Fernbush: fantastic!

Chamaebatiaria millefolium Fernbush Plant Select

Fernbush is one of the southwest’s greatest plant treasures. The long bloom period begins in mid-summer 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 its 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: 5-6′
Width: 5-6′
Blooms: July to August
Sun: Full sun to part sun
Soil Moisture: Moderate watering, xeric once established
Hardiness: USDA zones 4b-8
Culture: Clay, gravel, loam or sandy soil

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

70 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.

      • Linda says:

        I’d love to plant this beauty next year along the front of my east facing house. So that’s morning sun only. Will that be enough to keep it from getting leggy?

        • Ross Shrigley-Plant Select says:

          Unfortunately it will get leggy unless you shear it back each spring. Then it will always look great.

    • 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.

  20. Beckie Moran says:

    Dear Ross Shrigley,
    I have watched your video on youtube on Fernbush. Also read the above comments. I have one Fernbush and would like one more. You talked about cutting being difficult bu could it be decided in the spring? I’m live in Central Orgon and belong to the RMS/NARGS I can’t come to Denver but I have two different editions of Plant Select books and they are made for our Z6 but we plant for Z 4 & 5 because of our temperature drops during the night. The Plant Select are made for our area. I’ll just keep watching You tube for now. But if you ever get to Oregon Washington State for a presentation I would like to know. I’m staying close to home with the pandemic and now smoke from the forest fires. It is in the dangerous zone but nothing as terrific as our recent fires in Oregon and west coast.
    Thanks for all the good advise.

    • Ross Shrigley says:

      I”m so glad you belong to RMS/NARGS! In the video, I trimmed the tips of the fernbush. It will be harder to trim those branches as you move down the canes. Yearly shearing should be simple work. Yes, you can trim in the spring since the flowers grow on new growth. Enjoy!

  21. Michael Young says:

    We have several seed-grown specimens that are thriving in our western Montana climate (average annual rainfall 14″), winter lows -10 to -20F. The oldest has been with us for over a decade, and is considerably larger than the specs (closer to 8′ x 8′). From time to time a snow load will bend some branches, but we have observed no other damage. I would describe the fragrance of the wet foliage, however, as potent, and in a chemical class not unlike creosotebush from the Sonaran desert–an acquired taste, shall we say, and one that no deer in our neighborhood has ever acquired. The flowers attract a range of hymenopteran pollinators unmatched by any other plants in our garden, and it literally hums in late summer when blooming. All in all, our most trouble-free shrub, even though we live about 300 miles north of the northern extent of its range.

  22. Vincent says:

    Hi 🙂

    I am from France, and I have been received as a gift seeds of Chamaebatiaria and I managed to sprout them.
    I am so happy to read all these positive reports about this too less known shrub – here in France, there is just only one nursery which sell them.
    I would have liked to know if it grow fast from seeds ?
    I mean how long does it take to get a 30cm tall plant ?

    Thank in advance,

    Vincent from Bordeaux

    • Ross Shrigley says:

      Great to hear from France! It will take just over 1 year for those seeds to grow that tall and faster if they are fertilized and/or greenhouse protected. Enjoy! I bet this plant will be popular over there!

  23. Emily says:

    I live in Denver and I planted three fernbush’s next to my house on May 15th. They receive full sun, western facing. The also have a drip system setup that go off for 30min (Mon, Wed, Fri).

    As of the past week, I’ve noticed that the bottom leaves are turning yellow.

    Could this be due to them being overwatered or is this just natural from transplanting and establishing into a new home?

    • Ross Shrigley says:

      The fernbush carries small leaves through the winter. They begin to drop when it gets hot. This is normal and that’s what you are noticing. The plant will be perfectly fine. Keep establishing it for this year and then water maybe once per week next year. Trim this plant back by at least 6″ each year to keep maintain a tight form.

  24. Randy says:

    I’m up in northern New Mexico and I love my fern bush but it has sprawled and is out of hand. Six foot high and maybe ten foot wide. Is it possible to do some pruning now (august) without harming the plant?
    Thanks for all the great info

  25. Bridget says:

    Do you prune and shape Ferbush in the winter after leaves in the area have dropped, or the spring before blooming?

  26. Hesper Kentz says:

    I have a fern bush that got too much water from my drip system, followed by a week of solid rain. Half of the plant has shown stress from overwatering (I think) and the other half fared better. Any ideas why that is? (See picture)
    Also, can you please clear up when is the best time to prune fern bush? Description above says: “If you like, shear them yearly in the early winter (after leaf drop of deciduous trees).” But in a post I see: “Prune them in the spring. Flowers grow on new growth so you won’t miss out in late July when it blooms.”

    • Ross Shrigley-Plant Select says:

      Fernbush, looks a little stressed about this time of year because the inner leaves that were small and green through the winter turn yellow and fall off. That’s ok, it is putting energy into flowering. Pruning- prune anytime from January to late April and your plant will look great when it flushes out and flowers. Enjoy!

  27. Michael says:

    I am in Santa Fe and have very well established fernbushes. Most are a beautiful green right now. But two have branches that have turned somewhat yellow and stunted looking. The leaves are smaller and some areas have turned brown. The rest of the plant looks vigorous, green and healthy. Is this a disease, overwatering or something else?

    • Ross Shrigley-Plant Select says:

      Fernbushes are starting to shut down for the winter. While they will retain leaf bud sized greenery, the large leaves will turn yellow and fall off. This could be what is happening one branch at a time. Keep an eye on those two branches next spring and if they don’t look right, trim them out.

  28. Jenni A says:

    Hi Ross!
    I am very interested in planting a few fernbushes against my house in SW Denver. It’s a west-facing wall that gets full afternoon sun (plants here take a beating in summer). Part of the wall has windows about 4 ft up from the ground, and I also have 2 large dogs (40 and 75 lbs). Is the fernbush safe for my dogs/will it stand up to the urine and occasional trampling and do you think keeping them below my windows is reasonable? Since it’s against the house would it be more evergreen? I’m having a hard time finding evergreen shurbs that are waterwise and safe for dogs- I’m hoping this fits the bill!
    Thanks for your help

    • Ross Shrigley-Plant Select says:

      I have two large 85 pound labs and fernbush. No urine problems ever. However they occasionally like to carve a shallow depression underneath to rest in the shade of the plant. It has not showed any issues for ten plus years now. Great plant, you will want to trim it annually for best performance and to keep it shorter than the windows. With additional heat throughout winter the fernbush might show more green, but it will still be minimal compared to true broadleaf evergreens. Enjoy!

  29. Norbert Runtz says:

    what is the growth rate of the fern bush ?

    • Ross Shrigley-Plant Select says:

      It grows more as it gets larger. 8″-18″ annually. It performs best if it is sheared back annually in the spring.

  30. N H Cole says:

    Thanks for all the Q&A’s! Mine was a gift from a fellow gardener in Larimer County CO about 5 years ago. It’s done fine at the NW corner of the garage, a tough location with only rain/snow for moisture and I’ve trimmed it back a couple of times, seemingly successfully. My question is the root growth: do I need to worry about it causing damage to the garage foundation? It’s about 2 feet from the corner.

    • Ross Shrigley-Plant Select says:

      No worries at all concerning foundation damage. Fernbush roots are not “those” kinds of roots. Enjoy!

  31. Cynthia Grover says:

    I live in Fruita, CO. A strip of clayish desert space runs across the width of my property, about 20 yards deep. It is bordered by a 30′ drop to a riparian area and irrigated fields. The strip is filled with Kochia, which we are removing by digging up the roots. Would Fernbush be a good option for providing native cover and possibly crowding out the Kochia? If so, should I wait to plant until the current heat (upper 90s-low 100s) abates? The area is not irrigated, but is accessible for hand watering to get new plants established. I have a couple of other Fernbush planted as specimen plants which are in their second summer and doing well with a little drip irrigation every other day during the highest heat. They replaced two others that were planted in June 2022 during high heat and high wind that died from either too much water or just general conditions.

    • Ross Shrigley-Plant Select says:

      Yes, Fernbush would be a great plant for that spot and it will eventually choke out the Kochia. Plant several plants close together and water the fernbush well to quickly get them established and large.

  32. Judy says:

    Is late August too late to plant Fernbush from the local garden store in Colorado Springs? I have been waiting for the extreme summer heat to die down a bit.

  33. Jeff Rosenthal says:

    This spring I grabbed a handful of seeds off of a trailside desert fernbush – I am astonished at the germination rate. I am growing about 15 of them that I potted up, I did not need the more than 100 that sprouted. I am very interested to see how this experiment works out, such a diminutive little plant from tiny seeds. Hoping they will be big enough this fall to plant out.

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