Monday, November 29, 2010

Cottony groundsel blooms of winter are Florida's snowflakes

Grounsel Tree up close
and from a distance
Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel November 28, 2010)

When seen from afar, the soft, white blooms on groundsel trees resemble rounded mounds of snow.

Over the past few weeks, as I've been driving through Central Florida, I've noticed a preponderance of white, fluffy shrubs along the roadsides.

Standing between 5 and 12 feet tall, and about half as broad, these November beauties tend to cluster in lowland sites. They often appear along drainage ditches, which is probably why they tend to line many country roads.

Although their botanical name is Baccharis halimifolia, these plants have many nicknames. They're known as groundsel trees, salt-marsh elders, waterbrushes, silverlings or sea myrtles. I like to call them "snow mound bushes" because, when seen from afar, the soft, white blooms on the female plants remind me of rounded mounds of snow.

For most of the year, these Florida wildflowers go unnoticed. The bushes, with their upright growth and rough bark, blend into the background along fresh and saltwater marshes, lakesides and fields.

They are rather scrubby looking, with no particularly distinguishing characteristics. Then comes November, and the female plants burst into bloom. Overnight, an ugly duckling becomes a beautiful swan. The cottony flowers are everywhere.

It is because of those fluffy blooms that the plant is so widely dispersed. The wind picks up the pappi, the bristles surrounding the featherweight seeds, and scatters them about. Over the years, many of those airborne bristles must have landed on our property because numerous "snow mound bushes" thrive along the edge of our lake and marshland.

Recently, when I was gathering flowers for a bouquet, I snipped off a few of the plant's thinner branches. That day, of all the flowers I picked and arranged in a vase, the white groundsel tree blooms lasted the longest. They looked fresh long after the other flowers had faded.

Even though its blooms work well as cut flowers and the plant itself provides excellent cover for wildlife and nectar for butterflies, the groundsel tree is not a commonly used landscape plant.

Most nurseries don't even carry it. The best way to add a groundsel tree to the yard is to visit a native-plant nursery or propagate it yourself from a cutting.

Once established, it lasts a long time, providing seasonal beauty for up to 50 years. However, you don't have to add this winter-blooming shrub to your landscape to appreciate its loveliness. You can do as I often do: admire it from the front seat of a car. You can even pull off to the side of the road and snip a few of the blooms for a bouquet of your own. The flowers will survive the drive home and make an attractive display when placed in a vase.

Wildflowers have a way of appearing when least expected. Just when cool weather has dulled the sheen on most blooms, a splash of brightness takes front stage. That's how it is with the groundsel tree.

The "snow mound bush" is one of those wonderful wildflowers that we tend to take for granted until they burst into bloom. When the bush finally does flower, the white blossoms covering the upright branches jazz up an otherwise subdued landscape. Snowflakes may not fall in Central Florida, but thanks to the groundsel tree, our roadsides are blanketed with snowlike mounds of botanical beauty all winter long.

1 comment:

  1. Great blog, Sherry

    Thanks for the lovely essay on the wonderful groundsel, Baccharis halimifolia. In my area, they also refer to it as eastern baccharis. I have several in my backyard that appeared as volunteers and I've really come to appreciate them - not being showy ornamentals, they are often overlooked and undervalued. Interestingly, unlike most plants, they are dioecious, the male and female occurring as separate plants. The females have the cottony white blooms as you described, the male has less showy, yellow flowers. In addition to the wildlife cover and flower nectar for butterflies you mentioned, they also exude sap that attract several species of birds and insects (including some butterflies and moths). Spiders and predatory insects like to hide out to feed on the bugs that come for the nectar and sap and the plant provides a great home and buffet for green anole lizards. Thus the unassuming baccharis acts as a very busy little ecological microcosm. It also makes a great windbreak and shrubby intermediate step between grassland and forest. And, to top it all off, it is native to the Gulf and Eastern Seaboard states. Please pardon the long comment and thanks for bringing well-deserved attention to your beautifully named "snow mound bush"!

    J. B. Sherrick
    Southeast Texas