The golden blossoms of gray rabbitbrush were my near-constant companion last month as I drove nearly 3,000 miles through the dry countryside of eastern Washington, Oregon, and California. In this season where the last rain fell more than two months earlier, rabbitbrush was one of the few plants blooming along the road. The common species is Ericameria nauseosa, gray rabbitbrush, also known as rubber rabbitbrush and formerly known as Chrysothamnus nauseosus.
Ericameria nauseosa is a complex species, with two subspecies and a large number of varieties. It can be difficult to tell the varieties apart, and for most of us the subtle and often localized differences don’t matter much.
Gray rabbitbrush is native throughout western North America from Saskatchewan to Texas and west to the Pacific states. Emigrants crossing the continent on the Oregon Trail would have seen it for weeks on end as they traveled west.
The USDA Plants database also shows it being native in New York. However, the New York Flora Atlas confirmed my suspicion that it was introduced to the state. In this case, rabbitbrush was in a grass seed mix spread in Rochester’s Highland Park around 1909. The herbarium record dates back to 1911 and the species is likely no longer persistent. I don’t recall seeing rabbitbrush in Rochester when I lived there in the 1970s. Our lesson for using online plant databases this month: question the outliers and try to track down the real story.
Pollinator and Wildlife Friendly
Even at highway speeds I spied butterflies flitting among rabbitbrush blossoms on roadside shrubs. Bees also buzz from flower to flower, gathering late-season nectar when few other plants are blooming.
Rabbitbrush shrubs provide shelter and habitat for small mammals like jackrabbits and birds, including sage grouse.
The US Forest Service Fire Effects Info page for rabbitbrush includes more details about which species browse it. Montana and Wyoming mule deer apparently like it, but California deer don’t.
Rabbitbrush is a vigorous, but not invasive, shrub. It thrives following disturbance. That may explain why I see more of it along roadsides than in adjacent areas only a 100 feet away. At full height, rabbitbrush is usually about waist high, sometimes up to eight feet, with a mounding habit. Vigorous specimens can be four or five feet across. As would be expected, rabbitbrush puts down a deep root system, drawing moisture from far below the scorched surface layer of soil.
Foliage is light gray, an adaptation to the hot dry summers where rabbitbrush lives. The gray color comes from a dense layer of white hairs that cover both stems and leaves. The leaves themselves are long and narrow.
Rabbitbrush is a composite. Each flower head is made up of clusters of (usually) five yellow disk flowers. It has no ray flowers, what we think of as “petals” on composites.
Garden and Landscape Value
Perhaps because it is so ubiquitous in its native habitat, I haven’t seen gray rabbitbrush used in a lot of gardens. That’s a shame because rabbitbrush looks good all year. When out of bloom it’s an attractive mound, the light gray foliage providing a nice foil to darker-colored shrubs and flowers that bloom earlier in the year. Late summer and autumn it comes into its glory, showering the garden with gold.
The seed heads persist into the winter, glowing in the lower winter sunshine. Rabbitbrush is deciduous, losing its leaves in mid-winter and sprouting new ones in March.
I can imagine rabbitbrush as an attractive low hedge as well as being used as a specimen plant. The California Native Plant Link Exchange lists several sources for rabbitbrush seed and plants both within and outside of California.
Rabbitbrush is considered a valuable species for helping to restore degraded habitats, such as from overgrazing or strip mining. It produces abundant leaf litter, which helps recycle nutrients from deeper in the soil to the surface layer. Rabbitbrush is also quick to regrow following fire, either sprouting from root crowns or from seed blowing into the burned area.
It can be established from seed sown in either spring or fall. Plants can also be grown from cuttings. Once established, rabbitbrush spreads from its abundant wind-blown seeds.
The other common name for this plant, rubber rabbitbrush, derives from the latex in its sap. During World War II researchers looked at it as an alternate source of rubber.
You can view more photographs of Ericameria nauseosa in its native habitat on my Pacific Northwest Wildflowers website.
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