A member of the Buckthorn Family, Ceanothus velutinus has many common names including mountain balm, sticky laurel, snowbrush, and white lilac. It is sometimes even called red root, a name given to many members of the Ceanothus genus because of the red color of the inner root bark. Leonard and I always call this shrub tobacco brush.
Tobacco brush is a native shrub usually growing between 2 and 5 feet in height. One variety of C. velutinus assumes a different form and grows tree-like. Tobacco brush is found on sunny, dry mountain slopes in western North America between elevations of 3,500 to 10,000 feet.
Tobacco brush has evergreen, alternate leaves on light brown twigs covered with fine hairs. The elliptical leaves are aromatic (variously described as walnut, cinnamon or balsam) when crushed or on hot days. Like other Ceanothus species, the leaves are three veined from the base. Tobacco brush leaves have petioles (stalks), finely serrated margins and often curl slightly. The upper side of tobacco brush leaves are dark green, shiny (varnished) and slightly sticky while the undersides are paler and slightly hairy. The hairs prevent water loss in arid conditions.
The inflorescences are open, compound, pyramidal clusters of white flowers along the side branches.
Tobacco brush fruits are triangular to almost globose (spherical) capsules, lobed at the top and sticky glandular. When mature the capsules release their seeds explosively. Tobacco brush seeds are abundant and can remain dormant for 200 years. Because its seeds are stimulated to germinate by fire and because it can fix nitrogen, which is often lacking in fire-ravaged soils, tobacco brush is often abundant in areas after fires.
Native Americans used an infusion of tobacco brush leaves to treat tuberculosis and would chew fresh leaves to relieve throat irritations. The dried leaves also make a passable substitute for black tea. Because the leaves and fruits contain saponin, pioneers used the soaplike qualities of tobacco brush. Modern herbalists use tobacco brush preparations to lower blood pressure and treat impaired lymphatic functions.
Ceanothus comes from the Greek word “keanothus” and refers to a spiny plant. Some members of this genus do have spines. The species name derives from the Latin “vellus” meaning fleece, probably because the twigs have a covering of fine hairs.
In June I photographed the shrub and flowers along Modoc CA County Road 527 to the west side of Ash Valley. The fruits were growing along the Hidden Valley Trail in the Lava Beds National Monument (Siskiyou County CA) in July.