Brittlebush is one of the most common and conspicuous wildflowers in the Sonoran Desert; seasonally providing a glowing golden-yellow cloak for the desert. Yes, the wood is brittle, hence the name.
Brittlebush has a long history of native use. The resin collected from the base of the plant is often yellowish to brown in color. This resin can be heated and used as a glue. The O’odham and Seri use it for hafting, to hold points on arrows and, in the case of the Seri, harpoons. A different sort of resin is collected from the upper stems, is more gummy and generally a clear yellow. The Seri use this to seal pottery vessels. As a child, I learned from Sells area Tohono O’odham children that this upper stem resin makes a passable chewing gum.
Early on the Spanish priests learned that brittlebush resin made a highly fragrant incense, akin to frankincense in odor. In 1702, Father Kino wrote “. . . in this journey inland and on other occasions I have found various things – little trees, fruit, incense, etc. – all species which are peculiar to . . . [this area] . . . alone, and samples of which I bring, to celebrate with the incense, by the favor of heaven, this Easter and Holy Week, and to place five good grains of incense in the Paschal candle.”
To harvest resin, use a sharp blade, like a single-edge razor blade, to make a shallow vertical slit about one inch long along the stem. The resin will ooze out of this cut and dry on the plant. Return in a day or two to collect the resin. A healthy, well-maintained plant can have numerous cuts made all over it, just have care to not girdle the stem.
In the 1960’s, I was taught by a longtime cowboy that a brittlebush stem makes a dandy toothbrush. Simply select a largish branch and peal off the bitter bark, no need for toothpaste. He had learned the trick years before from an old cowhand. Whether this was self-taught or learned from natives, it is impossible to say, although the Seri use brittlebush to treat toothache. For toothache the bark is removed, the branch heated in ashes, and placed in the mouth to “harden” a loose tooth. Modern dentistry advocates using mildly alkaline solutions to help maintain oral hygiene, which makes me wonder about the pH of brittlebush sap.
Some Southwestern folks will bundle the leaves and stems and use them to smudge with, much like smudging with white sage.
Flowers are long-lasting in bouquets but do leave some flowers on the plant, because the seeds of brittlebush are an important food source for native seed-eating birds.
Planting and Care.
Brittlebush is a lovely addition to any xeriscape. The shrub generally reaches around three feet tall and naturally forms a symmetrical globular form. The fragrant silvery leaves are soft and fuzzy, and work well in fresh floral arrangements. The golden yellow flowers appear in early spring and cover the bush, but in an interesting array. Flowers open first on the warm south-facing sides of the bushes and blooming gradually moves up and over the bush, ending with the north-facing branches.
While it can take full sun, brittlebush does best in a location where it gets noon-time shade in summer. Avoid planting the shrub near sources of reflected light, like pools or hot south-facing walls.
Brittlebush plants grow best with rejuvenation pruning every three years. Just pretend you are a hungry javalina and cut the plants to around six inches tall. Do this in the fall. Bloom will be sparse the following year unless you give them some extra water to help them recover.
The above was partially taken from my book, “Father Kino’s Herbs: Growing and Using Them Today.”
If you live in Southeastern Arizona, please come to one of my lectures. Look for me at your local Pima County Library branch, Steam Pump Ranch, Tubac Presidio, Tucson Festival of Books and other venues. After each event I will be signing copies of my books, including the latest, Month-by-Month Garden Guide for Arizona, Nevada, and New Mexico (Cool Springs Press, $26).
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