Plant of the Month
Photos: Rachel Cobb and Sally Sandler
Common Name: Chamise, Greasewood
Growth Habit: They are bushy shrubs when growing in full sun and plenty of room, otherwise they can be rangy and irregular
Cultural Requirements: Chamise is the most common shrub in San Diego County chaparral so it needs no care once it is established. In most cases only compact forms of chamise would generally be planted. These should be planted in well drained soils in full sun.
Features/Uses: Chamise is one of our most characteristic native plants. Its evergreen leaves help give our chaparral a year round green while the fine textured needle-like leaves are a nice foliar contrast to the larger leaves of manzanitas, scrub oaks, yuccas, and sage.
Chamise is in the rose family and although the individual flowers are small they are produced in showy terminal clusters. During this late spring to early summer season the white flower clusters are abloom. Especially during overcast “May Gray” mornings hillsides of blooming chamise combine with a profusion of black sage and buckwheat flowers to give a wispy, ethereal look to our natural landscapes.
Enjoy chamise for its natural beauty and for its ecological importance in the web of life. Dozens of insects and other arthropods, depend on chamise and other chaparral plants and in turn feed the many birds, lizards, and other organisms of our land.
For landscape use, especially on difficult-to-water areas such as steep slopes, the botanical variety Adenostoma fasciculatum var. prostratum, from the Channel Islands, sometimes erroneously called the cultivar name ‘Prostrata’, are attractive mounding shrubs. ‘Nicholas’ is a particularly low growing clone or cultivar of this. They are slow growing if grown without irrigation. After five or six years they may be only a foot tall and three feet wide, eventually spreading to 6-8’ wide.
‘Black Diamond’ is an even smaller, but upright dwarf shrub that can easily be pruned into a bonsai. At the Botanic Garden the most conspicuous specimens are at the miniature railroad of the Seeds of Wonder Children’s Garden where a number have been pruned into miniature trees.
As an important caution chamise gets its other common name “greasewood” because it is very flammable during the dry summer and fall. So realistically considering the threats of our regional wildfires unless you have a large property and want to include chamise in a naturalistic background planting not many people would want to plant the wild species. Even the compact varieties mentioned above shouldn’t be planted near a house or flammable structure.
If chamise is watered once or twice a month during the fire season it becomes much less flammable. If you have existing chamise on your property and are concerned about fire issues chamise can be pruned back to the ground before the fire season and they will resprout from the base. They regrow so slowly that they may not have to be cut back again for a couple of years. This new foliage is also not as flammable because there is much less dry woody tissue.
Bloom Time: late spring to early summer
Where in the Garden: Natural Areas at the Overlook and Native Plants and Native People Trail, Seeds of Wonder miniature railroad, Fire Safety Garden, California Gardenscapes
Also See Salvia mellifera