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Eastern Broom (What Time is it in Nature)

November 14, 2015

The landscape of Prairie Ridge is transitioning into its typically drab winter appearance, but there are still a few pops of brightness on the grounds!  One late-blooming plant, Eastern Broom (Baccharis halimifolia), is putting on a great show currently.

Eastern Broom

Eastern Broom. Photo by Chris Goforth.

Eastern Broom is a shrub belonging to the sunflower family, Asteraceae.  Though some taller plants are known, most individuals of this species top out at about 6 feet and reach about equal width.  The leaves area oval in shape, with leaves near the tips of the stems smooth along the edges and leaves further down with a few broad teeth:

Eastern Broom leaves.

Eastern Broom leaves. Photo by Chris Goforth.

The plant is found naturally in most states along the eastern coast of the US, the Gulf of Mexico coastal states, and into Mexico and the Caribbean.

Eastern Broom is know by a variety of other common names, including Eastern Baccharis, Silverling, Sea Myrtle, and Saltbush.  Many of these names describe some of the plant’s interesting characteristics.  For example, the name Silverling refers to the flowers of this plant.  Eastern Broom is dioecious, which means that individual plants are either male or female and produce different types of flowers based on their sex.  Male flowers are 5 lobed and have a slightly yellow coloration.  They produce a lot of nectar, but do not produce seeds since they are male.  Females produce dense clusters of long, thread-like flowers and these flower clusters are found in clusters themselves:

Eastern Broom flowers.

Eastern Broom flowers. Photo by Chris Goforth.

Female flowers are bright white and slightly shiny, giving them a silvery appearance in the right light.  The common name Silverling refers to the huge abundance of silvery flowers that female plants exhibit when they bloom in the fall.

Two other common names of the Eastern Broom hint at another characteristic of the plant: Saltbush and Sea Myrtle.  Eastern Broom is unusually salt tolerant and grows readily along the coastal plains of its native range.  It can survive sea spray and salty, sandy soils, making it an ideal plant for people who live in coastal areas and want to add a shrub with fall blooms to their landscaping.  Eastern Broom is also tolerant of a variety of soil types, soil moisture levels, light levels, and fire regimes, making it a highly versatile plant.

Eastern Broom is an important source of nectar for the last few insects that persist into the fall.  The male flowers are full of nectar and attract many butterflies (including Monarchs), bees, and other late season nectar feeding insects.  Because insects visit the flowers in abundance, the plant is also indirectly attractive to songbirds who feed on the insects.  It is, however, fairly toxic to humans and other mammals.  Foraging animals avoid it, which in some cases lead to Eastern Broom becoming overabundant in pasturelands and other areas that are heavily browsed by animals.

The Eastern Brooms at Prairie Ridge are currently weighed down by masses of bright white flowers.  They are just starting to go to seed, so now is a great time to make a trip to see these beautiful shrubs in their showiest form.  We hope to see you soon!

What Time is it in Nature is a weekly feature highlighting the current plants, animals, and other wildlife at the Museum’s public outdoor facility, Prairie Ridge EcostationFind out more about the natural happenings at Prairie Ridge at our What Time is it in Nature Archive.

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