Plant Profile: Saltbush

Illustration © Cathy Vogelsong

By Craig Huegel

Reprinted from The Understory, Dec.2003–Jan. 2004

Saltbush (Baccharis spp.) is a very visible element of our fall flora here in Florida. As many of our fall-blooming wildflowers begin to fade, the silvery white tassels of this common woody aster become even more noticeable. What many of us fail to notice, however, is that this shrub is actually three distinct species, each having distinctly different male and female flowers on separate plants. Look closely and you will begin to see the differences between them.

Although each is unique, the three saltbushes share many of the same traits. All are tardily deciduous shrubs that rarely exceed 12 feet in height. Their many branches are rather weak and have an open appearance. The leaves also are generally small in size and sparse. Few would plant any of the saltbushes strictly as a foliage plant.

As their name implies, saltbushes are common in coastal areas and have a high tolerance of salt. But, they are not restricted to these types of environments and may occur in a wide variety of disturbed, open and moist soil habitats. In fact, they are likely to be seen in all but the driest, most well-drained areas.

Salt bushes are dioecious. This means that each individual is either a male or a female. Only the females produce the fluffy silvery white flowers late in the fall. Male flowers are greenish in distinctly rounded spheres.

The three species of saltbushes have many similar traits. Differences are most apparent in their vegetation. Following is a brief description of the three species.

Baccharis angustifolia: This species occurs in near coastal areas from North Carolina south, throughout Florida. As the scientific name implies this species has narrow, needle-shaped leaves. The leaves also are attached directly to the stem without a leaf stalk. The leaf shape is the easiest way to distinguish this species from the others.

Photo © Jane Williams B. glomerulifolia: This species also occurs throughout the southeastern coastal plain from North Carolina throughout Florida. As its scientific name implies, this species has decidedly rounded flower heads. The uniqueness of these flowers, however, is that they are attached directly to the branches without a flower stalk. This is not true for the other two species, and is the best way to distinguish this one from the following species, which has similar foliage.

B. halimifolia: This is the common, almost weedy species found through out the Southeast, north to Massachusetts and south to the West Indies. It .also is the most likely saltbush to be found in inland settings. The leaves often are rather diamond-shaped and most display distinct teeth along the outer margin. Most often the foliage is a rather gray-green Foliage can be variable, however, and some leaves may be elliptical.

Published on  06.01.2013