By NORA BODRIAN
Walking through Oak Canyon in January, I saw shrubs with pointed branches which I initially mistook for spiny redberries. Then I noticed the little clusters of tiny purple flowers and remembered that these hills were blanketed in a purple haze last April. These are Ramona-lilacs (Ceanothus tomentosus), also known as woollyleaf ceanothus, of the Buckthorn family (Rhamnaceae). What a pleasure to see the promise of spring’s upcoming floral display!
The Ramona-lilac, or “miikell” in Kumeyaay, has its place in the foothills and canyons of Southern and Baja California. It is a nitrogen-fixing plant: its presence increases available nitrogen in poor soils through nitrogen-fixing bacteria in its root nodules. The shrubs provide calcium and protein for foraging wildlife, seeds for birds, pollen for bees and butterflies, and provides shade and shelter for small creatures. It is not a “lilac” at all — the name was given due to the color of the inflorescence in the spring, with purple or sometimes white flowers.
Traditional uses by Kumeyaay include boiling the leaves and berries to relieve skin conditions and making baskets from the branches. Take some of the fresh blossoms, add water, rub, and you will get lather and a mild aroma.
Ramona-lilacs are easy to recognize in the spring. The shrubs grow 5-10 feet tall on hillsides and in the canyons of the chaparral. The small evergreen leaves are alternately arranged, with three major veins from the base, and serrated edges. They are shiny on top to reflect the sun, and woolly on the underside to retain moisture. The woody parts are red, especially when new.
The shrub will go summer dormant to conserve energy and drop half of its leaves to make its own mulch. After a brush fire, the plant will re-sprout only from the seed, and not from the base of the burned stem. This makes it an obligate seeder, and the heat of a fire is an effective stimulant for seed germination. Seedlings will sprout from the ashes within a few months of a fire, and Ramona-lilac may eventually dominate its surroundings. However, if fires are too frequent or too intense, then the re-establishment of the shrub population is less likely.
Ramona-lilacs are excellent for a native plant garden, as they are low maintenance, tolerant of clay soil, and serve as slope stabilizers.
— Nora Bodrian is a trial guide at Mission Trails Regional Park.