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)