Brittlebush (Encelia species) is in the sunflower family and offers its bright yellow flowers to pollinating bees as early as January in parts of the desert Southwest. It is easily recognized and has some nice uses for the forager – or if you just want some cut flowers.
Beautiful Brittlebush – AKA Enchanting Encelia is one of the most common and conspicuous wildflowers in the Southwest Deserts; seasonally providing a glowing golden-yellow cloak for the desert. And yes, the wood is brittle, hence the name. I posted a video about brittlebush on the GardeningWithSoule YouTube Channel, now let’s look at how to use this lovely plant.
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.)
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.”
How to Harvest the Resin
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 after 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 or circling it. If you circle the stem you “girdle” it and the stem above the cut may die.
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. Felger reports that the Seri use brittlebush to treat toothache. Here’s how. Select a thick branch. Remove the bark. Heat the branch in campfire ashes. Place branch against painful tooth 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.
In the Home
Don’t have any white sage? I prefer the fragrance of a brittlebush smudge. Not just me. Many Southwestern folks will bundle the leaves and stems of brittlebush and use them to smudge with.
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 flowers can make seeds can feed our native birds.
Authors note. I used to write for a different site, and some of this information is there. More about what happened with that collaboration in this brief History of Savor the Southwest.
Father Kino’s Herbs – buy the book!
As requested – the last few copies of this out of print book are now for sale. Father Kino’s Herbs: Growing and Using Them Today The review says:
“Award-winning garden writer Dr. Jacqueline A. Soule has pulled together a fascinating book on the life of Father Eusebio Francisco Kino and some of the plants that he brought to Southern Arizona and northwestern Sonora, and area called the Pimeria Alta.”
A steal at only $20! This link is to our sales site. The profits from the sale go to the local Horticulture Therapy non-profit Tierra del Sol Institute. We hope you will help support this great Southwest non-profit!
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