Monday, February 9, 2015

Where's the Coyote?

Adaptable Coyote
The Coyote is everywhere!  Except in native gardens, where it should be a staple.  Coyote Brush, or Coyote Bush (Baccharis pilularis), is a common roadside attraction from Oregon to Mexico, from the ocean to the Sierra foothills.  It is one of the first natives to reseed in damaged areas.  And it stays cheery grass-green even in the dead of summer.

This typical (untrimmed) Coyote Bush, about four feet tall, greets you
at the start of the boardwalk at Moonstone Beach in Cambria.
Coyote Bush is a fast grower. It makes good fill while slower growers are getting established. Upright forms (supposedly the most common subspecies, consanguinea,) are great tall screens or medium bushes, while prostrate forms (some cultivars derived from beach subspecies pilularis) are great ground covers.  Upright and rounded forms grow side by side in the wild, so I'm not sure whether nature or nurture determines their shape.

Tomaz' Coyote Bush is a small tree that greets me from my kitchen window.
 Obviously a consanguinea. It gets a good trimming annually.
Taming the Coyote
While coyote bush can look a bit gawky in the wild, it is entirely trimmable.  You can hack it to the ground and it will grow back.  You can turn it into a topiary if you like.  It grows in all types of soil, at the beach, and in chaparral.  It wants supplemental water its first summer, then it can get by without-- but to look its best, it wants hosing off every couple of weeks. It will tolerate moderate summer water, and even grow a little in summer.  If you have a bare spot with a half day or more of sun and need some cheery green, plant Coyote!  But if you are thinking to yourself that Coyote looks too unkempt for your garden, wait.  Here's the Coyote for you:

I got this 'Pigeon Point' cultivar as part of a flat at Tree of Life Nursery.
They took much longer to establish than the one-gallon size.
Their tiny roundish leaves look so tidy.
At two years old it is starting to need a regular trim.
If you want a bright green ground cover, choose Coyote Bush 'Pigeon Point,' named for the coastal area south of San Francisco where it was originally collected.  Once established, it acts like a privet.  A no-water privet.  You will have to shear it, like a privet.  It is by far the tidiest of the named Coyote Bush ground covers. I love it.  

I told you it looks like a privet.  This Coyote Bush 'Pigeon Point' is six years old
and has been allowed to grow a little taller, but is still trimmed once or twice a year.
Sadly, UCI (or its housing association) have planted big slopes full of some other dwarf coyote that is not doing very well. Big dead patches. Don't judge Coyote by the failure of commercial gardeners to maintain them.

The Sex Life of Coyotes
Coyote bush produces male and female flowers on separate plants. (Dioecious, if you want to get technical.) The summer/fall flowers are small and fluffy, white or tan, not a feature. Male flowers are inconspicuous, and produce no seed for the critters to eat. Female flowers are downright homely, yet produce seed in fall and winter, when critters need it most. Dwarf 'Pigeon Point' is all male, in fact, all clones of the same plant (from cuttings, no mad science required.) So it won't spread itself all over by seed or look messy, but neither will it feed the birds. Plant some consanguinea by your fence, on a slope, or other spot that needs some fast-growing filler, and the neighborhood birds will thank you.
Homely flowers. So you may not want to plant tall Coyote by your front door.
These leaves are the size of a fingernail.
This lush round Coyote is nestled among Coast Sunflowers (Encelia californica)
in a quasi-native slope planting at UCI that gets some supplemental water.
The sunflowers were planted; Coyote snuck in, I think.  Works for me!
Coyote Cousins
Baccharis salicifolia (formerly viminea) is commonly called Mule Fat (don't ask me.)  Mule Fat has willow-shaped leaves.  It is hardy, with a range wider than Coyote.  It, um, looks like a weed, though it has showier flowers.  B. sarothroides is an undistinguished desert plant.  Don't buy a wetlands species, B. emoryi, unless you live in a swamp.  I won't waste my time with ground covers beside 'Pigeon Point' in future. It prunes the nicest.  (If it's just labeled "Baccharis pilularis" it's probably the tall-growing consanguinea.)  And watch out for a hybrid called Baccharis 'Centennial.'  While a fine filler plant (about 4 feet tall) now trending with landscapers, I think its narrow leaves make it a less friendly presence in the garden.

Coyotes I have Known

This two-foot fellow on a cliff in Big Sur is hanging on.
Spindly, or interesting open structure? You decide.
Since this guy's in my backyard, I say "open."
I should have given him more water the first year.
This glorious fellow, 8' tall and 15' wide, greets visitors to Los Osos Elfin Forest.
How did they get him to do that?
This "windswept" Coyote lives in a pot
at the Back to Natives nursery in Santa Ana.
This handsome fellow on a UC Irvine vacant lot gets no water or trimming.
Ironic that this volunteer is thriving and the landscaped ones are shabby. 

There's a Coyote...
Here are some four-footed coyotes that lives in our neighborhood. Pets beware!
Neighborhood coyotes in the UCI Ecological Preserve.
The flowering bushes are California Buckwheat, not Coyotes.
Photo from Sandrine Biziaux Scherson, used by permission.

To subscribe to this blog, click here.
To use text or photos from this blog, click here.
To share this post (do share!) click on the appropriate tiny icon below (email, facebook, etc.)


  1. They call it mule fat because the Spainard's mules would eat the leaves and cause them to bloat, making their mules fat. The leaves are edible, but not palatable from what I've heard I can't speak from personal experience.

  2. Terry - great info! Thanks.