In Praise of Coyote Brush - Baccharis Pilularis

I have had the pleasure this spring of visiting with a neighbor who is learning about landscaping and native plants and, with the help of a class, is working up a design for a mostly native plant garden around her south-facing home. It's been a pleasure to talk with someone who so easily sees the many benefits of native plants, for drought tolerance and wildlife value, and for the aesthetics of a garden appropriate to the rugged area we live in. So it was a bit of a jolt to hear her declaim, as we walked through the chaparral area:

"Oh I got lots of those, what are they called, greasewood bushes? I hate those things. They're very flammable, I was told. And they get all that white stuff on them in summer, it's so messy."

I realized she meant our native and abundant Baccharis pilularis consanguinea, and its "summer snow" (so dubbed by someone on the Gardening with Natives Yahoo! group). The picture at the top of this post shows the seed heads just beginning to open. Bushtits and lesser goldfinches gobble them up in the golden days of late fall.

"Oh, no - This isn't Greasewood. Some people call Chamise greasewood. That is very flammable. Other things are called greasewood too [Sarcobatus]. But these are Coyote Brush. I really like Coyote Brush. Not nearly so flammable." I looked at them with her eyes and then with my eyes. So much of the pleasure we take in plants (and other things) originates between the ears.

It's true our native coyote brush can get very straggly. I've pulled out long long branches easily twenty feet long. They stay where they die and add to the fuel load.

But according to this fire management page on Las Pilitas Nursery's web site, healthy coyote brush are pretty good for flammability. The "leaf burn" page has long lists of burn times - how long it takes a leaf of each species to ignite with a blowtorch. - The writer doesn't claim these are scientific results - just one person's practical test, a person with a background of many years experience as a volunteer firefighter.

Baccharis is in the "greater than sixty seconds" group, which is the best group. Lower on the page he shows the flammability ratings of many popular non-natives, like lavender and various other Mediterranean plants used for drought tolerance. Lavender was in the 20 seconds group. Quite a lot of them were more flammable than the natives.

I don't actually know what the difference between 20 and 60 seconds means in terms of surviving a wild fire. The writer also says (along with other web sites on the topic) that the most important way to improve defensibility is to maintain good hygiene (weed clearing) and to plant thinly in the "defensible space" areas around the home, avoiding "fire ladders."

But it does seem a shame if people remove perfectly wonderful chaparral habitat because they fear fire, then replace it unwittingly with more flammable non-native alternatives.

Besides their fairly good marks for fire (I've seen it burn on the burn pile so I'm not so sanguine about consanguinea as all that), the Baccharis that grow here are fun because they are so easy to trim up, and they stay pretty for quite a while. You start out with a shaggy wild looking shrub and end up with something light and airy looking. The wood is soft and easy to cut, and they take the pruning without blinking a lenticel. Did I mention that Baccharis remain green year round, without irrigation?

Baccharis volunteer in our south garden area regularly, and I've let a few of them grow to about three or four feet, before cleaning up their hairy legs. I'm a beginning pruner, so if nothing else, it's good practice.

I should mention that along the coast nearby another variety of coyote brush grows low to the ground, Bacharis pilularis pilularis. A few more local varieties are less widespread. B. douglasii likes moist habitat, and slender leaved B. viminea, AKA B. salicifolia, is also called Mule Fat because mule deer browse on it.

Low-growing Baccharis cultivars are widely used as drought tolerant ground covers. Twin Peaks is popular but has shortcomings, and I understand Twin Peaks II is an improved cultivar. Santa Ana and Pigeon Point varieties are also favored. I tried growing Pigeon Point but it did not thrive here, on the steep slope where I wanted to use it for erosion control. I also am now concerned about inadvertently creating hybrids - I'd like to keep the local natives pure (though I hate how that sounds!) but that is probably a vain hope. And I'm reluctant to rip out my Dr Hurd manzanita too as it's finally getting a bit larger and is pretty. I'm conflicted!

I like looking out my office window at my little trimmed up coyote brush. There's not a lot else to look at right now in this area, but that's another post! Sometimes a bunny takes shelter under it. Here is a Bewick's wren I saw last week, poking about at the foot of the bush for insects.

Wrens are so tiny and pretty and intent.

The topic of those fluffy white seeds came up again yesterday, when I was honored by a visit from my Town Mouse co-blogger, and we took a turn about the garden. She had yet a different objection.

"I heard they reseed freely and I just don’t want them all over my yard!"

But I had an answer for that: they are dioecious, and nursery trade stock is all male.

The Las Pilitas web site entry for Baccharis says this could have bad consequences:

The problem for we horticulturists/biologists is that only male plants are utilized in the landscaping trade for Baccharis pilularis. If these are substituted for B. pilularis var. consanguinea in ecological restoration, there will not be as much seed set and recruitment of new individuals.
accessed 6/17/2009).

Ya, not going to get far trying to restore a habitat with a bunch of guys and no gals. I don't have that problem - and I guess that’s the downside for this Country Mouse – they do freely seed everywhere there is bare, disturbed or cleared soil, though hardly at all where there is mulch. Where we cleared in the lower chaparral area a couple of years back or so, we now have a carpet of foot-high striplings, and I'm not sure what to do about them. I should probably have scuffed them when they were one inch high.

I am entertaining the thought that I could keep them low with hedge trimmers, at least in one well defined area. They do provide some cover for the bunnies and I regret the shelter that we have taken away. Those straggly intertwined branches of old chaparral shrubs were like roof beams, creating open spaces beneath for the lesser animals to hide and forage in. But we'll see.

In other news, the house finches who nested in the Webster may or may not have raised their family. The female sat on the nest quite a lot, and I think I saw a couple of open beaks demanding food. The parents hung anxiously around for quite a while after they stopped sitting in the nest, then disappeared for a few days. I never saw a young one out and about, no full grown babies pestering mommy to keep on providing food. (There's a lot of that going on right now, and testy mothers chasing them off to get their own food). I have a fear that the babies fell out of the nest and our ever alert rat terrier gobbled down the tasty and much anticipated snack in a quick and guilty gulp.

But now they're back, and the female is sitting in the nest again. I see her little head when I look through the garage door. Sometimes she flies out when we go out to the garage, and sometimes she just hunkers down. I hope they have good luck.


Thanks for this very interesting and very thorough rundown on coyote brush; I was especially interested in the fire-resistance aspects. I think few plants are really fireproof, but I appreciate being informed about what's better and what's worse (hadn't seen that part of the Las Pilitas site, I'll have to take a look).

It's so true about plant appreciation being mainly between the ears! Beautiful photos of your "groomed" coyote brush and the birds that love it.
Barbara E said…
Great posting. I totally agree with you on the coyote brush - and I love how you trimmed it up. I have Pigeon Pt. in my parkway. It gets big, though not tall like consanguinea. Once I got tired of cutting it back and tried to dig it out. I cut and dug and finally gave up. It came back - of course - and now has a pretty nice shape. In spite of this, I too like the straight species - male and female - better than the cultivars. It is a wonderful, carefree, green shrub that can be pruned and even hedged.
Town Mouse said…
Yes, I agree, few plants are so green with so little water. Now I just hope that it's true that I got a guy...
NellJean said…
I take a benign view of our eastern Baccharis halimifolia, unlike the NC hort guy who put it in his book of native plants only because 'everybody wants to know what it is.'

I feel much more kindly toward Baccharis than the lowly Chinaberries that seed all over in the same woods edge as the groundseltree.
From my first wave of planting natives in the early 90s, coyote bush is only one of two that remain in the garden, either because of basic survival or because the plants kept doing what I wanted them to without getting too carried away. My plants are the coastal, low form, which works here near the coast. I've read thinks about how ten years is an upper limit for these looking good, but they do respond pretty well to a haircut, even with hedge trimmers. But I am contemplating replacing them with something else. (Sounds so midlife crisis-ey, doesn't it?) But the fact that the plant stays green with zero added water is a definite plus.

I like your baccharis trimmings. It gives them nice structure. Paint the stems red and you'd almost swear that they're fast-growing manzanitas. And I'd guess that trimming them also removes the low combustible bits, at least according to some guides I've read.

Thanks for the appreciation for an underappreciated plant.
I was out walking today and came across some of these bushes growing in the native plant demonstration garden along the creek here in town. They were covered in little butterflies and various bees. I pinched a few tips to try and root them - I have a horrible hillside that I hope one day will be a beautiful collection of native plants. I googled how to propagate them and came up with you! I've been to your blog before. What a great article you have here. Have you ever started these from cuttings?
Country Mouse said…
Hi Katie. I have not tried growing coyote brush from cuttings - they reseed here so freely I usually have the opposite problem! Don't know if you are aware, but the ones sold in the nurseries are all male clones. The female plants make fluffy seeds, which I like but can be messy in a small garden. If you want them to spread, you might be better off growing a bunch from seeds. It depends what you're looking for. The native ones around here get long and straggly - coastal ones grow lower. It all depends how much you like to garden, i.e. prune etc, and how at home the coyote brush plants will feel on your slope. They like full sun. You can whack them back to the ground and they'll come right back atcha. Good luck with your slope - I hope you'll come back and let us know how you get on! Do email if you want to chat about your slope and its challenges some more -
Thank you for the kind offer of help! I'll look for seeds a little later in the season and give them a try too. My main concern is covering this slope with wildlife habitat because several of our windows look out on it. That's why the Coyote Brush caught my eye. It's okay with me if it looks a bit wild!
cgray said…
I've been interested in planting baccharis on my south-facing slope in So. Cal. but can't find any sources. I googled the name and found your posting. Do you happen to have any seeds to share, plant sources or insight?
Thanks so much!
cgray said…
Hello! I''d like to plant baccharis on my south facing slope in So. Cal. but can't find a nursery that carries it. Not enough interest, I hear. I googled the name and found your interesting post. Do you happen to have any seeds to spare, sources, or insight? I remember the fragrance of this native when I visited Morro Bay years ago and was enchanted not only by that but the flammability, native wildlife food source, erosion factors as well. Thanks so much!
Country Mouse said…
cgray - Sorry, I'm reluctant to ship my local natives to a location where they might contaminate the local gene pool. I would advise you to find local sources for seed. Baccharis is very common and it may be growing in the wild where you can legitimately gather. Seed is abundant when the fluffy seed heads start to really fluff out. You won't find it in plantings - wild ones only. Good luck! I'm glad you appreciate this plant!
Anonymous said…
i LOVE coyote bush so much. I've added them as green backbone plantings for structure in my cottage garden. I am coastal, north of Santa Cruz in California, and simply "liberated" 5 babies from a railroad corridor during a scraggly roadside walk in the country. This gives me native plants that are perfectly suited to my area.

If you want male and female plants, simply find a good nearby location and friendly landowner. Also, dig SMALL coyote bush plants for transplant---they have a long taproot you'll want intact (at least mostly intact). Using mostly natives gives me a beautiful landscape that is also pretty easy to maintain. Coyote bush is such an unsung hero!