Great Design Plant: Ceanothus

In 1837 the mining ship HMS Sulphur attracted back to England seeds of Ceanothus thyrsiflorus — the very first California plant species introduced into European gardens. Maybe (or maybe not) it’s appropriate to think about ceanothus just like a Romantic poet of that same period: rapid growth, brilliant accomplishments, usually death at a young age.

Although various types of ceanothus, or California lilac, are still increased in England, frequently against a wall, now they’re almost completely grown in U.S. West Coast gardens. Back in California ceanothus is a celebrity of drought-resistant arenas — a tree or ground cover having an unmatched springtime blast of blue. If you plant one of those fast-growing, large, shrubby types, such as ‘Ray Hartman’, in just a few years you’ll have a tall, dense mass of blue each spring, accompanied by local birds and bees you have never seen before, attracted by a popular native food resource.

Botanical name: Ceanothus, many species and types
Common names: Wild lilac, California lilac
Resource: The types typically grown in gardens originate in California, from ocean bluffs into the foothills.
USDA zones: 8 to 10 (find your zone). Most types flourish only in climates with mild winters and sunny, warm summers.
Water necessity: Light
moderate requirement: Full sun or partial shade
Mature size: 1 to 25 feet tall and wide, depending on species
advantages and tolerances: All these are evergreen, drought-resistant shrubs, from creeping ground covers to bushy near-trees. They need little or no irrigation after they have become established.
Seasonal curiosity: Known for masses of blue in early spring to midspring.
When to plant: Early fall is the best time; buy young plants began before the rainy season. Planting in early spring into midspring is OK; attempt to allow the plants sit in until the summertime.

Distinguishing traits. Unmistakably blue bundles of flowers range from powder blue to deepest cobalt, depending on variety. There are less common white types. Evergreen leaves are small, shiny and fairly on some types.

Growing hints. This plant is fussy about soil — fast drainage is essential. Overwatering kills; the moisture from summer’s warm lands leads to root diseases. Water regularly after you plant, maybe as frequently as every few weeks during the first summer. The eventual goal should be no water in summer. But observe carefully so young plants don’t wilt.

Generally there is very little desire to prune. Pinch the branch tips of young plants to promote bushy growth. After bloom, cut stringy branches and then cut out dead wood. Be cautious about cutting into older wood (an inch thick or more), which might not resprout. The normal life span is 5 to 10 decades, sometimes longer.

The best way to utilize it. These are extremely useful landscape plants for dry areas — especially slopes and other wilder parts of a backyard. Pick plants on the basis of your landscape needs rather than the shade of blue which you especially enjoy, but the deepest blue cultivars, such as ‘Julia Phelps’, are tough to resist.

Earth covers. Carmel creeper (Ceanothus griseus horizontalis, shown)develops just a foot or 2 feet tall and 10 times as broad. Its light blue blossoms are not as showy as those of different types. Handsome foliage is bright green and shiny. Point Reyes ceanothus (C. gloriosus) remains lower and has smaller flowers and spiny leaves. ‘Joyce Coulter’ is around 5 feet , taller.

Shrubs. Use these as displays and background plants, in organic borders with other California natives like fremontia and bush poppy (Dendromecum). ‘Ray Hartman’ grows up to 20 feet tall and broad, and can be a heavy bloomer. ‘Julia Phelps’ and ‘Dark Star’ stay much smaller (6 feet or smaller) and blossom the deepest blue.

Joni L. Janecki & Associates, Inc..

Ceanothus ‘Ray Hartman’ shows its flexibility here trained agaist a wall in a landscape by Joni L. Janecki & Associates. A wall can provide extra warmth in a climate where ceanothus is slightly hardy.

East Bay Wilds, Pete Veilleux

Severe pruning and staking turned this ceanothus into a one-of-a-kind tree — together with the brilliance of the blue spring flowers improved by the orange-red background.

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