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California Native Plants

Aster - California native plant

Published: 21 December 2022

This winter, nothing says “holiday cheer” and the “season of giving” like giving back to our state. Transforming lawns to water-wise plants can feel like a daunting task for some, but Save Our Water is here with native plant aficionado Cassandra Musto to help residents understand the simple solutions involved, and how easy it can be when we take it one step at a time. 
One way to help our friends and family get started? Give the gift of water-wise and California native plants this holiday season to kickstart their creativity and make that first small-but-mighty change in saving water.
From the best time to plant to budget-friendly options, Cassandra shares her expertise on everything you need to know to help your plant space go from surviving to thriving.
1. Cassandra, can you walk us through a little bit about your field of expertise, and how you came to be so passionate about California native plants?
My expertise is as a licensed landscape architect (alumnae of Cal Poly San Luis Obispo), restoration ecologist, arborist, and California native plant enthusiast. I work as a restoration ecologist for the California Department of Water Resources on projects like habitat restoration and tree assessments for levees on our California waterways. 
I became passionate about California native plants totally by accident. I didn’t grow up around California native plants so it wasn’t until I began my landscape architecture studies in San Luis Obispo that I was introduced to them in one of my plant identification classes. I was shocked to learn native plants were a thing, and it didn’t hurt that we conducted our plant ID and explorations near the coast. It was a lovely experience and introduction to California native plants.
Once I graduated Cal Poly SLO and moved to Sacramento, I hunted down the nearest California Native Plant Society chapter. Soon after, I became a volunteer and one of the founders of a California native plant garden in the Sacramento area. Our volunteer group tended that garden for over 20 years and grew hundreds of different California native plants. It was really rewarding to watch the insect and bird populations increase over the years in the garden. In spring through fall, the aromas of California lilacs, California anemone, and all the varieties of sages would fill the air. I enjoyed sharing and teaching about native plants in the garden, and I learned so much as well during my time there.
2. For plant newbies, what’s the difference between a California native plant, a drought-tolerant plant or drought-resistant plant, and a plant that is not local to our climate or region?
There can be differences of opinion about what is a California native plant, but a common definition is that a California native plant is a plant that evolved in a California area or region before modern humans, or their animals arrived. 
A drought-tolerant plant can survive a few weeks to a month without water, while drought-resistant plants can survive months or years without supplemental water. Drought-resistant plants have adapted and evolved over millennia to survive drought through a variety of features and biological mechanisms.
A plant that is not native to our climate or region is just that, it isn’t from around here. This can also mean California native plants can be considered non-local to a region. For example, coast redwoods are not native to the Sacramento Central Valley region; they are from a sliver of the coast that extends from Santa Cruz to a small portion of southern Oregon. They might grow and survive in Sacramento or Fresno, but they need an extraordinary amount of water to thrive there.
3. What kind of impact can drought tolerant and drought resistant native plants have on our water usage? Why should California residents prioritize these types of plants over others when they go to the nursery or garden store?
Drought tolerant and drought resistant plants (both native and non-native) have a very large impact on water usage when they are used in place of traditional lawns and other high-water use plants. 
Why should California residents prioritize these types of plants over others when they go to the nursery or garden store?
In most cases, California native plants can be a part of any and all gardens, homes, and built landscapes. To make an even higher environmental impact, incorporating as many appropriate California native and locally native plants in a garden increases the benefits for native bees, butterflies, and birds in a region. While many non-native ornamental plants are part of beautiful gardens, their benefits to local wildlife tend to be minimal. Appropriately selected California native plants also can reduce maintenance in the long run since they have adapted to California’s climate, soil types, and insects. This means less fertilizing, less soil amendments, and less use of insecticides.
4. What’s the first step for folks who are interested in planting more natives or fully transforming their yard?
The first step doesn’t even involve plants; first, learn about your climate and soil type. California has many diverse climates and soil types. Soil is literally the foundation for plant selection. Then know your average rainfall. Once you begin to understand the basics of your climate, then you can begin picking the plants that best suit your region and will have the most success. 
With native plants becoming more popular and available in the local nurseries, you will likely have more access to native plant varieties and success than many of us native plant enthusiasts had 25 years ago when natives were much harder to come by. A few more commercial growers now produce a larger selection of native plants that are more dependable and provide a nice transition from a more traditional, water-heavy garden to a more drought-tolerant, more “natural” looking garden. As you get more experience growing and appreciating native plants, you can get more experimental and explore with less common natives.
5. What’s the best time to plant California natives? When are they in full-bloom?
Most native plants can be planted throughout the year in most of California (except for winter in the mountains and summer in the deserts), but you give them the best chance for survival and the best spring show when you plant in fall and early winter. Your new plants have the advantage of cooler weather, winter rains, and time where they can put most of their energy into developing a good root system before the summer heat.
Depending upon your native plant species, you can have blooms or colorful berries pretty much all year round, even in peak summer and in winter. Spring, of course, is when we most notice California wildflowers and other blooms, but with thoughtful plant selection, a California native garden can provide visual interest all year long.
6. What types of soil or mulch should be used with California native plants?
There are over 7,000 species of native plants in California that have evolved to survive in numerous types of climate and 3 primary soil types, so soil and mulch types are really going to depend upon where the native plant is originally from.
The best soil type for a native plant really depends upon the species of a native plant. A native plant adapted to survive in sandy soils will struggle or even die in a clay soil. The same holds true for a native plant adapted to grow in clay soils that is planted in a sandy soil. It’s really important to understand the soil type where you want to add any plant, native or non-native to ensure success and optimum health.
The best mulch type to use will also depend upon the native plant. A native plant from the desert might get moldy and too moist with a bark mulch; and a granite or rock mulch could end up baking a native plant that is used to a cooler, more woodsy habitat. 
7. Why should we plant California natives for birds, bees, and butterflies?
As non-native plants have been brought into California and bred, native species of insects and animals have declined, and some are near extinction such as the Monarch butterfly and many native bumblebees. Planting native plants can help stabilize, support and even bring back populations of these unique pollinators and birds.
8. Do you have any budget-friendly options or ideas for people who want to start small? 
Indeed, I do! For budget friendly gardening, try wildflowers. Start sowing seeds in the fall. For perennials and woody plants, start with 4” inch pots and 1-gallon containers. Oftentimes, these smaller plants grow quickly, and will soon catch up in size to plants from larger containers. 
For small, limited areas, a beginning native plant gardener can start with larger clay pots. Plant poppies in pots and place in a full sun area. If you have room for a minimum 2-foot diameter pot, plant small varietals of native classics such as ‘Eve Case’ coffeeberry (Frangula californica) (sun to part shade) or ‘Elizabeth’ California anemone (Carpenteria californica) (afternoon shade). Many varieties of monkeyflower (Diplacus sp) will grow well in a pot as will small species of buckwheats such as red buckwheat (Eriogonum rubescens) (sun), coyote mint (Monardella villosa) (part shade), and sword fern (Polystichum californicum) (light shade). I have a small courtyard as my “backyard”, so I am constantly experimenting with small varieties of natives and using trellises and metal hardware to help my natives grow vertical. 
Right now, my tiny garden includes the following smaller-sized native plants or vines:
  • Bleeding hearts (Dicentra formosa) (Shade, planted with my Dutchman’s pipevine in a pot)
  • Common yarrow (Achillea millefolium) (sun to part shade)
  • Clustered field sedge (Carex praegracilis) (sun to part shade)
  • Dutchman’s pipevine (Aristolochia californica) (shade) (growing on metal forms in a big pot)
  • California anemone ‘Elizabeth’ (Carpenteria californicum) (part shade)
  • Pacific Coast irises hybrids (part shade)
  • Penstemon Margarita BOP (sun)
  • Perfume Catalina/Evergreen current (Ribes viburnifolium) (shade to part sun)
  • Wild Ginger (Asarum caudatum) (shade)
9. Do you have a favorite California native plant?
This question is so hard! There are so many wonderful and beautiful native plants from so many different habitats here in California, that it’s very hard for me to choose. I have to say, here in the Sacramento valley, I do get very happy to see the hot pinks of California redbud peeping out in early March. It’s a sign to me that spring will be here very shortly and more California wildflower beauty is soon to come.
10. What are some common myths about California native plants that you want to dispel? Or What else should budding California native gardeners know about California native plants?
Here are a few key things to know about California natives:
Just because it’s a native plant, it doesn’t mean it is drought resistant or drought tolerant. As I mentioned, California has incredibly diverse climates that range from foggy coastal redwood forests to dry, hot deserts. That lovely and lush wild ginger from the coastal redwood forest will die within an afternoon if planted in full sun in Sacramento.
While they can be quite tough once they are established, this does not necessarily mean a California native plant never needs maintenance. Sure, you can reduce your maintenance in the long run, but as with any baby, native plant babies also need some water, care, and monitoring in the early days to ensure vigor and survival. Even a mature garden needs upkeep to thrive and look good.
Some California native plants can be invasive! Be sure to research your plants. That California wild rose that looks so small and cute in the one-gallon container will send out underground runners and roots tens of feet in every direction after a couple of years and will overtake a garden while it rips you to shreds. Always be mindful of the right plant in the right place.
Not all California native plants look that great. And that’s ok! Some are bit scraggly or weedy looking when in their natural state or after flowering, and may not be the best fit for a home landscape or Homeowners Association landscape scheme. Maybe you put those more natural-looking plants in the back where they are not front and center but will add some really good wildlife benefits. There are also many California native plants that can look green, and lush and not scraggly all year and will be fine additions to your landscape.