Ceanothus is a genus of about 50–60 species of shrubs or small trees in the buckthorn family. The genus is confined to North America, the center of its distribution in California, with some species in the eastern United States and others extending as far south as Guatemala. Most are shrubs 2-9 feet tall, but can be small trees up to 18–21 feet.
The flowers are tiny and produced in large, dense clusters that are reported to be intensely fragant almost to the point of being nauseating, and are said to resemble the odor of “boiling honey in an enclosed area”. The seeds of this plant can lie dormant for hundreds of years, and Ceanothus species are typically dependent on forest fires to trigger germination of its seeds.
Ceanothus is also a good source of nutrition for deer, specifically mule deer on the west coast. However, the leaves are not as nutritious from late spring to early fall as they are in early spring. Porcupines and quail have also been seen eating stems and seeds of these shrubs. The leaves are a good source of protein and the stems and leaves have been found to contain a high amount of calcium.
Ceanothus was known as “red root” by many Native American tribes due to the color of the inner root bark, and was used as a medicine for treating lymphatic disorders, ovarian cysts, fibroid tumors, and tonsillitis. Clinical studies of the alkaloid compounds in Ceanothus has verified its effectiveness in treating high blood pressure and lymphatic blockages.
Native Americans used the dried leaves of this plant as a herbal tea, and early pioneers used the plant as a substitute for black tea. Miwok Indians of California made baskets from Ceanothus branches. It has also been used by North American tribes to ease childbirth. Ceanothus has been demonstrated to be very effective in relieving inflammation and irritation from infections of the mouth and throat.