Baccharis pilularis — Coyote Brush
Sometimes known as chaparral broom or more commonly, coyote brush, Baccharis pilularis is part of the sunflower family (Asteraceae), even though it looks nothing like a sunflower. While it is perhaps the most common and widespread shrub in coastal sage scrub and chaparral plant communities in northern and central California, coyote brush is used less frequently in cultivation than it could be.
Valuable for its ability to flourish in a wide range of conditions, it is drought tolerant, deer resistant, tolerant of poor soil, and while best suited to full sun, takes some shade as well. It requires good drainage and moderate summer watering to become established, then monthly irrigation in subsequent seasons to stay green. Coyote brush enjoys a periodic hosing down since, like many native plants, it disdains dust.
This native shrub features numerous, closely set, small and stiff egg-shaped, grey-green leaves, somewhat jagged on the edges and covered in a waxy coating that reduces the amount of moisture lost to evaporation. Leaves are fire-retardant, composed of a chemical makeup that reduces their ability to catch on fire.
Baccharis is a secondary pioneer plant—one of the first shrubs to appear after other plants have been removed by cultivation or fire—in chaparral plant communities. While common in coastal sage scrub sites, it does not regenerate under a closed shrub canopy because seedling growth is poor in the shade.
Baccharis is an excellent habitat plant offering food and cover to a wide variety of wildlife, including most of the predatory wasps, small butterflies and native flies. With its late bloom, it is an indispensable source of autumn nectar for hundreds of insects. It provides shelter for small animals and birds such as wrentits and white-crowned sparrows.
Blooming between August and December, male and female flowers are borne on separate shrubs. Male shrubs, which are most frequently found in nurseries, have smaller flowers that do not produce seeds are more desired in the landscape. Female shrubs produce profuse flowers resembling fluffy puffs that travel on the wind and deposit seeds that self-sow.
There are both upright and groundcover forms. Upright Baccharis pilularis reaches 4-6 ft. and is useful for hedging or fence lines. As a specimen, it develops a rounded form that must be periodically pruned to maintain an attractive shape. Unpruned, shrubs tend to become leggy, but they can be cut almost to the ground simulating fire damage and stimulating new growth.
Of the low forms, the most commonly planted are 'Pigeon Point' and 'Twin Peaks,' both of which mound to about a foot, creating a dark green undulating groundcover. Plant several 6-8 ft. apart for a roughly two year fill-in. Use this low form to create a swath of deep green carpet pleasant to the eye. Break up extended areas of baccharis with walkways or intersperse plots with colorful plants of compatible watering needs.