Tuesday, March 7, 2017

New Jersey Tea / New Mexico Shrub

I have had trouble keeping New Jersey Tea Shrub growing in my garden. I've planted several and lost several.

It's Ceanothus americanus, a pretty white flowering plant that looks like a miniature lilac. The bees adore it. It's native to the Eastern US, from Maine down to Texas.

It flowers profusely, but the effect is subtle, not showy as much as just quietly elegant. The shape is low and rounded. I loved it when it grew well and looked good.

But I had serial problems with New Jersey Tea (at some point in Colonial history the leaves were used to make a tea substitute, hence the name).

My first problem was deer. Of the three little plants I put in at first, all but one was eaten to the ground right away.

The second problem was breakage. I planted a couple more plants and kept them protected from deer, but heavy winter snow broke off their brittle branches.

Once again I replanted (I got stubborn about this).

But despite being a native shrub that grows well in difficult conditions, they got outcompeted. They could not hold the space against some nearby dwarf deutzias in the same border that overtook the New Jersey Tea shrubs, and after a couple seasons the ceanothus just disappeared.

Recently, while reading up on plants that might do well in thin soils and dry conditions in the west, I found that Ceanothus americanus was recommended.

It likes rocky, sandy soils best. It grows wild in the the New Jersey pine barrens in depleted soils. It fixes nitrogen (meaning it is one of those plants that takes nitrogen from the air and converts it to nitrogen fertilizer in the soil that other plants can use.)

I've been trying to grow this plant in soil that is too rich, too damp and where it is crowded too near other things. It would do much better in sandy, dry, rocky soil in a spot by itself out in the open sunshine in a place like, oh, say . . . New Mexico.

But then we won't be able to call it New Jersey Tea shrub, will we.


  1. Finally! a photo of NJ Tea that shows its potential. I've been researching this plant for a year and came upon your blog by accident. I'm not as brave a gardener as you are - I search until I find something with an 80%+ chance of making it. (ok- I'm cheap) I have full sun, sandy loam, no deer. BUT we DO have rabbits. Will they think I've bought them a salad bar?

    1. Yes, rabbits will eat your NJ Tea when it is little. Keep it caged for the first two years -- after it spreads out a bit and gets some size and no longer has the fertilizers in it that the nurseries use for container growing, it should be fine. It sounds like you have the right conditions for it -- I hope you plant one!