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Native Substitutes for Common Landscape Plants

The Handy Plant “Respecifier” listing California natives that should replace common exotic ornamental landscape choices, was first written for Tree of Life Nursery in 1976 by native plant expert Art Tyree. This brochure expands and updates the still-valid original. These suggestions are only a small sample of the possibilities available for your project.

Thinking of Trees?

Thinking OfThink Again
Cupaniopsis (Carrotwood)For a clean, small but stately shade tree look at Umbelullaria californica, Aesculus californica
Eucalyptus Deliver us from Australia with California’s own texture and character trees: Lyonothamnus, Pinus torreyana, Platanus racemosa.
Ficus (Fig)Too dense, tropical, shady, and too many surface roots. Consider Quercus, Platanus, Umbellularia, and Prunus as superior natives.
MagnoliaLeave this southern belle in the South. Out west we prefer Quercus, Prunus, Cercis, Umbellularia.
MelaleucaNo need to import this Aussie. Stick with Quercus engelmanii, Arctostaphylos manzanita, or Lyonothamnus.
PinusInstead of the habitual choices, consider Pinus torreyana or Pinus coulteri as large pines.
Prunus, Pyrus (Flowering pear) Cercis occidentalis is stronger, flowers longer. Prunus lyonii makes a fine small canopy tree.
Schinus (Pepper)Traditional, historical S. molle doesn’t compare to Quercus agrifolia.

Thinking of Shrubs?

Thinking ofThink Again
Acacia latifolia Such plants are unnecessary with the tough and handsome Rhus integrifolia, Myrica californica and Mahonia ‘Golden abundance’ available.
Carissa (Natal plum)Oh no, not again. Be sure that sturdy natives such as Arctostaphylos ‘John Dourley’ orSunset,’Ceanothus ‘Concha,’ Rhamnus ‘Little Sur’, will never look stereotyped and will always do the job.
Ligustrum (Privet)Quick-flee to Rhus integrifolia or Prunus Ilicifolia.
Nerium (Oleander)California’s color shrubs shine: Ceanothus, Comarostaphylos diversifolia, Dendromecon harfordii
Pittosporum Rhamnus californica is lush, dense, unfussy.
Pyracantha Lush foliage, scarlet berries, minus Pyracantha’s thorns, diseases, pests: Heteromeles arbutifolia.
Rhaphiolepis (Indian hawthorne)Is this what you really want, or only a habit? Break out with Arctostaphylos ‘Howard Mcminn’.
XylosmaClean, reliable green: Rhamnus californica, Myrica californica, Heteromeles arbutifolia

Thinking of Perennials or Ground Covers?

Anigozanthos (Kangaroo paw)The name should give this away. Leave it down under or save it for cut flower use. In the California garden, you and the hummingbirds will like Epilobium, Lobelia laxiflora, Gambelia, Leymus, Iris, Penstemon and Salvia.
Echeveria, Sedum (Hens and chicks)Dudleya can provide that stunning succulent architecture.
Echium (Pride of Madeira)Compatible, gray, showy, but not the Pride of California. You’ll never go wrong with Ceanothus, Rhamnus, Dendromecon, Fremontodendron.
GazaniaTry some authentic color from Mimulus, Heuchera, Penstemon, Encelia, Epilobium, Erigeron.
Hedera (Ivy)Spare us the Ivy menace with lush carpets of Arctostaphylos ‘Emerald Carpet,’ Baccharis ‘Pigeon Point’ or Arctostaphylos ‘Point Reyes’.
Hemerocallis (Daylily)Only in flower shows, please! In the California garden we need Iris douglasiana, Leymus, Juncus, native grasses and reeds combined with Mimulus.
Ice plantOh yeah, that’s original! Why not a combination of low growing plants like Baccharis, Iva, Eriogonum, Salvia, Ceanothus, Mimulus, (so many more!) to create habitat AND provide erosion control.
Juniper Out of the Juniper rut with the low-growing forms of Arctostaphylos, Ceanothus ‘Yankee point’. (Or use a native juniper such as Juniperus grandis, communis, or californica)
Lavandula (Lavender)Save it for your trip to France. Use Salvia, Mimulus, Eriogonum, Trichostema, Penstemon instead.
MyoporumFor your slopes, Ceanothus ‘Yankee point’ or Arctostaphylos ‘Pacific mist’ will set your project apart from the masses.
Pennisetum Don’t plant an invasive weed! Native grasses Muhlenbergia, Nassella, Aristida and many others will always work better.
Phormium (New Zealand Flax)Striking, a little gaudy, flax probably looks great in New Zealand. Want impact? Romneya ‘White Cloud’, Yucca, Fremontodendron.
Trachelospermum (Star Jasmine)Non-intrusive, great under trees is the aromatic Ribes viburnifolium; shiny and neat like Star Jasmine on less than one fourth the water.

More Resources: California Native Plants

California Native Plant Society is a statewide, nonprofit organization dedicated to increasing the understanding and appreciation of California’s native plants, and to preserving them and their natural habitats for future generations. Please visit the website at for more information, and to request a Gardening with Native Plants brochure.