They grow quietly for most of the year – their seed feeding many kinds of birds, their flowers providing nectar for hummingbirds and bees and their foliage offering good nesting sites. They’re fast growing, fragrant, beautiful and they’re in full bloom right now.
If I had to choose one plant to grow that would provide the most benefit for all wildlife it would be ceanothus. Hands down, it’s the best and here are some of my favorite varieties.
The groundcover varieties I have in my landscape are Anchor Bay, Carmel Creeper, Heart’s Desire, Centennial and Diamond Heights. If deer frequent your landscape you should stick with Anchor Bay, Heart’s Desire and Centennial but the others are great in protected areas. And maritimus ‘Valley Violet’ is another great looking deer tolerant groundcover, too. Most of these types grow quite wide and are good for erosion control.
One of the upright types I have is ceanothus thyrsiflorus. It’s one of the earliest native shrubs to bloom in our area, is fragrant and self sows. Ceanothus thyrsiflorus grow along a narrow band close to the coast from Monterey to southern Oregon. I also grow Julia Phelps with those electric blue flowers and Ray Hartman.
A friend of mine grew a new cultivar – ceanothus ‘Celestial Blue’ – with flowers that looked like blueberry sherbet. With a light fragrance, described as grape tart, it made a good screen. This cultivar is probably a hybrid of Julia Phelps and Concha. A horticultural cultivar is simply a plant variety that’s been selected specifically for gardens. Celestial Blue flowers 9 months a year especially in the summer when it explodes with rich purplish blue flowers.
Another cultivar I often use when designing a garden is Ceanothus ‘Concha’ because it will accept summer water more forgivingly than most, tolerate clay soil more than other species and is possibly one of the most beautiful species you can grow in your garden.
But are “nativars” as good for wildlife as wild types for the ecosystem? Well, it depends. More on this in another column. It’s complicated.
Joyce Coulter ceanothus also tolerates clay, summer irrigation and shearing better than other cultivars. It”s a good bloomer, drought tolerant and is covered in spring with wildly fragrant, blue three-inch flower spikes.
Ceanothus is often said to be short lived. Most varieties need good drainage, little summer water and don’t need soil amendments. In their wild conditions ceanothus plants have a natural life cycle of 20-25 years although some live longer. There are some on my property that are older. These receive no summer water although I have some that are at least 15 years old that get occasional summer irrigation, so go figure. I’ll keep you posted when they pass.
Members of the ceanothus family can form a symbiotic relationship with soil micro-organisms and fungi, forming root nodules which fix nitrogen. This is a reason why fertilizing is not normally recommended and they grow so fast. Adding fertilizer kilsl off the good micro-organisms. Ceanothus are better left fending for themselves.
Ceanothus provide excellent habitat for birds and insects. They are good for attracting bee and fly pollinators and are the larval host plants for the beautiful ceanothus silkmoth. Ceanothus seed is readily eaten by many local birds. Planting a ceanothus is an important step to attracting more birds and wildlife to your garden.
Early California Indians used the fresh or dried flowers of some varieties for washing, lathered into a soap. it has been said to relieve poison oak, eczema and rash.