Home Home & Garden Native Understory Crops for California Oaks – FineGardening

Native Understory Crops for California Oaks – FineGardening


One among our iconic bushes right here in Southern California is the oak (Quercus spp. and cvs., Zones 4–11). Whether or not they’re grown as stand-alone specimens or in a grove, the great thing about these bushes is awe-inspiring. If in case you have an oak in your yard, you perceive this and can wish to do your half to guard them.

garden under an oak tree
Oak understories provide Southern California gardeners an opportunity to have lush, inexperienced shade gardens not attainable in lots of different areas of the backyard. Photograph: Cara Hanstein

California-native oaks comparable to coast stay oak (Q. agrifolia, Zones 8–11) and valley oak (Q. lobata, Zones 7–11) are tailored to our moist winters and dry summers, so preserving this in thoughts will enable you make selections about close by plantings. The perfect factor you are able to do close to an oak is mimic nature. This implies no lawns or different water-heavy understory plantings.

Oaks shed their leaves; leaving this materials as a pure mulch is finest. This apply promotes the expansion of useful fungi and protects the soil’s ecosystem. I as soon as heard somebody check with an oak’s leaf litter because the tree’s immune system. So preserve that mulch in place, and solely plant to the drip line (the sting of the cover). When planting, incorporate natives which will naturally develop in an oak understory cover. Under are a few of my favorites.

Catalina currant
Catalina currant is a floor cowl tolerant of many alternative soil sorts. Photograph: Cara Hanstein

Catalina currant

Ribes viburnifolium, Zones 6–10

One of the crucial superb floor covers for dry shade, this plant is at residence underneath an oak. Reaching 2 to three toes tall with an arching behavior, this currant is tolerant of most soils, together with clay. It has shiny, spherical, darkish inexperienced leaves and pink stems that provide year-round magnificence. It’s very constant in look and a dependable grower within the shade, however it is going to burn in an excessive amount of solar. Catalina currant is native to Santa Catalina Island and Baja.

Hummingbird sage
Hummingbird sage flowers are sizzling pink pollinator magnets that brighten the shade. Photograph: Cara Hanstein

Hummingbird sage

Salvia spathacea, Zones 7–10

As gardeners, we’re normally launched to a brand new plant in a backyard or nursery. However my first encounter with this sage was on a backpacking journey within the Santa Cruz space. And the place did I spy an entire grove of those? Beneath an oak, after all! These lovely sages have magenta blooms and attain about 1 foot tall. Spreading, they may finally kind a pleasant colony. They’re extremely adaptable and might tolerate various mild and soil situations however do finest with dappled mild and enough drainage. They will get powdery mildew, however merely spritz them with water and trim off badly hit leaves. It’s sometimes short-term.

Snowberry plant
Snowberry foliage varieties a dense behavior with a pleasant teal coloration. Photograph: Cara Hanstein


Symphoricarpos alba, Zones 4–10

A deciduous shrub reaching about 4 toes excessive, snowberry has an arching kind and small leaves, giving it a really delicate look. However appears will be deceiving, as a result of it’s a really hardy shrub. It naturally grows alongside stream beds however withstands drought by going dormant. The white berries are beloved by birds and the snowy white coloration is exclusive. It’ll unfold by rhizomes, however not too aggressively. It’s additionally tolerant of varied soil sorts.

Leatherleaf California coffeeberry
‘Leatherleaf’ California coffeeberry (R. californica ‘Leatherleaf’, Zones 7–10) is a extra compact grower than the species. Photograph: Kerry Ann Moore

California coffeeberry

Rhamnus californica, Zones 7–10

That is one good-looking workhorse within the backyard. It’s evergreen with shiny darkish inexperienced leaves. California coffeeberry has a tidy look and might even be used as a hedge. It provides a steady backdrop to different crops that may flower, fade, and fluctuate with the seasons. Birds love its pink berries that flip black upon maturity. It’s very drought tolerant and might take many alternative web site situations. This coffeeberry reaches as much as 8 toes tall however there are various cultivars which might be extra compact in measurement if that is a matter. It’s value discovering a spot for this evergreen underneath an oak.

Chaparral currant
Chaparral currant is an efficient choice for the sunnier fringe of an oak cover. Photograph: Cara Hanstein

Chaparral currant

Ribes malvaceum, Zones 7–10

One among my favourite California natives, chaparral currant is a sleek grower. The flowers are aromatic and dangle like earrings. Hummingbirds adore these crops in mountain areas. This currant will recognize extra solar, so plant it within the dappled mild of an oak or on the sunnier southern fringe of the cover. It’ll bloom from October to March, providing winter magnificence, and go dormant in sizzling summers. As climate cools and rains reappear, so will that foliage. It’ll attain 5 toes tall and appears putting planted amongst boulders.

—Cara Hanstein is a head gardener on the Huntington Library, Artwork Museum, and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, California.