ASK THE HORT AGENT
Question What native shrub looks like it is covered with snow or cotton in the fall and grows along roadsides?
Answer Plant descriptions originating from 60 mph windshield surveys are usually vague. The most common characteristic described is flower color. Luckily, there is only one native shrub that appears to be covered with “snow” in the fall (in Harnett County). It is the Groundsel Bush (Baccharis halimifolia). It may also be called Consumption Weed, Cotton-seed Tree, Groundsel Tree or Silverling.
The fuzzy white hairs on the seeds certainly explain the names Cotton-seed or Silverling. The explanation of the other two common names is not as obvious.
Back in the Old Country (Europe, not retirement communities in Florida), there is a groundcover called Groundsel (Senecio vulgaris). The name of this plant was derived from the Anglo-Saxon word groundeswelge. This translates to 'ground swallower,' referring to the rapid way the weed spreads. In the 1600s, the name had morphed to Groundswell. In Scotland and England today, it is still called Groundsel, Grundy Swallow or Ground Glutton.
When European settlers came to the New World, they found a plant with leaves and flowers very similar to Groundsel. This new plant was also a quick colonizing plant. The only difference was the larger growing shrub form versus a low growing ground cover. This new found plant was called Groundsel Bush. Consumption Weed also refers to its consuming nature (not tuberculosis).
This shrub grows well in wet or dry areas, sand or clay soils and fresh or saline water. It can be used to reduce erosion. It was used in Oklahoma in the early 1900s to address the Dust Bowl problem. Groundsel Bush is rarely grown at nurseries or installed by landscapers, probably because it is so common in the native landscape. While growing prolifically along the coast, from Texas to Massachusetts, it can be found in every state except North Dakota and Minnesota. http://hort.ufl.edu/shrubs/BACHALA.PDF
It has no known pest problems (disease or insect). However, it does have two potential drawbacks. First, it is flammable. This rules it out as a foundation plant. Second, it is toxic to livestock. Most livestock simply avoid it, but why tempt the cows if you don’t have to?
For more info about Groundsel Bushes, visit http://www.ces.ncsu.edu/depts/hort/consumer/factsheets/shrubs/baccharis_halimifolia.html
If you don’t have internet access, then call 910-893-7530 or email me firstname.lastname@example.org
In the Old Country, Groundsel (the ground cover) is also called Sention. This is derived from Senex (meaning an old man). This name infers the downy seeds are like a white head of hair. A medieval author even wrote, “The flower of this herb hath white hair and when the wind bloweth it away, then it appeareth like a bald-headed man.” Senexes are very prolific in southern Florida.
Gary L. Pierce
Horticulture Extension Agent