Native Shrubs for Foliage
A great benefit of planting evergreen species is the constant, eye-appealing bulk and color they steadfastly exhibit every month of the year. Their leafy presence is especially valued as they step up to fill in blank spaces when bare stems of other garden denizens fade out-of-favor during a summer or winter dormancy. Their highly valued foliage becomes a prominent garden feature over time.
But besides the key landscape contributions that evergreen shrubs offer, they are even more important, if not critical, in restoring habitat that served native species before our homes encroached on wild lands. Native shrubs—with their flowers, seeds, and foliage—sustain small animals, birds, bees, and a myriad of beneficial insects including pollinators. Numerous species of all sizes rely on nectar in flowers; food in fruits, seeds, and leaves; seasonal nesting sites; and year-round shelter in protective branches.
The shrubs listed here are prized in home gardens for the rich foliage they offer, but foremost they are habitat plants that sustain wildlife. When featuring evergreen species, it pays to keep a few principles in mind to satisfy both the gardener and garden visitors.
- Determine how a plant’s growth habit is affected by sun, shade, and supplemental water.
- Know your microclimate to ensure using the right plant in the right place.
- Group plants together with similar cultural needs, especially those needing supplemental water.
- Provide excellent drainage, particularly for species sensitive to wet, winter soils.
- Focus on plant species most appealing to fauna, especially those native to Sonoma County and the North Bay or similar climates.
- Understand whether pruning, mulching, and irrigating improve or damage an evergreen’s appearance and longevity.
- Incorporate natives into mixed plantings with other Mediterranean species. Contrast foliage hues for optimum eye appeal, accenting deep greens with paler shades of green or bluish gray. Glossy leaf surfaces reflect light and suggest multiple tones of one color.
- Use diverse textural elements for contrasts. Leaf sizes and shapes communicate texture, but delicacy or ruggedness, smoothness or prickliness convey an even- greater impact and contrast with neighboring plants as well as provide protection for wildlife.
While many California natives lack a wide spectrum of foliar vibrancy that is found among numerous exotic and alien species, as a group, natives do not lack alluring colors. There is ample eye appeal to generate riveting garden scenes. Green may be the first color that comes to mind when considering evergreen foliage, but a predominance of the same shade of green rarely adds distinction to a garden. Deep forest green, a myriad of blue tints, grayish white, burgundy reds and purples, even brown and bronze hues—all endow a landscape with drama and excitement.
- For shades of gray and hints of blue, plant Artemisia californica (California sagebrush). Delicate, feathery foliage on low, mounding cultivars ‘Canyon Gray’, ‘Montara’, or ‘David’s Choice’ contrast beautifully against deep green foliage or stone accents. Late-season seeds may self-sow if not eaten by insects, birds, and small mammals.
- Grayish green, narrow leaves with white undersides on Eriogonum arborescens (Santa Cruz Island buckwheat) yield their density with age as shrubs become more open-branched. Small animals, birds, and butterflies visit plants regularly.
- Salvia ‘Bee s’ Bliss’ (Bee’s bliss sage) flaunts some of the most beautiful and reliable bluish gray foliage on stems that root as they spread, more so when given occasional summer water. Hummingbirds and bees are frequent visitors. Foliage is most attractive when spent flower stems are removed; cold weather stimulates greener hues. Salvia clevelandii and cultivars are similar with a 3-5 ft. height and spread.
- Colorful foliage in autumn depends largely on including deciduous species in the garden. Acer circinatum (vine maple), Rhododendron occidentale (western azalea), and Cornus spp. (dogwoods) are among the most vibrant and showy. Vitis californica (wild grape) may be the most flamboyant, upstaged only by the cultivar ‘Roger’s Red,’ although it’s beauty comes at a price: growth is rampant and requires severe annual pruning to keep it under control. Leaves on Calycanthus occidentalis (spicebush) turn golden yellow in fall, and evergreen Mahonia species [syn. Berberis] (barberry, Oregon grape) contribute deep maroon-red foliage.
Evergreen sizes and shapes
In many home gardens, small-to-medium shrubs are often favored, but frequently a large foliage plant is preferred as a focal point, background plant, screen, or living fence to define property lines. Where there is ample space, more massive forms have room to spread as high and wide as their genetics allow. Those species with dense branching habits are particularly inviting as shelter and nesting for many birds.
Arctostaphylos spp. (manzanita) offer an abundance of foliage from groundcovers to tree-size shrubs. Their mahogany-colored bark and twisty branches become focal points when leaves drop from lower stems as plants age. Bees and butterflies feed on nectar; birds and small mammals relish berries.
Carpenteria californica (bush anemone) prefers some afternoon shade and occasional summer water to sustain its 4-6-ft. mound of shiny, deep green foliage. Yellow-centered, white flowers reminiscent of camellias endow it with outstanding highlights for several weeks in late spring and early summer. Birds feed on seeds and on insects attracted to foliage.
Ceanothus spp. (wild lilac) comprise one of the most outstanding groups of favored habitat and landscape shrubs treasured for blue-to-purple blossoms, magnets for bees, butterflies, and pollinating insects. Year-round foliage on groundcovers to small trees is deep green, lustrous or leathery, sometimes holly-like. Large specimens take on sculptural qualities when lower branches are trimmed as plants age, while smaller forms develop fuller branching when lightly pruned.
Cerocarpus betuloides (mountain mahogany) is one of the few tall shrubs suitable for filling a narrow niche in full sun. Occasional pruning of side branches and removing unwanted stems at ground level maintains a narrow shape, although birds seek nesting sites among denser branches. Foliage hosts larvae that feed birds.
Encelia californica (California sunflower or brittlebush) blooms profusely in spring and again in autumn, decorating a mounded, leafy, small shrub 2-4 ft. high and wide when regularly pruned. Evergreen leaves are fully drought-tolerant, but both blossoming and foliage are sparse without supplemental moisture; however, over-watering can be fatal. Bees and butterflies are constant visitors.
Galvezia speciosa (island snapdragon) takes full sun but adapts best with part shade in hottest microclimates. Some gardeners may argue that small, tubular, red flowers attractive to hummingbirds are more valuable and exciting than foliage on this 3-4 ft. and broader shrub. With regular pruning, wide-spreading stems promote density, bushy foliage, and fewer blossoms.
Garrya elliptica (silk-tassel bush) demands ample space for its 15x15-ft. size. Deep green, leathery leaves wavy along margins fill dense branches that may respond with awkward growth if heavily pruned. Floral flourishes of pendent catkins are a brief bonus in winter. Birds enjoy small fruits.
Heteromeles arbutifolia (toyon) becomes a focal point in every month as a robust shrub with dark green foliage that highlights summer flowering and winter berries devoured by birds. Growth is slow initially but more rapid to 10 ft. or more once established.
Lavatera assurgentiflora (malva rosa) is loved for its hibiscus-like flowers during many months, but maple-like leaves on fast-growing stems to 5 ft. are even more prominent throughout the year on this bright green, somewhat leggy, open-branched shrub. Birds, butterflies, and moths visit regularly.
Mahonia pinnata (California holly grape) bears the most attractive foliage of related mahonias with its wavy, prickly leaves on 4-6 ft. stems. Shrubs broaden as rhizomes creep underground and create colonies, but stems are easily pulled out to limit spread. Birds feed on berries in autumn.
Myrica californica (Pacific wax myrtle) is valued for fast, vertical growth of multiple stems to 20 ft. or more and bright green foliage that can be pruned to limit width. It prefers shaded sites inland and performs best closer to the coast. Birds find shelter in foliage and feed on small purplish fruits.
Prunus ilicifolia (hollyleaf cherry) is a fast-growing, densely branched shrub filled with glossy, deep green, holly-like leaves, prickly and serrated. Its rounded habit creates an eye-catching sight, enhanced in autumn by large, dark red, cherry-like fruits ravished by birds.
Prunus ilicifolia lyonia (Catalina cherry) is similar to hollyleaf cherry but much larger and may be trained as a tree. Spike-like white flowers that precede purplish black fruits are showy but short-lived. Birds feed on the cherry-like fruits. Glossy leaves have smooth margins.
Rhamnus californica [syn. Frangula Californica] (coffeeberry) produces dark, round berries in autumn that feed birds, but fruits are less prominent than the leathery, deep green, 1-3 in. leaves that fill branches year-round on shrubs that range from 4-10 ft. high and wide.
Rhus integrifolia (lemonade berry), one of the most drought-tolerant evergreens, is a reliable and versatile shrub that may be sheared as a 10-ft. hedge or left to stand alone. Rounded, waxy leaves are more appealing than the sticky, reddish fruits that follow white-to-pink flower clusters, often appearing sporadically, in late winter and early spring. This easy-care shrub performs best near the coast.
Rhus ovata (sugar bush), similar to lemonade berry, is favored in the hottest microclimates where it reliably withstands either sun or shade, complete drought, or occasional irrigation. Elongated oval leaves are leathery and slightly folded; birds devour reddish fruits.
Vaccinium ovatum (California huckleberry), a companion of the coast redwood and favorite of floral designers, offers one of the best foliage displays for shaded sites. Lustrous, deep green leaves, neatly arranged on arching branches, unfold coppery pink. Tasty berries are edible treats on this 3-12-ft. shrub.