Drought Tolerant and Native Plants

By Robert and Hoberley Schuler


Q: We are now having severe water rationing. Our home is only five years old. We are taking out our lawn and we have just begun to landscape, leaving the existing trees and some shrubs. What would you suggest that we plant that would not take too much water? We need colorful plants, not succulents! Georgia and Ed Dourley, San Diego

A: This question is repeatedly asked of me. With diminishing water supplies and increasing water costs, we need to know what will grow within very restricted water conditions. Native plants have developed a diversified way of taking up water under dry conditions by developing deep penetrating roots and long side roots. Conserving water techniques within the plant include developing a thick cuticle layer on the leaves (such as succulents), hairy leaves (to help absorb moisture), light grey leaves to keep moisture from escaping), etc.

Coastal California and Coastal Southern Oregon lie between the 30º-45º latitude which is the same as the Mediterranean region climates. This same latitude in the southern hemisphere of Chili, South African Cape and Southwest Australia is similar to our region, and comprises only about 2% of the earth’s land mass.

Removing your lawn and putting in walking paths will allow you to plant shrubs and native plants that require much less water irrigation and will provide a diverse selection of plant textures and colors. It is important to pay attention when you select your new plants as to their height and width along the path to prevent overcrowding. Check your existing trees for shading of plants and root competition for the water.

Review the front section of your Sunset Western Garden Book for Native Plant selections in your area. My current garden includes a wonderful selection of drought tolerant and native plants. As usual, many of the plants are planted too close together! My colorful garden includes over one hundred plants which include:

Salvia (also known as sages) coccinea “coral Nymph”; S.chiapensis, hot pink flowers; S. clevelandii, with lavender-blue flowers; S. elegans, pineapple sage with red flowers; S. greggii, deep purplish red to red flowers; S. guaranitica, an anise scented plant with cobalt electric blue flowers; S. “Indigo Spires”, violet blue flowers; S. leucanthia, Mexican Bush Sage” with purple and white flowers calyxes; S. Mexicana with dark blue or violet with reddish purple calyxes; S. splendens “scarlet sage” with red to salmon flowers; S.uliginosa with whorls of lavender blue flowers with purple tinged calyxes.
With so many sages to choose from you can enjoy their brilliant colors and the hummingbirds and butterflies they attract. To keep their height and width controlled, you will need to prune several times a year, and some varieties may need shelter from the sun and winds.

Agastache (Labiatae) is a wonderful summer blooming flower that attracts hummingbirds, bees and butterflies with its aromatic foliage and whorls of pink purple, blue, red, or orange flowers. We need to attract the bee population as well!

Penstemon (beard tongue) has so many varieties of flowers that you will again have a tough time deciding which one to plant. Its colors vary from deep red or pink, to shades of lavender to blue, white or deep maroon. They come in border plants as well as varieties that grow over three feet tall.

Low growing plants include Aquilegia (columbine); Heuchera (coral bells); Pacific Coast iris; Mimulus (monkey flower); Sisyrinchium californicum (yellow eyed grass); and many, many more low growing and airy plants including succulents (some are very invasive).

Shrubs include Baccharis, ceanothus, flannel bush (fremontodendron; mallow); ribes (current); symphoricarpos albus (common snowberry). Kangaroo Paw (anigozanthos) is also a widely used perennial that requires very little water after established. The spikes of New Zealand Flax come in many different leaf colors. Another New Zealand shrub we now see everywhere is the tea tree (leptospermum) with its bright red and pink flowers; it is available in white. These shrubs can be pruned as hedges while they are young; once they get up to 20 feet tall, their branches cannot be pruned without bare spots. There are many grasses available that are low to medium high; growing with many shades of brown to rust and green.

A real native is the California poppy (Eschscholzia) even the traditional Hollyhocks (alcearosea) does not require much water! Do not overlook the wonderful lavenders, Lupines, Daylilies, Rudbekia, Coreopsis, and Rosemary; the primrose family and the gazanias and Lantana from South Africa.

Carefully monitoring your sprinkling system and keeping the sprinklers in good working condition will also save you water.

Conditioning your soil with compost and adding mulch will keep your native and drought tolerant plants happy! Check with your local nursery in your area for available plants.

For previous articles: www.californiagardenclubs.org/Features/garden_pointers

Do you have a garden question? E-mail giving your name, city where you live to:
Robert H. Schuler, M.G. GPP#127 “Drought Tolerant and Native Plants”

By Robert and Hoberley Schuler
UC Davis & OSU Master Gardeners: National and CGCI
Garden Study and Landscaping Design Consultants