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Chilopsis linearis

Chilopsis linearis

Taxonomy: Magnoliophyta (angiosperm), Magnoliopsida (dicot), Bignoniaceae

Common Names: Desert Willow, Flowering Willow, Willowleaf Catalpa, Desert Catalpa, Catalpa Willow, False Willow, Bow Willow, Mimbre, Jano (18)

By Jamie Ross, Polly Oliva, and Vanessa M. Valdespino

Summer 2001


The Chilopsis linearis, more commonly known as the desert willow, is a native to the southwestern United States and Northern Mexico. Its Linnaean name Chilopsis refers to the lip-like flower and linearis refers to the long narrow leaves. Though its many common names refer to it as a willow, it is not related to the willow species. This willow-like plant typically is a natural protector against flood and erosion damage. Historically the desert willow has been used by the Pima to thatch roofs and for the enjoyment of the pleasant fragrance produced by the plant (12). Medicinally this plant seems to have been ignored, though it has several potential medicinal uses it is not frequently used.

Ecological Characteristics

Desert willow is found in moist areas and dry washes at a soil pH level of 6-9. It is a shrub that can grow up to 30 feet tall and has leaves from 5 to 6 inches long. This deciduous shrub has dark brown bark and trumpet-shaped flowers. Flower color ranges between pink and violet with blooms occuring in May/June or later if the rainy season is promising (4).

Photo taken by Jamie Ross

Photo taken by Jamie Ross


Chilopsis linearis reproduces sexually; its purple trumpet-like flowers are attractive to many types of pollinators. Though it has both male and female organs, it cannot pollinate itself, it must pollinate by outcrossing (4). The long pods on the desert willow hold many seeds and each has several minuscule hairs that allow for easy wind dispersal.

Medicinal Uses

The desert willows flowers, leaves, or bark can be used as a hot poultice or a soothing tea for coughing(13). Other treatments guard against yeast infections, athlete’s foot and a first-aid technique for scrapes and scratches. The plant carries an additional use as an anti-fungal and anti-candida product (yeast). The tea (from the flowers) produces a natural anti-oxidant, which promotes cardiovascular health and regulates glucose metabolism.  

 Photo taken by Jamie Ross

Photo taken by Jamie Ross

Non-Medicinal Uses

Desert willow is a protective agent against soil erosion and flooding, as well as a windbreak or sunscreen. This shrub is important to animals because it provides nesting sites and cover. Wildlife, such as deer and birds, consume the leaves, fruit and the flower’s nectar. When found in its natural habitat, a good source of water is not too far below the surface (1).Desert willow is often used in southwestern landscaping.


The desert willow has a variety of chemical constitutes carried by different plant organs. The flowers contain pigments called anthocyanins. These are a group of H2O-soluble flavonoid pigments that impart color to flowers and other plant appendages (11). Anthocyanins are capable of trapping and absorbing blue, blue-green and green light (6). Cool and dry weather encourages high sugar concentration destroying chlorophyll in cell sap, thus, contibuting to the high production of anthocyanins.

Another vital chemical compound found in the desert willow is polyphenol. Polyphenol, in association with anthocyanins, have a high antioxidant potential. Some pharmaceutical effects of anthocyanins have been suggested in treatment of cardiovascular diseases and in ophthalmology.

Chemical composites have shown that seeds contain trienoic fatty acids located in the chloroplast membrane. High temperatures result in the reduction of the acid leading to a high tolerance for heat stress due to photosynthesis in the chloroplast membrane (7). The enzyme responsible for trienoic fatty acids are still being researched for their usage in engineering crops to endure heat stress.

The leaves and branches contain alkanes, squalene and piperidine alkaloids. Alkanes are found to strengthen immune defenses against fungi or bacteria (2). Squalene, a hydrocarbon, is found in many health foods and is used variously by the cosmetic industry in moisturizers or emollient agents (9). Piperidine alkaloids are derived from amino acids commonly found in nitrogen-containing bases (5).

The wood and bark also have a type of flavonoid referred to as lapachic acid or lapachol (alcohol functional group), which is found in other plants of the catalpa family, such as Tabebuia avellanedae. Lapachol is currently being researched as an anti-tumor and anti-viral compound by the U.S. National Cancer Institute. A derivative of lapachol, beta-lapachol, has been found to interfere with the replication of HIV-1, a virus that causes AIDS, thereby slowing the advancement of the disease (11).









1.       Arid Zone Trees. “Desert Willow.” 95/sep95vol2-9.htm

2.       Uvalde Research and Extension Center, Texas A&M University System, Copyright 2000.

3.       Gardner, Anna. Department of Botany, Iowa University, Copyright 1998-2000.

4.       U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Fire Sciences Laboratory, (2001, May). Fire Effects Information System, [Online].

5.       Dr. Duke’s Phytochemical and Ethnobotanical Database.

6.       U.S. Forest Service. Chemical of the Week – The Chemistry of Autumn Colors.

7.       Murakami, Y., Tsuyama, M., Kobayashi,Y., Kodama, H., Iba, K. “Trienoic Fatty Acids and Plant Tolerance of High Tolerance.” Science, Vol. 287, 476-479. 21 Jan. 2000.

8.       BoDD – Botanical Dermatology Database. BIGNONIACEAE.

9.       Botany Online: The Secondary Metabolism of Plants – Alkaloids.

10.    Merk Index 10th Ed. 5195

11.    Cyberbotanica: Beta-Lapachone and Lapachol. Pharmacology of Beta-Lapachone and Lapachol.

12. Rea , Amadeo M. At the Desert's Green Edge: An Ethnobotany of the Gila River Pima. The University of Arizona Press, Tuscon. Copyright 1997.

13.    Moore, Michael. Medicinal Plants of the Desert and Canyon West. Museum of New Mexico Press.


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Updated February 13, 2008

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