Not wanting summer to end, I think back to mid-June when I walked past one of my favorite shrubs on the Forest Service 06 road. Every year, I highly anticipate the overwhelming scent of snowbrush, which smells like honey, like someone had planted hundreds of honey-rose bushes in the forest. Remembering the divine aromatic smell of the sprigs of crème-colored, bottle-brush flower clusters (aka inflorescence, a group of flowers), I am once again brought back into nature’s wild gardens. It is in this natural nursery where butterflies, bees, and hummingbirds gather around the flowers. Birds and small mammals carry off the seeds, and deer munch on the leaves. Snowbrush is a bush buffet!
But summer is behind us, and fall is on its way. Still, snowbrush remains, minus its sweet blossoms, its leaves beginning to curl and dry up with colder days and nights.
Abundant in the foothill forests at 3,000 feet in elevation up to the higher California mountains at 9,500 feet, snowbrush (Ceanothus velutinus) can be seen with other common bushes in our area — manzanita, bitterbrush, and serviceberry. It is a ubiquitous shrub here as it spreads into dense, wide, and tall groups, some above my head, some perhaps a good 10 feet high. Its other name, red root, hints at its deep red-colored root, used by Native Americans for medicinal concoctions. Another moniker, tobacco brush, insinuates a tobacco-like scent, although many claim the dried leaves in the fall smell like cinnamon or balsam. The name itself, snowbrush, depicts the ivory to white flowers that appear like large dollops of snow.
Snowbrush is an easy bush to identify: oval leaves with three main veins and tiny teeth on the edges (serrated). The underside of the leaf is a dull matte while the topside is shiny and sticky. Now that autumn is upon us and the flowers have become a memory, we witness bright green, three-lobed, triangular-shaped seeds, some encased in a protective black pod. In August or September, the seeds are ejected from their pods and drop to the ground where they will be buried in duff and soil. What’s fascinating about these hardy seeds is the amount of time they can lay dormant before sprouting — up to 200 years and longer!
With snowbrush, because its seed bank is so tremendous, the question becomes, ‘Do we always need to reforest?'”
~ April Shackelford, North Tahoe Fire Protection District, Forest Fuels Manager
The seed coating, an extremely hard layer, is difficult to break open unless the seed has been scarified — cracked, scraped — and weakened or opened by some means, often by logging. Otherwise, fire is the snowbrush’s main germinator. In fact, snowbrush loves fire. First, as a means to pry open the hard seed covering to allow water to enter, and second, after a fire removes the overstory, light is exposed, allowing snowbrush and other plants and trees to readily flourish. After a fire has spread through a forest, snowbrush is one of the first bushes to return.
Another means by which snowbrush reproduces after fire or other disturbances is sprouting. The genetic makeup in its roots provides just what the shrub needs to grow new branches, plus it instinctively knows when to develop those new branches. Optimal conditions are created after fire or other disruptions as roots are more exposed to heat and sunlight due to the damage or removal of the original branches.
I’ve always believed that a remarkable feature of nature is all the ways in which one part contributes to another. Nature is a team player, and snowbrush is just one example. Ceanothus velutinus is known as a nitrogen fixer. In this process, snowbrush takes nitrogen out of the air and transforms it into a digestible compound for itself and other plants and trees nearby. It does this through tiny globules in its roots — rhizobia bacteria — that convert atmospheric nitrogen into nitrogen compounds, which enrich the soil.
The reason I see so many snowbrush plants in the Sawtooth area off 06 is because of past fires, logging, and a whole lot of sun, which snowbrush loves. Heat, sun, water, and away it goes. But given the prolificness of an oily resin on its leaves, are we in danger?
As we become more and more aware and concerned with fires in the Truckee/Tahoe region, we have upped our game on defensible space. My neighborhood alone has been under the knife, or should I say chainsaw, as we residents clear our lots and the Forest Service does the same in the adjacent woods.
April Shackelford with North Tahoe Fire Protection District addresses the subject of fire in its relation to this fire-loving plant.
To begin, because snowbrush grows so quickly with renewed sunlight after logging or fire, in three to five years it can become very tall and widespread, especially on sunny, south-facing slopes. Ideally, one process to keep snowbrush under control would go something like this: Implement hand crews to thin an area, leaving as much shade as possible on the landscape, while removing unhealthy trees and other ladder fuels along with drastic removal of shrub vegetation (aka bushes). Pile this material and burn it when conditions are right. Before bushes become full-sized, burn the understory on occasion to keep the brush from spreading and reaching the lower branches of the adjacent trees. This idea promotes large trees and thus big shade to slow the growth of snowbrush. Again, snowbrush loves sun. Of course, labor and money are often a challenge when it comes to prescribed fire. The ultimate goal, says Shackelford, “is to return the forest to more historic conditions where natural fire could occur without creating catastrophic impacts to forests and threatening nearby communities.”
One of the things I love about living in the Sierra is the regularity of coming upon the same plant year after year. It’s like seeing a familiar face you’ve come to know and love. When the sun is high in the sky in the summer, I am greeted with snowbrush’s large bouquets of white flowers and its sweet floral scent. In the fall, I bend down to look closely at the small triangle of seeds huddled up together. Like so many other plants in our neighborhoods, snowbrush, aka tobacco brush, aka red root, is like a beacon, informing us in its metamorphosis that one season has ended and another has begun.