Rubber Rabbitbrush (Ericameria nauseosa) holds a near and dear place in this writer’s heart. Its violent attack on my sinuses every year surely signals the start of fall. It is a common and widely distributed throughout the basin and range and the whole of the arid areas of western North America. Sources say that it is also known as Chamisa, rubber and gray rabbitbrush, nut I've only ever heard rabbitbrush. It is a perennial shrub that belongs to the Aster family, so it’s related to daisies as well as sagebrush (with which it often grows).
It grows in disturbed areas and does well in poor conditions. It also can handle coarse, alkaline soils. It’s best distinguished by its bright clumps of yellow flowers and its otherwise gray appearance. It can grow to be very tall (up to eight feet!) but in my experience generally remains about 2 to 3 feet.
Shrubs are generally rounded if seen from above and flower heads are made up of 5 small, yellow, tubular flowers, and are arranged in dense, rounded or flat-topped clusters at the ends of the branches. Flowers bloom from August to October as other plants fade and rabbitbrush provides vivid color and an important pollen source for insects late in the summer (as well as its aforementioned sneeze producing potential and the distinct smell of it on the wind). Shrubs reproduce via an abundance of small, wind-dispersed seeds and can also sprout from the base.
According to Joseh Masco (via Wikipedia), The Nuclear Borderlands, specimens of rabbitbrush growing in Bajo Canyon near Los Alamos contained a concentration of radioactive strontium-90 that was 300,000 times higher than a normal plant! Apparently it’s roots tapped into nuclear waste thinking that the strontium was calcium due to their similar properties. The radioactive shrubs are, according to Masco, “indistinguishable from other shrubs without a Geiger counter.”
Rabbit brush is a very important plant for the basin and range. It quickly moves into disturbed sites which are also often the targets of invasive weeds and it provides ground cover and erosion control. It is an important pollinator and also provides limited forage. According to the Plant Fact Sheet Native Americans used rabbitbrush for baskets, yellow dye, chewing gum, tea, cough syrup, and to treat chest pains. During World War II it was considered as a substitute for commercial rubber and remains a minor commercial rubber source.
Rabbitbrush is a familiar face for many of us in the basin and range, its pungent odor and beautiful fall colors surely marking the change of the seasons and its fading away also marking the end of the allergy season!
Contributed by: Daniel Montero
The Great Basin and Invasive Weeds site, Utah State University, “Rubber rabbitbrush.” http://www.usu.edu/weeds/plant_species/nativespecies/rabbitbrush.html.
USDA Forest Service. “Plant of the Week: Rubber Rabbitbrush.” http://www.fs.fed.us/wildflowers/plant-of-the-week/ericameria_nauseosa.shtml.
USDA NRCS, “Plant Fact Sheet: Rubber rabbitbrush.” http://www.fs.fed.us/wildflowers/plant-of-the-week/ericameria_nauseosa.shtml.
Wikipedia, “Ericameria nauseosa.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ericameria_nauseosa.
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