Mystery plant – is it a weed?

Posted May 19, 2023

Dear Plant Nerd,

My neighbor calls this weed/volunteer in my yard a “brittle bush”. I like the yellow flowers. Is it a keeper?

If you call this a weed in front of us, we’ll give you an earful. Brittlebush (Encelia farinosa) is called tohavs by the O’odham. Sometimes in their creation stories, coyote is called the same thing. Not because he is silvery white (as the etymology of that word implies) but because coyote was raised on a hill and often laid in a bed of brittlebush leaves.

Brittlebush is an iconic shrub of the Sonoran Desert. Silvery shrub growing to about 4×4’. May need cutting back occasionally or may freeze back during cold spells. Grow in full sun, takes low water when established, root hardy to 5° F. Leaves look more silvery in drier, sunnier locations. May look green with more shade or water. Flowers heavy in spring, sporadic the rest of the year. Flowers are visited by various insects including butterflies, moths, flies, bees, wasps, and beetles. There are some native bee species that specifically and exclusively depend on this plant. The dominant herbivores on brittlebush leaves are the larvae and adults of the leaf beetle Trirhabda geminata. Desert tortoises love the flowers. This species is an important colonizing plant in foothill regions, acting as a nurse plant for many other plants. Brittlebush was used by native tribes for medicinal and other purposes.

Found on dry, rocky or gravelly slopes below 3,000 ft. in southwestern Utah, southern Nevada, Arizona, southern California; south into northwestern Mexico.

Our plant nerd answer for this question is from the Spadefoot Nursery in Tucson.