Groundsel tree

Groundsel tree

October to November is the time of the year when cotton bales are seen in bunches as we drive to and from work. Despite that, there’s still a lot of white out there. Large feathery shrubs dominate the roadside scenery.

I call them groundsel tree (Baccharis halimifolia), but other common names are sea myrtle, salt bush and silverling. The fluffy white stuff is attached to the seeds like dandelion down. In a few weeks the wind will spread them around the same way.

Semi-evergreen toothed leaves emerge from the stem singly. Size varies from less than an inch long to nearly three. Bark is brown with intersecting ridges.

Groundsel tree plants can be identified at quite a distance. One of the few shrubs flowering now, they are often 10 to 15 feet tall. This makes them difficult to ignore.  No other member of the sunflower family in North Carolina gets this big.

This weedy shrub is well adapted to wet areas. We often see it interspersed with wax myrtle. Groundsel trees also tolerate salt quite well and can stabilize disturbed sites near the coast. They make a great naturalizing backdrop for a landscape.

They also establish easily. High seed germination percentage and prolific seed production are the main reasons why.

Flowering is much more prolific in sunny areas, but plants can survive in the shade. Thinning of a dominant tree canopy will encourage them to flower.

Plants are dioeceous, meaning that male and female flowers reside on different plants. Male plants are smaller and much less noticeable than the female ones. Female plants can produce viable seed within three years.

Other than retarding erosion and providing pleasing fall interest, Groundsel trees have little agricultural value. There’s nothing on the plant suitable for human foraging. Livestock and wildlife don’t even eat them. This is good, since foliage contains chemicals toxic to livestock. Pastures can fall prey to their invasion if farmers allow animals to overgraze and create bare places.

Although groundsel tree apparently has little or no value as a good food source for game animals, it serves as cover and nesting habitat for various species of birds.  Nectar from male flowers provides abundant food for bees and small butterflies. Songbirds then feast on the insects.

These fast-growing shrubs can pose problems during reforestation. They compete with young tree seedlings for light and usually dominate. They don’t respond well to fire, so incorporating prescribed burns into a forest management plan can eliminate this competition problem.

Chemical control is difficult. Many herbicides that will control groundsel tree will also kill desirable hardwood species. Spot treatments might be the best option for homeowners, but that’s tedious.

When in flower this plant can be a nuisance to some, because the airborne pollen is a potent allergen like ragweed. Susceptible individuals should avoid it in the fall. Likely the shedding down will irritate nasal passages also.

This is one species that is great when it is in its proper place. The cottony masses can be breathtaking when cruising down the highway in mid to late fall.


Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.

About tedmanzer

I grew up in Old Town Maine and got a B.S. at the University of Maine in Plant Sciences/ minor in Botany. From there I moved to West Virginia and earned a M.S. in Agronomy at WVU. I also met my wife there. She grew up in rural WV as the daughter of tenant farmers who raised cattle and hogs. Their lifestyle at times was one of subsistence and I learned a lot from them. I've always been a foraging buff, but combining my formal botanical knowledge with their practical 'Foxfire-type' background opened up my eyes a little more. I recently retired from teaching high school agriculture after 25 years teaching with my wife. Until recently I wrote a weekly nature/foraging column for the local paper ( I also have written several Christian nature/adventure novels that can be purchased on Amazon in Kindle format. One is a five book family saga I call the 'Forgotten Virtues' series. In the first book, Never Alone (presently out of print), a young boy comes of age after his father dies in a plane crash, and he has to make it alone. The second book, Strange Courage, takes Carl from his High School graduation to his recovery from a nasty divorce. The third book, Second Chances, takes Carl from his ex-wife's death and the custody of his son to his heroic death at age 59. The fourth book, Promises Kept, depicts how his grandchildren react and adjust to his death (this one is not yet published). In the final book, Grandfather's Way, his youngest and most timid granddaughter emerges from the shadow of her overachieving family and accomplishes more in four months than most do in a lifetime. I use many foraging references with a lot of the plants I profile in these articles in those books. I also wrote a romance novel titled Virginia. It is available on Amazon and is a different type of romance from a man's perspective.
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4 Responses to Groundsel tree

  1. awhitenhs12 says:

    Did not know that no ther sunflower in NC could get that big. Seems like an extraordinary shrub.

  2. susiehedley says:

    They may not be the most useful for health or food, like so many other trees, but I find them very interesting looking.

  3. the trees in this honestly look pretty cool

  4. alishabw says:

    I never knew what those trees were called but ive always thought they were very neat looking. I never knew that sunflowers could get that big in nc.

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