Dasylirion

Dasylirion wheeleri in succulent border with barrel cactus.

Dasylirion wheeleri in succulent border with barrel cactus in foreground

A boldly architectural plant for big drama in pots or in the ground, Dasylirion wheeleri (desert spoon or sotol) forms a dense, symmetrical rosette of long, narrow, silvery blue-green, somewhat twisted leaves with aggressively hooked teeth along the margins and attractively frayed straw-colored tips.  Over time plants develop a short, stout trunk, which may not be noticed unless older brown leaves are removed.

Native to northern Mexico and the southwestern United States, Dasylirion wheeleri is rather widely available in the trade.  Several other dasylirions are available with a little hunting about, including D. texanum (Texas sotol), with paler green leaves that are not twisted, D. leiophyllum (smooth sotol), with glossy green leaves and, despite its common name, equally wicked spines, and D. longissimum (Mexican grass tree), with gray-green leaves that lack the fearsome spines and, after many years, a substantial tree-like trunk.

Dasylirion wheeleri grows moderately fast, but can be held to a large container for quite some time.  Mine were installed as decent sized five-gallon plants in thirty-six-gallon pots six or seven years ago.  They are now six feet wide and four feet tall, spilling out in all directions.

Dasylirion wheeleri spines

Dasylirion wheeleri spines

Because of the sharp spines, which catch and hold onto skin or clothing when they are so much as gently brushed or touched, all dasylirions except the smooth-margined Dasylirion longissimum are almost impossible to comfortably work around.  They should be placed away from paths likely to be traveled by the unwary and spread far apart if more than one is planted in the ground.  Pulling weeds, removing fallen tree leaves, or attempting to cut off dead leaves at the base are hellacious tasks, with outcomes ranging from snagged clothing to bloodied body parts.  It’s best to locate these plants where no maintenance will be required.

Dasylirions flower on spikes that arise from the center of the rosette, reaching ten feet or more above the foliage by early summer.  Flower stalks appear only once every few years, but, unlike the agaves, the plants do not die after flowering.  For some reason, my plants have yet to flower.  Perhaps they are not sufficiently mature.  Maybe it’s the afternoon shade (they are said to resent shade).  Or possibly it’s the constraints of growing in containers.  I can wait.  Flowers are just a bonus on plants as spectacular as this.

Salvias

Salvia officinalis (Garden Sage) in bloom with Origanum vulagare 'Aureum' (Oregano).

Salvia officinalis with oregano in background

There are sages (Salvia) for almost any garden.  Annuals, perennials, or shrubs; low and spreading to tall and upright; sun or shade loving; moist or dry soils or anywhere in between.  If you are unsure what a particular sage needs, look it up or consult your nursery professional before adding it to your garden.

One of the most reliable low-water sages for full sun is Cleveland sage (Salvia clevelandii), and one of the best varieties is ‘Winifred Gilman’.  The spikes of bright lavender-blue to purple flowers in early summer are memorable, especially against the silvery gray aromatic leaves.

Salvia leucophylla (Purple Sage) with smaller leaves in summer, silver gray foliage

Salvia leucophylla

Topping out at three or more feet tall and wide, Cleveland sage will thrive with little care for many years.  Bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds love it and deer ignore it.  Native to southern California, this sage needs good to excellent drainage and, in inland locations, seems to prefer, but doesn’t require, a deep soaking monthly in the hottest weeks of the year.  As with many summer-dry plants, a really dry winter or spring will result in loss or shriveling of leaves if no supplemental water is provided. But the plant probably won’t die – leaf drop is a drought response that conserves moisture.

You can trim Cleveland sage back after flowering or take stems for arrangements during bloom, but don’t cut into old wood.  This sage, like many other shrubby perennials, responds well to frequent but gentle trimming as you would lavender or rosemary.

There are many other beautiful sages for the summer-dry garden. White sage, Salvia apiana, is four to five feet tall and wide with fragrant, woolly, almost white gray leaves and white flowers tinged with lavender in spring.  Native to southern California and Baja California, it likes sun and good drainage and needs little to no summer water.  In my garden it sheds many leaves in response to drought, but retains enough of its stunning white foliage to capture attention at any time of year.

Purple sage (Salvia leucophylla) is a long-lived shrub three to five feet tall and wide with wrinkled, silvery gray leaves and pale purple flowers flowers in spring.  Native to southern California, it thrives in full sun with no summer water once established.

Salvia semiatrata (Bicolor Sage) flower detail

Salvia semiatrata

Sonoma sage (Salvia sonomensis) is a mat-forming creeping or trailing evergreen perennial a few inches to a foot tall and spreading three or more feet wide.  Native to California in coastal mountains and Sierra foothills on dry slopes, in chaparral, or in open woodland, this lovely low sage prefers light shade and little or no summer water.  Branches root as they travel across the ground and cascade nicely over walls, the softly textured gray-green aromatic leaves inviting touch. Spikes of medium blue to blue-violet flowers on leafless stems cover the plant from late spring into summer.

Sonoma sage is one of those plants that simply won’t tolerate poor drainage, fertilizers, or more than the slightest summer irrigation.  Give this sage a fast-draining spot on a slope or a mound of rocky soil and resist the urge to “help” it through the dry summer months.  Old plants may get woody and bare in the center, but robust new growth and a slightly mounding habit give the overall effect of continuous cover in lightly tended further reaches of the garden.

Salvia apiana (Bee Sage, California White Sage) California native perennial shrub with silver gray leaves

Salvia apiana

Other drought-tolerant shrubby sages include the long-blooming autumn sages (Salvia greggii), flowers usually red, but many other colors available, and Salvia muelleri (rich dark purple flowers).  S. greggii is about three feet tall and wide; S. muelleri is usually somewhat smaller. Both have diminutive green leaves, very different from the larger gray and grayish white leaved sages.  These sages look best with occasional deep watering in summer, though they will survive without it.  Both can be cut back fairly hard to renew.  Some afternoon shade is beneficial in the hottest locations.

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.

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.

Snowberry

Symphoricarpos albus (aka. S.racemosa) (Snowberry) white berries detail

Symphoricarpos albus

Snowberry (Symphoricarpos albus) is one of those plants that remind you that California does, after all, have seasons.

A delicate-looking shrub with a strong constitution, snowberry has small, somewhat sparse, oval to slightly lobed blue-green leaves and an airy, rounded habit. The early summer flowers are bell-shaped and pinkish white, not particularly showy but quite charming clustered at the ends of branches and attractive to hummingbirds.

The fall berries are indescribably lovely to behold.  Clusters of large, brilliant white, waxy fruits stand out against any background.  There are few shrubs with berries as white and wonderful as this.

This native California shrub grows 3 to 6 feet tall and wide, finely branched and upright to mounding, and spreads underground by rhizomes.  Plant it where it doesn’t need to be contained, or cut out suckers as they appear. The rhizomatous rooting makes this a great bank stabilizer.

Snowberry is a deciduous shrub, so plan for winter loss of leaves.  It is perhaps best planted among evergreen shrubs and groundcovers such as manzanitas or mahonias that can carry the show when it is out of leaf.  In full leaf it is highly ornamental.

Some berries will hang on into winter, but they turn brownish white until they fall or are eaten by birds. Snowberry takes some shade, even full shade, but it flowers and fruits best with part-day full sun, where occasional deep watering is appreciated.  It accepts most soils, but does better with at least fair drainage.

Snowberry may be munched by deer, but not if anything more palatable is available.  Rabbits, squirrels, and other small mammals relish it for cover.  Quail may use it as nesting sites.  Larger birds such as jays will eat the berries, though there have been reports of quite odd behavior after birds have eaten what may be somewhat toxic berries.