Only in Arizona: Farm in Eloy shows promise for domestic cultivation of plant that produces natural latex

Our first introduction to rubber trees likely came from vintage Looney Tunes or Disney cartoons. Some of the plot lines were set in the rainforests of Burma or Brazil, and the whimsical animated rubber trees would do something silly, like bounce the antagonist out of the story and over the horizon.

But, all we knew was that rubber trees weren’t from around here, and if we needed entertainment beyond Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, rubber bands were pretty cool, too.

And it’s true that rubber trees, or hevea brasiliensis, grow primarily in the rain forests of South America and the Far East; its milky latex is extracted like maple syrup into buckets to make tires and car parts, soles of shoes, medical products and lots of other everyday items, including rubber bands.

So when I heard that we were growing plants in Arizona to make rubber, I didn’t believe it. How can Popeye and Porky Pig be wrong?

Our own rubber shrub

Well, the answer is guayule — a woody shrub that thrives in the desert Southwest and Northern Mexico.

“Many plant species produce some kind of rubber including other plants native to desert regions besides guayule,” says Dr. David Dierig, who manages a 300-acre research farm in Eloy for Bridgestone Americas. “However, guayule is one of only a few species that make high quality rubber similar to the rubber tree that grows in the tropics.

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“We are developing new, higher yielding varieties, improved ways to grow the crop and manage natural resources, like irrigation, more efficiently,” he continued. “We are also contracting with a small number of growers across the state in different environments.”

Dierig also said the Eloy farm supplies bales of the guayule shrub to Bridgestone’s processing facility in Mesa for separation and testing, and that they send the processed rubber to different Bridgestone facilities to produce tires for factory and road testing.

Grown since the 1940s

Apparently none of this is new. We’ve been growing guayule in Arizona since the 1940s when the federal government — fearing our natural rubber supply from Asia could be cut off — launched the Emergency Rubber Project. Synthetic latex also was developed, but has never been able to replace the quality of natural rubber.

“Natural rubber is an important raw material for our country, and is considered a ‘critical material’ by the Department of Defense,” Dierig said, noting that larger tires for trucks, agriculture equipment and aircraft requires natural rubber.

“There were about 30,000 acres of guayule planted across the Southwestern U.S. at that time,” he added.

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But even before that, the Aztec Indians in Mesoamerica knew about the guayule plant and made balls for sporting events, Dierig says.

“Rubber was extracted by communal mastication (chewing) of the bark for recreational use,” he added.

They couldn’t go to Big 5 and pick up a can of racquetballs, but clearly understood the lively properties of guayule.

That’s all, folks.

Contact “Only in Arizona” columnist Mark Nothaft at [email protected]. Send him the weird and fun facts and places found #OnlyInArizona.

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