In the middle of the Palm Springs Desert in Southern California, the sun beats down mercilessly and harsh winds are so strong that rocks have been polished smooth by the sand. In the midst of all this grows a creosote bush could be the oldest living plant on the Earth.
Carbon dating tests are expected to show that this bush is even older than a gnarled clump of the same plant which almost 11,700 years old in the nearby Mojave Desert. The final test results will be available in a year.
Jim Cornett, curator of natural science at the Palm Springs Desert Museum, discovered the new plant when he was flying over the Palm Springs area. ?We spotted these very strange, long lines of bushes from the air,? he says. ?Normal bushes grow in circular patterns but these were straight lines – some over 50 feet in length. And so after seeing them from the air, we got on the ground and realized the only way they could have grown in a line like that, and very long, is that they had to have been very old.?
The longer a creosote bush is, the older it is. Creosote bushes are very common in the desert. 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 are small.
Cornett believes this bush could reveal secrets about earthquakes, flash floods and even global warming. ?If this plant proves to be more than 11,600 years old, 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,? he says. ?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.?
John Sallot, of the Palm Springs Desert Museum, says, ?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.? The bush grows only a 10-minute drive from the town of Palm Springs, at a site which is also a local dumping ground. Just a few feet away from it, old discarded couches and TV sets are lying around. The Interstate highway runs nearby. But plans are underway to clean the area up and protect the shrubs. In the meantime, Cornett isn?t worried about these bushes being picked by collectors or souvenir hunters. He says, ?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.?
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