Going Native

The California native plant palette is a harmonious, subtle kind of beauty.


Last weekend I visited a few gardens in San Leandro, Castro Valley and Hayward on the Bringing Back the Natives Garden Tour.  The tour happens once a year in most counties of the Bay Area and gives visitors a chance to see how California native plants can work in residential settings.  I know many people think of natives as unattractive or even boring plants but many of these gardens were full of atmosphere, beauty and life!

Why plant natives?  Natives are typically problem-free if located correctly and many require little water other than winter rainfall once established.  Have a east bay hillside garden?  Many natives like this type of environment with its quick drainage and heat.  

Another reason to plant natives struck me as I was touring...they are quite amenable to existing, non-native plants in a landscape.  Some of the gardens I visited were only a couple years old and many had pre-existing trees and shrubs. The natives like Arctostaphyllos (manzanita), Cercis occidentalis (redbud) and Rhamnus californica partnered up quite well with the ubiquitous japanese maples and junipers.  You don’t have to be a purist to enjoy natives, just add a few natives that work with your current palette of plants.  For instance, add a Philadelphus lewisii (Lewis Mock Orange) near your rose bush, Camellia or Rhododendron.

Native plants aren’t show-boaters and some of us like that.  Bar the wildflower display of early spring, most natives don’t jump out at you begging for attention. The California native plant palette is a harmonious, subtle kind of beauty.  With its often small, matte leaves, shades of olive, silver and mid to dark green and soft flower color this is a perfect combination for a quiet retreat in the your garden or outside your office window.  

I like to use natives in my garden design along with plants from other climates. Many natives bloom heavily in the spring and so I like to add in plants from other regions that bloom through the summer and fall.  Incidentally Fall is a good time to plant natives, right after the first couple of rains of the season.

Here are some of my favorite native plants:

  • Heuchera maxima (Island Alum Root), from the Channel Islands off the Santa Barbara Coast, is one of my favorite perennials because it has medium-sized leaves and very pretty, long wands of white flowers.  It does well in light shade and occasional water.
  • Penstemon heterophyllus ‘Blue Springs’ - the flower color of this plant is amazing!  The color is a electric blue with a violet throat base.  It appears to be lit from within.  This penstemon is drought and deer-resistant...perfect for the dry, hot spot in your garden.
  • Ribes sanguineum ‘Barrie Coate’ (Pink Flowering Currant) is a flowering shrub that I have in my back garden.  It is an absolute joy to see the pink blooms through my back window in the late winter...a harbinger of spring.
  • Satureja douglasii (Yerba Buena) - a creeping groundcover that hardly needs any care.  I like the scent of this plant and it doesn’t need much water.

Some sources:
  • Bringing Back the Natives website.  A good website to see examples of many different kinds of native gardens.
  • Tilden Botanical Garden is good place to visit for natives in a lovely atmosphere.  Many plants are labeled.  I especially like this garden because there is a creek running through the middle of it.  
  • UC Botanical Garden at Berkeley has plants from all over the state of California as well as world-wide.  
  • Many high-quality nurseries carry natives but I think Annie’s Annuals and Perennials has a great selection and worth the trip to Richmond.


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David May 17, 2012 at 02:44 AM
Redbud is native? Always thought it was a Eastern transplant.
Angele Sweet May 17, 2012 at 04:09 AM
Hi David, There is a an eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis) that you are probably referring to. Western redbud (Cercis occidentalis) is native to California. The western redbud is smaller and tolerates heat and drought.
David May 17, 2012 at 03:24 PM
Learn something new every day. the redbud I had in Chicago looks just like the ones I see out here, so I assumed they were just moved out here and so I was wary of it not being drought tolerant. love the tree though. thanks.
Gayle May 18, 2012 at 02:38 AM
Angele, I'm glad you included Yerba Buena. We have it in our front garden in mostly dry shade and the scent is wonderful. I dry the leaves for a very refreshing tea.
Angele Sweet May 18, 2012 at 04:20 AM
Hi Gayle, Yes! I love Yerba buena for it's scent though I find some people think it's smelly! I forgot that it can be used for tea...will have to try it. David, the redbuds you see in residential areas are most likely the eastern redbud but more people are planting the western redbud these days.
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