Tag Archives: coyote bush

the gloriously messy coyote bush

The coyote bush (Baccharis pilularis) that I grew from wild-collected seed a few years ago is now a pretty major heap of greenery, something on the order of ten feet tall and even wider. The plant is a reliable, bright green, informal background shrub that asks for almost no water. Insects appreciate its late-season flowers for nectar when few other natives offer nectar on the menu.

Coyote bush seed litter, floating
Coyote bush seed litter, floating
Coyote bush seed litter--stuck on doormat. It can get everywhere...
Coyote bush seed litter–stuck on a doormat. It can get everywhere…

Coyote bushes are either male or female, though almost all cultivars sold in nurseries are male plants, for reasons about to become obvious. Also, the most commonly-grown versions of this plant around here are the low-mounding groundcover forms like ‘Pigeon Point.’ My plant is a female, and beginning in November or so it also puts out an enormous quantity of seeds that are attached to a fluffy white structure called a pappus. The plant makes so many of these seed structures that the branches look like they’re covered with snow. And when the wind blows, these seeds float poetically on the breezes the way dandelion seeds do. (Both the dandelion and coyote bush hail from the ginormous daisy family of plants.) But the poetry stops and the cursing begins when the seeds land and you have coyote seedlings everywhere in the garden. I kid you not when I say that I pulled well over a thousand of these seedlings from around the garden just this past spring. These things are prolific.

Snow- (and endless maintenance-) on-a-stick
Snow- (and Maintenance-) on-a-stick

The last couple of years I’ve been giving the plant a good trimming before the seed production gets too out of hand. I didn’t get to the task this year until a week ago, after the plant had already begun broadcasting its seed. Doing it in early to mid-November would have been ideal. The plant doesn’t mind the haircut, and by the beginning of spring you can hardly tell the plant has been pruned.

Cutting back the coyote bush trimmings--One way to reduce the amount of seed litter
Coyote Bush trimmings–One way to reduce the amount of seed litter

We can let wild plants into our gardens, but we often exert at least some level of control to make “nature” conform to the needs of a city garden. Now that I’ve lived with the mess and maintenance the last few years, I think that it’s time to pot up a half dozen or so seedlings and select for a male plant to replace this gloriously messy female. I’ll miss the late-autumn “snowfall,” but not the pruning and weeding. Sometimes what works really well in nature doesn’t transition so well into our little cultivated plots of land.

it’s a girl

Maybe three years ago I started some coyote bush from local seed. This species, Baccharis pilularis is a pretty easy plant to reproduce this way, pretty close to “just add water.” It produces plants that are either entirely male or entirely female in the kinds of flowers they produce, or “dioecious” in botany-speak. When you grow them out from seed you have a pretty even chance that a single plant will be male or female.

Each gender has its uses in the garden. The males are great if you want a fast-growing reliably green mound of foliage that keeps requires close to zero added water in a garden situation. Virtually all coyote cultivars are boys.

The females are also fast-growing reliably green mounds of foliage that keeps require close to zero added water in a garden situation. But unlike the males produce thick foliage-obscuring quantities of white seed heads in the late fall and early winter when most other plants aren’t quite so glamorous. They’re spectacular, but come with the down-side that the seeds can flit about and land all over, populating your garden with little coyote bushes. This is why most named cultivars in the nursery trade are males. The sole exception, which was pointed out to me by Barbara of Wild Suburbia, is Centennial, a believed hybrid of this species and B. sarothroides.

Some closeups of the seed heads…

I’ve waxed poetic about the hillsides shot with flashes of white like this one that you see at this time of year.

Now I guess I’m putting my money where my mouth is. How bad is it having a female coyote bush in the garden? I’m about to find out, and I’ll report back here. But I doubt it’ll be any worse than a few other plants in the garden that spread themselves about. And if a few plants find their way into the bleak rental next door where the only things the renters are growing in their dirt-patch of a garden are mastiffs and bulldogs, how can it be a bad thing?

baccharis season

Baccharis in seed medium view

This has been one of the most spectacular years I can remember for coyote bush brush, Baccharis pilularis.

Hillside with baccharis pilularis with seed

With many plants still dormant from a long season with no rain, the perky green baccharis with their over the top heads of white seeds stand out. They look especially amazing with the sun behind them, lighting up the masses of seed.

Baccharis seedhead

Here’s a closeup of a stem swarming with seeds…

Fuzzy baccharis seedhead

…looking closer…

Baccharis seed detail

…and closer still. You can see here that the seeds are attached to the white parachutes that give the plants their white color this time of year in the wilds. These photos were taken in Tecolote Canyon, a few blocks from my house, this past Friday, one day before our first measurable rainfall in 164 days knocked many of these seeds off the plants.

Coyote bush brush is sometimes used in native gardens, occasionally in this upright form, but more often in its prostrate Central California coastal form. The selections ‘Pigeon Point’ and ‘Twin Peaks’ are fairly popular. But if you grow the these selections you’ll find that only male plants are used horticulturally, meaning you’ll miss out on this display of seed heads that can begin in late summer and last until the winds and rains disperse them.

Male baccharis

For contrast, this is a boy coyote bush brush, sturdy and green with no supplemental water here near the coast. The buckwheats and sage and sagebrush have all retreated to their dormant gray late summer coloration all around him.

Male baccharis closup

And a closeup of his dried flowers. Nothing nearly so spectacular as his sisters this time of year. But he’s got one advantage in that he’s not filling the air with parachutes of seed blowing everywhere like his messy sisters.

Male or female, coyote bush brush plays host to more interesting beneficial local bugs than you’ll see on almost any other plant. I’ll be starting some of these from seed this year in hopes of getting one of these spectacularly messy female plants. Down-wind four houses from me is the canyon, so seed dispersal shouldn’t be a problem.

For further reading: In Praise of Baccharis pilularis, at Town Mouse and Country Mouse.

california-friendly phlomis

Phlomis monocephala yellow leaves closeup

It’s not quite planting season, but for the last few trips to the local nursery I’d been eying a plant I hadn’t noticed before, Phlomis monocephala, a sister species to the more common Jerusalem sage, P. fruticosa.

This strongly drought-tolerant species from Turkey has leaves that are highly textured like those of several native California sages. What sets it apart from the California sages is what it does in the summer, when the leaves turn this strong yellow-green color. In the spring to early summer it will have a modest display of yellow flowers, but this a plant that you use for its cool foliage, providing a point of interest when a lot of the natives have shut down.

My front yard is a mixed Mediterranean-climate planting with a number of California natives, and I thought this plant would complement them nicely. It so happens that there are some plants that peaked five years ago and would better replaced. Three phlomis would fit in their spot perfectly.

Phlomis monocephala potted plant with yellow leaves

It so happened that the nursery had exactly three plants. Plant shopping can be a competitive sport. If you see something, that might be the last chance you’ll have at it. So you can probably guess that I’m now the owner of three little Phlomis monocephala plants. I won’t do any serious garden reworking for another month or so, but I should be able to keep the plants happy and watered for that long.

The plant will top out at about four by four feet, is considered hardy to zone 9, and requires excellent drainage.

Phlomis lanata nursery plant

While at the nursery I noticed this other California-friendly phlomis, P. lanata. This species grows lower, to maybe two feet tall by three to four wide. The size and shape of the plant actually would have been a better choice for the spot I have, but this isn’t one of the phlomis species that develops the gorgeous yellow summer coloration.

What it does have, though, are these really cool, fuzzy grayish leaves and stems. How can you resist touching it? Like the much larger Jerusalem sage, it’ll put on a good show of bright yellow flowers.

Nursery trio of phlomis and wooly bush and coyote bush

One thing I do at nurseries is to move plants into little combinations to see how they’d look together. The first time the staff sees me doing it it might raise some eyebrows, but the staff at Walter Anderson Nursery is used to me by now. (As you might expect someone who works in a library, I make sure to put everything back in its proper place.)

Here’s a play in scale and texture, a little ensemble of yellowish-green to pale green colored leaves that I liked: the Phlomis monocephala that I bought, in combination with what would be the low-growing form of coyote bush brush (Baccharis pilularis pilularis ‘Pigeon Point’) and the really delicate Australian woolly bush (Adenanthos sericeus).

Often, when you do an exercise like this, the plants will have wildly different cultural requirements or would be grossly incompatible size-wise. But in this case all three could coexist together in a nice planting, with maybe only the woolly bush needing just a bit more summer watering. The woolly bush would grow up into a large shrub, the phlomis into a dense medium-sized one, and the coyote bush brush would sprawl attractively around the base of the other two.