On the West Coast between British Columbia and Mexico, the largest native fern might be the giant chain fern, Woodwardia fimbriata. In sheltered and damp coastal forests, it can get taller than six feet, although it is typically about three feet tall and wide in home gardens. The lightly colored and almost yellowish green fronds generally stand upright and flare outward from the center. The foliage is doubly lobed and lacy, but quite substantial. The thick rhizomes spread rather slowly. Established plants are remarkably resilient. They can tolerate almost full sun exposure if watered enough. Those in partial shade can tolerate lapses of watering. However, they do not recover too readily from relocation or division.
Chaparral climates are not easy without irrigation. The long summers are warm and arid. California buckeye, Aesculus californica, knows what to do if it can not stay hydrated out in the wild. It simply defoliates. Yes, it goes bare right in the middle of summer. If it does it early enough, it refoliates after rain resumes in autumn, only to defoliate again for winter.
This ‘twice deciduous’ characteristic is likely why California buckeye is not more popular for unirrigated landscapes of other natives. Shade is an asset through warm summers. In coastal, riparian or irrigated landscapes, the original spring foliage lasts through summer to defoliate in autumn, like that of most other deciduous plants. It may get shabby though.
Nonetheless, California buckeye is a delightful small tree, typically with a broad and low canopy suspended by a sculptural branch structure. Not many get more than twenty feet tall, although some get twice as tall. Bark is strikingly pallid gray. The elegant leaves are palmately compound. Six inch long trusses of tiny white flowers are sweetly fragrant in spring.
Even after so many pretty shades of yellow, red, pink and and white have been been developed, the natural orange of the native California poppy, Eschscholzia californica, is still the best. That is probably why they all eventually revert to orange after reseeding. Although native, they do not reseed everywhere, and actually seem to be more reliable in unrefined and unamended areas of the garden than in rich soil with generous irrigation. However, a bit of watering can prolong sporadic bloom until autumn. Bloom otherwise ends before warm summer weather.
California poppy is grown as an annual because the perennial plants get tired rather quickly. They fortunately self sow prolifically. Flowers are typically about two inches wide, with four petals. The intricately lobed leaves are slightly bluish. Foliage is not much more than half a foot deep.
Its narrow native range stays near to the North and Central Coast of California, including Carmel. However, its nomenclature is all over the map. The genus is Ceanothus. After that, the species name might be any combination of thyrsiflorus, griseus or horizontalis, or omitted. ‘Carmel Creeper’ is its cultivar name, with or without the species designation.
It is certainly no horror movie starring Clint Eastwood. Carmel Creeper is one of the more practical ceanothus. It spreads out laterally as a deep and densely foliated groundcover. With room to sprawl, it can stay less than three feet tall. Shiny evergreen foliage remains after the fuzzy denim blue bloom of early spring. Individual leaves are distinctly rounded.
Like all native ceanothus, or California lilac, California creeper ceanothus does not want much water once established. It dislikes major pruning too, so prefers areas where it can sprawl freely. Partial shade inhibits bloom and foliar density. Birds enjoy the cover. Bees enjoy the bloom. Unfortunately, even happy plants may not live longer than fifteen years.
Native plants are obviously happy with local climates and soils. Otherwise, they would not be native. They had been living here long before the first landscapes. They survived without irrigation, fertilizer or any maintenance. Regional varieties adapted to regional environmental conditions. Some of such varieties became cultivars that are now familiar.
A variety is, more or less, a naturally occurring variant. Unnatural selection and breeding produced some varieties. Generally, varieties are genetically stable enough to replicate for at least a few generations. A cultivar is a cultivated variety. It is unable to replicate by natural processes, so propagates by cloning. All clones are genetically identical copies.
Most cultivars grow from cuttings. Some cultivars of exotic (nonnative) plants are grafts. (Not many natives are conducive to grafting.) Regardless of technique, propagation of all cultivars is vegetative (without seed). Seed of some cultivars can produce plants that are similar to the parents, but not indistinguishable. Some will likely be completely different.
Honestly, most native plants are not as appealing in home gardens as their cultivars are. Some are desert or chaparral plants, which can get scraggly through summer. Some are sparsely foliated with irregular branch structure. Like the majority of exotic plants, several native plants benefited from some degree of refinement. It is a fair aesthetic compromise.
This is partly why landscapes of native plants look nothing like forests or unlandscaped areas. The dense and strictly conical form of ‘Soquel’ redwood is very different from that of wild trees. ‘Carmel Creeper’ ceanothus is greener and more densely foliated than wild counterparts. ‘Ken Taylor’ flannel bush is likewise unnaturally dense, low and mounding.
The other primary reason that landscapes of native plants are so different from the wild is that they typically include species from other regions. Some of the penstemons that are popular as native plants throughout California are actually only native to the Siskiyous. Limiting landscapes to true regional natives would produce very different results.
Long before people came here and imported exotic (non-native) plants from all over the world, native plants had been perfectly happy without any pruning, watering or fertilizing. They had always been perfectly happy with local soils, local climates and even occasional wildfires. Many are still happier in the wild than in seemingly more comfortable refined gardens and landscapes.
It really makes sense though. Most exotic plants need to be watered because they are from climates that naturally get more rain. Some want to be fertilized because they are from regions with different soil types. Some plants prefer cooler winters. Others want more humidity. They crave what they would get in their respective native homelands.
However, plants that are native to California are not necessarily native to here. California is a big place with all sorts of climates and soils. For example, the desert fan palm that is native to warm and dry Palm Springs would not be happy in cool and foggy San Francisco. Big leaf maple that likes the cool winters of the Siskiyous does not like the mild winters near the coast of Los Angeles. The best natives are those that are native to a particular region, or similar region.
Also, there are a few native plants that are not so easy to accommodate in every home garden. Both the giant sequoia, which is the biggest tree in the world, and the coastal redwood, which is the tallest trees in the world, are native to California. Even if the local climate is a good fit, the space available may not be.
One of the most difficult problems for so many natives though, is that they are sensitive to the regular watering that most exotic plants require. The regular watering that lawn needs just to survive is enough to rot the roots of plants that do not expect any water between spring and autumn.
Santa Barbara daisy, penstemon and various salvias are some of the favorite native perennials. Wax myrtle and the various ceanothus and manzanitas are interesting shrubbery. Western redbud and toyon can be big shrubs or small trees. California sycamore and various oaks are big trees for big spaces.
There are more than a hundred specie of Manzanita, Arctostaphylos spp., that range in size and form from creeping ground covers to small trees that can get almost twenty feet tall. (They are more commonly known by their cultivar names than by their specie names.) Arctostaphylos ‘Emerald Carpet’ is as the name implies a nice low groundcover for dry slopes. Arctostaphylos ‘Doctor Hurd’ is a shrubby small tree that is often pruned to expose strikingly sculptural trunks that are as smooth and rich brown as a chestnut.
Abundant trusses of tiny ‘urn’ shaped flowers bloom about now. Almost all are pale white. A few are pale pink. The subsequent red berries typically get eaten by birds before anyone else sees them. The evergreen foliage is quite dense. Individual leaves are rather small and disproportionately thick.
Manzanita should be planted while small, because larger plants are more susceptible to rot. New plants want to be watered to prevent desiccation until they disperse their roots. If planted in autumn, they get enough water from rain through winter (typically), so that they only want occasional watering through the following spring and summer. Once established, they do not want much water at all, and can be damaged by fertilizer. The happiest plants are satisfied with what they get from rain after they get established.
There was nothing common or soft about Rush, the innovative hard rock band of the seventies and eighties. Juncus effusus is only known as soft rush because the spiky and sharply pointed ‘foliage’ appears to be stiff, but is actually quite soft. It is common because in has such a vast natural range, including North America, Europe, Asia, Africa and Australia. It does not like hard rock, but instead prefers rich and moist soil, and will even be happy in soil that is too damp for other plants. Common rush tolerates a bit of shade but prefers good exposure. Because winters are too mild to freeze it back to the ground naturally, overgrown or discolored common rush can be cut down and then left to regenerate as winter ends.
The distinctive ‘foliage’ is not actually foliage. The minute leaves are unimpressive brown scales that do not do much at the base of each of the many upright green stems that function like foliage. The top six inches or so of each of these spike like stems is actually a bract that extends above the dangling but uninteresting tan or dingy yellow flowers that hang to the side. Collectively, the stems and bracts form distinctively sculptural clumps that radiate upward and outward. Healthy clumps are not much more than three feet high and wide.
Before the 49ers of the Gold Rush discovered that the seeds of the native coffeeberry, Rhamnus californica (or Frangula californica), make a nice uncaffeinated coffee substitute, the native American Indians were eating the fruit and using the leaves and bark herbally. The black berries supposedly make good jelly, but do not last long, and are too bitter while still red or greenish.
Before the birds get them, the quarter inch wide berries are somewhat colorful, but are not very abundant. The small clusters of tiny greenish yellow flower that bloom in spring are not much to look at either. The army green evergreen foliage is the main appeal. New stems are somewhat ruddy. Old stems and main trunks have smooth gray bark.
Large coffeeberry plants in the wild can get more than ten feet tall, with relatively open branch structure. Garden varieties stay smaller, with compact branch structure. ‘Eve Case’, which is probably the most popular variety, stays less than six feet tall, and is densely foliated. ‘Mound San Bruno’ is even more compact, with smaller leaves. ‘Seaview’ is a groundcover.
California native plants are logical options for the gardens and landscapes of California. It is only natural. They are already happy with the climates and soils here. They do not need to adapt quite as much as plants from other regions and climates do. After all, they lived here long before anyone else was here to water and maintain them.
Unfortunately, it is not that easy. California is a very diverse place. There are more climates here than there are within many other states combined, over a much larger area. Plants that are native to the Mojave Desert would not be happy in a rainforest of the Siskiyou Mountains. Coastal plants would be no happier high in the Sierra Nevada.
Within reason, California native plants for landscapes and home gardens should be either locally native, or native to similar climates. Plants from very different climates within California are about as exotic as plants from other continents. Just like foreign exotic plants, they may require special accommodation, such as irrigation, to survive here.
All plants need irrigation when first installed. Irrigation can be slightly complicated for plants that are native to climates with long and dry summers. They certainly need irrigation until they disperse their roots. However, a bit too much can rot their roots. California native plants can be sensitive like that. After all, they do not expect to be moist through summer.
Then, once established, many California native plants do not want frequent irrigation. Many want none at all. Chaparral plants like oak, manzanita, toyon, ceanothus and coyote brush tend to rot with too much watering. Plants that are native to riparian or coastal regions, like redwood, bigleaf maple, willow, cottonwood, elderberry and ferns, tolerate more irrigation.
Most California native plants that are from chaparral or desert climates do not perform well within the confinement of pots or planters. They prefer to disperse roots very extensively and directly into the soil, just like they do in the wild. Once established, they do not transplant easily.