Take a drive out of town here in early spring and you can’t miss the blue bushes glowing on the California hillsides. There’s nothing else like them. What are they? Ceanothus some people call them, or wild lilac they’re called by others, and some refer to them as California lilacs.

If you drive around enough, or hike around to get a closer look, you’ll notice that the ceanothus bushes vary. Some are very thorny while others are less so. Some have flowers that are a rich blue.

Ceanothus ‘Joyce Coulter’ in my yard.

Others have flowers that are only tinged blue.

Ceanothus leucodermis in my neighborhood.

In fact, there are types whose flowers have no blue — they’re totally white — such as Ceanothus crassifolius, which start blooming in the winter long before the blue types in my part of San Diego County open up. But it’s the blue blooms of ceanothus which catch our eyes because of their uniqueness.

Where do they grow?

Ceanothus bushes grow wild throughout much of California, especially on the hillsides in the southern half of the state.

Hills with wild ceanothus in San Diego County.

You can view maps of where different kinds of ceanothus grow naturally at Calscape.

Wild and cultivated

But since they are so beautiful, people have been growing them deliberately in their gardens for a long time too.

You can grow the wild types in your yard. A few years back I transplanted into my yard a sapling of Ceanothus leucodermis that was growing wild in a neighbor’s yard.

You can also grow types of ceanothus that have been found in gardens or nurseries or elsewhere and have been propagated by professionals specifically to sell to gardeners. Ceanothus ‘Joyce Coulter’ is one such variety that I have in my yard.

Another that I have in my yard is called Ceanothus ‘South Coast Blue’, which was introduced by California native plant enthusiast Greg Rubin.

Ceanothus ‘South Coast Blue’ in my yard.

Some of our native bees in California are attracted to ceanothus flowers, which is one of the main reasons I grow them around my vegetables and fruit trees.

Bumble bee on ceanothus flowers in my yard.

How to grow ceanothus in your yard?

Most of my ceanothus bushes were grown by a nursery in Valley Center in San Diego County called Moosa Creek. You can buy many kinds of ceanothus bushes from nurseries like Moosa Creek. Other nurseries that sell ceanothus include Las Pilitas in Santa Margarita near San Luis Obispo, Tree of Life in San Juan Capistrano, and Theodore Payne in Sun Valley near Los Angeles.

Winter is my favorite time to plant a ceanothus, but I’ve also had good results planting in late fall and early spring (like now). 

My yard’s soil drains fast, and it seems that ceanothus bushes like that. All of the wild ceanothus bushes I know are growing on hillsides with light soils.

I don’t irrigate my ceanothus bushes, in general, although I do sometimes add extra rainwater around them in the winter, and during their first summer I usually give them water about once each month.

I do add a mulch of wood chips around my ceanothus bushes, which conserves some of the winter rainfall and suppresses some weed growth.

They’re native plants though. We have to remember that. So once they’ve been watered in at planting, maybe had some mulch applied, and maybe had a little water during their first summer, they don’t need our help. Let them enjoy this California climate that they’re suited for.

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