Southern Mountain Misery

Plant of the Month

Cliff Hutson
RSABG Volunteer, Nature Interpreter


My research on this month’s plant underscored to me that just because I see a plant in the Garden frequently does not mean that it is well represented out in the world. One example is Nevin’s barberry. Another is southern mountain misery (Chamaebatia australis) a shrub in the rose family (Rosaceae), with highly dissected and sticky leaves. The common name comes from the fact that its pungent odor, approximating witch hazel, is all too easily transferred to clothing or shoes.

This plant is restricted to about 125 locations in Southern California, with some populations in adjacent Baja California. The sprawling shrub, which often forms impenetrable thickets, is typically surrounded by the chaparral of the Peninsular Ranges, such as on Otay Mountain or San Miguel Mountain in San Diego County. It is included in the “California Native Plant Society Inventory of Rare and Endangered Plants” on list 4.2 (limited distribution).

While it may be uncommon in the wild, there are good examples in the Garden. There is a scruffy specimen along the path that leads uphill from Faye’s Wildflower Meadow. There are larger showier ones by the steps that go from the back of the mesa down to the coastal sage scrub community. It easily caught my attention; it looks frilly and tough at the same time. The leaves are made up of small leaflets which are further divided into tiny leaflets, giving the foliage a fernlike appearance. Each leaf is a gland-dotted frond of one to three inches in length. The flowers are roselike with small rounded white petals and yellow centers filled with many stamens. Southern mountain misery may bloom from November through May. I frequently see flowers in April, so this might be a good time to look.