An Aromatic Desert Plant Reminds Architect Lindsey Wikstrom of Home—Wherever She Makes It

A potted creosote plant she brought back from Arizona brings the smell of the desert into her New York apartment.
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My family moved to Tucson from Colorado when I was in high school, and it was the first time I experienced desert monsoons. If I climbed up on the roof of my house, I could see storm clouds roll into the city. First I would see the rain coming, and then I would smell it.

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For years, I thought the aroma was the smell of the desert and monsoons. I didn’t know it had another source, because it’s so subtle. One day, when I was visiting Arizona after moving away to New York, I was on a walk with my friend Weston Westenborg, who used to work in horticulture, and he pointed out the creosote plant. He said, "If you rub the leaves together, you have this amazing smell." It was revelatory—I realized this one plant was responsible for the smell of the entire desert.

I think it’s one of the most peaceful smells on the planet, which is why I bought this creosote plant for my New York apartment from Weston’s family’s nursery in Tucson last year. I always said to myself, I can’t wait to go back to the desert to smell that smell, because I thought creosote couldn’t be cultivated. But Weston showed me you could transport it.

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Creosote has taught me to explore wider definitions of place and that the term "native species" is very relative to the histories we want to bring forward. At a biodynamic hospitality project in Arizona that I’m working on with my architecture firm, Mattaforma, creosote took over the 131-acre site because mining and cattle grazing dried out the soil, which it likes. Now, to reestablish aquifers lost over time, we’re reintroducing other plants that can absorb and hold water. This means the monoculture of creosote will slowly diffuse as the soil saturates and, along with it, the beautiful smell.

Through creosote, I’ve learned that what’s most important in life and design is approaching nature with the curiosity of all five senses. To bring resilience and healing back to a place, we need to engage with nature like never before. In New York, I always used to long for the experience of being in the desert and taking in the smell of creosote. But now, my plant helps bring the things that feel like home to where I am now. I’ve learned that roots can be made, not just found.

Lauren Gallow
Dwell Contributor
Lauren Gallow is a Seattle-based design writer and editor. Formerly an in-house writer for Olson Kundig, she holds an MA in Art & Architectural History from UCSB.

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