then add some of those photos to this page, that would be good.

At any rate, it taught me a lesson: Never try to identify a species from memory. What’s in the camera does not always match what’s in the photographer’s memory cells.

The Koeberlinia spinosa has black berries.  The "white berries" are either flower remains that didn't quite become berries...or what?

The Koeberlinia spinosa has black berries. The “white berries” are either flower remains that didn’t quite become berries…or what?

These particular specimens, the ones growing on our property, stand roughly three feet high at the moment. Whether or not they’ll gain in stature later, we’ll see. But their relatively low height made it possible for me to loom over one of the plants to get an “aerial photo”.

Crucifixion thorn, aerial view.

Crucifixion thorn, aerial view.

In addition to the birds who enjoy the berries, there is at least one category of critters who very much appreciate the advantages the crucifixion thorn bush has to offer. The little burrowing rodents, from moles (we have some huge moles around here) to kangaroo rats, take big time advantage of the thorny cover the shrub provides. In one case, I found a “mole hole” (too big and wide open for a kangaroo rat, at least 2″ across and left wide open) tucked in under the prickly vegetation. That mole must feel he (or she) has found the perfect spot for a Mole Mansion with a wide open above ground entrance.

Of course, a hunting rattlesnake would love to find an open door invitation like that, but the coyotes might well think twice before trying to dig that particular mole out of the ground.

One happy mole hole, tucked in beneath the crucifixion thorn bush with a thorn gauntlet facing the muzzle of any coyote brash enough to go mole digging.

One happy mole hole, tucked in beneath the crucifixion thorn bush with a thorn gauntlet facing the muzzle of any coyote brash enough to go mole digging.

It was interesting to note the combination of fresh, green thorn branches mixed in with presumably older, dry, gray thorn branches. At a distance, this plant looks “all green”, but it’s not.

In this Koeberlinia spinosa photo, you can see (a) fresh green branches, (b) dry gray branches, and in the background on the upper left, (c) in-between yellow-orange branches.  They all have one thing in common, which is:  Thorns.

In this Koeberlinia spinosa photo, you can see (a) fresh green branches, (b) dry gray branches, and in the background on the upper left, (c) in-between yellow-orange branches. They all have one thing in common, which is: Thorns.

It was fascinating to discover lichen growing on portions of the crucifixion thorn’s trunk. So they have lichen in the desert; who knew?

Lichen growing on the trunk of a crucifixion thorn shrub in Cochise County, Arizona.

Lichen growing on the trunk of a crucifixion thorn shrub in Cochise County, Arizona.

It’s easy to locate this species during the dead of a southern Arizona winter…because it stays green while most other plants out there, including our beloved mesquite trees, lose their greenness. At this time of year (January-February), the crucifixion thorn really stands out.

So does the Mexican buckthorn, about which I’ve written previously. Maybe it’s a thorn thing.

The lone green spot in a patch of desert, the crucifixion thorn lords it over the landscape.  The mountain in in the background? That mountain's in Mexico.

The lone green spot in a patch of desert, the crucifixion thorn lords it over the landscape. The mountains in in the background? Those mountains are in Mexico.

4 thoughts on “Cochise County Plants: Crucifixion Thorn (or Allthorn), Koeberlinia Spinosa

  1. Interesting plant. I’d like to see it in bloom. I’m surprised to see the mole hole’s entrance is wide open. The mole holes here are raised above the ground and have cross-like separations in the top of the mound, but are not left wide open. However, armadillo holes are left open and are farther into the soil.

  2. Interesting. Most moles around here close their holes entirely. We’ve not spotted any armadillo critters wandering around.

    Now that I’m aware of the species AND how early it blooms, I figure to at least attempt to catch it in the act.

  3. I discovered this plant in a similar fashion on highway 70 out of Safford. I really enjoyed your description of making an identification in the desert. I share your discovery spirit. Great altogether -photos, etc.

  4. Thanks for commenting, Ron. Glad to see you appreciated the post, and it’s also good to discover I’m not the only “wanderer” out there looking over the various goodies the desert has to offer. I’ve not been to (or for that fact near) Safford lately, but will keep an eye peeled for the plant whenever I do get up that way. 🙂

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