CO-Horts Blog

Monday, October 27, 2014

Ode to rabbitbrush, the late season jewel of the garden

Written by Marcia Weaber, Colorado Master Gardener and Native Plant Master, Pueblo County
Original article published in CSU Extension-Pueblo County newsletter, From the Ground Up.
Edited for Co-Horts blog and posted by Linda McMulkin.  Photos by L. McMulkin  

       Ericameria nauseosa (formerly called Chrysothamnus nauseosus) is a sub-shrub native of the western United States and Canada.  It is a member of the Asteraceae (sunflower) family and is known by a variety of common names, including Rubber rabbitbrush, Golden rabbitbrush, Chamisa, and Chamiso.  In southeastern Colorado it most commonly called Chamisa or rabbitbrush. 
Rabbitbrush flowers add color to the fall
landscape along I-25. 
That's Greenhorn Peak in the background.
         Rabbitbrush has narrow blue-gray to yellow-green leaves and flexible twigs that are covered with felt-like hairs that reduce transpiration and water loss.  Rabbitbrush is most happy growing in an arid landscape.  It prefers sunny sites, and is common where recent disturbance has occurred.  It is cold hardy and tolerates moderately salty soils.  Depending on the area, it will grow from 1-7 feet tall. 
     Contrary to its name, rabbitbrush is not eaten by rabbits, although they may use it for shade and shelter.  Deer, pronghorn, and cattle do not normally graze on it, but will if no other forage is available in the winter.
From August to October, rabbitbrush is covered with clusters of small golden yellow flowers that are attractive to butterflies, bees and other insects.  It is considered an important late season nectar source for native insect populations and should be part of any wildscape garden.  The shrub exudes an aromatic scent, especially noticeable after rainfall.   It sports fluffy seed clusters through the winter months, which add texture and interest to the garden.   
After the flowers fade, rabbitbrush
continues to add texture (and a food source)
to the gardens at Cattail Crossing
in Pueblo West.

Native rabbitbrush reproduces from seeds, which are distributed by the wind in the fall.  Germination occurs easily, but seedlings often do not survive without spring rainfall. Once established, rabbitbrush can survive easily on rainfall without supplemental watering.  Often, seedling establishment occurs near other shrubs where shading reduces moisture loss.
Dwarf blue rabbitbrush (Ericameria nauseosus var. nauseosus) was recommended as a Plant Select variety in 2011 and is available at nurseries throughout Colorado.  Colorado State University PlantTalk 1741 states, “As our urban landscape stretches towards the plains and into the foothills, the "borrowed view" of the surrounding areas includes native plants that are valuable additions to the home garden.” 

Rabbitbrush serves as a backdrop
for other xeric plants at
Kendrick Lake.
Rabbitbrush is touted as one of the most ornamental and useful native plants for a Colorado garden.  It is recommended to cut the plant back to about one foot in the early spring to help maintain the plant's natural globe shape and to keep the plant dense.

There are many companion plants that marry well in designs with rabbitbrush, including purple asters, Russian sage, winecups, California fuchsia, Agastache, and Blond Ambition grama grass.  It can also serve as a backdrop for spring and summer blooming perennials and native cactus.

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