UNITED STATES—California native plants are logical options for the gardens and landscapes of California. It is only natural. They are already happy with the climates and soils here. They do not need to adapt quite as much as plants from other regions and climates do. After all, they lived here long before anyone else was here to water and maintain them.
Unfortunately, it is not that easy. California is a very diverse place. There are more climates here than there are within many other states combined, over a much larger area. Plants that are native to the Mojave Desert would not be happy in a rainforest of the Siskiyou Mountains. Coastal plants would be no happier high in the Sierra Nevada.
Within reason, California native plants for landscapes and home gardens should be either locally native, or native to similar climates. Plants from very different climates within California are about as exotic as plants from other continents. Just like foreign exotic plants, they may require special accommodation, such as irrigation, to survive here.
Consider the seasons of the climate.
All plants need irrigation when first installed. Irrigation can be slightly complicated for plants that are native to climates with long and dry summers. They certainly need irrigation until they disperse their roots. However, a bit too much can rot their roots. California native plants can be sensitive like that. After all, they do not expect to be moist through summer.
Then, once established, many California native plants do not want frequent irrigation. Many want none at all. Chaparral plants like oak, manzanita, toyon, ceanothus and coyote brush tend to rot with too much watering. Plants that are native to riparian or coastal regions, like redwood, bigleaf maple, willow, cottonwood, elderberry and ferns, tolerate more irrigation.
Most California native plants that are from chaparral or desert climates do not perform well within the confinement of pots or planters. They prefer to disperse roots very extensively and directly into the soil, just like they do in the wild. Once established, they do not transplant easily.
Highlight: Bigleaf Maple
Its natural coastal range extends from the extreme southern corner of Alaska to the southwestern corner of California. Another inland range occupies foothills of the Sierra Nevada. Bigleaf maple, Acer macrophyllum, is the most common and prominent native maple here. However, it prefers the seclusion of forested riparian situations at higher elevations locally. It is rare in urban gardens.
Bigleaf maple is best in the wild anyway. It dislikes the aridity of most of the urban and suburban areas of California. (San Jose is in a chaparral climate. Los Angeles is in a desert climate.) Roots of bigleaf maple are potentially aggressive, especially if irrigated generously. They easily displace pavement. Nonetheless, where climate and circumstances allow, bigleaf maple is a grand tree.
Wild trees grow as tall as a 150 feet within forests where they compete for sunlight. Well exposed suburban trees should stay lower than 40 feet, while extending their canopies broader than tall. The big and palmately lobed leaves are mostly more than six inches wide. Foliage turns yellow in autumn, and is abundant as it falls. Self sown seedlings often grow under mature trees.
Horticulturist Tony Tomeo can be contacted at tonytomeo.com.