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Maintaining Your New California Garden: Life-friendly Fall Pruning

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Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Plant of the Month (March) : California Bush Sunflower – Encelia californica

Early-blooming plants gladden the heart, hinting of approaching spring.  They also provide food for hungry bees and other insects.  One of the most dependable – and cheery – of our early blooming shrubs is the Bush Sunflower.  It is an easy-care mainstay in many local gardens and natural areas.

Also known as California Encelia and Coastal Bush Sunflower, Encelia californica is a member of the Sunflower family (Asteraceae).   It’s a plant of western California from Santa Barbara County to Baja California.   In nature, California Encelia grows mostly along the coast, including the coastal foothills.   It’s an important member of several Southern California plant communities including the Coastal Strand,  Coastal Sage Scrub and Coastal Chaparral communities.  Its inland counterpart, Encelia farinosa, is found in similar plant communities further inland (foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains and desert mountain ranges).

California Encelia is a semi-woody sub-shrub.  The lower parts of its branches are woody while the upper parts are more herbaceous.   It has a mounded shape that’s 2-4 feet tall and 3-6 feet wide.  In many ways, it’s a good example of how local shrubs succeed in our dry mediterranean climate.  In nature – and in the dry garden – Encelia loses all its leaves during the dry summer months.   While this may sound unattractive, a summer-dormant Encelia is not necessarily a detractive element in the garden.  When used as a background plant, the dormant branches serve as a neutral backdrop to greener and more colorful summer plants.
California Encelia re-sprouts with the winter rains

With the fall/winter rains, California Encelia greens up rapidly.  New growth sprouts from the woody branches and within a month the plant is fresh and lovely.  The leaves are simple, 3-veined and medium green that becomes darker with age.  The foliage is particularly attractive if the plant has been pruned in the fall.  

Even a child can tell that California Encelia is a sunflower.   It blooms during the rainy season – most often beginning in February and continuing even into May.  The bloom season is dependent on weather conditions, particularly rain and temperature.   The flower head is typical of the composite arrangement that makes the Sunflower Family so popular.   The old name for this family – the Compositae – reflected the composite nature of the flowers.

The ‘flower’ of sunflowers is actually a flower head that contains many small flowers.  The ray flowers (many people call these the ‘petals’) are flat and located to the outside of the flowering head.  Not all Sunflower species have prominent ray flowers, but those of Encelia are large and a bright golden yellow.  The central ‘disk’ flowers are smaller and often darker than the ray flowers, although they may be yellow, orange, purple, brown or other colors.  In Encelia, the disk flowers are predominantly dark red-brown.

The entire flowering head is 2-3 inches across and the heads are held above the foliage on slender stems.  A mature Encelia will literally be covered with hundreds of blooms, making it one of our showiest early spring shrubs.   Like the California Poppy, Encelia makes our spring gardens uniquely Southern Californian.
Mature Encelia californica in bloom

California Encelia does well in full sun or part shade.  It appreciates afternoon shade if you have a very hot, sunny garden.  It grows in most soil textures and takes soil pH up to 8.0 or so.  It also does fine in salty soils and seaside conditions, making it a useful plant along the immediate coast.   An occasional frost may nip the leaves but rarely kills a plant in our area.  However, California Encelia is a plant of temperate coastal climates; cold winters will surely kill it.

Watering is something of a matter of preference.  Encelias are really tough plants that do fine with little or no supplemental water after the first summer.   We have mature Encelias in the Gardena Willows Wetland Preserve (where Mother Nature’s Backyard is located) that are never watered but look lovely every spring. 
California Encelia (background) with annual wildflowers

In the garden setting, some prefer to keep Encelia green through summer with a little irrigation.    The choice is yours.  The drawback to summer water is that you likely will shorten the plant’s life.  If you do choose to water, limit watering to one deep watering a month (let the ground dry out between waterings – Water Zone 1-2 or 2; see     2012 posting on Water Zones) and withhold irrigation after mid-August.  Encelia, like many of our local native plants, needs a rest period during the dry season.
Mature Encelia californica pruned in late fall.  Note the seedings
sprouting around the parent plant - plants reseed naturally.

In the wilds, the tender branch tips of California Encelia are nibbled back each summer by deer, rabbits and other browsers.   They can take this abuse and in fact look more youthful because of it.  You can rejuvenate your Encelia by pruning it back quite severely each fall.   This is a scary undertaking the first time you do it – you literally prune the branches down to about 6-8 inches (see photo above).  But if you prune Encelia each year it will reward you with a lovely shape and abundant flowers.  Remember, you’re just doing a job the deer would do in the wild.   You can cut up the trimmings and use them as mulch or compost them.

Encelia is a good choice for the home garden.  In fact, no garden featuring local native plants would be complete without at least one.   It’s fast-growing and makes a good filler around other, slower-growing shrubs.  It does well on slopes, making it useful for hillside gardens.  The flowers make nice cut flowers.  Encelia does smell like a Sunflower;  some consider the smell to be ‘strong’ although we find it simply reminiscent of being out in nature.
This California Encelia was pruned 1-2 months prior to this photo

California Encelia is a wonderful habitat plant.  As an early bloomer, it attracts scores of early spring pollinators including European Honey Bees, native bees, fly pollinators, butterflies – even beetles. The foliage of Encelia and Mulefat (Baccharis salicifolia) are larval food plants for the Fatal Metalmark butterfly (Calephelis nemesis).  The seeds are gobbled up by seed eating birds like Goldfinches from late spring through fall.   The shrubs themselves provide important cover for ground-feeding birds, lizards and other animals.

California Encelia was an important medicinal plant for the local Gabrielino/Tongva people.  All parts of the plant were mashed and boiled to form a thick paste (poultice) that was spread on aching joints; the paste was also dissolved in warm water as a soothing bath to decrease the pain of rheumatism.  A paste from above-ground parts was spread on gums and teeth to ease toothache.   A poultice from green leaves was used to treat wounds and the stems were chewed as a breath freshener.   Coastal Encelia’s inland counterpart -  the gray-green Encelia farinosa – was dried and used as a ceremonial incense.

For a gardening information sheet see: http://www.slideshare.net/cvadheim/encelia-californica




We welcome your comments (below).  You can also send your questions to: mothernaturesbackyard10@gmail.com


  1. Very useful information--intended for a wide audience and gardening experiences. Thanks.

  2. I really appreciate the information about pruning. I planted 3 of these one my front yard list year and they are quite large and sprawling now. I'll be sure to prune them late fall this year to help them form a more attractive shape.

    I love the way they smell and my daughter (3 yo) and I love to observe all the wildlife they attract.

  3. I love this plant. Thank you for sharing the info about it's home medicine uses, too. BTW the ones in my Hollywood yard (adopted from plants grown by Hahamongna Nursery)--one of them has flowers that smell like honey. It's amazing.