Brittlebush – A Useful Southwest Plant

Brittlebush (Encelia farinosa) is one of the most common and conspicuous wildflowers of the Sonuthwest deserts; seasonally providing a glowing golden-yellow cloak. And yes, the wood is brittle, hence the name. I wrote about growing brittlebush on GardeningWithSoule (here) now lets look at how to use this lovely plant.

Brittlebush Resins

The resin of brittlebush collected from the base of the plant is often yellowish to brown in color. This resin can be heated and used as a glue. The O’odham and Seri used it for hafting, to hold points on arrows and, in the case of the Seri, harpoons.

A different sort of resin is collected from the upper stems. It is more gummy and generally a clear yellow. The Seri used this to seal pottery vessels. As a child, I learned from Sells area Tohono O’odham children that this upper stem resin makes a passable chewing gum. (Do these words sound familiar? They might – because I am quoting myself! I wrote about them in my book Father Kino’s Herbs: Growing and Using Them Today.)

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The early Spanish priests learned that brittlebush resin made a highly fragrant incense, akin to frankincense in odor. In 1702, Father Kino wrote “. . . in this journey inland and on other occasions I have found various things – little trees, fruit, incense, etc. – all species which are peculiar to . . . [this area] . . . alone, and samples of which I bring, to celebrate with the incense, by the favor of heaven, this Easter and Holy Week, and to place five good grains of incense in the Paschal candle.

To harvest resin, use a sharp blade, like a single-edge razor blade, to make a shallow vertical slit about one inch long along the stem. The resin will ooze out of this cut and dry on the plant. Return in a day or two to collect the resin. A healthy, well-maintained plant can have numerous cuts made all over it. Just make sure you cut along the stem, not around it. If you circle the stem you “girdle” it and the stem above the cut may die.

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Out on the Range

In the 1960’s, I was taught by a longtime cowboy that a brittlebush stem makes a dandy toothbrush. Simply select a largish branch and peal off the bitter bark, no need for toothpaste. He had learned the trick years before from an old cowhand. Whether this was self-taught or learned from natives, it is impossible to say, although the Seri use brittlebush to treat toothache. For toothache the bark is removed, the branch heated in ashes, and placed in the mouth to “harden” a loose tooth. Modern dentistry advocates using mildly alkaline solutions to help maintain oral hygiene, which makes me wonder about the pH of brittlebush sap.

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In the Home

Some Southwestern folks will bundle the leaves and stems and use them to smudge with, much like smudging with white sage.

I love the blooms for cut flowers – they last a long time in a vase! Just remember to leave some on the bush for pollinators, not to mention so the seeds can feed our native birds.

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soule-savor-kinoMore cooking and using Southwestern native plants in Father Kino’s Herbs: Growing and Using Them Today (Tierra del Sol Institute Press). This link is to Amazon and if you buy the book there the Horticulture Therapy non-profit Tierra del Sol Institute will get a few pennies at no additional cost to you.

© Article copyright Dr. Jacqueline A. Soule. All rights reserved. You must ask permission to republish an entire blog post or article. Okay to use a short excerpt but you must give proper credit. You must include a link back to the original post on our site. No stealing photos.

Featured Photo: Brittlebush, photo courtesy of S. Shebs.

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