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Monsoon rain brings special smell to Arizona deserts

The smell is slightly dusty, somewhat green, sometimes sweet and amazingly fresh aroma is...
The smell is slightly dusty, somewhat green, sometimes sweet and amazingly fresh aroma is incredibly unique.(Arizona's Family)
Updated: Jun. 12, 2020 at 4:09 PM MST
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PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) - Desert rain is a treat to be sure. It wets the dry, parched soil, calms the dusty winds early in the season and brings much-needed moisture to our desert landscape.

But perhaps the most talked-about characteristic of a desert shower is that unique smell. It’s slightly dusty, somewhat green, sometimes sweet and amazingly fresh aroma is incredibly unique.

Some of the smells we experience when it rains in the city are due to rainwater hitting the dusty ground or mixing with the oils on the asphalt, but most of that unique desert shower scent is coming from the creosote plant. When rain hits their tiny, waxy leaves, creosote plants release powerful natural oils that you can smell all across our city.

“We’re very fortunate that even though we’re in a very urban area in metro Phoenix, we have a lot of open spaces too,” said Kim McCue, the director of conservation and research at the Desert Botanical Garden. “That’s because the cities and counties have a lot of open space parks. So those parks have a lot of creosote, and so when it rains and we get a little breeze too that comes with the rain, we all get to benefit from that fabulous smell.”

Creosote plants are some of the oldest in the desert. The Desert Botanical Garden is home to several that are estimated to be thousands of years old. The garden is currently studying how other plants like the iconic saguaro use water.

“They take up water both when we have winter rains and when we get the summer rains,” said McCue.

“But they use more of the water that comes in the summer rains,” she added. “In fact, saguaros do most of their growth, getting taller in the summer.”

They do that by taking advantage of every drop of water that hits the ground around them, growing new roots the moment rain begins.

“It’s kind of like if your hair were to grow several inches in an hour, if you can imagine that!” said McCue. “Because all of that root surface allows them to suck up as much water as possible.”

Afterward, you can sometimes see their ribs expand like an accordion as the cactus grows fatter. It’s proof that it’s possible to not just survive an Arizona summer but thrive.

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