How to Grow Turpentine Bush: the Desert Dazzler

Ericameria laricifolia

A gift from the Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts, sun-loving turpentine bush is native to the southwestern United States, including southeastern California, west Texas, southern New Mexico, and southern Arizona, as well as north-central Mexico.

the desert turpentine bush or Ericameria laricifolia in full bloom with yellow flowers in the American southwest.
Photo by Stan Shebs, CC BY-SA 3.0

And in addition to tolerating blistering desert heat, this tough evergreen shrub can also withstand temperatures as low as 10°F. Perfection!

Before we get too far, I know you’re wondering how the heck Ericameria laricifolia got its common name. Its foliage is covered in a resin that, when touched, smells like the stinky solvent. While you might not want to make perfume from the plant’s stems, the good news is that the stink repels would-be pests such as deer and rabbits.

Other names for this desert beauty include turpentine brush, narrowleaf goldenbush, larchleaf goldenweed, and in Mexico, aguirre. It was previously known scientifically as Haplopappus laricifolia, and many people continue to refer to it as simply “haplopappus.”

As the plant ages, its lower stems may drop their leaves and become bare, but the upper stems are covered in dark green, needle-like — but soft— leaves.

The green, needle like leaves of the desert turpentine bush. Close up.
By Stickpen via PD.

In early autumn, the plant bursts into clouds of yellow flowers featuring attractive, straplike petals that wiggle out from a center cluster of smaller flower forms.

Close up of the yellow flowers of Ericameria laricifolia.
Photo by Stan Shebs, CC BY-SA 3.0

The yellow flowers morph into white, dandelion-like balls of fluff, and then fade to tan seed heads, providing a long period of landscape loveliness.

Cultivation and History

As we mentioned, this long-lived plant is found natively in southwest desert topographies including mesas, slopes, and canyons.

While it is native to elevations of 3,000-6,000 feet, it does well at lower elevations, also.

While it has not yet been widely adapted into landscape use, native plant aficionados often highlight it as an excellent choice for regional xeriscape gardens, and it is slowly gaining wider adoption.

Propagation

Place seeds in the refrigerator for about two months before you plan to germinate them.

Fill seed trays with a seedling mix and place seeds on top of the soil, and keep consistently moist. Once you see germination beginning — seven to 10 days — cover seeds with a light layer of the seedling mix.

Once your seedlings are three to four inches tall, and outdoor nighttime temperatures are in the mid-fifties, you can transplant your seedlings outdoors.

Water every other day for the first couple weeks, and then you can gradually reduce your watering as your plants grow bigger and stronger.

How to Grow

In lower elevations, plant turpentine bush in spring or fall; in higher elevations you’ll want to plant in spring only.

The yellow blooms fo the desert turpentine bush (Ericameria laricifolia) on a rocky outcrop in the American southwest.
Photo by Stan Shebs, CC BY-SA 3.0

This daisy family member needs 100% full sun to be at its best. It can get unattractively leggy in part-shade conditions, and it doesn’t bloom as well in shady spots, either.

Ericameria laricifolia prefers poor, dry, sandy soils that don’t have a lot of organic materials. Limestone-rich soils are fine too.

Water young plants weekly until established, and then water monthly. Too much water will reduce blooming.

Growing Tips

  • Plant in full sun
  • Don’t amend the soil with organic material
  • Water sparingly once established

Pruning and Maintenance

In winter, you can trim off the scruffy-looking seed heads if you like a tidy appearance.

To reinvigorate an older plant and encourage an attractive, mounded form, trim the plant back to within a few inches of the ground in early spring.

There’s no need to fertilize turpentine bush.

Where to Buy

Turpentine bush can be, admittedly, a bit tricky to find for purchase. If you live in the Southwest, you may be able to find it at a garden center that specializes in native plants.

You can also order a packet of 50 seeds through Amazon.

Managing Pests and Diseases

Lucky you!  You’ve picked a beautiful shrub that has no known pest or disease problems.

Best Uses

This plant is slightly more flammable than many plants, so it is recommended that it be kept at least 15 feet away from structures.

It makes a nice specimen plant, or you can plant as a hedge or in other mass groupings. It is perfectly suited to a xeriscape landscape.

Quick Reference Growing Guide

Plant Type: Woody Shrub Flower / Foliage Color: Lemon yellow / dark green
Native to: Desert southwest of the USA and north-central Mexico. Maintenance: Minimal
Hardiness (USDA Zone): 7-10 Soil Type: Poor, sandy, limestone-rich
Bloom Time: Fall Soil pH: 6.6-7.8
Exposure: Full sun; no shade Soil Drainage: Well-drained
Growth Rate: Fast Companion Planting: Desert agave, firecracker penstemon
Spacing: 5 feet apart Uses: Ornamental, specimen, bird gardens
Planting Depth: Seeds: on surface of soil, then cover lightly. Transplants: same depth as container from which you are transferring. Family: Asteraceae
Height: 1-3 feet; as tall as 5 feet if it gets lots of water Subfamily: Asteridae
Spread: 3 feet Genus: Ericameria
Water Needs: Once established little supplemental water is required. Use water to control growth. Don't over irrigate! Species: Ericameria laricifolia
Tolerance: Full sun, drought
Attracts: Bees and butterflies
Pests & Diseases: None

In Celebration of Hot Days and Cool Nights

Mother Nature’s biodiversity is truly magnificent. While the rain-soaked bits of our planet are hailed for their lush and glittering flora, the drier areas, too, are resplendent in ways perhaps less heralded but certainly no less spectacular.

Colorful fall-time yellow flowers on a Turpentine Bush (Ericameria laricifolia).
Photo by Stan Shebs, CC BY-SA 3.0

Turpentine bush — despite its less-than-glamorous moniker — is a brilliant example of the diverse glow of the desert. Its deep green, needle-like leaves and radiant yellow flowers add a punch of loveliness to the Southwest, whether on the wild slope of a ravine or in a home gardener’s carefully tended landscape.

Will you add this desert beauty to your garden? Does it run rampant in the hills above your ranch? Share your tales of Ericameria laricifolia in the comments section below.

Looking for more planting options suitable for hot climates? Check out these guides:

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About Gretchen Heber

A former garden editor for a daily newspaper in Austin, Texas, Gretchen Heber goes through entirely too many pruners and garden gloves in a year’s time. She’s never met a succulent she didn’t like and gets really irritated every 3-4 years when Austin actually has a freeze cold enough to kill them. To Gretchen, nothing is more rewarding than a quick dash to the garden to pluck herbs to season the evening meal. And it’s definitely time for a happy dance when she’s able to beat the squirrels to the peaches, figs, or loquats.

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