Water-Wise California Native Plants
California is a diverse state rich in many different plants and habitats. Much of the state is dry--from the slopes of the Sierra Nevada Foothills down to the coastal bluffs and chaparral of the coast. The plants that thrive here are beautiful and tough. By utilizing natives, specifically drought-tolerant natives, we can conserve water, energy, and create beautiful and sustainable landscapes.
Note: all zones refer to Sunset Western garden zones
Perennials and Shrubs
Manzanita (Arctostaphylos sp.)
Forty-three of the known fifty species are native to California. Pink to white urn shaped flowers form in beautifully dense clusters. This shrub has striking reddish bark that peels to light green underneath. A year-round performer that doesn't like to be on a drip system or fertilization. There are both spreading and mounding forms available.
Coyote Brush (Baccharis pilularis)
A low maintenance evergreen ground cover (some forms are upright) that can take wind, heat, and little water. This coastal native can withstand sand or clay and prefers full sun. It has also been noted as fire-retardant. Use only male forms in the garden.
California Sagebrush (Artemesia californica)
This evergreen coastal native appreciates full sun and grows 5-8 ft tall, though some cultivars are groud covers. Striking silver foliage, 1 1/2 to 5 feet tall, 4-7 feet wide. Fine textured plant that will drop leaves in summer if in extreme drought.
Bush Anemone (Carpenteria californica)
Can be grown in sun to part shade. This shrub can grow 4-6 ft tall and wide, with flowers throughout spring and summer. The blossoms have white petals and many yellow stamens in the center. This perennial can tolerate very little water to moderate water.
California Lilac (Ceanonthus sp.)
This beautiful drought-tolerant plant has various growth habits: sprawling ground covers, shrubs, and some can be shaped into small trees. The bundles of small flowers come in white to all shades of blue. Needs good drainage and typically lives 5-10 years. There are dozens of cultivars to choose from.
Western Red Bud (Cercis occidentalis)
This large shrub (10-18 ft tall and wide) can be pruned into a small tree, used as a breathtaking focal point, or integrated into your backyard wildlife habitat. Pink-purple buds cover the stems in spring and early summer, followed by reddish brown seed pods. The plant has round leaves that are rounded at the tip. In the fall, the leaves turn yellow or red depending on chill.
Bush Poppy (Dendromecon harfordii)
This bush boasts blue green evergreen foliage with bright yellow poppy-like blooms during the warm months. No irrigation in required to keep this shrub alive. Spreads to 8-20 feet tall and wide.
Seaside Daisy (Erigeron glaucus)
Small perennial with blue-green leaves and stems that reach 1 to 1.5 feet tall and wide, though some hybrids are more compact. Light purple flowers cover this little gem in spring and summer.
Wild Buckwheat (Eriogonum sp.)
Reddish brown flowers persist on the plant and make a stunning display, especially if planted en masse. Can take wind and heat. Depending on the species, flowers can be pink, red, white or yellow. Great for rock gardens, needs well-drained soil and full sun.
Flannel Bush (Fremontodendron californicum)
Drought-tolerant large shrub or small tree. Profuse, bright yellow flowers in the spring. It can take chalky, sandy, clay, and nutritionally-poor soils. A large shrub that can thrive off neglect! This evergreen native can grow up to 20 feet high and 12 feet wide and likes full sun.
Island Snapdragon (Galvezia speciosa)
Very drought-tolerant, medium sized shrub growing 3 ft high and 5 ft wide. Bright red flowers attract hummingbirds and other insects. Blooms in mid spring and throughout warm months. A beautiful shrub that should be utilized more.
Fremont Silktassel (Garrya fremontii)
Develops decorative pendulous catkins that are yellow or purple. Grows 9 feet tall and wide, and sports glossy yellow green leaves all year round. This small tree doesn't require irrigation.
Toyon (Heteromales arbutifolia)
Large, dense shrub 6-10 feet tall and wide, or pruned as a small tree up to 25 feet high. The evergreen leaves are deep green and have serrated edges. Appearing in winter, the bright red fruit is a favorite to native birds such as Cedar Waxwing. This plant can tolerate drought, but looks better with moderate watering.
Giant Rye Grass (Leymus condensatus 'Canyon Prince')
Charming silvery blue grass that can spread to 4 ft tall and 3 ft wide, but can grow a bit larger if given regular water. It spreads by rhizomes, so be careful that it doesn't get out of control. Plant in full sun.
Tree Lupine (Lupinus arboreus), Silver Lupine (L. albifrons)
Evergreen shrubs with purple blooms or yellow blooms. Both need good drainage and tolerate aridity. Toxic if ingested and members of the legume family, all of which are Nitrogen fixers in the soil. Palmate divided leaves characteristic of Lupines are attractive when plant is not in bloom.
Island Mallow (Malva assurgentiflora)
Evergreen shrub with hibiscus-like blooms on a smaller scale. Magenta lined petals pop against the green maple-shaped leaves. This plant can withstands salt spray and wind. Can reach 12 ft tall and wide in best conditions. Blooms throughout the year.
Monkey Flower (Mimulus auranticus)
Light yellow to red flowers bloom in spring and summer, plant in full sun to part shade and give good drainage. Numerous hybrids of Mimulus a. are more compact and offer a wide range of flowers in shades of red and orange.
Mahonia aka California Holly Grape (Berberis pinnata)
To 4-5 ft tall and wide. Blue berries follow springtime yellow flowers. Leaves have an orange tinge when young. Sun to light shade, depending on heat.
Red Monardella (Monardella macrantha), Mountain Pennyroyal (M. odoratissima), and Coyote Mint (M. villosa)
Aromatic perennials in mint family, M. macrantha has red-orange flowers while M. odoratissima and M. villosa have light purple flowers. All need good drainage in full sun.
Pacific Wax Myrtle (Myrica californica)
Great as screening shrubs, these plants reach 10-30 feet tall in sheltered spots. Interesting glaucous nutlets attract birds. Can take little to moderate water. Full sun to part shade.
Deer Grass (Muhlenbergia rigens)
To 4 feet tall and wide. Stalks rise above the tight tufts of narrow leaves in the autumn and provide winter interest. Plant as specimen grass or in groups for a soft effect.
Nassella pulchra, N. cernua, N. lepida
Feathery awns make this grass look extremely soft and flowing. Can go dormant in hot dry summer months if not irrigated. Use in meadow plantings or as a soil stabilizer.
Foothill Beardtongue (Penstemon heterophyllus), Showy Penstemon (P. spectabilis), and Scarlet Bugler (P. centranthifolius)
Needs good drainage. Bell shaped flowers, tallest of these is P. spectabilis, to 4.5 feet tall and wide. These native beauties are great in a sunny bed with other perennials or in a native garden. All three have low water needs and spectacularly colored flowers. Click on the photo to be taken to the Sunset's guide on Penstemons.
Coffee Berry (Frangula californica)
Nice mounded form with dense ovate foliage. Berries turn green to red and then black, and are delectable to many birds. Takes full sun to partial shade, and can grow up to 3-15 ft tall and 8 ft wide, depending on cultivar. 'Eve Case' or 'Mound San Bruno' are great choices.
Matilija Poppy (Romneya coulteri)
Grayish green shrub with crinkly white flowers with yellow centers in spring and summer. This plant thrives in most conditions, though it is most adapted to sand and full sun. This shrub can reach up to 8 feet tall, and indeterminately wide, if given the chance. This is not for a small yard!
Most Salvias have aromatic foliage and attract birds, bees, and butterflies. All appreciate full sun and good drainage. Hummingbird Sage is shade tolerant and used in a ground cover in native gardens. Cleveland Sage and Purple Sage are large shrubs.
White Sage (Salvia leucophylla), Cleveland Sage (S. clevelandii), Hummingbird Sage (S. spathacea)
Southern Snowdrop Bush (Styrax officinalis var. fulvescens)
Fragrant white flowers grace this deciduous plant. Reddish stems and pendulous showy flowers are key features as well as large ovate green leaves that are widely spaced. Sun to part shade. Grows up to 15 feet if given moderate water.
California Fuchsia (Zauschneria californica)
There are many available hybrids of this plant sold in nurseries. Blooms are typically bright orange or scarlet and put on a show in late summer to fall. These small shrubs prefer good drainage and the occasional summer watering in full sun.
Woolly Blue Curls (Trichostema lanatum)
The term 'woolly' comes from the woolly white of the undersides of the leaves. Evergreen shrub that reaches 3-4 ft high and spreads 4-5 feet. Throughout summer & fall, blue flowers blossom on this mint family shrub that also boasts aromatic foliage. Likes well drained soil, in full sun. Attractive to bees, birds, and butterflies.
California Buckeye (Aesculus californica)
This beautiful native can reach 10-20 feet high and 30 ft+ wide. Summer deciduous in the wild, but if given some summer watering it can hold leaves. Abundance of light pink or white plumes of flowers erupt in spring followed by decorative seeds. Full sun.
Madrone (Arbutus menziesii)
20-100 feet tall with peeling reddish bark. Delicate bell shaped flowers in cream tones in springtime. In the fall, clusters of orange to red large berries appear and are loved by birds. Needs good drainage and does not tolerate basic water (pH more than 7). Irrigate infrequently but deeply.
Catalina Ironwood (Lyonothamnus floribundus)
In gardens, grows to about thirty feet tall though it can grow up to sixty feet tall in the wild. Water infrequently but deeply and plant in full sun. The bark, foliage, flowers and fruit are all striking on this beautiful evergreen native. Mature trees are frost tolerant.
Incense Cedar (Calocedrus decurrens)
Pyramidal shape to 75-90 feet tall. Nice reddish bark and a makes a great screen or windbreaker tree. Tolerates poor soils and excessive heat. Give moderate water in zones 3, 18-24.
Pines (Pinus sp.)
There are about fifteen species of pine native to California, all requiring little water, full sun, and to be away from heavy air pollution. Check out a few of these California Pines by clicking here.
Oak (Quercus sp.)
About twelve species of Oak are native to California, all drought tolerant. Read this guide to California oaks by clicking here.
California Bay (Umbellaria californica)
Depending on habitat, the evergreen California Laurel can be a large shrub or towering tree, but in gardens, this tree grows slowly to 25 feet high and wide. Leaves turn tan to yellow in fall and the tree has tiny yellow flowers in the spring. It can take regular water, but can also survive in very arid conditions. Plant in shade and prune regularly. The leaves are great as a Laurus nobilis substitute.
Thank-you for reading!
See our other posts for great ideas and inspiration!