Bush Sunflower

Encelia californica

cluster of yellow bush sunflowers on hillside
Nature Center | March 2008

Bush sunflower (or California encelia, Encelia californica) is one of the dominant species in our coastal sage scrub vegetation. Like many plants in the Reserve, they may are seasonally dimorphic, shedding large winter leaves during the dry summer months. But when the winter rains begin, bush sunflower brightens the Reserve with cheerful, dark-eyed yellow “daisies”.

This is a good plant for the home garden. With a little supplemental water through the summer, it will remain green and produce flowers throughout the year. The plant can be severely pruned back in the fall every year or two to keep it compact.

Other Common Names:

California encelia, California brittlebush

Description 2,4,23,59

Bush sunflower is a rounded perennial shrub, usually less than 5 feet (1.5 m) in height. When not crowded, it may be as wide as or wider than high. Branches long, pale, often curved into a tangled mass; they are brittle, giving rise to one alternate name, California brittlebush.

Leaves are green, covered with very short hairs. They are usually 1¼-2½ inches (3-6 cm) long, ovate to elliptic, tapered to a narrow tip; they may be heart shaped at the base. Margins are smooth or finely toothed. Three prominent veins extend out from the base.23Foliage has a strong, characteristic odor, difficult to describe – a bit like cut green grass.

Flower heads are “daisies” with a purplish brown eye of disk florets (the delicate coloring can best be seen through a magnifying lens), surrounded by 15-25 bright yellow ray florets, which may be blunt or lobed at the tip. One to a few flower heads are produced from a long, loosely branched stem; flower heads extend above the foliage. The main bloom period is February through June,1 but single flower heads may be found throughout the year, especially where a little water is available.

Unlike many related species, the seeds of bush sunflower lack the pappus that act as parachutes, facilitating wind-dispersal of seeds. Instead the flattened seeds have a dense fringe of short hairs along the edges and sparse hairs on the flat surfaces. Presumably seeds are spread by birds and mammals.

green leaves of the bush sunflower plant

November 2013

small brown tear-drop shaped bush sunflower seed

Seed | October 2013

Single yellow bush sunflower

Photo credit: Denise Stillinger | Rios trailhead | April 2007

Distribution 7,8

Bush sunflower is found in Central and Southern California and in Baja California, Mexico below 2000 ft. (600 m). It may be a co-dominant in coastal sage scrub and is also found in openings in the chaparral.

In the Reserve it is abundant along the trails, especially in the western half of Central Basin around the Nature Center, east and west of the Rios trailhead and in Holmwood Canyon.

Classification 2,11

Bush sunflower is a dicot angiosperm in the sunflower family, the Asteraceae.2 This is the largest family of vascular plants in the  Northern Hemisphere.143 “Flowers” of Asteraceae are made up of one or both of two types of flowers (florets): symmetrical disk florets and strapped-shaped ray florets. These are crowded onto a common base (receptacle), and together are often assumed to be a single flower, which we call a flower head.11,44,49
Other familiar Asteraceae that occur in the Reserve include sea dahlia (Leptosyne maritima), goldenbush (Isocoma menziesii) and California sagebrush (Artemisia californica).
Encelia species have conspicuous daisy-like flower heads with both small disk flowers forming the eye of the daisy and large, strap shaped ray flowers forming the corolla. The genus Encelia has only five other members native to California, of which the best known may be the brittlebush (E. farinosa) which is common in our desert. Only one species has been reported from the Reserve.48
Jepson eFlora Taxon Page
close up single yellow bush sunflower with missing petals

November 2013

cluster of purple flowers and yellow bush sunflowers (Pole Road, Central Basin)

Bush sunflower with common phacelia | Pole Road | March 2009

cluster of yellow bush sunflowers on the San Elijo hillside

Nature Center | March 2008


Like many of the species in the coastal sage scrub, bush sunflower is seasonally dimorphic. Large leaves produced during the winter are replaced by much smaller leaves during the drought conditions of summer and fall.6 Leaf area of the summer leaves are of the order of 10% that of the larger ones.6 Under prolonged water-stress, even the summer leaves are shed and the plant goes dormant.59 There is some evidence that smaller leaves are more resistant to grazing.6

mature dried up bush sunflower plants

Summer vegetation | Nature Center | September 2013

mature bush sunflower plants growing amid brown brush

New growth following the first rains | Nature Center | December 2009

cluster of blooming bush sunflowers on the San Elijo hillside

Nature Center | March 2008

Human Uses

The Gabrielino Indians of the Los Angeles Basin boiled all parts of the plant into a thick paste that was used to relieve aching joints and toothaches. The stems were chewed as a breath freshener.292

In spite of the abundance of bush sunflower, we found only this one report of use by Native Americans. This is ironic because the genus is named after a German naturalist, Christoph Entzelt, (1517 – 1584) who wrote about the medicinal uses of plants and animal parts.21

Bush sunflower is often encountered in native plant gardens. If dead-headed regularly and given some water during the summer, it produces flowers all year. It looks best if pruned back hard occasionally. It is also used in revegetation projects, especially on bluffs to control erosion.24,79,292

yellow bush sunflowers blooming on the shore side of San Elijo lagoon

Rios trailhead | March 2008

close up of yellow bush sunflowers and small purple flowers

Bush sunflower with common phacelia | Pole Road | March 2008

mature wilted bush sunflower

Seed head with mature seeds | October 2013

Interesting Facts

The Kumeyaay name for bush sunflower was Nahekwi which means “it watches the sun.”16

cluster of yellow bush sunflowers in grassy field

Nature Center | March 2008

young green bush sunflower plants before bloom

November 2013

close up of yellow bush sunflower beginning to wilt

Photo credit: Denise Stillinger | Nature Center | April 2007

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