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California Native Plants - Best Practices & Inclusivity Ethics

California Native Plants can be a contentious topic. When I was quoted in an L.A. Times research piece on native sod in 2024, more than half of the comments on the article were about the "true" native credentials on one sod species (though it's actually another one that I personally find the native stance of questionable! More on that another time...).

baby sage plant, salvia microphylla 'hot lips" shown in front of a house

Understanding what's truly native in landscaping, what's invasive and what works in home gardens and why is an undertaking. Like this picture above of Salvia Microphylla 'hot lips' which is often marketed as a California native, but is to regions of Arizona and Mexico. It's 'hot lips' variety being a manmade hybrid. So here's a little about what should matter to the average home-owner when it comes to thinking about native plants for landscaping in Northern and Southern California and why

hand holden a california golden poppy blossom

Here at California Wild Gardens we see the term “California Native Plants” in scales. We take a big picture approach to California natives occasionally roping in Western North American or Mexican Natives - if they’re from similar climate regions - in our accounting. That's because we see plants native to any neighboring drought-adapted climate regions as close kindred to California garden plants.

Why Take an Inclusive Approach to Native Plants

NOTE: Before providing feedback, please read all the way through to ensure your concerns are not discussed later on in the content. 

California is a Refuge Ecosystem

According to ecology and evolutionary biology researchers at the University of California, Santa Cruz the Mediterranean climate region of California has a higher biodiversity rate than almost anywhere else in the world. This is thanks to the low extinction rate offered by its vast range of micro-climates. 

California has more species and more endemic species than any other U.S. state, and is more species rich than most other places on Earth...New findings highlight the importance of California as a refuge for plant species that might have gone extinct in other regions during the climatic shifts that occurred in the distant past (Stevens, UCSC).

Further back than the Paleolithic era, California has been able to keep more species alive than most other places. Meaning that is has long been a refuge for plants endemic to other regions that may've established here in ancient history. 

Nature is not Static

Nature is not confined by man-made borders.

While California has incredibly distinct and unique bio regions - with more than 6,500 plants native to only its habitats - nature does not respect lines on a map. Plants - just like people -  are always migrating. But plants do it at a much slower pace than us animals due to their mobility limitations. At least historically. Species that may've naturally migrated here via wind and water over time may still be doing it. Or may've already made the voyage ahead of schedule thanks to the accelerated transit corridors of globalization. 

What we think of as Wild "Natural" Habitats often were not made by Nature alone.

Isolated picture of california purple sage salvia leucophylla

“Nature” as we think of it in North America, is often not “natural,” but was (and still is) stewarded by thousands of years of indigenous tribal cultural practices. California native peoples used interactive mass scale landscape management practices that favored edible, medicinal and habitat-benefitting species at large. Such Tribal Cultural Practices (TCP) also treated disease and unsteady balances with a vast tool kit we are only just beginning to grasp the scope of. And mourn the loss of. As we struggle to support First Nations peoples in recovering their access to land and priceless heritage. 

Debate costs precious time & resources.

Clinging to stringent guidelines on what is exclusively native and what is not can limit our abilities to grow. Recreating bygone ecosystems is impossible due to species extinction and climate change. We can and should preserve & refurbish existent wild and native ecosystems. But when it comes to revegetating at home, engaging in deep debate about what is truly native to where your backyard is and what is not wastes precious energy and resources in a world where ecological repair and innovation has too few. 


Native Plant Best Practices

We respect that true native ecosystems deserve to be recreated in settings where people have the time and energy to invest in, steward and adapt to them. Climate fluctuations, suffering soils and lack of indigenous land management can make this practice a challenge. But it is a worthy one. 

In most home garden settings we think expanding our concept of native plants (a little!) is imperative to the success of home landscapes and residential gardeners.

While we trust true eco repair to scholars and scientists outside of the basic backyard, many California native plants do not function at their best in home garden settings. They are adapted to fire, flood or extreme stress. They may have big dormancy cycles or extreme drainage needs that not every homeowner can abide. They may be short-lived and only offer their dramatic rare beauty a few weeks of the year. These are all great features for botanical enthusiasts but not always for someone just trying to replant a lawn with a low-maintenance native-respecting garden design. 

Paprika yarrow flower - california native hybrid achillea

Do we need to implement habitat restoration with fervor? Absolutely.

Do we need to protect endemic habitats and rare native species? Relentlessly.

Do home owners need to be the stewards of exclusively native plants to have a California native friendly and habitat repairing garden? Definitely not  

Do we need to police and avoid invasive non-native species that threaten rare ecosystems? Most definitely

Do not plant invasive species at home, do not move aggressive plants to non-native habitats. (And also understand such opportunistic species often exist for a reason. And that is most commonly aggressive erosion control or nutrient accumulation. These plants tend to dominate in depleted, uncontained soils. And areas where ecosystem degeneration is far gone.They are trying to do a job even if they are too good at it for our taste). 

What is a California Native Plant and What is Not 

Are California Native Hybrids Still California Native Plants? 

Many native nursery species we buy in stores or online today are nursery engineered hybrids. This means they were bred in human-controlled settings and may have no direct correlation in nature. Were their parents both native or very-close-to-California native plants? Yes. So do we count them as native? Yes! 

What's an Inclusive Approach to California Native Plants? 

If it's a plant native to the Southwest, desert Mexico or high planes drought-adapted regions of bordering states should we think of it as a native garden plant? Yes! This is the inclusive approach. Borders that have existed for less than 200 years should not be the sole determinate of the native ranges of garden appropriate plants. In some cases, grass blends that are conventionally marketed as California Native in the nursery trade may have plant origins that go as far afield as Idaho.

What is a "True" California Native Plant?

A plant that that has grown here for at least 500 years. Meaning one that has existed freely in California before European contact. In modern day nursery practices this means a species harvested from wild seed or stalk and propagated exclusively from that wild source. 

What is Not a California Native Plant? 

From an inclusive stand point, a non-native plant is any plant from a tropical region. Any plants with origins more than 500-2,000 miles from California state borders (range debatable depending on appropriateness of bioregion) are not native plants. Nor are any plants that naturalized in California less than 500 years ago. 

Why Include Non-Native Plants in a Garden Design? 

Including plants that are native to a Mediterranean-climate bioregion in a landscaping garden design may be a great idea for your yard in some cases where there are not native plants that give the look or provide the functionality you are looking for.  

low water california native plant garden featuring sage deer grass and monkey flower
Royal Californian - Native Garden Plant Package & Design Plan - Includes some Western North American Natives or very near relatives. 

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