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Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Fall Color with California Native Plants

Riparian trees provide good fall color in S. California

There are many gardening myths about California native plants  (http://www.slideshare.net/cvadheim/california-native-plant-myths-2014).  One is that ‘all California native plants turn brown in the fall’.  Some certainly do – dry season dormancy is a great way to survive our hot, dry summers.  But a number of natives are evergreen, or bloom and fruit in fall.  The trick to an interesting fall garden is to choose plants specifically for fall color.

Most people picture brightly colored leaves when they think of fall color. If you live in a cold climate, bright leaves do define the fall landscape.  But fall color in mediterranean gardens is a little more subtle.  It actually involves more choices – and greater sophistication - than just ‘planting a maple’. 

Evergreen shrubs provide the perfect backdrop
 for accent plants

Provide a Backdrop

One trick to an attractive S. California fall garden is to plant some evergreen plants.  We particularly like the water-wise, evergreen native shrubs.  But any evergreen plants will do – grasses, sedges, rushes, groundcover perennials, etc.  Green foliage looks cool and refreshing; that’s reason enough to include it in a California garden. But evergreen shrubs, particularly the larger ones, also provide the perfect backdrop for fall color.

A garden is like a theatrical stage.  The colorful flowering plants – and those with unusual shapes and foliage – are the actors (‘accent plants’).  But actors, whether human or plant, need a stage on which to perform. And an important component is a backdrop that accentuates their colorful attributes. 

A dark, grayed fence or wall is one option for an effective fall background.  Choose a neutral, grayed brown or dark gray-green with a matt (non-shiny) finish for best contrast.  Dark grayed hues fade into the distance, while providing a neutral backdrop for the plants.  For more on backgrounds in garden design see: http://mother-natures-backyard.blogspot.com/2014/08/designing-your-new-california-garden-11.html  

Large evergreen shrubs are another alternative.  Whether individually, or as a large hedge or hedgerow, shrubs with medium-to-dark, evergreen leaves provide the perfect background for fall-blooming plants.  We’ll talk more about hedges and hedgerows next month (November, 2016).

Plants with Fall Leaf Color

If you want a garden filled with fall leaf color, you’ll need to move some place with a colder climate. While day length triggers the color changes, cold fall nights really promote the bright reds and oranges.  For more on how leaves change color, see references 1-3, below.

'Roger's Red' grape has spectacular fall leaf color!
A few native shrubs and vines produce red or purple foliage color in fall/winter in lowland S. California.  The most reliable is ‘Roger’s Red’ grape, which yields vivid, red-purple leaves - even in warmer, coastal gardens.  With its colorful leaves and dark, edible grapes, ‘Roger’s Red’ is the closest we get to ‘brightly colored fall leaves’.  In full color, it’s a sight to behold!

Mahonia aquifolium leaves can be striking
Native currants and gooseberries, like this Ribes speciosum,
 can be quite colorful in fall.
A few other native shrubs are known for their red leaf color.  Although evergreen, Oregon grape (Mahonia/berberis aquifolium) and other Mahonia and Berberis species produce some red-purple leaves, if the fall/winter is cold enough. As our fall/winter temperatures increase, they are becoming less reliable sources of color in western Los Angeles County.  So, too, are the N. California maples, including the Vine Maple (Acer circinatum) and the Prunus species (like Western chokecherry - Prunus virginiana var. demissa).   These can produce spectacular color, but only if the conditions are right.

Lyonothamnus species make their own colorful mulch in fall.
Sourberry (Rhus trilobata) has red-orange fall leaves, and the native Dogwoods (Cornus glabrata; Corus sericea) are known for their red-brown leaves and bark.  Fallen leaves of the Island Ironwoods (Lyonothamnus floribundus) and Western redbud (Cercis occidentalis) create a striking red-brown mulch in the fall. And the fall hues of the medicinal perennial/groundcover, Yerba Mansa (Anemopsis californica), are enchanting.    These are the fall reds of S. California; unique  touches of color found in few local gardens.

Anemopsis californica (Yerba mansa) becomes quite colorful
 in the dry days of fall.
If you really want red-orange leaves, you may need to select a non-native tree.  A common choice in S. California is the Sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua), with its reliable red and orange color.  Crepe Myrtles (Lagerstroemia species) produce yellow to orange fall leaves.   We’ve also enjoyed the fall color and fruits of ‘Anna’ apple and other low-chill apples (Malus domestica species), Asian pears and pears (Pyrus species and cultivars).   These can easily be grown along with native plants with similar water requirements.

Some S. California natives produce good yellow colors in fall.  Best known are riparian trees like the native willows (Salix species) and Cottonwoods (Populus species), Western sycamore (Platanus racemosa), Boxelder (Acer negundo) and the Southern California Walnut (Juglans californica).  All are large trees; in fact, most are too large for typical suburban yards.  The willows and cottonwoods have water-seeking roots (invade water & sewage pipes).   All of the above are also susceptible to the destructive Polyphagus Shot Hole Borer, a serious emerging pest of wildlands, parks and gardens [4].

Western redbud (Cercis occidentales) is showy
 both spring and fall.
Several other winter-deciduous native trees/shrubs turn yellow or yellow-orange in fall.  These include the Blue elderberry (Sambucus nigra ssp. cerulea), Western redbud (Cercis occidentalis), the native Ashes (Fraxinus dipetala; Fraxinus velutina), California mock orange (Philadelphus lewisii) and the wild roses (Rosa species). These can be better choices for home gardens, although their colors are not as bright or reliable as the riparian trees. 

If you have a small garden, you can even plant the wild roses, Narrowleaf willow (Salix exigua) or Yerba mansa in a large container.  A single pot may satisfy your craving for fall leaf color.  For a complete list of native plants (appropriate for lower-elevation S. California) with fall leaf color see:


Plants with Fall Flowers

While cold-climate areas excel at fall leaf color, our local native plants surpass them with fall flowers, fruits and seeds.  Cold climate gardeners envy our long fall growing season and color palette.  Some local native plants are at their best in the shorter days of fall.

Native Goldenbushes (like this Hazardia) provide reliable
 yellow  flowers, even in a very dry fall
Shrubs in the Sunflower family provide the most spectacular fall yellow and gold flowers. If you love yellow, fall is a good season!  At the pale end of the spectrum are Mulefat (Baccharis salicifolia) and Coyote bush (Baccharis pilularis).  Most of the rest have brilliant yellow-gold flowers in abundance.   Among the best are the larger Goldenbushes (Hazardia species and Isocoma menziesii), the mid-sized Rabbitbush (Ericameria nauseosa) and other Ericameria species and the smaller Butterweed (Senecio flaccidus var. douglasii), Matchweed (Gutierrezia californica), the Goldenrods (Solidago species) and Telegraph plant (Heterotheca grandiflora).   The tall Annual sunflower (Helianthus annuus) may also bloom in the garden setting in fall.
The fiery flowers of Epilobium are a fall treat!
If red and orange flowers are more to your taste, you can’t go wrong with the California fuschias (Epilobium canum and other Epilobium species).  California fuschia and its cultivars are prized with good reason. They come in colors ranging from white to brilliant red.  They are bright, colorful, water-wise and produce lots of fall blooms in a good year.  Epilobiums are a good, low maintenenace investment.

Mimulus cardinalis often blooms again in fall.
Diplacus species and cultivars are also good for fall color.
Several red/orange flowering plants may bloom again in fall, including the Baja fairyduster (Calliandra californica), Catalina snapdragon (Gambelia speciosa) and Chuparosa (Justicia californica).   The Scarlet monkeyflower (Erithranthe/Mimulus cardinalis), the shrubby perennial monkeyflowers (Diplacus species and cultivars) and the Monkeyflower savory (Clinopodium mimuloides), all of which like a little shade and water, also come to life again in fall.  If you need a colorful porch pot, these are a good bet for late summer and fall.

Symphyotrichum chilense (Aster chilensis)

Pluchea odorata is spectacular in fall
The most reliable purple flower of fall is the Coast aster (Symphyotrichum chilense (Aster chilensis)), useful as a ground cover or pot plant.  Pink-blooming fall natives include the spectacular Sweetscent (Pluchea odorata) and Arrowweed (Pluchea sericea).  For scent, plant the Brickelbushes (Brickellia species); their sweet fragrance at dusk is a welcome addition to the fall garden.

Plants with Colorful or Showy Seeds, Seed heads or Fruits
Fall colors in a S. California garden
Some of our most spectacular fall color comes from seeds, seed heads and fruits.  At the top of the list for seed color are the native Buckwheats (Eriogonum species).  While some buckwheats bloom into fall, most are going to seed.  And oh, what a show they create!  Colors range from pale brown to rust and dark brown.  The seed heads may be small and round or large and flat, depending on the species.   They add color and interesting shapes from summer through fall.

Native buckwheats (Eriogonum species) provide 
rich rusts and browns.
If you want a colorful fall garden, plant several species of native Buckwheat.  They are easy to grow, water-wise, and excellent pollinator and bird habitat.  They will become the backbone of your fall garden.   They are local treasures!
Helianthus annuus provides food for finches
Many of the fall-blooming Sunflowers, Creambush (Holodiscus discolor),  and warm-season grasses also have showy seed heads in fall.  Don’t be too anxious to prune them; migrating birds need their seeds for food and they add color and interest to the garden.   For suggestions on fall pruning of native plants see: http://mother-natures-backyard.blogspot.com/2014/11/maintaining-your-new-california-garden_15.html

Toyon espalier brightens a dull wall
And then there are the colorful fruits of fall.  The most showy – and well-known – are the red fruits of the Toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia).  Another common name for this large shrub is the California Christmas berry.  With climate change, we may have to rename it 'Halloween berry' – it’s coloring up earlier every year! The fruits provide spectacular color, as well as food for fruit-eating birds.  Toyon makes a spectacular espalier along a wall.

Native wild grapes are edible and showy.
Native grapes ripen in late summer or fall. The dark fruits contrast beautifully with the fall leaf color (red or yellow).   Other native shrubs may still have colorful fruits in fall.  These include the native currants and gooseberries (Ribes species), Western chokecherry (Prunus virginiana var. demissa), Netleaf hackberry (Celtis reticulata), Summer holly (Comarostaphylis diversifolia ssp. planifolia), California coffeeberry (Frangula/Rhamnus californica) and Silver buffaloberry (Shepherdia argentea).    Of course, the non-native persimmons and pomegranates are also spectacular (and delicious) in fall.

Native honeysuckles (Lonicera species) have showy berries.
Even the native honeysuckles (Lonicera species), boxthorns (Lycium species), nightshades (Solanum species) and the native roses will have colorful fall fruits in a good year (or with a little supplemental water).  Contrast them with the white berries of the snowberries (Symphoricarpos albus and S. mollis), which remain on their bushes well into winter.  For a complete list of native plants (appropriate for lower-elevation S. California) with fall flower, seed and fruit color see:

We hope we’ve inspired you to plan a little color for your fall garden. Southern California’s native fall color is different from that of New England, but it is every bit as lovely.   The peaceful colors of a local fall garden are soothing and restful; they fit in with the landscape.  And while the colors don’t jump out and grab you like the reds of a fall maple, they are beautiful in their own right.  Savor them like a fine wine; they are part of our California natural heritage.


  1. https://www.na.fs.fed.us/fhp/pubs/leaves/leaves.shtm
  2. http://www.scientificamerican.com/video/why-do-autumn-leaves-change-color-2013-10-03/
  3. http://www.goodhousekeeping.com/home/a18922/why-do-leaves-change-color-0909/
  4. http://ucanr.edu/sites/socaloakpests/Polyphagous_Shot_Hole_Borer/




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