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purple, orange and yellow flowers grown in abundance out of the ground
Wildflowers bloom in abundance near Gorman, California on April 28, 2003.
(David McNew/Getty Images
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Native Plants 101: A Starter Guide To Replacing Your Thirsty Lawn With Drought-Tolerant Foliage
It’s the best time of year to tear up your yard and plant sustainable foliage.
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So you want to make some changes in your garden. You're ready to rip out that thirsty lawn and replace it with native plants that are better suited to Southern California's dry climate. Great! Now what?

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  • We're here to help get your outdoor space looking great with practical tips, news and what you need to do to keep conservation in mind.

What does the term "native plants" even mean? Which ones should you pick? Where do you find them? When do you plant them?

Don't panic. LAist is here to help.

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"If you're a newbie to native plants, of course there is a learning curve and be prepared for mistakes," says Claire Acosta, a horticulturist who installs native plant gardens in Southern California and Baja, Mexico, "but that's part of learning anything new."

stalks of a bunch of small plants are bathed in golden sunlight
The sun rises behind native fiddlenecks on the Elkhorn Plain at the Carrizo Plain National Monument in San Luis Obispo County on June 1, 2001.
(David McNew
Getty Images)

What Are Native Plants?

The state of California has more plant diversity than any other place in the United States. Many of these plants are adapted to the particular challenges of life in their particular region, including drought, extreme heat, and fire. In fact, our Mediterranean climate is so unique it occurs in only four other regions on Earth.

These plants "have grown in the area for millenia, intertwining their lives, and often their survival, with the local climate, the native wildlife they co-evolved with and with the native people who sustained their communities with them," says Katherine Pakradouni, horticulturist and Project & Program Manager for the L.A. Parks Foundation.

Southern California, in specific, is home to many plants that are able to live in extremely dry environments.

water droplets hang off the spindly brown branches of a small plant
Water drops cling to a native plant in Hesperia, California on July 28, 2005.
(David McNew
Getty Images)

What's So Great About Them?

Most crucially, native plants require far less water than many other plants and greens. Native plant gardens, on average, use a seventh of the water of a typical L.A. garden. They don't require supplements such as fertilizer and they don't need a weekly haircut.

Native plants are also better adapted to the local environment and they do a better job of providing ecological services, such as habitat. "It's such a difference when you convert to native plants," Acosta says. You'll see more hummingbirds, native bees, butterflies and other species.

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Plus, you could get your hands on some money. Take advantage of the LADWP's turf-replacement program and you'll receive $3 for every square foot of lawn that you remove and replace with drought-tolerant plants.

bushes, plants and flowers surround the exterior of a beige stucco home
A native plant garden in full bloom during the 2019 Theodore Payne Garden Tour.
(Courtesy of the Theodore Payne Foundation)

How Do I Start?

You can begin by educating yourself. There are many books available on native plants. Wild Suburbia, by local author Barbara Eisenstein, is a terrific guide.

Many native plant nurseries (listed, along with other resources, at the bottom of this story) also have informative websites that can help you with plant selection.

A great way to see what native plants look like in a garden setting is to check out the annual Theodore Payne Native Plant Garden Tour, an annual spring weekend event featuring native plant gardens in homes throughout Los Angeles. The website has a gallery of photos from past tours, for inspiration.

Garden pros are another great resource. Snap some pictures of your outdoor area, head to your closest native plant nursery (once again, see the list at the bottom of this story) and ask them what plants would work best for your space. The answers may vary from neighborhood to neighborhood. SoCal is full of microclimates. A garden in Downey might thrive with a different set of plants than one in Glendale or El Sereno or Santa Monica.

bushes, plants and flowers surround the exterior of a gray Craftsman house
A native plant garden at a home in Leimert Park seen during the 2020 Theodore Payne Garden Tour.
(Courtesy of the Theodore Payne Foundation)

When Should I Plant Them?

This may sound counter-intuitive and it isn't true for many other regions in the U.S. but in Southern California, late autumn or winter is the best time to plant most perennials, especially natives. The cooler weather gives gardeners maximum room for error when it comes to watering and allows plants to develop enough of a root system so they're prepared to tough out our hot, dry summers.

small white flowers grow out of a thick green stalk
Salvia apiana with its delicate flowers arranged on tall stalks at Arlington Garden in Pasadena.
(William Hallstrom for LAist)

What Plants Should I Choose?

To prepare this guide, I spoke to several California horticulturalists and owners of native plant nurseries. Here are their recommendations.

brown and green scrub brush with small, white and pale brown flowers
Buckwheat, both in bloom and going to seed, in the Hahamongna Watershed Park in Pasadena.
(William Hallstrom for LAist)

1. Buckwheat
Sage and buckwheat are the MVPs of native California plants and you'll find a diverse range of both — large, small, close to the ground, spreading upward. These plants also perform a host of ecological services. In addition to being drought-tolerant, they support wildlife, including birds, bees and butterflies. When other plants, "have given up their bloom, buckwheats are still going strong," says Parker Davis of Hahamongna Nursery in Pasadena.

Nicole Calhoun, owner of Artemisia Nursery in El Sereno, likes California buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum). It typically has a low, mounding form that is three to four feet across and reaches waist-high. "When it's in full bloom, it looks like a cloud settled on the branches [with] thousands of tiny white flowers abuzz with pollinators," Calhoun says.

Red-flowered buckwheat (Eriogonum grande-rubescens), which is more compact with stunning "pompom-like clusters of raspberry red flowers," per Calhoun, is also popular.

St. Catherine's Lace buckwheat (Eriogonum giganteum) is thicker with bigger branches at the base, larger leaves and a lacey drift of flowers that turn cinnamon brown in the late summer.

a close-up of a couple small, pale purple flowers
The intricate structure that's typical of sage flowers.
(William Hallstrom for LAist)

2. Sage
Sage (Salvia officinalis), which you may know from its culinary uses, is a Mediterranean plant. It isn't native to California but it has native California cousins, which are great options when you're looking for aromatic plants.

If you've been hiking in Southern California, you've come across black sage (Salvia mellifera) and white sage (Salvia apiana), whether or not you know it. Along with sagebrush (Artemisia californica), which isn't really a sage, it's what hiking around here smells like. This trio of plants will support a plethora of wildlife in your garden. Sages have amazing, intricate flowers that are often shaped like a stack of crowns and when they turn to seed, they attract birds such as finches and quail.

For a home garden, you can choose from a variety of sages based on size and appearance. Native plant landscape designer Orchid Black likes white sage because, "Salvia apiana is a beautiful, sculptural plant" with "long flowering spikes and silver foliage." Unfortunately, it has been poached to make items such as smudge bundles but planting it can help offset that.

green bushes with pale purpler flowers
Cleveland sage at the California Botanic Garden in Claremont.
(William Hallstrom for LAist)

Cleveland sage (Salvia clevelandii) is a shrubby varietal with "a particularly striking aroma," according to Calhoun. Some people say it smells the sweetest of all California's sages. Nursery selections such as Winnifred Gilman Cleveland sage (Salvia clevelandii 'Winnifred Gilman'), apparently named after a volunteer at Strybing Arboretum (now San Francisco Botanical Garden), is cultivated for its reddish stems and its electric purple flowers.

a variety of green, brown and pale green plants and bushes grown around a brown stucco house
This garden in Van Nuys, seen in August 2021, was planted in 2016 and showcases some of the typical native plants of the sage-scrub and chaparral ecosystems of California, including the big green coyote brush, buckwheats, sage and toyon.
(William Hallstrom for LAist)

3. Coyote Brush
Coyote brush isn't usually a garden centerpiece but it's a great team player. You'll find many types of it. Some are more like groundcover while others grow upright. One of the most popular is Pigeon Point dwarf coyote brush (Baccharis pilularis ‘Pigeon Point'), which spreads out low to the ground. They all tend to form flowing, rounded waves of bright green growth that can resemble a mounding lawn from afar. You can use them as an informal hedge. Coyote brush is drought and heat-tolerant, good for erosion control and it grows fast. "Many beneficial insects prefer this plant, so it's great to have around to support pest management," Acosta says. She also likes its lovely green color.

large green bushes dotted with small red berries line a walkway on the side of a gray house
Toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia), seen here lining the walkway of a Los Angeles home, is a common perennial shrub native to southwest Oregon, California, Baja California and British Columbia.
(Courtesy of Barbara Eisenstein)

4. Toyon
Adaptable to many garden environments, toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia) is the official plant of Los Angeles. Its common name is derived from Ohlone. Depending on how you prune it, it can either be an evergreen shrub or a small tree, Calhoun explains. Toyon does an excellent job supporting a variety of wildlife. Birders appreciate how the plant's fire engine red berries, which appear around December and appeal to the beautiful Cedar Waxwing with its brown, yellow and gray coloring.

small, orange-red tubular flowers
Epilobium canum—zauschneria aka the California fuchsia.
(John Rusk/Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.)

5. California Fuchsia
The California fuchsia (Epilobium canum) is easy to grow and tends to spread out, forming a two to three-foot high spray of foliage wherever it's planted. Its foliage has a slate blue tinge, complemented by its bright orange-red tubular flowers, which bloom in the late summer and fall, attracting migrating hummingbirds. These fast-growing flowers are an easy and colorful way to fill out new gardens while waiting for your other plants to mature. After the first few years, you can cut them down to the ground to encourage even more growth.

small red flowers grow out of thin, green stalks
The tubular red flowers of scarlet bugler (Penstemon centranthifolius), seen here at the California Botanic Garden, will attract hummingbirds.
(William Hallstrom for LAist)

6. Penstemon
Prized for their flowers and often used as ornamentals, penstemons are like the roses and tulips of a native plant garden. Also known as beardtongues, they are the largest genus of flowering plants endemic to North America. California has more than 50 native species of them. You can choose from many penstemons that "are hummingbird-attracting, deer-resistant, spring-blooming perennials that come in a variety of shapes and colors," Pakradouni says. The popular showy penstemon (Penstemon spectabilis) produces a vertical spike of brilliant purple flowers while the scarlet bugler (Penstemon centranthifolius) produces vibrant red-orange ones.

lots of small yellow flowers grow out of thick bushes with thin stalks
California sunflowers in bloom at the South Pasadena Nature Park.
(William Hallstrom for LAist)

7. California Sunflower
The California sunflower (Encelia californica) produces loads of gorgeous yellow blooms that appear in both spring and fall. Embedded in lush, green, moundy medium-sized shrubs, they're magnets for pollinators such as bees and butterflies. They're, also easy to grow and maintain.

a reddish flower with a yellow stamen drops off a green stalk
A specimen of Aquilegia formosa aka western colmbine.
(Daniel Schwen/Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license)

8. Plants for Any Situation
So far, the plants on this list have all been selected for their ability to live in the toughest, driest parts of Southern California. But we also have native plants that are adapted to other conditions. There are plants for the shade, like western columbine (Aquilegia formosa), which has a delicate fern-like structure with alluring yellow and red blooms.

If you live near the coast, opt for plants that are adapted to milder temperatures and the presence of fog. The giant coreopsis (Coreopsis gigantea) with its rayed sunflowers is a good bet and it can be found covering the slopes above Point Dume in Malibu. Blue grama (Bouteloua gracilis) is suited to grassy meadows while Mugwort (Artemisia douglasiana) can be found near rivers and streams.

a large tree overshadows a hiking path
An oak tree at the Sibley Volcanic Regional Preserve in Northern California.
(TaoHexi/Wikimedia Commons)

9. Oak Trees
Many native plant advocates will urge you to plant an oak tree. If you already have one on your property, you have a unique opportunity. Bruce Schwartz of L.A. Native Plant Source points out that these majestic trees can live for hundreds of years if they have the right conditions. "Native oaks cannot tolerate constant summer water," Schwartz says. This can be a problem if you have lawn underneath your tree. Fortunately, many native California plants have adapted to live underneath oak trees. In addition to the cooling factor that the dense canopies of leaves provide, they're a fantastic hub for local fauna. Schwartz is a strong proponent of coast live oak (Quercus agrifolia). "No species will attract more wildlife," he says.

a man in a white shirt and black plants leans over a raised garden bed
A man tends to tomatoes and other plants in a garden.
(Priscilla Du Preez/Unsplash)

What If I'm Growing Vegetables?

You're in luck. Native plants are a great compliment to fruit and vegetable gardens. Acosta, who used to be the culinary garden manager at an acclaimed Baja restaurant, refers to them as "nature's pest control."

"Native plants create habitat for the beneficial insects that then keep the veggie pest populations under control," she says.

They also draw pollinators to a garden, helping fruit and vegetable production. If you're growing veggies, she recommends planting buckwheat, which tends to bloom through the summer months, as well as sage and coyote brush.

purple flowers top long, green, leafy stalks jutting out of rocks
Penstemon in bloom. These were planted as part of a restoration project in the Arroyo Seco in Pasadena.
(William Hallstrom for LAist)

Talk To The Experts

Before you get started, talk to people who have experience working with native plants.

"Native plant horticulture requires one to unlearn a whole lot of conventional gardening practice in order to have a garden succeed. Most of the nurseries that specialize in native plants have abundant educational resources to help with the learning curve," Pakradouni of L.A. Parks Foundation says.

"Education is a large part of our work," says Flora Ito, of the Theodore Payne Foundation.

green bushes, including one with small, red flowers, surround an agave plant or some sort of succulent
Arlington Garden in Pasadena features many native California plants such as California fuchsia spreading out with its bright flowers against the big, bushy green coyote brush to its right.
(William Hallstrom for LAist)

What's The TLDR?

If you select plants that are appropriate for your garden and take care to get them established, they won't need much water when they mature.

At every step of the process, take your time and do it right.

  • Do some reading and research on your own
  • Head to your local native plant nursery with pictures of your space
  • Ask lots of questions and take notes
  • Take your time deciding what to get
  • Plant carefully
A close-up of a reed-like plant, which is shown in silhouette against the top half of a bright yellow and red sun in the background.
The sun rises behind native fiddlenecks in the Elkhorn Hills at the Carrizo Plain National Monument in San Luis Obispo County, on June 1, 2001.
(David McNew
Getty Images)

I Don't Want To Do It Myself

Don't want to do the installation or maintenance of a native plant garden? Many landscape and gardening companies specialize in natives. Your local native plant nursery can also make recommendations for landscapers.

bushes, plants and flowers surround the exterior of a white house
A native plant garden at a home in West L.A. seen during the 2019 Theodore Payne Garden Tour.
(Courtesy of the Theodore Payne Foundation)

Local Native Plant Nurseries

Artemisia Nursery

Specializing in California native plants, this tiny nursery is run by co-owner certified naturalist Nicole Calhoun, who is "passionate about gardening to support wildlife. The nursery also carries succulents, house plants, and an excellent selection of vegetables, books and supplies. It also offers garden design and consultation. MORE INFO
5068 Valley Blvd., El Sereno.

Hahamongna Nursery

Hahamongna Native Plant Nursery is a project of the Arroyo Seco Foundation, where volunteers help grow local plants to restore the Arroyo Seco Watershed. The nursery has a public retail program with a wide selection of regionally appropriate native plants. Proceeds support the foundation's conservation efforts. MORE INFO
Hahamongna Watershed Park: 4450 Oak Grove Dr., Pasadena.


This smart-looking, well-curated nursery is an "ecologically and aesthetically opinionated store selling horticulture, garden tools and art objects of consequence," says co-owner David Godshall. Their plant selection is predominantly natives. MORE INFO
3350 Eagle Rock Blvd., Glassell Park.

Theodore Payne Foundation for Wild Flowers and Native Plants

Theodore Payne is both a fully stocked native plant nursery and a non-profit organization that advocates for California native plants. The grounds include a number of demonstration gardens and the nursery offers many classes and workshops. They also host an annual native plant garden tour each spring. MORE INFO
10456 Tuxford St., Sun Valley.

California Botanic Garden
Formerly the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden, this 86-acre property features an extensive collection of California native plants presented in domestic garden settings and in habitat areas that showcase California's diverse floristic provinces, from the coast to the desert and the north to Baja. You can buy plants at the Grow Native Nursery (which closes during the summer) and CalBG also hosts events and classes. MORE INFO
1500 N. College Ave., Claremont.

L.A. Native Plant Source
Open only by appointment in Highland Park, L.A. Native Plant Source was started by Bruce Schwartz as a project to restore the oak woodland on his property with "regionally appropriate" plants that he was propagating. He found himself with more plants than he needed and began selling them. Proceeds go to the Theodore Payne Foundation. The website features a helpful guide on planting. MORE INFO
Highland Park.

California Native Plant Society
This non-profit organization advocates for California native plants and their habitats. It has local chapters throughout the state that hold educational events and annual plant sales, typically in the fall. Los Angeles County is represented by the Los Angeles/Santa Monica Mountains chapter, the San Gabriel Mountains chapter and the South Coast chapter. MORE INFO

Las Pilitas Nursery
This California native plant nursery has a great, highly informative website, that includes plant descriptions, articles about many native plant-related topics and a guide to local plant communities arranged by zip code. MORE INFO
3232 Las Pilitas Rd., Santa Margarita.

Further afield, Tree of Life Nursery in San Juan Capistrano and Matilija Nursery in Moorpark are both terrific native plant nurseries.

What questions do you have about Southern California?
Photo credit
  • Lead photo is by David McNew/Getty Images.