California Natives to Cultivate in Your Garden by Habitat Type

Redwood Sorrel is an herbaceous perennial plant that provides excellent ground cover in moist, shady environments. Photo by Serena Lasko.

April 13, 2022

By Evany Wang and Sophie Heny, Seasonal Restoration Crew Members

Waving grasslands decorated with strings of blazing wildflowers, oaks hung thick with moss, cattle marching through vivid green grass—The Santa Lucia Preserve is an inspiring place where people and unique California ecosystems not only coexist, but work together in harmony to model an environmentally sustainable future. If you are looking to dig deeper into the practice of conservation living, planting native species in your own backyard is an excellent place to start. 

Native plants and animals have co-evolved throughout history, with natural foliage providing shelter, habitat connectivity, and the base of the food web upon which all fauna depend. The Preserve can be divided into a number of distinct habitat types: grasslands and oak savannas, coastal scrub and chaparral, oak woodlands, redwood forests, wetlands, and riparian zones. This mosaic of ecosystems has persisted for thousands of years, but the human introduction of invasive plants threatens to throw these unique plant communities out of balance. 

The Santa Lucia Conservancy works carefully to monitor and control the spread of invasive weeds, however, this is a monumental task. Cultivating natives on your property is a powerful way to protect the habitats you love, increase the natural beauty of your land, bolster surrounding plant communities, and provide defense against invasive plants. A form of low-impact gardening that enhances the land, choosing plants that have evolved to work within their ecosystems means that they will not require as much irrigation or care. 

Determining which native species to plant requires a deep knowledge of which flora existed before the introduction of non-native species and which plants are located there now. Understanding the base state that you are working with and the desired plant community for your property’s habitat type will help you plan your restoration efforts. After identifying the plants that already exist on your land, make sure you remove all of the invasive species that have taken root. Please reference our Invasive Plant Management Guide for detailed information on weed removal.

Due to the high diversity of habitat types in Carmel Valley, some plants are more suited to certain locations than others, so we’ve broken down our top plant recommendations by habitat below. For a more complete index of recommended native plants, check out our Preferred Plant List. 

Grasslands and Oak Savannas

Lupine fixes nitrogen in the soil, fertilizing this grassland along Rancho San Carlos Road. Photo by Alix Soliman. 

The grasslands found on The Preserve are made up of tall and short grasses speckled with a range of wildflowers. Grasslands are one of California’s most threatened ecosystems, as they are often converted for agriculture and livestock grazing. They are also among the most biodiverse habitats. The Preserve supports coastal prairies, which are considered extraordinarily rare as they rely on a unique confluence of fog and rain that allows wetland and grassland species to mix.

We recommend seeding both perennial grasses and annual wildflowers at the same time. The annuals will flourish in the spaces between the native grass species. Seeding grasses such as blue wild rye, purple needlegrass, and California brome will create a balanced plant composition offering a variety of colors and textures to your meadow. Grasses and wildflowers should be seeded in early autumn right before rainfall.  

Oak savannas are a quintessential California ecosystem that appear in higher elevations across The Preserve. They are characterized by grasslands scattered with coast live oaks, valley oaks and other oak species spread far apart due to the low soil moisture and richness in these locations. Oaks provide shade and habitat to many animals such as song sparrows, lizards, and foxes. In addition to the grass species listed above, natives that are shade tolerant such as miner’s lettuce, clover, and lupine thrive in the oak savanna.

Coastal Scrub and Chaparral 

Eastwood’s Manzanita is a drought resilient shrub that flowers in the winter and spring. Photo courtesy of David Hofmann. 

Coastal scrub and chaparral are some of The Preserve’s most distinctive plant communities, with a surprising number of flowering bushes that grow within this nutrient-poor, rocky, and arid landscape. These habitats form within the fog zone, a rare environmental niche created by fog rising off the ocean, but receive little rain. Native plants in these habitats provide a number of ecosystem services including erosion control and groundwater recharge. Maritime chaparral is more drought tolerant than coastal scrub, and multiple unique species thrive here including native manzanitas, Ceanothus species, chaparral currant, and madrone.

Coastal scrub is made up of densely spaced shrubs with shallow roots, including black sagebrush, bitter gooseberry, hillside gooseberry, and California sagebrush. Though shallow, the root systems spread wide, allowing for excellent erosion control as the roots can hold topsoil in place. With this in mind, consider planting on slopes with well drained soil as standing water will overwhelm these plants.

Oak Woodlands 

Sticky Monkey Flower is a perennial shrub favored by hummingbirds, butterflies, and bees. Photo by Alix Soliman. 

Oak woodlands are the very picture of a fairytale, with gnarled old trees forming dense canopies that provide shade and habitat for many species. The understory of an oak woodland can vary from being open with fields of wildflowers to closed and shrubby. One of California’s richest habitats, oak woodlands are threatened not only by deforestation for agriculture and development, but also from pests, non-native grasses, and a tree disease known as Sudden Oak Death.

On The Preserve, there are several oak species which prefer different niches within their habitat. When planting oaks, the main thing to remember is to protect the roots. Since oaks are adapted to California’s hot and dry summers, they don’t tolerate summer irrigation as well. Plant native understory species that are also adapted to be drought-tolerant, as those that require water in the summer have thick roots that may crowd out young oaks. Species such as sticky monkey flower, fuschia-flowered gooseberry, and California honeysuckle will tolerate dry summers once established and offer a beautiful flash of color to your native plant garden. 

Redwood Forests, Riparian Zones, and Wetlands

Blue Elderberry is a deciduous shrub that can grow up to 30 feet. It produces purple berries in the autumn, which serve as an important food source for birds in California. Photo Courtesy of Barry Breckling. 

Redwood forests are one of the most iconic California ecosystems. Dependent on a significant amount of moisture, redwood trees hug the coast where fog provides between 20-50% of their water and are found primarily near streams and drainages, as they prefer to have “wet feet.” Creating their own microclimate, redwood forests are home to shade-loving understory plants that are well-adapted to moist soil including redwood sorrel, snowberry, and osoberry.

Riparian corridors are defined as the area between upland zones and waterways, making these areas vital to the overall health of our streams and rivers. When deciding on plants for these areas, consider those that need moist soils and have an extensive root system for erosion control such as dogwoods, willows, elderberries, and black cottonwood.

Similarly, wetlands are saturated lowlands that are natural drainage areas providing water purification, nutrient cycling, and flood control functions. These areas are also highly biodiverse; over half of California’s endangered wildlife depend on wetlands for survival, including the tricolored blackbird. When planting in wetlands, choose species that do well in standing water and have deep root systems such as tule, valley sedge, white alder, and California wildrose.

To explore more plants native to the Santa Lucia Preserve, check out our Preferred Plants List as well as California Native Plant Society’s Calscape library.

Preserve landowners do not need approval to plant within the Homeland boundary. For any vegetation management within the Openland, including native planting and invasive weed removal, landowners must consult with the Conservancy. Please contact Senior Manager of Climate Change Adaptation Jenna Allred at jallred@slconservancy.org for more information.