Ceanothus velutinus 

Ceanothus velutinus

This native shrub has been eluding my observation for years, because I either just didn’t notice it because it wasn’t in bloom, or because I mistook it for something more familiar, and didn’t look closely at it. I’ve driven by the patch shown in these photos at least a dozen times on trips to and from the South Prairie area in the Gifford-Pinchot NF, and did so again on my way up there on Tuesday. I’m pretty sure I had seen some on a very steep hillside across Cape Horn Creek from the viewpoint along the Cape Horn trail where Pam and I got married 4 years ago, but ropes and a belayer would’ve been required to access that patch. 

Ceanothus velutinus

But on my way back from South Prairie last week, relaxed and driving casually without the goal oriented tunnel vision I apparently exhibited on the way up, I did notice the thickets of Ceanothus velutinus along both sides of the road, and braked excitedly to a stop. There were dozens of bumble bees (with at least 3 different species, although I didn’t net any of them to try to make an id) mining it’s nectar, enough that the hum of their wings was audible from several yards away, as well as hundreds of tiny beetles, some syrphid flies, and a large Lepturobosca chrysocoma longhorn beetle. Surprisingly there were no butterflies, but some clouds had moved in and I’d noticed a drastic decrease in the number of flying lepidoptera. 

Ceanothus velutinus

I knew that this member of the family Rhamnaceae (with a variety of common names, including mountain balm, snowbrush, tobacco brush, shiny-leaf ceanothus, sticky laurel, Hooker’s ceanothus, and greasewood) was an important component of its ecosystem, but even I was surprised by the vast number of lepidoptera and other orders that utilize it as a food source in one stage or another of their lives. You can bet that I’ll be really watching for it now, and that because of its insect attracting power, much like the spreading dogbane (Apocynum androsaemifolium) that I also saw on that trip and will be profiling directly, patches of it will become mandatory stopping places on any journey that passes them. 

Ceanothus velutinus

As near as I can tell this is the variation C. v. laevigatus (formerly C.v. hookeri) because the underside of the leaves are essentially hairless. The books call this the coastal form, and the location where I found this is at least 100 air miles from the Pacific, but variation C. v. velutinus is supposedly velvety with hairs beneath the leaf (hence the name velutinus) and this wasn’t like that. Also, “Flora of the Pacific Northwest” says the stips forare only 1mm long, and these were slightly over 2mm. But then, these wild organisms don’t read the books and are unaware of the strictures we attempt to impose on them. 

Glabrous ventral leaf surface, indicating this is Ceanothus velutinus var. laevigatus

“Snowbrush ceanothus forms large, dense colonies [70,121,240]. Thickets may be up to 33 feet (10 m) wide and are often dense and impenetrable [121,261]. In general, the number of snowbrush ceanothus plants in an area decreases with age [303]. Though stands of snowbrush ceanothus may begin to deteriorate after 15 years [175,303], the natural life span of snowbrush ceanothus is greater than 25 years [94,175], and 50-year-old plants have been observed [59,63].” Anderson, Michelle D., 2001 Species: Ceanothus velutinus

Ceanothus velutinus

Ethnobotany– “Infusion of leaves and twigs used for arthritis…Decoction of plant used for cancer…Plant used in sweatbath for an unspecified illness…Compound decoction of branches taken for mild forms of gonorrhea…Infusion of leaves and twigs with Indian hellebore used as a wash for bathing…Decoction of branches taken for weight loss…Poultice of dried, powdered leaves used as a ‘baby powder’…” For more information see the 37 entries on BRIT – Native American Ethnobotany Database

“The leaves are used as a tea substitute[177, 183]…. Plants For A Future can not take any responsibility for any adverse effects from the use of plants. Always seek advice from a professional before using a plant medicinally…The leaves are febrifuge[257]. An infusion has been used in the treatment of coughs and fevers[257]. A decoction of the leaves and stems has been used both internally and externally in the treatment of dull pains, rheumatism etc[257]. The leaves contain saponins and have been used as a skin wash that is also deodorant and can destroy some parasites[257, K]. The wash is beneficial in treating sores, eczema, nappy rash etc[257].” Ceanothus velutinus Sticky Laurel, Snowbrush ceanothus, Hooker’s ceanothus PFAF Plant Database

2mm stipules of Ceanothus velutinus

Description– “Erect to spreading shrub. Stems brown, round, smooth. Leaves alternate, shiny, evergreen, strongly fragrant, sticky. Leaf widely oval, with round tip, 2-4 in. long, finely toothed. Flowers white in thick rounded clusters less than 6 in. long at stem tops. Grows in open woods, brushy sites, in most elevations. Var. velutinus leaf is gray with dense fine hairs on underside. Grows only inland, not near coast, at mid- to high elevations. Var. hookeri has leaves with underside light green, hairless; grows to small tree only near coast below 2900 ft.” Ceanothus velutinus | Snowbrush | Wildflowers of the Pacific Northwest

Similar species– Ceanothus sanguineus and C. integerrimus have leaves that are deciduous, and are not shiny and looking laquered; C. parryi and C. thyrsiflorus have leaves less than 2” long; other Ceanothus have opposite or whorled leaves. 

Ceanothus velutinus

Habitat– “Thickets of snowbrush ceanothus often occupy open rocky hillsides and partially shaded forests [37]. Plants are often found on moderately dry to moderately moist mountain slopes [70,130,132,136,154,197,209,240] and on steep canyon slopes [284]. Though found on all aspects [198,207,217,240,300], snowbrush ceanothus may be more likely to occur on south aspects [132,136,154,199,266], followed by west [132,136,154] and east slopes [207,217]. In the western redcedar-western hemlock zone of northern Idaho, frequency and percent cover of snowbrush ceanothus were significantly greater (p<0.01) on south aspects than on north aspects [198]. Though snowbrush ceanothus occurs on moist as well as relatively dry sites, it is more likely to dominate the vegetation on mesic sites [135,144,238]. Elevation: Snowbrush ceanothus has a wide elevational distribution [240], extending from near sea level to high mountains [271]. It generally occurs at higher elevations on south-facing slopes than on north-facing slopes [5,14].” Anderson, Michelle D., 2001 Species: Ceanothus velutinus

Ceanothus velutinus

Range– “Snowbrush ceanothus occurs from British Columbia and Alberta south to California, Utah, and Colorado [70,127,142,197,285] and as far east as South Dakota [142,197,285]. The PLANTS database provides a distributional map of snowbrush ceanothus. Distribution of snowbrush ceanothus may be influenced locally by frost patterns and the presence of insulating snow cover during the winter [116,197].

Ceanothus velutinus var. hookeri grows on the west side of the Cascade Range from northern California to British Columbia [129]. Ceanothus velutinus var. velutinus is widespread and occurs from British Columbia through California and Nevada east of the Cascades to South Dakota and Colorado [63,129].” Anderson, Michelle D., 2001 Species: Ceanothus velutinus

Ceanothus velutinus

Eaten by– Pollinators of all sorts visit the flowers for nectar, and if my experience the other day is any indication, bumble bees really love this plant; “Nectar: Pale Swallowtail, Western Tiger Swallowtail (Scott), California Tortoiseshell, Milbert’s Tortoiseshell, Zerene Fritillary, Great Arctic, Brown Elfin, Hedgerow Hairstreak, Thicket Hairstreak, Johnson’s Hairstreak, Echo Azure, Pacuvius Duskywing…Foodplant for Pale Swallowtail, Lorquin’s Admiral, California Tortoiseshell, Brown Elfin, Hedgerow Hairstreak, California Hairstreak, Echo Azure, and Pacuvius Duskywing Gelechiidae: Chionodes sp.; Erebidae: Toothed Snout Moth (Hypena bijugalis); Geometridae: Aethaloida packardaria, Gray-banded Lilac Looper (Apodrepanulatrix litaria), Ceanothus Looper (Drepanulatrix carnearia), Drepanulatrix falcataria, Yellow-banded Looper (Drepanulatrix foeminaria), Drepanulatrix monicaria, Drepanulatrix quadraria, Blotch-lined Looper (Drepanulatrix secundaria), Spurred Wave (Drepanulatrix unicalcararia), Eudrepanulatrix rectifascia, Eupithecia misturataEupithecia nevadata, Sulphur Wave (Hesperumia sulphuraria), Macaria quadrilinearia, Horned Spanworm (Nematocampa resistaria), Darwin’s Green (Nemoria darwiniata), Brown-lined Looper (Neoalcis californiaria). Rindge’s Pero (Pero mizon), Bordered Fawn (Sericosema juturnaria), Falcate Synaxis (Tetracis cervinaria); Lasiocampidae: Lappet Moth (Phyllodesma americana), Western Tent Caterpillar (Malacosoma californica); Noctuidae: Lost Dagger (Acronicta perdita), Adelphagrotis indeterminataAdelphagrotis stellarisAndropolia theodori, Rusty Shoulder Knot (Aseptis binotata), Egira crucialis, Brown Woodling (Egira perlubens), Western Woodling (Egira rubrica), Garden Cutworm (Fishia discors),. Mesogona olivata, Ceanothus Nola (Nola minna), Speckled Green Cutworm (Orthosia hibisci), Orthosia pacifica, Otter Spiramater (Spiramater lutra); Notodontidae: Red-humped Caterpillar (Schizura concinna); Saturniidae: Ceanothus Silkmoth (Hyalophora euryalus), Western Sheepmoth (Hemileuca eglanterina); Tischeriidae: a leaf miner, Tischeria ceanothi; Tortricidae: Choristoneura sp.”https://www.cnps-scv.org/images/handouts/CaliforniaPlantsforLepidoptera2014.pdf; Charley Eiseman in “Leaf Miners of North America “ (2nd edition, 2022) reports larvae of the leaf mining moths Recurvaria franciscaXenolechia ceanothiellaStigmella ceanothi, Tischeria ceanothi, Acanthopteroctetes unifascia, and the leaf beetle Baliosus californicus and Brachycoryna hardyi; adults and/or larvae of the leaf beetles, Diachus erasus,Scelolyperus varipes, Glyptoscelis longior feed on this plant; there are many true bugs that feed on various Ceanothus, but I can find nothing specific for this species; Browsing mammals eat the leaves and flowers, and small mammals and birds eat the seeds. 

Ceanothus velutinus

Reproductive timing– “Bloom Period:  May -June.  Seedpods ripen in late June to early August; dispersal begins in August when seeds are ejected from the pods and fall to the ground.” Snowbrush, Ceanothus velutinus | Native Plants PNW

Etymology of names– Ceanothus is from “Greek keanothus, name used by Dioscorides for some spiny plant” Ceanothus in Flora of North America @ efloras.org. The specific epithet velutinus is from the Latin word for ‘velvety’, presumably referring to the hirsute underside of the leaf one finds in the more inland subspecies of this shrub. 

Ceanothus velutinus

Species: Ceanothus velutinus

Snowbrush, Ceanothus velutinus | Native Plants PNW

Ceanothus velutinus | Snowbrush | Wildflowers of the Pacific Northwest

BRIT – Native American Ethnobotany Database

Ceanothus velutinus Sticky Laurel, Snowbrush ceanothus, Hooker’s ceanothus PFAF Plant Database

Ceanothus velutinus | Landscape Plants | Oregon State University


OregonFlora Ceanothus velutinus

Ceanothus velutinus

8 thoughts on “Ceanothus velutinus ”

  1. Terrific plant, wonderfully described. Perhaps at some point you could add some non-flowering, off season pictures though I understand as an evergreen they may be a little boring and not add that much to the picture.

    1. Thanks for your appreciation, Chris! I found some more today, near the area where I found the last one, and they had bugs everywhere! Little bit of Heaven for me and the arthropods 😀

  2. I just saw a plant near Steamboat Springs CO that I think must be this species, but I’d love to know for sure. How can I send you my picture?

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