My daily commute to Sumter is a joy. Although I’m wary of logging trucks during the daytime and deer and wild hogs at dusk, mostly I am free to enjoy the fields and woodlands I pass. Calhoun County, my home, has rich farm lands that produce beautiful fields of cotton; so much that farmers are often still picking in December. As those fields lose their bounty, another plant that appears to be covered with cotton stands ready to become the showiest feature in the landscape.
Baccharis halimifolia, with common names including salt bush, groundsel tree, or sea myrtle, is a woody shrub, semi-evergreen in its southern range, and native to all states bordering the Atlantic as far west as Texas and into some of the interior neighboring states as well. Originally believed to have been confined to coastal areas, it has moved inland as it easily takes advantage of disturbed sites. Railroad tracks, roadsides, and now retention ponds all offer its main requirement – sunlight. As for soils, almost any will do except deep clays. Remarkable salt spray tolerant, it is recommended for areas needed reclamation that are subject to that environmental factor or for landscaping at beach properties.
B. halimifolia is a dioecious plant with male and female flowers produced on separate individuals. Females have the striking cottony appearance due to the ripening fruits, held at the ends of twigs in small bundles topped with ¾ inch long, silvery-white, thread-like structures which catch the wind and move the attached seeds when they are released. Dr. John Nelson of the AC Moore Herbarium recently told me that male plants are seldom seen and have a yellowish cast in stark contrast to the showier females.
The leaves from a distance resemble those of wax myrtle and both plants often occur in the same damp habitats near the coast. B. halimifolia leaves are alternate, two inches long and may be entire or have a few coarse teeth above the midpoint. Their color is a dull green. The plants are open, somewhat rangy, and usually six to ten feet tall, and five to six feet wide. Sadly, this plant is toxic to livestock. The good news is that the tubular male flowers are good sources of nectar and pollen for bees and butterflies
Even though it is native, B. halimifolia can be weedy in certain situations. The air-borne seeds move relatively long distances by wind, and this plant will no doubt expand its range as we continue to disrupt the landscape for human activities. Enjoy it for its beauty, however, and for its ability to stabilize waste areas which otherwise might be overrun by the ubiquitous invasive Ligustrum species.