Aster chilensis ‘Point Saint George’ (coast aster). This vigorous, drought-tolerant, perennial bloomer can be too aggressive for most flower beds, but it makes a useful groundcover. Growth is fast in sun or light shade, in any soil, and is even faster and livelier with occasional water. Birds, moths, butterflies, bees, and other pollinators are attracted to the bluish lavender, daisy-like blossoms from summer to autumn. Bright green foliage, 4-6 in. tall, may be mowed to maintain a walk-on surface for light traffic.
Fragaria chiloensis (beach strawberry). Common to Sonoma County coastal areas, this native has the familiar look of garden-variety strawberries. Fast-growing, horizontal stems (stolons) elongate over the ground and end with new plants that take root and form colonies. In spring and summer, white flowers on short stalks produce large, edible, red fruits only on female plants; ‘Lipstick’ flowers are pinkish red. When 5-12-in. plants grow too tall, they may be mowed to keep them tidy. In full sun, plants require occasional to moderate water; less is needed in partial shade. All attract birds and beneficial insects but not deer. Light foot traffic is tolerated.
Phyla [Lippia] nodiflora (lippia or frog fruit). Small, grayish green, somewhat succulent leaves cover a low, 2-in. mat of creeping stems that withstands light foot traffic. As a sprawling lawn substitute in full sun in nearly any soil, lippia is outstanding, but it is also suited to more confined spaces. Tiny, pinkish lavender flowers grow in clusters during warm months and attract butterflies, moths, and bees; plants may be mowed for a turf-like appearance. Some dieback occurs in cold winters, but plants revive in spring with an application of compost. Little water is needed for mature plantings. Lippia is found in naturally moist places in Sonoma County.
Arctostaphylos spp. (manzanita). Among the many species of manzanitas, several named cultivars stand out as evergreen groundcovers favored for their small leaves, clusters of pinkish white flowers, and red berries. Thin, reddish brown stems root as they spread in sun to part shade, 6-15 in. high by 5-15 ft. wide over time. Birds and many beneficial insects feed on flowers and fruits. Recommended cultivars include ‘Point Reyes,’ the most drought tolerant; ‘Emerald Carpet,’ best with occasional summer irrigation; ‘Radiant,’ the lowest grower with the heaviest crop of berries; and ‘Carmel Sur,’ known for its sparse blooms. All require adequate moisture to become established.
Artemisia pycnocephala ‘David’s Choice’ (sandhill sage). This is a particularly fine cultivar of a Sonoma County coastal native for featuring in a small niche where it can be seen close-up. It spreads about 2 ft. wide and reaches 6 in. high with finely cut, soft-textured, silvery foliage. Removing small flowers on 6-12 in. stems keeps plants tidy although birds seek insects that feed on them. Give this artemisia excellent drainage and some shade inland.
Baccharis pilularis cvs. (coyote brush). The parent plant is a large shrub, common in Sonoma County where it endures heat and drought and reseeds easily; however, there are two dwarf groundcover forms that do not self-sow. ‘Pigeon Point’ has bright green foliage on horizontal stems to 2 ft. tall. ‘Twin Peaks’ has smaller leaves and grows a little taller; both reach 8-10 ft. wide. Both make excellent evergreen and deer-proof groundcovers and host numerous bees and butterflies; birds eat seeds and insects. Baccharis is considered somewhat fire-resistant when old, arching branches are cut out and plants are sheared or mowed annually in early spring prior to new growth. Occasional summer water keeps it vibrant.
Ceanothus spp. (California lilac). Ceanothus species account for some of the most treasured native shrubs. Those suitable as groundcovers range from ground huggers to low, mounding forms with glossy, bright green leaves. Several cultivars of C. griseus horizontalis are among the most useful. 'Yankee Point' is one of the best-looking and adaptable but may need pruning to keep it under 3 ft. high; ‘Carmel Creeper’ is similar but not quite as cold-tolerant; 'Diamond Heights,' lime green and variegated, is the lowest grower and most shade tolerant. C. gloriosus ‘Point Reyes’ stays under 1 ft. tall and is the most drought-tolerant. Many bees, butterflies, and moths are attracted to the lavender flowers in spring; birds eat seeds and insects.
Iva hayesiana (poverty weed). Low-spreading and evergreen, poverty weed adapts to nearly any soil in sun or part shade and quickly spreads its narrow, fleshy, aromatic leaves on thin, arching branches. Year-round, deer-proof, green foliage extends 2-3 ft. high and 4-5 ft. wide, overshadowing tiny yellow flowers. Native to seasonal wet areas, poverty weed accepts both moisture and drought. Recommended for covering accessible slopes and preventing erosion. Annual winter pruning maintains density; occasional watering leads to tidiest appearance.
Mahonia repens [Berberis aquifolium var. repens] (creeping Oregon grape). This low evergreen is one of the most resilient and deer-proof groundcovers due to its tough, leathery, holly-like foliage. It slowly creeps by underground runners (rhizomes) to form colonies of single stems from 6 in. to 2 ft. high; periodic trimming keeps it low. Yellow flowers provide nectar and blue berries, which rarely appear in shaded sites, attract birds. In sun, supplemental water must be provided.
Ribes viburnifolium (evergreen currant or Catalina perfume). Native to Southern California island and coastal areas, this low-growing, evergreen Ribes is an excellent choice for areas of dry, partial-to-full shade under trees; some moisture is tolerated where there is excellent drainage. Deep green, glossy, leathery leaves clothe reddish stems that may trail along the ground rooting as they grow, or they may arch higher to 2-5 ft. as they spread twice as wide. Tall plants benefit from annual trimming. Reddish pink flowers in late winter and early spring produce tiny red berries; birds seek nectar and fruit; bees, butterflies, and moths are also hosted.
Shade & Moisture Lovers
Achlys triphylla (deer’s foot, vanilla leaf, or sweet-after-death). The unusual common names of this perennial derive from its scent and from an imprint under the scalloped, fan-shaped, tripart leaves. Foliage rises from creeping rhizomes on 6-8 in. long stems as do taller, wiry stalks topped with very narrow spikes of fluffy, white, petal-less flowers that attract butterflies and moths. Native to damp areas of coastal forests where it forms carpets of semi-evergreen foliage, Achlys can be drought-tolerant but benefits from supplemental irrigation in summer.
Asarum caudatum (wild ginger). This western Sonoma County native inhabits moist sites mostly under stands of conifers near the coast. Deep green, heart-shaped foliage forms a lush, glossy, deer-resistant carpet that is fairly drought-tolerant. When stressed from excessive heat or lack of rain, plants will rejuvenate easily with supplemental water. Brownish purple blossoms rarely reach above foliage in late winter to spring. Colonies form as underground stems spread, albeit slowly.
Oxalis oregana (redwood sorrel). Sorrel is an associate of Sonoma County redwood and Douglas fir forests where it covers the ground with 3-petaled, 6-in. foliage resembling clover. Leaves react to high heat, sun, drought, and rain by folding. In severe conditions, leaves may drop. Home gardeners value sorrel as one of the few species able to compete with shallow-roots of redwoods. It will also thrive in other shaded areas where its spread may need monitoring. White-to purple flowers in spring attract moths and butterflies.
Satureja [Clinopodium] douglasii (yerba buena). The common name is Spanish for “good herb,” mostly from its use as a minty tea made from small, scalloped leaves filling long stems that trail over the ground, rooting as they go in nearly any type of soil. The deer-resistant delicate foliage mass rarely reaches more than a few inches high even in full shade under trees. It is frequently found in wooded areas of Sonoma County not far from the coast where it spreads up to 6 ft. Best looking with excellent drainage and low, summer water unless frequent fog keeps it somewhat moist. Small white-to-purple flowers are seen in summer.
Symphoricarpos mollis (creeping snowberry). Favored for planting on slopes in full sun, shade, or part shade—even under oaks—this groundcover roots as it rapidly spreads thin, woody branches, staying about 12 in. high as it goes. Very small, pinkish white flowers are carried under small, soft green foliage and attract hummingbirds, bees, moths, and butterflies. After leaves fall in winter, clusters of small, white berries feed birds. Native in shaded chaparral and forests in Sonoma County, creeping snowberry can be completely drought-tolerant.
Best for Flowers
Aster chilensis ‘Point Saint George’ (coast aster). See description above under Walk-on Groundcovers.
Grindelia stricta var. platyphylla (spreading gum plant). A Sonoma County coastal perennial, this variety of Grindelia is filled with yellow, sunflower-like daisies for many weeks in summer. Its common name characterizes the gummy covering over unopened flower buds that discourages pests. Plants root as they spread in sun or light shade, ranging from 12-18 in. tall, except the more prostrate cultivar, ‘Mendocino.’ Plant in nearly any soil with excellent drainage and provide little to moderate water. Butterflies and moths are attracted to the nectar.
Lessingia filaginifolia ‘Silver Carpet’ (silver carpet California aster). This named cultivar is the best performing plant in the genus, as long as it is given excellent drainage and little or no water once established. Its mat-like habit is suitable for planting in small areas or on a slope or hillside in rocky soil in full sun to part shade. In summer, lavender, daisy-like flowers with yellow centers stand above a 1-6-in. high carpet of wooly, silvery foliage that vigorously creeps 4-8 ft. wide. Along with birds and bees, butterflies are attracted for nectar and larval food.
Lonicera hispidula var. vacillans (hairy honeysuckle). Like most other honeysuckles, this fast-growing, Sonoma County native naturally spreads its winding stems either over the ground or climbs through shrubs; but, unlike many others, it is easier to manage in gardens with its shorter, 6-ft. spread. In spring and summer, clusters of pink, tubular flowers provide nectar for insects and hummingbirds; other birds devour shiny, red berries, bitter to humans. Hairy honeysuckle tolerates nearly any soil and drought, although occasional, deep summer irrigation is best. Deciduous in winter, this somewhat loose creeper is best used in limited or confined areas.
Lupinus albifrons var. collinus (prostrate lupine). Unlike most other lupines, this variety spreads soft, blue-gray, evergreen leaves in a low, woody-based mat 1-2 ft. wide. Native to foothills and coastal mountains in full sun to part shade, this lupine tolerates poor soil and some supplemental irrigation but requires excellent drainage. It makes a beautiful, small-scale cover in rocky areas where spires of bluish purple flowers on 6-in. stems stand out in contrast to pale foliage in spring. Pea-like flowers attract numerous bees, birds, butterflies, and moths.
Phyla [Lippia] nodiflora (lippia or frog fruit). See description above under Walk-on Groundcovers.
Salvia spp. (sage). Nearly any native sage can be planted in masses to achieve a groundcover effect, but the lowest growers—1-2 ft. high—are ‘Bees’ Bliss,’ S. leucophylla ‘Point Sal,’ S. spathacea (hummingbird sage), and S. sonomaensis ‘Mrs. Beard,’ a hybrid of S. sonomaensis and S. mellifera. Other favorites are various cultivars of S. clevelandii. All flower in shades of blue and purple in spring and have nectar and seeds that attract birds, moths, butterflies, and pollinators. These sages are amenable to nearly any fast-draining soil, are mostly fast- growing and drought-resistant, but benefit from occasional summer water. ‘Mrs. Beard’ resents accumulated moisture and crowding and is best for small areas.