Southern California is a diverse growing region, with ecosystems that range from the desert chaparral to forests to coastal waterways. Consequently, not all native plants will grow in all areas. Use your knowledge of wild plants to identify species in the wild or to plan a xeriscape garden, using native plants that grow well without much maintenance or watering.
Evergreen trees grow wild in the mountains in Southern California and can be cultivated in lower elevations, too. The California Sycamore, for example, is naturally found in Southern California's hills but as long as it gets plenty of water when it's young, grows into a sturdy and drought resistant tree that can thrive throughout the region. The Coast Live Oak is a deciduous tree that grows wild in Southern California. It can reach 40 feet high and 20 feet wide, making it popular for shade and landscaping. It's also resistant to drought and attracts butterflies and birds. The Toyon and Mexican Elderberry are also widespread native trees.
The California Poppy is the state's official flower. It grows wild in the chaparral hillsides and throughout Southern California's high desert. Arroyo Lupine and Bush Marigolds often grow alongside the poppies. In the mountains, Corn Lilies, Crimson Columbine and the diminutive Meadow Monkeyflower grow wild. California Poppies do well at the coast, too, where they grow alongside the Chicory, Rush Rose, Calypso Orchid, California Fuchsia and the California Rose Bay, a relative of the Rhododendron.
Bindweed is a vine that grows wild in Southern California and is often mistaken for Morning Glories. The flowers have a similar shape, though the Bindweed flowers are smaller. Climbing Penstemon, Pipestem Clematis, Canyon Pea, Pink Honeysuckle, Virgin's Bower and the Desert Wild Grape are also natives. Vines can be picky about their soil conditions and sunshine. If you're gardening with wild plants, spend time researching each plant before you choose, to be sure that you're providing the best environment.
In xeriscape gardening, grasses aren't planted as a lawn, but as accent plants valued for their ability to prevent erosion, enrich the soil and attract birds. Needle Grass and Purple Needle Grass grows wild in Southern California, preferring direct sunlight and dry soil. In areas that get some shade, try Giant Rye grass or Melic Grass, instead. The Giant Rye can grow up to 5 feet tall, so be aware of that and use it strategically, along walls and in the backs of flower beds.
Edible Wild Plants
Native Americans living in Southern California had access to pine nuts from the Coulter Pine, acorns, seeds from the wild sunflower, prickly pear cactus and wild melons. Leaves and stems from the dandelion, mallow, California poppy and wild violets were used as greens, either cooked or eaten raw. Cherries, wild grapes, elderberries and gooseberries were seasonal treats. White sage, Jimson weed, Mugwort and Gentian Violet were prized for their medicinal properties.