Leymus condensatus ‘Canyon Prince’

Silver gray foliage drought tolerant groundcovers, Leymus (Elymus) condensatus 'Canyon Prince' (Lyme Grass, Wild Rye) and Artemisia pynocephala 'David's Choice' (Beach Sagebrush) in foreground

Leymus condensatus ‘Canyon Prince’ with Artemisia pynocephala ‘David’s Choice’ in foreground

This is a wonderful grass if you have the space for it and don’t need to try to contain it.  Left to its own devices, Leymus condensatus ‘Canyon Prince’ billows around in a large meadow planting, giving the impression of movement without the slightest breeze. It also makes an effective bank cover, its extensive root system grabbing and tightly holding the soil and its leaves cascading like falling water.  It is especially nice as a background or complement to other plants.

Coming out bright green in spring, this warm-season grass turns a lovely gray-green as the season progresses, ending in a striking late-summer display of wheat-colored seedheads on tall stalks.

It’s only fair to warn those considering this plant that it is decisively invasive.  Infiltration is initially slow, so you may not notice it for some time.  But ultimately this grass will try to take over adjacent plantings, and chopping out advancing pieces may slow but not stop the invasion.

I cut this grass a few inches above the ground in late winter or early spring every year, in part because this provides an opportunity to pull out invasive weeds hiding beneath the grass.  This also allows me to see and remove dead culms that impede the growth of new stems, ensuring that both the plant and the colony retain their dense and appealingly architectural form. New growth begins to return almost immediately after cutting back.

Leymus condensatus 'Canyon Prince' - Giant Wild Rye with rush, Juncus polyanthemos in urban park groundcover landscape design meadow garden, Jeffrey Open Space, Irvine California

Leymus condensatus ‘Canyon Prince’ with Juncus polyanthemos in Jeffrey Open Space, Irvine California

‘Canyon Prince’ grows two to three feet tall with flower stalks another foot or so above the leaves.  Spread is indeterminate, with gradual widening to cover extensive areas if not continuously restrained.  It is best planted where spread need not be controlled, and is striking in a large container along with orange or purple-flowered companions spilling over the sides.  I first saw it, many years ago, in a pot with epilobium and was instantly smitten.

Plant this grass in full sun almost everywhere but in desert or hot interior locations, where it will appreciate either part shade or water.  In sun near the coast it is best with little to no summer water, which will only encourage its rampant spread.

 

 

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.

California pipevine

Aristolochia californica, California pipevine or California Dutchman's-pipe, native vine flowering with chrysalis of Pipevine Swallowtail butterfly

Aristolochia californica, California pipevine,  with chrysalis of pipevine swallowtail butterfly

California pipevine (Aristolochia californica) is one of the first plants to flower in my northern California garden, sending forth dozens, no hundreds, of tiny blossoms on leafless stems in mid-winter, after the manzanitas but before flashier plants such as native irises grab center stage.  Their appearance, noticed only up close at first, signals the approaching end of winter and fuels my anticipation of full-on gardening weather.

The flowers are, to say the least, unusual.  They grow more like fruits than flowers, maturing, right before your eyes, from a millimeter or two to an inch and a half long on the vine.  Most plants hide their flowers in one way or another before they spring into view, full size, at maturity.  On plants of California pipevine, you can see the tiniest immature flowers alongside partially mature and mature flowers at the same time.  I go out daily to check on the progress of tiny flowers I saw the day before.

Aristolochia californica - Dutchman's Pipe, flowering California native plant

Aristolochia californica flower

Reputed to prefer lots of moisture, even riparian sites, California pipevine seems to do quite well with little or no summer water in shade to part shade or at least afternoon shade, even on the inland side of central California’s coastal hills.  While the upper leaves seem to like some sun, the roots must be cool, especially in hot summer weather.  I have one planted in an oversized clay pot that receives morning sun but is fully shaded on summer afternoons by a second-story deck.  I attached the vine to a deck post and strung it along the joists, mostly because I wanted to see the details of the individual flowers and the bright green heart-shaped leaves.  In nature it is often a tangle of stems with a mass of old leaves along with the new, as some spent leaves tend to stay on the plant well into the following year.

California pipevine is the only host plant of the native pipevine swallowtail, which is why I planted it in the first place.  I have yet to see a single caterpillar on my plants, but hope, even hope in vain, is what keeps gardeners going.  The leaves are said to produce a toxic chemical that, when ingested by caterpillars, makes them and the butterflies they become unattractive to predators.  I cannot attest to any of this as I have not seen a pipevine swallowtail in my garden.

Aristolochia californica, California pipevine or California Dutchman's-pipe, native vine used as sprawling vine on hill by steps in Schieffelin native plant garden

Aristolochia californica, California pipevine, used as sprawling groundcover

You will hear that California pipevine is slow to start, even hard to grow.  That has not been my experience.  The first year I planted my vine in the pot underneath the deck it was ripped out, likely by a raccoon.  I stuffed it rather hastily back in the pot, unwilling to just let it go, and in weeks it was showing signs of new life.  The first year it grew perhaps six feet tall, no flowers.  The second year it had many flowers and had extended its reach perhaps twice that high.  By the third year it was covered in flowers and had reached more than twelve feet.  This winter, six years in, it is easily fifteen feet in full extent and the flowers are coming out an inch or two apart.

This is a vigorous, robust, vital native California plant with great habitat value, well worth a place in any summer-dry garden.  It is native to central and northern California in foothill woodlands, chaparral, and mixed evergreen forests, usually but not always on sites that provide at least some moisture year-round.

 

Arbutus

Arbutus unedo 'Elfin King' (Strawberry Tree) with fruit.

Arbutus unedo ‘Elfin King’ with fruit.

With evergreen, leathery, dark green leaves, showy clusters of tiny white spring flowers, small red berries in fall, and red-brown peeling bark, Arbutus menziesii is a signature tree of western North America.  Native to coastal evergreen forests from southern British Columbia to California, the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada, and the eastern slopes of the Coast Ranges, this tree has long been considered too difficult for most cultivated landscapes.  Commonly known as Pacific madrone, A. menziesii is available in small containers mostly from specialty nurseries and at native plant sales.

For best results, Arbutus menziesii should be set out in its permanent spot when the seedling is a foot or so tall.  Excellent drainage is essential.  Young trees seem to prefer the filtered shade of evergreen trees, but may not establish in full shade. They thrive in full sun along the coast and inland at higher elevations.  Water only to establish and do not fertilize.  Water and fertilizer will promote growth but make this plant more susceptible to disease.  Usually slow-growing to anywhere from fifteen to fifty feet tall, trees may reach over 100 feet at great age.

Arbutus unedo (Strawberry Tree) by gravel pathway with ornamental grasses in David Fross waterwise sustainable garden

Arbutus unedo (strawberry tree) by gravel pathway with ornamental grasses

Arbutus unedo, strawberry tree, is native to the Mediterranean Basin and parts of western Europe.  With evergreen, leathery, dark green leaves, drooping clusters of small rosy white flowers, largish red fruits, and peeling reddish brown bark, strawberry tree is similar in many ways to Pacific madrone but much more tolerant of garden conditions. It grows in sun or shade and most soils and accepts some summer irrigation as long as drainage is adequate.  Where content, it can reach fifteen to thirty feet tall and almost as wide.

Cultivated varieties of Arbutus unedo are common in the nursery trade. ‘Elfin King’ is a compact shrub with denser branching and somewhat slower growth than the species. ‘Compacta’ is said to be similar, reaching six to ten feet tall and wide at maturity.

Arbutus ‘Marina’ is a fairly large tree (forty feet tall and thirty feet wide at maturity) that looks enticingly small in fifteen-gallon containers.  You will see it planted five feet from a building wall in new landscapes.  In such situations you can be sure it will outgrow its allotted space and over time will require quite brutal pruning or removal.

‘Marina’ is often promoted as a garden-tolerant equivalent of Arbutus menziesii, and it is somewhat more accepting of typical garden conditions – a bit of summer water, less than perfect drainage, and clay soils.  But it won’t take as much abuse as commonly assumed, especially excess irrigation or poorly drained soil.  It is also best planted in a spot that can feature rather than fight the shedding of bark, fruits, and large leaves, which, as with most strawberry trees, is pretty much continuous.

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.

Armeria

California native plant garden with Armeria maritima and Pacific Coast hybrid Irises groundcover lawn substitute.

California native plant garden with Armeria maritima edging a walkway

Sea pink or sea thrift (Armeria maritima) was once more commonly found on “drought-tolerant” plant lists than it is today.  Gardeners who were led to plant it no doubt discovered that it just doesn’t thrive without summer water or afternoon shade except right along the coast.

Sea pink is nonetheless perfect for small gardens or small garden areas where a little summer water can be spared.  Its densely hummocky cushions of evergreen grassy leaves are six inches tall and spread to about a foot wide.  Pink or sometimes white flowers cover the plant from late spring to early summer.

Armeria maritima (Thrift, Sea Pink)

Armeria maritima

Native to coastal areas of northern Europe and the Mediterranean, sea pink is also found in western North and South America.  It prefers good drainage and grows well in sandy or rocky soils as well as in clay.  Use it in rock gardens, in fast-draining containers, or between paving stones in close-up areas where you want a colorful accent.  It is best in part shade inland, full sun along the coast.  The subspecies californica is native to central and north coastal California and is present but uncommon along the south coast.

California buckeye

Aesculus californica, California buckeye tree in winter with bare branches at East Bay Regional Parks Botanic Garden, Berkeley.

Aesculus californica, in winter, at East Bay Regional Parks Botanic Garden, Berkeley.

California buckeye (Aesculus californica) puts on a bold and fascinating seasonal show.

In late winter bright apple-green new leaves burst forth at branch ends and rapidly unfold, quite suddenly claiming the stage among the darker greens of evergreen oaks, bays, and pines.  In spring to early summer showy spikelike clusters of lightly fragrant creamy white flowers are held gracefully upright above the leaves.  The large polished-brown seeds peeking through leathery, pear-shaped pods are highly decorative on silvery gray branches in fall.

Flower head of Aesculus californica - California buckeye tree

Aesculus californica flowers

Native to much of California on dry slopes, in canyons, and along waterways, California buckeye needs no summer irrigation once established, though trees will respond to heat and drought by dropping leaves.  It’s hard to be fully prepared for the large palmate leaves to turn pale yellow, droop sadly on the tree, and drop in what seems to be high summer.  Occasional deep soakings may help keep leaves on the tree a little longer in coastal areas.

California buckeye grows 15 to 35 feet tall and spreads more widely.  Form is best in sun, where trees develop into a living sculpture of multiple or low-branching trunks, symmetrically outstretched branches, and a delicate tracery of small branchlets.  Trees thrive in part shade but may be awkwardly shaped and rangy. Good drainage is appreciated.  Deer will browse the leaves.

Aesculus californica-California Buckeye in fall fruit

Aesculus californica fruit

In years of normal rainfall, the heavy seeds sprout and establish themselves pretty much where they fall, unless they roll downhill or are carried away by water.  They can be moved before the large whitish root finds its way into the soil.  Plant with the root covered by soil and the seed at least partially exposed.  Keep soil lightly moist until new growth is decisively underway.  Water for the first year or two, especially if winters are dry.