By Richard Flowers, ACCNP-Green Thumb Nursery-Ventura
Why is October the best time to plant California native plants? The climate in which we live in is considered to be Mediterranean. Our weather and conditions are similar to these certain areas of the world, namely: Chile, Peru, Southwest and Southern Australia, the cape portion of South Africa, and where the Mediterranean Sea is (Spain, Turkey, Greece, and Italy). Their climate, like ours, have winters that are moist and cool and the summers are warm to hot and dry. Rainfall typically occurs late fall to early spring but it is often erratic and unpredictable at times. This type of climate is characterized by the reoccurrence of drought cycles that can last for many years. Other times you can have deluges of heavy rain for a period of time; this is a repetitive cycle. The summer dry season often extends from May-November. With all that said, it is best to plant California natives during the fall to take advantage of the cool, rainy season and have the plant get established before the long, hot, and dry summer.
Today, I want to acquaint you with nine cool California native plants that are useful in many regards. The following plants are functional in creating a California endemic garden that provides wildlife, low maintenance, beauty, drought tolerance, and provides a naturalistic setting to ones yard. Many are used as erosion control, privacy screens, trees, low borders, or fillers in your garden. Most of these plants have a rich history with native people in regards to invaluable uses (medicinally and /or edible). Whether they a show their hallmarks and beliefs as being used in the past by native people or explorers, it truly adds another bit of fascinating information about the selected plants. These selections can also be used as landscaping subjects, pollen producers, bird, and butterfly magnets. Lets dive in and meet these fascinating plants.
Blue Elderberry or Mexican Elderberry (Sambucus nigra subsp. caerulea) The Elderberry is a large deciduous shrub or small tree that is a rampant and fast grower, growing to 10- 30 feet tall and 8- 20 feet wide or you could prune it to any size that is manageable to you. This selection is drought tolerant but looks better and keeps its foliage in summer if given moderate water. It has small white flat flower clusters that are perfect for attracting butterflies and bees. Blue Elderberry is often planted for its incredible bird attractant features because in summer the glossy fruit are relished by different avian species. Fruit is a blue colored berry that looks like grape clusters. Indians found this plant to be very versatile. A tea was made from the blossoms for fever and rashes. The fruit is nearly blackish blue when ripe and can be used to make jams, wine, and pies. The wood from the Elderberry was used to make bows and musical instruments. For landscaping, try using it as a background tree with a lower growing California Lilac and/ or Manzanita. Most of the time Elderberry drops its leaves during the winter or earlier than that if water is not available to the plant. Re-emergence of leaves usually occurs later on in spring.
The next three plants are all related to one another because they are all in the sunflower family. When in flower, the blossoms are daisy-like and they are related to such common plants as (feverfew, marguerite daisy, and mums) Let me introduce you to them.
The first one is called California Sagebrush (Artemesia californica). If you ever venture out in the coastal foothills and see a grayish plant that is soft looking with ferny foliage that is the dominant plant all over, you are probably seeing this plant. Often times, you see it growing naturally on the west and even north slopes and you can smell the leaves that gives off a notable clean, pungent, and aromatic fragrance, meet California Sagebrush. Even though the common name suggests it as a sage, it is not a sage at all but settlers who first saw it and thought it looked like one hence the common name stuck with it. (More on “true sage” later) The Spanish Californians called this plant the remedy to all ills: a wash for wounds, a repellent for fleas, tea is used for fever, smoke of a burning bush used for removing skunk odor. You can also use a piece of sagebrush and gently slap it around your body to help ward off misquotes. Its leaves were used for multiple health concerns, most notably as a natural remedy for colds and it is generally known as a cleansing/ purifying plant. California Sagebrush grows to 3- 4 feet high, prefers full sun, and little or no water after established. In extreme drought it may drop its leaves. It is an important supply of pollen, nectar, and seeds for a wide variety of insects, birds, and small mammals. Use California Sagebrush with other natives like “the true sages”: Cleveland Sage, White Sage, Wild Rye Grass, California Buckwheat, California Fuchsia, and Monkey Flower. Some selections of California Sagebrush could be used as a ground cover.
While on the subject of Artemisia, another selection called Mugwort— (Artemisia douglasiana) or commonly called California Mugwort and is another native related to the Sunflower Family. Mugwort is often found around streams, ditch banks, road cuts or other disturbed areas. It is very useful for creek bank stabilization or in the home garden as erosion control. Mugwort has the reputation of removing the ill effects of poison oak if you rub the chemicals from the leaf on the area as soon as possible to reduce the itching. Best to harvest the leaves during the spring time. It is also used as a relaxant and pain reliving spasms. You can make a hot tea that helps drive away the common cold. The tired and old leaves of Mugwort can also can be used as an insect repellent. This perennial herb has erect stems that reach 3 to 6 feet high and comes up in colonies and thrives in shaded, moist areas. Mugwort would grow beautifully under Cost Live Oak, Western Sycamore, with native ferns, blackberries, and raspberries. Most of the time Mugwort goes deciduous during the winter or earlier than that if there is lack of water. Leaf out usually occurs later on in spring.
The final plant that is also a daisy is called California Yarrow (Achillea millefolium). California Yarrow is another perennial that grows 1 to 2 feet tall and has aromatic leaves that are fern-like in structure and soft to the touch. When in bloom, it has numerous small flower heads in flat clusters at the end of the stems which make it perfect as landing pads for butterflies which is why these organisms love this plant. Spanish Californians used the leaves stepped in hot water for cuts and bruises to stop bleeding, increase healing, and decrease pain. Many cultivated forms are available with different flower colors. A good idea is to use it in dry rock garden or lower types as a lawn substitute. A yarrow lawn is tough and can even be walked on. Native grasses and landscape boulders look good with California Yarrow. This selection likes some shade in hot interior locations. Taller selections of yarrow are effective when used with native sages, California Fuchsia, Wooly Blue Curls, and Monkey Flower mixed in to make a meadow.
The next grouping of plants all have one thing in common, they belong to the same family of plants as the Rose. The Roseacea family contains such common plants as Apples, Apricots, Peaches, and Plums. Below, we will meet these California native plants.
California Wild Rose (Rosa californica)- This native rose grows 3 to 10 feet high. The individual roses are single flowers with a classic rose fragrance. You usually see them in bloom April to July. You can use the rose hips to make jam or tea. California Wild Rose, like its common name suggests, grows wild and may need to be tamed to keep it under control. A root barrier may be needed if you want to prevent it form growing into other areas. The use of this native is effective as a barrier, hedgerow, erosion control, bank cover, and requires much less care than commercial roses. You can prune them to be compact bushes and more tidy. California Wild Rose has been used in the past by native people for diaper rash. Modern uses for this rose include treating diarrhea, an eye wash, inflammation of the mouth and throat, and pain relieving. Ever bought vitamin C with Rose Hips? Rose hips contain antioxidants and vitamins. Many times this species goes dormant during the winter or during times of extreme drought. Leaves come back later on in spring.
Another plant related to the Rose is Catalina Cherry (Prunus ilicifolia subsp. lyonii ) Catalina Cherry is an evergreen shrub that grows 8 to 30 feet tall and is highly resistant to oak root fungus. The purplish black fruit resembles a cherry. Catalina Cherry has feathery flowers that are small and white. Blossoms occur from March to May. Indians are known to ferment the fruit for an intoxicating drink. Many native people have used wild cherry bark or leaves to treat coughs, colds, sore throat, and fever. Did I mention that the fruit is actually a Cherry and yes the cherry is related to the rose. This native is great in the garden for privacy screen. It can make a fine choice for clipped hedge or sheared into a shaped bush, or let it grow and have it become a tree to provide shade. Catalina Cherry can take extreme drought but looks best with occasional deep soakings.
Last but not least a member of the Roseacea family is Toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia) You often see this plant growing in the foothills as large shrubs and is especially noticeable during the time it produces its red berries around Christmas time, hence one of its common name Christmas Berry. Toyon could either be large a shrub or small tree from 6 to 25 feet tall depending on how you decide to prune it. Flowering occurs in June and July and the large clusters of red berries come on toward the end of the year. The berry resembles something like a small apple and is sweet and spicy. You can use the de-hydrated berries mixed in with cereal or a salad for a healthy surprise. The leaves and bark have tannins and can help with healing and pain relieving. Researchers and pharmacologists have found a number of anti- inflammatory compounds around in the berries that may be useful in treating Alzheimer’s disease. In the landscape try using Toyon as a patio tree. Birds and other wildlife are attracted by the fruit. This plant is valuable as a screen or bank planting.
White sage (Salvia apiana) When I go for a hike in the hills and brush against its foliage, I know I am alive and invigorated because the smell of White sage is overpowering and mesmerizing. White Sage grows 3 to 4 feet tall with erect branches and aromatic leaves that are a very light gray almost appearing white, hence the common name. It produces pale lavender flowers from April to June that grow up to 8 feet. The species name (apiana) refers to bees and the honey made from the flowers is clear and superfine. Use in the garden with other native sages. Like other native sages, White Sage has many uses that include antibacterial, decongestant, anti viral, and a mouth wash. White Sage is the sage that is famous for burning to cleanse the area of negative energy. White Sage was once abundant but more recently people have been irresponsible to mother nature and over harvesting these native plants in its natural habitat ruining the ecosystem making it at risk. Please be respectful when harvesting or grow your own from plants bought are your favorite nursery. White sage (Salvia apiana) is a “true sage” Salvia is the genus name for Sage and in Latin it is translated to mean save. White Sage as well as a number of other native sages (Salvia) are noted for their aromatic oils and many cultures use the oils and the plants themselves for culinary and medicinal value. Native sages are an important plant that attract pollinators like bees and hummingbirds as well as birds that eat the seeds. Many other endemic native sages we carry that are worth considering and most of them have antibacterial, insecticidal, and fungicidal properties like that of black, purple, and Cleveland sage. You can use them along with Monkey Flower, California Fuchsia, Yarrow, Penstemon, and native grasses creating a native meadow garden. Some native sages go through a dormancy period during summer to conserve energy because the summer is dry and hot .
Manzanita (Arctostaphylos spp.) Plants in this family are related to the Azalea and Blue Berry. Some types of Manzanitas are ground covers, while other types are medium sized shrubs, and still others can become trees. They all have attractive red to chocolate colored stems, peeling bark and picturesque branching. The flower is urn shaped and is white to pink tinged in color. The fruit resembles a small apple but more berrylike with a mealy pulp. Manzanita- in Spanish means Mansana- which means apple. Manzanita bears small red apple like fruit that tastes sour. Native people use Manzanita to make a tea and ripe fruit used to make a jelly. Many selections of Manzanita are sometimes available. Excellent to be used on slopes and banks. Both European and Native Honeybees are the primary pollinators of Manzanitas and the honey they produce from flowers nectar is quite tasty. Taller types work well as privacy plants, lower growing ground cover selections are excellent for mat- forming coverage. Manzanita could even be used as an informal hedge.
California Lilac (Ceanothus Spp.) or Mountain Lilac are diverse plants that include selections that are ground covers, medium-sized shrubs, and can become tree-like. Most bear blue to purple-blue flowers. A couple selections have white flowers. California Lilac is often used to make a soap with the flowers and or berries to cleanse one self. Many selections of California Lilac are grown. They are excellent to be used on slopes and banks. Taller types work well as privacy plants, lower growing ground cover ones are excellent for over the ground coverage. California Lilac could even be used as an informal hedge. Both California Lilac, Manzanita, and Toyon would grow harmoniously together.
From my own personal experience and observations I have seen Manzanita, Catalina Cherry, Toyon, Elderberry, Mugwort, and California Wild Rose grow in both sunny and shady exposures in various climates from interior areas to closer to the coast. These plants can adapt and grow sometimes quite well depending on available moisture, temperature, and other conditions. The plants growth behavior may change depending on how much or how little sun they are getting. Remember you are not limited to these few California native plants, there is more selection to choose from. Don’t forget, you can also include other Mediterranean native plants with your California plants because they take the same care, soil, and water requirements. I encourage you to drop by your favorite Green Thumb Nursery and seek out California natives because fall is the ideal time to plant these lovely garden treasures.
One final note- The above statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. These products are not intended to treat, cure or prevent any disease or reaction they may or may not cause.
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