Cultivars Of California Native Plants

Some natives belong in the wild.

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.

Western Redbud

Western redbud is a domesticated native.

The thin stems of Western redbud, Cercis occidentalis, that had been bare through winter are now outfitted with an abundance of tiny but almost offensively bright magenta flowers. Rounded or nearly heart shaped leaves will become more prominent as bloom fades. As foliage yellows and falls later in autumn, coffee colored pods that are about two inches long remain until they get dislodged by winter weather. Pods can be very abundant on older or distressed plants, or scarce on young or vigorous plants.

Western redbud is typically grown as a large shrub or a small tree with multiple trunks. Mature trees may stay less than ten feet tall, and do not often get taller than fifteen feet, although they can get more than twice as tall where they need to compete with other trees. Once established, western redbud does not need to be watered, but seems to be happiest if occasionally watered through summer. Seedlings that appear around mature plants should be moved or potted while dormant through winter, and while young, since they will not want to be disturbed once they have dispersed roots.

Natives Are Right At Home

Some native plants should stay wild.

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.

California Native Plants Exemplify Diversity

Redwoods are the grandest native trees.

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.


Buckeye starts to bloom like lilac, or upside down wisteria.

Ohio is the Buckeye State. The Ohio buckeye that is native there must be very special. Perhaps all other trees that are native to Ohio are just not very uninteresting. Whatever the situation, I sort of believe that the Ohio buckeye is more appealing in some regards than the California buckeye that is native here. However, the California buckeye might be more weirdly interesting.

The main reason that California buckeye is not popularly used in landscapes is that it is ‘twice deciduous’. That means exactly what it sounds like. Just like other deciduous trees, it defoliates in response to cooling autumn weather, and refoliates in response to warming spring weather. Unlike other deciduous trees, it repeats the process through the warmest weather of summer.

When summer weather gets too warm and arid, the foliage of California buckeye shrivels and sort of defoliates. Without rain to dislodge the shedding foliage, it can linger and look shabby for quite a while and maybe until it is replaced by secondary foliage that develops as the weather mellows. The secondary foliage does not last long before it is time to defoliate again for autumn!

California buckeye is not often planted into landscapes because it really does look like the living dead through summer. It provides no shade when shade is most desirable. Those that I work with are only here in the landscapes because they grew from self sown seed that sneaked in on its own. Some will be subordinated to more desirable adjacent trees, although there is no rush.

I happen to like California buckeye. Except for the rarely seen red horsechestnut, it is the only species of buckeye that I am familiar with. Bloom is neither colorful nor reliably profuse, but is delightfully fragrant in close proximity. Not many natives are fragrant.

The fragrance is sort of buttery and faintly sugary.

Santa Cruz Island Ironwood

60504A few years ago, it was known as Santa Catalina Island ironwood. However, the rare subspecies native to Santa Catalina Island lacks the distinctively angular foliar lobes of the Santa Cruz Island ironwood, Lyonothamnus floribundus ‘aspleniifolius’. The evergreen compound leaves are about five inches long and four inches wide with three or five narrow leaflets, and look like chicken feet.

Young trees can grow at an impressive rate, but rarely get to thirty feet tall, which is only half as tall as they get in the wild. Most stay rather narrow, and shorter than a two story house. They work nicely in groves, but not as symmetrical groupings. Each tree has a unique personality and form, and some stay smaller than others. The finely shredding bark fades from cinnamon brown to gray.

Six inch wide trusses of tiny white flowers bloom late in spring or early in summer. These circular trusses are flattened, similar to those of toyon but larger. They fade to brown and can hang among the foliage for years. Older trees bloom more than vigorous young trees do. Deteriorating older trees can be cut to the ground and allowed to regenerate with fresh new growth from their stumps.

Some Plants Should Stay Wild

P80804+Native plants should be the most sensible options for local landscapes and home gardens. It seems natural that they would be the most sustainable, since they survive in the wild without watering, soil amendment or fertilizer. Once established in landscapes, they should be satisfied with the moisture they get from annual rainfall. Plants that are not native are considerably more demanding.

However, even native plants are not perfect. Some of the same qualities that help them survive in the wild are not so desirable around the home. To make matters worse, adapting to unnatural landscapes and home gardens can be as difficult for native plants as it would be for many of the common exotic (non-native) plants to adapt to the natural climate and endemic soils without help.

Natives obviously do not need much water. They certainly do not get much in the wild. They are resistant to drought because they disperse their roots so efficiently. The problem with this technique is that it does not work while plants are confined to cans (nursery pots). Once planted, new plants might take a bit of time to disperse their roots enough to survive without supplemental watering.

This might not seem like much of a problem for those who do not mind watering new native plants while they get established. New native plants still use less water than established exotic plants. The difficulty is that too much water can rot roots before they disperse! So, new native plants need to be watered regularly, but also need to not be overwatered! Monitoring them can be a hassle.

It might seem that larger new plants would be more resilient than smaller plants would be, but it is quite the opposite. Smaller plants (such as #1 or 1 gallon) disperse roots more efficiently, so get established sooner than larger plants (such as 5 gallon). Roots contained within small volumes of media (potting soil) are damaged less when planted than roots in larger volumes are. Roots of native plants, although efficient at dispersion, are innately sensitive.P90309+++++

Horridculture – Bad Seed

P80317+California poppies are like no other wildflower. They are so perfectly bright orange, and look almost synthetically uniform in profusion, as if painted onto coastal plains and hillsides. They may be a bit more yellowish in some regions, or a bit deeper orange in others, but they are always bright and strikingly uniform.
Genetic variation is naturally very rare. I can remember hiking with my Pa up to the (lesser known) Portola Monument in the hills behind Montara, and finding a few pale white poppies, and even fewer pale purple poppies. It was like finding four leaf clovers! Genetic variants among California poppies are not quite as rare as four leaf clovers are, but finding a few of both white and purple was really strange. I never found a pink one though.
Nowadays, poppies can bloom in all sorts of shades and hues or orange, yellow, red, pink and soft purple, as well as creamy white. Some bloom with fluffy double flowers. Of course, all this variety is not natural. California poppies were bred to do this.
The potential problem with such breeding is that California poppy is naturally very prolific with seed. Any of these weirdly bred varieties could escape into the wild and interbreed with wild poppies, causing them to be more variable, and interfere with the ecosystem.
The problem is not just with California poppies. Many plants get bred extensively enough to interfere with how they behave in the wild if they happen to escape cultivation.
Fortunately for California poppies, the weird new varieties do not really get very far in the wild. The are not true-to-type, so revert back to their original bright orange in just a few generations, even without outside influence. If pollinators do not recognize their unfamiliar color and form, they are less likely to get pollinated to continue to tamper with the ecology. In fact, wild California poppies still have the advantage in that regard.
This yellow California poppy with an orange center is a second generation seedling, and is already halfway between the original yellow variety, and the wild orange.

The Overlooked Trillium

P90407Other species must be more interesting than what is native here. There are supposedly as many species of Trillium as there are of Yucca; forty-nine. All but ten are native to North America. The others are in eastern Asia. They are desirable and respected perennials to those who are familiar with them. White trillium is the official wildflower of Ohio, as well as the official floral emblem of Ontario. Ours would not likely qualify for such status.

The few around here appear only briefly about this time of year, and bloom with these small purplish burgundy flowers. They are only a few inches high, so are easy to miss. By the time they get noticed they are finished with their bloom. Their foliage lasts only until the weather starts to get warm in late spring or early summer. During their brief season, they somehow manage to store enough resources to repeat the process for many years.

This particular species is supposedly known as ‘giant wakerobin’, or Trillium chloropetalum. It is so diminutive, that I can not help but wonder about those that are not ‘giant’. Others that I see around here have more rusty red or ruddy brown flowers that stay closed most of the time. Western trillium, Trillium ovatum, lives here too; and I may have seen its foliage without distinguishing it from giant wakerobin, but I have never seen it bloom.

The trilliums that are native here live in partial shade out in forests, but away from more aggressive plants. They do not transplant easily, and do not like refined gardens.

Other trilliums in other regions bloom with bigger flowers in white, pink, red, purple, pale yellow or green. They must be more impressive than ours, and should at least be more adaptable to home gardens and landscapes.

Nature For Sale

P90323KGardening is unnatural. Yes; quite unnatural. So is landscaping. It all involves planting exotic plants from all over the World that would not otherwise be here, including many that are too extensively and unnaturally bred and hybridized to survive for long even in the natural ecosystems from which their ancestors were derived.
Unless they grow on their own, even native plants are not natural. Those that are native to the region may not be native to the specific site. Many that are grown in nurseries are unnaturally selected varieties or cultivars. To complicate matters, much of what seems to be natural out in forests and wild lands are invasive naturalized exotics.
The weather above and most of the soil below are natural, but both are commonly enhanced for our gardens. We water our gardens and landscapes as if the weather is insufficient. Soil amendments and fertilizers compensate for what we perceive to be inadequacies of the natural soil. Insects, deer, raccoons and disease are all natural too, but we put quite a bit of effort into excluding them from our gardens.
Bees and other pollinators are all the rage now, even though many are not native or natural here. We provide them with weird and confusing new cultivars of flowers that likely produce nutritionally deficient pollen, and that distract them from naturally native plants that rely on them for pollination. It all gets so confusing!
These potted annuals and flowering perennials at the supermarket are pretty and might provide the illusion of bringing a little bit of nature closer to the home. Yet, there is nothing natural about them. They are all unnaturally bred and hybridized from unnaturally exotic plants, and were provided with synthetic fertilizers and artificial irrigation, while they were grown in synthetic medium, contained withing synthetic pots.