English Name: wolfberry, boxthorn
Spanish Name: frutilla
View all images of Lycium exsertum
This species is present in the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum's live collection.
The several species of Lycium in our region are all densely-branched and usually spiny shrubs that are leafless during dry seasons. They range from about 2 feet (60 cm) to over 8 feet (2.4 m) tall and much wider, depending on species and water availability. Leaves are most commonly present during the cool season. Masses of small, greenish to purplish flowers are followed by pea-sized red berries resembling tiny tomatoes.
The 100 species of this cosmopolitan genus occur in warm-temperate and subtropical habitats. About 15 species occur in the Sonoran Desert.
Nearly every part of the Sonoran Desert has at least one species of Lycium. The structure of the flowers suggests bee pollination, and bees do visit them profusely, but butterflies and hummingbirds also visit in great numbers. Birds relish the fruits. People also highly value the small, tasty berries as a snack. The squeamish should be forewarned that the berries often have insect larvae inside them. This doesn't bother the Seri, one of whom said “Those aren't maggots, they're just live things.”
Lac insects (Tachardiella spp.) can be found on wolfberries as well as on creosote bushes. A related species, the Indian lac insect, is harvested in huge quantities to make shellac and varnish.
Solanaceae (nightshade family)
The nightshade family has about 2600 species worldwide and includes herbs, shrubs, trees, and vines. While many are highly poisonous (deadly nightshade, Jimson weed) others are major food crops such as potatoes, tomatoes, and chile peppers. Tobacco is an extremely toxic plant that is grown in huge quantities for two uses: as an addictive drug essential in maintaining cigarette sales and as an important agricultural insecticide. In both products the active ingredient is nicotine. Several useful pharmaceutical drugs are derived from various species of nightshades.