OFFICIALLY RANKING CALIFORNIA NATIVE PLANTS FROM BEST TO WORST
I have been helping farmers with native plant landscaping for almost two years now, and ranking the native plants I work with from best to worst is a project that is LONG overdue so…..Buckle up folks, we’re ranking California native plants from best to worst. Now, If I hear any “That’s impossible every native plant is just different and they all have their own ecologically significant traits that allow them to survive in a given ecological niche blah blah blah….” I will say this. Quiet. This is my list, my rules, sorry snowflake. Second, it is simply an OBJECTIVE TRUTH that some plants are good, and some plants are just bad. All I'm trying to say is some plants absorb CO2 and turn it into oxygen and sugar…. And others absorb CO2 just turn it into disappointment. OK, enough of the lollygagging, time to reveal the truth about which California Native plants are “The good ones", and which California native plants are whiny little babies that I would NEVER put in a hedgerow.
This plant is far superior to the other plants on this list, and generally any list. In fact, the only list where this plant would not come up on top would be a list of bad plants that are good at dying. There are many things I like about this plant. First of all I like that the common name is Coyote Brush, but nobody is really sure because half the people I ask call it Coyote Bush instead of Coyote Brush so it always makes it a little awkward because I never want to correct someone when they say Coyote bush instead of brush so I just let it slide because, besides what’s really the difference between a bush and a brush. It conjures up roughly the same image in the average person’s head (I am not the average person) but also the image of a little coyote sitting in one of these suckers is a swell thought so…. There’s that. Next, I love how spiteful this plant is. It will not die, it CANNOT die. Have a 6-year old plant it with half the roots out of the ground, that’s fine. Forget to water it for 2 years, whatever. Run it over with your Ford F-150, jokes on you this plant is into that kinda stuff. This plant is also DENSE… Need protection from dust, wind, pesticide drift, neighbors, existential dread? Plant some of this stuff and your problems will not be able to reach you through the “brush”. This plant is also native to every ecosystem in California, except maybe the reaches of the Mojave desert (but nothing grows there anyways so honestly, who cares?). Lastly, this plant harbors the largest populations of parasitic wasps of any other plant. What’s a parasitic wasp you ask? Well they are these little guys that lay their eggs in the body of other insects, and lots of times those host insects are things like aphids, mealybugs, other lepidopterans etc… that are big agricultural pests. So basically this plant will help keep pest populations down on your farm if you have enough of it. So for these reasons Coyote Brush (Baccharis pilularis) is the best plant on the list.
Ok so this is like 20 different plants, so I’m going to do a sub-ranking of the best Ceanothuses cultivars.
2A) Ceanothus ‘Carmel Creeper’
Pretty gnarly name honestly, but this Ceanothus is the best because it really do be creepin’. The glossy, delicious leaves of this plant create such a dense cover over an area, they essentially carpet the ground in a luscious blanket of life. The flowers are nice too, but this is for sure a leaf plant “if you know what I mean”.
2B) Ceanothus ‘Dark Star’ OR ‘Julia Phelps’
These are both really small-leaved ceanothus that have thousands of little flowers in the
spring (Late Feb-April). When I talk about the most beautiful plants I've ever seen, I’m
talking about a Dark Star Ceanothus engulfed in indigo flowers, buzzing with insects in the
spring. An absolute beacon of joy in this world.
2C) Ceanothus ‘Snow Flurry’
It can be really tall and it has white flowers... sensational.
2D) Ceanothus ‘Blue Jeans’
Has really cool sharp, holly-like leaves, and every time I plant this, I listen to Blue Jeans by
Lana Del Rey and that’s always a pleasant thing for me.
2E) Ceanothus ‘Ray Hartman’
Is a pretty monstrous Ceanothus, and it has nice blue flowers, not too special.
2F) Ceanothus ‘Concha’
This is my least favorite Ceanothus, which is going to get me in trouble because my mentor
Sam Earnshaw likes it. Like, don’t get me wrong it’s a FINE plant... but I would only use it if
I couldn’t get my hands on a better Ceanothus, of which there are many.
2G) All the other Ceanothus cultivars
Ceanothus is the domestic dog of the California Native plant scene. There are more breeds
than I can count on all my fingers and toes so I’ll do us all a favor and group them together
and put them in this ranking.
This was a real close one, but Deer Grass just barely eeked out the #3 spot on this list.
This is a reliable plant, it’s beautiful, and its a big grass. I love graminoids in general
(grasses, sedges, and rushes) so naturally a big 6 ft tall grass that loves to be neglected,
and provides habitat to lady beetles and other beneficial insects is going to wind up
somewhere high up in this list. Sam likes to place a few of these bad boys at the ends of
hedgerows because he thinks it looks nice. I agree. Rock on Deer Grass.
Saltbush, Quailbush, this hunk of a shrub goes by many common names, but I call it
Atriplex lentiformis (again because I need to emphasize my botanical superiority). How did
the Saltbush get its name you ask? Well, we call it that because, like your uncle with high
blood pressure this guy LOVES salty conditions. It tolerates the poorest saltiest stuff you
got, but also can do well in normal soils. A jack-of-all-trades perhaps. This plant is also
really big, forming gigantic impenetrable hedges that can reach 10 feet tall and 20 or 30
feet in girth given the correct conditions. The plant is also really quite attractive with
scurfy, almost seafoam green luminescence blazing in the central valley sun. One last fun
fact about this plant is it can change in sex throughout it’s life. For example some plants
are monoecious which means they have both “male” or “female” flowers on the same plant,
and other plants are dioecious which mean the “male” flowers and the “female” flowers
exist on separate plants. Atriplex lentiformis can present as either a monoecious, OR a
dioecious plant AND if dioecious they sometimes change their sex during their life! And
for these reasons, Quailbush has clenched the #4 spot on this list, the definitive guide of
which native plants are good and which are bad.
The diverse and beautiful Manzanitas. So these are the most beautiful plants on this list
by far, but they can also be whiny babies sometimes, so that’s why they are number 5 and
not number 2 or something. 5th place is still pretty good, so the Manzanita shouldn’t be too
sad. These stunners are in the same family as blueberries (Ericaceae, The Heath Family),
and they have the same white “urn-shaped” flowers indicative of the family. Most species
are endemic to the west coast, and they thrive on the conditions present here. The only
problem is they are slow growing, which is less than ideal when you’re trying to grow a big
This is western blue-eyed grass. It is one of my favorite plants of all time, and it is in the
Iris family. Piercing blue flowers speckling a grassy field is the best. This plant is not
particularly useful in hedgerows, but since I really like it, it gets to be #7 on the best
native plant list. Ok Next!
The Toyon. What can I say, it’s a good plant. It’s the kind of plant I always forget about
and then when I'm looking for another plant I go “oh yeah... I can put some Toyons in
there”. Pros, there is a nice urban legend that Hollywood got its name from the Toyon
(otherwise known as the California Holly) even though the legend is not an actual true
story. I will still cite the story because I think it’s nice. Cons, this plant is an alternate host for fire blight, a bacterial disease that can damage or kill pears, apples, and quince trees, so we have to be mindful of where we put it....
8. Fremontedendron Californica
Ok, Flannelbush is great. It really is. But this thing first of all gets too big. It grows to
make 30 feet. Second, the leaves give you a rash, which would’ve been good info going into this whole native plant thing. Also, again I am using the term, this plant can be a whiny
little baby. Sometimes they do great, and sometimes they just die, or just look kinda
wimpy. Honestly mostly going off vibes for this one, and she doesn’t pass the vibe check.
9. Quercus spp.
Too big. Just far too large. Honestly I wish there was a law that made it so farmers were
legally obligated to let me plant oaks all over their farms.... But apparently there is not
that law, and farmers “don’t like oaks because they are too tall and shade their crops”. So,
in summary #9 because it makes me sad I can’t plant them everywhere.
This is your cleveland sage, black sage, white sage, your terra seca, your hybrids etc etc. They’re good, mostly only native to southern California so that’s a negative, and they’re also pretty leggy which isn’t ideal. But they also smell lovely, have great flowers that hummingbirds like, and they are very easy to grow. The 10 spot isn’t that bad.
This is coffeeberry, and it is fine. They have cool leaves I guess? Gives “the whoppers left
in your bag of candy in mid November that you are definitely going to eat before the dots
and the banana laffy taffy... but you're not looking forward to it” vibes. Still an amazing
plant, but I can think of many plants that come first.
I can think of approximately 50 other plants that could go on this list but I am legally
obligated to keep this list under 5 pages because “Rambling doesn’t look good in front of
the judge, Nicholas”.... Talk to my lawyer if you want a longer list ok.
13. Achillea millefolium
Barf. Oh yuck. I’m sorry I think the murky puddle behind Wendy’s is calling and asking for
their plant back. I don’t care what you say about this thing, it is an underwater plant, and
it should go back to where it came from. I did not attach a link to this plant so that I can
spare you of the unsettling grossness. No, I will not further justify my opinion on this
plant, and YOU can’t change the ranking because the ranking is done, and it’s permanent