Garden Q&A – Year-round color in a California native garden

CNPS Garden Q&A with Lili Singer, Director of Special Projects and Adult Education at the Theodore Payne Foundation:


What’s your advice for creating year-round color in my California native garden?



The California Flora is vast and offers myriad choices, making it fun and easy to establish year-round color.  The first step is to asses your site’s climate, soil, sunlight, and space.  Next, you can mix and match plants that will thrive in those conditions.

Two important things to remember:

  1. Flowering times may vary slightly from year to year, depending on the weather, and often cross more than one season.
  2. Foliage, bark, fruit, and seed also add color. Integrate their dramatic shades into your design and your expectations.

Don’t rush to deadhead!  Leave spent inflorescences to dry on the plants.  They add sculptural accents and provide seed for birds and other critters.

The big payoff: A year-round display of flowering and fruiting natives attracts and supports songbirds, hummingbirds, butterflies, bees, and other welcome wildlife, enhancing your outdoor experience and boosting pollination.

For more ideas and inspiration, plus details on the plants listed here, I recommend California Native plants for the Garden, by Carol Bornstein, David Fross, and Bart O’Brien (Cachuma Press, 2005), available at  You can also visit to search for native plants in your area by flower color and blooming season.

Floral Stars by Season

Catalina fuchsia Photo: Ken Gilliand
Catalina fuchsia (Epilobium californica ‘Catalina’) Photo: Ken Gilliand


California fuchsia (Epilobium) – Tough subshrubs and perennials with vivid red or orange (or occasionally white or pink) flowers and silver, gray or green leaves. Good choice for slopes and sun-drenched gardens. Flowers are the most important food source for hummingbirds in late summer and fall.

More ideas: Coyote brush (Baccharis), monkey flower (Diplacus), coyote mint (Monardella), California goldenrod (Solidago californica).

Lester Rowntree Manzanita (Arctostaphylos ‘Lester Rowntree’) Photo: Ken Gilliland


Manzanita, (Arctostaphylos) – California shrubs and groundcovers with legendary red bark and small, nodding, white to pink blossoms followed by showy red-tinged fruit. Hummingbirds depend on the winter blooms. Some manzanitas start flowering in late autumn; others in winter or early spring. Plant more than one species or cultivar for a long season of color.

More ideas: Barberry (Berberis), coast silk-tassel (Garrya elliptica), Baja birdbush (Ornithostaphylos oppositifolia), currant and gooseberry (Ribes), lemonade berry (Rhus integrifolia), and sugar bush (Rhus ovata).

Ray Hartman Ceanothus, (Ceanothus ‘Ray Hartman’) Photo: Ken Gilliland


California lilac (Ceanothus) – Fast-growing shrubs and ground covers with handsome foliage and clusters of small, honey-scented flowers in virtually every shade of blue or sometimes white. Some species and cultivars flower earlier than others; plant more than one for color from late winter into spring. Very popular with bees and butterflies.

More ideas: Common yarrow (Achillea millefolium), purple three awn (Aristida purpurea), western columbine (Aquilegia formosa), western redbud (Cercis occidentalis), monkey flower (Diplacus), flannel bush (Fremontodendron), iris (Iris), alum root or coral bells (Heuchera), lupine (Lupinus), penstemon (Penstemon), matilija poppy (Romneya), sage (Salvia), plus native bulbs and annual spring wild flowers.

Photo: Ken Gilliand
California buckwheat, (Eriogonum fasciculatum var. foliolosum) Photo: Ken Gilliand


Buckwheat (Eriogonum) – A large, diverse genus with varied forms and ornamental foliage that ranges from bright green to olive to silvery white. Tight clusters of white, pink, red or yellow blossoms open late spring through summer, and then fade to shades of rust, brown and black. Attractive year round and sure to attract insects and other pollinators.

More ideas: Desert willow (Chilopsis linearis), brittle bush (Encelia farinosa), sacred datura (Datura wrightii), golden yarrow (Eriophyllum confertiflorum), gum plant (Grindelia),  toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia), chuparosa (Justicia californica), ‘Silver Carpet’ California aster (Lessingia filaginifolia ‘Silver Carpet’), and alkali sacaton (Sporobolus airoides).

More great sources of color

Island Bush Poppy (Dendromecon harfordii) Photo: Ken Gilliland

Repeat bloomers

Consider these flamboyant long-flowering beauties: Indian mallow (Abutilon palmeri), fairyduster (Calliandra), bush poppy (Dendromecon), coast sunflower (Encelia californica), seaside daisy (Erigeron), bush snapdragon (Gambelia), tree mallow (Lavatera), bladderpod (Peritoma arborea), apricot mallow (Sphaeralcea ambigua), blue witch (Solanum), woolly blue curls (Trichostema lanatum), and lilac verbena (Verbena lilacina).

Wild rye (Leymus condensatus) Photo: Ken Gilliland

Remarkable leaves

Don’t forget our many shades of green, from silvery or bluish to apple or deep forest tones. Take advantage of these year-round foliar hues, both in contrast with each other and as lasting background to changing floral displays. Consider these natives that sport foliage in colors other than green.   

Western sycamore (Platanus racemosa) Photo: Keir Morse

Bark and fall foliage

These shrubs and trees are admired for their interesting bark: California buckeye (Aesculus californica), manzanita (Arctostaphylos), red-twig or creek dogwood (Cornus sericea), Santa Cruz Island Ironwood (Lyonothamnus floribundus ssp. aspleniifolius), Baja birdbush (Ornithostaphylos oppositifolia), palo verde (Parkinsonia), western sycamore (Platanus racemosa), oak (Quercus).

Given a smidgen of seasonal chill, these natives offer fine fall color: maple (Acer), barberry (Berberis), spicebush (Calycanthus occidentalis), red-twig dogwood (Cornus sericea), western sycamore (Platanus racemosa), black oak (Quercus kelloggii), basket bush (Rhus aromatica), and wild grape, especially hybrid ‘Roger’s Red’ (Vitis).

Golden Currant (Ribes aureum var. gracillimum) Photo: Ken Gilliland

Fabulous fruit and seed by season

Don’t rush to deadhead! Leave spent inflorescences to dry on the plants. They add sculptural accents and provide seed for birds and other critters.


Lili Singer is a horticulturist, educator and writer. She is director of special projects and adult education at the Theodore Payne Foundation for Wild Flowers & Native Plants in Sun Valley.


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