Brittlebush is not only beautiful to behold – it is beautiful for many aspects of a sustainable Sonoran desert habitat. Brittlebush provides food for foraging pollinators, a shady spot to start saguaro life, a sheltered spot for wildlife to rest, and a safe corner of the world to build a little lizard den under.
Brittlebush (Encelia farinosa) is one of the most common and conspicuous wildflowers in the Sonoran Desert; seasonally providing a glowing golden-yellow cloak for the desert. And yes, the wood is brittle, hence the name.
Brittlebush is a lovely addition to any low-water landscape. The shrub generally reaches around three feet tall and naturally forms a symmetrical globular form. The fragrant silvery leaves are soft and fuzzy, and work well foliage in fresh floral arrangements.
The golden yellow brittlebush flowers appear in early spring and eventually cover the bush, but in an interesting array. Flowers open first on the warm south-facing sides of the bushes. As the weeks go by, blooming gradually moves up and over the bush, ending with flowers only on the north-facing branches. This allows pollinators, like the native ground dwelling solitary bees, to warm up in the south-facing flowers early in the season. Later, as temperatures climb into the 90’s the north-facing blooms are in the shade and help keep the bees cool.
Placement in the Landscape
Brittlebush can take full sun, but I discovered that it does best in a location where it gets some noon-time or afternoon shade in summer. It doesn’t have to be a lot of shade either – but the ones on the east side of my ocotillos do better than those on the west. Avoid planting brittlebush near sources of reflected light, like pools or hot south-facing walls.
Low-water indeed – brittlebush survives out there in the desert! That said, our home landscapes are often more heavily planted than the desert is – so a good soak once a month when we have had less than an inch of rain in the last month.
In general a soil that drains is preferred by this desert plant – but I have grown brittlebush in caliche bathtubs and even clay soils.
Brittlebush will survive if you snowbird away for the summer and the irrigation breaks. It might look a tad dead and dried out – but one good watering generally brings them back to full glory. The other great thing about this plant is that it does bloom in winter – and it will even survive cold (to 5 degrees) and some snowfall.
Brittlebush plants grow best with rejuvenation pruning every three to five years. Whenever they get leggy and bedraggled looking. Just pretend you are a hungry mule deer and prune the plants down to a scant 8-10 inches tall. Do this in the fall (October). Flowering will be sparse the following year unless you give them some extra water to help them recover. Please don’t do this to every plant in the landscape at the same time. Stagger the years so you leave shelter for the native butterflies.
Bring Brittlebush Inside!
Flowers of brittlebush make for long-lasting bouquets. Add some leafy stems to offset the yellow with the beautiful silvery foliage. Do leave some flowers on the plant, because the seeds of brittlebush are an important food source for native seed-eating birds. Other uses of brittlebush will be covered this week on SavortheSW.com.
Plant this Native for a Sustainable Yard
Brittlebush is so easy to grow, plus it is such an iconic Southwestern plant – it deserves a spot in your home landscape.
Science Nerd Notes: Encelia
Encelia has 21 species in the genus, found from Utah and Colorado and scattered across the the New World into Peru and Bolivia. There is even one found only on the Galapagos Islands. Encelia is named in honor of German biologist Christophorus Enzelius, 1517–1583.
Sign up for the El Sol newsletter – Its free.
When you sign up for the free weekly newsletter, I will send you the latest free PDF guide to some aspect of gardening here in the Land of El Sol. Topic changes several times a year and all subscribers get the latest one!
Daily Fun & Help
Follow on Facebook & Instagram – also on YouTube and Pinterest (just not daily!)
More about growing colorful flowers every month of the year in this book: Month by Month Gardening for Arizona, Nevada, and New Mexico (Cool Springs Press). This link is to Amazon and if you buy the book there the Horticulture Therapy non-profit Tierra del Sol Institute will get a few pennies – at no extra cost to you.
© Article copyright Jacqueline A. Soule. All rights reserved. You must ask permission to republish an entire blog post or article. Okay to use a short excerpt – but you must give proper credit to Gardening With Soule. You must include a link to the original post on my site. No stealing photos.