Native plants have become garden staples as California gardeners have realized how beautiful and resilient they can be. Nurseries are now awash with different varieties, but which ones are really worthy of a spot in your garden? Friend+Sweet investigates one of the most important plant categories: native flowering shrubs.
There really is no other place to start than with the California Lilacs, or Ceanothus. Every year in late winter through spring they cover themselves in fuzzy blue pompoms that make the rest of the gardening world EXTREMELY jealous. The trick with this family, as with many native plants, is to water it well for the first two years. This gets the roots happily established and gives the growth some momentum. Then ease off the supplemental watering–maybe just an occasional deep soak the third year. After that, most ceanothus will be pretty happy going it alone, and giving them water will actually shorten their lifespan.
There are dozens of species and cultivars that you can buy, and so many of them are great, but my favorites have lighter- even sky-blue flowers in big fuzzy clusters. Incidentally, these tend to be hybrids of our locally native Ceanothus thyrsiflorus, like C. ‘Skylark’, pictured here. They also tend to have lighter-green, slightly larger leaves that are a little more lush-looking than some other California lilacs.
Many shrubs have been called Mock Orange, but most of them are in the genus Philadelphus, and we have a native species of this sweet-smelling nose-stunner, P. lewisii. A horticultural selection called Goose Creek has double the petals.
Mock Orange grows taller than wide, which makes it great for an informal hedge or the back of the garden where it won’t crowd the plants in front of it too much. Those placements also suit this plant because the form isn’t particularly architectural or sculptural, so when it’s not flowering you’re happy to have it blend into the background. It likes some sun but part shade is fine. And it likes occasional irrigation, but is pretty tough once established. Check out these blossoms:
The last selection for this post is a dramatic plant that desert Southwest gardeners know well but isn’t seen in many coastal landscapes. It has many names but most know it as Ocotillo (Oh-coh-tea-yo). It grows a cluster of long, arching, mostly un-branched stems that bear thousands of thorns. During wet seasons, little green leaves appear between the thorns; as the ground dries, the leaves drop off. It’s definitely a super-tough survivor, but wants good drainage, so mound up and amend the ways of your rich Bay Area topsoil.
The reason this plant (which is dramatic at any time of year) makes the cut is the spectacular flowers, which appear in winter. The tips of each branch light up in fiery red flowers that look kind of like colorful birds (or you can decide what you think they resemble). This plant calls for careful placement, and needs some space, but used properly it’s a show-stopper. See for yourself: