Holodiscus discolor

Common name:  ocean spray, cream bush, California spiraea, meadow sweet, ironwood

Scientific name:  Holodiscus discolor

Native American NamesSqa’tl (Chehalis),k!atsi’tc (Klallam), k’aitsatcl (Lummi), tsik’wip (Makah), katsa’qwats (Skagit), qatsa’gwats (Snohomish, Squaxin, Swinomish)

Plant family:  Rosaceae

Description:  Ocean spray is a deciduous shrub that can grow up to 15 feet in height. The leaves are grayish green in color with shallow toothed edges and are alternately arranged on its pithy whitish stems.   They are typically up to 4” long.  The plant has tiny white flowers that grow in clusters and have a sweet fragrance.[1] The large, white to cream, lilac-like flower plumes are dazzling in late spring to early summer gardens. The flowers then turn a tan to brown color and last on the plant through winter.[1] Ocean spray provides a favorite source of nectar for many kinds of adult butterflies, but is also a favored larval host plant for specific butterfly species including: Spring azures, Pale swallowtails, Lorquin’s admirals, Gray hairstreaks.[2]

Habitat and Range: Ocean spray thrives in shaded as well as sunny habitats.  It adapts well to most soil conditions, from course soils to fine textured soils.  It mostly grows in the forest shrub layer but is also found near stream banks, moist woodlands, and rocky and talus slopes. It does exceedingly well on dry slopes and at the edge of deciduous forests of alder and cascara.  Due to its high tolerance of sun, it can survive on the edges of freeways without any extra watering.[3] Ocean spray is commonly found west of the Cascades towards the coast. It can grow in habitat that is at sea level to 7000 ft.  It is found among the high peaks of the Great Basin mountain ranges.  It is native to western North America from British Columbia to southern California including areas of Montana, Colorado and Arizona.

Historical and Contemporary Uses

Historically, ocean spray was very important to the indigenous peoples of the Great Basin area and along the West coast of the United States.  They made good use of its hard, fire resistant wood.  The branches were used as tongs to assist with eating and in the making of weaponry such as arrows for hunting, and fishing hooks.  It was also used to make digging sticks, toys for children, teepee post holders, bows for children and drum hoops.[1]                  

The plant has a wide variety of medicinal properties that were very important to the indigenous people and continue to be used today.  The Makah and Lummi tribes of Washington would make a decoction from the bark to use as an eyewash.  The Lummi tribe would also use the blossoms in tea as a treatment for diarrhea. The Chehalis of Oregon would make an infusion out of the seeds as a blood purifier and for the treatment of smallpox, black measles and chicken pox.  A poultice of leaves was made to cure sore lips or feet and as a blood purifier by the Squaxin. Today, ocean spray is commonly used in place of yarrow flowers in bouquets.  They are also used in erosion control due to their shallow root system and the fact that they can grow in just about any climate.[1]


[1] “Ocean Spray’s Uses.” The Herbalist’s Path. Web. 13 Nov. 2011. <http://herbalistpath.blogspot.com/2007/06/ocean-sprays-uses.html>.

[2] “Plant List – Native Plant Guide.” Department of Natural Resources and Parks, King County, Washington. Web. 13 Nov. 2011. <http://green.kingcounty.gov/gonative/Plant.aspx?Act=view>.

[3] Pojar, Jim, A. MacKinnon, and Paul B. Alaback. Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast: Washington, Oregon, British Columbia & Alaska. Redmond, WA: Lone Pine Pub., 1994. Print.

Picture taken from http://www.bentler.us/eastern-washington/plants/shrubs/ocean-spray.aspx