Ocean Spray

Ocean Spray © DSchiel

Holodiscus discolor var. discolor

Description (Jepson, PlantID.net)

  • Eudicotyledon
    • Eudicots are a major lineage of flowering plants; see family for general characteristics
  • Rose Family (Rosaceae)
  • Deciduous shrub
    • Branches often arching, extending to 20 ft.
    • Twigs with soft hairs
    • Bark gray, shredding in age
  • Leaves
    • Ovate to elliptic with coarse teeth
    • Hairs sparse on upper surface and dense on underside, giving a gray color
    • Strongly-raised veins on underside
  • Flowers
    • Inflorescence (flower arrangement) is a panicle (branching stem with flowers opening from the bottom up) at ends of branches (terminal)
      • Brown panicle persists through winter
    • Small, creamy-white, scented flowers in cascading masses
      • 5 pistils (female flower parts) and 15-20 stamens (male flower parts)
      • Saucer-shaped hypanthium (floral cup formed from the fusion of petals, sepals, and stamens) with nectar gland
    • Ovary superior (above the attachment of other flower parts)
  • Fruit is a woolly achene (a single-seeded, dry fruit that does not split open)
  • Height to 20 ft.
Flowers © DSchiel


  • Native to California
    • Usually grows in shady protected sites, often along streams
    • 50-54% of plants occur on ultramafic soils, e.g. serpentine; see ultramafic affinity rankings (Calflora per Safford and Miller 2020)
    • See Calflora for statewide observations of this plant
  • Outside California grows from British Columbia south to Mexico, and east to Montana, Colorado, and Texas
  • Grows at elevations to 10,500 ft.

Uses (San Mateo County Parks prohibits removal of any natural material)

  • Wildlife
    • Provides protective habitat for mammals, amphibians, and nesting birds
    • Pollinated by insects
    • Larval food source (host) for pale tiger swallowtail (Papilio eurymedon), Lorquin’s admiral (Limenitis lorquini), and Pacific azure (Celastrina echo) butterflies
  • Native people
    • Hard, strong wood was used to make tools and utensils, e.g. sewing needles, arrows, fish hooks, canoe paddles, fire tongs, and digging sticks (Bressette 2016)
      • Heating over fire increased hardness
      • After heating, wood was polished using stems of horsetail ferns
    • Flexible branches used to make baby baskets
    • Medicinal uses
      • Infusion of bark used for eye wash
      • Poultice of leaves applied to sore feet or lips
      • Decoction of leaves used to treat influenza
  • Pioneers made pegs with the wood to substitute for iron nails (Bressette 2016 and Gonsalves 2007)
    • Another common name for creambush is ironwood, referring to its strength and hardness

Name Derivation

  • Holodiscus (ho-lo-DIS-kus) – from the Greek holos, “entire,” and diskos, “a disk,” referring to the unlobed disk lining the floral cup
  • discolor (DIS-ko-lor) – from the Greek dis- meaning “two” and “color,” referring to the bicolored leaves
    • The prefix dis- can also mean “without,” possibly referring to the white (uncolored) flowers
  • Ocean spray – the many-flowered clusters suggest the frothy spray of ocean waves


  • Although the tiny seed can be dispersed by animals, most often it is wind dispersed (Bressette 2016)
  • Edgewood’s ocean spray is classified as a variety
    • Variety indicates a population with small morphological variations, e.g. color, seen throughout the geographic range of the species; interbreeding is possible
    • Subspecies indicates a geographically-separated population with distinct morphological characteristics; when not isolated, interbreeding is possible
    • In practice, botanists have not consistently applied these ranks

ID Tips

  • Any time of year, look for the distinctive flower sprays, which persist even when dry and brown

At Edgewood

  • Found in woodlands
    • Look for ocean spray on the Sylvan trail just beyond the waterfall along north-facing “rose alley,” where several members of the rose family grow
    • See iNaturalist for observations of Holodiscus discolor
  • Flowers April – July

See General References

Specific References

Bressette, D. 2016, Mar. 21. Ocean spray, Holodiscus discolor. Native Plants of the Pacific Northwest.

Fryer, J. 2010. Holodiscus discolor. Fire Effects Information System. United States Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Fire Sciences Laboratory.

Gonzalves, P. and D. Darris. 2007. Oceanspray Holodiscus discolor (Pursh) Maxim. Plant Fact Sheet. United States Department of Agriculture, Natural Resources Conservation Service, Plant Materials Center, Corvallis, Oregon.

Prigge, B.A. and A.C. Gibson. 2016. Holodiscus discolor var. discolor. A Naturalist’s Flora of the Santa Monica Mountains and Simi Hills, California. Web version, hosted at Wildflowers of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. United States Department of Interior, National Park Service.

Safford, H.D. and J.E.D. Miller. 2020. An updated database of serpentine endemism in the California flora. Madroño 67(2): 85-104. BioOne Complete. PDF hosted by San Diego State University, San Diego, California.