Why I’m Planting Ceanothus Now

This year, I’m desperate to plant Ceanothus now. There are hundreds of reasons to plant this sturdy, tidy, beautiful, fragrant native, but this year three of those reasons are pushing me into urgent nursery buying excursions.

Why right now? It’s the rain. California is poised on the brink after three dry winters; dry wells, forest fires, and fallow agricultural land are telling us that this is no joke. Turning off the faucet while brushing my teeth, which I've already been doing since the 1970s, is not going to solve this one.

If not now, then soon, landscape watering is going to be very limited. So working slowly, section by section, I have been replacing plants in my gardens that need summer water with new choices that will be drought tolerant once established, like Ceanothus. I invite you to do the same.

Ceanothus  in bloom.

Ceanothus in bloom.

Drought tolerant plants get off to the best start when planted right now, just as our dry summer ends and a still warm autumn soil welcomes the year's first rains. With any luck, weather will provide all the water they need until spring, and they will have six or more good months to get their roots in deep before they are tested by the first dry season beginning in May or June.

Why choose Ceanothus? Otherwise known as California lilac, or wild lilac, fragrant Ceanothus comes in sizes from tree to ground-cover, in flower colors from white through light and dark blue to violet, and in foliage from tight dark green to loose light green or variegated yellow. There is a Ceanothus for every size, garden style, and color scheme.

Another variety of  Ceanothus  with darker leaves and flowers.

Another variety of Ceanothus with darker leaves and flowers.

Because Ceanothus is a California native plant which has co-evolved with our weather, soils, and wildlife, it is very tough and thrives in our dry soils once established. When Ceanothus blooms, from winter through early summer, it literally buzzes with pollinators and beneficial insects, native bumble bees and honeybees of many kinds, hover flies and tiny beneficial wasps, and a myriad of tiny fairy creatures whose names I don’t even know. Wild birds passing through clean up our garden from harmful bugs as they are attracted to the party on the Ceanothus, and some years we find bird’s nests in our larger Ceanothus shrubs and trees.

In addition to fragrance, beauty, and wildlife, Ceanothus brings fun into the garden if you are lucky enough to have children in it. On GFE field trips, schoolchildren learn about sustainability and pollination from Ceanothus, and then wash their hands with its foamy blue blossoms. They learn that first people everywhere used plants, not the corner store, for everything they needed in life.

But why plant? I’m older now, and the future made dismal by climate change forecasts and threats to every wild ecosystem make me wonder sometimes why I keep trying. So here’s a story.

I've been trying a new daisy family perennial is our water-wise garden at GFE and a lovely variety of Gaillardia grandiflora caught my eye on the Annie’s Annuals bench at my favorite nursery. The sign suggested that ‘Oranges and Lemons’ would attract bees, so I thought I’d try it.

Gaillardia grandiflora  'Oranges and Lemons'

Gaillardia grandiflora 'Oranges and Lemons'

Just a few weeks ago, I spotted a tiny, fluorescent green honeybee on one of the open flowers. I’m no insect expert, but it had pollen packed in its cargo pockets, so it was a bee, and not a European honeybee. This was a rare and wild and tiny honeybee attracted to the flower as advertised. I got to show the bee to a group of students, and that moment was a perfect storm of hope and excitement. For that moment, I had gotten to help wild nature, and to share it with my community.

Like Frodo and Sam on the way into Mordor, we don’t know what is going to happen - but we know who we are and what we value. So let’s plant Ceanothus now.