A small spray of purple flowers reaches across the trail beside Carson Falls, startling for being out so early in the year. This is buck brush (Ceanothus cuneatus, or wedgeleaf ceanothus), an early blooming shrub of the chaparral. It can sometimes cover wide swathes of hillside in color, and is charmingly described as “gregarious” in the Marin Flora. I love the thought of a cheerful, sociable hillside of buck brush.
Various indigenous Californian tribes prized the new twigs of this shrub for basket-weaving material. Miwoks would even groom the plants by trimming and training them to guarantee that they would produce plenty of new shoots. Buck brush wood was also used to make arrows, digging sticks, and ear-piercing needles.
It grows quickly and readily, and so is handy as a revegetation species–but be aware that deer love it as well, if you’re using it in an ornamental or garden setting. Buck brush has nitrogen-fixing nodules in its roots, so it naturally improves poor soils and makes them more suitable for other plants to thrive on. In a given year, an acre of ceanothus can fix approximately 54 pounds of nitrogen.