Baja Fairy Duster
Wednesday, May 22, 2013
They like hot weather, are drought-tolerant, aren’t fussy about soil, and hummingbirds and butterflies love them! Ah, the perfect desert plant. You can see two species of fairy duster on the Desert Museum grounds. The red-flowered Baja Fairy Duster (Calliandra californica), as its name implies, is native to the Baja Peninsula of Mexico, but grown widely here in Arizona as a landscape plant. Calliandra eriophylla, called just Fairy Duster, or false mesquite, is the Arizona native, which has a pink flower.
The puffy, exotic flowers of the fairy duster are what grab your attention. The showy part is actually a collection of long, spiky stamens, forming a powder-puff ball 1-2” across. Blooming can occur at any time during the year, but is most prolific in the late winter/early spring. Calliandra belong to the subfamily Mimosa of the family Fabaceae. In this group, the petals are fused and so tiny as to be not noticeable. Being in the family Fabaceae, the flowers are followed by small bean pods, which split open when ripe, expelling their seeds. The seeds are sought by many small birds.
Both species of fairy duster are small, semi-evergreen shrubs lacking spines. The dark-green, feathery leaves are bi-pinnately compound. The native C. eriophylla is more cold-tolerant than the Baja species, which may freeze to the ground in the coldest winters. During times of drought or cold stress, many, if not most, of the leaves will fall, but will soon be replaced when conditions improve. Growing low to the ground, Calliandra provide cover and protection for small animals and plants, and is also used as browse by deer and other mammals. C. eriophylla ranges throughout the Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts, on open hillsides and sandy desert washes and slopes, mostly below 5000’. Besides hummingbirds, other small birds such as verdins, finches, wrens and gnatcatchers will feed on the blooms of fairy duster. Pollinators include bees, flies and butterflies.