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FROM THE ARCHIVES: Going Wild With Natives - California Native “Japanese” Garden

By Greg Rubin, for Let's Talk Plants! April 2024. Originally published in the San Diego Horticultural Society newsletter, April 2012, No. 211.

California Native “Japanese” Garden

At first glance, creating an Asian style garden from California native plants is completely counter intuitive. This style developed half-way around the world, in a completely different climate! However, there are many native plants that lend themselves beautifully to an Asian garden, creating an effect that is authentic to the style, yet very native.

Most plants in the Asian garden are evergreen. Subtle foliar color and texture are much more important than gaudy splashes of flower color. Trees and shrubs, especially small pines, are carefully maintained to appear contorted, suggesting windswept age (like large bonsai). Lodgepole pine, Pinus contorta var. contorta, is an excellent substitute for Japanese black pine, and much more drought tolerant.

Coffeeberry, Rhamnus californica, is an elegant evergreen shrub with red stems, dark green oval leaves, and large colorful berries. It comes in a number of varieties ranging from low mounds to large shrubs.

Dramatic red-branched Manzanitas, Archtostaphylos spp., are perfect subjects for the Japanese garden. Use tall species to display their impressive sculptural scaffolding. Medium shrubs create near perfect evergreen mounds with dense flowers and brilliant berries. Low growing varieties with close, evenly-spaced leaves form lush carpets. Different varieties add interest and contrast.

Pacific coast iris, Iris douglasiana, is evergreen, spiky, and available in many colors.

Other superlative choices include native azalea, Rhododendron occidentale, which holds its own with exotic varieties. Pacific coast iris, Iris douglasiana, is evergreen, spiky, and available in many colors. Native sedge and spike rush are highly reminiscent of Asian varieties. Juniperus communis is a beautiful, ground hugging silver juniper, ideal in this type of landscape.

Appropriate colorspots include thrift, Armeria maritima, with low grass-like leaves and bright pink pom-pom flowers. California bush anemone, Carpinteria californica, is like an upright gardenia, with its lovely fragrance and evergreen character. Mahonia nervosa strongly resembles the Japanese forms of barberry. Mock orange, Philadelphus spp., California redbud, Cercis occidentalis, and snowdrop bush, Styrax officinalis californica, are striking for both their beautiful flowers and delicate deciduous nature. Our native birch, Betula occidentalis, has lovely fall color and beautiful bark. Buttonwillow, Cephalanthus occidentalis californica, and native dogwoods, C. glabrata, C. nuttallii, C. stolonifera, are attractive deciduous shrubs. And finally, vine maple, Acer circinatum, or even miniature box elder, Acer negundo californicum ‘Bert’s Toy Box’, can be used to emulate the color and form of the Japanese maple, Acer palamatum.

Large trees for an Asian style garden include white alder, Alnus rhombifolia, big-leaf maple, Acer macrophyllum, and redwoods, Sequoia sempervirens and Sequoiadendron giganteum. These are used primarily in the background or to define large garden spaces. Appropriate native understory plants include evergreen currant, Ribes viburniolium, creeping mahonia, Mahonia repens, snowberry, Symphoricarpos sp., and woodland strawberry, Fragaria californica. Plants like the enormous giant chain fern, Woodwardia fimbriata, western sword fern, Polystichum munitum, and wood fern, Dryopteris arguta, complete the look of the Japanese shade woodland.

Non-plant materials: Carved rock or concrete lanterns lend or imply lighting along paths. Locally available boulders like gneiss, with its beautiful striations, and colorful gravels complete the effect. Structures may include fences, railing, arbors, benches, even a tea house, generally built from bamboo. Good substitutes are straight willow limbs or collected Arundo donax, (a noxious Mediterranean reed destroying native wetlands). Be careful that the reed is fully dead, as it loves to sprout and multiply!


Greg Rubin was the SDHS 2018 Horticulturist of the Year recipient and is the founder and owner of California’s Own Landscape Design, Inc. ( and a popular speaker. A specialist in the use of native plants in the landscape, he has designed well over 500 native landscapes in San Diego County.


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