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By: Susan Krzywicki.

Starting on the adventure of using California Natives can be daunting at times. So many plants…so many new names…but as with other types of gardening, from vegetables to orchids, there is a core group of plants that are a good entry point. These species are found in most nurseries and used in native plant landscaping. Begin with some of the following and you can make a fast start. These plants become like good friends: you learn their names, then their habitats, and eventually their quirks in your own garden. You will develop a long-lasting relationship with many of these easy-to-grow favorites.

Smaller Perennials and Ground Covers

  • Manzanita (Arctostaphylos sp.): Look for species with a coastal sounding name—like ‘Carmel Creeper’ or ‘Pacific Mist’.

  • Dwarf Coyote Bush (Baccharis pilularis ‘Pigeon Point’): Medium green “shag carpet” ground cover; great for hillsides.

  • California Buckwheat (Eriogonum sp.): Two of my favorites are E. grande var. rubescens (small with red or pink blossoms) and E. giganteum (large with sprays of delicate white flowers).

  • Island Bush Snapdragon (Gambelia speciosa): This small shrub offers beautiful red flowers.

  • Cleveland Sage (Salvia clevelandii): Our classic “California Coastal” plant.


  • Toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia): Vase-shaped form with cream-white flowers and red berries; they make up much our coastal scrub wild lands.

  • California Coffeeberry (Rhamnus californica): Sturdy, compact shrub with beautiful berries.

  • Matilija Poppy (Romneya coulteri): Spreading perennial with the most amazing white blooms with yellow centers.

Larger Shrubs and Small Trees

  • Manzanita (Arctostaphylos sp.): Try ‘Dr. Hurd’, which has larger, rounder leaves than most in a pale grey-green.

  • Western Redbud (Cercis occidentalis): Deciduous fall foliage tree with magenta flowers in spring.

  • Catalina Ironwood (Lyonothamnus floribundus ssp. asplenifolius): Tall, narrow tree reaching up to fifty feet; fern shaped leaves and bark resembling that of a redwood tree.

  • Torrey Pine (Pinus torreyana): Our local symbol; it is rare, so adding one to your garden is a real treat.

  • Holly-Leafed Cherry (Prunus ilicifolia ssp. ilicifolia): Large shrub with white spring flowers and red fall berries; can be pruned to encourage a graceful shape.

  • Lemonadeberry (Rhus integrifolia): Large shrub with berries that really do taste like lemons!

Your Results May Vary

As with all plant lists, it may be that you have tried a particular plant and didn’t find it to be “easy” or it didn’t perform for you. In that case, just move on to another choice. With over 6,000 native plant species, you will create your own personal “Easy to Grow” list and you will come to love your favorites for their ability to make your garden more beautiful and create habitat.

Susan Krzywicki is a native plant landscape designer in San Diego. She was the first Horticulture Program Director for the California Native Plant Society, as well as chair of the San Diego Surfrider Foundation Ocean Friendly Gardens Committee, and is on the Port of San Diego BCDC for the Chula Vista Bayfront.

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