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GOING WILD WITH NATIVES: Red-blooming Natives for San Diego

Anna's Hummingbird on California Fuschia

By Clayton Tschudy.

Native flowers come in all colors, but yellows, blues, and purples are most common. When red does occur, the plant is usually adapted for pollination by hummingbirds. Hummingbird adapted plants are distinctive. They typically have a tubular corolla (fused and long flower petals), and an arrangement of stamens and stigma that takes advantage of hummingbird anatomy. Hummingbirds also see colors in the warm range best, reds and pinks in particular. This is why most of our local hummingbird adapted plants are tubular, red, and have a long stigma lifted above the stamen. Some of these flowers are excellent garden subjects and are guaranteed to bring the hummers in to defend their prize!

California Fuchsia (Epilobium californicum)

Our native “fuchsias” are in the same family as true fuchsias, but are drought tolerant, adapted to a variety of ecological conditions along the west coast, and have many worthy selections for the garden. For best results in San Diego, I recommend buying a named selection drawn from Southern California (photo above). My favorite is Epilobium ‘Catalina’ a 3-4 foot tall shining silver specimen with an abundance of fire red blooms. There are also ground cover and rounded forms. Your local garden center is likely to have several to choose from this time of year. California fuchsias are strongly hummingbird adapted and are timed to bloom summer-into-fall with the hummingbird migration. Perhaps due to climate change, I occasionally see them blooming starting in spring. Maintenance for these is a 2-step process: cut the whole plant to the ground in November when it is done blooming; then tip prune (25% off the top) in March to encourage a full, bushy character during the summer bloom.

Scarlet Bugler (Penstemon centrathifolius)

California has a wide variety of Penstemon species adapted to conditions from the coastal foothills to high mountain scree to the desert. One of the best is Scarlet Bugler that can get up to three feet tall and wide. Locally, this species is most common in the desert interface, and as you might expect is quite drought tolerant. Grown as a specimen it makes quite a statement for a few weeks at peak bloom. This one is extremely tough, but does require sharp drainage for good results. It is a little unkempt following bloom, so I blend it with other low water perennials that will keep going through the summer like California Fuchsia and Goldenrod. Keep a light watering hand, especially in heavy soils. Groom for aesthetics, but leave plenty of green on the plant after flowering.

Red Sticky Monkey Flower (Diplacus puniceus)

Many gardeners treasure Monkey flowers as among the most beautiful native flowers, although they are infamous for being difficult to keep alive in San Diego gardens. The trick is to replicate their natural conditions: part or high shade; low summer water; free draining soil; and for the red varieties, and hybrids, plenty of organic matter in the soil. There are gardeners who say they break the rules and succeed. However, for each of those, there are ten whose Monkey flowers failed after one season. The face of Monkey flower looks flat and like, well, like a monkey. However, the backside is a long tube, favored by hummers. Gardening with this plant is an opportunity to use a locally native species, as the red form occurs in coastal canyons to the foothills throughout San Diego County.

Hummingbird Sage (Salvia spathecea)

Hummingbird Sage.  Photo credit: Clayton Tschudy.

As the name suggests, this red sage—the only red sage species indigenous to the California coast ranges—is a hummer favorite. Another good option for shade or sun, Hummingbird Sage can take deep shade if needed. This species forms colonies over time, happily filling a shady corner with its lovely flowers. The inflorescences are covered in sticky resin that smells like pineapple sage on overdrive. I’m always surprised it is not used extensively in cooking or perfumery. Summer dormant, so be sure not to overwater during the hot months. Give this salvia a hard cut to the ground in November as necessary to keep it tidy.

Bush Snapdragon (Gambelia juncea)

Bush Snapdragon.  Photo credit: Clayton Tschudy.

This is the only evergreen shrub on the list, and one of the few evergreen shrubs to have a strong red bloom in California. All the Gambelias are also on the small side, making them excellent subjects for suburban gardens. My favorite for beautiful form, wide soil tolerance, and bloom character is Gambelia ‘Punta Banda’. It is stunning in bloom, dotted with what look like little red kissing lips. The shrub can be shaped, even used as a low hedge to replace Japanese box or dwarf myrtle. In addition, unlike both of those stalwarts, the foliage is lime green and soft to the touch. Regular shaping will sacrifice most of the blooms, however. Frost may take it down to the ground, but the plant will recover to full size in the next season, teaching us that you can coppice the plant to refresh it. In bloom, this truly wonderful shrub is a hummingbird bonanza. Everyone should have one of these.

Clayton Tschudy is a local botanist and owner of CJT Ecologics. He frequently leads educational hikes and gives presentations on native flora and habitat gardening.

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