Marin Master Gardeners
University of California
Marin Master Gardeners

Native shrubs create a visual anchor in landscapes - fast

Autumn is the perfect time to plant shrubs in Northern California. Getting plants in the ground now will give them ample opportunity to take in water from the upcoming winter storms. Fall-planted shrubs use the cool, wet winter months to develop sturdy root systems before spring's warmer weather makes them pop to life with green growth.

There are many reasons to add California native plants to your garden. Because they were “born” here, they are naturally attuned to our climate and soil. Consequently, gardening with natives reduces the need for summer irrigation and costly fertilizers that often run off and pollute our waterways. They also help maintain biodiversity by attracting birds, bees, and butterflies for pollination.

If your garden has a bare spot, consider using one of the following native shrubs to fill the void. Each will grow to about 10 feet tall by 10 feet wide, making them good choices for visual "anchors" in the corner or periphery of a garden. Native shrubs can provide privacy, screen out unwanted views and serve as backdrops for smaller plants in a garden bed. They also attract a variety of wildlife throughout the seasons.

Four California native shrubs to anchor your landscape

native shrubs article photo - calycanthus
Spice bush (Calycanthus occidentalis)
This quick-growing deciduous shrub is a good choice for moist, sloped, part-shade areas adjacent to streams and creeks. It has a dense growing habit, with lush green leaves and scented red flowers that attract adult butterflies. Spice bush is deer resistant and is also tolerant of our clay soils. When left to its own devices, it tends to maintain a tidy, well-groomed appearance year round, without a lot of pruning. Gardeners with semi-sheltered riparian landscapes can use spice bush to create a bright backdrop with a splash of seasonal color.

native shrubs article photo - rhamnus
Coffeeberry (Rhamnus californica)
Coffeeberry is native to California and southwest Oregon. This shrub has a lot to offer aesthetically and as a wildlife plant. It is clay tolerant, as long as it is not overwatered, and it is a good companion to oaks, happily accepting part shade.
Both larval and adult butterflies are attracted to coffeeberry. Its glossy, deep green leaves are a food source for gray hairstreak and pale swallowtail caterpillars. The white flowers of the coffeeberry provide spring nectar for wildlife, and the berries put on a show as they ripen from green to red, and eventually to almost black.

native shrubs article photo - atriplex
Brewer's saltbush (Atriplex lentiformis)

Atriplex can grow to 12 feet in width, providing a large dose of interesting foliage color. The branches are silvery blue-green, and they take on an almost otherworldly iridescence in the sunlight. The flowers and seeds provide seasonal food for birds, and the arching, sprawling growing habit of saltbush creates a refuge for wildlife. This plant is also referred to as quail bush, which makes sense, as the low canopy provides the perfect place for a covey of quail to run to for cover.

Atriplex branches cut from the garden add an unusual foliage component to flower bouquets. Saltbush needs no supplemental water once it is established. To capitalize on its size and unique color, pair saltbush with darker-leaved, drought-tolerant plants. The visual contrast is striking.

native shrubs article photo - fremontodendron
Flannel bush (Fremontodendron californicum)

If you want height, flannel bush has you covered. Fremontodendron gets very tall, quickly reaching about 20 feet in height. Flannel bush needs no supplemental water once it has been established, and deer don't tend to go after it, but the plants tend to be short-lived.

The leaves of the flannel bush are irregular-shaped and leathery-looking, a nice contrast to the showy, abundant yellow flowers that cover the shrub each spring. This shrub is best situated in an area where people aren't likely to brush up against it, as the leaves and seed capsules are covered with hair-like bristles that can irritate the skin.

The fast-growing habit of flannel bush makes it a great choice for near-instant gratification and background color on a well-drained hill. If the 20-foot height of Fremontodendron californicum is more than you want, you can seek out a compact form such as F. californicum crassifolium, which reaches approximately 8 feet by 8 feet, or a shorter hybrid such as "Pacific Sunset," which grows to about 12 to 15 feet tall.

Make way for wildlife

To support the birds and beneficial insects that will be attracted to these native plants, you might need to change your gardening habits a bit. When doing your autumn leaf clean up, leave some debris as shelter. Likewise, when pruning, be conservative about thinning native shrubs, allowing their natural growth habits to provide cover for birds.
If you are hoping to foster an environment conducive to the breeding habits of butterflies, look before you cut and rake, as butterfly eggs or chrysalides might be hidden on the underside of the leaves. Avoid using pesticides or herbicides that may be harmful to wildlife.

To amend -- or not

Opinions vary on whether to amend the soil when planting California natives, even among botanical gardens and native plant societies. The argument against amending makes sense when you consider that amendments can cause a plant's roots to get "comfortable" within the amended area and encircle the planting hole rather than spreading out into the native soil.

Proponents of planting natives in all-native soil assert that the best way to achieve success with native plants is to select plants with needs that match your current soil conditions.

Know your local soil's characteristics and research which native plants do well in your microclimate before you visit the nursery.

Original article by Jennifer Kinion
Edited for the Leaflet by Marie Narlock

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