Thursday, April 11, 2013

Lilacs and Manzanitas

One can't talk about chaparral shrubs for the garden without mentioning two more groups of plants, the California Lilacs (Ceanothus) and the Manzanitas (Arctostaphylos). Both of these groups of plants have numerous species, subspecies, cultivars and varieties to choose from. If you look at the plant list for any California native plant nursery you'll see that these two groups far outnumber any other group of plants in terms of variety. There are tall ones and medium ones and ground covers. There are different leaf colors and flower colors. So, I am going to focus on the ones that I have in my garden, but keep in mind that you may want a different variety for your garden.

I have several Ceanothus but the main one I have is a variety called "Ray Hartman". It is a hybrid of two species - C. griseus and C. arboreus. Nowadays I prefer to buy straight species rather than hybrids, but when I planted this one many years ago I was less knowledgeable and less picky. And it's a beautiful shrub so I'm not criticizing its hybrid origin. Mine is about15 ft. tall but they can get even taller. It has blue flowers in the puff-ball style that is typical of the genus. The bloom starts in February and lasts into April.

The thing that can't be conveyed in these photos is the incredible fragrance of the flowers. It is intoxicating. There is nothing like hiking through a dense stand of Ceanothus when it is blooming. Unlike many of my other shrubs, this one is not invasive, not spiny, and does not get too wide, so it is great right next to a path or next to a house or fence. It takes pruning well but doesn't require a lot, and it requires little or no supplemental watering once it is established. Mine thrives on rainwater only, and I recommend that. Excessive watering, especially in the summer, will make for a very short-lived Ceanothus. In the summer the leaves will get dry looking and not so attractive, but that's par for the course with most native So Cal plants. I guess that's one reason why some people don't like them, but personally I like to see the subtle changes in the seasons reflected in the plants in my garden, just as they are in the wild.

Now for the Manzanitas.As I already indicated, there are a ton of species and subspecies from all over the state, as well as numerous cultivars and horticultural selections. My favorite is a rare one (actually endangered) from the north San Diego County region known as Del Mar Manzanita (Arctostaphylos glandulosa ssp. crassifolia). Mine is about 7 ft. tall and with about an equal spread. It's difficult to get a decent overall shot of the shrub so the following are shots of the leaves, flowers, fruit and trunk.

The urn shaped flowers are typical of the Ericaceae or Heath family which is the family that the manzanitas belong to. Manzanita means "little apple" in Spanish, and you can see where that name came from. Manzanita fruits really do look like tiny apples. The trunk has the smooth reddish bark that is characteristic of this family. My plant is around 20 years old so it has had time to develop a burl at its base. This burl will allow the shrub to resprout after a fire, also typical of the manzanitas generally.

As I noted above, this subspecies of manzanita is listed as Endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service because it is restricted to eroded sandstone soils in close proximity to the coast. This happens to be where a lot of urban development has occurred over the last 60 years. Before it was listed, I collected mine as a seedling from a property in Carlsbad that had an apartment project approved for it. There were many big, old Del Mar Manzanitas on the site, as well as many seedlings of various sizes. I dug up one that was under 6" tall and had a taproot about 1' long. I was able to get the entire taproot plus a bunch of native soil, and the plant seemed to like my garden in Encinitas just about as well as the site where it came from. A few months after I collected this one, the property got scraped to build the apartments.

Here's another one that I have in my front yard. It is a different genus (but same family), Xylococcus bicolor, commonly known as Mission Manzanita. It is more common, not rare or endangered. The flowers and fruit are very similar to other manzanitas.

I made the mistake of planting this one where my neighbor decided to put his mailbox. Oh well, it's still doing okay.

As I said before, there are many, many Manzanitas to choose from. For all plants, both native and non-native, it's important to select species and varieties that are suitable for your location, climate, soil, sun/shade mix, etc. It really pays to do your homework first.


  1. What about the ironwood, is that one of these species?

  2. Thanks for the question. There are two completely different families/genera of trees known commonly as Ironwoods. One is the desert version (Olneya tesota). It is a legume (Fabaceae) not related to manzanita or lilac. The other group is the Island Ironwoods which are in the rose family. There is a Santa Cruz Island Ironwood (Lyonothamnus floribundus ssp. asplenifolius) which I have in my back yard. I haven't blogged about it yet but I will in the near future. The other subspecies is Catalina Island Ironwood (L.f. floribundus). The two subspecies differ primarily in leaf shape. See for pictures of both. So the bottom line is neither ironwood is related to manzanitas or lilac, despite any superficial similarities.