Identifying Prunus fremontii vs. Ziziphus parryi var. parryi

There is much confusion between two often co-occurring large shrubs in Anza-Borrego Desert State Parkódesert apricot (Prunus fremontii) and lotebush (Ziziphus parryi var. parryi). Desert apricot is in the rose family (Rosaceae). Lotebush is in the buckthorn family (Rhamnaceae).

The easiest way to tell them apart is to look at the leaves. A desert apricot leaf is serrated along at least part of the leaf margin while a lotebush leaf is smooth (entire) along its leaf margin. Both of these large shrubs are deciduous, however, so you may encounter them at a time with no leaves. If this happens, look below the shrub at the dried, dropped leaves. You should be able to still discern enough to identify the species.

In addition, desert apricot blooms earlier than lotebush, so if one or the other is in bloom, it is very easy to separate out the desert apricot from the lotebush. You may visit a canyon where desert apricot is in full bloom and lotebush is just leafing out. Or in contrast, the air was scented with the delightful baby-powder-like smell of lotebush on January 30, 2012, in Oriflamme Canyon (~2800 feet) when lotebush was at peak bloom and desert apricot flowering had mostly come to an end.

The bark is also different between these two species. On recent or new stems, desert apricot has the familiar reddish-purple look of the Prunus species that we see on so many of our fruit trees. Note that this is best seen on the newer growth as the older stems may be a similar light gray like the lotebush is all over.

Pictures illustrating the differences

Leaf Comparisons

Desert Apricot     Prunus fremontii     FAMILY: ROSACEAE

Lotebush     Ziziphus parryi var. parryi     FAMILY: RHAMNACEAE
Flower Comparisons

Desert Apricot           Prunus fremontii

Lotebush           Ziziphus parryi var. parryi
Young bark comparisons

Desert Apricot           Prunus fremontii

Lotebush           Ziziphus parryi var. parryi

Photograph of the lotebush leaf, and the flowers of the lotebush and desert apricot, by Tom Chester, taken on 18 March 2013; the rest by Kate Harper.

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Copyright © 2016 by Kate Harper.
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Updated 2 February 2016