Tag Archives: groundcovers

some garden ceanothus


On my last nursery trip I noticed a new horticultural ceanothus selection that I hadn’t encountered before. Ceanothus Tuxedo is striking because of its brown-black foliage, a leaf color I’ve never seen before on a ceanothus. In this photo you can see its large, dark foliage contrasted against the bright medium green of a more typical ceanothus.

Tuxedo arose as a mutation on a branch of Ceanothus Autumnal Blue, a hybrid of C. thyrsiflorus and C. √ódelilianus (which is itself a hybrid of a hardy deciduous species with a more tender evergreen one). Autumnal Blue isn’t a plant that’s a typical constituent of California native gardens, instead being an old British hybrid that was bred for its hardiness. Also unlike its purely California brethren, it blooms in summer or fall, not in the spring.

The new Tuxedo selection is reputedly drought-tolerant. Looking at its ancestry, however, it’s clear it will require some supplemental summer water in dry climates. There’s no question that it appreciates good drainage. Mature height is listed as at least six feet high and across.


Next to Tuxedo in the nursery were a couple variegated ceanothus. C. thyrsiflorus ‘El Dorado’ features small light green/dark green leaves on a large shrub. In summer the leaves will show more contrast, with the light green turning more of a yellow color.


If you want yellow-and-green leaves in a more spreading ceanothus, there’s C. griseus horizontalis ‘Diamond Heights.’ (Sorry for the fuzzy photo…) You could think of it as a variegated version of a well known groundcover ceanothus like ‘Yankee Point.’

Both of the above could be considered low-water (not no-water) plants for a garden.

California native plant purists might think twice before planting any of these selections. They scream that they’re garden plants and not visitors from the wilds. But these ceanothus do give you more options if you’d still like your plants to have a bit of laid back California attitude to them.



The last ceanothus I want to share is a wild plant, taken about ten days ago just outside the Santa Ysabel Open Space Preserve in the San Diego County foothills. Chaparral whitethorn (C. leucodermis) has got to be one of the most unique of the genus, combining fluffy, vaporous blue-tinged white flowers with a plant that has bark as white as an aspen. It’s an amazing effect.

But unfortunately the plant appears to be singularly difficult to grow in anything but the perfect garden spot. Taking up the slack is a garden-friendly hybrid, L.T. Blue (L.T. equals leucodermis x thyrsiflorus), which preserves the white bark color and blue (if not misty blue) flowers of leucodermis in combination with the much more garden-tolerant C. thyrsiflorus. Las Pilitas carries it, and this last photo is from their site.

milkvetch update


I wrote earlier about a little patch of Nuttall’s milkvetch (Astragalus nuttallii), a new California native groundcover I’m trying out. Last time, I was pretty enthusiastic. Now, after eight weeks with less than a quarter inch of natural rainfall, I’m a little less excited.

At this point, at the end of April/beginning of May, the plant continues to be interesting up close: a mix of reddening stems, small green-gray leaves and dramatic red-tinged cream-colored pods.

When the seeds have ripened inside the pods, they rattle in a really interesting way. You can see why many Astragalus are called “rattlepod”:


But the down-side about this plant, I’m finding out, is how it looks from a distance. The red stems, whitish pods and green leaves all give the impression of a brown, dying plant. Just squint while looking at the next image and you can begin to see that it’s not the most kempt looking selection for one of the first things you encounter.

This introduction might work well in an informal area, mixed in with big plants that will take up the slack when this one takes a vacation. A spot that gets occasional garden water also might keep this plant looking nicer, longer. But since I planted it at eye-level, right at the front sidewalk in a spot that gets no supplemental water all summer, I’ve decided it’s probably not the right plant for this spot.

So…I’ve cut it back pretty heavily, and it may be out of this spot if it doesn’t look a lot better quickly. That’s the fate of a lot of California natives: They look great during the cool, wet growing season, but look less wonderful during when it dries out and get hotter, which unfortunately also happens to be the season when people want to be outdoors, enjoying their gardens.

Don’t let that discourage you from planting natives, however. Some of the buckwheats I’ve planted next to the milkvetch are still green all over and are about to begin their long season of flowers and dramatic dried seed heads. And there are many other options for plants that look good throughout the year. It’s just a matter of finding the right plant for the right spot in the garden.

western dichondra

My parents knew a good deal when they saw one. The house they purchased in the Southern California ‘burbs had the required number of bedrooms, fruit trees in the back, a lawn for the kids to play on, and was located half-way between their jobs. The front yards in the neighborhood were well maintained but not splashy.

Some of the houses on the other side of the nearby main boulevard, however, had immaculate high-maintenance gardens–and probably had gardeners to go with them. One of the groundcover choices that some of those houses sported was a dark green dichondra lawn, smooth and uniform as the felt on a pool table. These were lawns that didn’t tolerate much foot traffic, required lots of weeding, heavy summer water and were meant mainly for show. Compared to our lumpy, spiky lawn, these dichondra tableaux seemed like the stuff that dreams are made of. (We never would have considered that dichondra is considered a weed in many parts of the country.)


Jump ahead lots and lots of years to my current house. Every now and then in one of the raised beds I’d see a plant volunteer underneath some shrubs or around some bulbs. It sure looked like dichondra, but for a long time I thought I wasn’t IDing the plant correctly.

As it turns out the plant really is a dichondra, and it’s actually one of the uncommon native plants found in coastal sage scrub, chaparral and oak woodland habitats. The local species, Dichondra occidentalis, is distinct from the classic lawn plant–one of the subtle distinguishing characteristics being the silver or brown hairs on the stems. But it’s still a dichondra, and I thought its was pretty cool that one of the plants that I’d fetishized growing up somehow managed to find me as an adult.


The dichondra has self-sowed itself into a couple spots around the house. It now forms a welcome groundcover in this raised planter, where a few months ago the narcissus were breaking through the soil…


…and this is today, with white Chinese ground orchids, Bletilla striata alba, blooming away in their bed of soft dichondra.

If you don’t want to wait for the plant to show up on its own, several California native plant suppliers offer Dichondra occidentalis, though it’s definitely one of the less popular items. The plant seems best for me in part-shade. It can take the summer off if you don’t water it, but bi-weekly sprinklings have kept it around year-round for me, though in summer it’s a little sparse. But as much as I hate to admit it, I also have a hard time looking glamorous all the time, so I’m willing to give this plant a break…

a new groundcover


Here’s a look at a new groundcover I’m trying out. The plant, Nuttall’s milkvetch (Astragalus nuttallii) is native to coastal Central California, and seems to be adapting easily to my coastal San Diego location–maybe a little too well!

Las Pilitas Nursery, who seems to be the only firm propagating the species, estimates its height to be 3-18 inches and 18 to 36 inches wide. The plant went into the ground October 12, and has topped out at a foot or so high–so far so good. But its spread, now at over six feet, has easily hit more than double the estimated maximum plant size. And that’s with no supplemental watering after the first couple of months in the ground. We’ll see if it slows down as the weather warms and the ground dries out.


The milkvetch bore some of these small, ivory-white flowers on it in October, and it’s never been without them in the intervening six months. Now that the weather is warming, the plant is getting even more interested in flowering.


As much as I enjoy its flowers, my favorite thing about this milkvetch is its delicate foliage. It’s fern-like, and so far has maintained its clean, green-to-grayish green coloration. I have the plant at front edge of the retaining wall next to the front sidewalk, so it’s easy to get face to face with the flowers and leaves. A front of the bed location would also let people enjoy this delicately textured plant.

So, if you’d like a distinctive, delicate, low, mounding groundcover for a dry spot in a zone 9 or 10 landscape, this might be just the ticket, even if the plant might get a little wide and need to be cut back.

PS: I should also mention that one of this milkvetch’s common names is “locoweed,” and the plant is supposedly poisonous. I have no idea whether it’s in the category of nightshade or no more dangerous than tomato plants. Since I have no small children around or pets that get into anything other than catnip, I’ve never let an interesting plant’s supposed toxicity stop me from growing it. But you might consider that before planting a couple acres of it.