Stand anywhere in the Ojai Valley and look up and to your north or west. Well, not anywhere, this won’t work from your guest bathroom, I mean outside. Notice the white patchwork covering our beloved hillsides? Now get thee to thy nearest trailhead and take a deep breath. No, not the horse manure, try a different trail. Oh yes, that heady floral aroma can mean only one thing: It’s that time of year and I’m positively giddy.
That celebrated star of chaparral, sometimes called buckbrush (deers love eating it of course) and often referred to as California lilac (an olfactory-based misnomer), ceanothus is blooming and you need a refresher course. The early part of the season is dominated by the white-blooming ceanothus species so let’s have a look.
I wowed the local botanical community two seasons ago with the widely-acclaimed (relatively) ceanothus guide. We’re just going to focus on the white blooms, as they tend to be the ones most often confused.
First thing’s first. Have a close look at the leaves. Are they directly opposite from each other, or do they alternate? If ther are opposite skip ahead. We’ve only got one white-flowered ceanothus with alternate leaves:
Ceanothus megacarpus, or big pod ceanothus. When I first did the ceanothus guide two years ago, I wasn’t sure where this species flourished. Now I realize that it is by far the most dominant around here, especially once you leave the valley floor. Without flowers you may confuse this with mountain mahogany
(no relation, mahogany’s leaves are toothed), or redberry
(close cousin, but much rounder, serrated leaves). Why do they call it big pod? You can’t tell now, as the leaves and flowers are of average size, but this summer have another look, the pods are almost dime-sized, by far the largest of all ceanothus.
Best places to see big pod ceanothus is Laguna Ridge, Pratt/Foothill trail, or just driving along 150 to Santa Barbara.
So your white-flowered ceanothus has opposite leaves. Have a close look, are they toothed, with the backs of the leaves distinctly gray/white?
Hoary ceanothus is most common on the Ventura River Preserve, east of the river, and is dominant going up the Gridley Trail.
Finally… White flowers, opposite leaves but they are glossy, not serrated and the backs of the leaves are light green rather than grey:
Wedge-leaf or buckbrush ceanothus is the least common around here. As you may notice, the leaves are wedge-shaped (very narrow at one end, fat and rounded at the other), and are somewhat more glossy.
The only spot in Ojai where I know that Ceanothus cuneatus flourishes is the Ventura River preserve, specifically the west side of the river. It cohabitates with hairy ceanothus up the Oso Ridge and Chaparral Crest trails. If you find other spots please let me know.
On a side note I went up Gridley the other day and sadly a majority of the hairy ceanothus did not survive the summer. It is my favorite and does not resprout from the burls, sad to say.
Only a few weeks to enjoy these so get out there and don’t forget to bring your nostrils.