California Native Plant Society

The Coastal Native Garden

By Tony Baker

Photo credit: Tracy Drake

Coastal California, with its temperate climate and great beaches, is one of the most desirable places to live on the planet.   Gardeners who live on or near the coast are able to grow practically every plant listed in the Sunset Western Garden Book, but with varying degrees of difficulty due to seasonally cool temperatures, salt laden winds, alkaline conditions, and nutrient-poor sandy soils.  For those who have the good fortune to live here and are also interested in planting a low maintenance, drought -tolerant  garden,  I suggest seeking out plants that are already adapted to grow in coastal conditions rather than struggling with plants that would be happier elsewhere.  Many of those plants are the same ones that have always grown here naturally in their native habitat.  There is no need to amend the soil or add ocean polluting fertilizers and pesticides.  One of perks of landscaping with native plants is the diversity of wildlife that will seek out your garden habitat.  

Camissonia cheiranthifolia. Photo credit: Laura Camp

In the minds-eye, picture an undeveloped coastal swath of beach strand, shifting dunes, stabilized back dunes, grassland/wildflower prairie and marshland habitats.  Then imagine the plants and animals that thrived here through the millennia.  Not surprisingly, many of these plants include dune, beach, coast, sea, strand, and sand as part of their common name and most will thrive in the home garden.  

Following is just a sampling of the many native plants that may be grown successfully near the beach in Southern California:

Beach Evening Primrose (Camissonia cheiranthifolia) is a low growing perennial with gray/green leaves that will rapidly grow to 3’ feet in diameter.  It thrives in full sun and flowers through much of the year with bright, golden yellow flowers.  Although its life span is only 2 to 3 years, many volunteer seedlings will appear to replace the parent plant and provide transplants to all of your neighbors.  It is appropriate that the City of Manhattan Beach recently designated the Beach Primrose as the official city flower because, historically, the dunes of the South Bay were carpeted by the cheerful blooms of this beautiful plant.

Dune Buckwheat (Eriogonum parvifolium) blooms through much of summer with balls of white/pink flowers that turn a rust-red by the end of the season.  Growing to a dense mound 2 ‘ high by 3’ wide with bright green leaves, it is an excellent nectar plant for native insects and seed source for birds.  It is of special importance in Los Angeles County restoration projects since it is the larval food plant for the endangered El Segundo Blue Butterfly (Euphilotes battoides allyni).

El Segundo Blue on Coast Buckwheat. photo credit: Ann Dalkey

The golden yellow flowers of Coast Goldenbush (Isocoma menziesii) form on 4’ tall multiple stems and provide nourishment for nectar seekers and seed eating birds in fall when most other natives are well past flowering.  This adaptable native will thrive near the beach and may be cut back hard in the winter if it becomes to exuberant.

Coastal California Poppy (Eschscholtzia maritima) differs from the well known orange California Poppy (Eschscholtzia californica) with mostly yellow flower petals framing an orange throat.  Usually thought of as an annual wildflower, if cut back periodically, it will live for several years in the home garden.  In spring, look for native bumblebees rolling around in the flower cup wallowing in the pollen.

Lupinus albifrons (Silver Bush Lupine) is very similar to Dune Lupine but grows with a more upright habit and has deeper blue flower color. It is also more tolerant of average garden conditions and heavier soils. photo credit: Tracy Drake

Sea Dahlia (Coreopsis maritima) is a tough herbaceous plant with a delicate look.  Low growing-under 2’-with finely cut leaves, it produces glossy yellow daisy flowers in profusion.  Giant Coreopsis (Coreopsis gigantea) is taller-up to 6’-with similar flowers and fern-like leaves giving it a “Dr. Seuss” look.  Both need summer dormancy, so place them where supplemental water will not be provided.

Dune Lupine (Lupinus chamissonis) is a stunning shrub with silvery foliage and sweetly scented lavender flowers.  Growing to 3’ high and 4’ wide, it must have good drainage, sandy soil and little, if any, summer water.

Tony Baker is horticulture co-chair of the South Coast Chapter of CNPS and owner of Natural Landscapes.  Tony is a native plant landscaper who helps homeowners install habitat friendly gardens in the South Bay of Los Angeles County.


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