plant of the week

Ceanothus thyrsiflorus ‘Oregon Mist’

a star in the May garden and great for wildlife, too

April 28, 2010

Ceanothus thyrsiflorus growing in the wild, Siskiyou County, OR – courtesy of Josh McCullough,

If you love blue flowers, look no further than Ceanothus – absolutely no shrub rivals it for vibrant blue color saturation. Also known as California wild lilac – but called Ceanothus ("see-ya-no-this") by Oregonians in-the-know – these dramatic flowering shrubs are also drought-tolerant and wildlife-friendly.

There are some 50-60 species of Ceanothus, native from southwestern Canada down to Guatemala and in the Rockies but with the greatest concentration of species in California. Several are native to Oregon, although the most intensely blue-flowered species are from the region to our south.

Oregon Mist was selected by wholesale nurserymen Paul Bonine and Greg Shepherd of Xera Plants from a wild Ceanothus thyrsiflorus plant growing at the northernmost part of its range in Coos County, Oregon. I profiled Oregon Mist Ceanothus for Portland Monthly’s May issue here.

This selection produces showy sprays of tiny, honey-scented blue flowers in late April and May. It grows into a small tree to about 15 feet high if let go – or, with annual pruning, can be maintained at 8-10 feet tall. West Coast Ceanothus species are fast-growing but short-lived shrubs, maxing out at 10-15 years in the garden. Give them well-drained soil, avoid fertilizer and provide minimal (or no) summer water – they’re perfect for that hot, sunny corner, out of reach of the hose or sprinkler system. (Just remember to supply water during its first couple of years in the ground.)

I love the aromatics of Ceanothus – their flowers are honey-scented and some species’ foliage have a faintly resinous scent. (Or, in the case of one of our natives, Ceanothus velutinus, the foliage smells like vinyl car seats – a scent I’ve come to love, thanks to this shrub.)

Pollinating insects adore Ceanothus and hummingbirds are said to relish the nectar, although I personally haven’t seen it yet. A large Ceanothus shrub will hum with the sound of insect wings when in flower – it’s an incredible sight – and sound.

Oregon Mist is a low-maintenance but high reward plant that quickly fills in space and attracts myriad valuable native insects. It’s available wherever Xera Plants are sold including Cistus Design Nursery, Garden Fever, and Dennis’ Seven Dees. Also check with these retailers for availability.

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