My California Lilac

By Teo Spengler | May 25, 2022
Image by Robert Moore
by Teo Spengler
May 25, 2022

I love ceanothus, also called California lilac, thanks to the gorgeous, blue-purple color of its spring flowers. Unlike so many small trees with spectacular flowers, ceanothus is so easy to take care of that you can’t believe its amazing flower cloud display when spring rolls round.

It may be that those outside the West Coast don’t know about the wonders of this plant. But I am constantly bowled over by its graceful beauty in spring.

Ceanothus Dark Star

I have a few spring flowering trees in my yard, but none pleases me quite to the same extent as my Ceanothus “Dark Star.” I bought it in a small pot from the garden store at the San Francisco Botanical Garden, where I volunteer as a docent. It was a small, evergreen shoot, about 8 inches (20 cm.) tall, modest and unassuming.

But I wasn’t fooled. I know this plant since many are planted in and around the Botanical Garden, especially in the California Native Plant section. The brilliant lilac blooms of the California lilac are among my favorites in the entire 50 acres of the garden.

Spring Flowering Tree

I planted Ceanothus Dark Star in a side bed in the garden behind my house in San Francisco, then just forgot about it. It was a small, shrubby plant and blended in well with the wealth of succulents and calla lilies and agapanthus in winter. I knew that this plant prefers poor soil and grows best when neglected, so I just stepped back and let it do its thing.

Keep in mind that coastal California winters do not look like winters anywhere else. The mornings are magical with fog from the Pacific, afternoons offer bright, thin sunshine, and evenings bring a chill. These native plants do well here all year long, some blooming intermittently all year long like my Meyer lemon, some waiting for the quickening energy of spring.

Ceanothus Flower Cloud

When ceanothus begins to bloom, it looks like a blue cloud of blossoms drifted down and landed on the shrub. What was green becomes blue, and not just blue as in bluebell, but some fabulous, nuanced shade of blue.

Ceanothus Dark Star has small, round leaves in emerald green that last the year long. Its flowers are also small, but a bright, dark blue like sapphires massed on the tops of the branches. They are so dense that the top of the bush disappears in the stunning floral display. 

What about the drought? No problem with ceanothus. They do best without added irrigation in summer and winter. If you hate butterflies and hummingbirds, best pick a different plant. These lovely critters are drawn to ceanothus Dark Star flowers like nails to a magnet.

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