One of the best parts of spring — following the immediate post-winter season — is finding a carpet of bright blue flowers on the forest floor. Like the red snow plants that erupt from a long winter’s nap in the shape of frosty ice cream cones, the blue mahala mat, a low-growing ground cover, informs us that winter has, indeed, passed.       

Mahala mat. Prostrate ceanothus. Ceanothus prostratus. Call it what you want, but the name that’s been associated with this plant for decades, Squaw carpet, is no longer used. Squaw, in modern days considered a derogatory term, has been removed from the USDA Plants Database as well as other plant websites and wildflower or shrub field guides.

The Closeup: Like small folded stars, mahala mat flowers blossom in bright blues and purples.

Its scientific species name, prostratus, fits this evergreen shrub perfectly, prostrate referring to the plant lying stretched out on the ground. We see large circles of this sprawling plant, under the forest canopy, showing off in the spring and early summer its bluest of blue flowers. How does one describe such brilliance? Lake Tahoe-blue? As summer progresses and temperatures rise, the flowers fade to a pale blue and eventually a washed-out gray. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. It’s springtime!  

Advertisement

Looking closer, one can see the arrangement of leaves on the red-brown branches, each leaf directly set opposite one another. Imagine holly at Christmas; this is the shape and appearance of the leaves. As for the tiny blue to purple flowers, each one contains five petals, spoon-shaped, curling out and then closing into the center, like a folded star. White-yellow stamens contrast the blue in sticking out above the petals. When approaching mahala mat, there’s often buzzing, with bees and butterflies drawn to the ground cover, engaged in pollination. 

Sometimes in plant language a name seems just right, much like prostratus. Another example in reference to mahala mat is “umbel.” The inflorescence (cluster) of mahala mat is flat-topped and umbel-like. Collins Dictionary defines umbel as “a cluster of flowers with stalks of nearly equal length which spring from about the same point, like the ribs of an umbrella.” Umbel stems from the Latin term umbella, from umbra, which means shadow. Or, in more modern terms — a parasol, sunshade, or umbrella. Umbel, umbrella. Makes sense. Easy mnemonic.    

Prostrate ceanothus is native to our Tahoe/Truckee region, California, Nevada, and the Pacific Northwest, found in coniferous forests and open plateaus, ranging in elevation from 1,000 feet to 9,000 feet. It typically likes dry climates and tends to grow alongside its Ceanothus’s cousin, snowbrush/tobacco brush (Ceanothus velutinus) and another red-bark bush, greenleaf manzanita (Arctostaphylos patula).

the needles: Mahala mat leaves resemble the sharp-edged holly we see in Christmas greens.

Addressing mahala mat’s relationship to fire, Dillon Sheedy, registered professional forester #3175 with Truckee Fire, states that it is a low fire risk plant since it lays low to the ground, therefore not acting as a “ladder” fuel (vegetation that allows fire to climb up from the forest floor into the tree canopy). As well, since it’s densely compacted, there isn’t a lot of room for air movement to fan the fire. Yet, there’s a caveat: flammable pine needles. Pine needles get easily caught in mahala mat’s prickly spines. Once they land, they stick. 

“Because of its woody characteristics and because pine needles easily become woven into the mat, there should not be mahala mat within 5 feet of any structures or outbuildings,” Sheedy advised. “It’s a good plan to keep mahala clear of needles.” 

Another positive attribute of mahala mat is its ability to reduce erosion. It’s hard to imagine any dirt or mud sliding through its interlaced structure and well-anchored roots. Bending down, I can barely separate the plant to spy its reddish/brown branches. Spiky, dense, flat, and widespread on the ground, this is a hardy plant.

After spring and with the advent of fall around August and September, the seed pods with three sections shrivel to a reddish color, the sign that summer has left. But once again, why do I mention the season of changing leaves? Let’s enjoy the color that is now beginning to paint our forests.  

Author

  • Eve Quesnel

    Eve Quesnel has lived in Truckee for 35 years with her husband Bill, once-upon-a-time daughter Kim-now on her own-and many dogs through the years, currently a Border Collie-Aussi mix. Her favorite pastimes include walking in her neighborhood and nearby woods, hiking in the high Sierra, and reading and writing. Quesnel is now retired from teaching English at Sierra College in Truckee but continues to pursue several writing projects. She is intrigued by the natural world of which she explores and writes about for the column "Nature's Corner" in Moonshine Ink.

Advertisement
Previous articlePronouns Are Important
Next articlePlay it Forward