Native Plants in Landscape Management

Landscaping using native plants is the newest trend to sweep through California. However, this look isn’t new at all. Native plants have been evolving and adapting over the last couple million years and are perfectly suited for California’s climate. Using these plants creates a solution for green living and ecological sustainability.

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Photo above: Plein air is a style of painting that encourages the artist to go out into nature to paint while experiencing the surrounding landscape. California’s diverse landscape full of native plants provides color and inspiration for artists like Jesse Powell. Artist: Jesse Powell


Many Californians have converted to native landscapes to conserve water, reduce maintenance inputs, and save money. As with most new trends, rumors can emerge regarding the topic that cause disconnect between expectation and reality. Common misconceptions regarding native plants include the definition, aesthetics, and proper maintenance practices.


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Photo above: This Pampas grass is a common sight along the hillsides of Highway 1. This plant may look right at home along the bluffs but it is a highly invasive species from South America that causes havoc along roadsides for Cal Trans. (Credit: Larry Ulrich )


Native plants are defined as all plants that existed in the state prior to the European colonization (September 28th 1542 to be exact). Plants that appear to grow wild and have adapted to the climate are not necessarily considered native.



While some plants do fall into this stereotype (Atriplex spp. I’m looking at you), California has an extremely diverse flora due to its Mediterranean climate. The California Floristic Province, which includes all land west of the Sierra Nevada mountains, as well as part of Baja California and southern Oregon, is an internationally recognized biodiversity hotspot with over 5,200 native plant species. The Cercis occidentalis and Lupinus spp. to name a few, are just a couple examples found there that would enhance a drought tolerant landscape.

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Above Photo: Check out these native wildlands in the Elfin Forest, Los Osos California (left) and the Cuesta Grade, San Luis Obispo (right), so much color and diversity. Not a scruffy grey bush in sight!




All plants need water to survive. For these low or drought-tolerant plants to look their best they need water, especially if they are part of a new planting. Once the native plant is established the plant can survive with very little water. However, it most likely will not flourish to its full potential.  Adding a touch of irrigation to native landscapes (if the plants chosen can handle supplemental irrigation) can help keep the plants looking full and healthy instead of stressed.


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Above Photo: This is what the Carrizo Plain in Eastern San Luis Obispo county looks like in a typical California spring, very very dry (Picture:

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Above Photo: Taken this spring after an unusually wet winter. Look at those CA natives blooming with just a little bit of rain. This “super bloom” was even visible from space!



Native plants are very different from most ornamental plants in terms of care and maintenance. This misunderstanding is probably the number one reason why consumers dislike using native plants. People spend money on native landscapes that initially look beautiful, but when they are maintained like ornamentals, they suffer. Native plants have specific characteristics that have evolved due to the conditions of California climate. For example, many native plants such as Ceanothus spp. and Arctostaphylos spp. do not tolerate summer irrigation because a typical California summer has little to no rain. Thus, summer irrigation increases the plant’s susceptibility to root and crown rot. The same principal should be applied to fertilizer and pruning. Native plants do not require fertilizer because they evolved in low nutrient soils and some can only be pruned at certain times of the year to avoid disease.

Native landscapes are a wonderful solution for those looking to reduce costs and their environmental impacts. It just takes a little research and understanding to keep native landscapes looking their absolute best. For more information about reducing costs with native or drought tolerant plants, visit


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Above Photo: This beautiful native plant garden is located at the Leaning Pine Arboretum on Cal Poly San Luis Obispo’s campus. Picture by David Fross