Northern California Regional Reports

Drought-Tolerant Shrubs for California

Fine Gardening – Issue 206
Photo: millettephotomedia.com

According to NASA Earth Observatory, one-third of the United States experienced some level of drought in 2020. Unfortunately, we know this was not a random anomaly but an increasing trend with more and more of the country experiencing extended dry spells.

If you’ve found yourself outside holding the hose more often in recent years, it might be time to invest in more drought-tolerant plants. Below, you’ll find four expert-selected, resilient shrubs that can easily become stars or backbones of your garden, while shrugging off anything the climate of California throws their way.


Coffeeberry
Photo: millettephotomedia.com

1. Coffeeberry

Name: Frangula californica (syn. Rhamnus californica)

Zones: 7–10

Size: 6 to 12 feet tall and wide

Conditions: Full sun to partial shade; well-drained soil

Native range: Southwestern United States, Oregon, California, northwestern Mexico

Not at all related to the plant that produces coffee, coffeeberry is an adaptable, drought-tolerant shrub. It’s perfect for those areas of the garden that are in blazing sun in summer and shade in winter when the sun is low. It’s small, greenish flowers, which bloom in late spring and early summer, are not showy but act like magnets for bees. The blooms are followed by reddish fruit in fall, which birds love to eat. Coffeeberry works perfectly as a background shrub where a mass of deep green can relieve flowery borders. It also makes a good hedge or screen. It’s easy to grow and prune and is tolerant of many different soil types.

Brittlebush
Photo: millettephotomedia.com

2. Brittlebush

Name: Encelia farinosa

Zones: 8–11

Size: 3 to 6 feet tall and wide

Conditions: Full sun; well-drained soil

Native range: Southwestern United States, California, northwestern Mexico

Brittlebush’s foliage is silvery green to reflect light in its native habitat, a quality that makes it great for contrasting with greener plants. It flowers densely from late winter to early spring with yellow composite blooms that attract butterflies and bees. You can deadhead the flowers to keep it blooming or let seed heads form that birds will munch on. Brittlebush prefers sandy or rocky soil but can tolerate clay if it’s kept on the dry side. This plant is native to the California desert and inland valleys and is consequently a heat lover with very low water needs.

California buckwheat
Photo: millettephotomedia.com

3. California Buckwheat

Name: Eriogonum fasciculatum

Zones: 7–11

Size: 1 to 4 feet tall and 3 to 6 feet wide

Conditions: Full sun; well-drained soil

Native range: Southwestern United States, Oregon, California, northwestern Mexico

This is a common and very adaptable plant in California’s natural areas. You can find it anywhere from the coast to the desert. California buckwheat grows in a dense mound and is an important pollinator and wildlife plant. The small pink and white flowers turn rust colored in fall. They grow in profuse clusters and are very attractive to bees and butterflies. Once established, this plant needs nearly no supplemental water. California buckwheat is low maintenance but does benefit from the occasional hard pruning. It can tolerate a wide range of soil types, from gravelly to clay.

‘Canyon Gray’ sagebrush
Photo: millettephotomedia.com

4. ‘Canyon Gray’ Sagebrush

Name: Artemisia californica ‘Canyon Gray’

Zones: 9–11

Size: 1 to 2 feet tall and 6 to 10 feet wide

Conditions: Full sun to partial shade; well-drained soil

Native range: Coastal California, Baja California

While the species is native to all of coastal California, this variety is from the windswept Channel Islands. ‘Canyon Gray’ is a prostrate form of sagebrush. The fine-textured foliage is a soft silvery gray and deeply fragrant. It’s low growing and is perfect for the front of a border or for use as a ground cover on slopes. The sinuous branches look beautiful winding through boulders or flowing over walls. Prune it back hard every two to three years to help keep the foliage dense. Once established, it has very low water needs, although it may be drought deciduous without some supplemental summer water. This plant is ignored by deer and is tolerant of a range of different soil types.


Peter Evans owns and operates Peter Evans Landscape Design in Laguna Niguel, California, and is the director of horticulture at California Botanic Garden in Claremont.

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