My Favorite Plants

Spotlight on a California Native: Ceanothus, the California lilac.

When most home gardeners prepare to plant a garden, they head to the local nursery to fill up on what they need.  Their choices, however, up until recently, had been limited to whatever was available on the given day they got the itch to spruce up the yard. My, how things have changed.

Natives Are a Good Choice

The choices have become much more exciting. In the past, plants native to California were rarely considered, as most nurseries were stocked with exotics from around the globe. 

In the last few years, a strong trend has shifted nurseries toward natives.  There are several reasons for this trend, including a growing appreciation for the beauty found in our native chaparral.

 Another and perhaps more important reason is water, or more specifically, the lack thereof.  California is in a water crisis, and we are watering our thirsty lawns less.

  Since California's summers are as hot as ever, our landscapes suffer.  Natives are naturally suited to thrive in lower irrigation conditions.  This trait makes them excellent for helping our yards thrive. 

The plant genus Ceanothus, long a staple of the commercial landscape industry, is now easily available for the DIY gardener.  Ceanothus is easy to identify by its stiff, shiny, deep green leaves.  Its popularity arises from cascading flower clusters ranging in color from sky to midnight blue.  The boughs of a Ceanothus will bend from the weight of the abundant blossoms.  The genus is striking enough to have earned the common name California lilac.

Flora Going Global

Ceanothus is a great example of local flora gone global.  It has been hybridized to survive even in cold English gardens.  It is nice that its beauty is being recognized locally more and more.  There are varieties in commercial cultivation.  Many varieties are mid-sized shrubs such as 'Concha,' and 'Dark Star.'  These two reach between 5 and 6 feet high and spread. 

In Laguna Niguel, Ceanothus is commonly seen in one of its ground-cover forms, such as Ceanothus griseus horizantalis, 'Yankee Pointe.'  This hybrid is very effective in the landscape due to its low-growth habit; it meanders in and around tree roots and creates a carpet of long-lived flowers. 

The Ceanothus is a plant that is right at home in Laguna Niguel.

A Small Tree Favorite

My favorite of the genus is Ceanothus arboreus.  As its species name suggests, this variety is a small tree.  The large leaves of Ceanothus arboreus have a very smooth glossy appearance, unlike many varieties that have short stiff leaves.  Spring finds the plant full to bursting with blue flowers.  The young tree in the picture was in a 1-gallon container four years ago.

I've seen Ceanothus arboreus happily blooming on the wilder slopes throughout the city.  On the home front, the tree makes a fine patio tree, as it only reaches about 20 feet high.  Keep in mind that, as can be seen from the picture, its habit is somewhat shrubby in appearance.  It is also relatively short-lived by tree standards.  Even so, the tree makes a great focal point in a garden of any size. 

As with all natives, be careful about overwatering.  Look for a water-tolerant variety if the plant is likely to receive abundant irrigation. California natives are useful partners for our water-restricted gardens.  Future columns will explore more of this category of plants.  There remain huge assortments of wonderful exotics that thrive, too.  These plants, both familiar and unusual, will also be explored. 

Don't forget that the Niguel Botanical Preserve contains many of these beautiful drought-tolerant plants.


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