Saltbush, also called groundsel tree or sea myrtle, looks like a cloud of white flowers where you least expect it, hovering about 8 feet off the ground.
For most of the year, saltbush (Baccharis halimifolia) goes unnoticed, but it just so happens to burst into bloom when few other plants do.The not-so-lowly saltbush flowers profusely along roadsides and ditches in the fall.
This native woody shrub isn’t used very often in home landscapes, but it is perfectly suited to Florida gardens. In natural areas you see it in moist areas or along ponds, but it can tolerate drier sites as well, making it an excellent choice for rain gardens.
As an added bonus, saltbush is a nectar plant for butterflies including monarch (Danaus plexippus) and many other pollinators as well.
Saltbush is dioecious, meaning that plants are either male or female, with both plants capable of producing many small flowers in the fall. It is the female saltbush that has showy white flowers that stay for weeks; the male plants have a more yellow bloom. The flowers can be found scattered along branches, with the highest concentration at the tips. While the flowers of female plants may be dramatic, some homeowners find the feathery, wind-dispersed seeds that follow to be a nuisance.
If you have allergies, you might want to think twice before adding saltbush to your landscape; the pollen of this tree is a known allergen. Gardeners should also be aware that the seeds of saltbush are poisonous if eaten.
In coastal and inland wetlands, where it is native, saltbush grows alongside wax myrtle. When not in bloom, it’s often overlooked. While not unattractive, there is nothing particularly striking about the shrub’s 2 to 4 inch long greenish-gray leaves. In South Florida, the leaves will stay on the plant all year; however in North and Central Florida, saltbush is deciduous.
This plant has a somewhat irregular form and is better used as a filler plant than a specimen or show-stopper. It has a shrubby habit and multiple trunks, but with careful pruning and training, you can achieve a single, short-trunked shrub if desired.
Planting and Care
While rarely planted, saltbush can be great for wet areas of the landscape or places where salt may be an issue. Rain gardens are the perfect place for saltbush since this plant can handle soggy soil while also being fairly drought tolerant once established.
Grow it in full sun to light shade where you can see the blooms in fall. Since saltbush does like to spread a bit, be sure to leave between 3 to 5 feet between plants when planting. Saltbush responds well to pruning. Prune immediately after it flowers and again, if desired, at the start of summer.
If there are both male and female plants in close proximity to each other, saltbush will self-seed, so you may find yourself with some bonus shrubs popping up next season.
While it’s not commonly grown in home landscapes, saltbush may be just the plant to add a little late fall interest. For more information on growing saltbush in your area, contact your local county Extension office.