Better late than never!
Groundsel tree isn’t shy about waiting for the right time to make an entrance. If you thought that blooms were all behind us until spring, groundsel gives us its final autumn gift.
Along State Beach and other shorelines and marshes, groundsel makes its stupendous stand. This medium-sized shrub is covered with white or yellow blooms, creating a whiteout of sorts along the coast. The more yellowish flowers are on the male plant, while the female stays pure with white blossoms that are showier than their male counterparts.
Though it can be found inland, too, groundsel is known for its salt tolerance, allowing it to live close to the sea and giving it the alias “high tide bush.” That name can cause some confusion, since it is also the nickname of another seaside neighbor with the same tolerance, marsh elder (Iva frutescens).
When you are on the beach with both plants, you can easily differentiate them by the arrangement of their leaves. If the leaves come off the stem directly opposite of each other, you are looking at marsh elder. Groundsel has alternate leaves. And it’s spectacularly beautiful now in its glorious bloom. Both of these plants together, in their marine milieu, are called saltbushes because of their location.
This location also causes the saltbushes to be collectors of sorts. When the tides go to their highest, flotsam gets bound up in both plants’ lanky vertical branches. It helps that they both tend to grow together in a dense, saltbush mini forest. In fact, the name groundsel comes from the Anglo Saxon word groundeswelge, which means “ground swallower,” referring to this plant’s spreading ability.
The scientific name of groundsel is Baccharis halimifolia. Yes, that is related to the Bacchus you know! Seventeenth-century herbalist Gerard explained, “The learned Herbarists of Montpellier have called this plant Baccharis . . . by reason of that sweet and aromaticall savour which his root containeth and yeeldeth: in English it may be called the Cinamon root, or Plowmans Spiknard.”
Other names are more self-explanatory. Cottonweed is an obvious designation now, as groundsel bush flowers with cotton-like blooms. Sea myrtle, silvering, false willow and consumption weed are other aliases. Consumption weed is an ironic choice, since the seed of this plant is not fit for human consumption. Perhaps it referred to the archaic term for illness or decay: the seeds are toxic to both humans and livestock, though there are a very few types of wildlife that have been known to nibble them with impunity.
For example, deer will browse on the plants, but tinier mice (and other animals) that eat only two percent of their body weight in groundsel foliage can suffer severe injury and even death. Depression, listlessness and stupor are early signs of groundsel poisoning.
So it’s definitely not its food value that endears this plant to beachcombers. And it will never be a noted building material or worthwhile bonfire kindling. But its role in stabilizing coastal dunes and, frankly, just making fall so much more beautiful, earns groundsel a groundswell of support. And we can all attest that the late flowering fireworks are well worth the wait!
Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.