Romneya couleri

The huge white and yellow flowers of the California native Romneya coulteri (Matilija Poppy)

Growing native plants may be the latest trend in fashionable gardening, but there are there are many other reasons to go native like easy maintenance, attracting birds and butterflies and, well, just plain beauty. Both garden addicts and low-maintenance enthusiasts can enjoy the benefits of native gardening. There is a remarkable diversity in native plants, enough to suit most tastes and styles. With careful designing, you can use these plants to create the feel of tropical, Mediterranean, English, or anything from wild to formal gardens. Native plants come in all sizes and colors. Not all plants are easy to locate. Fortunately, local nurseries are becoming savvier and stocking more of them all the time. Even the big box stores are beginning to offer more California native plants. Mail order catalogs can supplement availability, and there are specialist sellers, like The Theodore Payne Institute in Sun Valley (Los Angeles), Tree of Life Nursery in San Juan Capistrano and Greenbelt Growers in Riverside that offer impressive selections. It’s getting easier than ever to go native!

Not all California native plants are appropriate to all parts of Southern California. The term ‘native’ usually means they are indigenous to California. Of course, you can’t expect a plant that thrives by the coast in southern San Diego or Northern California to do particularly well inland, for example, without arranging very special provisions. There are plenty of frost free areas in California that yield up plants too delicate for our higher elevations. Many others grow stream-side natives that will need shade and an impractical amount of water to grow in hot, dry areas. But there is still quite an impressive assortment of natives that do well in the various areas of Southern California. And don’t forget to use native annuals, too.

Buying local-adapted plants means that you will have to fuss very little with them. In fact, if you give them too plush a home, they are likely to grow too fast, expend all their energy and die early. You do not want to amend your soil – a nice way to save on your landscape budget – since these plants evolved in fast-draining low-organic soil. You do want to water them like common garden plants for the first year or so until they become established. Once they settle in and create a full root system, they will look happier with just an occasional watering. But most will be able to go the whole, dry summer without supplement if necessary.

There are bulbs, ground covers, trees, shrubs, annuals and perennials – allCalifornia natives. Some of the bulbs, like the Mariposa Lily (Chalochortus) and the Blue Dicks (Dichelostemma) are available in bulb catalogs. Savvy horticulturists are breeding versions of our natives that are prettier and bloom longer than the originals yet retain their hardiness and adaptability. Two ground cover salvias, ‘Terra Secca’ and ‘Bees Bliss’ are great examples. Sometimes you can find one family that comes in all sizes. Try out the manzanita (Arctostaphylos) for a wide range of heights. You can find neat ground-cover-like low spreaders like Arctostaphylos ‘Point Reyes’, shrubs like A.‘Vandenberg’ or small trees like A.‘Dr. Hurd’. And if you want a choice of color, just try a Penstemon. Penstemons come in just about any color you could desire. They are very colorful and look as showy as any hybridized garden flower. (In fact, there are many hybrid varieties of Penstemon now being offered as decorative perennials in retail markets.) There are dwarf varieties and tall growers. And they’re tough! (…Although the hybrids are not as resilient as the true native types.)

There are a number of lovely oaks that grow from shrub size to stately magnificence. Some are evergreen, others deciduous. Elderberry, Buckeye and Ironwood are smaller trees. Jojoba trees are native trees (from north of the Mojave) that offer a delicious fruit. There are also all kinds of colorful ornamental grasses. The Muhlenbergia family of grasses offers the very drought-tolerant M. rigens or ‘deer grass’. In short, there is no shortage of planting material available in the form of California natives.

Be aware that most native plants take their dormant snooze in the summer. The majority of decorative garden plants come from climates where winters are the harshest season and usually go dormant in that season. Since our winters are comparatively mild and our summers are more inhospitable with their lack of water and scorching heat, local natives usually take a summer break from growth. As a result, many of these plants, even the evergreens, take on a dreary appearance when resting. You might want to mix in some more distant chaparral-like plants from Texas, Arizona — or even Chile or Australia — as well as the more familiar Mediterranean adaptees. By mixing in plants that bloom in the summer or keep a more bright green leaf, you can cheer up native plantings during their most dull, dormant, summer period.  And you can go native with your landscaping while still having a perfectly beautiful garden!