Plant Selection: California Native Plant Communities
By Rob Moore
Coastal sage scrub plant community near Descanso, California. Photo Credit: Rob Moore
When designing a California native garden, plant selection is probably the one aspect people find most exciting–and daunting! At this juncture it’s good to pause and consider questions such as “What plant community do I live in?” and “How do I go about identifying this community?” This step requires one to look at the design process from a different perspective—that of emulating the natural ecosystem or plant community that existed prior to the development of the home and neighborhood where the garden is to be designed. Identifying this natural ecosystem is the first step in the plant selection process.
Generally speaking, most of the densely populated areas in California (primarily those in the southern part of the state) are located in the coastal sage scrub plant community. Inland areas in southern California such as Riverside and San Bernardino have their own version of this plant community referred to as interior, or Riversidian sage scrub. There are many other specific climates to be considered depending upon where in California you live. Examples include northern oak woodland, northern juniper woodland, central oak woodland, yellow pine forest, Douglas Fir forest, valley grassland, and Great Basin sage, to name a few.
Look around the neighborhood where the garden is to be designed, and take note of areas that haven’t been developed. Do stands of intact native plant groups still occur naturally? Note what plants are growing there, and how they grow together. Another clue is to look for native plant volunteers popping up in people’s ornamental landscapes. These indicator plants offer insight as to what will easily grow in your particular neighborhood.
If you live in an area where no natural areas exist and native plant volunteers are not obvious, there are other resources available. Las Pilitas Nursery has a website where you can enter your zip code, locate the plant community associated with it, and find links to plants that occur naturally in that specific region.
Tree of Life Nursery’s website is a valuable resource as well. In particular, their series Sage Advice “The California Garden” is an excellent source from which to choose plants based on California native plant communities.
Take a tip from Mother Nature, make California's native plant communities the starting point when choosing plants for your new garden!
CNPS’s definitive system for describing plant communities and alliances is the basis for A Manual of California Vegetation (MCV). This classification system has been widely adopted by government agencies and analysts statewide. To learn more about the MCV, please see this link.