- Photo: Deborah Bird
Hairy leaves helps the plant to retain moisture and shields the leaves from the sun
April 2019 was a spectacular spring for blooming and colorful flowers all around the southwest. Many are traveling to California, New Mexico and Texas for the spectacular shows. Arizona has had it’s share of showstopping displays as well. On the Esperero trail in Sabino Canyon the views were spectacular. Not only were there swaths of yellow Brittlebush carpeting the sides of the trail, but the hedgehogs were blooming as well as many of the smaller clusters of purple, yellow, orange and white flowers. A Western Diamondback made the trail even more interesting.
One of the major players in our seasonal wildflower shows here in Sabino Canyon is the Brittlebush (Encelia farinosa). It’s usually easily identifiable throughout the year by the gray-green leaves. Upon closer examination of the leaves you can see that they are quite hairy or velvety. This helps the plant to retain moisture and helps shield the leaves from sun exposure. Sometimes the leaves look greener on one plant than others, but usually the hairs are still present. Brittlebush is a small shrub 3-5 feet tall and can become woody with age. The numerous yellow flower heads are borne on branches that are well above the leafy stems. When dried the branches are very brittle and will easily break. The plant blooms in late winter to spring, but this year we saw some blooming in early winter due to the rains that we had this year. However, the later spring bloom has been spectacular despite the early blooming period. It’s important to remember that many of our desert plants have adapted to the extreme seasonal changes and can be opportunistic and take advantage of a chance to bloom and thus reproduce.
Brittlebush is in a family known as the Asteraceae. Other names for this family are Compositae and it is sometimes called the Sunflower Family. All the plants in this family have composite flowers. If you look at a Brittlebush bloom, you will see that it is not just one flower but a head of many tiny flowers. The petals around that edges are each a flower, known as ray flowers. Each of the tiny ‘buds’ in the center of the flower is a can be complete flower having both male and female parts and are known as disk flowers. Some flowers in the Asteraceae family have only disk flowers such as Odora (Porophyllum gracile), and some may have only ray flowers such as Desert Chicory (Rafinesquia neomexicana). Think of the disk flowers in a sunflower and of all the seeds produced from it. Each of those seeds comes from one disk flower.
Etymology: Encelia farinosa: Encelia is named for Christoph Entzelt (1517-1583) a German naturalist; farinosa means mealy or powdery