What is a Chamise?

Jillian Peterson

The chamise is a drought-tolerant evergreen shrub native to chaparral areas in the state of California in the United States. This adaptable shrub can grow up to 10 feet (3 m) high and 8 feet (2.4 m) wide, and often grows in dense stands called chamissal. The Latin name for this flowering plant is Adenostoma fasciculatum, though it is also known as greasewood because of the flammable oils contained in its needle-shaped green leaves. Many California fire departments discourage planting greasewood because of these flammable oils, but this shrub's showy white or cream-colored blossoms make it a lovely addition to a desert garden.

Woman with a flower
Woman with a flower

Chamise generally blossoms from February through June in most areas, and the shrub usually produces its white blooms in early spring. The tiny blossoms are clustered along the stems, creating a delicate, lacy appearance. The flowers slowly darken to cream and then to a rust color as they dry out during the summer months. These dry flowers can contribute to wildfires during the summer. The white and cream flowers go well with any color palate in a desert garden, and the shrub’s large size can add height or frame smaller plants.

Gardeners looking for shrubs for erosion control or to add beauty to a desert garden in hot, dry climates should consider planting chamise. This desert shrub prefers full sun, and its large size can create shade for other plants. The shrub flourishes in dry, sandy soil with adequate drainage, but it is also very adaptable and can grow in nutrient poor or gravely soil. For this reason, this shrub is often planted to help control erosion.

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Regular watering and occasional fertilization will encourage blossoming, but the plant can also tolerate lack of water very well. Chamise is a deep-rooting plant. Even if the plants are cut to the ground in winter, they will return in the spring if the roots are left intact.

In its native chaparral habitat — a dense, scrub-filled area where vegetation consists mostly of small evergreen plants — chamise often burns down to the roots during wildfires, and then grows back from these intact root systems. The shrub is so prone to fires because of the flammable oils present on the leaves in summer that most fire departments recommend cutting all greasewood shrubs back in late spring. Chamise also should not be planted near buildings to prevent the shrub from encouraging brush fires to spread to the structure.

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