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.

Aloe x spinosissima

Pronunciation
AL-oh spin-oh-Siss-e-ma
Common Name
Spider Aloe
Plant Type
Succulent
Mature Size
2-3 ft. high, 2-4 ft. wide
Water Requirements
Very Low: water deeply several times a summer
Sun/Shade Requirements
Full to half sun, shade
Wildlife
  • Hummingbirds
Flower Color
Red-orange
Maintenance- Design- Planting Tips

Spider aloe has to be the slowest growing succulent ever! Still it worth adding to a small garden because the plant has an interesting form -- almost like a piece of modern sculpture. And you don't need to worry about it outgrowing its space or crowding its neighbors.

In the winter spider aloe is rumored to have red flower spikes that are attractive to hummingbirds. Unfortunately, we can confirm that because the plant in the Palo Alto has never bloomed..

This plant is frost tender so be sure to protect it on cold winter nights.

Spider aloe is striking and very undemanding. It makes an excellent specimen for a small low water garden.

Arctostaphylos densiflora 'Howard McMinn'

Pronunciation
ark-toe-STAF-i-los den-si-FLOR-us
Common Name
Manzanita 'Howard McMinn'
Plant Type
Shrub
Mature Size
5-7 ft tall x 6-10 ft wide
Water Requirements
Very Low: water deeply several times a summer
Sun/Shade Requirements
Full to half sun
Wildlife
  • Bees
  • Butterflies
  • Other birds
Flower Color
Whitish pink
Maintenance- Design- Planting Tips

California native Arctostaphylos 'Howard McMinn' is reputed to be the manzanita most tolerant of typical garden conditions. Manzanitas in general need excellent drainage. In heavy clay soils, be careful not to over water or over fertilize.

If the tips of Arctostaphylos branches are pruned, this large shrub will become very dense and make a good privacy screen. At the Palo Alto Demonstration Garden, we have chosen instead to remove the interior stems and leaves to expose the interesting red bark. This is a good approach if you want the shrub to be more of a focal point instead of a background plant.

We planted three 'Howard McMinn' manzanitas at the entrance of the Water Wise Garden. They have struggled there over the years. Damaged by foot traffic and the occasional joy rider, they have not lived up to their reputation. Now, they are receiving too much shade as the oak trees reach overhead. How much longer will we keep them?

Aster chilensis

Pronunciation
ASS-ter chil-EN-sis
Common Name
California Aster
Plant Type
Perennial
Mature Size
2 ft. to 3 ft. wide and 18 in. to 3 ft. tall
Water Requirements
Very Low: water deeply several times a summer
Sun/Shade Requirements
Full to half sun
Wildlife
  • Butterflies
Flower Color
Purple, pale blue or white
Maintenance- Design- Planting Tips

This California native is a low growing, late summer bloomer that shines when much of the garden is quiet. It works well in the front of a low water perennial bed or native plant border.

California aster looks better if regularly deadheaded. After it is done blooming in the fall, we recommend shearing it back to to the ground to keep a tidy look in the garden. The plant will cheerfully return when winter is over.

California aster was a new plant in the Palo Alto Demonstration Garden and we found that it spread very rapidly even without supplemental water. We have removed it from the native plant bed. It might work better in a situation where a rapidly spreading plant is needed for erosion control rather than in a small, mixed perennial bed.

Carex divulsa

Pronunciation
KARE-eks dee-VOOL-sah
Common Name
Foothill Sedge
Plant Type
Grass
Mature Size
2 ft. tall and 1 ft. wide
Water Requirements
Very Low: water deeply several times a summer
Sun/Shade Requirements
Full to half sun, shade
Wildlife
Flower Color
No flowers
Maintenance- Design- Planting Tips

Foothill sedge is one of our water wise winners! It makes a lovely informal ground cover in shady areas. With occasional water this plant stays green over the entire summer. Foothill sedge will survive full sun, but can begin to look ratty in the summer.

This plant was once considered a California native, but that has recently been disproven. The new name is Carex divulsa, but you will still find it sold as Carex tumulicola in nurseries.

At the end of winter, many people cut this plant back to several inches above the ground, but we have not had to do that. Because our plants are in the shade, they never seem to get tattered looking.

We have not had a problem with Foothill sedge reseeding. This may be because we mulch extensively with bark and use drip irrigation in the water wise garden.

Ceanothus 'Concha'

Pronunciation
see-a-NO-thus
Common Name
California Wild Lilac 'Concha'
Plant Type
Shrub
Mature Size
6-8 ft tall x 6-8 ft wide
Water Requirements
Very Low: water deeply several times a summer
Sun/Shade Requirements
Full to half sun
Wildlife
  • Bees
  • Butterflies
  • Other birds
Flower Color
Blue
Maintenance- Design- Planting Tips

Ceanothus 'Concha' is one of the best Ceanothus cultivars for our area. It is more adaptable to typical garden environments than many other Ceanothus, tolerating heavy clay soil, drought or summer watering. Over watering will shorten the life of any Ceanothus so be sure to allow the soil to dry between waterings.

'Concha' has rose colored buds that open to cobalt blue flowers in late winter or early spring. Leaves are small and a deep dark green.

Ceanothus 'Concha' is a California native plant.

Epilobium 'Select Mattole'

Pronunciation
Ep-ih-LOW-bee-um
Common Name
Hummingbird Fuchsia 'Select Mattole'
Plant Type
Shrub
Mature Size
1 ft tall and 2 ft. wide
Water Requirements
Very Low: water deeply several times a summer
Sun/Shade Requirements
Full to half sun
Wildlife
  • Hummingbirds
Flower Color
Red orange
Maintenance- Design- Planting Tips

If you are searching for a summer blooming California native, put California fuchsias at the top of your list. Hummingbirds love them and so do we.

There are a number of cultivars out there, but one of our favorites is 'Select Mattole'. It has wonderful silver foliage and sweet red orange tubular blooms. We love the fact that it is well behaved -- it stays compact and doesn't spread.

The book California Native Plants for the Garden recommends cutting California fuchsias back to one inch stubs in the fall and winter. The book also suggests pinching the outer tips in late May or June to prevent flopping. With 'Select Mattole' we haven't found this to be necessary, but with other California fuchsias you might want to give this a try.

We have learned that California fuchsias look better with a once a month deep watering. It is not critical, but you will have a lusher looking plant with occasional water.

Festuca californica

Pronunciation
fess-TEW-kuh kal-ih-FOR- nih-kuh
Common Name
California Fescue
Plant Type
Grass
Mature Size
2 ft. high and wide, with inflorescence 2 - 3 ft. high
Water Requirements
Very Low: water deeply several times a summer
Sun/Shade Requirements
Full to half sun, shade
Wildlife
  • Other birds
Flower Color
Golden
Maintenance- Design- Planting Tips

Festuca californica is a commonly planted California native. It is larger than many of the Festucas, reaching two feet or more in height. It has a softer more arching habit. We have found it goes summer dormant with infrequent summer watering.

This plant is tough and resilient. Unlike many California natives, this plant can take moderate water and will stay green and lush with regular watering.

To keep this plant from reseeding, be sure to deadhead in early summer.

Heteromeles arbutifolia

Pronunciation
het-er-OH-mi-lees ar-bew-ti-FO-lee-a
Common Name
Toyon
Plant Type
Shrub
Mature Size
10-20 ft tall x 10-15 ft wide
Water Requirements
Very Low: water deeply several times a summer
Sun/Shade Requirements
Full to half sun
Wildlife
  • Hummingbirds
  • Other birds
Flower Color
White
Maintenance- Design- Planting Tips

Toyon is an attractive dark green, large shrub that can, over time, develop into a small multi-trunk tree. This plant is native to many chaparral areas of California and easily adapts to garden cultivation.

It is a member of the rose family, producing small white flowers in early spring that are followed by showy red berries. The berries remain on the shrub for a number of months while they slowly ripen. Once ripe, they attract many different species of hungry, grateful birds.

Young toyons may take a few years to settle into the garden but once established they are easy to grow and can be pruned to manage their size or to keep them looking fresh.

The toyon in the Water Wise Garden was planted in the winter of 2008 from a one gallon container in a spot where it gets afternoon shade. As you can see from this recent photo, our toyon is still a modest sized shrub several years after planting.

Lepechina hastata

Pronunciation
le-peh-KIN-ee-uh hass-TAH-tuh
Common Name
Pitcher Sage
Plant Type
Shrub
Mature Size
3 ft. tall and wide in low water gardens
Water Requirements
Very Low: water deeply several times a summer
Sun/Shade Requirements
Full to half sun
Wildlife
  • Bees
  • Deer resistant
  • Hummingbirds
Flower Color
Magenta
Maintenance- Design- Planting Tips

Pitcher sage is an aromatic member of the mint family that is attractive in wild gardens. In late summer these plants have reddish purple flowers on medium-sized spikes. Hummingbirds and bees love them, so they add quite a bit of life to a garden. Another nice feature is the plant has large leaves, which is a nice contrast to many plants from the Mediterranean region that have smaller foliage.

One caution about these plants: Some reference books say this plant can get up to 6 feet tall, but in the Palo Alto Demonstration Garden they have stayed a modest 3 feet tall and wide. The trick is not to overwater them.

Although some pitcher sages are native to California, Lepechinia hastata is from Mexico.

Lessingia filaginifolia

Pronunciation
les-IN-jee-a fi-la-jin-i-FOL-ee-a
Common Name
California Dune Aster
Plant Type
Groundcover
Mature Size
Two ft. wide and 18 inches high, cut back in winter
Water Requirements
Very Low: water deeply several times a summer
Sun/Shade Requirements
Full to half sun
Wildlife
  • Bees
  • Butterflies
Flower Color
Pink to lilac
Maintenance- Design- Planting Tips

This picture of Lessingia felaginifolia is from the Sunnyvale Demonstration Garden. We planted Lessingia seeds in the Palo Alto Demonstration Garden as a groundcover, but ended up removing the plants. We felt Lessingia looked scraggily by the end of summer when it bloomed.

Whether you like this plant or not probably depends on your level of fussiness. The Sunnyvale Demonstration Garden is a fan of Lessingia and continues to plant it. They cut it back in November to freshen it up.

Lessingia is big favorite with butterflies, so the Palo Alto Demonstration Garden is trying it again. We are currently trialing a cultivar called 'Silver Carpet', which is recommended in the book, California Native Plant for the Garden, in the front of the native plant bed. Lessingia 'Silver Carpet' was planted last fall so we are waiting to see how it does in our garden before recommending it.

Penstemon 'Margarita BOP'

Pronunciation
PEN-steh-mon
Common Name
Foothill Penstemon
Plant Type
Perennial
Mature Size
1 ft. to 2 ft. wide, 2 ft. to 3 ft. tall
Water Requirements
Very Low: water deeply several times a summer
Sun/Shade Requirements
Full to half sun
Wildlife
  • Hummingbirds
Flower Color
Maintenance- Design- Planting Tips

This is a very reliable, long-blooming California native that thrives in the Palo Alto Demonstration Garden's native plant border. Penstemon 'Margarita BOP' is a UC Davis All-Star because it does well in average garden conditions. Unlike many other California native plants, Foothill penstemon can tolerate some summer water.

The bright blue flowers on these plants are stunning and last well into late summer, especially if deadheaded regularly.

Ribes speciosum

Pronunciation
RIE-bees spes-ee-OH-sum
Common Name
Fuchsia Flowering Gooseberry
Plant Type
Shrub
Mature Size
4-8 ft tall x 6-10 ft wide
Water Requirements
Very Low: water deeply several times a summer
Sun/Shade Requirements
Full to half sun, shade
Wildlife
  • Hummingbirds
Flower Color
Red
Maintenance- Design- Planting Tips

This California native is a large, spiny shrub that can exist with no summer irrigation. In our experience, Ribes speciosum will go fully dormant during the summer, therefore it's not recommended as a summer focal plant. As soon as the winter rains begin, the plant will unfold glossy green leaves and fuchsia-like red flowers that bloom all winter. The flowers that hang along the undersides of the long arching branches are loved by hummingbirds.

Because of the spiny branches this shrub should be kept away from walks. It does makes a formidable barrier.

Salvia clevelandii

Pronunciation
SAL-vee-uh kleev-LAN-dee-eye
Common Name
Cleveland Sage
Plant Type
Shrub
Mature Size
3 ft. wide and tall
Water Requirements
Very Low: water deeply several times a summer
Sun/Shade Requirements
Full sun
Wildlife
Flower Color
Maintenance- Design- Planting Tips

'Winnifred Gilman' is a Salvia cultivar that is compact and has lovely violet-blue flowers. It is one of our favorite late spring California natives because the grey-green foliage smells like a chaparral morning.

Like many sages, these are short-lived plants. Even with regular pruning, Salvia clevelandii needs to be replaced every five to ten years when the stems become woody. We like to prune 'Winnifred Gilman' back by about a third in the late summer and early fall to prolong the life of the plant and maintain a nice shape.

We previously had a Salvia clevelandii 'Whirly Blue' in the water-wise garden. It was beautiful, but grew too large for our compact perennial garden. We removed it and replaced it with 'Winnifred Gilman'.

If you want to learn more about Salvias, we suggest reading Betsy Clebsch's The New Book of Salvias. 

Salvia spathacea

Pronunciation
SAL-vee-a spa-THAY-see-a
Common Name
Hummingbird Sage
Plant Type
Perennial
Mature Size
1-2 ft high x spreading
Water Requirements
Very Low: water deeply several times a summer
Sun/Shade Requirements
Full to half sun, shade
Wildlife
  • Hummingbirds
Flower Color
Red
Maintenance- Design- Planting Tips

Salvia spathacea is a California native plant with an unusually (for California natives) lush appearance. The leaves of this plant are large and can grow up to a foot in length.

The plant spreads by underground rhizomes and can eventually cover a large area. Hummingbird sage can make a colorful ground cover in dry, shady conditions.

From spring until fall flowering stems appear above the foliage. The flower clusters are spaced evenly along the stems creating a bold vertical accent. Light pruning after blooming will help keep this plant neat.

In the Water Wise Garden, we found that too much summer sun burned the leaves and made the plant unattractive. Also, we found that our hummingbird sage spread more aggressively than we had anticipated. A few runners were replanted to shadier spots under oak trees and we will be monitoring them carefully. 

Santolina chamaecyparissus 'Nana'

Pronunciation
san-toh-LEE-nuh kam-ee-ky-par-ISS-us
Common Name
Dwarf Lavender Cotton
Plant Type
Perennial
Mature Size
2 ft. tall and 3 ft. wide
Water Requirements
Very Low: water deeply several times a summer
Sun/Shade Requirements
Full to half sun
Wildlife
  • Bees
  • Butterflies
  • Deer resistant
Flower Color
Maintenance- Design- Planting Tips

Santolina chamaecyparissus 'Nana' is a compact shrub with silver grey foliage and bright yellow flowers. We found this dwarf cultivar at Sierra Azul Nursery several years ago. This cultivar is very slow growing and stays a nice size. We originally had a full sized Santolina, but the plant fell apart when it bloomed. It looked like a mess, so we removed it from the garden.

Santolina chamaecyparissus 'Nana' is a good choice for an edger or in a knot garden because it doesn't require the pruning that the larger species needs. We've used short silver plants as edgers throughout the Demonstration Garden as a way to tie the garden together visually.

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