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Buckbrush (Ceanothus cuneatus)


The shiny tops of the small buckbrush leaves make it hard to see the telltale sign of ceanothus, but the underside of the leaves shows it clearly: three veins, which come out of their convergence at the stem like three branches of a river.  All ceanothus plants belong to the buckthorn family, or Rhamnaceae.


While I think of ceanothus as a western U.S. phenomenon, my  Directory to Resources on Wildflower Propagation reminds me that this ceanothus is related to a ceanothus called “New Jersey Tea”, a plant used by patriotic (that is, anti-loyalist: politics get confusing) colonists in place of black tea. (Whether their motivation was more political or economic is up to us to guess, though the two seem to entwine a lot.)

Buckbrush trees/shrubs tend to mature into a sort of wheatsheaf shape, as in the photo at the top of this post, with a tight bundle of small trunks culminating in a frothy outfluffing of leaves and, in spring, clusters of bloom (these are said to range from white to blue, but in my area they are just creamy white. Flower color variance is a habit of ceanothus, combined with its tendency to cross-breed). Buckbrush shrubs are one of the ultimates in low-water gardening, since they are adapted to our native climate of winter rain and summer drought.

Las Pilitas Nursery cites one buckbrush that was planted with only one watering, and still survived; most transplanted wild plants take a season of watering to settle in. Buckbrush is also one of the plants used to colonize bare hillsides after a fire. (For more information on buckbrush, including plant companions, do check out the excellent Las Pilitas post.  You can also buy buckbrush plants there.)

Ceanothus, a friend once told me, are the saviors of the foothills: they bring nitrogen into our hard clay-and-granite soils, despoiled by a few rounds of clearcutting plus the hydraulic mining that washed a lot of our local topsoil into the San Francisco Bay. There are so many kinds of ceanothus, even in my own area, that identifying most of them is difficult; they seem to hybridize and sport wildly.

Buckbrush is one of the few kinds of ceanothus that is easily identified. It’s evergreen; the only other evergreen ceanothus I know around here comes about to your shin, so it makes them easy to tell apart, even if they both have stiffy shiny little leaves with fat ends. Buckbrush flowers are different from other ceanothus, too. While most ceanothus have panicles or long (even if tiny) clusters of flowers, buckbrush has clusters flat to the branch.


Buckbrush flowers have a musty, sweet scent that’s different from other ceanothus, and which may account for their name (I haven’t smelled bucks up close in mating season, but I have smelled billygoats: you don’t have to be nearby to get the drift).

Buckbrush also has little spiny protruberances (they’re stiff, but they’re not really sharp, unless you work at it) coming off the branches. I used to think those little pointy things might the reason for the name “buckbrush”. But one of my more general wildflower books (which shall remain anonymous) says that the names “buckbrush” and “deer brush” are generic terms, coming from the way deer browse on these plants.  But in that case, every plant in our area (including the cultivated ones) could be called buckbrush, so it isn’t a very useful explanation.

Anyway,  “buckbrush” in our area means this specific plant, just as “deer brush”, which will be blooming soon, refers to another particular, type of ceanothus, the kind we call “mountain lilac”. Sierra Nevada Natural History gets that right – these are clearly local usages, devised by those of  us who live among the bewildering variety of ceanothus, and need some way of keeping them straight.

Any contributions to the reason for the “buckbrush” name will be gratefully accepted. Just let me know if you’re making them up. No shame in that; common and Latin names are pretty much all made up based on physical evidence. *


*Sylvia take note!


Directory to Resources on Wildflower Propagation, National Council of State Garden Clubs, Inc., prepared by Gene A. Sullivan and Richard H. Daley, Missouri Botanical Garden,  1981

Tracy I. Storer and Robert L. Usinger, Sierra Nevada Natural History, University of California Press, 1963  (and later editions)

{ 18 comments… add one }

  • Alice Joyce April 25, 2009, 3:22 pm

    Thank heaven for ceaonthus in all their variety and lovely, colorful cultivars….. Alice

  • Town Mouse April 26, 2009, 7:38 pm

    A timely post. That was what we saw on our grand day out near Mariposa. We weren’t sure it was a ceanothus, the leaves were “wrong”, said Country Mouse. Now we know. Lovely plant, and lovely photos, too!

  • Pomona Belvedere April 27, 2009, 9:06 am

    I’m glad this blog came in so handy as a plant identifier! As Alice reiterates, there is quite the variety of ceanothus, and this one is unlike most of the others.

  • ryan April 27, 2009, 12:27 pm

    I always thought it was called buckbrush because the deer would spend the afternoons amongst it, that folks would spot deer amongst the large stands of it, so they called it buckbrush. That information should be considered totally unreliable, a lot of my “I always thought” information turns out to be wrong.

  • Pomona Belvedere April 27, 2009, 6:35 pm

    I’ve got a lot of “I always thought” information, too. I guess writing makes me honest: I always research before I put it in print…

  • susan (garden-chick) April 28, 2009, 7:58 am

    I would not have recognized this as a ceanothus, which has been blooming everywhere here in the East Bay over the past several months – gardens, office parks, random patches of freeway plantings. I associate it so strongly with its mass of blue flowers I’ve stopped thinking about other identifiers (and the fact that its not always blue).

    Your post drives home why casual gardeners can find it so challenging to incorporate natives. You can’t just go to the nursery and buy a few, as if they were a flat of one-size-fits-all impatiens.

  • Pomona Belvedere April 28, 2009, 5:32 pm

    That’s an interesting point about the difficulties casual gardeners have with natives; since I got to gardening from looking at wild things in the woods, I hadn’t thought of that aspect.

  • lostlandscape(James) May 7, 2009, 7:00 pm

    I really like this plant. The plant you show has a great shape to it.

    Your mention of the New Jersey tea is interesting. Much of the country can’t grow most of our ceanothus easily (not that they’re always that easy for Californians!), but that eastern species might give them some more options. I read that Europe has used it in more garden-proof hybrids for well over a century.

  • Pomona Belvedere May 8, 2009, 9:48 am

    I believe it was the Brits who got ahold of our native ceanothus and appreciated it as we haven’t until recently, making lots of presumably garden-friendly (and wet-climate-friendly) hybrids. They did that with goldenrod, too!

  • Charlotte March 23, 2010, 11:23 am

    We have buckbrush here in Sonora and the surrounding Sierra foothills. My co-workers and I suffer greatly from allergies caused by the buckbrush flowers.

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