One of this author’s favorite winter plants is Baccharis pilularis, commonly known as coyote bush or coyote brush. Coyote brush is a perennial evergreen shrub that blooms in early winter when most other plants are dormant. It provides critical food in the form of nectar for many native species of bees, wasps, butterflies, and flies; and right now coyote brush plants are buzzing with activity! Coyote brush is dioecious, meaning each plant is either male (its flowers are pollen-producing) or female (its flowers are seed-producing). Both male and female plants are needed (in close enough proximity) for seed production.
This tough chaparral-adapted member of the aster (Asteraceae or Composite) family grows to 8 feet tall, 4 feet wide in the wild. It can grow in alkaline as well as clay soil, and is well adapted to central valley heat and droughts. It is common to see coyote brush in sage scrub, chaparral, and oak woodland habitats in the coastal foothills, inland to the Sierra foothills. It attracts natural predator insects that eat aphids, mites and whiteflies, another of its many benefits in urban settings and restoration projects. Wildlife use the thick woody shrub for cover. Early Californians heated the leaves, and applied them to swellings, and teas were made of the leaves to treat stomach issues and as a general remedy. Straight branches were used for arrow shafts and for construction.
Coyote brush can be used along creeks to stabilize the banks and control erosion. It is moderately fast growing, and makes an effective hedge plant in hedgerows. It prefers full sun, and its water requirement is low. It is deer and fire resistant. Coyote brush seed can be collected as the poofy flowers are just starting to fly away on the wind.
Smaller varieties of coyote brush have been cultivated for urban landscapes and yards. Some even grow prostrate (flat on the ground) and can be used as groundcover plants. Popular cultivars include ‘Twin Peaks’ and ‘Pigeon Point.’ These are male plants (no unauthorized seedlings) and are popular in butterfly, bee and bird gardens.