Garden Plants

Californian Lilac

No matter how many times I pass by this plant, I am always mesmerised by the incredible blue of its flowers. Californian Lilacs (Ceanothus) are stunning, North American shrubs with a lot of character. Their charming flowers, with their gentle scent, along with their ability to adapt and thrive as a climbing plant, hedge plant or as ground cover makes them a popular shrub in many British gardens. They provide nectar for bees and butterflies, and in America also hummingbirds, but its the rich history of Californian Lilacs that makes them so interesting to me.

As well as being incredibly versatile, Californian Lilacs are also evergreen, so even after their wonderful flowers have bloomed and withered, the rich green foliage remains. Californian Lilacs have beautifully veined, glossy leaves that really stand out and add texture to garden borders. They’re very drought resistant and thrive in full sun, but do require well drained soil. If you’re interested in planting one, it’s worth waiting until Autumn so that they can establish a strong root system over winter, ready to take on the sun next summer.

Californian Lilacs also go by other interesting names, including Soap Bush and New Jersey Tea. Some species of Californian Lilac received the name Soap Bush because they contain saponin. Saponin is a compound that, when shaken with water, foams and acts as a soap. In fact, this is one of many plants used by Native Americans as a natural soap. As the flowers are also gently scented, the lather is too. When it comes to storing the soap, the fruits of Californian Lilacs can be dried and crushed, and when added to water will produce a soap you can take with you. I will note here that saponin is toxic, so please don’t eat the plant.

The common name New Jersey Tea refers to one Californian Lilac in particular, Ceanothus americanus. It received this name due to the fact that it was used a substitute for tea during the American Revolutionary War. The American Revolutionary War (or American War or Independence) occurred between 1775 and 1783, and resulted in America overthrowing British rule and establishing of the United States of America. One of the defining moments leading up to the War was the 1773 Boston Tea Party, when a shipment of British tea was destroyed in Boston Harbour over unfair taxation of American colonists. Although it is caffeine-free, New Jersey Tea acted as a substitute in the years that followed.

This fantastically beautiful plant is one of my favourite garden shrubs. They’re aesthetically pleasing and versatile, but also act as a reminder of the history of America. That is something uniquely wonderful about plants; they can transport you to a different time and place, and act as a living memorial to history.


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