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Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Plant of the Month (December) : Sourberry – Rhus trilobata/ Rhus aromatica

Sourberry (Rhus trilobata/Rhus aromatica) - Mother Nature's Backyard

Seeds are germinating, bulbs are emerging, but very few flowers can be found in early December.   So we were pleasantly surprised to see our Sourberry (Rhus trilobata/Rhus aromatica) coming into bloom, just in time to be our Plant of the Month.   The scientific name is pronounced roos  try-lo-BAY-tuh (roos  air-oh-MAT-ih-cuh).

Sourberry is known by a number of common names including Three-lobe sumac, Three-leaved sumac, Basket bush sumac, Oak-leaf sumac, Skunk bush and Lemita. It belongs to the same genus as our common Lemonadeberry (Rhus integrifolia) and Sugar bush (Rhus ovata).  It’s a ‘cousin’ to the local Laurel sumac (Malosma laurina) and Poison oak (Toxicodendron diversilobum).  All are members of the Sumac family (for more on the Anacardiaceae see: http://mother-natures-backyard.blogspot.com/2014/12/plant-of-month-december-lemonadeberry.html. 
Sourberry (Rhus trilobata/Rhus aromatica)
Like many other plants, the taxonomy of this species is currently being revised.  Previously, Rhus trilobata was considered a western N. American species; Rhus aromatica was viewed as a related eastern species.  It now appears that both may be the same species (Rhus aromatica), though much of the western literature – and the nursery trade – still refers to R. trilobata.  For clarity we’ll use both names, but focus on the natural history of this plant in the West (which is most relevant to California gardeners).

Rhus trilobata (aromatica) is native to western North America, from Alberta and Saskatchewan south to Texas and California – even into Mexico.  It grows in prairies and shrub lands, on a variety of sites including sandhills, seasonal stream beds, canyons and dry, rocky slopes.  In S. California, it can be found in the canyons and washes of interior valleys, in coastal sage scrub, chaparral and southern oak woodland, mostly below 3500 ft. elevation.   It grows in the Santa Monica Mountains and in the foothills of the San Gabriel Range.

Sourberry (Rhus trilobata/Rhus aromatica) - low-growing form
Sourberry is a winter-deciduous shrub that varies in growth habit across its Western range.  In some situations it’s a low (2-3 ft. tall) mounding groundcover (above).  In other places, it grows as a rounded, upright shrub which may reach heights of 6-8 ft. and similar spread (see photo below).  In moist conditions, plants spread by rhizomes, sometimes forming a thicket.  In drier S. California, plants will often remain as solitary shrubs for many years.   Plants have a lifespan of perhaps 30-40 years; they grow most rapidly during their first five years.

Sourberry (Rhus trilobata/Rhus aromatica) - taller form
Sourberry (Rhus trilobata/Rhus aromatica) - foliage
The foliage of Rhus trilobata (aromatica) is medium-green to blue-green most of the year, turning yellow to orange in fall - if temperatures are cold enough.  In the western L.A. Basin, fall leaf color is variable from year to year. Plants lose their leaves in fall (usually November in our area) and leaf out again in spring (often as early as February in milder climates).  The plants leaf out quickly, from pre-formed leaf buds.   Plants often don’t leaf out until after flowering.

Sourberry (Rhus trilobata/Rhus aromatica) - leaves, young bark
Sourberry leaves are three-lobed, glossy, leathery, 1 to 1 ½ inches across.  They look somewhat like those of Western poison oak (Toxicodendron diversilobum), though not as shiny and a smaller size. For good pictures comparing the two species see reference 1 (below).  

The young bark of Rhus trilobata (aromatica) is often a medium red-brown, but may be as light as a pale gray-brown, with pale hairs.  Older bark is gray-brown, mostly smooth and fissuring with age.  When branches are broken (or leaves are crushed), they release an aroma that is skunky-smelling to some (hence the common names ‘Skunk brush’ and ‘Stink-bush’).

The roots of Rhus trilobata (aromatica) are well-adapted for climates of the  American Southwest, including California.  Plants have both a deep taproot and a network of fibrous, shallower roots.  This combination allows them to make optimal use of intermittent rains, as well as tap into deep groundwater reserves during dry periods. Because of the deep taproot, plants resent being moved once established in the ground.

Sourberry (Rhus trilobata/Rhus aromatica) - flower
 buds, flowers
Sourberry (Rhus trilobata/Rhus aromatica) - close-up
 of flowers
Sourberry blooms in early spring (February-April) in much of S. California, though flowers may appear in winter at lower elevations.  Plants may be dioecious (separate male and female plants).  More commonly, plants contain both unisexual and bisexual flowers on the same plant.   Male and female flowers are both small (~ ¼ inch across), with yellow petals. Male flowers cluster along yellow catkins (like a willow) and are slightly paler in color, while female flowers occur in dense, brighter clusters at the ends of short branches. Flowers are primarily bee-pollinated.  We’ll try to update our close-up pictures of flowers – hopefully with pollinators - soon.
Sourberry (Rhus trilobata/Rhus aromatica) - green fruits
Sourberry (Rhus trilobata/Rhus aromatica) - ripe fruits
Those familiar with the fruits of Lemonadeberry and Sugar bush will immediately recognize similarities between the three species.  The fruits are small (about ¼ inch; 5-7 mm), sticky drupes that contain a single seed with a hard seed coat (a nutlet).  Fruits are initially green, becoming a dark red when ripe (see above).  Fruits ripen in late spring/early summer (June/July) at lower elevations in S. California; they may ripen as late as early fall in colder climates.  The fruits are loved by birds and animals – including humans!

Like Lemonadeberry, the fruits are covered with a sticky, sweet-sour secretion that tastes like lemon or lime.  In fact, the most common edible use for the fruits is to make ‘Rhus-ade’, a lemonade-like drink. Some Native Americans still grind dried Sourberry fruits and use them as flavoring for puddings, mush or bread.  In fact, the fruits can be used as a flavoring or seasoning in more ways than you might think.  For additional ideas for using the fruits see: http://mother-natures-backyard.blogspot.com/2015/05/california-gourmet-cooking-with.html  
Sourberry (Rhus trilobata/Rhus aromatica) - in garden.
 Mother Nature's Backyard

Sourberry is an undemanding plant.  It tolerates pH from 6.0 to at least 8.0, and grows fine in soils ranging from very sandy to clay.  If your soils drain very slowly, consider planting Rhus trilobata (aromatica) on a slope or atop a small berm (it’s intolerant of standing water).  While it can be found growing in full sun, it seems to do better in our area in part-shade.  If you have a hot, inland garden, plant it where it gets some afternoon shade.

Rhus trilobata (aromatica) is very drought tolerant.  However, it looks (and produces) best with occasional summer water.  Let the soils dry out between watering, then give the shrub a deep, slow soaking.  In many areas of the West, this plant experiences occasional summer rains. 

Sourberry (Rhus trilobata/Rhus aromatica) - young plant
Sourberry (Rhus trilobata/Rhus aromatica) - mature plant

While Rhus trilobata (aromatica) develops a nice natural shape over time, the best-shaped shrubs are given a yearly pruning to stimulate fullness.  Branches should be pruned back by ¼ to 1/3 of their length in fall (after leaves fall) or early winter.  This pruning simulates the animal browsing that shrubs experience in the wild.  Some individuals are mildly sensitive to chemicals produced by the foliage of plants in this genus.   We suggest wearing long sleeves and gloves when pruning (at least until you know you’re not affected).  Wash hands/arms after handling the foliage.

If you desire straight stems for basket-making or other crafts, you’ll need to cut some or all of the stems back to the ground in early winter (coppice).   While native traditions involve cutting or burning an entire stand every few years, we wonder if just cutting back 1/3 of the oldest stems might not work as well.  We’ll try this and report back.

Sourberry (Rhus trilobata/Rhus aromatica) - rest stop
 planting, Utah
Sourberry is often used as a large shrub, either shaped or natural, in garden plantings. It contributes to the woodsy, natural look that some gardeners prize.  It can also be used as a hedge plant, remembering that it is winter-deciduous.  It does well on slopes, often getting by with little supplemental summer water once established. It is widely used for erosion control on slopes and in riparian areas. And Rhus trilobata (aromatica) is becoming more common in commercial plantings, due to its drought tolerance and low maintenance.

Sourberry can be grown in a large container – even used as a bonsai plant.  The lower-growing forms are useful as a woody groundcover under trees.  The cultivars ‘Autumn Amber’ and ‘Gro-low’, which are available commercially, grows less than 2 ft. tall, and are popular as groundcovers.

Sourberry (Rhus trilobata/Rhus aromatica) - used as ground
cover. Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden, Claremont, CA.

Of the many shrubs planted in S. California gardens, Rhus trilobata (aromatica) has some distinct advantages.  First, it is a great habitat plant.  Its size, many small flowers, dense foliage and edible fruits make this a good choice for bird and insect habitat.  If you don’t use the fruits yourself, don’t worry; plenty of fruit-eating birds will be glad to remedy the situation.

If you are a basket-maker, planting Rhus trilobata (aromatica) insures a ready source of the straight stems needed for your craft. [2]  This has always been an important basketry plant, wherever it grows.  If you need it for your craft, grow it.

Sourberry, along with the other local Rhus species, is also a useful plant for the natural dyer.  Leaves, prunings, ashes and fruits can all be used to mordant yarn or fabric prior to dyeing.  The plants are high in tannins, and tan-brown dyes can be obtained from leaves, bark and roots; pink-tan dyes are possible from the fruits. 
Sourberry (Rhus trilobata/Rhus aromatica) - green foliage
provides nice contrast in the summer/fall garden
Another good reason to grow this plant is its medicinal properties.  As always, medicinal plants should be used with caution – particularly those from families with known toxicities, like the Sumacs. For more on precautions see: http://mother-natures-backyard.blogspot.com/2015/10/garden-of-health-making-tincture-for.html

Fruits of Rhus trilobata (aromatica) were traditionally sucked or chewed as a treatment for toothache, mouth sores or as a mouthwash.  Fruits ease the pain, in part due to their astringent chemicals.  A decoction of the fruits is also traditionally used for stomach problems, as well as a hair tonic.   

The leaves are astringent, diuretic, emetic and hemostatic; infusions made from leaves have several traditional uses, including to treat head colds and soothe skin itches. Dried, powdered leaves have been used to create soothing salves for mouth sores.  For more traditional uses of this plant see reference 3, below.

Sourberry (Rhus trilobata/Rhus aromatica)
In summary, Rhus trilobata (aromatica) is a shrub with much to recommend it.  We’re surprised is isn’t used more often in the garden setting.  So if you’ve got the space – even room for a large pot – you might want to consider this pretty and useful native.


For plant information sheets on other native plants see: http://nativeplantscsudh.blogspot.com/p/gallery-of-native-plants_17.html



  1. http://nathistoc.bio.uci.edu/plants/Anacardiaceae/Rhus%20aromatica.htm
  2. https://deborahsmall.wordpress.com/2009/01/31/joe-moreno-and-minnie-tafoya-gather-rhus-trilobata/
  3. Native American Ethnobotany Database: http://naeb.brit.org/uses/search/     



We welcome your comments (below).  You can also send your questions to: mothernaturesbackyard10@gmail.com

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

A Gardener’s Thanksgiving

Thanks and praise for winter rains.
Drought reminds us to treasure - whatever Nature can spare. 

Thanks and praise for emerging seedlings.
Each one a tiny miracle, hope for the year to come. 

Thanks and praise for new spring foliage.
Our spirit needs the fresh green color – our bodies, the sustenance. 

Thanks and praise for native wildflowers.
Their beauty quickens the heart; they are truly gifts to gladden the soul. 

Thanks and praise for warm days of May,
Encouraging plants to grow, enticing us into the fragrant garden. 

Thanks and praise for the fogs of June.
They bring magic to the garden, providing water for thirsty plants. 

Thanks and praise for Mother Nature’s pollinators.
From hummingbirds to the smallest bees, they safeguard the precious cycle of life. 

Thanks and praise for the ripening harvest of summer.
The fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds - food for all the garden’s creatures (including us). 

Thanks and praise for the dry winds of September.
They cleanse the garden, ushering in the tranquility of the dormant season. 

Thanks and praise for the dormant season.
The golds and browns rest the eyes, providing a calm background for busy lives. 

Thanks and praise for the creatures of fall.
Insects, migrant birds and countless wee beings, each filling their niche in the life of the garden.  

Thanks and praise for our many human friends.
Their hard work, suggestions, love and donations - an evolving inspiration throughout the year.
                                                                                                 Constance M. Vadheim




We welcome your comments (below).  You can also send your questions to: mothernaturesbackyard10@gmail.com

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Plant of the Month (November) : Clustered (California) Field Sedge – Carex praegracilis

Clustered field sedge (Carex praegracilis) - Mother Nature's Backyard

Few plants are blooming now in Mother Nature’s Backyard.  And those that are have already been featured as Plants of the Month.  But one of our favorite ground covers is perking up with the recent rains and cooler days.  So we’ve chosen Clustered field sedge (Carex praegracilis) as our Plant of the Month.  The species name is pronounced CARE-ex  pre-GRASS-ill-iss.

The sedges (genus Carex) are perennial, grass-like plants that grow in climates ranging from the tropics to the tundra; sub-Saharan Africa is the only continent with few species.    Most of the several thousand species grow in boggy, marshy places or near ponds and streams, but some are more drought tolerant. 

There are over one hundred and thirty Carex species native to California, the  vast majority growing solely or mostly in the Sierra Nevada Mountains or the mountains of N. California.  However, about 20-25 species are native to Los Angeles County or the S. Channel Islands. [2]   While most of them grow only in the San Gabriel Mountains, a few can be found in the lowlands as well.  Carex praegracilis is one of them.

Clustered field sedge (Carex praegracilis) - good example
 of California native sedge
The leaves of sedges are long, narrow and grass-like. In fact, many people mistake sedges for grasses. But sedges are actually close cousins, belonging to a different family entirely (the Cyperaceae) and having flowers quite different from those of the grasses. In fact, the flower stalks of the sedges are triangular in cross section.

The old saying 'sedges have edges, rushes are round, grasses have knees that bend to the ground' helps one remember a key difference between the grass-like plants.   Most sedges spread by rhizomes (underground stems), stolons (‘runners’) or roots, forming a lawn-like sod.  Sedges are used in some areas as a substitute for lawn grasses.

Clustered field sedge has a wide geographic range – from mid-western U.S. to the west coast.  In California, it grows in the California Floristic Province and desert mountain ranges, from sea level to about 7000 ft. (2500 m).  It once grew along the LA River, Ballona Creek and marshes, on Santa Catalina Island and in the Liebre, Tehachapi and San Gabriel Mountains. [3]  It likely was common, but unrecorded, in many other moist places in the lowlands of western Los Angeles County.  In S. California, it occurs in/near both freshwater and alkali wetlands, including those that are only seasonally wet.

Clustered field sedge (Carex praegracilis)
In the horticultural trade, Carex praegracilis is sometimes confused with (and sold as) Carex pansa, a shorter species native to several areas along California’s central and northern coast.  Both are similar in appearance and use in the garden.  But there are important differences between the two, including size: Carex pansa is only about 6-8 inches tall, while Carex praegracilis is slightly taller.  For a great discussion of the two species (and how to tell them apart) see reference 4, below.

Clustered field sedge (Carex praegracilis): fine-textured
Clustered field sedge is a perennial with narrow, bright to medium green leaves typical of sedges. The leaves are slightly more narrow and longer than Carex pansa.   It grows about 1-2 ft. tall and looks superficially like a fine-bladed grass.  In fact, the species is commonly used as a grass substitute.  It spreads via stout, dark rhizomes (underground stems) to form a sod-like mat. 
Clustered field sedge (Carex praegracilis): spreads by
 rhizomes to create a sod-like mat
This species is a very useful addition to local gardens.  It tolerates full sun to part-shade.  We’ve found it looks best in part shade, and even have a nice stand growing north of a 10 ft. wall in Mother Nature’s Backyard (see below).  Carex praegracilis does fine in most local soils, from sandy to clay (we’ve grown it in both extremes).  It doesn’t mind the alkali soils found in some parts of our region.  

Clustered field sedge (Carex praegracilis): in shady
 position with Feltleaf everlasting
Clustered field sedge really needs no added fertilizer, though it probably wouldn’t harm it.  While young plants need regular water, established plants are quite drought tolerant. Carex praegracilis can get by with infrequent irrigation (deep watering several times a summer), though plants will go dormant.  To keep established plants green, water every 2-4 weeks, depending on soil type.  Taper off water in the fall, to give plants a bit of a rest.

Clustered field sedge (Carex praegracilis): naturally
 dormant under dry conditions
Like most Carex species, Carex praegracilis is best started as a purchased plant or as plugs.  In our experience, Clustered field sedge spreads more slowly than Carex pansa, taking several years to really establish in western Los Angeles County.  It may fill in more quickly in wetter regions (or with more irrigation than we give it).  If used as a lawn substitute, we suggest planting plugs 8-10 inches apart. 

Carex praegracilis is a cool season, sod-forming sedge, so it does most of its growth in winter and spring in lowland S. California.   It blooms in late spring or early summer.  The blooms, on stalks that are somewhat taller than the leaves, are pale green, fading to tan fruits with white tips. The flowers and fruits are not particularly noticeable, although characteristic of the species; we’ll get some photos next year.  For good photos see reference 5, below.

Clustered field sedge (Carex praegracilis): nice
natural groundcover
Clustered field sedge is worth considering when you want the appearance of ‘grass’ in an easy care, water-wise native.  It’s very low maintenance; all that’s needed is to cut back to remove the brown foliage (if any) in late fall.  If it spreads into areas where it’s not wanted, just pull out the young plantlets.

Clustered field sedge makes a good natural lawn substitute, and established plots can even be mowed (4-6 inches) several times during the growing season. Sedge lawns can be walked on, though probably not the best choice for heavy use.  The sod grasses are still the best option for playing fields and other heavy traffic areas.   But if you just need a water-wise, decorative green ‘lawn’, Carex praegracilis could be a good choice.

Clustered field sedge (Carex praegracilis): low maintenance
We like Clustered field sedge left un-mowed, allowing it to form a natural groundcover under and around trees/shrubs. It is a great natural groundcover for vegetated (infiltration) swales, and can be mixed with other groundcovers liking seasonal water.   It does well on slopes and can be very useful there.  If watered, it can be used as a fire-resistant buffer plant in fire-prone areas.   You can even grow it in a pot for spot of greenery on a shady porch.

Incredibly adaptable and drought-resistant, Carex praegracilis may be just the plant you need to create a ‘green oasis’ in your water-wise garden. It’s locally native, delicate of appearance, yet tough as nails.  It fills in between plants, providing needed contrast for other native plants.  We couldn’t garden without it!

Clustered field sedge (Carex praegracilis):  nice addition
 to many gardens

For plant information sheets on other native plants see: http://nativeplantscsudh.blogspot.com/p/gallery-of-native-plants_17.html


2.            http://www.calflora.org/cgi-bin/specieslist.cgi?row_to_start=150&num_matches=172&tmpfile=cf158936&format=photos&next=next+22 

3.            http://ucjeps.berkeley.edu/eflora/eflora_display.php?tid=17745           
4.            http://www.pacifichorticulture.org/articles/a-sedge-by-another-name/



We welcome your comments (below).  You can also send your questions to: mothernaturesbackyard10@gmail.com

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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