Califonia Bountiful

A year of native plants

January/February 2022 California Bountiful magazine

Native plants for every month of the year

Who doesn't love a lush English-style garden overflowing with cottage garden favorites like delphiniums and carnations and roses? Gardeners around the world owe a lot to those fabulous English gardeners from the previous century or so who created so many of these wonderful gardens.

If those gardeners had been Californians, they likely would have filled their gardens with plants that do well in this climate. In fact, the queen of the English perennial border, Gertrude Jekyll, encouraged gardeners to accept the challenges and opportunities of climate, and to combine plants suited to the climate in whatever style pleased them.

I imagine if she had been a California gardener, unrelenting heat and bright sunshine would have dominated her planting choices instead of those determined by moist gray skies and gentle summer rains. She would describe summer, not winter, as the harshest season, and look for flowers and foliage that could stand up to the often-cruel California sun.

So, I am offering a year of native plants suited to heat, clay soils, lots of sunshine, summer drought and winter rains. These plants will give the garden many seasons of interest and will thrive in our unique climate.

An important note: "California native plants" and "drought tolerant" have become our new buzzwords. But it's extremely important to know that "drought tolerant" doesn't mean "plant it and forget it" or that these plants don't need any water at all. All plants need regular water to get established. Then you can start cutting back if, when you water, you water thoroughly. Also, "drought tolerant" means the plants can survive periods of drought without dying. It doesn't mean they like being deprived of water or that they won't suffer or that they will look good in the process. Give your plants a good start, keep the ground mulched, provide ample—but not too much—water and they will thrive. A watering system set with a timer is the best way to keep your garden healthy, no matter what sorts of plants you choose to include.

January: Evergreen currant (Ribes viburnifolium)

Ribes viburnifolium, also called evergreen currant, is a fabulous plant for dry shade under oak trees. It sends out runners and forms a sprawling ground cover. The 2-foot-long arching stems are a dark burgundy color, and the leaves a deep shiny green. When crushed, the leaves have a pleasing fragrance. Cut or mow the stems back to the ground every couple of years to keep plants looking neat. They can survive well without summer water once established but appreciate a drink every month.

February: Chaparral currant (Ribes malvaceum)

Ribes malvaceum, also called chaparral currant, comes out of dormancy as soon as the rains start and is a favorite nectar plant for migrating hummingbirds. Like its commonly available cousin, Ribes sanguineum, its leaves have a powerful, earthy scent. Another variety called Ribes speciosum sports masses of fuchsia-like, bright red drooping flowers along its spiny bare branches—very spectacular. They prefer afternoon shade because the leaves can burn.

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