From a distance, a blooming fernbush (Chamaebatiaria millefolium) resembles a lovely white lilac bush, but no lilac would be in bloom at this time of year. Growing to seven feet high and wide, these shapely shrubs are covered in upright sprays of showy white flowers from June through August. Individual blossoms are reminiscent of single roses, and attract bees and butterflies. Come autumn, the flowers are replaced by russet seed heads.
A closer inspection reveals reddish peeling bark and the aromatic, finely dissected leaves that give Fernbush its common name. Even in our cold climate, these leaves stay on the bush for most of the year; branches are bare for a mere three to four months each winter. Fall foliage is an attractive copper color.
Native to arid parts of the western United States, fernbush is well adapted to no-fuss gardening. Its other name, desert sweet, gives a hint as to its water needs; established plants require supplemental watering only during prolonged dry spells. Plants are hardy to USDA Zone 4, or at least 7,000 feet. Situate in full sun.
I chose fernbush for our new yard partly because it’s not particular about soil, thriving in everything from gravel to sandy-to-clay loams. In spite of the amendments we’ve added, our post-construction dirt is so impoverished, I’m grateful for anything that will grow in it, especially for such an attractive option.
Fernbush is an ideal plant for backgrounds, informal hedges, and screening (we have several along our property line). It provides welcome flowers at a time when most shrubs have finished blooming. Consider growing it alongside other natives with similar cultural needs, such as purple-blooming leadplant (Amorpha canescens) and bright yellow rabbitbrush (Chrysothamnus nauseosus). In our yard it provides a backdrop for the wine-red leaves of ninebark, plus red Monarda, wallflowers, and other colorful perennials.