I spent the weekend tabulating votes and write-in ballots sent from Guam, Siberia and Hackensack. A minor hanging chad incident and some accusations of ballot box intimidation and we finally have a winner. The envelope please…. Take a bow ceanothus. The “California Lilac” as it is affectionately referred to, is a large 10-20 foot high and wide evergreen shrub which blooms from January to May. Ranging from pure white to deep purple the ceanothus bloom fills our hills and dales with an intoxicating scent unmatched by other natives. Numerous native bees alight on the myriad panicles of purple for a snack while a California Hairstreak butterfly larva suckles on a high branch. Walk through any chaparral trail in the heat of summer and you will hear the fruits exploding and popping, sending seed in every direction for an easy quail meal.
Plant Bio : We have no less than 5 different species of ceanothus here in the valley. Identification can be tricky so I’ll start with the easiest.
Green bark ceanothus has off-white to light violet flowers which have an almost faded or sun-bleached look. Leaves are stiff, shiny, oval and lack veins to the naked eye. The young growth is a bright green and the stems are lined with nasty sharp little protuberances. You will find it almost anywhere in Ojai.
Hairy ceanothus is my favorite. Soft dark shiny green leaves with distinct veins, the backs covered in a soft down that comes off when you rub it between your fingers. The flowers are a vivid dark purple and are in bloom right now. There are some species in the shadier areas of the OVLC river preserve, Matilija Canyon, and quite a few up Gridley.
Buckbrush ceanothus is generally a smaller species, rarely exceeding 10 feet tall. Tiny wedge shaped leaves, with the smallest flowers of the group, white with violet centers. Usually found at higher elevations, I’ve seen quite a few in Horn Canyon.
Big pod ceanothus is generally the largest in overall size, you will spot 20 foot monsters as you drive up 33 north of Ojai. Tough leathery leaves with large white flowers which turn into the largest fruit of the group, almost the size of a dime. The gnarled appearance of its trunk and branches is caused by the death of sections of roots underground.
Hoary ceanothus is another white flowered species you will find locally, though honestly I have trouble differentiating it from bigpod this time of year. It has somewhat cupped and folded under leaves, with a dusky whitish appearance underneath.
If you are willing to travel to higher elevation spots like Howard Creek or Potrero John you will also find white thorn ceanothus, a late bloomer that shows its variable colors from April to June.
Native Uses and Fun Facts: Mix with a little water and both the flowers and the fruits can be rubbed between the hands for an effective and fragrant soap. Chumash used the wood of the blue-flowering ceanothus species for fences and corrals, as the strong branches would not rot when underground. They were also used for digging sticks, basket making and pry bars to open abalone shells.
In The Garden: There is an astonishing assortment of ceanothus available at native plant nurseries. In general they prefer as much sun as you can give them, though many of the ground cover species prefer some late day shade. The big killers are summer water as they are especially prone to fungi, and soil amendments which most natives do not need at all. Do all your pruning and dead flower removal in summer since open wounds plus wet weather equals killer fungi.
They make a great foundation for a habitat garden as birds and beneficial predatory insects pick off aphids from the new growth, butterflies enjoy the bloom’s nectar and squirrels, quails and rabbits scoop up the hard seeds. One of the more popular tree sized hybrids is Ray Hartman which can grow up to 10 feet in just a few years and will top out at over 20. Concha is one of my favorite mid sized specimens, select pruning can keep it to a compact 6′ by 6′ shrub.
Ceanothus is also a popular roadside hedge here in California. If you’re driving up the 101 in the next month look out the window around the Goleta exits, huge patches of purple light up the off ramps, a nice change from our ice plant-lined highways. They can handle aggressive shaping (at the right time of year), so skip the yew and oleander and put in a native ceanothus.