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Desert ceanothus is an erect or low, rounded, sclerophyllous shrub with intricate, short, rigid branches. It grows 1 to 7 feet (0.2-2 m) tall, seldom more than 5 feet (1.5 m). Although commonly thought to be short-lived (30-40 years), evidence indicates that Ceanothus greggii var. perplexans can live longer than 90 years. Longevity may be increased in desert ceanothus through longitudinal fissioning of the stems. Age can be accurately determined in Ceanothus spp. using growth rings. Aboveground stems are locally even aged and date to the last fire. Nonsprouting species of Ceanothus, such as desert ceanothus, tend to be spatially clumped especially in older stands, and can form dense, impenetrable stands, or grow as lone shrubs. The leaves are evergreen, 0.2 to 0.65 inches (5-16 mm) long, opposite, thick and firm. Three ovoid seeds are borne in each rounded capsule, and are propelled explosively as the capsules mature and dry. Roots tend to be shallow and laterally spreading, with lateral growth far exceeding the depth of penetration (9.8 feet (3 m) of radial spread in a 2.5 foot (0.75 m) diameter plant). More than 90% of the roots occur within the top 12 to 16 inches (30-40 cm) of soil.
Desert ceanothus grows on dry, rocky slopes, foothills, canyons, gullies, and in erosion channels. It flourishes on a variety of soil types, is tolerant of both basic and acidic soils, and most often grows on dry, poorly developed soils. It is most commonly found in areas with 20 to 30 inches (500-750 mm) precipitation. Desert ceanothus is a chaparral species that grows in several different community types in several geographic locations, each with specific site characteristics. Attempts to ascribe site preferences for most chaparral species have generally produced weak correlations and indicate that preferences may change with the region.