Hero Image

California Native Plants: Beauty & Many Environmental Benefits

Bush anemone (Carpenteria californica) is a deer-resistant shrub that grows in sun or shade and has fragrant flowers. Photo: PlantMaster
Bush anemone (Carpenteria californica) is a deer-resistant shrub that grows in sun or shade and has fragrant flowers. Photo: PlantMaster

You can bring the natural beauty – and ecology -- of your surroundings into your garden by growing some of the plants that were here before settlers arrived. There are approximately 8,000 native plants in California, many found nowhere else in the world. Of these, over 1,000 are native to Marin. They range from the tallest living thing on earth to tiny low-growing succulents and thousands of plants in between. Natives are undemanding and provide a host of benefits. Learn more about native plants.

To see what plants are native to your area, enter your zip code here.
To see a garden plan list for natives by location, style, purpose, and sun exposure, enter your town here.

> What is a native plant?
> Adaptations that allow native plants to survive summer-dry conditions
> Why grow native plants?
> Native plant communities: what's growing near your neighborhood?
> Grow native wildflowers from seed
> Caring for natives

What is a native plant?

Native plants share some important traits:

  • They were here long before our European ancestors (and their animals) arrived.
  • They co-evolved over a long period with animals, fungi, and microbes.
  • The first Californians depended on then for food, livelihood, medicine, etc.
  • They are the foundation of our native ecosystems. Some bacteria, fungi, bees, butterflies, ants, and birds depend on them to survive.

A will to live: how native plants thrive in our summer-dry climate

Many natives possess special adaptations in their leaves and roots that allow them to thrive in our summer-dry climate.

Why Grow California Native Plants?

Growing native plants is the best way to support Marin's unique biodiversity. Photo: Las Pilitas
Growing native plants is the best way to support Marin's unique biodiversity. Photo: Las Pilitas

Protect Marin's precious biodiversity

Marin's blend of native plants, animals, insects, and microorganisms exists only in Marin.

What is biodiversity? 

Biodiversity is the variety of living things that naturally co-exist in a specific area. Every area is unique and each species in an ecosystem plays a role -- even the ones you can only see with a microscope. Some are food for larger organisms. Others help break down dead organisms that return nutrients to soil. Plants play a critical role in an ecosystem. Ecologists call this interconnectedness the "web of life."

Why does it matter?

Landscapes that enhance biodiversity are more resilient to pests, diseases, and even the effects of climate change. Growing native plants creates a functioning ecosystem in your garden.

Help keep California biodiverse. California is the most biodiverse state in the US and among the most biodiverse regions in the world, yet threats loom:
• 30% of California's native species are threatened with extinction.
• Habitat loss is the primary cause of biodiversity decline.
• In the next 100 years, climate change is expected to shrink the range of most California endemic plants by up to 80%.

Encourage sustainability. Native plants are a key component of a sustainable, Earth-friendly garden.

Conserve water: Because they evolved in California’s summer dry climate, most natives prefer little or no supplemental water once established.

Reduce maintenance. Natives are naturally suited to Marin's climate, soil, insects, and animals.

Avoid chemicals. No pesticides, herbicides, or fertilizers are needed with natives. Many natives have developed their own defenses against pests and diseases. Rather than use pesticides, let the plant’s natural defenses and beneficial insects provide protection.

Encourage wildlife. Attract the insects, birds, and other wildlife that co-evolved with native plants and that depend on them for survival. Growing natives helps replace habitat that has been lost to development. It also creates wildlife corridors that connect urban landscapes with remaining wildlands. Studies show that wildlife populations increase when invasive, non-native plants are removed and native plants are allowed to thrive.

Help prevent erosion. When erosion is kept in check, our watershed (and drinking water) is healthier.

Create a sense of place and a connection to your natural surroundings. Like people, native plants live in communities with a distinct look and feel. Growing plants that naturally exist in your area ups your odds of success. The further you move away from a plant’s comfort zone, the harder it is to grow successfully. If you live near the coast, select plants that are native to the coastal sage scrub plant community. If you're surrounded by oak woodland, consider plants that thrive under oaks and if there are towering redwoods around you, check out plants that grow under redwoods. The plant communities below are common in Marin County.


Native plant communities: what's growing near your neighborhood?

Photo: L Stiles
Photo: L Stiles
Characterized by oak trees interspersed with other trees and shrubs, plus an understory of grasses and perennials. Much of this plant community has been replaced by weeds.
Examples: coast live oak (Quercus agrifolia), California buckeye (Aesculus California), pacific madrone (Arbutus menziesii), coffeeberry (Frangula californica), toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia), sticky monkeyflower (Diplacus aurantiacus), and hummingbird sage (Salvia spathacea)

Carpenteria California. Photo: Las Pilitas
Carpenteria California. Photo: Las Pilitas
Diverse plant community. Grows along coast and on steep chaparral (dense, drought resistant shrubs.) These plants prefer well drained soil and sun. They are adapted to long, dry spells and summer fog.
Examples: manzanita (Arctostaphylos), California lilac (Ceanothus), California sagebrush (Artemisia). buckwheat (Eriogonum), coyote bush (Baccharis pilularis 'Pigeon Point'), currants (Ribes), sage (Salvia)

Photo: Photopea
Photo: Photopea
Includes redwood groves, forested areas, and places with year-round streams and creeks. It is often damp with a thick layer of natural mulch. These plants prefer partial shade and riparian plants (those growing near water) need regular water.
Examples: western sword fern (Polystichum munitum, pink flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum). California aster (Symphyotrichum chilensis), douglas iris (Iris douglasiana), and western columbine (Aquilegia formosa).  


Grow native wildflowers from seed

Clarkia amoeba is a native annual easily grown from seed. Photo: Bonnie Marks
Clarkia amoeba is a native annual easily grown from seed. Photo: Bonnie Marks
Some of the native wildflowers that adorn Marin's hillsides in spring grow beautifully from seed. This can be as easy as tossing a handful of seeds into bare soil in the fall and enjoying the show in spring. These annuals are easy to grow and make colorful additions to the spring garden:

• California Poppy (Eschscholzia californica)
• Baby Blue Eyes (Nemophila menziesii)
• Farewell-to-Spring (Clarkia amoena)
• Tidytips (Layia platiglossa)

Learn more about caring for California native plants.