When I asked readers for native plant favorites not included in our short list of six favorites, we had a few votes for Ceanothus a.k.a California lilac, wild lilac, and soap bush. In case you’re not familiar with this stunning plant, it’s a family of shrubs and ground covers that have dark green leaves and deep purple or sometimes white flowers.
The reason I didn’t include it is that it didn’t meet my “bombproof” criteria, at least in our garden. It’s one of the many plants we’ve managed to kill. It’s true that once you get it going, other than yearly pruning, you can retire to the nearest bar and rest on your gardening laurels. But getting it established can be tricky. The most common mistake is over-watering during the summer months and planting in overly fertile soil. We didn’t over-water, so how we manged to kill three of them is a Root Simple gardening mystery.
That said, many of our neighbors have had no problems with Ceanothus. If you have a well drained sunny spot, it’s a good bet. I’m particularly fond of the short sprawling varieties such as Ceanothus thyrsiflorus repens.
The UC Davis Arboretum keeps a list of “All Star” plants that includes Ceanothus ‘Concha’ and Ceanothus maritimus ‘Valley Violet’. You can find more Ceanothus varieties on the Las Pilitas Nursery website.
Our East Coast readers can plant Ceanothus americanus, a plant used by early settlers as a substitute for British tea.