California Natives for Irrigated Shade or Part Shade

Hummingbird sage, Salvia spathacea, can take water and partial shade

I write occasional articles about native plants and related topics for our local paper, the Santa Cruz Sentinel -- and certainly before each of our California Native Plant Society chapter's plant sales! Our spring sale was today (Saturday April 20 as I write) and yesterday the Sentinel did a great job laying out an article I wrote on a slightly unusual topic - California natives that like water and shade - or at least some water and some shade. Here you go... And Thanks! to Ms Town Mouse for contributing some fine photos!

(One correction though - we have over 8000 native and naturalized plants - over 6,000 are natives, not 8000 as I said below.)
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Drought-tolerant California native shrubs have become a popular choice for gardeners looking to replace their water-guzzling and chemical-dependent lawn. Manzanita, coffee-berry, and ceanothus make an attractive show, along with some other sun loving natives. But a host of other beautiful California native plants is available for shady and irrigated garden conditions, too.

Our state boasts over 8,000 different native plant species that flourish in the very different plant communities found up and down California, from the High Sierras to coastal lagoons; from deserts, to forested river banks. In fact, California is one of the world’s top biodiversity hotspots. That’s why our state government has dedicated the third week in April as California Native Plant Week, a time when you’ll find many great native plant events up and down California -- including native plant sales where you can find plants for all types of gardens.

Pink flowering currant, Ribes sanguineum, stunning early blooms that benefit hummingbirds

Some of the earliest blooming shrubs are the flowering currants. They are wonderful in partial shade situations, and many that do well with occasional water can thrive with regular garden irrigation, too. Pink flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum), for example, is a popular vase-shaped shrub that wakens the year with tender foliage and pendulous pink clusters of flowers. Like many plants native to woodlands or the edge of woodlands, it does well in partial shade and can also take quite a lot of sun. Pink sierra currant (Ribes nevadense), similar to the pink flowering currant, is one of a few that requires regular water -- though it can also take full sun.

Seep monkey flower, Mimulus gutattus blooming yellow below thimbleberry,  Rubus parviflorus.
A local shrub whose large maple-like leaves light up a shady spot is thimbleberry (Rubus parviflorus). It can grow up to six feet tall and wide and will eventually spread to form a thicket if you allow it to. It also does well in containers, where it remains fairly compact. Thimbleberry is deciduous, which some see as a disadvantage. But gardens are not static places, and deciduous plants bring a sense of the changing seasons. Western Spiraea (Spiraea douglasii) is also deciduous. It likes water and partial shade and produces showy rose-colored flower clusters from June to September. For an evergreen sun-or-shade lover, you might try California myrtle (Myrica californica). It takes regular water, and can be shaped into a hedge if desired.

California mist maiden, Romanzoffia californica

Perennial ground covers for shade are generally native to woodland areas. They brighten with small flowers, usually in spring, and some will spill prettily from containers.

Redwood sorrel, Clinipodium douglasii, spreads in the shade

These matting perennials retain their leaves year round, generally take full shade to partial shade, and can thrive on occasional to regular irrigation. Check out redwood sorrel (Oxalis oregana), woodland strawberry (Fragaria vesca), yerba buena (Clinipodium douglasii), and California mist maiden (Romanzoffia californica). Note that California mist maiden, locally native but rare in the wild, should be allowed to dry out in summer.

White inside-out flower (sorry, no blooms yet), Vancouveria hexandra

Yerba buena is common in Santa Cruz woodlands, and makes a tasty mint tea. White inside out flower (Vancouveria hexandra) is a little taller, maybe fifteen inches, and has lovely and unusually-shaped soft foliage. It requires shade and regular water. Hummingbird sage (Salvia spathacea) has large, coarse leaves that are fragrant and deer resistant and it puts out showy spikes of magenta flowers loved by hummingbirds. It can get by with little water, but tolerates regular water too, in well-drained soil.  For a low growing shrub that likes shade, try creeping snowberry (Symphocarpos mollis). It has pretty rounded leaves and white berries that birds love.

Western bleeding heart, Dicentra formosa, reappears each year, like magic!

Like slow-mo firework displays, a few shade-loving perennials grow, blossom, and disappear each year. They bring a lovely sense of surprise to the garden. For example,  western bleeding heart (Dicentra formosa) sports wonderful delicate foliage and unusual heart-shaped pink flowers, and Western columbine (Aquilegia formosa) has lovely pendulous orange-red flowers.

Western columbine, Aquilegia formosa, is another spring firework display

Both of these require shade and regular water, bloom from late spring to late summer (with irrigation) and then disappear till the next year. You can easily spread bleeding heart around your garden by division, or simply by digging up their horizontal underground stems (rhizomes) and shallowly burying them in other suitable spots. Western columbine reseeds when happy.

Island alum root, Heuchera maxima with sword fern, Polystichum munitum (Photo: Town Mouse)

Other shade-loving perennials have year-round foliage. Island alum root (Heuchera maxima) and our smaller but still pretty local native alum root (Heuchera micrantha) look great in containers or in the ground. They push out stunning foot-long or more creamy white spikes each year from rosettes of pretty rounded leaves, which last year-round. In cool areas these coral bell-like beauties can take sun and are drought tolerant, but they do look better with some water and shade.

Douglas iris, Iris douglasii (Photo: Town Mouse)

Native iris are showy additions to the garden. While they are drought tolerant, they can also take irrigation and shade and look better with some water. Remember to divide them in November, not July like the non-native irises. The California Native Plant Society spring sale always features a large selection of white, lavender, purple, and yellow irises.

Pacific coast hybrid iris  (Photo: Town Mouse)

Coast irises hybridize easily to produce colorful garden bloomers.

In very wet spots, seep monkey flower (Mimulus guttatus) produces masses of yellow snap-dragon-like flowers and reseeds reliably - sometimes too reliably - but what a great excuse to let that leaky faucet keep on dripping! They are also good around bird baths or ponds. You can treat this perennial like an annual if it reseeds profusely where you plant it. It actually does quite well with only moderate water when grown in the shade.

Containers with ferns and pink ribbons, Clarkia concinna  (Photo: Town Mouse)

Some native annuals are perfect for irrigated shade gardens, too, such as the pretty, pagoda-like flowers of Chinese houses (Collinsia heterophylla), and delicate Pink ribbons (Clarkia concinna). Most Clarkias can take some shade though they’ll flower more prolifically in the sun.

Another lovely container, with deer fern Blechnum spirant and wild ginger Asarum caudatum.

Ferns and grasses round out the shady plant palette. The tall and narrow fronds of deer fern (Blechnum spicant) require shade and regular water, while the similar looking sword fern (Polystichum munitum) can survive occasional dry periods, as can the more lacy-looking coastal woodfern (Dryopteris arguta).

California fescue, Festuca californica  (Photo: Town Mouse)

Festuca californica is a pretty bunch grass with tall stems. It likes partial shade and can take irrigation. Red fescue (Festuca rubra) is a shorter grass that also takes irrigation and tolerates some shade. It is sometimes used for a “lumpy lawn” - that is, an area of low-growing native grasses that mound gently and require mowing down perhaps once every year or so. Torrey’s melic (Melica torreyana) is an attractive locally-native grass that likes to grow on shady banks and has lovely spreading spikes of flowers that ripen to pretty dark seed heads. It also grows in sun, with irrigation.

As you can see, there’s more to California native plants than the tough chaparralians!


Such beautiful natives! Here in hot sunny Texas, I hear often that "there are no native plants that will grow in shade (or under oak trees, etc.), and that is simply not true. Many beautiful Texas plants much prefer shade. That's why posts such as these are so valuable -- must keep getting the word out!
Anonymous said…
You do have a whole new (to me) palette of native plants. A few, like the columbine, are very similar to their eastern cousins. Many are quite different, and in a good way. I really like your monkey flower and flowering currant.
Jason said…
Oops, that was me.
Edwin said…
Lovely flowers..