California Mountain Lilacs, Springtime is Their Time to Shine


After the rain, the world sparkles.  Standing on my front steps, the springtime air is heavy with the fragrance of citrus blossoms.  Anna’s  Hummingbird looks down at me from the grapefruit tree. “Click click,” he says. He must have survived the unusually chilly nights using Torpor. My gravel driveway is scattered with sawdust and twigs from firewood gathered to warm up these unusually chilly California nights.

Now that Spring is here, I look forward to the spring blooming shrubs of Southern California, like the California Lilacs (Ceanothus).  From March through April, these native shrubs start blooming, covering the hillsides with a soft pale blue.  In the wild, Ceanothus tend to grow in stands. When they bloom, the whole stand is prominently displayed, the blue standing out from the green of surrounding bushes and trees.  This is their time to shine. 

Ceanothus spinosus (Red-Heart Mountain Ceanothus) is one of the species found here in the Santa Monica Mountains. It is found along the coastal ranges from San Luis Obispo County south into Southern California. These native shrubs have light blue flowers and smooth shiny bright green leaves. They grow to 12 ft tall. They are drought tolerant plants, existing only on the meager Southern California rainfall. Left in their native conditions, they can live for decades, up to 100 years.

Ceanothus spinosus propagate by dropping seeds where they lie, encouraging the continuance of the stand. The seeds of this plant can lie dormant for hundreds of years waiting for fire, as they are dependent on forest fires to trigger germination of its seeds. They do not often sprout up accidentally carried by birds as do some other native shrubs.

Frankia on Ceanothus Roots, Photo courtesy Las Pilitas Nursery, CA

Ceanothus is one of the native plants that are associated with mycorrhiza-frankia bacteria.  This is a nitrogen-fixing bacteria that lives on the roots of Ceanothus.  This ‘good’ bacteria can capture nitrogen from the air, convert it and share it with the plant.  This relationship “becomes a multi-layered community of associated free-living and plant-related organisms that protect and support each other.” ref. Las Pilitas Nursery


Pale Blue Blossoms of Ceanothus spinosus in the Santa Monica Mtns, Photo by Kathy Vilim

There are 50-60 species of Ceanothus, native to California, as well as many hybrids.  Quite a number of species are endemic to California alone. Now, these are not ‘Lilacs’ like you think of back East, not the fragrant purple flowering bushes that might remind you of your aunt’s perfume. California Lilacs are in the buckthorn family Rhamnaceae.  While some species of Ceanothus have heavy scent, the majority don’t boast fragrance at all.

Ceanothus is a larval host plant for the Brown Elfin Butterfly (Callophrus Augustinus) Native to the west, Brown Elfin is a little brown butterfly that looks like a moth. The California Hairstreak Butterfly and the Ceanothus silk moth are also friends with Ceanothus.

Ceanothus is a good source of nutrition for deer. Their leaves, a good source of protein, are most nutritious at this time of year, early spring. California Quail eat the stems and seeds of these shrubs, which contain lots of calcium. They also appreciate having Ceanothus stands for shelter.

Not all species of Ceanothus will be right for your area. A bush may be labeled a “California Native” but that is not all you need to consider when planting California Mountain Lilacs in your garden.  You will need to look up which species grow in your region. California is a long state that encompasses quite a diversity of climates & soils.  Within Southern California alone, some species of Ceanothus prefer to grow on the coastal slopes with moderate night time temps, while other species flourish inland, even in the Sierras where temperatures drop sharply at night.

Native Gardeners Note: The many species of Ceanothus take turns blooming throughout the weeks of March and April. Their colors range from white to deep blue. You can have a succession of blooms throughout the entire spring season by planting a mix of species.


Well, the hummingbirds are chattering at me, bringing me back to the task at hand: refilling their feeder to warm up their bellies and keep them going in these chilly first Spring days.


What flowering shrubs are you waiting for this Spring? We’d love to hear~


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  1. Judith Fine-Sarchielli says

    Aas always, I learned so much about Topanga Canyon’s native plants from Kathy’s post. I love the mountain lilacs’ delicate, lilac color and their delicious, subtle perfume. I feel as if Kathy is holding my hand as we we walk along and she discusses all the attributes of the native plants, animals, and birds in her well-written articles. I am grateful to learn from Kathy, who is such an expert, has inspiring photos, and detailed, heart-felt research. I marvel at our wintering Ana’s hummingbirds and am glad for them that the weather and their metabolism and genes allow them to survive here.

    • says

      Thank you, Judith. It is wonderful to know that you share my love of Topanga’s natural beauty, its plants as well as its critters. I hope my posts continue to inspire you. Have a lovely spring day~

  2. mary @ Going Native says

    I love your top photo. It’s like a tapestry. All the muted green colors are stunning. Do your native lilacs smell like the hybrids we have out east. The hummingbirds have a few weeks before they reach Michigan.

    • says

      Thanks so much, yes like a tapestry. Some species of native CA lilacs have a very strong scent, but most do not. Your hybrids are in the olive (Oleaceae) family, so not related really. I’ll bet you can’t wait for your first hummer to return! Have a lovely, Spring day!

  3. says

    How wonderful! Such a beautiful sight. Thank you for sharing your information, I love to learn about natives to other areas. I’m waiting for my Japanese Lilacs to bloom. They are more delicate than the traditional lilac trees. I needed something smaller for my garden. So I have two of them in different locations. My pussy willow just finished blooming and the forsythia are in full bloom. My bridal veil is also blooming right now. So pretty, flowing cascades of tiny white flowers.
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  4. says

    Beautiful, Kathy!

    We have two cousins of your species. One looks very showy (not shown for my county, but CLOSE…so I will dream it will move this way). That one is a larval host for a rare duskywing butterfly. The other, which is shown for my county is not as showy and not a larval host, but does provide some nectar. I’m a little jealous of all that beautiful-ness in your photos.
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