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)

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.

40 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?

    • 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.

  8. Barbara Harp says:

    I have some fernbush clippings. Can I propagate from these branches? In water or damp soil?

  9. Ross Shrigley says:

    Propagation can be done, but it’s not as easy as it might appear. I don’t think fernbush will root out in just damp soil. It needs to be under a misting condition and in perhaps rooted out in perlite then transplanted into the ground. Good luck.

  10. Christine Small says:

    I had a fernbush plant put in as part of my landscaping here in Albuquerque in late April and now it is the beginning of September and the leaves are curling and in general the plant is not doing well. I had been watering it every other day thru the hot summer but now every four days for about 45 seconds with a hose. Is this too much water? All my other native plants seem to be doing very well with this schedule of watering. Thanks!

    • Ross Shrigley says:

      Going into fall, only the inner leaves should be turning brown. Hopefully it’s planted in full sun. It can struggle in the shade. Your fernbush is probably getting too much water though. Give it a #5 gallon bucket (that’s about 1 minute from with a hose from a residential house) once a month until next spring. Next year maybe water it once per week. Take photos through next spring. I’d love to see your results.

  11. Tammy Peck says:

    I’m interest in planting Fernbush in a common area in front of a hotel for visual appeal, color, fragrance as well as sound break from a highway. Does this plant attract bees?

    • Ross Shrigley says:

      It will attract bees. The question suggests that there may be a concern about your customers being stung. If the plant is not hanging over the sidewalk where it will be brushed by pedestrians you should not have any stinging incidents.

  12. Susan Winnegar says:

    I want to find and plant a fern bush in Santa Fe N.M.. can I plant it in a wild garden thatonce was a sand box Native grass is dong well?

  13. Rebecca Shelly says:

    I have several fernbush. They are great shrubs however mine are getting unsightly because the branches are too long and are hanging down. If I cut them way back to about a foot off the ground will they become more compact with new growth? I am in the Northern NM area. What is the best way to prune them?

    • Ross Shrigley says:

      Yes you can prune them and they will put out more growth. A good practice is to shear the spent flower heads off in the spring which is about 8-10 back. This will increase the branching structure if you do it every year. You can prune back hard (down to 2′ tall) if you need to in the spring and it will grow back just fine.

  14. B Ehinger says:

    Here in Northern Rockies, I have one 2 years old fern bush which is 3 feet tall, planted in full sun in rocky well drained soils. Its thrived its last 2 seasons and again this spring (April thu May 30th). This spring we deep watered it during a sunny warm period but then weather turned cool and wet again for 2 weeks. Today I noticed that several of this year’s new leaf clusters, which were preparing to open at the tips of stems, have wilted and then broke off at the stem. Overall the plant’s foliage looks healthy with only a few brown edges to some of previous year’s foliage. Can this be a temporary symptom due to too much water and cool temperatures?

    • Ross Shrigley says:

      Yes, the influx of temperature and water will do that. The fernbush can also drop some of last year’s leave in the following spring.

    • Donna Braginetz says:

      I was just getting excited about planting fernbush but it looks like cool, wet, spring weather has become a new pattern for the Colorado Front Range Rockies. :^(

      Assuming this is not a deal-breaker for fernbush, how does it cope with grass, especially smooth brome, which is rampant in rural areas and smothers so many plantings?

      • Ross Shrigley says:

        If you can allow the fernbush to get to a large enough size like 4′ tall, it will start to out-compete the smooth brome. Unfortunately, the grass will continue to grow in the shrub and be evident. Be sure to stop watering the fernbush when it is larger and the will make it a little bit harder for the smooth brome to survive underneath.

  15. Nina says:

    I’m in Flagstaff and I stupidly planted a tiny fernbush in front of a rock wall at the edge of a patio 2 years ago. It is now 3′ x 3’x 3′ and I need to move it. What is the best time to move it so I don’t kill my beauty and do you have any tips on transplanting?

    • Ross Shrigley says:

      Timing of transplanting and aftercare is everything. Transplant in early spring and water well. It will be a challenge moving this plant because it is almost evergreen. There is small green foliage that persists throughout the winter. Good Luck!

  16. Leah says:

    My fernbush has gotten a little bigger than I expected it to, and it’s hanging over the sidewalk a bit. It’s mid-September now; can I go ahead and shear it back or should I wait until late winter?

  17. Marie says:

    I bought and planted a baby fernbush early summer and it’s been doing great until the weather got really cold. Now it’s turning yellow brown with leaves breaking off. Jared’s told me this is a normal reaction to fall but it just doesn’t look right to me. We’re in Denver area. It’s planted in very sunny area. Help?

    • Ross Shrigley says:

      Jared’s information is correct. This plant is almost evergreen through the winter with small leaves. Those turn yellow and drop around August every year. Your plant will be fine and thrive.

  18. Karen says:

    Will the fernbush tolerate a north and eastern protected corner that only gets about 3-4 hours of sun?

  19. Sally says:

    We planted a fern bush last summer. In early April of this spring, there was a big snowstorm and unusually cold (about 9 degrees) temperatures. (I’m in Boulder CO.( The leaves on the fern bush are all very brittle and dry looking as if they’re dead. In the weeks since, no new leaves have emerged. Is this poor thing a goner?

    • Ross Shrigley says:

      Your fernbush is NOT a goner. 🙂 The leaves are almost evergreen remaining as small bits of green through winter. Then in the spring, they grow and then drop in August, but new ones have emerged keeping the plant green. The second round of leaves should come through for you this spring. Give it some time. That late freeze was hard on lots of plants.

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