What is a California Native Plant?
California native plants grow naturally and have adapted to the state’s warm, dry Mediterranean climate. They account for a quarter of all native plants in North America. With 6,000 kinds of native plants, California is home to more native plant varieties than any other state – or area of comparable size – in the U.S.
Why Use California Native Plants in Your Landscaping?
In the last ten years, it has become increasingly popular to use California native plants in landscaping. And for good reason: California natives require on average about 1/7th of the water as non-natives, are drought tolerant, and do not need added fertilizers or pesticides. They also require less maintenance (although they do need some!) than traditional plants. In addition, they support native pollinators, such as hummingbirds, bees and butterflies. They also provide a habitat that encourages the biodiversity of local wildlife.
If you haven’t updated your landscaping recently, then it likely contains traditional ornamental plants. While ornamental plants are beautiful and can thrive in the San Diego climate, they require more water, fertilizers, and pesticides than California natives. In addition, they struggle in drought conditions and will require more maintenance (and money) to keep them alive and looking healthy.
Recommended California Native Alternatives to Traditional Ornamental Plants
So, you’re ready to replace your outdated ornamental plants. Now what? The good news is that for many traditional ornamental plants, there is an alternative California native that serves a similar function. Whether you need a native plant for slope stabilization, ground cover or color, there’s a native plant equivalent to suite your needs.
Let’s take a look at some examples.
Ornamental: Lantana, Ice Plant, Acacia redolens
Native Alternative: Pigeon Point (Baccharis pilularis)
Pigeon Point is an excellent low-growing groundcover shrub that grows about 2’ tall and 8’ wide. This is a reliable plant for slope stabilization, erosion control and as a groundcover in the landscape.
Ornamental: Myoporum, Dymondia
Native Alternative: Salvia ‘Bee’s Bliss’ (Bee’s Bliss Sage)
This native shrub grows beautiful purple flowers that attracts bees, butterflies and hummingbirds. It’s low-growing (under 2’ tall) and spreads 6’-8’ wide. It is described as “draping” and can have a waterfall effect over rocks or walls.
Ornamental: Hibiscus, Alyogyne, Oleander
Native Alternative: Ceanothus ‘Concha’
Considered one of the best of the California Lilacs, this shrub has beautiful deep blue flower clusters that bloom in the spring. It will eventually reach 8’ tall and approximately 10’ wide.
Ornamental: Olive, Ligustrum, Pyracantha
Native Alternative: Heteromeles arbutifolia (Toyon)
A lush, dense plant that grows 10’ tall and 8’ wide. Its versatility makes is great in many landscape settings, either as a large hedge plant or even kept many years as a container plant. Its deep roots make it ideal for erosion control and slope stabilization, and it is even somewhat fire resistant.
Ornamental: Phormium (Flax), Agapanthus, Dianella
Native Alternative: Elymus condensatus ‘Canyon Prince’
A muted, powdery gray-blue evergreen grass that reaches 2’-3’ tall and up to 5’ tall with regular watering. Tall stalks emerge in late summer and are stopped with clusters of wheat-colored flowers. This grass works well as an accent plant, placed in a container, or planted at the base of the slope or behind a perennial border.
Ornamental: Nasella tenuissima, Pennisetum
Native Alternative: Aristida purpurea ‘Chino Hills’
This native grass grows to about 30” tall. Purple flowers bloom in summer and fall. A hardy plant, it is drought tolerant and can tolerate frost to about 10 degrees F.
Native alternative: Agave shawii (Shaw’s Agave)
A lovely rosette-shaped plant that grows 2’-3’ tall and 2’ wide. This plant is excellent for using at the top of a slope where its upright, pointy shape can be readily appreciated. In addition, this succulent is much greener than others and can add great color to a succulent garden.
Ornamental: Coral Aloe, Haworthia
Native Alternative: Dudleya lanceolata
This trusty plant is also known as a lanceleaf liveforever, it can often be found hanging onto sunny cliffs in its natural environment. It typically grows about 1’ tall by 1’ wide and has yellow-red flowers. Very adaptable, it is also a great candidate for stacked walls and pots.
Ornamental: Most annuals/color
Native Alternative: Achillea millefolium (Yarrow)
A great replacement to traditional annuals due to its delicate foliage and long bloom time. Grows to about 2’-3’ in height with white flower clusters held above the foliage that attract beneficial insects and pollinators. Blooming begins in late spring and continues through summer.
Ornamental: Tulbahia (Society Garlic)
Native Alternative: Sisyrinchium bellum (Blue-eyed Grass)
A clump-forming perennial that stands upright at 6”-12” tall. From January to June, umbrella-like clusters of small purple-blue flowers with yellow centers will bloom. Goes dormant in summertime. Works well in natural, meadow garden, in a mixed border, or a container planting.
Ornamental: Maple, Ash, Liquidambar, Ginko
Native Alternative: Alnus rhombifolia (White Alder)
This fast-growing deciduous tree averages about 50’-80’ in height. It can manufacture its own nitrogen, so can often grow in very poor soils. While it is native to California, it does need a constant supply of water. As such, it is excellent for rehabilitating an abandoned stream site.
Ornamental: Grevillea robusta, Eucalyptus, Melaleuca
Native Alternative: Lyonothamnus floribundus ssp. Aspenfolius (Santa Cruz Island Ironwood)
Fairly quick-growing evergreen tree with a maximum height of 50’-60’ tall and 15’-20’ wide (although it is often cultivated more slender and upright). This plant works well where a narrow tree is needed.
Download Guide: California Native Alternatives to Traditional Ornamental Plants
Want to see more alternatives to traditional ornamental plants? Then download our full native plant guide to get started on upgrading your landscaping today.