7 Great CA Native Plants for Southern Sierra & South Valley Gardens – Pt 1

Greetings! Welcome to new subscribers and thanks to all of you for reading and spreading the word about this blog.  The following two-parter is something I’ve been wanting to share for a long time. So, here it is! In the upcoming weeks, I will write about plants, life, and our life with plants. Mostly native, but not always. Let me know your comments and suggestions!

Cleveland Sage – Salvia clevelandii

This lovely low-water, evergreen shrub for sun and part sun sites works in all but the heaviest clay soils. It will probably still grow in those soils, and in shade, but it will lose one of its nicest attributes, which is that it naturally retains a compact, rounded form to about four feet. Blue flowers from mid spring to early-summer, in that oh-so-sage-like whirl shape. Blooms hold color for a few months and attract a variety of birds and pollinators. About the only care is an annual shearing of old flowers if keeping it tidy-looking is important, as in front yards. If you water it too much to keep it green all summer, it may be short-lived. If you can tolerate a bit of summer dryness, once a month watering should do and the shrub will live a decade or more. There are lots of slight variations to the species: “Pozo Blue,” “Allen Chickering,” “Aromas,” and “Winifred Gilman” are a few.

Deer Grass – Muhlenbergia rigens

Still the go-to plant for a nice, compact, large California native bunch grass. Replacement for non-native fountain grass and pampas grass. Use it to add structure to a planting bed, mark a boundary or pathway, or for modern or formal effect. Grows to about four feet wide, three or more feet tall, with tall wand-like seed stalks in spring through fall that blow in the breeze and add a lot of interest and calmness to a garden. If you use several, be sure not to crowd them too much or plant too close to a walkway. They look funny if they are over-pruned and their natural roundness lost. Trim about 50-percent or more off every year or so to keep it looking greener as it ages. Winter dormant, but not quite as ugly as a dormant fountain grass. Water low-moderately, or very little on heavy soils. As they mature, water less on everything except quite sandy soils. A traditional bakset-making plant.

Margarita BOP Penstemon – Penstemon heterophyllus X ‘Margarita BOP’

A wild hybrid between P. heterophyllus and P. laetus, according to Las Pilitas Nursery founder Bert Evans, who discovered the original seedling and named it for where he found it: “Bottom of the Porch.” Penstemons, like sage, hybridize freely. The original plant died in 1998, but fortunately the species is still in the nursery trade. The blue-to-purple flowers (color depends on site, soil and year), in spring rise above an evergreen perennial that grows 1-3 feet tall, depending on how much sun it gets. Welcome in all gardens, it tolerates neglect, but keep it watered the first year or so, then back off as it gets established. Slopes, cottage gardens, pollinator gardens, container gardens, walkway borders…the uses seem about endless.

It looks a lot like its parent, Mountain Penstemon, P. heterophyllus, which grows in our local Sierra foothills. But M BOP better tolerates garden conditions like clay-ish soil and too much water. It’s other parent, P. laetus, also grows in our foothills, but tends to be finicky in the garden. So this hybrid is so useful – thanks, Bert Evans (RIP)!

Quail Bush – Atriplex lentiformis brewerii

I wish more of us with large yards would find a spot for this hearty, soil-improving shrub. Plant it to begin restoration of disturbed, weedy, former pasture-land that you want to grow prettier plants on. Although some of us think Quail Bush is quite pretty itself. Grow it where you need a quick plant fence or privacy screen. Plant it where you want to give quail a happy home. Plant it behind darker green plants to pop the “wow” contrast in your yard. Plant it where you don’t want or can’t water regularly. About the only conditions it doesn’t like is nice, deep loamy rich soil, where it doesn’t have a job to do. This is a tough plant that once covered more of the valley floor along with its salt bush cousins. The salt bush scrublands were largely removed from the valley floor in the last 100 years to make way for mono-crop agriculture, buildings and rangeland. Protect Quail Bush from browsers and grazers when its tiny. Rabbits and cattle know a good plant when they see one and will eat it to nothing. Quail and other birds like the seeds and the cover. Lizards like Quail bush too. Hardly water it unless you want a real giant. Naturally grows to 12 feet or so. Sure, you can hedge it. Just don’t baby it and it will be very happy.