Ceanothus Flowers Cover Canyon in Living Snow

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Ceanothus has a lot of names—buckthorn, California lilac, and soap plant—but the name snow bush might fit best, because when the vast expanses of ceanothus in and around Topanga burst into bloom it looks like the canyon and ridges are dusted with snow.

There are 74 species of ceanothus native to California. Five are found in the Santa Monica Mountains. Three are among the dominant plants of the chaparral: Ceanothus cuneatus, C. megacarpus, and C. spinosus.

Cuneatus, commonly called buckbrush, thrives away from the coast. C. megacarpus, or big pod ceanothus, is the white-blooming ceanothus of the coastal canyons. These two species cover the hills with snow-like blossoms and are among the first native flowers to bloom after the rains arrive.

Ceanothus spinosus, or greenbark ceanothus, also known as redheart, has more feathery flowers that range from white to pale blue. It usually flowers a little later in the season when the other two species  are almost finished blooming. Greenbark ceanothus tends to grow larger than other members of the family, sometimes becoming a small tree. Together with buckbrush and big pod ceanothus, greenbark is a key chaparral plant.

There are other members of the ceanothus family in the Santa Monica Mountains: Ceanothus crassifolius, or hoary-leaved ceanothus, which looks a lot like big pod ceanothus but with leaves that are coated in frost-like fuzz; C. oliganthus, which looks a lot like greenbark ceanothus, but also has somewhat furry leaves, and often has the bluest flowers; and C. leucodermis, which has silvery branches and sky-blue flowers, but is fairly rare in this range.

All of the members of the ceanothus family are critically important nectar plants for native bees, wasps, butterflies, and moths. They also provide vital shelter for chaparral wildlife.

Hundreds of acres of ceanothus-dominated chaparral burned in the Woolsey Fire, but this family of plants has evolved to survive wildfire. Where patches of ceanothus have survived they are in full bloom and alive with pollinators, providing a surreal contrast to the fire-scoured hills.  Even where the plants appear to have been completely destroyed recovery is already underway.

Greenbark ceanothus has deep roots that enable it to re-sprout from the ground; big pod ceanothus and buckbrush cannot regenerate from their roots, but both species have evolved seeds that germinate after being exposed to the heat of fire. Provided the seedlings are not impacted by another fire before they mature, the ceanothus chaparral in the burned areas of the Santa Monica Mountains will recover.

While the mountains heal, Topanga’s unburned chaparral is an oasis for species that depend on ceanothus for survival, and the beauty of the snow-like flowers is one of the joys of winter in the canyon.

Suzanne Guldimann
Suzanne Guldimann

Suzanne Guldimann is a writer, artist, and musician who lives in Malibu and loves the Santa Monica Mountains. She’s covered environment, arts, science, history and crime for the local media for more than a decade and is the author of nine books of music for the Celtic harp. She can be reached at suzanne@messengermountainnews.com

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