UC Master Gardeners, Santa Clara County, CA
University of California
UC Master Gardeners, Santa Clara County, CA

Water Wise Plants

Here's a full list of all our water wise plants. You can also view an image gallery, or view the plants by categories.

Ceanothus

Pronunciation
see-ah-NO-thuss
Common Name
California Wild Lilac
Plant Type
Plant type depends on cultivar
Mature Size
Many different types
Water Requirements
None: avoid summer water
Sun/Shade Requirements
Full to half sun
Wildlife
  • Bees
  • Beneficials
Flower Color
Purple, dark blue, medium blue, white
Maintenance- Design- Planting Tips

Ceanothus is a California native evergreen shrub. It is very showy in late winter and early spring when it covers itself with beautiful blossoms. Most Ceanothus have blue blooms that are very attractive to bees and other insects.

There are many different kinds of Ceanothus. Some are low growing ground covers, some are shrubs and some become tree-like. Most Ceanothus need to be planted in a dry part of the garden because they are very sensitive to summer watering. Ceanothus varieties originally from the coast, such as 'Carmel Creeper', are more tolerant of summer water. You should research cultivars carefully to select the right plant for your garden situation. A good resource is California Native Plants for the Garden written by Carol Bornstein, David Fross, and Bart O'Brien.

Ceanothus can be tricky to prune. It is best to prune them in the late summer when they are dormant. Take care not to cut into large branches -- only prune branches that are an inch or less in size.

Even with proper pruning and watering, these plants can be short-lived (five to ten years), but their beautiful spring flowers more than make up for any challenges.

Cercis occidentalis

Pronunciation
SIR-sis ok-sih-den-TAY-liss
Common Name
Western Redbud
Plant Type
Shrub
Mature Size
12-20 ft. tall and wide
Water Requirements
None: avoid summer water
Sun/Shade Requirements
Full to half sun
Wildlife
Flower Color
Magenta
Maintenance- Design- Planting Tips

We wish we had a picture of a Western redbud in full bloom, but our five year old plants have not produced many blooms. The book, California Native Plants for the Garden, says this tree will bloom more profusely with winter chill and full sun.

The magenta flowers are quite a sight in the early spring. After blooming this small multi-trunked tree or large shrub has pretty heart-shaped leaves. This California native is an excellent choice for a small space or an edge of woodland design.

After the plant blooms, Western redbud sets distinctive seedpods. We can't say we are crazy about how they look, but the gorgeous flowers help us put up with them.

Like many natives, this plant needs good drainage, so consider planting it on a mound. Avoid summer water. Cercis can be pruned over the winter to open up the branching structure to give the plant a more tree-like appearance.

Cercocarpus betuloides

Pronunciation
ser-koe-KAR-pus be-tull-OY-dees
Common Name
Mountain Mahogany
Plant Type
Shrub
Mature Size
5-12 ft. tall and wide, adult size can vary
Water Requirements
None: avoid summer water
Sun/Shade Requirements
Full to half sun
Wildlife
Flower Color
Small yellow flowers
Maintenance- Design- Planting Tips

Cercocarpus is a useful informal hedging plant. It can also be pruned into a small tree. In the Palo Alto Demonstration garden we have it planted on the edge of our garden in an infrequently watered bed. It provides a buffer to the ivy cover area beyond our demonstration beds. The plant is evergreen, which adds to it usefulness as a screening plant.

We were recently inspired by a picture in Plants for Summer-Dry Climates to prune this Cercocarpus to have a more open form. It is very hard to see from this photo, but it is now a very attractive, airy shrub. This plant has been very slow growing for us, so we hope it will not be difficult to maintain this form.

Sunset says this plant requires full sun, but it has does just fine in an area that receives some shade. Because it is a California native from the foothills, it can get by on little to no water once established.

Because this plant is so slow growing, the only maintenance we've had to do is light pruning to keep its open branching form. The plant has had no problems with pests or diseases. Cercocarpus is a soft and elegant looking shrub that we think should be planted more frequently in Bay Area gardens.

Eriogonum grande var. rubescens

Pronunciation
ee-ree-OG-oh-num GRAHN-day roo-BESS-ens
Common Name
Rosy Buckwheat
Plant Type
Shrub
Mature Size
1 ft. to 2 ft. tall and wide
Water Requirements
None: avoid summer water
Sun/Shade Requirements
Full sun
Wildlife
  • Bees
  • Butterflies
Flower Color
Maintenance- Design- Planting Tips

Rosy buckwheat, a California native from the Channel Islands, has pretty rosy flowers in summer. It is one of the most showy and most compact of the buckwheats. Because of its size and neat growth habit, it makes a great filler plant in a native garden.

Rosy buckwheat shines in late summer when the flowers turn from rosy to a coppery tint. The mellow colors of this plant blends well with other perennials.

At the end of the coppery color phase we suggest you deadhead the blooms as they can get really ratty looking. Every couple of years we do a light pruning to new growth below the taller branches. The best time to do this pruning is in the late fall before the winter growth starts. You may also want to shape this plant every so often to keep its mounding form.

Buckwheat will require some summer water the first year it has been planted. After the first year, avoid summer water. Although some sources say these plants live only three to five years, we have found these plants to be longer lived. Buckwheat freely reseeds so you won't have to buy new plants.

Ixia

Pronunciation
IKS-ee-uh
Common Name
African Corn Lily
Plant Type
Bulb
Mature Size
18 - 20 in. tall
Water Requirements
None: avoid summer water
Sun/Shade Requirements
Full sun
Wildlife
Flower Color
Cream, yellow, red, orange, and pink
Maintenance- Design- Planting Tips

This South African bulb is one of our garden's best kept secrets. The late spring flowers come in pretty jewel tone colors that go well with many spring blooming plants. When it is blooming in the spring visitors always ask us what it is.

Ixia is one of the more versatile South African bulbs. Although it doesn't need it, we have found Ixia won't rot if it receives some summer water.

We remove the grass like foliage on this plant when it goes dormant (turns brown) in the summer.

Rhamnus californica 'Mound San Bruno'

Pronunciation
RAM-nus kal-ih-FOR-nik-uh
Common Name
Coffeeberry 'Mound San Bruno'
Plant Type
Shrub
Mature Size
5 ft. tall and wide
Water Requirements
None: avoid summer water
Sun/Shade Requirements
Full to half sun, shade
Wildlife
  • Other birds
Flower Color
Inconsequential pale yellow
Maintenance- Design- Planting Tips

We planted the California native coffeeberry 'Mound San Bruno' in our native plant bed that receives both sun and shade. The amount of sun the bed gets varies depending on the time of year and time of day. That's a common condition in many gardens and not all shrubs do well in both sun and shade.

Coffeeberry isn't a flashy shrub, but it does add much needed structure to the native plant bed. The berries on the plant are attractive and beneficial for birds and small mammals.

There are many different varieties of coffeeberry. They can be used as an informal hedge or screen or gently pruned to be a bedding or foundation shrub. 'Mound San Bruno' is one of our favorites because of its compact growing habit, which works well in a perennial bed.

We watered our coffeeberry once a week to get it started, but now that it is established, we water it once or twice over the summer to wash the dust off the leaves.

Sparaxis tricolor

Pronunciation
spa-RAKS-iss
Common Name
Harlequin Flower
Plant Type
Bulb
Mature Size
8-12 in. wide and 12 in. tall
Water Requirements
None: avoid summer water
Sun/Shade Requirements
Full sun
Wildlife
Flower Color
Red, pink, purple, while and yellow
Maintenance- Design- Planting Tips

Sparaxis are another South African bulb that deserve to be more widely planted in Mediterranean climates. Sparaxis have cheerful flowers and sword-shaped leaves. They come in an assortment of colors and look pretty spectacular in a mixed planting. Best of all, they don't need summer water, but will tolerate water if you irrigate.

Sparaxis is truly an easy plant that has few insect or disease problems and will naturalize without effort. The plants readily self sow. If you leave the leaves until the seed pods open, you'll have even more plants the next year. In fact, we sometimes need to pull some of the seedlings to keep them under control.

These plants go dormant after blooming. We wait until the leaves have lost most of their green color before snipping them off a couple inches of above ground. Other master gardeners wait for the leaves to go completely brown and then they simply pull off the dead leaves. It isn't necessary to do this, but we think getting rid of brown dormant leaves gives the summer garden a more lush look.

Unfortunately, snails and slugs love these plants as much as we do. The leaves will generally show it unless you are good at keeping snails under control.

Symphoricarpos albus

Pronunciation
sim-for-ih-KAR-pus AL-bus
Common Name
Snowberry
Plant Type
Shrub
Mature Size
3 - 5 ft. tall and wide
Water Requirements
None: avoid summer water
Sun/Shade Requirements
Full to half sun, shade
Wildlife
  • Butterflies
  • Other birds
Flower Color
Maintenance- Design- Planting Tips

When fall and winter comes, shrubs with berries and fruit add interest to the garden. Snowberry, a California native, has wonderful white berries that show up in the fall and last through winter. These berries are attractive to birds too.

One of the best features of snowberry is it actually likes dry woodland conditions. It is a rare shrub that will thrive under a thicket of oak trees. At the Palo Alto Demonstration Garden we have it growing in a shady area that gets no summer irrigation.

Some people find the branching structure of snowberry to be messy. We have not tried this yet, but California Native Plants for the Garden recommends occasional coppicing to improve its appearance. Coppicing means to cut back a plant to about one foot from the ground. This usually works best right before a plant puts out new growth in the spring.

Trichostema lanatum

Pronunciation
try-CO-stem-uh la-NAY-tum
Common Name
Woolly Blue Curls
Plant Type
Shrub
Mature Size
3-4 ft. high & wide
Water Requirements
None: avoid summer water
Sun/Shade Requirements
Full sun
Wildlife
  • Hummingbirds
Flower Color
Violet to blue
Maintenance- Design- Planting Tips

We approached growing the California native woolly blue curls with some trepidation because it has a reputation for being difficult. It is sensitive to overwatering and poor draining soil and often is short lived. But it has beautiful flowers! The foliage smells like bubble gum when rubbed, which is also a neat feature of this plant year round.

Several years ago we added a woolly blue curls to our California native plant bed. The plant was mulched with rock to improve drainage and received no additional summer water. Our woolly blue curls has bloomed and grown over the years, but it really wants a sunnier spot. The plant is reaching out for more light and has woody, unattractive stems.

We’ve avoided cutting the plant back hard, because we have read it does not get new growth on old wood. Some sources suggest planting woolly blue curls as an annual; if you love the flowers that might be an option for you. In all honesty, if your heart is not set on a California native, there are probably easier low water plants with lavender flowers. Lavender and Mexican sage are two lavender flowered plants we think are safer choices for the novice gardener.

Triteleia laxa ‘Queen Fabiola’

Pronunciation
trit-el-AY-ah LAKS-uh
Common Name
Triteleia 'Queen Fabiola'
Plant Type
Bulb
Mature Size
Flower stalks are 6 to 28 in. tall
Water Requirements
None: avoid summer water
Sun/Shade Requirements
Full to half sun
Wildlife
Flower Color
Maintenance- Design- Planting Tips

Triteleia ‘Queen Fabiola’ is a California native bulb with very pretty purple blue flowers in the late spring and early summer. It has grass like leaves that go dormant in the summer.

In the Palo Alto Demonstration Garden we have planted 'Queen Fabiola' in several beds on edge of the garden that receive limited or no supplemental water. We have found that because 'Queen Fabiola' has delicate flowers and blooms in the late spring when lots is going on in the garden, this bulb needs to be massed to make an impact.

Avoid summer water especially in clay soil. We remove the brown leaves in the summer to keep a tidy look, but that's not necessary.

Triteleia 'Queen Fabiola' used to be called Brodiaea and many bulb catalogs still list it under that name.

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