Wart Leaf Ceanothus - from Seed

Wart leaf ceanothus blossom - the end and goal of this story

This story begins back in September, in the post "Once more unto the breach - wart leaf ceanothus propagation from cuttings and seeds," in which I wrote about making cuttings from a branch of one of the Ceanothus papillosus shrubs that grows wild on our property, and sowing seeds.

The cuttings part of the story is quickly told: they all died. But I will "Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood," and have a go another time, because I'm stubborn. I'll try at a different time of the year, maybe when it's not so hot. Maybe I need to keep them a little bit drier because they go moldy so easily, and maybe not so warm. I'll get some advice about doing it right.

With the seeds, however, I've been had some success.

A healthy Ceanothus papillosus - wart leaf ceanothus - seedling, ready for potting up
First I got the seeds out of the nutlets that I collected earlier in the year from shrubs growing wild on our property.

These are the ceanothus nutlets, as they come off the bush.

A rolling pin helps to separate the seeds from the nutlets.
I tediously picked out about 50 seeds or so. I don't know how you would do this in bulk.

To make the seeds more likely to germinate, I stratified them for six weeks, as advised in the reference book Seed Propagation of Native California Plants by Dara E. Emery. That is, I put them in a container with a bit of damp peat moss and perlite and stuck 'em in the back of fridge. With a label!

Then I sowed them in a seed flat -- that was on October 25, 2012 -- using a lot of perlite, some sand, and also a little potting soil mixed in. (I'm trying not to use so much peat as it's a non-renewable resource).

A short digression on the subject of fertilizing native plants, when propagating. Seeds need little to nothing in the way of nutrients - they just have to germinate. They contain their own food for that. Some people use pure perlite as the germination medium. I put a little potting soil and vermiculite in the mix. I might try perlite alone one of these days and see how it goes. With perlite it's easy to shake the mix off the roots.

Seedlings (aka propagules) don't need much food either, but they do need a little. And when they are bigger and potted on to 4 inch pots - a little more. Wart leaf ceanothus lives in chaparral and sandy soil, so it's evolved to live in low nutrient soil. But that doesn't mean it won't like a little bit of food as a young 'un. Just not a rich diet.

I attended a talk one time given by the main propagator from Yerba Buena nursery. He showed the audience two sticky monkey plants in pots - one vigorous and bushy, and one doing just OK. The difference was a bit of fertilizer. He says - we know what it says in the books: no fertilizer for native plants. But here's the result: you be the judge.

So since then I've started putting a bit of organic fertilizer or slow release Osmocote in the pots. I haven't been at this long enough to know if it's worth it yet or not. But he said all the nurseries do this.

Back to the seedlings... Three to four weeks after sowing them, all the wart leaf ceanothus seeds that were going to germinate had germinated -- perhaps a 40% germination rate overall. Seeds I had gathered in 2010 did better than 2012 seeds - I'm not sure why.

Wart leaf ceanothus seeds were cold stratified for six weeks. They germinated around three-four  weeks after sowing

You can "prick out" seedlings after the first true leaves appear and put them in 2 inch liners (pots). The two seedlings at the bottom of the photo above are ready. But others in the flat were not yet ready so I waited a week or two more to give them all a chance. No seed left behind!

Here they are after being in their two inch pots for about 8 weeks.

The difference between a healthy seedling (on the right) and one with a problem (on the left)
About seven of the survivors showed some sign of disease - weak root systems and yellowing leaves. I am not sure if this is caused by "damping off" which is a term for various pathogens that can attack seedlings, generally causing the stems to go mushy. Damping off happens when seedlings are kept too damp, too cool, or they are growing in dirty conditions, or all three. Well, I'm not too fussy about conditions I confess. Things seem to mostly tough it out OK. The You Grow Girl blog has this good post on damping off. Various cures are touted, like spraying them with chamomile tea, which sounds nice. But prevention is the way to go. Or just living with a certain amount of failure. I potted up the weaker ones anyway, but put them outside in case they infect the rest.

A healthy seedling showing roots that had grown around the bottom of the 2 inch pot - and the method I use for potting up into the four inch pots, which are deep ones

When to pot on from 2 inch to four inch pots? I think that when the roots are bending around the bottom of the pot it's good to give them a deeper container. However, if you don't want to grow things on right away - they can live happily in 2 inch pots for a long time. I'm just impatient to get these guys going.

A handy potting up method: I pot little seedlings and bigger ones alike using a method I learned from Denise at our propagation group. She fills the pot half full and diagonally, lays the seedling in so the roots are deep and spreading, then fills in the other side of the pot. A little minor adjustment to center the seedling, and you're done.

Why not plant directly into large containers? There is some thought that plants don't "like" containers that are much larger than they are - like putting a baby in a king size bed instead of a cot. I'm not sure how much evidence there is for that, but it could be tested I guess. The other reason is that it wastes a lot of planting medium - and space - to put them all into big pots - not all the seedlings are going to make it.

ED: Ed Morrow that is - I'd like to update this post with his much more cogent comment about container size: "The reason for using the size appropriate pot for seedlings is moisture. if a pot is too big, gravity pulls all the water to the bottom of the pot and out of the range of the seedling's roots. An appropriate sized pot is one where the moisture in the pot is in the root zone of the seedling." -- Thanks, Ed!

When to plant them out? Well, shrubs can take a a year or a couple years to be sturdy in a gallon size pot. But I've decided to try direct planting one of the vigorous seedlings from the two inch pot to the place where I want a wart leaf ceanothus to grow. I'll let you know how it fares compared to its equally sturdy peers who are growing in pots.

Looking down on a ceanothus seedling in a garden bed - with a deer/rabbit cage around it - yet another experiment.
Wart leaf ceanothus enjoys sun most of the day, and is extremely drought tolerant. 

So -- from the fifty or so seeds, I got 22 seedlings, of which seven are not so great. That isn't a huge success rate - but it's enough for my purposes, even if they don't all survive. I'm not growing to sell. I'll share some with friends and plant the remainder here and there in the garden areas of our property, see what kind of conditions they thrive in.

I might try formative pruning on a few, to see if they grow a little more compactly and densely, which is preferred in a garden generally speaking. Most plants you buy from a nursery have had some formative pruning.

If I get better at this, and if people want to use these local native shrubs in their garden, I'll grow more, for their attractive flowers, year-round foliage, and wildlife value - bees and butterflies love the nectar.

It's such a lot of fun mucking about in the garden these days! -- And there is so much to look forward to as winter warms into spring.


Ed Morrow said…

The reason for using the size appropriate pot for seedlings is moisture. if a pot is too big, gravity pulls all the water to the bottom of the pot and out of the range of the seedling's roots. An appropriate sized pot is one where the moisture in the pot is in the root zone of the seedling.
Ed Morrow
Carmel Valley CA
Country Mouse said…
Ah, thanks, Ed! That makes a lot of sense. I think I've heard that before now I come to think of it -- but I totally forgot it. Thanks for dropping by our blog.
Unknown said…
I believe Burt of Las Pilitas Nursery said he doesn't fertilize his babies. And he made it sound like that was unusual. You might want to talk with him to see what he does different. He's an interesting guy and always willing to talk. Great article.
Country Mouse said…
I could believe that of Bert, Debbie. I did have a conversation by email with him about the eucalyptus when I was thinking about the Sutro forest (December 2012, the "can we all get along" posts) and he is very kind and willing to engage indeed. I'm always experimenting - playing around is more accurate - I don't know if I have patience to do a real longitudinal study on the differences if any between fertilized babies and non -fertilized ones. I would indeed love to visit Las Pilitas and do a post on their propagation protocols and planting mixes. I'm hoping to do one e'er long on Central Coast Wilds. I think mostly I'm pushed by my urge to overdo things!
Kaveh Maguire said…
In some cases what seems to be a stunted or smaller seedling might just be because of genetic variability that comes from growing plants by seed. Sometimes the little wimpy ones are worth nursing along because they might have really fantastic flowers.

This very commonly seen in seed packets of mixed colored plants. In Hollyhocks for example I always wondered why I was only getting red and pink flowers from my plants. Turned out those colors are the dominant and strongest and I was thinning out all the other colors because the seedlings seemed so weenie to me.

Country Mouse said…
Interesting thought there, Kaveh - thanks. I usually save all the runts because I'm sentimental - now I have a legitimate reason! Very cool. However, the yellowing on some of them seemed to be a real problem. And of the seven I put out of the greenhouse - two are looking like they will recover; the other five have leaves dying from the tips back. However -- when I potted up the golden yarrow and the coyote brush, I separated flats into vigorous seedlings and puny ones - so I can now keep an eye open for differences in the mature plants from those groupings! Thanks again.
solemio said…
I am finishing building a house in SF. I want to plant a young Wart-leaf Ceanothus 6-7 ft. tall on the sidewalk. Do you have one available with beautiful flowers? Do you know where I can get one?

Juan Carlos

e-mail: solemio@sbcglobal.net
solemio said…
Hoping to find a nice Wart-leaf Ceanothus to plant in November, 2014. Please help me find one. Txs!
Country Mouse said…
Solemio, wart leaf ceanothus isn't sold "in the trade" i.e., from nurseries. Truth to tell, it's best where it grows natively, in wild areas. it's a bit scrubby looking. It's slow to get going in the garden - I have a few that I hope will take off in spring next year. In a city/suburban garden, you would be better off to go to a native plant nursery and ask for advice - tell them your location and planting situation (sun/soil/water-size/bloom desired) and take their advice. Your bees will thank you for planting ceanothus!