This extremely drought-tolerant plant, which can be seen along canyon walls and in coastal scrub while hiking, also makes a great garden plant in dry coastal climates.
Chaparral bushmallow (Malacothamnus fasciculatus) is a species of plant indigenous to coastal sage scrub, chaparral and foothill woodland ecosystems in Southern California and Baja California. It is also a good garden plant, where it is often used as a hedge, background shrub or for erosion control. When flowering, the chaparral bush mallow attracts butterflies and hummingbirds, and it is one of the first plants to return en force after a wildfire.
The Mallow Family of Plants
Belonging to the family Malvaceae (the mallow family), the chaparral bushmallow is also commonly known as the Mendocino bushmallow, the mesa bushmallow and the chaparral mallow. The so-called Santa Cruz Island Bush Mallow (Malacothamnus fasciculatus var. nesioticus) is a variation of the species, which is considered endangered by the United States Federal Government. In general, the chaparral bushmallow is considered a common species in the chaparral of Southern California and Northern Baja Califronia.
While there are many variations, the chaparral bushmallow is frequently observed as a shrub growing to about six feet in height (although it can grow to twice that height or more). It produces small (to about one inch) pink or mauve flowers during the spring and summer months. This fast-growing shrub has hairy, dense branches that are often described as wand-like, and the leaves of the plant appear fuzzy on top and underneath. It is these hairs, in part, that help the plant retain moisture during the dry season.
Appropriate Habitat for the Chaparral Bushmallow
The chaparral bushmallow does well when growing in well-drained soil in full to part sun. It can survive temperatures that briefly dip as low as 15 degrees Fahrenheit, and it is a very drought-tolerant and fire resistant plant. Despite its resilience, this species, as well as related species, are susceptible to introduced, non-indigenous herbivores such as goats, cows and sheep. The chaparral bushmallow also must compete with invasive species of plants that have taken hold secondary to the introduction of alien herbivores. With the exception of several variations (Malacothamnus fasciculatus var. nesioticus) and related species (e.g., Malacothamnus clementinus), however, the chaparral is a considered a relatively common plant in much of its native range.
Hiking to See the Chaparral Bushmallow
When hiking in Southern California, look for the chaparral bushmallow on dry slopes and the sides of canyons below 2500 feet. An excellent place to observe this plant is while hiking in Laguna Canyon. It is quite prevalent, for example, on the Laurel Canyon Trail, which is most easily accessed from the Willow Canyon Staging Area located on Laguna Canyon Road near the intersection with El Toro Road. The entire Laurel Canyon area was burned by wildfires in 1993, and one can easily see how the chaparral bushmallow has taken advantage of the burn area where it now thrives.