I realize I haven’t written about ceanothus – commonly called wild lilac, which has been ablaze with its blue blooms lately. So here is another favorite, which has done really well on the two properties where we planted it. It’s short-livedness is a rumor for us, and backed up by ceanothus in the wild living 90 to 100 years. Here are some factoids and photos.
(from my docent classes at the San Diego Museum of Natural History)
- 43 of the 50+ species worldwide are in California, a dozen of those located in chaparral. See below for example of one growing in the Midwest/east
- Many varieties exist, ranging from low groundcover types – such as our Blue Sapphire ceannothus (see photo to right) up to specimens 15 to 20 feet tall. See Las Pilitas website for great descriptions of CA ones.
- Their hefty leaves have three distance veins and because the plant expends significant energy to make them, they last a long time. Ceanothus has a deep taproot.
- Flower color: white to dark blue.
- They’re fast-growing because they’re a nitrogen-fixing plant (see photo below)
- They need heat or smoke to stimulate germination so are called obligate seeders (also called fire dependent.) And – research shows their seeds can survive 100 years
- Water a lot when you plant and throughout the first year. But once it gets established, don’t overwater, especially in the summer in Southern California.
Their berries and seeds are important food for animals. Deer, quail, even porcupine browse, hummingbirds and bees depend on the flowers. They also provide shelter for nests.
We’ve had great luck with Ray Hartman, Dark Star, Concha and Julie Phelps – but really, if you pick one whose description fits your area’s climate, it should do well.
Midwest favorite: Susan Damon in Minnesota likes the Ceanothus americanus or New Jersey Tea, a small shrub 2-3′ with clusters of tiny white flowers. ” It attracts many small bees and other pollinators. I have read that hummingbirds visit the plant to eat insects but have never actually seen that in my garden,” Susan says. According to Trees and Shrubs of Minnesota by MN DNR botanist Welby Smith, “The common name dates from the Revolutionary War, when the leaves were supposedly used as a substitute for oriental tea. The taste is reportedly similar to oriental tea but it contains no caffeine.”