Encelia farnosa or Brittlebush :
by Cheryl Miller
Encelia farnosa or Brittlebush is a desert shrub found throughout Baja and the south western
United States. The plant gets its English nickname from the brtittleness of its flower stems
when they are dry. In Spanish, it is called Rama Blanca (white branch) and in the Seri
It belongs to the Asteraceae, the Aster (formally known as Compositae) or Daisy Family, which is the largest family of flowering plants in terms of number of species, with over 1600 genera and 23,000 species worldwide. So extensive is the genera, that there are numerous sub-tribes, as well. Members of the Asteraceae Family are basically grouped by two flower-type groups, ones that have radial corollas, and ones with tubular corollas. But, all are bi-sexual or uni-sexual which led to the former name Compositae. Baja has quite a few native species of Asteraceae, so it would be impossible to describe them all in this single article. Instead, let us look at the Brittlebush a little further now.
Encelia farnosa is unusual and distinctive here in Baja from the other aster plants with yellow-daisy -like flowers due to its grey-green, fuzzy-velvety textured foliage. It is easily spotted even from the road. The leaves vary in size from 3 to 12 cm.s are ovate and whorled, radially alternating up the leaf stem. The multiple woody branches radiate from the root base, which also spreads with maturity from sucker growth reproduction. Brittlebush grows to 5 feet tall and 6-1/2 feet wide in a fragrant, rounded, dome-like shape, with numerous flowers atop woody stems, growing upward from the leaf stems. It is actually quite an attractive landscape shrub, even in the wild, as most desert plants tend to get leggy and messy looking during drought, Encelia farnosa tends to keep its rounded form. It can be deciduous and go dormant during a prolonged drought too, but, in this case or in the case of frost damage in a home garden, pruning maybe required, Brittlebush will generally snap back to life and beauty in the spring.
Here in the Los Cabos/La Paz area, they are most prevalent north of Cabo, starting to appear northward of Migriño. Its range extends throughout Baja, into Southern California, Arizona and parts of northwest Mexico, preferring the dry desert conditions of the Sonoran, Anzo-Borego, Mojave and Vizcaino deserts. It prefers sandy/gravely well-drained soil and is found in rocky slopes, mesas, dry arroyos, and roadsides up to 3500 feet above sea level. It is salt air tolerant, but prefers to be a bit inland, away from direct sea spray. In the wild, Brittlebush’s life span is about 32 years, a relatively short life for a desert plant.
Flowering occurs in October through May, rainfall dependant, and may actually bloom more than once a year. With an over abundance of water, the leaves grow profusely, but flowering seems to diminish, so too much water reduces its reproductive effectiveness. Each flower head is a magnet for birds, bees and butterflies. After pollination, each seed head produces about 100 seeds, which puff out from the ovary with a tuft connected to each seed, a perfect wind disperser. Seed germination in the wild is found to be about an average rate of 35%, however, with 770,000 seeds in each pound of seeds, and thousands emanating from a single mature bush, the seeds are quite effective even at 35%. Assuming 10,000 seeds (a low assumption) from a single bush, the potential reproduction rate is nearly 3500 new plants!
It is a true xeriscape and a reason why many south western states are including Brittlebush on their approved plant lists as well. In fact, Caltrans, the California Transportation Department is now hydro-seeding new freeways and highway shoulders with Rama Blanca. Deer resistant, the forestry departments of California and Arizona regularly use Brittlebush as a soil stabilizer after a forest fire to prevent erosion of the top soil. And, wholesale nurseries are offering it for xeriscape landscapers, as well.
Another Spanish name for Encelia farnosa is Incienso, which means incense in English. The resin and the dried flower stems were used as incense by the first Spanish Padres in the Mission churches here in Baja, dating back to the 16 and 1700´s. It has a sage-like smell, and as I actually make incense, I tried the flower stems myself. It does not sustain a slow burn like commercial incense, but if you crumple them into a metal ashtray and set it a flame, a profuse, temporary smoke is emitted, that is lovely and lingering in the room. Next field trip out, I will attempt to gather the resin too, which like Copal, is sprinkled over burning embers of charcoal and sustains the incense smoke over a longer period of time. All in all, a few minutes gathering the flower stems along the roadside can be a nice, natural alternative to store bought incense that may be chalked full of saltpetre to keep it burning. Try it!
The resin was also used here in the Baja as a varnish. Medicinally, both the tribes of the Baja and the Seri of the mainland, used the leaves a tea to soothe vomiting, applied the resin to sore muscles to relieve aches and pains, ground the resin or dried woody stems to fight wound infection or for use as a antiseptic hand wash. The dried flower stems were also ground as a tooth paste powder and to relieve toothaches. Of course, there is no sugar in this tooth powder, but it is natural and effective of giving you a sage breath and a natural abrasive for your teeth.
There are three other species of Encelia here in Baja. E. f. phenocodonta which grows throughout Baja and has a purplish disk in the center of the flower. E. californica has green, diamond-shaped leaves, and grows in Baja California Norte and California Alta, mainly in coastal areas. . E. palmeri grows between the Vizcaino Desert and the Cape. Little is written on this species, but it does have hairy green leaves and has been studied mainly for its morphism, along with other desert flora in the Vizcaino.
Our own Incienso bushes are both beautiful, great for your garden, as well as useful today too.