BACCHARIS halimifolia L.
sea myrtle/ groundsel tree
By Thelma Glover
Sea myrtle dots roadsides throughout the eastern seaboard from Florida to Massachusetts to Texas. Although it is believed to have been restricted in earlier times to the coastal plain near the sea, it has now migrated inland and can be found in old fields, woodland margins and disturbed areas throughout the coastal plain and piedmont of Georgia. There are many common names for this plant depending on where it’s located. It is referred to as marsh-elder in Long Island, marsh-laurel or oil-willow in Texas, sand-myrtle in South Carolina, sea-myrtle in Virginia and groundsel tree or sea-myrtle in Georgia. It’s called consumption-weed in North Carolina, referring to it’s early general use for relief of consumption and cough. By whatever name you choose to call it, if you describe it, anyone who has ever seen it in fruit along a coastal highway will know exactly the plant referred to. In early to mid October the roadsides of I-95 between Savannah and Jekyll Island offer one of the most incredible show-stoppers (make that car-stoppers) imaginable as the seeds of sea-myrtle emerge and cover the mass plantings in silver-white silky puffs making each shrub resemble a billowing cumulus cloud.
Description: Sea myrtle is a very attractive, multi-stemmed shrub with unusual grey-green (Olive) colored leaves that are elliptic shaped with a few serrate teeth near the apex. It rapidly grows 6-l2’ tall and as wide with a rounded to oval growth habit. The overall appearance is soft, loose and airy. The small white flowers that bloom in the fall are loosely scattered along the leaf branches but clustered more densely toward the branch tips forming a conspicuous terminal inflorescence. The flowers emerge in late August or early September in the Atlanta area and the fruits become conspicuous by the first of October. The silvery-white silky puffs on the seeds is pappus, common to most plants in the Asteraceae (Composite) Family. The flowers are discord ,(no ray flowers), and unisexual with the pistillate flowers having the showy fruit.
Culture: Although found many times in the wild in wet, sandy ditches, watered by salt spray and blessed with mild, warm temperatures, sea myrtle is equally happy inland in poor clay soil, drought conditions, extreme heat and below freezing temperatures. Even without fertilization, the shrub grows extremely fast and reaches adult size in record time. In growing it and watching it for 4 years in several locations, I have found that full sun and sufficient growing space is all that it requires . It’s maintenance requirements are as low as any shrub I’ve ever grown. Niche Gardens’ catalog (which is one of the few places propagating it) describes it as having “industrial strength”, a very apt description.
Propagation from seeds: The seeds of sea myrtle are tiny but very viable. Collect them by frost, plant immediately and keep the seedbed evenly moist and germination begins in l0 days to 2 weeks. It may not be necessary to plant seeds at all if only a few plants are needed. Seedlings from the parent plant emerge readily after the parent plant becomes established, especially if the surrounding soil is fairly rich and moist.
Propagation from cuttings: Softwood cuttings are by far the easiest way to propagate sea myrtle. Six inch terminal softwood cuttings made in the summer months when sea myrtle is in a big flush of growth, root rapidly within a 2-3 week period when treated with a root hormone and placed under mist. I usually have near l00% success with rooting in the greenhouse and have a 2-3’ blooming plant after two growing seasons. A cutting of sea myrtle I did in the summer of l993 was planted in my yard in the fall of l994. This summer the shrub is 8’ tall with a diameter of at least 8’.
Garden use: Sea myrtle has virtually been ignored by professional plants men in Georgia while other native shrubs growing beside it in the same habitats, such as Myrica cerifera (wax myrtle), Ilex vomitoria (yaupon holly), and Illex glabra (inkberry), have made a substantial splash in the commercial and residential landscape trade. Comparatively, I think sea myrtle has as much, if not more, to offer, considering that it is much more cold hardy and dependably evergreen than wax myrtle, grows much faster than yaupon and inkberry, tolerates (even thrives) in much more difficult situations than any of the above, not to mention that when in fruit, no shrub can compare to it. Add to that it’s versatility for use in both commercial and residential landscapes, it’s propagation ease, the unusual color of it’s leaves , the season of it’s bloom and you have a garden plant that rates a l0. Makes me wonder why horticulturist spend so much time in Asia when there are jewels like this in our own backyards. Use it as a screen, in the mixed shrub border for late fall color, or as a contrast with deep green, dense evergreen shrubs. It’s rounded, airy habit makes it a natural to soften sharp angles of buildings and it works great planted on steep banks to control erosion. It’s a perfect backdrop for fall blooming wildflowers such as goldenrods, asters, sunflowers, ironweed, turtleheads and blue lobelia.
Woodlanders Niche Gardens 1128 Colleton Ave. 1111 Dawson Road Aiken, SC 29801 Chapel Hill, NC 27516 (803) 648-7522 (9l9) 967-0078
Georgia Perimeter College Native Plant Botanical Garden
3251 Panthersville Road
Decatur, GA 30034
Grimm, Wm. C. l966. Recognizing Native Shrubs. The Stackpole Co., Harrisburg, PA
Coffey, Timothy. 1993. The History and Folklore or North American Wildflowers. Facts On File, Inc., New York, NY
Tripp, Kim E. & Raulston, J.C. l995. The Year in Trees. Timber Press, Portland, OR
Mellinger, Marie. l984. Atlas of the Vascular Flora of Georgia. Studio Designs Printing, Milledgeville, GA
(Niche Gardens Descriptive Catalog. Spring, l995. Chapel Hill, NC Kim Hawks, owner)