the prodigal ceanothus

The origin of Ceanothus ‘Tuxedo’ reads a bit like a horticultural soap opera: A California native species, Ceanothus thyrsiflorus, crosses the Atlantic for Europe, where it meets up with another ceanothus, this one from the East Coast of the US, Ceanothus americanus, or New Jersey tea. Loose on foreign soil the two get romantically involved, with Ceanothus ‘Autumnal Blue’ being one of the children. One of the plants of Autumnal Blue moves to Ireland, where its tolerance for moister garden conditions and good cold tolerance makes it quite popular.

(Edit, March 4, 2010: A quick trawl through David Fross and Dieter Wilken’s terrific resource, Ceanothus, reminded me that the story is even more twisted than this. The parents of ‘Autumnal Blue’ include the two species mentioned above, but also the Mexican and Guatemalan species, C. caeruleus. The plot thickens…)

There, in Ireland, growing on the grounds of Fitzgerald Nurseries, one of the branches suddenly throws a mutation, where the normally green leaves are instead a dramatic dark color, something between dark chocolate, inky black and maybe just a little grape thrown in. Pat FitzGerald notices the strikingly different branch, and begins a propagation program in earnest. His nursery lists several other near-black plants, including the dramatic Phormium cookianum ‘Black Adder.’ Eventually the plant crosses back to the other side of the Atlantic, for California, where it was released in limited distribution last year.

The almost-black leaves of Ceanothus 'Tuxedo.'

That’s when I met this totally unique looking ceanothus and decided I wanted it for my garden. I brought a little gallon plant and located it where I wanted a dramatic six-foot shrub, expecting that it would be a quick-growing screen plant. Almost a year later, though, the little plant remains a little plant, and hasn’t really grown. Even though I watered it all last year as you would most new plants in the garden, my guess is that I failed to give it enough water through the 146 consecutive days without measurable precipitation that San Diego experienced, the third-driest rainless time in our record books.

To the plant’s credit, it didn’t die. And now the rains have saturated the soil, it’s showing some interest in putting out some new growth. But I felt like I needed some guidance in doing a better job growing this plant. Who better to ask than the person who probably has the most experience with this plant? Why not contact Pat FitzGerald, its originator?

Thankfully, Pat was generous with his time in responding to my questions. Here are some excerpts from the advice he sent my way.

Regarding dry conditions yes I would expect slow growth. Have you prunded your plant. I noticed from the picture on your blog it had very long un-pruned branches. Like a lot of shrubs in dry conditions I think thought needs to be put into helping the plants in the first year get depth of root penetration so that during dry spells its taking moisture from a depth. I suspect if you can give moisture to Tuxedo during the first year of establishment to help it along and prune next spring you will see dense growth establish…

I highlight moisture retention as a lot of people harp on about using water and drought but often forget you can condition your soil to retain more of that valuable moisture. There are so many recycled composts to be purchased or that the householder can make now that you can work into the soil to make pockets 3 X 3 feet around newly planted shrubs or even mulch to give them that start in life. The cure to drought and slow growth in dry areas is more often what you do before you plant than after as I am sure you well know but it needs repeating and repeating to the public…

Tuxedo will behave differently depending on soil density so in heavy soil I have seen plants exhibiting a shorter more compact nature to their growth. If planted in shade and especially in a lighter soil Tuxedo will certainly stretch as it seems to much prefer full sun for sake of both colour and flowering. In our more moist climate I think the plant can get to 8 feet as can many many shrubs here in our temperate climate…

I think the one comment I would have is that simply Tuxedo is for me more than a Ceanothus with deep dark foliage. Tuxedo is an evergreen foliage plant and once established in the garden hardy to minus 12 celcius in our experience but possibly minus 15 celcius. This is an achievement for me as I cannot recommend hardly any evergreen with such dark foliage with such winter hardiness.

Tuxedo is also a good plant for training on a trellis or wall in our climate at least. There is no doubt in my mind that Tuxedo will benefit from occasional pruning but no more than once per year.

I just hope in time Tuxedo contributes some way positively to Californian gardens. While only part native its still is a nice feeling as a plant breeder to have a plant go back to its homeland and be accepted into people’s gardens.

After reviewing Pat’s advice I’ve decided to not only give the plant more water and mulch around them for added water retention through the critical first year or two after a plant is freed into the soil. If I use an organic mulch it will break down over time and enrich the soil.

A common thread you read with many California native plants is that they detest rich soil. In fact Greg Rubin of California’s Own Native Landscape Design spoke to the local native plant society of planting large numbers of short-lived colorful plants between the large structural species so that the temporary plants could “burn up” the excess nutrients in the soil, particularly in a situation where the soil was formerly a heavily-fertilized lawn. But ‘Tuxedo,’ with parents from moister parts of California and the East Coast, sounds like it would benefit from being treated differently.

Ceanothus 'Tuxedo' with chalk dudleya in the foreground.

For me, growing Ceanothus ‘Tuxedo’ will be a little more work and water than growing many other ceanothus would be. But I think it should be worth it. In fact, I saw more of them in the nursery again and picked up a second gallon plant. Here you see it planted as a background for the silvery foliage and eventual orange flowers of chalk-leaf dudleya, Dudleya pulverulenta, and California fuchsia, Zauschneria californica ‘Route 66.’

Ceanothus 'Tuxedo' with California fuchsia in the foreground, which will bring orange flowers to the end of summer.

Wish me and the plants luck. Not every plant is perfectly adapted to your growing conditions, but a little effort can help make them thrive. And the reasons that make ‘Tuxedo’ a little trickier in the driest parts of California might make it a good candidate for moister parts of the state, or other parts of the country where ceanothus might be marginal. This year the plant is in wide circulation and should be widely available.

Ceanothus in New York or Little Rock? This might be the one.

20 thoughts on “the prodigal ceanothus”

  1. Good luck with ‘Tuxedo’! Sounds like it might have a better chance of surving in my soggy clay soil than most other Ceanothus species. I’ve been reluctant to try any of them because they need such good drainage, though I did recntly plant a ‘Joyce Coulter’ that seems okay so far.

    I wish I had more luck with California fuchsias, too. So far, none of mine have survived long enough to flower. I’m trying again with two more of them this year.

  2. Nice history and beautiful plant!

    I did notice that your pictures don’t show mulch around the plants. Have you been trying to get by without any mulch to this point?

  3. Pat’s one of my friends on Twitter and kindly arranged for me and a few other plant geeks to receive some one gallons of Tuxedo – also the Phormium ‘Black Adder’ you mentioned. I don’t have the space or sun for the Tuxedo but happily planted it in one of my client’s gardens. She has a ton of lambs ears and they transplant easily, so we used that as an accent (looks as fabulous with the black as does your dudleya) then threw in some pale pink carpet roses to tie it in with the rest of the garden. I’ll be there on Saturday and am looking forward to see how its coming along.

    I’ve had a chance since then to see some that are larger, and the habit is more upright than sprawling – similar to C. Dark Star. Pat’s suggestion to espalier is an interesting one and something I wouldn’t mind trying.

  4. Love this post! I have to add I am really honoured that you took the time you have both in planting Tuxedo caring enough to give it a try and document your efforts. I hope you are going to be happy with the results. I was near SanDiego in April 2008 and can only imagine from the landscape there that it can get quite hot. I am hopeful that Tuxedo will work for you there. It’s going to be exciting for me to see how you get on with it through summer. Thank you for this it’s fantastic that Tuxedo is in such good hands!


    1. Hello,
      This is 2022 and I am in Washington State and trying to grow Tuxedo. I moved from a high and dry site in Oregon where Ceanothus and Arctostaphylos thrived to a wetland in Washington state just 35 miles away. A garden designer reccomended Tuxedo along with Karo Golden Esk hebe. After a year’s search I finally got my hands on Tuxedo and they are making slow starts but are growing. I have sandy soil that I heavily amended with compost and pumice for drainage and they getsome light irrigation which I cannot control. Morning shade and strong afternoon sun. I planted another one in a drier, sunnier location and it is not doing as well and does not tolerate water as well there. Possibly due to heavier soil.

      Such an interesting plant. I’m guessing from the problems I experienced in trying to find it in Portland, Oregon that people have had problems growing it here. We have had two bad drought/heat years that would make things exceptionally difficult. I’m now 30 miles north of Portland and am hopefully in a cooler, slightly moister area that might work for it.

      I welcome suggestions if by rare chance this email gets to you. Many thanks for an interesting and delightful plant.

      The year before we left our Oregon home (2019) all the Arctostaphylos on our south slope produced hybrid seedlings. I’m no breeder but I think mother Nature may have produced a nice new hybrid or three. The horticulturist from our local nursery propagated them. I wasn’t sure if they were giving me a guilt trip for leaving or saying goodbye. I adored my manzanitas and leaving them tore my heart apart but we needed to downsize. Seedlings are extremely rare in our area. I had to leave the parent plants behind.

      Know that you have another devoted parent for your Tuxedos in Washington State. I think they will play well with the hebes.

      Best regards,

      Carolyn Adams

      1. Thanks for your comments on Tuxedo. I don’t know how long my plant hung on after I wrote the post, but it has unfortunately passed on. In its place I have a local ceanothus species–but even that one is struggling getting established. I guess the spot I have is extra-challenging for a lot of plants, even for plants found in my local canyons! It’s really interesting to hear about your swarm of manzanita hybrids. I probably wouldn’t want a hybrid to escape into a natural area, but safe in gardens is a different matter. The forms that come about can be really fascinating, and some hybrids might serve specific garden needs, while at the same time providing wildlife with something close to the food sources they’re used to finding in the wilds. Leaving a garden you’ve tended is tough, isn’t it?

  5. I’ve seen the black tuxedo and thought it was a really fascinating plant. I just had no idea its origins were so tawdry. Funny I always think of ceanothus and perfectly suited to our climate, but an Irish/English/EastCoast/California ceanothus would probably need a little help finding its roots, so to speak.

  6. Very absorbing read – I’ve heard that California natives were more used in the British Isles than here, historically. Garrya elliptica is another that I gather grows well there, and I saw lovely Ribes sanguineum happily growing in the parks of London. I can see some similarity between our foggier coastal climate up here and Ireland. How nice that you made a connection with Pat the propagator!

  7. I second Brad’s comment. But also can I just say that I love the generosity and thirst for knowledge that makes our plant community what it is?!

  8. well, good luck to you and your plants! I love how the plant looks truly black – I don’t think I’ve seen a blacker plant. Very cool.

  9. Gayle, I know your yard can get a little soggy, so I can see the California fuchsia not liking your conditions. But if can succeed with the Joyce Coulter ceanothus, I think you’d stand a good chance with this one.

    Brent, good eyes with the mulch. I have seedlings, some of the actually desirable and not just weeds, coming up in the bed. Once they’re up, down goes the mulch.

    Loree, I can just see one of these as a dark, soft background for some spikey plants in your garden.

    DP, I hope you post on your progress with this plant. It’d be great to swap growing tips.

    Susan, it’d be interesting to see how well you do with this plant up there, since its genetics seem better suited for cooler, moister places. But at least we’re guaranteed the deepest, darkest foliage colors with out bright days.

    Pat, thanks for your comments here, and for all the great information you sent my way! Some plants I put in the ground and don’t get too concerned if they don’t do well, writing off any failures as adding to my experience. But this one I definitely want to succeed at.

    Noelle, I’ll have to admit that I’ve been a late bloomer as far as appreciating ceanothus. But now that I’m there, I’m pretty rabid!

    Brad, I’m used to looking at climate information on where plants come from to try to better understand their needs, but with a really mixed hybrid like this, it’s definitely more of a challenge.

    CM, I was thrilled with Pat’s helpfulness. So often plants seem like industrial products that appear in the nursery, so it’s great to have a connection with the person who made the plant possible. I think that most gardeners have a love with the exotic, myself included. I can see how plants from mythical California might have some cachet. Case in point is Robin Middleton’s great site dedicated to the genus salvia, where he swoons over plants like white sage while complaining that it’s almost impossible to grow under his conditions.

    Christine, I love plants with stories, and this one is one of the better ones. I’m glad to share stories, and to run in to people who are so generous in sharing their enthusiasm and knowledge.

    Wendy, this is probably the second-blackest plant I’ve ever encountered. The only darker one I can think of is black mondo grass, Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens.’ But that one’s an itty bitty thing compared to this big dramatic selection.

  10. I meat to mention did you know there is a Zauchneria californicum called Dublin. Its a very pretty thing grows well here maybe too well at expense of flower but it does flower very well also. Have you heard of it out there?


  11. Pat, no, I’m not aware of that variety. It sounds perfectly suited for a moister garden like Gayle’s, my first commenter here. Out here the varieties seem selected for showyness under drought stress, whereas Dublin might be selected for doing well with more moisture. It might behoove us to experiment with several varieties to find one that works, and not write off an entire species because of one failure.

  12. Good luck growing it James. It looks great contrasted with that white chalk plant. I hope it does well. So nice of Pat to respond to your inquiries.

  13. I hadn’t heard of this ceanothus hybrid. Since I love ceanothus and black-leaved plants, I’m very interested to see how this does for you – it is interesting dealing with these miscegenous plants. Trying to perennialize hybrid tulip bulbs is similar: they originated in a climate like mine, but the extensive breeding work in the wet climes of the Netherlands has changed them.

    The advice about pulling off leaves and trailing branches is just the kind of thing I was taught in horticulture class and so often forget myself. Makes sense, though, if you want the plant to concentrate on root development.

  14. I was reminded of your post James as I read other stuff tonight. How did your Tuxedo since? (says he asking with fear:) ). I hope it did well there although your area seems a tough test for it but one lives in hope?


    1. Hi Pat,
      Thanks for checking back. So far so good. It’s been a record cool year–so cool I think the plant probably feels it never left home! Mulch, extra water, all seem to have contributed to the plants enjoying themselves in the garden a little more than before.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *