Flowering Native Shrubs
Not included here are garden-worthy shrubs that also flower but are planted primarily for their foliage. Find them listed under Native Shrubs for Foliage by clicking on this link.
Berberis—barberry. See Mahonia below. Most nurseries continue to label barberries as mahonias.
Calycanthus occidentalis—spice bush. Multi-petaled, maroon-red blossoms and rich green foliage on this deciduous shrub somewhat resemble the musty smell of a wine barrel. Growth is fairly rapid, resulting in a 4-10 ft. mounding shrub that slowly spreads by underground stems. Although its native habitat is along moist places, spice bush thrives with little moisture in partial shade, more is needed in inland locations. In full sun, it requires moderate water. Spice bush is completely deer resistant.
Carpenteria californica—bush anemone. With blossoms closely resembling yellow-centered, white camellias, this evergreen shrub with glossy green leaves becomes a highlight of the early summer garden. Rare in the wild, bush anemone adapts easily to home gardens, best in partial shade in hot climates with moderate water. In cool climates, give it occasional deep waterings. To maintain a neat appearance, prune up to one-half of the stems after flowering and remove dried leaves as they accumulate. The cultivar ‘Elizabeth’ flowers most profusely.
Ceanothus—wild lilac. For descriptions of several species and cultivars, click on this link “Ceanothus—Wild Lilac.”
Dendromecon harfordii—island bush poppy or tree poppy. Winsome, delicate-looking, crinkled yellow blossoms nearly cover this open-branched, rounded shrub in mid-spring and continue sporadically throughout the year. Fast-growing, it can attain more than 5 ft. in only two years, eventually reaching 6-18 ft.; size may be controlled by light pruning. Native to dry, sunny habitats, it must have fast-draining soils year-round. Give it summer irrigation for the first 2 years, then occasional watering only in full sun.
Related species, D. rigida, is a smaller shrub with fewer flowers but does not adapt as readily to home gardens. Both species need care when planted to avoid damaging brittle roots. Both are deer resistant.
Encelia californica—California sunflower. Although this charming 3-ft. mounding shrub is native to very dry and rugged terrain, it adapts to home gardens and performs best in hot summer climates with limited occasional watering. In winter it must have excellent drainage, enhanced with the addition of lava rock in heavy soil. In spring, bright yellow daisies with brown centers nearly cover the dense branches. After bloom, cut back all stems up to one half to maintain an attractive shape. When summer water is withheld, California sunflower drops its foliage and enters dormancy until spring.
Eriogonum species—buckwheats. For descriptions of several species, click on this link: “Eriogonum—Buckwheat.”
Fremontodendron—flannel bush. Flannel bush creates a spectacular sight in full spring bloom when 3-inch, saucer-shaped, yellow blossoms fill branches. They’re followed by dark brown seed capsules covered with bristly hairs, as are the dark green leaves, both of which can cause skin irritation but repel deer. The presence of hairs and the demand for dry conditions encourage gardeners to plant flannel bush in an out-of-the way spot where flowers can still be appreciated. Shrubs may be kept to a moderate size or trained as a small tree by judicious pruning. Because roots are shallow and sensitive to excess moisture, plants can develop root rot or be blown over in high winds. Staking may be needed to stabilize the naturally irregular branching. Full sun is essential. Several named cultivars are known for their enhanced forms and flowers.
Garrya elliptica—coast silk tassel bush. Many plants enfold their seeds in small catkins, but none grace the garden with any as distinctive as those on the silk tassel bush. Typically in January, this large shrub lights up the garden as can no other plant with 3-12 in. long creamy catkins tinted pale green in beautiful contrast with deep green, wavy leaves. The main challenge in growing this shrub is placement: it grows 15-20 ft. in height and width. Although it may be pruned, new growth may result in an awkward configuration. Male plants, the most commonly sold, produce the most dramatic effects, namely the cultivars ‘Evie’ and ‘James Roof,’ both deer resistant.
Heteromeles arbutifolia—toyon or California holly. Although the slightly toothed, leathery foliage does not resemble that of Christmas holly, presence of red berries in winter bestows toyon with one of its common names. Broad clusters of white flowers appear in summer, giving toyon several seasons of interest. It is possible to train toyon as a single-trunked tree, but it’s more successfully grown multi-trunked with lower branches removed or as a large, 8-20 ft. multi-branched shrub. No supplemental watering is needed once established, though siting the plant where roots can reach nearby irrigation promotes faster growth.
Holodiscus discolor—creambush or ocean spray. This deciduous shrub varies considerably in the wild, from a low shrub in the Pacific Northwest to nearly tree size in hotter areas of the Coastal Range and Sierra Nevada. In gardens, it prefers partial shade and some maintenance to prevent awkward, rangy stems that detract from its best feature: lovely panicles of creamy white flowers in early summer that persist on tips of arching branching for months, turning golden then brown as they age similar to spiraeas. Branching structure is more compact with pruning to prevent lankiness. Little water is needed but regular moisture enhances appearance. Deer are not attracted to creambush.
Lavatera assurgentiflora—malva rosa. Gardeners looking for a fast-growing, fast-blooming, deer resistant native shrub would do well to consider lavatera. Young succulent stems become woody as they mature and bear rosy purple blossoms resembling hollyhocks in the first year after planting. Left unpruned, shrubs reach 5-12 ft. or more with irregular branching. Deep green, maple-like leaves provide interest along with the nearly year-round blossoms, heaviest in spring and summer. Although native to the Channel Islands, malva rosa adapts easily inland in full sun, requiring only infrequent watering and fast-draining soil. In shade, shrubs become open-branched and irregularly shaped.
Lepechinia spp.--pitcher sages. Considered by some as woody-based perennials, pitcher sages bear tubular shaped, inch-long, dangling flowers—in purple shades on L. fragrans, white on L. calycina. Both become 2-5 ft. arching mounds with oval foliage and benefit from annual heavy pruning to avoid lanky growth and an unkempt appearance. Lepechinia hastata has large, arrow-shaped leaves that clothe 2-5 ft. upright, hairy stems that must be removed annually to maintain an attractive outline—after foot-tall terminal spikes of rosy purple blossoms fade. Lacking an overall striking appearance, it is most at home in wild or informal areas of the garden devoid of irrigation where its sage-like scent goes unnoticed. Deer are not attracted to pitcher sage.
Lupinus albifrons—silver lupine. Numerous species of lupines range from less than a foot to over 6 feet in height. Silver lupine falls into the latter category, usually to about 5 ft. Shrubs are fairly dense with silvery gray stems filled with year-round foliage of flat, finger-like leaves. Tiers of bluish purple pea-like blossoms rise atop stem tips in spring. Lupines grow natively in poor soils and need the same in home gardens where they may self-sow, a bonus if roots wander into rich or moist ground where plants may falter and be short-lived. Give full sun and good drainage; water only until well established.
Mahonia [syn. Berberis]—holly grape, Oregon grape, barberry. Name changes can be confusing, especially when different nurseries use different names for the same plant. Leathery, glossy and stiff, holly-like foliage on mahonias turns red in winter after tufts of bright yellow flowers fade and set purplish blue fruits that resemble grapes. Of the several native species available, Mahonia aquifolium (Oregon grape) with individual stems to 5 ft. is the most common. Its dwarf form, M. a. repens, spreads as a 1-2 ft. groundcover. M. nervosa has longer more dramatic leaves on foot-high stems and M. pinnata has wavy, attractive prickly leaves on 4-6 ft. stems. All spread by underground rhizomes to create colonies that may be freshened by cutting stems to the ground. M. nevinii forms a dense, prickly 5-6 ft. shrub that requires no supplemental water. Heavy flowering produces a cornucopia of reddish orange berries that birds devour; deer ignore all parts of mahonias.
Mimulus (syn. Diplacus)—bush or sticky monkey flower. Because this 2-3 ft. flowering perennial develops a woody base it is considered to be a subshrub. Native to coastal areas, it thrives in both partial shade and full sun, requiring little moisture but excellent winter drainage. Deep green sticky leaves fill thin stems that tend to flop as they elongate. To encourage density, prune once or twice annually in stages after bloom just above a pair of buds, never into bare wood. Tubular, lobed flowers may be white, orange, yellow or red. Many showy hybrid cultivars have bi-colored blossoms. Deer may nibble new growth but plants are considered resistant.
Philadelphus lewisii—western mock orange. Like its non-native relatives, this enchanting bloomer satisfies with numerous clusters of citrus-fragrant, 4-petaled, white flowers with cream centers at stem tips. Discovered in Idaho on the Lewis and Clark expedition but also native to Northern California, its open-branched, fountain-like appearance is best when planted in rich soil and full sun with afternoon shade. Thin branches emerge red then turn brown with peeling bark in winter after leaf drop. Prune out old stems and unwanted shoots annually after flowering. Rejuvenate completely after several years by cutting all stems to the ground. Size varies from 4-10 ft. in height and as wide or wider.
Physocarpus capitatus—ninebark. Beginning with pinkish buds in early spring that yield to delicate dense, rounded clusters of tiny white flowers resembling those on spiraea, arching, slim stems are decorated for many weeks. Small red fruits follow to further the color into summer. Late in the year, smallish, green, maple-like leaves turn yellow and drop, exposing layers of reddish brown exfoliating bark, hence the common name. This densely branched shrub can be pruned to reduce legginess; after many years, cut to the ground to rejuvenate. Low to moderate water keeps it vibrant but deer resistant.
Rhododendron occidentale—western azalea. Invaluable in shaded spots, but best in only partial shade, the fragrant, funnel-shaped blossoms are a delight of the late spring-early summer garden. Creamy white, sometimes pale pink blooms are marked with a blotch of yellow. Named cultivars offer more robust tones and shapes. Flowering is heaviest with adequate sun exposure but not enough to cause scorched foliage. In autumn, leaves turn apricot and golden bronze before falling. Unlike non-native rhododendrons, this native azalea does not require constant moisture but needs only occasional irrigation. Deer avoid this and other rhododendrons.
Ribes spp.—currants and gooseberries. For descriptions of several species and cultivars, click on this link: “Ribes spp.—Currants and Gooseberries”
Sambucus Mexicana—western elderberry. Flowers and fruits on this somewhat gangly, very large shrub to 20 ft. or more endear it to gardeners, bees, and birds alike but repel deer. Best planted where broad-spreading branches are free to expand, pruning is unnecessary unless a single or multi-trunk structure is a goal, although heavy annual pruning promotes dense growth for shrubs. Fountain-like branches are covered in early summer with flat-topped, creamy white, highly scented floral clusters that produce frosted blue edible berries that must be cooked or fermented before eating to remove toxins. Elderberry tolerates a range of conditions, flowering most heavily in full sun with supplemental irrigation.
Styrax revividus—snowdrop bush. Whether grown as a many-branched shrub 4-12 ft. high and wide or with lower branches removed to create a small tree, styrax is impressive for its clusters of delicate, white, dangling, bell-shaped blossoms that are a highlight of the spring garden. Somewhat slow-growing, it benefits from supplemental irrigation when young but becomes fairly drought tolerant as it ages. Plant in full sun or light shade in full view where petals can be appreciated as they fall and cloak the ground.
Symphoricus albus—snowberry. Informal settings are seldom bothered by them, but not all gardens welcome suckering plants or wandering roots. Snowberry is one of these that produces 2-5 ft. erect stems with small rounded leaves, sometimes expanding at surprising distances from the original planting. Shrubs are valued for their clusters of ½-in., round white fruits that persist into winter on bare stems. Earlier pink flowers often go unnoticed. Open colonies develop in light shade or full sun where bloom is heaviest and plants are completely drought tolerant. Little, if any, maintenance is needed as plants slowly expand in nearly any quality of soil. Snowberry is deer resistant.