Native Ceanothus: Wild Lilac

Do you have a spot that gets no summer water? Is it in full sun or partial shade, with quick drainage, maybe even on a slope? Ceanothus could be the perfect answer to what is often a troublesome spot for gardeners!

Our native wild lilacs range in form from ground cover to large shrub or small tree; deciduous and evergreen; flowers of creamy white to bright cobalt blue. What they all have in common, however, is their need for excellent drainage, lack of summer watering and nutritionally lean soil. Overwatering and overfeeding will shorten the lifespan of your Ceanothus considerably. In their native habitat, they reside in dry forests, dry rocky slopes, and dry wooded canyons.

This is the kind of setting you need to replicate in order to make Ceanothus happiest. But oh so worth the effort! Spring and summer, the slightly fragrant flowers are a magnet for hummingbirds, butterflies and especially bees. Evergreen varieties have the added benefit of providing seeds and cover for songbirds, too!

Here’s a sampling of the Oregon wild lilacs (disclaimer: not all of these are readily available).

Ceanothus cuneatus

Ceanothus cuneatus: Buckbrush

White or light blue flowers are kind of stinky (think daisies) in full bloom, but they’re worth it for attracting pollinators. Try planting it around the edges, away from outdoor dining areas. Small pretty evergreen gray–green leaves and spiny, branching habit.

Grows 6-8’ x 6-8’, best in full sun, hardy Z7.


Ceanothus integerrimus: Deer Brush

Foamy white or blue flower clusters in the late spring/early summer. Deciduous green leaves. Grows in openings of mixed forests, west and east of the Cascades and in the Columbia Gorge. While it still needs well–drained soil, this one can tolerate a bit more water than some of the others. (Photo credit Franz Xaver).

Grows 12’, full sun, hardy Z6.

Ceanothus prostratus

Ceanothus prostratus: Prostrate Ceanothus or Mahala Mat

Flowers appear in late spring to mid–summer and are light to deep blue clusters about 1” across. Small, thick oval leaves are spiny along their edges, almost like miniature holly leaves. Bright red seed pods.

Grows to about 2" tall, forming mats as large as 6’ across, often rooting from branches that touch the ground. Sun, hardy Z5.

Ceanothus cuneatus

Ceanothus sanguineus: Redstem Ceanothus, Oregon Tea Tree

Fragrant white flowers in late spring-early summer. Deciduous shrub, with green leaves and striking purplish stems. Not as showy as some other varieties perhaps, but one that is more adaptable, as it is native to areas both east and west of the Cascades. (Photo Credit Walter Siegmund.

Grows 8-10’, sun-pt shade, Z6.

Blue blossom ceanothus (Ceanothus thyrsiflorus) on Point Reyes Fire Lane Trail

Ceanothus thyrsiflorus: Blueblossom

Easily the most popular native Ceanothus, recognized for seas of bright blue flowers that are typically humming with bees when blooming. Evergreen leaves are dark green on the upper surface, lighter green beneath.

Grows natively from mid to southern Oregon and into northern California, west of the Cascades. This is a good choice for gardens providing that there is no irrigation in summer months.

Grows 8-12’ x 8-12’, sun-pt shade, Z7.

Ceanothus velutinus 4687

Ceanothus velutinus: Snowbrush, Mountain Balm

Evergreen leaves carry a distinct resin–like fragrance that can be pleasant in the warmth of summertime, when planted near a patio or other outdoor seating area. The flowers too are fragrant, held in dense clusters of white during the summer.

Grows up to 8’ x 8’, sun-pt shade, Z7.