Desert Peach

In April and May Leonard and I searched unsuccessfully for desert peach (Prunus andersonii) at sites where they were reported to be near our home. In July, while hunting for malachite, azurite and crystocolla mineral specimens in the rock outcrops and mine tailings above Cold Springs Road north of Reno NV (Washoe County), we unexpectedly came upon many desert peach plants. What a pleasant, unexpected surprise.

Desert peach is a native shrub found in Eastern California and Western and Central Nevada. Its habitat is arid desert mountain slopes, open scrub and woodlands in the Great Basin and Mojave Deserts between 3,300 and 7,500 feet elevation.

This member of the Rose Family has many stems growing from rhizomes and reaching up to six feet in height. The stems are diffusely branched while the twigs are rigid and narrow to end in sharp thorns at the ends. The deciduous leaves of desert peach are almost sessile (no stalks) and often clustered on short branches. The leaf blades are narrow with very finely toothed margins.

The fruits are yellow to reddish-orange drupes (usually a single seed surrounded by a hard stone-like covering (stone or pit) that is covered with a pulpy or fleshy layer) covered by a fine covering of hairs. The seed is heart-shaped. In wet years when plenty of moisture is available the drupe flesh is moist and will split open while in drought years the drupe becomes “mummified” and dry on the stone.

The bark, leaves and seeds of desert peach are bitter because they contain prunasin and amygdalin, which break down into hydrocyanic acid. This acid (cyanide) is poisonous causing respiratory failure and even death in large amounts. Still, many Native Americans ate the fruits and made a tea from the plants. They also used desert peach preparations to treat diarrhea, rheumatism and colds. Modern day herbalists believe desert peach concoctions are effective against cancer. A light green dye can be obtained from the leaves of desert peach while the fruit will produce a dark green dye.

The desert peach plants Leonard and I found were almost devoid of fruit, but stones without flesh were plentiful beneath the shrubs. Rodents eat desert peach fruits and cache the stones. Pronghorn also browse the shrub and eat the seeds.

Other common names for P andersonii include desert almond and Anderson peachbush. There is another Prunus species, P fasciculata, that is also commonly called desert almond and looks very similar to P. andersonii. Obviously this causes confusion. P andersonii (desert peach) is generally considered a shrub of the Great Basin while P fasciculata (desert almond) is most often found further south in the Mojave Desert. However, their ranges do overlap.

I did not discuss desert peach flowers, which can be rose, white or yellow and strongly resemble domestic peach flowers. Now that we know where there are desert peach plants, I can return and photograph the blossoms in the spring and will discuss the flowers at that time.


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