Photo by Melody

Focus on Encelia farinosa (Brittle Bush)

By Jacqueline Cross (libelluleNovember 7, 2008

For a naturally mounding shrub that can really take the heat, try this desert plant.

Gardening pictureEncelia farinosa or brittle bush is a shrub found in western North America from Mexico to California, Arizona, Utah, and Nevada. A native of California, Brittle Bush can be found growing in the Sonora and Mojave deserts. It can also be found on hillsides and valleys in Hawaii.

E. farinosa belongs to the Asteraceae family which is the same family of plants the sunflower belongs to. According to Botanary, the genus Encelia was named for Christoph Entzelt, a sixteenth century Lutheran clergyman. The species name, farinosa, given this plant means mealy or powdery.

Encelia farinosa 
Encelia farinosa
Photograph courtesy of Dave's
Garden member, Xenomorf
Encelia farinosa
Photograph courtesy of Dave's
Garden member, manyhats
Encelia farinosa
Photograph courtesy of Dave's
Garden member, Equilibrium
Encelia farinosa
Photograph courtesy of Dave's
Garden member, Equilibrium
Encelia farinosa
Photograph courtesy of Dave's
Garden member, Xenomorf
Encelia farinosa
Photograph courtesy of Dave's
Garden member, Xenomorf
Encelia farinosa
Photograph courtesy of Dave's
Garden member, manyhats

E. farinosa is a perennial evergreen shrub. This plant is considered drought-deciduous because it will lose its leaves when water is in short supply. Once the rain begins to fall after leaves have dropped, new leaves will replace them.

The plant has thick, woody branches with silver-gray or blue-green two inch velvety leaves. The bush grows to five feet tall and can spread up to five feet wide. It tends to form a mounded shape. Flowers form on tall, thin, leafless stems that shoot up from the bush and fall over from the weight of the flower heads.

E. farinose grows best in gravel laden sandy and volcanic soils. It will not grow in clay soil. The plant is dependent on seasonal rainfall for water and needs full sun to thrive. Frost will damage leaves which results in the plant dying back to the ground. If it is not exposed to prolonged freezing temperatures, the plant will come back from the roots.

The bush has shallow roots; however, it does have a tap root that makes it difficult to transplant. Plants are reproduced by seed which are spread by the wind. Brush fires and controlled burns offer E. farinosa a chance at rejuvenation. After such fires, the bush can be found thriving across the desert. In areas where heat from fire is too intense for roots to survive, the seeds from other bushes will find their way to the newly burned soil and begin a new stand of E. farinosa.

Many species of birds are attracted to this bush and use it for cover in the desert. Bees and butterflies are attracted to its daisy like yellow/yellow-orange blooms, especially the Painted Lady butterfly (Vanessa cardui).

E. farinosa helps control erosion and has been planted on roadsides in Arizona to lesson problems caused by wind and water carrying the soil away from roadbeds. [1]

Desert bighorn sheep and desert mule deer graze on E. farinosa however, the plant holds no nutritional value for domestic livestock. In fact, it competes with Cenchrus ciliarus (Buffelgrass) [1]

Due to the sweet aroma of the syrup-like resin contained in the stems, E. farinosa is still used in churches in some parts of Mexico as incense. Native American people are known to have used this same substance as glue and chewing gum. [2]

E. farinosa makes a good xeriscape plant for those sunny, dry areas in the western United States. Seeds can be collected, allowed to dry and planted outside after last frost. Plant them where you want them as they do not like to be transplanted. Water regularly until seeds germinate and seedlings get a good start. Once plants get a good start, maintenance is minimal. Grow in zones 7b to 9b in full sun.

The high points:

Perennial/NativeRapid growth
Full sun/Drought tolerantMounding shape
Sandy, gravelly or
volcanic soil
Five feet tall and wide at maturity
Propagated by seeds Yellow/Yellow-orange blooms

A note about the distribution of the seeds from this bush; they can be quite prolific. The wind will carry them a considerable distance from the original plant. If planted in your landscape, keep an eye out for seedlings in unwanted areas of the garden.

Happy Gardening

Please follow the links below to articles concerning Southwestern gardening.

What Can Bloom in this Heat by Sally Miller

Southwestern Gardens Get Their "Second Wind" in the Autumn by Benjamin Hill

Introduction to Dasylirions by Geoff Stein

High Chaparral: Salvia Clevelandii by Tamara Galbraith

Garden Styles: Xeriscape by Toni Leland

[1] Tesky, Julie L. 1993. Encelia farinosa In: Fire Effects Information System, [Online]. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Fire Sciences Laboratory (Producer). Available: [2008, October 8].

[2] Arizona Flora 2nd edition
by Thomas H. Kearney and Robert H. Peebles
ISBN-13: 9780520006379
ISBN: 0520006372

Photo at top right courtesy of Dave's Garden member, 'manyhats.'

For more information on this and many other plants, please visit Plant Files

  About Jacqueline Cross  
Jacqueline CrossI'm a native Floridian...feet planted in the shifting sands of northwest FL. but my heart strings are tightly knotted to the hills of Tennessee. I live with my poodle, Minnie Pearl, Zsa Zsa the cat who runs the whole show and a new addition, Kitty Belle. I'm a writer, gardener, quilter, cross stitcher, soapmaker and nature lover. Mother to 3 wonderful daughters & Nana to 6 perfect grandchildren. I also write for and was promoted to Feature Writer in the vegetable gardens section in 2008.

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