Holly Leaf Cherry

Holly leaf cherry fruit looks better than it is. The flavor is good; but there is very little pulp around the big seeds.

Since it is native to coastal chaparral between Monterey and the middle of the Baja California Peninsula, holly leaf cherry, Prunus ilicifolia, is right at home in local gardens of the central and south coasts. Although it can be a nice refined hedge if not shorn too frequently, it is better where it has space to grow wild into a mounding shrub, and can eventually grow into an undemanding informal screen as high and broad as fifteen feet. Width is easier to limit with selective pruning than with shearing. Besides, unshorn plants bloom with clusters of minute white flowers in spring, and produce interesting deep red or purplish red cherries in autumn. Unfortunately, the cherries have very big pits with only minimal sweet pulp. The small glossy leaves have somewhat bristly teeth almost like those of some hollies.

Curve Leaf Yucca

Curve leaf yucca resembles other yuccas.

Several of the fifty or so species of Yucca are difficult to distinguish from similar species. Some are varieties of species, rather than distinct species. Some are naturally occurring hybrids. Curve leaf yucca, Yucca recurvifolia, is supposedly a naturally occurring variety of mound lily, Yucca gloriosa var. recurvifolia (or tristis). Alternatively, it could be a hybrid.

As if that is not confusing enough, its physical characteristics are variable. Foliar color is typically grayish, but might be simple olive drab like that of many other species of Yucca. Its typically pliable evergreen leaves that curve downward as they mature can be almost as rigid as those of common mound lily. Stout but upright trunks may or may not develop.

Curve leaf yucca is remarkably resilient. Actually, unwanted specimens can be difficult to eradicate. Small bits of rhizome can generate pups for many years after the removal of a primary plant. Occasional watering is appreciated through the warmest summer weather, but may not be necessary. Old colonies can get ten feet tall, and occupy significant area, but quite slowly.

Watering Water Wise Plants

Excessive watering rots drought tolerant yarrow.

Native plants like coast live oak, valley oak, toyon, flannel bush, Western redbud and California lilac (ceanothus) are among the most resilient of plants as the weather gets dry and warm after spring. So are plants from similar climates, like bottlebrush, oleander, rockrose, grevillea, acacia and eucalyptus. They survive dry summers by dispersing their roots deeply into soil that does not get as desiccated as surface soil naturally does (without irrigation).

Ironically, these most resilient plants can also be difficult to work with while they are young. Because they rely on extensive root dispersion for survival, new plants that have not yet dispersed their roots can not survive long without regular watering. They only become tolerant to drought as their roots disperse into deeper soil.

However, because they are adapted to arid conditions, they do not like to be too damp for too long. Roots soon rot in soil that does not drain adequately between watering. They therefore need to be watered frequently, but not too frequently. Yes, that is as confusing as it sounds.

To make it even more confusing, these plants will need less watering as they mature and disperse their roots. Bottlebrush, oleander, contoneaster, hop bush, firethorn, grevillea and juniper can certainly tolerate more water than they really need; but wasting water is contrary to selecting drought tolerant plants to conserve water. Manzanita, coyote brush, rockrose, flannel bush and redbud may actually succumb to rot if watered too much. Even perennials like Pacific coast iris and yarrow can have problems.

Pine, oak, acacia and especially eucalyptus disperse their roots as soon as they can, so do not want to be confined in containers. It is therefore best to plant smaller young specimens than larger ones. #5 (5 gallon) eucalypti get established in the garden more efficiently than larger but more expensive #15 (15 gallon) trees. If #1 trees were available, they would be even better.

Flannel Bush

Abundant golden blooms are really spectacular, but because of irritating foliar fuzz, flannel bush should be enjoyed from a distance.

There is no way to say it delicately. Flannel bush, Fremontodendron californicum, is not easy to work with. It grows rapidly and rampantly with awkward form to about ten feet high and broad, but then starts to deteriorate when only about twelve years old. It can deteriorate even sooner if well irrigated. The fuzz on the foliage and young stems is irritating to the skin, especially during warm weather, so is very uncomfortable to handle. Otherwise, for out of the way spots, flannel bush is a striking native plant with impressively abundant bright golden yellow bloom this time of year. Neglected plants that do not get pruned or watered seem to be happier and more colorful, and can get older and much larger.


Olive trees are compact but gnarly.

For millennia, olive, Olea europaea, dutifully produced oil and edible fruit for civilizations of the Mediterranean region. During the last several centuries, it migrated to do the same in other regions of similar climate throughout the World. At least two centuries ago, it got to California, and became a major agricultural commodity. Now, it lives in home gardens. 

The abundant and oily fruit that justified cultivation of olive trees for thousands of years is ironically a potential nuisance for home gardens. Few people harvest and process them. Olive fruit can stain pavement and attract rodents. Fruitless or mostly fruitless cultivars of olive, and dwarf cultivars, have been increasingly popular for only the past few decades.

Olive trees are not big, but slowly develop grandly sculptural trunks. Some might be little more than twenty feet tall when mature. Few get more than forty feet tall. Most have a few leaning trunks, which become furrowed and distended with age. The narrow and grayish evergreen leaves are about two or three inches long. Olive fruits are about an inch wide.

Mound Lily

Mound lily cultivars are generally variegated.

A few of the fifty or so species of Yucca go by the names of Spanish bayonet or Spanish dagger. Both common names apply to Yucca gloriosa. However, only this single species is also the mound lily. Most other Spanish bayonet and Spanish dagger are from deserts or chaparrals. Mound lily is from southeastern North America, so likes periodic watering.

If that is not confusing enough, the curved leaf yucca, which had been Yucca recurvifolia, is now Yucca gloriosa var.(iety) tristis. It has distinctly pliable leaves with a matte surface texture, and is rarely variegated. Mound lily has stiffer and smoother leaves that are more likely to be variegated. It had been rare, but is becoming one of the more popular yuccas. 

Although it does not grow fast, and takes many years to form stout trunks, mound lily can eventually get taller than six feet. Taller floral panicles rise above the densely evergreen foliage. The small and pendulous flowers are pale white, perhaps blushed with brownish purple and pink. The leaves are about a foot or two long and maybe three inches wide, with very sharp terminal spines.

Saint John’s Wort

Saint John’s wort blooms somewhat late.

Although it shares the same common name, Hypericum beanii is not the same sprawling Saint John’s wort that is now so aggressively naturalized within some local ecosystems. It is shrubbier and much more docile. Mature specimens get no more than three feet high and wide. It should be evergreen here, but can get sparse through cooler winter weather.

Bloom begins in the middle of summer and continues at least to early autumn. Cheerfully bright yellow flowers are two inches wide, with five rounded petals around fuzzy centers. The light green and oblong leaves are about two inches long. Stems are rather wiry, and can eventually get shabby. Coppicing as winter ends stimulates fresher vigorous growth.

Saint John’s wort prefers sunny and warm exposure. It is otherwise not very demanding. Regular watering enhances bloom. Yet, established plants can survive without watering. Where coppicing (cutting back to the ground) in late winter is not a problem, Saint John’s wort performs well as a low hedge, or unshorn border. Frequent shearing inhibits bloom. Rust is a potentially bothersome fungal disease.

Drought Tolerance Versus Container Gardening

Drought tolerant plants loathe root confinement.

There are probably just as many reasons to not grow plants in containers as there are reasons to justify container gardening. Some potted plants consume less water than they would in the ground, but only because their demand is proportionate to their limited size. They only want more water in the ground because they can grow larger.

The most drought tolerant of plants are actually the least practical for pots or even large containers. They tolerate drought because they efficiently disperse their roots so extensively. Since they can not adequately disperse their roots in pots, they rely on what they can get from a relatively limited volume of soil. However, even if watered generously, many drought tolerant plants simply can not produce enough finely textured roots to absorb enough moisture.

For example, eucalyptus trees want to begin dispersing their roots while very young. If confined, their long and wiry roots simply go around within their limited volume of soil, trying to find a way out. They can develop a few more fibrous roots than they typically would, but probably not enough to compensate for limited root dispersion.

Wild lilac (Ceanothus spp.), flannel bush, manzanita and smoke tree are not only sensitive to confinement, but have difficulty recovering from confinement if put into the ground after their roots have circled too much within a container. Pines and many other conifers are likewise sensitive to confinement, but some types can recover if the binding roots get severed before they go into the ground.

Plants with dense and fibrous roots are more adaptable to containers. Most succulents and common yucca are good choices. Ferns and some grasses also work nicely, but need to be watered rather regularly. Some types of arborvitae and juniper work better than larger coniferous evergreens. Some small bamboos can stay potted, but not larger types.

Annuals, compact perennials and many ground covers that provide color and fill in space around larger plants are naturally adaptable to container gardening, but their need for regular watering can not be denied. There simply is no practical way of combining container gardening and drought tolerance.


Oleanders add color to the commute.

As long as freeways have been getting landscaped, oleanders have been contributing their profuse white, pink and red bloom. Heat, exposure and lack of moisture do not seem to bother them. They have become less common recently only because of new diseases that had never before been problematic. The diseases do not necessarily kill all oleanders everywhere, but are serious problems where the nurseries that grow most oleander are located.

The largest oleanders can get more than fifteen feet tall, and can be pruned up as small trees with multiple trunks. Oleander trees with single trunks almost never stand up straight, and do not want to give up their stakes. Because flower clusters develop at the ends of new growth, frequent exterior pruning or shearing inhibits bloom. Dwarf cultivars that are naturally proportionate to their space will bloom better than larger types that need to be pruned for confinement.

Oleander flowers are about an inch or two wide, with five petals, although some have ruffly ‘double’ flowers. Unfortunately, double flowers tend to hang on as they deteriorate after bloom. Some oleanders are slightly fragrant. The name ‘oleander’ is derived from the similarity of their leaves to those of olive trees (‘Olea‘), although oleander leaves can get three times as long.


Harsh exposure is fine for rockrose.

The few rudimentary rockroses that were available years ago have been bred into too many cultivars to keep up with. Some of the traditional types can get a few feet tall, with delightfully irregular growth, and flowers that are almost three inches wide. Most of the modern types are relatively dense, low and mounding, like a deep ground cover, with smaller but more profuse flowers. Most bloom pink. Some bloom white. After the initial spring bloom phase, a few flowers continue to bloom sporadically through summer. The grayish and aromatic foliage is not as impressive as the bloom. Rockroses want well drained soil and good warm exposure.