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A true blue Californian

With its breathtaking colors, ceanothus is one beauty that too many gardeners here are missing.

November 17, 2005|Emily Green | Times Staff Writer

THE farther one travels from Los Angeles, the better the chances of seeing California's most ravishing native shrub, variously named backbrush, or snowbush, or pine mat, or whitethorn, or mountain lilac. There is a type for every county and it takes in more common names than shades of bloom. The botanical name for the genus is Ceanothus, pronounced see-an-OH-thus, and of the 50 species thought to exist in North America, 41 are native to at least some part of this state.

There are creeping ones that carpet the coastline, brush forms that green charred hillsides after fire, almost tree-like specimens that partner with the oak and pine forests, and, heartbreakingly, lonely stands sitting in the paths of the bulldozers now clearing Riverside County.

Although finding them in the wild is straightforward (follow the butterflies), if you want to see them in gardens the best place to do so is England. While staying in the London suburb of Richmond-upon-Thames, California nurseryman David Fross says he counted 37 different ceanothus in the gardens that he passed on the seven-minute walk from his hotel to the train station. Walking the same distance near his home in Arroyo Grande, in Central California, he says he saw two or three.

Walk the same distance in Los Angeles, and you would be unlikely to see one.

Oh, what we California gardeners are missing! Unless, that is, we take the last month of planting season in advance of winter rains to get reacquainted. Ceanothus are worthy for their foliage alone. Although some are deciduous, most sold in California are lush, evergreen, with stout leaves in deep, sturdy hues from olive to British racing green. There are enough species and cultivars to suit any garden style, says Bart O'Brien, director of horticulture at Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden. Ceanothus can come prostrate, shrub-like or arching. Some are scented, others have aromatic leaves.

Finicky gardeners can espalier them, the merely orderly can deadhead old inflorescences for more blooms, and the laissez-faire types among us can simply plant them in a garden bed and let them fill up with nesting birds and butterfly caterpillars as they produce great fountains of spring color.

Ceanothus flowers, great plumes of them, come in white and pink. Yet it seems inescapable that the reason specimens were snatched out of the American West hundreds of years ago and kept in constant cultivation in Europe was because the flowers came in so many shades of blue. It may be the most prized color in horticulture (witness the quest for the blue rose). No other plant, not lavenders, not salvias, not jacarandas, can match the range and stately intensity of ceanothus blue. Talking about his upcoming book, "Ceanothus" (Timber Press, March 2006), Fross reels off the blues: azure, madder, cerulean, cobalt, aqua, slate, cyanine. Sky blue. Levi blue. Blues so blue, he says, that they "tremble."

TRUST the English and the French to have gone at all those blues so differently. Most of the French hybrids were developed by crossing an East Coast species, C. americanus, which brought cold hardiness, and a Mexican one, C. caeruleus, for the blue, says O'Brien. By contrast, British collectors worked California and kept working it, so that it was not unusual to see the garden hybrid Ceanothus 'Cynthia Postan' emerge out of the swirling mists of East Anglia.

The concentration of ceanothus in California -- 41 species here compared with three or four in the East and a smattering in South America -- is a result of our geography, says taxonomist Dieter Wilkin, vice president for programs and collections at the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden and coauthor with Fross on "Ceanothus." As mountains formed and California developed distinct ecologies, ceanothus diversified with it during the last 30 million or 40 million years. So today there are species adapted to coastal climates, mountain ones, chaparral, woodlands and riparian habitats.

The trick to gardening with them successfully is understanding the role that they played in the wild, none more important than re-vegetating mountains and chaparral after fires, says Alison Berry, professor in the plant sciences department at UC Davis. In the wild, seeds need to be scorched to germinate. (Plant breeders scald them for the same effect.) A young stand carpeting a hillside after a fire does more than secure the soil against erosion. It fertilizes it. Nitrogen from the atmosphere is captured by the plant and transformed by root nodules into a new form of nitrogen that enriches the soil.

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