Tom Karwin, on gardening | New rain helps native California plants take root – Santa Cruz Sentinel


Take care of your garden

Plants native to California have often been featured in this column for several reasons. Because we are now in the season when the rains help the newly established plants to form roots, a glimpse of these plants is opportune for those planning to develop their gardens.

California gardeners have these top reasons for growing plants native to California:

They are easy to grow because they are perfectly adapted to the soil, climate and physical environment of their specific territory; they maintain symbiotic relationships with other plants and animals native to the same region, in particular the insects on which birds depend; they are a wide variety of attractive additions to the landscape.

We have easy access to exotic (i.e. non-native) plants and may enjoy growing varieties that have adapted to climates similar to our own gardens. These are plants native to the so-called Mediterranean climates of the world, also called dry summer climates. Combining native and exotic plants in your landscape can be successful and satisfying.

Still, naturalists and horticulturalists often recommend including a substantial percentage of native plants in your garden, as they are home to specific insects that provide nutrition to many of the birds we love.

The ideal mix of natives and exotics depends on several factors, including the individual preferences of the gardener. A landscape with all native plants would clearly be fully compatible with the network of life in your garden, while a 50-50 mix could support insects that have evolved to depend on native plants. A strong advocate of symbiosis in the garden, entomologist Doug Tallamy recommends including at least 70% native plants.

Some gardeners might view native California plants as wild-looking and less attractive than other possibilities, but they might think of unmaintained plants in their natural habitats, rather than well-managed garden specimens. Many plants require seasonal pruning or division to achieve their best appearance.

Here are some samples of native California plants that will enhance my garden and require minimal maintenance.

The Western Spice Bush (Calycanthus occidentalis) is a deciduous shrub that can grow in sun or partial shade up to 10 feet tall and wide, with burgundy red flowers that have a scent like red wine.

The bush monkey flower (Mimulus aurantiacus), along with a Pacific Coast iris flower ‘Canyon Snow’, grows 5 feet tall and wide, with bright orange flowers that attract bees and hummingbirds. Some cultivars have flowers that vary in color from white to red.

Pacific Coast Iris are available in a wide variety of colors, the result of the work of many hybridizers. This selection has a pleasant combination of purple and white tones, with streaks of yellow.

Lewis’s Mock-Orange (Philadelpus lewisii), named after explorer Meriwether Lewis of the Lewis and Clark Expedition of 1860, is a deciduous shrub with a generous display of white flowers, which produce a “heavy and sweet fragrance like orange blossom with a hint of pineapple. “It is a fast-growing plant, reaching 10 feet tall and wide in full sun or partial shade. Annual maintenance involves cutting about a third of its rods to the ground, to constrain its shape.

Lemonade berry (Rhus integrifolia) is an evergreen shrub that grows low and wide in the coastal area (3 feet high, 30 feet wide); pruning can control its size. Its dark red fruits with a tangy taste are an important food source for birds and small mammals.

The pink-flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum glutinosum) blooms from February to April, feeding hummingbirds and bees, and later produces blackberries that are delightful to birds. In the spring, a hard pruning will contain its waist, which could grow up to 12 feet tall and wide in shade. Other cultivars include the White Icicle (R. s. ‘Ubric’) and the red flowering Chaparral Currant (R. ‘Barrie Coate’).

The fried egg poppy or Matilija poppy (Romneya coulteri) grows best in fast rainy soil, even sandy soil and in a sunny location. It will grow to 6 feet tall and propagate vigorously through rhizomes (which could be removed regularly.) In spring and summer, it offers a beautiful display of white “papier mache” flowers with yellow centers.

Improve your gardening knowledge

Doug Tallamy’s books provide his persuasive take on the relationship between native plants and wildlife. Look for these titles in your local library or bookstore, or online: “Bringing Nature Home”, “Nature’s Best Hope”, “The Ecological Gardener” and “The Nature of Oaks”. Tallamy has also given public talks available on (search for his name).

Many books on native California plants are available. A search on for “California Plants” will generate a list of about 75 books to purchase or find in your local library. Some books focus on plants in Southern California or interior areas of the state and would not be very helpful for gardeners in the Monterey Bay area.

Online resources are plentiful. The main website gardeners can visit is the California Native Plant Society’s Calscape, a well-organized database of nearly 8,000 plants ( You can search for this resource by postal code, botanical name, common name, or landscaping category.

Once you’ve identified a plant of current interest, a Google search by botanical name will yield additional descriptions and growing tips, as well as mail-order sources for the plant.

Most garden centers include a section of native California plants. Yerba Buena Nursery, California’s oldest native plant retail nursery business, currently located in Half Moon Bay, is well worth a day trip to the coast or a virtual tour at

La Pilitas Nursery, specializing in native California plants, located in Southern California, offers mail order plants and excellent online information resources. Visit them at

Enrich your gardening days

Native California plants belong to your garden for the sustenance of birds, bees, and other insects, as well as for the enjoyment and satisfaction of the gardener.

Enjoy your garden!

Tom Karwin is the past president of the Friends of the UC Santa Cruz Arboretum, the Monterey Bay Area Cactus & Succulent Society, and the Monterey Bay Iris Society, and UC Lifetime Master Gardener (certified 1999- 2009). He is now a board member and garden coach for the Santa Cruz Hostel Society. To view photos of his garden daily, To find an archive of previous gardening columns, visit Contact him with comments or questions at


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