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Landscape Design Guide: Over-used Landscape Plants and California Native Substitutions

Thursday July 21, 2011


Any visitor to California with a horticultural eye would notice a handful of reoccurring plants throughout the state. 


From freeways to strip malls to homes, there is a stunningly uniform variety of plants in the landscape.  But this is no mass conspiracy masterminded by evil growers.  Rather, this is a testament to some very tough plants filling some difficult roles. 

But because our mediterranean climate allows the use of thousands of varieties of plants, it is high time some of the usual suspects in the landscape are phased out and replaced with some low-water, low-maintenance, native plants that match or out-perform the old guard.  Consider this Landscape Design Guide’s  suggestions for some California landscape ideas:

Rhamnus ‘Mound San Bruno’ (Coffeeberry) for Rhaphiolepis indica (India Hawthorne)

  coffeeberry and india hawthorne

Often jokingly referred to as “Kmart plants” in the industry, India Hawthorne is a long-lived, dependable shrub that probably outnumbers Californians. But one can only see so many before losing interest.  A wonderful replacement for India Hawthorne is Coffeeberry.  This comparably sized, highly adaptable California native thrives in sun or shade, requires less water, and is a wonderful food source for many native birds.   Consider Coffeeberry your workhorse when designing California native gardens or other sustainable garden designs.

Aristida purpurea (Purple Three-Awn) for Nassella tenuissima (Mexican Feather Grass)

aristida and stipa grass

Unfortunately stunningly beautiful, the Texas native Mexican Feather Grass has proved to naturalize in locations throughout California.  Although it has a wonderfully unique appeal when planted en masse, it is clear this plant should be removed from our mediterranean landscaping vernacular.  But when native bunchgrasses such as Purple Three-Awn are available, the removal and replacement shouldn’t sting too much.  This native bunchgrass exhibits many of the same characteristics including: heat and cold tolerance, seasonal color, holds its flower plumes for extended periods, and is drop-dead stunning en masse.  However, take care not to irrigate the same: Mexican Feather Grass will tolerate unnecessary watering but Purple Three-Awn may not fare as well.

Ceanothus  (California Lilac) for Escallonia

ceanothus and escallonia

Escallonia is a common hedge and screening shrub that requires moderate water and produces smallish flowers varying in color and size depending on the variety.  In place of this thirsty bush, look for similarly sized California Lilacs.  With many varieties to choose from, the touch, drought tolerant, heavy blooming, and long-lived (if not over-watered) California Lilac may quickly become a favorite.  The Ceanothus family is a wonderfully diverse landscape design tool and some of our favorite garden varieties include ‘Ray Hartman’, ‘Concha’, and ‘Yankee Point’.

Calycanthus occidentalis (Spice Bush) for Hydrangea

spice bush and hydrangea

Both deciduous and shade loving, Spice Bush is by far the cheaper date.  To keep your hydrangeas in show-worthy condition, they need constant water, fertilization, dead-heading and all-around fussing.  Drop the idea of eastern gardens filled with Hydrangeas and pop in a Spice Bush or two.  The delicately green leaves provide a stunning backdrop to some uncharacteristically large flowers for a California native plant.  Also, Spice Bush will better mark the true mediterranean seasons with its well-timed blooms and fall color.


Carpinteria californica (Bush Anemone) for Gardenia

Shade gardening in California seems to be difficult for many.  And for some reason unknown to us, Gardenias are too often chosen.  These finicky Asian shrubs must be treated like helicopter parents who constantly worry if their young children are “too hot, too cold, too thirsty, or hungry?”  Enough!  Put in a Bush Anemone and you’ll wonder why you hadn’t stumbled upon this beauty before.  This dependable, gorgeous bloomer is more like a teenager and will do what it has always done with little oversight from you.


Dudleya virens ssp. hassei (Catalina Island Live-Forever) for Carpobrotus edulis (Ice Plant)

dudleya and iceplan

Why haven’t the California landscape professionals employed by Caltrans figured this one out yet?   Iceplant is the arch enemy of most of our coastline but yet there it is, everywhere!  The public will never fully realize how nasty this plant is in California (highly invasive and disruptive here, but wonderful in its native South Africa) if we see acres upon acres of it as we drive along our coastal and inland highways. A simple replacement is the Catalina Island Live-Forever.  Similar in habit, tolerances, growth rate, and water requirements, it is one thing that Ice Plant isn’t:  Awesome.

About The Author: By way of inspiration and information, Landscape Resource acts as a Landscape Design Guide for gardeners and professionals in a mediterranean climate.Visit for more California landscape ideas with anemphasis on sustainable garden design and designing California native gardens.

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