Ironwood Trees Feed the Desert

Blossom Close up

Ironwood trees take center stage in late April.  The trees produce clouds of tiny orchid-like blossoms that transform the ironwood into a vision of beauty. 

These blooms also attract a buzzing swirl of Centris pallida, commonly known as digger bees.  Male digger bees detect females, still lingering in their underground burrows, and furiously dig them out. After mating the female buzzes off to the nearest ironwood and its sweet nectar laden blossoms. 

The masses of spring flowers give way to lengthening seed pods that ripen at the height of summer. This is just when most desert species are scrambling to feed families of babies. The crunchy fare is rich in nutrients and enjoyed by critters including coyotes, javelinas, Harris’s antelope squirrels, pocket mice, kangaroo rats and rock squirrels. Some of these animals are destined to become prey for meat eaters like owls, hawks, coyotes and desert snakes.

Desert legume trees such as ironwood also have a magical ability to feed the desert underground. Desert soils are poor in nutrients, but legumes partner with soil bacteria that provide nitrogen to the root systems. High levels of nitrogen contribute to the large amount of protein found in legume pods. Nitrogen in soil at the base of the trees encourages the growth of shrubs and annuals, which provides more forage for animals like lizards, desert tortoises and cottontail rabbits.

The protective drape of ironwood branches creates a shady microclimate where animals wait out the heat of the day. Crawling on the branches and among the bark, a variety of insect species feed on nectars, saps and the bark itself. As they flourish, these insects become a protein rich and often juicy addition to adult and baby bird diets.

Ironwood Tree April 29

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