California natives are reaching their peak bloom this time of year enticing many gardeners to
add to their garden. There are many reasons to incorporate native plants into your
garden/landscape….encouraging native insect/animal habitats, reducing invasive species and of
course the fact California contains many glorious plants. Careful though, just because a plant is
labeled a California native does not mean it will do well in our climate (USDA zone 9). A fern
native to the wet norther forests of Humboldt County won’t be happy in our central valley
summer. Also, remember it is not the drought of summer that kills most natives but the wet
winters. Many of these plants are adapted to incredibly well draining soils and if they have any
standing water or extra moisture they can quickly succumb to stress and disease. Amending
soils with red lava fines or planting on a mound helps to combat this. But also choosing plants
that are more tolerant of winter moisture will help prevent frustration. Below are just a few out of many natives that should be considered when planting natives.
Penstemon heterophyllus X ‘Margarita BOP’
This plant is a true eye catcher. Reaching only two feet tall and wide, this low mounding native
is known for its long bloom period of strikingly blue/purple tubular flowers. Nice and tidy it
requires only light pruning to keep flowers all season long. Hummingbird moths, carpenter
bees, hummingbirds and other pollinators are frequent visitors to these flowers. Mix with
California poppies for a big showstopper.
Salvia clevelandii ‘Winifred Gilman’
If you are looking for a larger shrub to fill an area of your garden this may be it. This Salvia gets
to be about 4’ x 4’. The tall flower spikes look almost bicolored due to the red stems and purple
outer whorls (calyx) of the flowers. The flowers last about a month but the fragrance of the
whole plant is a nice accent to any garden. Prune lightly in fall to keep it nice and tidy.
Verbena lilacina ‘De La Mina’
This plant is gaining popularity in gardens and I can see why. It has a very long bloom period
(spring – fall) and is extremely tidy and compact (roughly two by three feet). The lavender
flowers are great for attracting butterflies.
Salvia spathaceae - Hummingbird Sage
There is a reason this plant is in all native gardens and planting lists… it is reliable, beautiful and
it takes dry shade! It isn’t the most tidy of plants. It sprawls and spreads but the abundance of
large magenta pink flower spikes all season long makes it worth growing. And of course it is a
hummingbird magnet. To keep it tidier a heavy pruning and clean up every few years will help.
Great for meandering in amongst larger shrubs and even under oaks.
Heteromeles arbutifolia - Toyon
If a large hedge is what you need then instead of Oleander or Photinia I recommend Toyon. Not
as tall as the former but they are evergreen and relatively easy to grow with a nice showing of
white spring flowers. In the fall/winter (if not sheared) the red berries ferment and are eaten by
birds. They can make the birds a bit drunk but the effect is short lived. My last property had a
hedge of these along the drainage canal so they can handle heavier soils than a lot of natives.
‘Davis Gold’ is a yellow berried hybrid that is quite striking.
Ceonothus – California Lilac
Ceonothus is another plant that is rarely left out of a native garden. However, I almost left it off
of this list. Why? Many are very short lived in heavier central valley soils. On my previous
property I lost five plants in five different areas the same year. These plants were roughly seven
years and died coming out of a wet winter, even though the soil was amended and raised. They
are beautiful, relatively quick growing and can survive years but it can be a bit upsetting when a
large shrub dies suddenly so take the time to work the soil and site select for great drainage.
Good choices for hybrids are ‘Ray Hartman’ and ‘Concha’. Ceonothus arboreus is large species (
up to 20’) which handles heavy soils a bit better.
Cercis occicdentalis – Western Redbud
This small tree (6-20’ tall) puts on a dramatic show of intense pink flowers in early spring. It’s
small size makes it the perfect tree for small gardens. Specimens can be trained into single
trunked trees or multi-trunked shrubs. Annual fall pruning helps to shape and open the canopy.
The seedpods can be considered messy by some people but do add to the winterscape.
If wanting more information on native gardens I highly recommend California Native Plants for
the Garden by Bornstein, Fross and O’Brien. The Sacramento chapter of the California Native
Plant Society is a wealth of knowledge as well. They have plants sales, garden tours, meetings
and published information. Sacvalleycnps.org
or... Why did my native plant die? They have an excellent FAQ section. (Photo is of native and somewhat invasive Washingtonia filifera.)