I live in the upper southeastern region of Arizona in U.S. There's a type of tree growing in my back yard that I can't seem to identify. Its growing in an arrangement very similar to an ocotillo plant. It has single spiny stems coming up out of the ground. They don't branch out but have large sharp spines with leafs growing out of them. It doesn't look anything at all like any of the native desert plants in the area. There's mesquite and sage and various types of cactus.

At the moment the stems are about five feet tall. I took clippings about two feet in length and photographed them. It seems I'm only able to post two links so I've chosen the clearest images that I have. I'm very curious as to what this is and any help would be greatly appreciated.

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    $\begingroup$ Have you ever seen flowers or berries? although I am not familiar with the flora over there I would suggest it could be a Pyracantha (Rosaceae) $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 8, 2015 at 15:57
  • $\begingroup$ I have seen that up in the mountains in this area but only above a certain elevation and mostly among oak trees. This plant's spines have claws like a rose bush. My sister said it appeared about four years ago and she tries to uproot it every spring but it keeps growing back. As far as she can tell she's never seen it bloom any flowers or produce berries. She thought it was a type of mesquite known in the area as "cats claw" but it's leaves do not look like any kind of mesquite leaf I've ever seen. It has a lush green appearance that contrasts it from the other desert plants in the area. $\endgroup$
    – sean_h
    Commented Oct 10, 2015 at 18:28
  • $\begingroup$ Can you take a picture of the whole tree and a picture up-close of the leaf? $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 30, 2016 at 16:46
  • $\begingroup$ Also, you mention also seeing this in a montane oak forest. Could you comment on the elevation, the aspect (side of the mountain), species of oak, possible presence of conifers, how dense the understory is, or anything else notable about the habitat you've seen it in? $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 30, 2016 at 17:13
  • $\begingroup$ @theforestecologist I removed the plant in Oct. This pic is nearest to how it looked but not as dense or as high. The elevation where I spotted a cluster of the red orange berries similar to the Pyracantha was above 2,600 ft. The azfirescape website is a close description to the area. I can’t say where exactly I saw it only that I know I have seen a red cluster of berries like it before. link link $\endgroup$
    – sean_h
    Commented Mar 2, 2016 at 2:10

1 Answer 1


It looks like this could be Lotebush, Ziziphus obtusifolia. The thorny branchlets and blue-green color (at least, as it appears in the photos) suggest Ziziphus to me, although you could compare it with the photos or description here. If it is in the buckthorn family, it does seem to key out to Ziziphus using the Christie et al. key.

If you wanted to be sure, you could follow up with the ASU herbarium (see citation).

Christie, K., M. Currie, L.S. Davis, M.-E. Hill, S. Neal and T. Ayers (2006). Vascular Plants of Arizona: Rhamnaceae. Canotia 2(1): 23-46. Open access

  • $\begingroup$ The leaves aren't a perfect match for any of the photos I've seen, but the description does note that the leaves are quite variable, especially in young shoots. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 1, 2016 at 21:03

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