Plant Natives Now!
By Sonoma County Master Gardener Sandy Metzger
What if you could say, “My family’s been here for eons”? Then you’d be a native California PLANT. And you’d love the cooler weather we’re now having, the longer, dewy nights, the winter rains (if they ever arrive). You’d be thriving, turning greener, sending out new growth, perhaps even blooming! It’s because you were born and raised here, and it’s what you expect—six months of sporadic rain and six months of drought. You’re in your element!
Have you noticed the Erigeron glaucus (Seaside Daisy)?
Perking up with mounded new green foliage, beginning to bloom. And Sidalcea malviflora (Checkerbloom)? Thriving, weaving its stems with new shiny green leaves in and around your other plants, and building up strength to produce those dark rose mallow-like flowers in the spring. The Fremontodendron (Flannel Bush) sending out tiny new green leaves, gaining height, all in anticipation of a spectacular display of large yellow hollyhock-like blooms in the spring and summer. The ornamental grasses, Festuca idahoensis and californica, happy and greening up, as well as our state grass, Nassella pulchra (Purple Needlegrass),
standing taller and greener after a golden summer dormancy?
Why? Because they are all California natives, and for many, this is now their time to show-off or prepare to. It’s also just about the best time to plant them in your gardens. Why? Because they thrive in Sonoma County, and if you begin to establish them right now (fewer shoots, more roots), they will adapt to garden conditions with winter rains and do well through the droughty summer months. Planting now also produces more new growth and more flowers than those planted later on.
Generally speaking, for natives to grow well, they need excellent drainage and not overly rich or heavy soil; too much water can cause crown rot and death. You can amend your native soil with organic matter and tiny gravel and mound it up to insure good drainage. Mulch with leaf litter, chips, or bark but keep it away from the plant crown. Make sure the root ball is moist when planting, and never let the soil get soggy. Now, there are always some exceptions: Coast Redwood, Scarlet Monkey Flower, and Leopard Lily are among some of the natives which are moisture-loving—care for them accordingly.
Myths abound about native plants, e.g. they all turn brown and look weedy, or, just plant ‘em and forget about ‘em. Neither is really true; however, there are some caveats. Many natives are naturally dormant during the hot, dry summer months; some of the grasses will turn golden, and some of the flowering plants will have fewer blooms and leaves because they are summer deciduous. In some instances, you can counteract the summer dormancy by giving them a bit of water, but as mentioned above, once well-established, many simply do not want extra water. But by then, your other perennials have begun to bloom and provide cover for some of the dormant species. And natives, as with any plants, do require some attention, such as occasional deadheading to prolong bloom, judicious pruning to maintain shape, and some occasional water during winter dry spells.
And remember, these natives have developed an interdependent relationship with butterflies, bees, other insects, and birds over the centuries and are among the very best habitat plants for your garden. There are actually thousands of native California species; here are a few that do exceptionally well in Sonoma County:
Arctostaphylos species, Manzanita, evergreen shrubs and groundcovers, a chaparral plant with wide growing range; do not tolerate alkaline soils; handsome bark, blooms and berries; many bloom in winter.
Artemesia californica, California Sagebrush, an evergreen subshrub with finely divided gray-green leaves and noticeably pungent aroma. Produces insignificant gray-yellow flowers in late summer plus abundant supply of pollen, nectar and seeds for insects and birds. Can be seen in the coastal scrub and chaparral plant communities; hard pruning in late fall.
Asclepias speciosa, Showy Milkweed, a deciduous herbaceous perennial that spreads easily by underground stems; keep your eye on it. Gray-green foliage, stiff erect stems 2-4’ high, with balls of star-shaped pinkish flowers in summer. Attracts wide array of insects, and the larvae of Monarch butterflies feed on the foliage, stems, and flower buds.
Atriplex lentiformis, Quail Bush, semi-evergreen tough shrub for difficult sites; can grow 4-10’ in height. Bluish-gray leaves with tiny creamy white flowers in late summer; excellent cover in habitat gardens. Lightly prune in winter to shape and control size.
Ceanothus species, Wild Lilac, tiny dark green leaves, mostly blue and purple flowers in spring; many varieties from ground cover to tall shrubs and trees. Good drainage necessary.
Cercis occidentalis, Western Redbud, deciduous small tree or shrub, usually multi-trunked; Can reach 6-20’. Apple to bluish green leaves become leathery; magenta blossoms in late winter, early spring.
Epilobium species (formerly Zauschneria), California Fuchsia, summer dormant, breaks into spectacular bloom later summer and early fall with brilliant salmon to red-orange tubular flowers. A hummingbird favorite.
Erigeron glaucus, Seaside Daisy, takes some water during hottest months; 1” lavender, white or rose colored daisy-like disk flowers, can bloom virtually year-round.
Eriogonum giganteum, St. Catherine’s Lace or Giant Buckwheat, one of the most spectacular at 4-8’ high and 6-10’ wide with silvery green leaves and intricate inflorescences up to 2’ across. Flowers are excellent for indoor dried arrangements.
Eriogonum grande var rubescens, Red-flowered Buckwheat, a shorter cousin at 1-3’ high with dark rosy button-like flowers. Deadheading helps appearance.
Galvezia speciosa, Showy Island Snapdragon, evergreen shrub mounding 3-4’ high and 5-7’ wide; clusters of bright red blossoms attract hummingbirds from late winter into the fall. Adaptable and easy to grow.
Garrya elliptica, Coast Silk Tassel, evergreen shrub or small tree, 8-12’ high. Sun to partial shade and well-drained soil; in hotter areas needs occasional water and more shade. One of the most dramatic native trees with its 12” long catkins appearing on male trees in winter.
Iris douglasiana, takes some water and shade in hottest parts of county, new sword-shaped fans of leaves show up in autumn, with a wide array of pastel blossoms appearing in late winter or early spring, generally long-lived.
Nassella pulchra, a cool season perennial grass forming inflorescences in late winter, turns golden as temperatures rise and soil dries out.
Penstemon heterophyllus, Foothills Penstemon, tolerates some heavy soil and summer water, 1-3’ high, electric blue tubular flowers in spring and summer.
Ribes sanguineum, Pink Flowering Currant, deciduous shrub, sun to shade, moderate water inland, adaptable with good drainage. One of first to bloom in early spring with its pink to magenta in pendulous clusters.
Salvia clevelandii (and others), 3-5’ high, likes hottest, driest, sunniest spot in garden; vibrant violet-blue whorled, fragrant flowers.
Sisyrinchium bellum, Blue-eyed Grass (there’s yellow too), not a grass though foliage is similar in appearance, colonizes easily; goes summer dormant, blooms in spring.
Some additional readings on California native plants;
Bornstein, Fross, O’Brien, California Native Plants for the Garden, 2005.
Lowry, Judith Larner, Gardening with a Wild Heart, 1999.
Smith, M. Nevin, Native Treasures, 2006.
Pacific Horticulture magazine
Fremontia, quarterly journal of the California Native Plant Society