California Brickellbush

Brickellia californica

California Brickellbushes lining the Rios trailside
Central Basin, south side | Oct. 2010

California brickellbush (Brickellia californica) is native to western North America and northern Mexico. Although it is described as common in sage scrub and charparral habitats of southern Calfornia, only a single speciment is known from the Reserve.

California brickellbush looks like many other plants of the coastal sage scrub. The leaves look like those of bush mallow; the seeds like those of coyote brush and the inconspicuous flowers might be mistaken for those of Palmer’s sagewort. Hundreds of people walk or jog past our California brickellbrush and never see it.

Who would have thought that this shy plant would have excited the imagination of Dr Seuss? But he saw it and gave it a role in one of his stories.

Other Common Names:

California brickellia, brickell bush, tassle flower

Description 4,59,292

California brickellbush is a much-branched, upright shrub that grows to about 4 1/2 feet (1.5 meters) from a short woody base. Leaves are heart-shaped or oval with irregularly scalloped margins. The lower leaves may reach 4 inches (10 cm) in length but are usually smaller; leaf size decreases markedly toward the upper part of the plant. Both leaves and stems covered with short hairs and tiny dot-like glands.

Flowers occur in leafy, compound clusters of many small flower heads. Flower heads are elongate with fewer than 20 florets. The phyllaries are hairless, in several rows, ranging in color from green to reddish; the inner phyllaries are much longer than the outer. While in bloom, the phyllary tips are held upright, close to the flower head. The elongate flower heads consist of 20 or fewer bisexual disk florets. The pappus is one whirl of about 25 pale, reddish brown bristles. Petals are whitish or tinged reddish united into a slender tube which has five lobes and is largely obscured by the pappus. There is one pistil with an inferior ovary which has a single chamber with one seed. The two-branched style extends well beyond the tube of petals. Together, the styles of all the flowers form a yellow mop-shape, the most conspicuous part of the flower head. There are five stamens. The anthers are united into a column about the pistil and do not extend beyond the petals. Flowers produce a strong, sweet smell in the evenings. California brickellbush is usually in flower for two to four weeks between May and December.1,59

In the fruiting stage, the phyllaries become brown and extend away from the flower head, giving the flower head an untidy appearance. The fruit is a narrow, ten-ribbed cylinder about half as long as the pappus, which forms a parachute at one end to carry the seed from the parent plant.

Green leaves of the California Brickellbusg surrounded by dried branches

Central Basin, south side | Feb. 2016

single white and brown mature flower of the California Brickellbush

Cluster of fruiting heads with the mature seeds and spread phyllaries | Rios trailhead | Nov. 2013

California Brickelbush florets

Cluster of flower heads | Central Basin, south side | Oct. 2010


California brickellbush is native to the western United States, from western Texas to southern Oregon and south into Mexico, generally below 8000 feet (2590 meters).7,8,67,89

California brickellbush is reported to be common in many vegetation types including chaparral and coastal sage scrub. Never-the-less, we know of only one plant growing in the Reserve. This bush is on the south side of Central Basin, alongside the main east-west trail just west of Holmwood Canyon. It has not been reported from Torrey Pines.1 It is possible that the single plant in the Reserve was planted.

Note: In fall, 2019 this area burned and our brickellbush was destroyed. As of early 2020, there is no signs of survival, but we are hopeful.


California brickellbush is a dicot angiosperm in the sunflower family, Asteraceae.2,11 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: 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 is called a flower head.44,49,143

Other familiar Asteraceae that occur in the Reserve include California sagebrush (Artemisia californica), bush sunflower (Encelia californica), and telegraph weed (Heterotheca grandiflora).

Species in the genus Brickellia have only disk florets, have a pappus of silky hairs and a 10-ribbed fruit. There are currently 112 species of Brickellia recognized in California,2 but only one occurs in the Reserve.48 Although varieties of B. californica have been described, as of 2018, none are recognized by Jepson.2

Alternate Scientific Names:

Brickellia tenera, Brickellia wrightii var. tenera, Bulbostylis californica

Jepson eFlora Taxon Page
greenish-white flowers of the California Brickellbush

Central Basin, south side | Oct. 2010

One flower head of the California Brickellbush with lines indicating phyllaries and split styles

One flower head; lines point to phyllaries (left) and styles (right) | Central Basin, south side | Sept. 2016

A single floret of the California Brickellbush with lines indicating split style, lobed petal tube, and pappus

A single floret; lines point to split style (left), lobed petal tube (middle), and pappus (right) | Central Basin, south side | Sept. 2016

Ecology 273,308

Many flowers are specifically adapted to pollination by day-flying pollinators;308 a few, such as sacred datura (Datura wrightii) and Hooker’s evening primrose (Oenothera elata) are adapted for pollination at night. These latter flowers are characteristically pale in color to reflect moonlight, close during most or all of the day to protect the flowers from desiccation and insect damage during the day, and produce a strong scent in the evening to attract night pollinators. California brickellbush seems to employ both strategies. Flowers are open both day and night and attract butterflies during the day.169,292 Yet they produce a strong sweet scent during the evening which is thought to attract night insects.3,59 The plant serves as a pollen source and also as a host to several species of larval butterflies and moths.292

California Brickellbush with mature brown and while flowers and green leaves amidst branches

Photo credit: Kristen Markell | Central Basin, south side | Oct. 2016

California Brickellbush in full bloom with hillside in background

Central Basin, south side | Sept. 2016

Single stem of California Brickellbush plant with various stages of blooming flowers

Flower cluster | Central Basin, south side | Sept. 2016

Human Uses 272

The Kumeyaay in Baja California made a tea from California brickellbush. Often they used the foliage, which is said to have been quite bitter. Sometimes only the stems were used, combining them with elderberry flowers. The tea was considered a potent medicine for a a variety of problems, including fever, skin ailments and respiratory and stomach problems. One curious use was to give a glass of brickellbush tea to a person who appeared to be dying. If it didn’t kill him, he might revive.

California Brickellbush in bloom on the Rios trailhead side

Central Basin, south side | Oct. 2010

Purple, white and green California Brickellbush buds on branch

Central Basin, south side | Oct. 2010

mature California Brickellbush flowers dropping seeds

Dispersing seeds | Central Basin, south side | Oct. 2010

Interesting Facts 309

California brickellbush plays a role in a Dr. Suess story called “What was I scared of”. The story is told by a young fellow who is out fishing one evening when he is approached by a pair of empty green pants. Frightened by the strangeness of this sight, he hides all night in a brickellbush. “I got brickles in my britches, but I stayed there just the same.”

Of course, the story has both a happy ending and an important message, as well as giving new insight into the potential of our unassuming brickellbush. But, read the story for yourself.

mature California Brickellbush ready to drop seeds

Central Basin, south side | Nov. 2013

mature seed of the California Brickellbush with pappus under microscope

Mature one-seeded fruit with pappus | Central Basin, south side | Sept. 2016

Branch with white and brown dried flowers

Seeds mostly dispersed leaving shaggy phyllaries | Photo credit: Kristin Markell | Central Basin, south side | Oct. 2016

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