GV Gardeners: Turpentine Bush, another desert dazzler

Like a vivid yellow-gold cloud floating above the landscape, Turpentine Bush in full bloom brightens the autumn desert for several weeks.

Native Creosote was our subject plant last week. Now is the time to discuss yet another perennial that also has a curious scent, a familiar name, and a beauty all its own. Currently awash in bright yellow-gold flowers throughout the desert is Turpentine Bush (Ericameria laricifolia).

Why does the name “Turpentine” sound familiar? We know it as a thin, easily vaporized fluid that is distilled from the wood or resin of certain pine trees. The strongly aromatic product goes back centuries when it was used as a medical ingredient to cure a number of ills. Today, commercial turpentine is primarily used as a paint thinner and solvent.

Turpentine bush is a small, native evergreen that magically changes from a common, green plant into a brilliant golden bush each autumn. Its needle-like yet soft foliage is covered with a sticky resin that when brushed, smells vaguely of the turpentine product. Its scent repels rabbits and deer. Member of the sunflower family, it is found throughout the Sonoran and Chihuahuan Deserts primarily between 3,000 to 6,000 elevations or lower.

This robust bush tolerates the blistering desert heat yet also withstands winter temperatures as low as 5 degrees Fahrenheit. Fast-growing and long living, Turpentine bush is not susceptible to pests or disease. It matures at 3 feet high and 3 feet wide. Because of the contained resin, it is more flammable than some other shrubs, so planting at least 15 feet from nearby structures is recommended.

Plant this landscape lovely in either spring or fall; needed is nearly 100 percent full sun for it to look its best. It can become leggy with few blossoms if located in too much shade. It prefers poor, dry, alkaline soil with little organic matter. Water young plants weekly until established, then once monthly is adequate. Too much water will reduce blooms. Fertilizer applications are not needed.

After a summer of growth, in early autumn Turpentine bush will burst into clouds of bright yellow-gold flowers. These later morph into white dandelion-like fluff, then fade to tan seed heads. In winter, cut away the unattractive seed heads. To invigorate an older plant and encourage a neat round form, trim the plant back to within a few inches of the soil in early spring.

This shrub may be toxic to dogs if ingested; however, birds and insects feed on the leaves and the seeds are devoured by birds and small mammals. Both bees and butterflies are attracted by its nectar.

Turpentine bush makes an excellent short hedge, looks totally natural growing in a rock garden, or use wherever reflected heat is intense. Enjoy several dazzling examples of this colorful xeriscape plant by visiting The Arid Garden, just off West Camino Encanto Drive in Desert Hills I.

Mary Kidnocker is a University of Arizona Master Gardener who lives in the Green Valley area. Her articles are featured weekly.