Growing up in California has been great in many ways, including horticulturally, for me.  Traveling the state, you’ll see wonderful desert and tropical areas, our area’s Mediterranean climate, and mountainous beauties like Yosemite and snowcapped Mount Shasta.   It’s truly amazing how the climate changes along with plant life as you drive north and southbound on Highway 101 or Interstate-5.  

Growing up in the nursery business, I’ve seen the use of various California native plants come and go.  The following is my personal research that’s been gathered from many years of nursery experience and learning. This should be helpful and save you money at the nursery if you will be planting a drought-tolerant garden.

Yes, I was born in San Diego and am a California native, but I have very few native shrubs in my garden.   I’ve sold thousands of manzanita, ceanothus, toyon, matilija poppy, and others touted as the greatest landscape plants. One would think that we should plant natives of the state, since they grow here right?  It seems like sound thinking, but here is the reason to avoid a strict native garden.   

California native shrubs are grown in precise locations that are natural, and with no human intervention.  Many depend on specific microorganisms to their location to thrive.

And as a group in general, California native shrubs are touchy to many cultural conditions.   They tend to be sensitive to watering trends, soil and transplanting.   In the native California environment, the only water those plants receive is what Mother Nature provides.  So unfortunately that’s the problem in a nutshell.  

Many of the California natives are not as adaptable as many plants from other parts of the world.  And as a designer, if someone wants a drought-tolerant garden design, I would pull from the wonder palette of beautifully hardy water conserving plants from around the world.

As an example, there are 17 species of Salvia (sage) native to California.  Yet, worldwide there are about 1,000, with thousands of named cultivars that have been genetically cultivated.  With a comparison between the California varieties to those native elsewhere, one would rarely plant the California natives for lack of color, comparatively.   And that’s another point we come to.  Perennials should be a minor part of the drought-tolerant garden.  If the idea is to save water over the long haul, then you’ll want proven plants that will live long and root deep – providing a garden that can save water if needed.  Perennials are often short term plants that will need reestablishment and subsequently require more water in doing so.

I’ve found California natives do not thrive on drip systems, and that’s usually what kills them swiftly.  The drip emitter is placed near the stem to establish the plant at planting time.   Many of the California natives are extremely sensitive to crown-rot fungi, especially the manzanita and ceanothus.   So if you will be planting these, I would suggest making sure the emitter does not deposit water directly onto the crown or the stem of the plant. After a year of watering, move the emitter further away from the center of the plant.  Camellias and azaleas are also subject to crown rot, but many natives are tenfold more sensitive.

So in closing, we don’t need to think “California native” when heading into a time of drought.  The reality and better plan to save water is to choose from water saving plants from around the world.  With so many new varieties and colors of barberries, dwarf pines, weeping blue cedars and spruce, clumping  fargesia bamboos, palms, macrozamias, boxwoods, hawthorns, grasses, purple smoke bush, crepe myrtles, cacti and succulents, your drought garden awaits.  

One last thought: when looking for a potential plant for the garden with flowers, remember that flowers are transient – many only lasting a few weeks.  Better are foliage colors that last an entire season.

Rod Whitlow is an ISA Cert. Arborist, Cert. Nurseryman, Licensed Landscape Contractor and Plant Science Editor to the Sunset Western Garden Book.