Senecio praecox (Broomstick Tree) - An unusual looking upright deciduous shrub or small tree to 15 feet tall with thick smooth grey-brown stems that bear, crowded at their tips, 3-4 inch long by 2-inch-wide bright green slightly 3 lobed leaves. In the spring prior to the new leaves emerging appear clusters (corymbs) of small bright yellow daisy flowers.
Plant in full sun in a well-drained soil. Tolerant of fairly dry conditions in summer months, though this is its growing season so will grow better with an occasional summer watering. We believe this plant hardy to around 25° F as it has withstood short duration temperatures this low in our nursery and several Santa Barbara area gardens during the January 2007 cold spell when temperatures dropped to 25° F three nights in a row. After flowering two to four new branches appear at the point on the stem of the inflorescence, creating the unusual and gawky looking form that seems better suited to a Doctor Seuss book than real life. These stems, often showing scars from the leaf bases, consist of a thick water storing pith that expands when water is abundant and shrink as the stored water is used through the dry season. This pith is surrounded by a thin cylinder of xylem which is in turn is surrounded by a thick, water-storing bark.
This plant was long been in cultivation as Senecio praecox. In Gordon Rowley's Succulent Compositae he notes that this plant was in cultivated as early as 1829 by the Swiss botanist Augustin Pyramus de Candolle, who is credited with naming the plant. In 1973 there was nomenclatural work that removed this plant from the huge Senecio genus (see Brettell, R D; Robinson, Harold Ernest, "Studies in the Senecioneae (Asteraceae). A new genus, Pittocaulon" Phytologia V26 pg 451—453, 1973) and this plant then became a species of Pittocaulon, a genus with five species that all come from the drier areas of central and southern Mexico. We first listed this plant using the name Pittocaulon praecox in our 2009 catalog and continued to use this name until 2016. Some current nomenclatural databases however have gone back to the original name of Senecio praecox and so we have followed this treatment out of convenience.
The name Senecio comes from the Latin word 'senex' meaning "old" or "old man" in reference to its downy head of seeds and Pittocaulon is in reference to the pitch (pitto) that is evident on the stems (caulon). The specific epithet means "very early", "earlier" or "premature" in reference to the flowers coming out before the leaves. The long bare branches without their leaves can look a bit like a broomstick, giving the plant the common name of broomstick tree, though the common names in Mexico are 'palo loco' (crazy tree) or 'palo bolo' (silly tree) because this plants odd structure and flowering that occurs at the end of the dry season in habitat, well before other associated plants. Our thanks go out to our friend John Bleck who has continually supplied cutting wood as we worked to produce this unusual plant.
Information about Senecio praecox displayed on this page is based on our research about it conducted in our library and gathered from reliable online sources. We include observations made of this plant as it grows in our nursery gardens and in other gardens that we have visited, as well as how the crops have performed in containers in our own nursery field. We will also incorporate comments that we receive from others about this plant when we feel it adds information and particularly welcome hearing from anyone who has any additional cultural recommendations that would aid others in growing it.