Native plants are best adapted to the existing climate and soil, and therefore need fewer inputs and less maintenance to thrive. And they excel at providing to wildlife, the birds and butterflies.
In my landscaping, I try to do just do that. Except I want vegetables and fruits, and herbs, and I do occasionally experiment with some foreign plants here and there, mainly as potted plants. But these are excellent arguments for growing Native Plants, and a smart approach might be to ask yourself if in place of the plant you are about to purchase, is there a native plant that I can substitute for equal or better enjoyment?
The California Native Plant Society has a website that you can use to find the plants that are native to your exact area. I find this very useful because I've read a number of books on Native Plants but it's not always clear to me which ones apply to me.
If you are thinking about native plants, you might also want to go out and see some. Many communities have local garden exhibits that featuer the native plants of the area. Near me, there are two great ones. There is the nature center at the Santa Fe Dam in Irwindale. And the L.A. Arboretum has a section called Crescent Farm that showcases the native plants.
Years ago when I lived in San Diego, my wife and I used to frequenst the Mission Trails Regional Park. They had lots of information on the local floral and fauna at the visitor's center, so I'm sure you can find something like these examples close to you.
The Challenges of Native Plants
The first challenge I've found with native plants is attempting to acquire them. This is a surprise to me because there is so much enthusiasm for them out there. But finding a supplier isn't easy. In fact, I haven't been able to find a one stop shop online. Instead, what you may find is a local nursery has a small section of native plants, with not a lot to choose from. I've found some suppliers online that take orders and then ship to third party stores where you can pick them up. Supply is often limited.
Later in this post, you'll find specific plant suggestions, and I'll include a list of suppliers to help with this issue.
The other major challenge you may run into with native plants is with their care. Compared to more conventional gardening, the rules for native plant gardening in California is just plain backwards. Native California plants tend to be adapted to hard clay, low water and low nutrient soil. If you've been gardening already, you've probably added topsoil, or have been fertilizing and working in amendments to deal with the hard clay and irrigating.
These are things you have to do to grow daisies and lilys and blueberries and a green lawn. The rich, wet soil you've created may sound like a dream come true for any plant, but it will actually kill most natives. It also makes it more difficult if you were hoping to just "mix in some natives." If you want to take a mixed approach, what you are going to have to do is designate sections of your land for native and non-native, because the care required will be very different.
What Native Plants Are Not
Native plants are the plants that have been growing in the region for thousands of years. They are adapted to the climate and have a homeostatic, symbiotic relationship with the wildlife that lives among and within them.
Native plants are not weeds, that is, weeds are not usually native plants. Most weeds are invasive species. Some common weeds are: mustard (brassica), dandylions, prickly lettuce, sow thistle, sunflowers. Of these, only the sunflower is native. Those mustard flowers that seem to dot every empty dirt plot are thought to be California's first invasive species.
Invasive species are a threat to native species because they take advantage of the nutrients and conditions but do not face the same threats. Without consumers, it is easier for invasive species to outcompete native plants. Invasive plants also do not serve the ecosystem nearly as well as native plants, since the animals that are adapted to rely on them are not present.
There is More to Water Conservation
The most fascinating eye opener to me I've learned this year is that "water conservation" is not the same as not using water.
The Woody Harrelson documentary, Kiss the Ground, talked about the water cycle on a micro level. They showed a diagram showing the process of rain, into groundwater, evaporation and more rain. The water cycle we were all taught it school. But they also mentioned the common belief that rainwater comes almost entirely from evaporation on the ocean or other very large bodies of water. This isn't true, as much as 40% comes from water captured by plants or held in the soil.
I thought it was fascinating at the time, but wasn't sure it applied to our region since our ground is obviously so dry so much of the time. How much water can it really provide?
It was a question I held onto for a while until I finally came across a similar description from the California Native Plants Society. They describe this exact issue and what it means to homeowners in California. Based on what they are describing, it's possible this issue is applicable the more arid or desert-like your home is in.
My difficulty in accepting what Woody Harrelson was saying, is that it made too perfect sense, picturing what it was like living in the Potomac watershed in Arlington, Virginia. The ground was always damp. The greenery was endless. There were trees everwhere. There was understory. There were vines growing on everything, filling in every empty gap with green. There was moss and fungi. There were so many birds and butterflies. Summer afternoons, you could feel the evaporation, the air was warm and wet. By three o'clock there was a vigorous thunderstorm and downpour that passed within an hour.
We don't have that in California. It's dry. In summer, the ground is dust. Hard, cracking. The California Native Plant Society describes the ideal home landscape as building a watershed. Nobody is promising a lush, rainforest-like water cycle, but you do have the ability to change the way your soil deals with water. You can teach it to hold on to water. This is done with plants and by reshaping it with berms. You'll still need to irrigate, but you can cut your water usage down 90%.
California has a lot of native flowers. One thing that is very interesting about the way gardening works today, is that we often find plants in the store that are easily substituted for very similar native plants. So why isn't the native plant the one found in the store?
Here are some native flowers you might be interested in if you live in zone 10 in Southern California. Many are native to other parts of California as well.
California Golden Poppy
The Golden Poppy is the easiest and most prolific to grow. You don't even have to worry about the common difficulty of native plants, they are perfectly happy to be pampered with fertile soil and irrigation in case you've mixed them in with a more tended to garden. Another advantage, they are completely edible.
The Golden Poppy is a beautiful and familiar flower. It's often seen growing on the side of freeways. The seeds are readily available at garden centers. The Golden Poppy is our state flower, and has been since the 1880s.
The leaves and flowers can be used as a garnish or served in a salad. The poppy seeds can be used in cooking. The plant contains chemicals that can have a sedative effect, so some people consume it thinking it will help them sleep or reduce anxiety. It is not clear whether or not it really does.
It's best to grow California Poppies from seed. They have large taproots and do not like to be transplanted. You can spread them in winter and expect a field of blooms by spring. Try to give every seed a few inches of space. Otherwise they will form a dense mat and not grow as tall, which is still fine.
Low Canyon Dudleya: Dudleya Cymosa
A cute little flowering succulent. It grows in the foothills of the mountains and likes sandy, rocky soil. These form in the talus of rocky cliffs and slopes, where the rock "decays" and shards pile up below. It blooms lots of small red flowers in the spring and summer.
California Lilac (Ceanothus)
These are the biggest showstoppers when in bloom. There are varieties that are low to the ground and their are varieties that stand tall like trees. All of them have the brillian blue-purple lilac-like flowers. They are loved by humans almost as much as they are by bees.
Manzanita are the most sculpturally interesting, woody shrubs. There are so many different varieties you are sure to find one you like. Similar to Ceanothus, you can find them in a sprawling, groundcover form or in a tree form. Their wood often curls on itself in awesome, gnarly ways. Similar to olive trees. The wood also has really intersting color and texture.
Toyon (Christmas Berry)
The berries of this plant were once in such high demand that California had to pass laws against collecting them. Their bright red berries look much like holly berries, the leaves are also similar to holly and the plant just looks like the a living wreath. It is also a bird favorite, a good sized shrub that provides shelter they can hide in and berries they love to munch on.
There are numerous California sages. They have similar fuzzy leaves, but vary in size and shape. Their flowers are beloved by the pollinators, so you can expect lots of butterflies to visit if you grow these. And they can be quite fragrant.
I find black sage to be the most similar to "culinary sage", but much more fragrant. White sage is sought after as an incense. Hummingbird sage is a showstopper. I'm also a big fan of Chia (Salvia columariae), which is also a sage. It's not the same stage you might get in the grocery store, but it is very closely related and the seeds can be subbed in for any culinary purpose.