17 Native Flowers to Plant in California

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California nature
California is separated from the rest of the country by its high mountain ranges. Bureau of Land Management Montana and Dakotas / No copyright

California has the distinction of being the most biodiverse state in the U.S., and one of the most environmentally remarkable regions in the world. Separated from the rest of the country by high mountain ranges, the Golden State is an island of sorts when it comes to ecology. There are between 6,500 and 8,000 plant species native to California, many of which occur nowhere else on Earth. At least 2,000 of these are considered to be species of conservation concern, and 222 are in danger of extinction and protected by law. California’s incredible biodiversity is a product of its unique amalgamation of climates, landforms, and soil types.

The development and exploitation of resources have already critically impacted the rich biota of the state, however, and declines are expected to worsen; 30% of species are in peril of extinction, and the range of most California endemic plants is expected to decrease by 80% in the next century.

The peerless beauty of California’s native landscapes must be preserved, not just for their own intrinsic value, but because the species within them are indispensable to the function of the ecosystems in which we live and work. Growing native wildflowers in your California backyard is a way to preserve some of that incredible biodiversity. Planting native creates a sanctuary for beleaguered pollinators, and provides food and shelter for a variety of wildlife. It also conserves water, cuts down on chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and even sequesters carbon.

Native plants are often healthier and more successful than ornamentals since they have coevolved with the land and local fauna over millennia. Growing native plants also encourages a unique pride of place; it connects us more deeply to the natural world and all of its inhabitants (including ourselves). Here are some of the best native wildflowers to help you preserve our precious natural resources and celebrate the real California.

1) Farewell to spring (Clarkia amoena)

Farewell to spring flowers
Farewell to spring’s visually appealing flowers usually last from April to July. Salicyna, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The genus Clarkia– named for Captain William Clark of the Lewis & Clark Expedition (1804 – 1806)– is endemic to California and the surrounding areas, with 42 recognized species, some quite rare. One of the last to bloom, Clarkia or Godetia (an outdated taxonomic synonym) heralds the end of the California wildflower season. C. amoena or ‘Farewell to Spring’ is a showy, charismatic annual that ranges in color from pale pink to bright magenta, sometimes flecked with red. The pendant buds droop downward before changing position to bloom into a broad four-petaled cup.

Flowers may last from April to July, and slender stems with narrow leaves grow to about 3 ft tall. Seeds are easily collected from dry capsules on spent flower heads, and germinate effortlessly when sown at the beginning of the rainy season.

Farewell to spring can be found growing wild in foothills, mountain meadows, and roadsides from British Columbia south to the Bay Area; look for them when the grass turns golden. This flower is drought-tolerant after flowering. It prefers partial shade and nutrient-poor, sandy loams. Many varieties and cultivars are available in nurseries. Consider also ‘Red Ribbons’ (C. concinna), purple clarkia (C. purpurea), ‘Ruby Chalice’ (C. rubicunda), and elegant clarkia (C. unguiculata).

2) Douglas iris (Iris douglasiana)

Douglas iris flowers
Douglas iris prefers partial or full shade and rich soil, making it a perfect choice for a rain garden. Eric Hunt, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Douglas iris is part of the family section Californicae, a group of Pacific Coast natives (or PCNs) remarkable for its prodigious phenotypic variants, either within a species or in cultivated hybrids. Growing wild in open woods, rocky outcrops, and coastal grasslands in southern Oregon down through central California, Douglas iris ranges in color from cream, golden-yellow and copper to maroon, purple, and (rarely) blue and white.

When grown in a garden setting with other PCN species, plants reseed and hybridize easily, creating fresh colors and forms. Douglas iris prefers partial to full shade and richer soils; it grows fastest and is more drought-tolerant near the coast where fog and cooler temperatures are a balm. It may be more tolerant of the sun closer to the coast as well.

This plant is a great choice for rain gardens (or areas with high moisture and poor drainage), perennial borders, and woodland gardens. It blooms from March to May. Douglas iris is summer dormant, and the leaves may be mistaken for grass further inland. It grows 1 – 3 ft tall and spreads 2 – 4 ft, but may form large colonies from rhizomes in ideal conditions. Douglas iris flowers are attractive to insect pollinators and hummingbirds. Consider also bowltube iris (Iris macrosiphon).

3) Coyote mint (Monardella villosa)

Coyote mint flower
Coyote mint has fragrant leaves which some say smell like minty toothpaste! Eugene Zelenko, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Coyote mint is an herbaceous perennial in the genus Monardella, which is similar to Monarda (bee balms and bergamot, also in the mint family) but more compact. This plant is endemic to California and is widely cultivated for its ornamental, medicinal, and culinary uses. Coyote mint forms a tidy mound 2 ft tall and 3 ft wide with aromatic silver-green leaves and showy lavender or pink flowers that are about an inch across.

C. villosa is a pollinator powerhouse, irresistible to butterflies and hummingbirds, especially when grown in the sun. It may prefer partial shade if planted inland. Coyote mint can be found growing wild in coastal sage scrub, dry chaparral, and open woodland habitats. An excellent choice for water-wise, butterfly, and rock gardens; pair with other showy drought-tolerant natives when planting for pollinators.

This plant is tolerant of clay and sandy loams; it blooms from May to August and is deer-resistant. Its leaves are fragrant (the smell is sometimes compared to minty toothpaste) and the flavor is clean and fresh– it may be used as a substitute in recipes calling for mint. Teas and infusions made from steeping coyote mint foliage in the sun or ‘sun teas’ (hot water changes the flavor) are a traditional remedy for upset stomachs and sore throats. Many subspecies and cultivars are available in nurseries. Consider also the spectacular hummingbird or red monardella (M. macrantha) and desert mint (M. australis).

4) Blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium bellum)

Blue-eyed grass flowers
Blue-eyed grass prefers full sun, but may go into dormancy in hot, dry conditions. Dvortygirl, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Blue-eyed grass is a native perennial herb, a mini iris reaching only about 1 – 2 ft tall that grows nearly everywhere in California but the full desert. Small blue-violet flowers appear in January and persist through July– white blossoms are occasionally found. Easy to grow and propagate, blue-eyed grass is drought-tolerant, fire-resistant, and found in a variety of soils from sand to clay.

Blue-eyed grass readily self-sows and may be divided by rhizomes– flower stems may also be rooted. In a garden setting, plant on flat areas that hold moisture well, in rock gardens, and on edges of perennial borders so that it is not lost among taller plants. This plant prefers full sun but may go into summer dormancy earlier inland or in hot, dry conditions. It is used by the Coast Miwok and the Ohlone to make medicinal teas, especially for fevers and upset stomachs. This plant is attractive to pollinators, and many bird species enjoy its seeds in winter. It is a host plant for the lovely white-lined sphinx hummingbird moth (Hyles lineata).

5) Desertbells (Phacelia campanularia)

Desertbells flowers
Desertbells can be found in the Sonoran and Mojave deserts, where they bloom from February to April. Jarek Tuszyński, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The desertbell or California bluebell is an annual herb and a heavyweight pollinator magnet that is widely cultivated for its ornamental value. The species that make up the genus Phacelia are keystone plants in California, feeding at least 32 species of specialist native bees with their pollen and nectar (they feed generalist bees too, of course)– it is also the host plant for at least 10 species of moth (including the white-lined sphinx).

The desertbell is native to the Mojave and Sonoran deserts and can be found blooming in abundance from February to April, especially after a wet winter. Flowers are urn-shaped and a rich, deep blue; stems are hairy and may grow 1 – 2 ft tall– trichomes may give some people a mild rash. Like many desert flowers, P. campanularia likes full sun and dry, well-drained soil. This plant is excellent in butterfly and rock gardens– it’s recommended to sow seeds in late summer or fall.

At least 130 species of Phacelia grow wild in California, most of which are annuals, and a suitable choice may be found for any garden in the Golden State– look for a variety that is adapted to your area and appropriate for your site conditions. Aside from desertbells, nursery favorites include rock phacelia (P. californica) Bolander’s phacelia (P. bolanderi), lacy phacelia (P. tanacetifolia), and large-flowered phacelia (P. grandiflora).

6) Hummingbird sage (Salvia spathacea)

Hummingbird sage
Hummingbird sage is resistant to drought and salt and may do better with full sun closer to the coast. Dvortygirl, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Hummingbird or crimson sage is a semi-evergreen perennial that is endemic to the California coast; it can be found in oak woodlands, chaparral, and sage scrub communities from Orange County to Napa Valley. Hummingbird sage is highly sought-after for its brilliant, roseate tube-shaped flowers and aromatic foliage; the fragrance is fruity (some liken it to pineapple sage) and the leaves are edible and may be used in teas and shortbreads.

This plant is traditionally used by the Chumash to treat lung ailments. The scent is a deterrent for rabbits and deer but draws insect pollinators and hummingbirds from far and wide. Plant in dry shade (especially together with oaks) for best results. Flowers typically grow on a single pubescent stem emerging from a woody base, and spread slowly by rhizomes to cover an area 3 – 5 ft wide; when grown beneath coast live oaks (Quercus agrifolia), colonies have been known to spread 100 feet across.

Plants may reach 1 – 3 ft tall and form dense foliage mats. Hummingbird sage is drought- and salt-tolerant and may be more accepting of full sun closer to the coast. It is a recipient of the Royal Horticultural Society’s Award of Garden Merit. Many cultivars are available in nurseries– the most popular include “Powerline Pink”, “Sunrise”, and “Topanga”.

7) Narrowleaf milkweed (Asclepias fascicularis)

Narrowleaf milkweed flower
Narrowleaf milkweed is a must-have for pollinator and/or butterfly gardens. Björn S…, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Narrowleaf milkweed is the single most important tool we have when it comes to the plight of the western monarch butterfly (populations are estimated to have declined 99% since researchers began tracking them in the 1980s) and a must-have for pollinator or butterfly gardens. This California native perennial grows in the West from Baja to Canada, and is robust and showy with graceful, pointed leaves whorled around the stems and large clusters of white or purple-tinged flowers.

Sun-loving and drought-tolerant, A. fascicularis is easy to grow in a variety of soils (including clay)– it reaches 3 – 4 ft tall and may form colonies. Look for monarch eggs and caterpillars in spring and summer. This plant is also attractive to many other pollinators, including the queen butterfly (Danaus gilippus), and the gorgeous and impressively large tarantula hawk wasp (Pepsis spp.), best admired from a respectful distance (though they only sting when seriously provoked).

Milkweed is known to be toxic to people and animals– management is important where cattle graze, and gardeners should wear gloves and wash their hands after handling. The young flower heads are edible and the congealed sap has been used by the Chumash as chewing gum (but also to poison enemies). Many Pueblo peoples make fiber and fabrics from the silk. When planting for monarchs, remember the aphorism ‘yellow or red, disease is spread; pink or white, monarchs are all right’– exotic, tropical milkweed is known to spread the parasite “OE” (Ophryocystis elektroscirrha) and should be avoided. Mass plants together to maximize use as a host plant, and pair with other tall wildflowers to conceal foliage chewed by caterpillars.

8) Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)

Hoverfly on yarrow flower
Yarrow’s pretty flowers appear from March to June and attract a number of pollinators. Ivar Leidus, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Western yarrow is a perennial herb that goes by many names; in ancient times it was known as herbal militaris or ‘soldier’s woundwort’ for its ability to encourage blood clotting and its antimicrobial properties– traces of it have been found in archeological burial sites 60,000 years old and it is mentioned in Homer’s Iliad. In the Spanish-speaking Southwest, it is called plumajillo (“little feather”), due to its plume-like foliage.

Yarrow can be found all over the world; the species A. millefolium is native to most of temperate North America, with many varieties on record. In California, two subspecies are commonly found: A. millefolium californica, which blooms white; and A. millefolium rosea, which blooms pink and is found on the Channel Islands near Ventura.

Yarrow flowers from March to June in lacy, flat-topped clusters that are 3 – 4 inches long and attractive to bees and butterflies. It reaches heights of 1 – 3 ft and spreads easily by rhizomes. It grows effortlessly in nearly any kind of soil (except very wet) or light conditions– it does have the potential to become aggressive. Use it on slopes or banks for stabilization, in pollinator gardens, as ground cover, or even as turf replacement (it can withstand foot traffic and mowing).

9) Arroyo lupine (Lupinus succulentus)

Arroyo lupine flower
Arroyo lupine can handle a variety of conditions but grows best in full sun and moist, well-drained soil. Stickpen, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Arroyo or succulent lupine is an annual herb native to grasslands, meadows, and moist sections of open chaparral in California and parts of Arizona and Baja. A popular ornamental choice for home landscapes, arroyo lupine grows 2 – 4 ft tall and boasts dense columns of deep blue-violet pea blossoms throughout the spring wildflower season. It adapts well to a variety of conditions, but prefers moist, well-drained soil and full sun.

Arroyo lupine can be used in pollinator and bird gardens, wildflower meadows, and for bank stabilization (root systems are 3 ft long). Mass plants in drifts for best results. Easily propagated by seed, but beware of exploding seed pods that may expel their contents up to 20 ft!

Lupinus is a keystone genus in California, feeding at least 15 species of pollen specialist bees (and their generalist cousins) and hosting 74 species of Lepidoptera, including the West Coast lady (Vanessa annabella), the painted lady (Vanessa cardui), and the painted tiger moth (Arachnis picta). Arroyo lupine is a stunning selection for California gardens both for its striking beauty and its ecological value.

10) California buttercup (Ranunculus californicus)

California buttercup
California buttercup can be found growing in areas with moist soil. The Marmot from USA, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

California buttercup is an herbaceous perennial of woodlands, chaparral, and meadow habitats with two main variants; R. californicus californicus may be found all over the state, while R. californicus cuneatus is localized to the north-central coast. A cheerful harbinger of spring, California buttercup grows on moist sites and flowers profusely until the dry season begins. Blooms are ¾ inch across with numerous waxy yellow petals– sometimes up to 22– that overlap. The petals’ reflective properties make them a photographic challenge.

The nectar and pollen are of special value for native bees and other insect pollinators. Foliage is thick and succulent with richly lobed leaves and grows 1 – 2 ft tall in full sun to partial shade. Needs little to no irrigation and is easily propagated by seed. Ranunculus is Latin for “little frog,” in reference to this plant’s affinity for wetlands. California buttercups make a charming cut flower, but they are also a nutritious edible. The seeds should be toasted or cooked briefly in a frying pan (raw parts of this plant may be mildly toxic, causing nausea or vomiting) and then may be ground into a meal and used in soups or baked goods– the flavor resembles popcorn. Plant California buttercup in the fronts of perennial beds, pollinator gardens, or in wildflower meadows.

11) Douglas’ meadowfoam (Limnanthes douglasii)

Douglas' meadowfoam flowers
Douglas’ meadowfoam is also known as the poached egg plant due to the appearance of its flowers! Agnieszka Kwiecień, Nova, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Douglas’ meadowfoam or ‘poached egg plant’ is a low-growing (up to 1.5 ft), bushy annual herb native to wet meadows, vernal pools, and riparian habitats in California and Oregon. The corolla of the flower usually has a bright, sunny yellow center ringed with white petal tips (color varies across subspecies, as with pure yellow Point Reyes meadowfoam, Limnanthes douglasii sulphurea).

This plant’s foliage is fern-like and glossy. It prefers poorly drained clay soil and lots of sun. It’s easily propagated by seed and will freely self-sow. Meadowfoam is a pollinator magnet and attracts insect predators like hoverflies and ladybugs (an excellent pairing plant for species susceptible to aphids or other garden pests). Plant in perennial beds and borders, path edges, cottage gardens, or meadows where it will provide an aesthetic similar to baby’s breath in a bouquet. An excellent choice for containers.

12) California goldenrod (Solidago velutina californica)

California goldenrod
California goldenrod produces brilliant yellow flowers at a time when many other plants are dormant. Millie Basden / CC BY 4.0

California goldenrod is a perennial herb native to a variety of habitats throughout the state. Not to be confused with ragweed (a common allergen), this plant produces bundles of brilliant yellow flowers in summer and fall when many other plants are dormant, making it a critical resource for imperiled pollinators like the western monarch and bumblebee queens preparing for hibernation.

Solidago is a keystone genus in California, supporting 27 species of pollen specialist bees and 53 species of caterpillars– it is a pollinator all-star, worthy of its place in any garden. California goldenrod tolerates a variety of soils, and likes full sun to partial shade– it spreads easily from rootstock and may become aggressive. Planting in heavy clay may help keep it in line. A tea made from the leaves is traditionally used to treat wounds, burns, respiratory illnesses, and for feminine hygiene. It grows 1.5 – 5 ft tall. It can be used as ground cover, in pollinator gardens, and in wildflower meadows.

13) Silver carpet aster (Corethrogyne filaginifolia)

Silver carpet aster in bloom
Just like the California goldenrod, the silver carpet aster is a late-season pollinator plant. Daniel / CC BY 4.0

Silver carpet aster is a horticultural selection of California or sand aster (found growing wild throughout a variety of habitats in the state, especially rocky slopes and sage scrub) from the coastal bluffs of Monterey County. Introduced by the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden, this popular perennial herb is low-growing and forms a neat mound of silver-gray-green foliage. The flowers are pink or lavender with yellow centers, and bloom from summer through fall.

Another important late-season pollinator plant, silver carpet aster is a magnificent ground cover (reaching only about 4 inches high) that may spread up to 4 ft (the wild type may advance 8 ft). Looks spectacular spilling over a rock wall. Tolerant of drought, salt spray, and adapts well to a variety of soil types, including clay. This plant prefers sun on the coast, but may like some shade further inland. Use in butterfly or rock gardens, native perennial beds, and containers.

14) California fuchsia (Epilobium canum)

California fuchsia
The California fuchsia grows best in well-draining soil and full sun. Burkhard Mücke, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

California fuchsia or hummingbird trumpet (sometimes found in nurseries under its old genus name, Zauschneria) is a low-growing perennial willowherb that grows wild throughout the state on slopes, chaparral, and coastal sage scrub. The slender, lanceolate foliage is semievergreen and velvety soft. The flowers, which bloom in late summer and fall when many other plants are dormant, are brilliant coral trumpets that pop against its silver-green leaves.

California fuchsia is highly attractive to hummingbirds, and an important food source late in the season when they are fueling up for their southward migration. This plant prefers full sun and well-drained soil; it is drought-tolerant and fire-resistant. California fuchsia can grow to 1.5 ft tall and should be cut back to the ground after flowers are spent to improve longevity and health in the next season. May be short-lived, but readily self-seeds (in addition to spreading by rhizomes). Lovely in borders, rock and pollinator gardens, and containers.

15) Island alum root (Heuchera maxima)

Island alum root flowers
Island alum root produces pretty bell-shaped flowers that are popular with hummingbirds and native bees. Stan Shebs, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Island alum root or Jill of the rocks is a cliff-dwelling species in the saxifrage or rockfoil family. It is endemic to three of the Channel Islands between Santa Barbara and Santa Monica– rare in the wild, but popular among California gardeners. Island alum root is a shade-loving herbaceous perennial (that may tolerate full sun close to the coast), and one of our largest and most adaptable alumroots. It forms a neat mound 12 – 18 inches across and 2 ft wide– leaves may be as large as 5 inches across and are multi-lobed, lush, and evergreen.

Flower spikes reach 3 feet high and are clustered with tiny pink or cream blooms (sometimes tinged with green) from April to June. Flowers are bell-shaped with large anthers and beloved by hummingbirds– native bees are also fond of them. This plant prefers sandy or rocky soil with good drainage and needs little to no irrigation. It is an excellent choice for waterwise and rock gardens, shade beds, borders, and containers. Beautiful massed under California-native oaks.

16) California poppy (Eschscholzia californica)

California poppy field
The California poppy is an easy-to-grow plant with vivid orange blooms. Mx. Granger, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

The California poppy became the official state flower of California in 1903, winning in a landslide vote over the Matilija Poppy (Romneya coulteri, large and showy but aggressive) and the mariposa lily (genus Calochortus). Prized for its vivid orange blooms, the California poppy is easy to grow, tough, and drought-tolerant. It may act as a perennial depending on the climate but is best grown as an annual in full sun and sandy, well-drained soil. It is easily propagated by seed and happily self-sows in fair conditions.

Foliage is glossy and a pale greenish-blue color. Flowers appear on long stalks (to 2 ft tall) and may bloom from February to September (especially on the coast), closing at night and reopening again in the morning sun. Rumor persists that it is illegal to collect this plant in California, but no law specifically protects it. The California Poppy is best enjoyed where it grows, however, since it loses its satiny petals quickly when cut. Excellent choice for wildflower meadows or pollinator gardens.

17) Showy penstemon (Penstemon spectabilis)

Showy penstemon flowers
Hummingbirds and wasps are showy penstemon’s main pollinators. peganum from Small Dole, England, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

One of the Golden State’s most breathtaking native perennials, showy penstemon is found in sage scrub and chaparral habitats in southern California and Baja. In ideal conditions, it may reach up to 5 ft but is usually closer to 3 – 4 ft. Foliage is slender and lanceolate, with serrated edges. Flowers are a brilliant violet and tubular– the inside of the throat is often pale lavender. Needs well-drained soil, and may do better in a garden setting if planted on a gentle slope.

Showy penstemon likes full sun in clay or rocky loams, and partial shade in drier sites. It blooms from April to June and is relished by hummingbirds (its main pollinator apart from wasps). It pairs well with coast live oaks and desert willows. This plant makes a nice accent in waterwise or rock gardens around boulders, or among large bunch grasses where it will fade into the landscape when not in bloom (returning in spring to galvanize your garden). It may be short-lived, but self-seeds freely and grows quickly, flowering in its first year.

Rachel O
About the author

Rachel O

I am passionate about conservation, ecology, and gardening for wildlife. I am a certified Missouri Master Naturalist with knowledge of birds, insects, and herptiles– I volunteer doing horticulture and restoration work for several local organizations.

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