Fernbush: fantastic!

Chamaebatiaria millefolium Fernbush Plant Select

Fernbush is one of the southwest’s greatest plant treasures. The long bloom period begins in mid-June and will often last into August. Fernbush also gives the appearance of being an evergreen shrub in the winter, due to having foliate buds. The foliate buds are not encased or hidden by a bud-scale, making next years leaves visible during the winter months.

Once established in the garden this is an extremely low water usage plant. In their native habitat these shrubs grow with grasses and cacti. Native Americans would make a tea from the leaves to settle up-set stomachs. These plants tolerate shearing and pruning well. If you like, shear them yearly in the early winter (after leaf drop of deciduous trees). Fernbush gets is name from the deeply cut and lacy textured foliage. The foliage is pleasantly aromatic when you brush against the plant or are cutting it back. The mature stems exhibit a colorful cinnamon colored sheen, adding yet another attractive feature. Showy clusters of white flowers add a pretty effect in early summer. Being native to the Colorado Plateau, fernbush combines in the garden well with other western natives such as Arctostaphylos and Penstemon, as well as with ornamental grasses. It may also be planted as a hedge border in dry difficult areas of your garden. This is an extremely useful and low maintenance for drier garden areas.

View the plant profile here.

Fernbush (Chamaebatiaria millefolium)

Shrub
Height: 3-5′
Width: 3-5′
Blooms: July to August
Sun: Full sun to partial shade
Soil Moisture: Moderate watering, xeric once established
Hardiness: USDA zones 4b-8
Culture: Garden loam, clay or sandy soil

Thanks to Mike Bone, Plant Propagator, Denver Botanic Gardens, for writing this piece.

15 responses to “Fernbush: fantastic!”

  1. Earlene says:

    Will this plant do well in lower southeast Michigan?

    • Pat Hayward says:

      Not sure – it’s from the SW US and needs excellent drainage and mineral soils (not high organic content.) Might be worth a try in a raised bed area, but I wouldn’t recommend it for a humid climate with lots of rain.

  2. Misi Ballard says:

    On the previous page, this is described as deer resistant, but on this page it is described as a forage crop for deer… Can you please clear this up for me?
    Thanks!

    • Pat Hayward says:

      Excellent catch, Misi. I found this from the USFS: http://www.fs.fed.us/database/feis/plants/shrub/chamil/all.html showing that indeed it is browsed, but not enough to be a factor. The foliage has a slight fragrance which is usually a deterrent to deer browsing. And in anecdotal experiences deer have preferred other plants when given a choice. So I would say that it’s not likely to be browsed by deer unless they’re really, really hungry and there’s absolutely nothing else to eat. Hope that helps.

  3. valerie says:

    just bought some fernbush as live in northern new mexico. some of the leaves have turned yellow. was watering a little each day as a new planting. Am I watering it too much as it is not established yet.

    • Pat Hayward says:

      Thanks for your question, Valerie. Best thing when establishing new plants is to give them a thorough soak and then let them dry slightly (upper 1/4-1/3 of the soil), especially with native plants. I’d back off on the frequency so that oxygen can get to the roots. It could be suffering from lack of air thus killing some of the roots. Hope that helps.

    • Jamie says:

      I planted five fern bush at different times last year in my dry, clay Utah soil. In all cases, some of the leaves turned yellow for the first few weeks or so, but then greened up pretty quickly. I was really nervous about it after putting the first two in the ground, but then I realized it appeared to be a pattern in their establishing process. They also seemed to want a little water during that early period, but afterwards they were perfectly happy with just a trickle out of the drip. I hope yours worked out, too- they look and smell wonderful once they get going!

  4. Sally says:

    Is this a good plant for zone five outside of Denver (Littleton)?

  5. Phil says:

    This spring transplanted a small Fern Bush (about 8″ high) that I got from a nursery. It is now September and it has grown little if at all. Is the Fern Bush a slow grower ?

    • Pat Hayward says:

      Yes, it can be very slow in general. They need lots of sun and good drainage with regular waterings the first year or two (~2x/month in hottest times of summer).Hopefully it wasn’t planted too deep. If you mulch this winter, be sure to keep the mulch from touching the plant itself. If you want to fertilize next spring, use a very mild organic-based fertilizer, but honestly, they really don’t need extra care once the roots have grown out of the original root mass and into your native or garden soils.

  6. My fern bushes are in their first year of planting. How far back should I prune them in early winter and in CO what does early winter mean. I just moved here so am learning your climate

    • Pat Hayward says:

      No need to prune them back at all – ever. So – enjoy the time you won’t have to spend on it!

    • William Clodius says:

      As a native plant they should stand your winters with no pruning. I am in NM at 7300 foot and I didn’t prune mine for over ten years. I eventually pruned it not for its heal or appearance, but rather because it was planted four foot from the sidewalk and it started to overhang the sidewall. At this time it is starting to be at the high end of the quoted size range. In some ways I regret having to prune as the flowers, while small, are numerous, fragrant and persistent. It flowered until mid October, I think starting in late June. Still the pruning does reveal the lovely bark.

  7. My fern bushes are in their first year of planting. How far back should I prune them in early winter and what does early winter mean in CO? I just moved here so am learning about your climate.

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