These bright yellow blossoms, sometimes mistaken for sagebrush blooms, begin their spectacular show each fall. The curtain only comes down when those blooms become tan, fuzzy seeds amid the cold winter weather entering the stage.
Rubber Rabbitbrush (Ericameria naseosa) is widely distributed throughout the western United States.
Here in Eagle Mountain, in the sagebrush steppe ecosystem, it flourishes widely. A member of the Aster family, along with sagebrush – with which it is often found – it inhabits the Cedar Valley area on the foothills, mountains and valley floor.
It’s fast-growing, maturing in two to four years and has a lifespan of five to 20 years. It usually establishes itself after a disturbance in the soil and is a good choice for quickly stabilizing new roadside areas.
The rabbitbrush plants begin producing seeds when they are two or more years old.
Native Americans reportedly used rabbitbrush as a yellow dye and to make a medicinal tea. They also processed the rubber sap for making chewing gum.
The leaves, flowers and seeds are an important food source for mule deer, pronghorn, rabbits, and birds during fall and winter. It also provides needed shelter for mammals and small nesting birds.
Rubber rabbitbrush attracts a wide array of native insects, including butterflies and small bees. It is one of the few native plant species in the Intermountain West that provides habitat for pollinators during the late summer and fall.
The species name “nauseosa” refers to the smell given off when the leaves or flowers are crushed, described as pineapple-like by some and foul and rubbery by others.
The common name refers to the rubber content in the sap. Rabbitbrush was first tested as a source of high-quality rubber during World War II. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, U.S. Forest Service agency, in recent decades there has been renewed interest in its potential for production of rubber, resins and other chemicals.
It also contains anti-malarial and insect repellent properties.
The plant is typically distinguished by having white and green flexible stems, felt-like matted hairs, and narrow, thread-like gray-green alternate leaves.
Shrubs are rounded and generally two to five feet tall but can reach as high as seven feet.
Flower heads are made up of five small, yellow, tubular flowers and are arranged in dense, rounded or flat-topped clusters at the ends of the branches.
As most of the midsummer desert blossoms are fading, the rabbitbrush comes into play, brightening the landscape with its vivid coloring and performs spectacularly as a key player in the delicate desert ecosystem in Eagle Mountain.