Brilliant Corners: Five Favorite California Native Accent Plants

Brilliant Corners: Five Favorite California Native Accent Plants

Colorful natives to brighten up landscape design for the Central Coast

Madrone began over 40 years ago with the idea that a company dedicated to sustainability and the use of California native plants could be a great combination — beautifying human habitats while serving to “heal the scars” of development. The garden and landscape performance benefits of this approach prove their merit.

Over the decades, the functional benefits of native plants have become universally recognized and honored. They also remind us of our locale’s singular natural beauty and why we need to protect our region from biological decline.

We’ve gathered five of our favorite California native accent plants that don’t require a lot of care, such as water and fertilizer. These colorful beauties can also be incorporated into many different garden settings throughout the Central Coast. They are especially useful in the small, forgotten spaces in the landscape.

Erigeron glaucus, Seaside Daisy

This low, evergreen perennial thrives in borders and nooks, full sun for Coastal gardens and partial shade inland. Native from Santa Barbara north to Oregon. The long bloom season, Spring through summer, can be extended by “deadhead” pruning, which fortunately does not require wearing tie-dye clothes. There are several varieties available, including ‘Wayne Roderick’ (or WR) and ‘Cape Sebastian’. They form thick mats, 6-10 inches high, spreading 2-3 ft., and can take frost and high temperatures well over 100 degrees F.

Iris douglasiana,
Pacific Coast Hybrid Iris

Walking in a redwood grove or a coastal mixed evergreen forest, one can occasionally happen on a Pacific Coast iris popping up through the low understory. Best grown in partial shade unless close to the Coast, these exquisite, delicate-looking, springtime bloomers are frost-hardy and relatively drought tolerant. They make excellent informal borders or accents among other shady perennials or in rock gardens.

Heuchera species, Coral Bells

When rock gardens come to mind, it is hard to beat coral bells. We love the way their bright-colored flower stalks rise above the evergreen foliage! The native species often are found in the nooks and crevices among stone outcroppings from San Luis Obispo County north through Coastal Washington. The flowers range from white through many shades of pinks and reds, making great combinations with other small perennials, shrubs, and grasses.

Dudleya brittonii, Britton Dudleya

A succulent originating on the bluffs of coastal Baja California, Britton dudleya is a beautiful accent plant that forms a single, low, chalky gray-white rosette to 12-14″ diameter, and in well-drained soil, thrives on neglect. Its flower stalks rise 2 feet or more, turning red with pale yellow flowers. It loves full sun on the Coast and some shade and protection from the frost inland. Britton dudleya is very popular and makes a striking complementary statement to many California gardens.

Ceanothus glorious ‘Anchor Bay’ and Ceanothus ‘Centennial’

A garden needing larger plants to act as ground covers might include these two low-spreading shrubs for fast establishment and beautiful blue spring flowers. Centennial is very low, 8-12″ high, spreading to 6 feet or more. ‘Anchor Bay’ is taller, up to 3 feet in height, and spreading 6 feet. ‘Anchor Bay’ is one of the most widely used ground cover species of Ceanothus, performing best in full sun on the coast and in partial shade inland. ‘Centennial’ also prefers some shade inland and both require well-draining soil.

From Santa Maria to San Luis Obispo to Paso Robles and beyond, these drought-tolerant natives will liven up your outdoor sanctuary, with minimal upkeep.
Let’s Plant Some Oaks!

Let’s Plant Some Oaks!

When we think of our favorite trees, many Californians will immediately visualize our native oak trees: the same trees found over so much of the Central Coast, in so many different conditions and micro-climates.  Fall is the best time to plant these trees, whether from acorns or containers.  Let the winter rains and cool temperatures help them get established. As has been wisely said, “If you are thinking a year ahead, sow seed.  If you are thinking ten years ahead, plant trees.  If you are thinking one hundred years ahead, educate the people.”

There are three important; one could say dominant, species that greatly define the Central Coast in most people’s eyes.  The Cost Live Oak (Quercus agrifolia), Valley Oak (Quercus lobata) and Blue Oak (Quercus douglasii).


While the Coast Live Oak seems to be regenerating in adequate numbers, this is not the case with Valley Oaks and Blue Oaks:  regeneration rates for both species are alarmingly low.  Wildland fires, development, agricultural clearing, grazing and the effects of climate-change are a few of the reasons for these regeneration problems. So more than ever, it is incumbent on us to protect these precious resources, and many of the threats can be corrected through the efforts of an aware community, dedicated to protect their native forests. We all love these mighty oaks, but we cannot continue to take them for granted.  Oak woodlands are disappearing at an alarming rate-more than 10,000 acres a year statewide, according to the California Oak Foundation. Add that to the insufficient regeneration rates of several oak species, and we appear to face the disappearance of these trees before we know it. We want to encourage everyone to join in and PLANT SOME OAKS, so that the next generation of these trees, are here for future generations of Central Coast residents to enjoy.

Let’s take a closer look at these three prominent species, and think how each of us can promote, protect and wisely manage these resources.

Quercus agrifolia – Coast Live Oak

“Coast Live Oak, with its curious and elegant architecture, is as much a part of western California as are the golden hills beneath its shady, dark canopy,” says Bruce Pavlik in the excellent book, Oaks of California. It is the only evergreen oak among the three species discussed in this article.  It is found from foggy Coastal bluffs to inland valleys, canyons and hills up to 5000 ft. elevation.  At home in mixed evergreen forests that include pine, redwood, bay laurel, madrone, toyon, etc. Matt Ritter calls it the “backbone of coastal California woodlands”.  Unlike the Blue and Valley Oaks, it seems to have decent regeneration potential, although it is no match for unmitigated bad management, like clear-cutting!  The worsening conditions, induced by climate change, also threaten Coast Live Oaks with not only cataclysmic fires, but GSOB (Goldspotted Oak Boar) and SOD (Sudden Oak Death), both of which have yet to make much impact in San Luis Obispo County.  So let’s find a good place to plant some oaks!

Quercus lobata – Valley Oak

This is considered the largest or second-largest oak species in the USA.  It is Winter-deciduous, is found growing at 2000-6000 feet elevation, with 25 inches rainfall, and prefers deep bottomland soils.  In Matt Ritter’s book, California Plants, he states that “early Spanish explorers called these majestic oaks robles due to their similarity to the English oak (Quercus robur), a name that became the origin of California place names like Paso Robles. Tragically, over 90% of the Valley Oak population has been lost since the 1880s!  Since Valley Oak regeneration is so endangered, it makes sense to plant them if you have room. 

Quercus douglasii – Blue Oak

These patient, sturdy, enduring oaks grow in shallow soils, on hills, in exposed, hot, windy locations (110 degrees+, 15 inches rain).  They actually prefer dry conditions, and according to Bruce Pavlik, in Oaks of California, they uniquely combine “the mechanisms of opportunism, conservation, tolerance and resiliency” that make them perhaps the most ‘Californian’ of our native oaks.  I have personally seen a 14 inch trunk stump of a 300+ year-old Blue Oak tree on a ranch east of Santa Margarita, Ca.  Patient indeed!  Tragically, like the Valley Oak, Quercus douglasii, as a species is not adequately regenerating.

Respect the Root Zone, the most crucial area being within 6 ft. of the trunk.  Try not to irrigate, plant, or disturb the soil in this area.  The root protection zone is 1.5 times larger than the area from the trunk to the drip line (or edge of canopy). Minimize disturbance, irrigation and planting in this area.  In that crucial root zone, avoid alteration of natural grade, cut and fill, damaging roots, trenching and paving – direct drainage away from the tree.


“Caring for Young Trees” is a tree planting video, courtesy of California ReLeaf:

Watch the 3-minute video Caring for Young Trees 

When building or landscaping around existing oak trees, we need to be careful not to cause problems.

More Oak Tree Care information courtesy of the City of Visalia: Care and Maintenance of Oak Trees