20 Drought Tolerant Plants for California

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Natural garden
Natural gardening is attuned to the local climate, soil, topography, and microclimate. jacki-dee / CC BY-SA 2.0

Some might call it natural gardening, others describe it as sustainable, ecological, regional, or bioregional. Whatever it’s called, the approach to landscape design that leverages maintenance and water conservation tends to be responsive to the reality of limited resources by being attuned to local climate, microclimate, topography, and soils. This practice can limit green waste from your garden, provide habitat for local wildlife, and require less upkeep in the long run compared to “traditional” landscapes. Another benefit that sometimes goes ignored is the connection that occurs with this style of natural gardening to the rhythms of life: the seasons, the weather, and the daily miracles of the natural world.

California in particular experiences dry summers and if we’re lucky, wet winters. Soils are sandy, rocky, or clay, but as true of most low-rain regions these soils are low in organic matter – very different from the loamy soils of the Midwest prairies or English gardens. Many plants are well suited for this climate and soil, and many gardens can be adapted to express a regional landscape ethic – staying true to the California species and drought-tolerant natives.

1) Black sage (Salvia mellifera)

Black sage
Black sage is suitable for a variety of garden locations as it can thrive in different types of soil. Charlie Hohn / CC BY 4.0

Also found outside of California in Baja and Mexico, black sage occurs at several elevations and can be therefore grown in several types of environments. This shrub usually blooms in March – July and can thrive in different types of soil and sun exposure, making it a great choice for a variety of garden locations. The Chumash people use black sage for tea and as a pain relief rub on injuries.

2) Goldenrod (Solidago spp.)

Some goldenrod varieties would not be suitable for your backyard due to their ability to rapidly spread. Stan Shebs, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

This is an extremely forgiving plant that can tolerate poor, dry soils, clay, and drought. Goldenrod can tolerate full sun and naturalizes quickly. Different species of goldenrod are found in many different environments as well as soil conditions. When selecting a plant for your landscape, it is best to consider its native habitat to ensure success. Some varieties are not ideal in garden settings because of their rapid spreading by rhizomatous growth.

3) Blue elderberry (Sambucus cerulea)

Blue elderberry shrub
Blue elderberry has beautiful white flowers and can grow to be 30 ft tall. Walter Siegmund, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

This deciduous shrub that can grow to 30 ft in height is from the same family as the honeysuckle and has beautiful fluffy white flowers. Although the flowers and leaves look soft and smooth, they are strong, pointed, and sharp-toothed. This shrub had many uses for Native American tribes, but the most common was for medicinal purposes.

4) Blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium angustifolium)

Blue-eyed grass flowers
Blue-eyed grass is an herb that is easily established in a meadow or wild garden. The Marmot from USA, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Commonly mistaken by its name, the blue-eyed grass is not a grass at all, but is actually an herb. These flowers have purple, striped petals and a bright yellow center. This species is easily established in a meadow or wild garden. They prefer some moisture and well-drained soil but will tolerate drought conditions. However, the plant has a mysterious quality to turn black as it wilts in less desired conditions.

5) Blue wild rye (Elymus glaucus)

Blue wild rye
Blue wild rye’s tufts can reach heights of 20 inches, with some being as tall as 59 inches! Matt Lavin from Bozeman, Montana, USA, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

This species is a true grass native from Alaska to New York to northern Mexico. It grows in tufts of several stems that can exceed 50 centimeters (20 in) in height and may approach 150 centimeters (59 in) in total. This species is very widespread in North America and is good for fast revegetation or stabilizing slopes. It likes full to part sun with occasional to little water.  

6) California mugwort (Artemisia douglasiana)

California mugwort
California mugwort is not usually seen in backyards but is a great choice if you want to create a California-like landscape. stonebird from inglewood, california, usa, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

An aromatic shrub from the sunflower family, however, you wouldn’t be able to tell from sight alone! This plant is found in virtually every part of California and can thrive in many types of environments. Many Native American cultures use mugwort to treat minor injuries or as a dream potentiator.

The mugwort prefers moist areas with drainage such as drier parts of riparian zones. The flowers are small and inconspicuous, often not producing viable seeds. It spreads by rhizomes, especially in damp areas. This plant is not often seen in residential gardens but can be a great addition to spaces wanting to invoke a native California landscape.

7) Buckeye tree (Aesculus californica)

Buckeye tree in bloom
The buckeye tree can be used in a variety of ways, such as being used as a hedge or as a main feature in a butterfly garden. Eric Hunt, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

These trees can be found in the dry slopes, canyons, or stream edges, most often in the Coast Ranges or Sierra foothills. This species of tree can be used as a hedge, for bank stabilization, and as a main feature in a butterfly garden. Buckeyes are typically easy to care for once established, however spring freeze or summer heat can damage the leaves. This species should be used with caution in gardens because the fruits, which resemble chestnuts, are toxic.

8) Heermann’s buckwheat (Eriogonum heermannii)

Heermann's buckwheat
You should position Heermann’s buckwheat so that it can receive full sun to partial shade. Stan Shebs, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

This plant is not a wheat at all but a pseudocereal, because its seeds are eaten and are full of carbohydrates. This plant can tolerate any sunny spot with good drainage and likes to be positioned in such a way as to get full sun or partial shade. Buckwheat is such a sun-loving plant that it can’t tolerate cold temperatures. This plant mixes well with upright flowers and makes an attractive backdrop for herbs. A small bed of buckwheat in bloom will attract numerous beneficial insects.

9) Buttercup (Ranunculus spp.)

Buttercup flowers
Buttercups are relatively low-maintenance, although you may need to store the bulbs in a dark location until spring. Franz Xaver, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The name buttercup invokes a small, cute plant, and its name actually translates to “little frog” in Latin. However, these little yellow flowers can grow up to anywhere from 12 – 30 ft tall. As suggested by its Latin translation, this species is commonly found near water. Buttercups are relatively easy to care for, however they do require some planning. The tubers do not handle frost well, and the bulbs may need to be pulled and stored in a dark location until spring.

10) California coffeeberry (Frangula californica)

California coffeeberry shrub
California coffeeberry has a tolerance to a variety of soil types and prefers full sun or partial shade. Daderot, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Also known as the California buckthorn, the coffeeberry is named for the berries it produces; they contain seeds that look like coffee beans. Fairly common in California and southwestern Oregon, it’s a dense evergreen shrub that can grow 6 to 15 feet tall. This would be stunning in any garden with attractive dark green leaves with a reddish tint. Although inconspicuous, the flowers are small and greenish-white with five petals and are great for pollination gardens. This plant is beautiful and easy to grow. It tolerates a wide variety of soil types and likes either full sun or partial shade.

11) California figwort (Scrophularia californica)

California figwort
California figwort grows fastest in direct sunlight or partial shade. Jason Hollinger, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

This plant is such a strong bee attractant that it earned the name California Bee Plant. The figwort is a flowering perennial native to the western United States including many regions of California. It can grow 2 – 3.5 ft tall, growing fastest in full sun or light shade. It prefers slightly moist soils, and in optimal conditions, it can colonize a relatively large area.

12) California fuchsia (Epilobium canum)

California fuchsia flowers
To stimulate new growth, the California fuchsia’s base should be cut back or mown during fall or early winter. James M. Maley / CC BY 4.0

While a native to North America, the fuchsia is most commonly found in California. This subshrub is gorgeous with bright flowers and can grow up to 60 centimeters (24 in) tall. The California local variety has red flowers, but other fuchsias may be white, pink, or orange. The small leaves of this plant can also range in color from green to white. This plant requires some care if you want to promote fast growth; you’ll need to cut or mow back to its base in fall or early winter to stimulate new growth.

13) California matchweed (Gutierrezia californica)

California matchweed in bloom
The California matchweed is related to the sunflower family and can usually be found in very arid settings. Laura Camp from San Juan Capistrano, CA, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The matchweed grows clumpy or gangly and has erect stems in shades of gray and red which are lined with small linear green leaves. At the end of each branch of the stem is a flower cluster of one to three small flower heads just a few millimeters wide. The flowers are yellow and you can tell that this subshrub is related to the sunflower. This plant is native to California and Baja California, where it grows on slopes and plains in several habitats. Often this plant is found in very arid settings and tends to grow up to about half a meter (20 in) in height.

14) California purple aster (Symphyotrichum chilense)

California purple aster flowers
California purple aster is capable of growing in a variety of different habitats, but it particularly prefers the coast and the coastal mountain range. John Rusk from Berkeley, CA, United States of America, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The purple aster is a fantastic addition to any California garden with vivid purple petaled flowers. This plant is native to western North America from British Columbia to California. It grows in many types of habitats but especially thrives along the coast and in the coastal mountain ranges. I cannot emphasize how pretty this flower cluster is, with centers of yellow disc florets and fringes of many narrow light purple ray florets. This would be a great aesthetic for a butterfly garden.

15) California sagebrush (Artemisia californica)

California sagebrush
California sagebrush is very tolerant to drought; it can survive on no water at all during the summer! Daderot, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

The California sagebrush is one tough plant. It is extremely drought-tolerant and will often be the only plant growing on the driest, south-facing slopes in the driest parts of its range. It’s easy to grow, hard to kill, and fast-growing, reaching heights of up to 3 feet tall. While it can handle occasional water, it can also survive on no water at all during the summer.

Its foliage is a beautiful silvery color when backlit by the sun and is a great visual in any native garden. This is one of the foundation plants of the coastal sage scrub community and the preferred plant of the California gnatcatcher, a threatened species.

16) Gum plant (Grindelia camporum)

Gum plant in bloom
The gum plant’s daisy-like, yellow flowers attract many pollinators during the hot summer months. graham_coop / CC BY 4.0

While not the most attractive plant, the gum plant has a quirky unique charm. The plant’s name comes from the sticky milky substance that coats it, especially the flower buds. This gum is thought to protect against herbivores and against damage from ultraviolet radiation.

This tall, rangy plant thrives during the hot summer months when the yellow, daisy-like flowers are a great attraction for pollinators. Native American cultures used gum plant to treat lung problems, and it is still widely used by herbalists today for pulmonary problems such as bronchitis and hay fever.

17) Hillside gooseberry (Ribes californicum)

Hillside gooseberry spikey fruits
Be careful when deciding where to plant hillside gooseberry, as its spiky fruits could injure a child. ProboscideaRubber15, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The hillside gooseberry comes in two recognized varieties: Var. californicum is found primarily along the coastal range of this plant’s geographic extent while var. hesperium is found in the southernmost part of the range. This plant has spines so keep this in mind when deciding where to plant it, avoiding high-traffic areas of the garden. The attractive flowers and bright berries make it a valuable wildlife plant. While the berries are edible, it’s best to leave these for the birds as they are not what you would call tasty!

18) Yarrow (Achillea spp.)

Yarrow flowers
Yarrow does best in full sun, moderately well-draining soil, and with moderate watering. Matti Virtala, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

This perennial is a sturdy and dependable addition to a climate-tolerant garden from the Mediterranean. These colorful summer flowering plants come in a large variety of options, but the most common is a yellowish white called “moonshine” that exhibits a pleasing combination of shades. Yarrow prefers full sun, reasonable drainage, and moderate to occasional watering. You can trim these back quite a bit to keep plants neat and prolong the blooming, which the butterflies will thank you for.

19) Tree houseleek (Aeonium spp.)

Potted tree houseleek
Tree houseleek’s yellow flowers usually bloom around late spring or summer. Peter Coleman, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

No California list is complete without the classic symmetrical rosettes of the succulent aeonium. These are fleshy, waxy-leafed plants that can be trained to have large upright branched stems with conical clusters of bright to creamy yellow flowers at the ends. These usually bloom in late spring or summer as they prefer full sun along with excellent drainage and infrequent deep watering. These need to be planted on sandy or gravel soil to avoid winter rot.

20) Mexican lily (Beschorneria spp.)

Mexican lily plant
The Mexican lily should be grown in a location with full sun or light shade. Neptalí Ramírez Marcial / CC BY 4.0

While it looks very similar to the yucca, the Mexican lily is different in that it’s spineless and more pliable. This can make it a more attractive choice for a family garden. It has stemless green or grey-green, sword-shaped leaves that look very dramatic with their summer flowers on tall stems. These bright flowers are very attractive to hummingbirds. This plant likes full sun to light shade with moderate to occasional watering.

Angeline L
About the author

Angeline L

I'm a passionate researcher and scuba diver with a keen interest in garden plants, marine life, and freshwater ecology. I think there’s nothing better than a day spent writing in nature. I have an academic and professional background in sustainable aquaculture, so I advocate for the responsible production of commercial fish, macroinvertebrates, and aquatic plants.

Read more about Pond Informer.

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