Deer grass

Muhlenbergia rigens (deer grass)

Deer grass (Muhlenbergia rigens) is a fine-textured bunchgrass with erect to gracefully arching grayish green leaves to three feet tall and four feet wide and a haze of tawny or silvery gray mid-summer flowers on stems that rise two feet above the foliage.

Native to many plant communities throughout much of California south and east to New Mexico, Texas, and Mexico, this adaptable grass prefers some moisture but can go all summer without irrigation if winter rains have been sufficient.  Occasional summer water may keep plants nearly evergreen.

Easy and fast-growing in full sun or filtered shade, deer grass reaches its full size in a season or two and can go years without shearing, though it can be cut back in late fall or tidied up occasionally by raking out dead leaves and stems.  Untrimmed, it becomes an attractive mix of tan, gray-green, and bright green as new leaves emerge and old leaves go over.

Attractive as an accent or in mass plantings, deer grass is also good for erosion control, as its roots spread widely and thickly within the top twelve or so inches of soil. Tolerant of seasonal flooding as well as drought, it is a fine choice for a dry stream bed or a rain garden that retains stormwater just long enough for it to seep into the ground. Space plants at least four feet apart to allow each enough room to show off its symmetrically mounding form.

A good habitat plant, deer grass is a winter host for some butterfly larvae and its seeds are favored by many songbirds.

Pacific wax myrtle

Myrica californica as a tall privacy hedge

Myrica californica as a tall privacy hedge

Pacific wax myrtle (Myrica californica) is a tall, dense evergreen shrub, perfect as a backdrop for any garden large enough to accommodate it.  Fast-growing, adaptable, and good looking year round, this is a fine choice for informal hedges, windbreaks, and privacy screens.

You will hear that Pacific wax myrtle can be sheared as a formal hedge, but don’t do it. Shearing destroys the natural grace of the glossy green leaves, which are long and narrow, softly serrated, and elegantly displayed on multiple upright stems. If you find its height of 12 to 20 feet too tall or its spread of 10 to 15 feet too wide, this shrub is easily maintained at smaller sizes by hand pruning.

Native along the coast and in coastal valleys from southern California to southern British Columbia, Pacific wax myrtle will tolerate almost full shade inland, but full sun to part shade is best.  It accepts dryish conditions, but responds enthusiastically to summer watering, especially in interior gardens.  It is at its finest in full sun in foggy coastal gardens, where it thrives in sandy soils and wind.

The luscious leaves of this plant look like deer salad at all ages and all times of year, but my deer generally ignore it after a nibble or two when plants are first set out or when new bright green leaves appear in spring. Clusters of tiny yellowish spring flowers are followed by small, waxy, purple-black berries that are popular with many birds.

The scientific name of Pacific wax myrtle was changed to Morella californica, but you may not see it listed or sold as such until the change is embraced by those who have long known and grown this plant as Myrica.

 

Carpenteria

Carpenteria californica

Carpenteria californica

Gardeners who relish a bit of a challenge and delight in a smashing success probably already grow California’s native bush anemone (Carpenteria californica).This is a connoisseur’s plant, elegant and refined virtually year round and seasonally extravagant in its flowering. Where it is happy — and there’s the catch — it is surprisingly easy to grow.

This splendid multi-stemmed shrub is grown mostly for its impressive early to midsummer display of large, glistening white, lightly fragrant, simple but showy flowers with bright yellow stamens.

Carpenteria is evergreen, with long, narrow, somewhat leathery, dark green leaves that are grayish white on the undersides. New stems are dark red or purplish, shredding with age to reveal tan-colored bark beneath. Upright and generally taller than wide, carpenteria can be kept to six feet tall and four feet wide with annual post-bloom pinching back. Left on its own, it eventually will grow larger and may become open and rangy.

Carpenteria accepts full sun along the coast, but prefers high shade or afternoon shade inland. It will grow in full shade, but may have fewer or smaller flowers. Tolerant of some dryness once established, it looks best with occasional to moderate deep watering in summer.

As with most California natives, it is best to plant carpenteria in the fall. If your soil is heavy clay, plant on a mound or a slope for good drainage. For at least the first year, water deeply twice a month — more in hot interior locations. Gradually cut back on watering as the plant becomes established.

Do not be alarmed if leaves droop, curl under, or turn yellow in the hottest weeks of the year. This is a natural response to heat and drought. Mulch, water deeply to moisten but not drench the soil, tip prune, and wait for the plant to respond to the cooling days of fall.

 

Agave parryi

Agave parryi

Agave parryi

Agave parryi is quite variable, some forms or varieties an ethereal blue-gray, others a silvery gray-green, some with leaves that are broad and rather blunt on top, others with narrower and more elongated leaves.  But all are elegantly symmetrical, and all bear leaves with distinctive dark brown to maroon to almost black marginal teeth and an equally dark, viciously sharp terminal spine.

Agave parryi grows fairly slowly to about two to three feet tall and wide, and most spread by offshoots or “pups.”  As the plant grows the leaves open from a tightly packed central core, and on the back of each leaf is the delicate tracery of overlapping leaves that spread out before it.  Plants bloom only once and then die, reportedly after twenty years or so.  Flowers are borne on a central stalk up to fifteen feet tall, and are vegetative magnets for hummingbirds.

Agave parryi leaf detail

Agave parryi leaf detail

I grew this agave many years ago in southern California, where it flourished and multiplied, reliably sending out offshoots until a fairly sizable colony had formed.  From this colony I recently brought a few north to the San Francisco Bay Area, a quite different climate, but one that seems to have satisfied this adaptable succulent, at least so far.  Agave parryi is native to high deserts of Arizona, New Mexico, and northern Mexico, so it should not be bothered by even our most prolonged winter frosts.  To help them withstand our sometimes drenching winter rains, I set them out in large, shallow pots in commercial “cactus mix” for fast drainage.

Agave parryi is best planted where it will receive full sun a good portion of the day except in hot interior climates, where a bit of afternoon shade seems to be appreciated.  This is a care-free plant, requiring no maintenance and little to no summer water once established.  Plants will naturalize if given space and time.

Coffeeberry

Rhamnus californica Coffeeberry, evergreen shrub in California native plant garden, Schino

Frangula californica (Rhamnus californica)

California coffeeberry (Frangula californica, formerly Rhamnus californica) is a handsome evergreen shrub with significant wildlife habitat value.  Low and spreading to tall and upright, coffeeberry is an excellent candidate for the summer-dry garden.

Coffeeberry can grow to ten feet tall or more and eight or more feet wide, but some varieties are only four to six feet tall and others are mounding groundcovers.  All have substantial dark green to olive green leaves, gray-green beneath, inconspicuous greenish yellow flowers, and copious berries loved by birds and other wildlife. Berries turn from lime green to red to purplish black as they mature. Stems of new growth are reddish.

Native to much of California and parts of the West, these are rugged, adaptable, attractive shrubs good for informal hedges or screens or as specimens.  They look well groomed without pruning, but can be gently pruned to control size or shape.  Give them sun to light shade or afternoon shade and reasonably good drainage.

Coffeeberries do tend to be heavily browsed by deer in some locations and at some times of year, especially when newly planted.  They require little to no water after establishment, although an occasional deep soaking is appreciated, especially inland.

Named varieties are commonly available in nurseries and at native plant sales. ‘Eve Case’ is 6-8’ tall by 6-8’ wide, densely mounding with broad leaves and large berries, and seems to prefer coastal conditions. ‘Leatherleaf’ has large, dark green leaves and grows 5-8’ tall and wide.  ‘Mound San Bruno’ makes a good large-scale groundcover, 3-6’ tall by 6-10’ wide, dense and compact with narrow green leaves. ‘Seaview’ is even lower, about 2-4’ tall and 6-8’ wide, with small dark green leaves and dense clusters of berries.

Coast silktassel

Garrya elliptica (coast silktassel) in bloom

Garrya elliptica (coast silktassel) in bloom

Coast silktassel (Garrya elliptica) is best known for its elegant display of silky, silvery green to creamy white catkins that decorate the plant in mid-winter.  No matter how many times you’ve seen the show, a mature silktassel in full bloom never fails to amaze and delight.

This lovely evergreen shrub is resilient and easy if you plant it where it is content.  Native to coastal California and southwest Oregon, silktassel needs good drainage and, near the coast or with some afternoon shade, requires little to no summer water unless winters are exceptionally dry.  On even a slight slope, with protection from the hottest sun and protracted freezing, it needs no care at all.

After a slow start, coast silktassel grows quite fast to 8 to 15 feet tall and 10 or more feet wide, usually with multiple trunks from the base.  The dark green, leathery, wavy-edged leaves are woolly gray-green on the undersides.  From a distance and out of bloom, the plant looks somewhat like a small evergreen oak.

On male plants the catkins may be eight or ten inches long, swaying in the slightest breeze; female catkins are only a few inches long.  Both must be present for female plants to produce their purplish berries.  ‘James Roof’ and ‘Evie’ are male varieties with especially showy tassels.

Coast silktassel responds assertively to pruning, sending out long, gangly branches if cut back too hard.  This presents both challenges and opportunities for gardeners willing to put in the effort to train and shape.  If you start when plants are established but still quite young, coast silktassel can be trained as a small tree or espaliered for maximum floral display.  Pruning at maturity can be tricky because the plant may produce multiple long branches at each cut that defy further efforts to control its shape.

Silktassel seems to be unpalatable to deer, at least at maturity and in some locations.  In my garden deer have never touched this plant, yet just across town newly planted garryas are regularly munched to the ground.

Toyon

Toyon (Heteromeles), California native evergreen shrub, with Verbena by entry to side garden Sibley drought tolerant front yard garden, Richmond California

Toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia)

If you have space in your garden for a large shrub or small multi-trunked tree that will live for decades, is attractive year-round, and provides food and shelter for wildlife, you can hardly beat California’s native toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia) for its resilience, habitat value, and natural beauty.

Toyon is native to much of California and survives drought, though occasional deep watering may be needed in the driest times and will bring fresh new growth with quick results.  Toyon needs good drainage and thrives in full sun to part shade but tolerates full shade.

Heteromeles arbutifolia (Toyon, Christmas Berry) berries

Toyon winter berries

This ten- to fifteen-foot tall by eight- to ten-foot wide evergreen shrub makes a fine screen or specimen plant, handsome at all times of year. The clusters of tiny white summer flowers are attractive to butterflies, and birds love the bright red wintertime berries.  Deer will browse the new leaves and may strip leaves up as high as they can reach.

Toyon is commonly damaged by fungal leaf diseases, often as a result of poor air circulation.  Plants sprout vigorously after cutting back, which produces dense new foliage that is gratifying to the gardener but ultimately may subject the plant to foliar disease.  New plants should be spaced at least 8 to 10 feet apart, not crowded by other plants, and never sheared as a hedge or cut back hard without vigilant follow-up to ensure that new growth is not too dense for good air circulation.

Give toyons plenty of space, prune lightly to shape, plant on mounds or slopes for good drainage and you will have one of the most rewarding evergreen shrubs that California has to offer.