Back to everyone’s favorite feature; when we get up close and cuddly with a local native plant who’s ubiquitous nature and lack of flashy bloom renders them overlooked and unappreciated.
As you look out onto the chaparral covered hills up route 33 this month you will notice a creamy hue beginning to take over in between the grays and greens and fading ceanothus. Those would be the nascent blooms of our trusty friend, stalwart of the hardcore chaparral, Adenostoma fasciculatum, chamise to the uninitiated.
Chamise is an evergreen shrub of the Rose family, usually between 3-9 feet tall , 4 to 6 feet wide. The stiff green needle-like leaves emerge in bunches called “fascicles”. The leaves are shiny with volatile, highly flammable oils which give the plant it’s nickname “greasewood”. The creamy white flowers (panicles) form at the ends of branches from May through July, tiny with five petals.
In the fall the flowers gradually turn an appealing rusty brown which tend to remain through the winter
Chamise is extremely drought tolerant and favors nutrient poor soils on hot dry slopes, often taking over entire swaths of chaparral hillside. Besides being flammable, the oils coating the leaves have allelopathic qualities which inhibit any other plants from growing in it’s understory. The root systems are quite extensive and deep, promoting stability on steep hillsides. While birds tend to avoid pure stands of chamise mule deer and rabbits use it for cover and food
Chamise has a long list of uses by California native peoples. Also know as “Yerba de Pasmo” the spasm herb by Spanish-Mexicans, medicinal uses are as varied as treatment snakebites, convulsions, colds and lockjaw. The leaves and bark were used to treat syphilis, and the oils of the leaves when fried in grease became an ointment.
The long straight hard stems were used to hollow out elderberry branches to make tubes, also for arrow foreshafts and even abalone pry bars.
In the garden chamise is great as a background plant and is highly effective on slopes for erosion control. There are a few hybrids and selections available including ground covers. Cut chamise back to the base when it gets messy, you will rarely have to worry about pests snacking on new growth.
The quintessential southern California chaparral plant, it is in bloom right now, don’t miss it!