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Pruning California Native Plants

Photo courtesy of UC Regents
Photo courtesy of UC Regents

Because they are native plants doesn’t mean they don’t need care.  Pruning is essential to keep plants healthy.

Pruning Natives

Three basic cuts are used:

  • Thinning Cut: This cut removes a branch back to its point of origin. It is used to improve structure and let in air and light. Do not leave stubs or make cuts flush against the plant. Cut just outside of the branch collar.
  • Heading Cut: This cut removes the newest growth back to a bud, leaf or small twig. It is used to promote density of leaves, fruit or flowers, and to control size. It is also called tipping, or shearing if carried to extreme!
  • Re-Leadering Cut: A leader is the dominant branch. A re-leadering cut removes the leading branch by cutting to a side branch, which will then become the new leader. This side branch must be at least ⅓ the size of the original leader. When this cut is used it reduces the overall size of the plant.

Basic pruning tips:

  • The 3 D’s: dead, diseased, damaged. These branches can be removed at any time.
  • The 3 C’s: Remove branches which are competing, crossing, crowded.
  • The 3 S’s: Consider safety, sight lines, shape.
  • Create a good structure with well-spaced branches.
  • Remove suckers from the root crown, unless you are trying to renovate a plant or encourage multiple trunks.
  • Only remove 25% of plant material. Don’t get stuck on one side - move around and look at what you’ve done. Step back and reassess.

Rules for Specific Plants

Here are some suggestions for specific plants:

Deciduous Trees and Shrubs

Generally, prune in late winter before they leaf out.

  • Creek Dogwood (Cornus sericea): Can be cut back to shape the structure, or coppiced in winter. Coppicing is extreme pruning where the plant is cut almost to the ground.
  • Elderberry (Sambucus nigra/racemosa): Prune as a small tree or cut back to create a dense shrub for more blossoms and fruit.
  • Western Redbud (Cercis occidentalis): Multi-trunked tree or shrub with bright pink flowers in spring. It can be trained with a single trunk. Prune after flowering. In late winter, thin out old trunks and use thinning cuts to enhance the winter silhouette.
  • Western Mock Orange (Philadelphus lewisii): A beautiful arching plant with sweet smelling flowers. Remove some older canes in winter. Can be coppiced every few years.

Broadleaf Evergreen Trees and Shrubs

This includes most of our local native plants such as coast live oak, bay, toyon, ceanothus and madrone. Generally, prune in late summer when dormant, before the rains.

  • Ceanothus (many species): Go lightly as these are reluctant to produce shoots from old wood. Recommend tip pruning, and thinning of interior and low dead growth. Prune after flowering once rains have stopped.
  • Toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia): Prune for structure in late summer or early It is susceptible to fire blight; affected branches should be removed immediately. Toyon puts out new stems from the base; old branches that are deteriorating can be removed.
  • Manzanita (Arctostaphylos, many species): Prune lightly in late summer as it does not back bud. Showcase the beautiful branches and deep red bark with judicious thinning cuts. Consider leaving dead branches for character. Flowers bloom from early winter to spring followed by berries which remain through summer. Pinch branch tips for a dense look in ground covers or shrub forms.
  • Lemonade Berry (Rhus integrifolia) and Sugar Bush (Rhus ovata): Both respond well to pruning and can be grown as a single or multi-trunk small tree or, with vigorous tipping, serve as a screen or informal hedge. Prune after summer fruiting or in any season. They can be a skin irritant to some people as they are in the Sumac family.

Small Woody Shrubs

There are three ways to handle pruning shrubs.

  • Lightly prune throughout the year to keep compact and full.
  • Remove one third of the plant after flowering to shape and control size.
  • Some shrubs can be coppiced (cut almost to the ground).

Tips on small, woody shrubs:

  • Bush Anemone (Carpenteria californica): Prune back 1/3 after flowering to improve shape or cut back hard in late summer to encourage fresh growth.
  • Coffee Berry (Frangula californica): This is a very adaptable plant which is handsome year round. Prune in late summer for structure after berries have faded. It can be lightly pruned all year to control size and form.
  • Sage (Salvia, many species): Remove up to one third after flowering, some time before new growth. Can be pruned to look bonsai-like.

Herbaceous Perennials

These plants should be cut back by one third, or a few inches above the ground in late winter before new growth.

  • Matilija Poppy (Romneya coulteri)
  • California fuchsia (Epilobium canum)
  • Some salvias such as Hummingbird Sage (Salvia spathacea)

Native Plant Resources

Native Plant Nurseries
- CNPS sale at Falkirk Mansion in San Rafael (April/October)
- https://www.cnpsmarin.org/native-plants/resources/item/277-native-plant-nurseries
- https://www.marincounty.org/depts/pw/divisions/creeks-bay-and-flood/mcstoppp/nurseries

Helpful Websites
- https://www.cnps.org/gardening
- http://calscape.org/planting-guide.php

Botanical Gardens/Tours
- http://www.ebparks.org/parks/tilden/botanic_garden.htm
- https://www.sfbg.org

- CA Native Plants for the Garden (Bornstein/Fross/O’Brien)
- Designing CA Native Gardens (Keator/Middlebrook)