Only In the Chihuahuan Desert: Candelilla

By Rick LoBello, Board Member

There are a number of animals and plants that are found only in the Chihuahuan Desert. We call these species endemic species, those that are found in a particular geographical region and nowhere else in the world.  Candelilla or wax euphorbia is one of them, but here in El Paso it is found mainly in botanical gardens. 

Compared to other desert succulents candelilla looks very different and in many of the limestone areas where it grows it blends in perfectly with the rocky soils.   Very little information is available on how it fits in with the rest of the ecosystem, but we do know that both mule deer and javelina will eat it.   When it is in flower I am sure many insects will take advantage of the pollen opportunities and I am confident that small animals like lizards and snakes will use it for cover and shade on hot desert days.

Candelilla growing in the desert with prickly-pear and ocotillo.

Candellilla plants look very primitive compared to most of the plants found in the Chihuahuan Desert where they grow in greyish clumps of stems often times in limestone soils alongside lechuguilla, sotol and ocotillo.  It is a member of the spurge or euphorbia family. This family has over 7,500 species distributed mainly in the tropics.

The plant is best known in our area in the Big Bend National Park region as historically being an important part of the economy where wax is extracted from the stems and used commercially for a wide range of products including candles, lipsticks, chewing gum, crayons, plastics, dental castings and polishes.   During World War I, candelilla wax was used to waterproof tents and other military equipment including some explosives.  Years ago it was also used in making phonograph records. 

As recently as 40 years ago candelilla was heavily harvested on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande at Big Bend National Park and some plants were illegally collected.   It was not unusual to float down the Rio Grande and find places where people both harvested and processed the wax.  Today the  industry has largely disappeared due to overharvesting,  but there is at least one organization called the Candelilla Institute that is trying to keep the industry alive and save the species from over exploitation by encouraging sustainable practices. 

Candelilla in flower.

Cover – Tracie Hall, Wikimedia Creative Commons
Top: Gary Nored, Wikimedia Creative Commons
Middle: Carlos Velazco, Wikimedia Creative Commons
Bottom: Frank Vincentz, Wikimedia Creative Commons

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