Cochise County Plants: The Desert Broom, Baccharis Sarothroides

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Here in Cochise County, Arizona, our local desert broom plants (Baccharis sarothroides), present so many different looks that it’s easy to end up scratching one’s head when trying to identify the species–let alone the gender.

Apparently, at least according to my online research, both male and female plants produce flowers, but of different sorts. When the seeds with their silken white steamers start fluffing out, the entire plant looks almost snow covered. Additionally, there’s no way I could find a single leaf on the plants I inspected today…because the tiny leaves they do have are wet weather friends, falling off and disappearing during dry times.

Dry times, of course, are pretty much all of the year in this area except for the two to three months of monsoon rains during the summer.

In the end, it’s the common name that clinched the ID for me. They call this shrub the desert broom, and it certainly does look like a broom.

One of the many desert broom plants (Baccharis sarothroides) growing along the Highway 92 roadside in Cochise County, Arizona.  Most of these plants have flowered and gone to seed; perhaps this is not yet sexually mature.

One of the many desert broom plants (Baccharis sarothroides) growing along the Highway 92 roadside in Cochise County, Arizona. Most of these plants have flowered and gone to seed; perhaps this one is not yet sexually mature.

Having recently realized that I was running way behind when it came to photographing and writing about area plants, I finally started looking around with a keener eye. Not just for flowers, most of which bloom during the spring or summer anyway, but the bigger stuff as well, the trees and shrubs that dominate the landscape.

For a couple of miles along Highway 92, beginning at the Hereford Post Office and moving north, the roadside is heavily populated with desert broom plants. The “Baccharis” in Baccharis sarothroides translates as “wildly” in Latin, and this species has definitely propagated wildly in that area.

Curiously enough, the desert broom flowers and sends off its airborne seeds in autumn and early winter, basically October through January, which means that today (December 1, 2013), there were plenty of remarkable plant pictures just waiting to be taken.

Here are a few of them.

Female desert broom, Baccharis sarothroides, in full flower (December 1, 2013) in Cochise County, Arizona.

Female desert broom, Baccharis sarothroides, in full flower (December 1, 2013) in Cochise County, Arizona.

A closer look at the blooms (with streamer-laden seeds) from the same desert broom plant.

A closer look at the blooms (with streamer-laden seeds) from the same female desert broom plant.

One of the many desert broom shrubs bordering Highway 92 in Cochise County.  You can see the pavement running behind the plant.

One of the many desert broom shrubs bordering Highway 92 in Cochise County. You can see the pavement running behind the plant.

All of the Baccharis sarothroides are clearly identifiable at a glance as desert brooms, yet each one presents a different face to the world.

All of the Baccharis sarothroides are clearly identifiable at a glance as desert brooms, yet each one presents a different face to the world.

One of the most intriguing aspects of these desert broom shrubs is their ability to look “the same and yet different”. It was difficult to stop taking pictures, simply because each new plant offered a new face to the camera.

Age and gender were definitely factors in this presentation of variety, clearly, but there seemed to be more than that. In some cases, it was impossible to decide whether a particular plant was a male with a different flower or perhaps simply a holdover from the golden days of summer.

There are differing opinions out there regarding just how the desert broom rates as an allergen producer at different times of the year, but that was beyond me.

I just take the pictures, folks.

Desert brooms showing the difference between young and old...uh, mature.

Desert brooms showing the difference between young and old…uh, mature.

Young Baccharis sarothroides "sprigs" on the left, a huge matriarch dominating center stage.

Young Baccharis sarothroides “sprigs” on the left, a huge matriarch dominating center stage.

This particular desert broom is just too cute for words, all Christmasy and stuff.

This particular desert broom is just too cute for words, all Christmasy and stuff.

Another view providing a clue as to just how thickly the desert broom plants grow by the side of Highway 92 between Hereford Road and Ramsey Road.

Another view providing a clue as to just how thickly the desert broom plants grow by the side of Highway 92 between Hereford Road and Ramsey Road.

In this photo, are we seeing the summer phase of the desert broom...or the male version of the flowers?  Either way, the stems show no leaves....

In this photo, are we seeing the summer phase of the desert broom…or the male version of the flowers? Either way, the stems show no leaves….

Hmm...looks kind of flowery to me.  I'm going to say this is a male desert broom, with flowers.

Hmm…looks kind of flowery to me, but it shows neither the “depth” of male flowers (header photo and bottom photo) nor the “silking out” that defines the female flower….

On the other hand, some of the flowers on this Baccharis sarothroides appear to be "silking out", getting ready to fly.  Would male flowers do that?

On the other hand, some of the flowers on this Baccharis sarothroides appear to be “silking out”, getting ready to fly. Would male flowers do that? Probably not, so this one is likely female. Or is that just “loose silk” that landed on these flowers? Agh! My head hurts!

Okay, can you see what I’m getting at here? At least one online author swears up, down, and sideways, that he knows which are female flowers, which are male flowers (different plants, one sex each), and which are “summer phase” desert broom plants.

But I’m not sure he’s got it 100% right, either.

At any rate, going by that site (there aren’t that many to choose from), these would be the male flowers. (See next photo.)

Male desert broom (Baccharis sarothroides) with flowers in Cochise County, Arizona.

Male desert broom (Baccharis sarothroides) with flowers in Cochise County, Arizona. Female flowers on a neighboring plant are “silking out” (upper left).

Confused much?

Well…there’s one thing that’s “for sure”. Gender confusion or no gender confusion, every plant shown on the page is definitely a desert broom. There is that.

Immediate update: Just found a government study that states this species is toxic to cattle. It is apparently not toxic to insects. So, if you’re raising bugs for a living, no problem, but if you’re a rancher….


Update #2:
The following video discusses the medicinal uses for desert broom. Although considered an invasive species here in the southwest (it’s very aggressive at taking over where the soil has been disturbed) and anything but edible where mammals are concerned, it’s also apparently medicinal. The gentleman in the vid states that chewing a few of the stem tips (or steeping them and drinking the tea) will lower a human’s body temperature. He also mentions using it like chewing tobacco to knock out a toothache.

As he points out, he’s not a doctor; he’s just letting others know what he knows about this plant. If any reader has a bit of knowledge regarding the use of the desert broom for medicinal purposes, please feel free to share it in the comments. If it’s poisonous to cattle, it’s most likely poisonous to humans as well if used incorrectly.

5 thoughts on “Cochise County Plants: The Desert Broom, Baccharis Sarothroides

  1. We have a pool , and a bird dropped a seed , so we have a magnificent Baccharsaris sarothroithroides poolside. It is watered regularily and loves it’t location. Will a cut branch roo in water?t

  2. Congratulations! We know about bird-dropped seeds here–and also about the consequences of wildfire. During the Monument Fire of 2011, the high flying, high temperature smoke-and-gas clouds literally blanketed our 20 acres with morning glory seeds. Some now turn up every year, but during late summer of 2011, after the monsoons hit, this place was truly a colorful sight.

    I don’t know if a cut branch will root in water. Really don’t have any direct experience with the plant except to study it in the wild.

  3. Wow! I think you are fortunate to have your yard littered with Morning
    Glory seeds. I was recalling to my daughter that when I was a small child, we had a huge kitchen window and strung strings in the spring for our morning glory seeds. They covered the entire window and left the sun out in the summer. This was in MIchigan. I didn’t kinow they could last in the Arizona sun, so that is so great. Thanks for your comment. I was surprised to get one………….

  4. Bougainvillea is listed as a climber. Does anyone know how to have one climb other than a trellis? Would they even climb without help on a trellis?

  5. I try to answer every comment I get from readers. Except from the obvious spammers, of course…:)

    We definitely felt blessed when the morning glories blanketed the place, for sure. We think the seeds probably came from the Huachuca Mountains, where the wildfire was doing its thing and the temperature would be cooler on average. It wasn’t a huge percentage that survived to show up again in 2012 and 2013, but some of them do seem to pop up again after the monsoon rains start running.

    Bougainvillea, though? I’m totally ignorant on that one.

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