California Natives Show Off Their Winter Colors

On any open garden day in February, casual visitors to Garden for the Environment stop just south of the main gate, amazed and curious about the lovely shrub whose bare branches are covered in delicate pendulous pink flowers. Thinking it must be some tender exotic, they ask a passing gardener, who is likely to say “Oh, that’s a Ribes, a tough, drought tolerant native. It is so vigorous that it self-seeds in this border every year, we don’t know what to do with all the seedlings.” 

Ribes sanguineum  at GFE.

Ribes sanguineum at GFE.

California Natives: A Beautiful Choice

Many people, when they think about native plants, conjure up a vision of rangy, sparse, weedy looking shrubs. And sadly, many native plants have been set out around town in well-meant projects and then neglected, giving native gardening a bad name.

But native plants, when well-cared for, can produce as many graceful, magical effects as plants from anywhere else on the planet. And with future irrigation water for California homes very much in question, natives have a stronger appeal than ever. Since these plants evolved for our climate, they are among the best candidates to survive our cyclical droughts.

At this time of year, our native hillside at Garden for the Environment has a watercolor wash of color, and one set of blooms will replace another all through the spring and summer. Now, Ribes and Ceanothus offer baby pinks and blues, along with darker blues and lavender. Soon lupines, monkey flower, flannel bush, sages, poppies, and many bright daisies will parade their spring and summer wardrobe for us. 

Ceanothus  at the GFE.

Ceanothus at the GFE.

The natives will unfold one generous effect after another until well into our annual drought. By late summer, the hillside will quiet down, and only a few late bloomers, such as St. Catherine’s Lace, will note the arrival of fall. Late summer and fall are the resting times for California native plants, during our warmest and driest months, just as in other climates plants may rest during the coldest times. Then, as the first rains penetrate the dry soil, the native plants begin their growing season again.

Design Challenges With Natives

In a small urban garden, the natives’ quiet time in late summer can be a design problem, since it is also the time people plan to be outside more often and want their gardens looking good for a barbecue or a vacation week. For the non-purists, it is easy enough to include plants with late summer or fall bloom from other climate zones.

One plant which is included in many San Francisco gardens for this reason is Tibouchina, or princess flower (from Brazil). Although a healthy or old specimen may have some flowers on it all year long, its biggest annual flowering occurs in fall, just as most California natives have given up for the year. Pineapple sage (from Mexico) and lion’s tail (from South Africa) are some other brilliant bloomers that will give a garden dramatic color in the fall.

Tibouchina  at the GFE.

Tibouchina at the GFE.

Another possible approach to the late summer let down in native gardens is to include plants that will hold colorful foliage, or foliage with dramatic textures during this time of year. Many ornamental grasses bloom late in the summer, and plants like Phormium or Coprosma (both from New Zealand) can offer dramatic foliage color that can fill in when not much else is blooming. All the plants with fall interest which are mentioned here are drought-tolerant, and will blend into an unwatered native planting as far as their irrigation needs, with the exception of the princess flower which does need summer irrigation for success.

Loving the Natural Rhythm

This is a wonderful time of year to plan a visit to a well-designed and maintained native garden. In addition to GFE, the California Native section in the San Francisco Botanical Garden can offer inspiration, as can the wonderful public native garden on Corwin Street in the Upper Market neighborhood.

Those who come away inspired may choose to redesign an existing garden to include more natives, or to begin a new gardening project with all native plants. Either way, gardening with natives promotes diversity, saves irrigation water, and offers habitat to our native insects and birds. Considering all these benefits, it may not be too hard to learn to love the seasonal quiet of late summer and fall. When California hills turn brown, and the native plants are resting, it is time to dream about winter, when the watercolor wash of bloom will begin again.