California is a wide-ranging state when it comes to climate and hardiness zones, so there’s a wide range of shrubs to suit! If you’re looking for the best shrubs to plant in California, from flowering to evergreen beauties, you’re in the right place. Let’s jump into the top suggestions, but first, what is a hardiness zone?
California USDA Hardiness Zones
California state encompasses USDA growing zones 4b to 11a. For example, that means temperate in the northern spots right through to drought in San Diego. Not every shrub will suit the whole range, so checking the plant’s growing label for its hardiness zones is essential before spending money. If the shrub isn’t recommended for your growing zones, it’s not likely to survive.
This list covers a range of evergreen and flowering shrubs for California with their hardiness zones and growing top tips.
1. Lemonade Berry (Rhus integrifolia)
This pretty evergreen shrub is native to southern California and best suits hot coastal zones 8-10.
Lemonade berry shrub reaches 30 feet tall, topped with a green leathery crown of 3-4 inch long leaves. In early February, it produces small brownish-pink butterfly-friendly flowers that mature into tart, sticky red fruits. Young lemonade berries produce smooth, reddish bark, but older specimens develop cracked gray bark with smooth red bark glimpsed beneath.
Coastal areas best suit this handsome shrub. It’ll cope with sandy soil, and it’s pretty drought-tolerant once established. A soak once or twice in hot spells is enough to keep producing fruit. Snap frosts cause damage to its foliage, but it’ll regrow by summer. This is one of the best shrubs to plant in California in areas plagued by deer because its foliage isn’t attractive to grazing mammals.
2. Coyote Willow (Salix exigua)
23-foot-tall deciduous coyote willow is a recognizable shrub across most of North America. It’s native to the western United States and a frequent sight across all of California. Many folks call it the narrow-leaved willow. In spring, it produces cascading catkin flowers and summertime fruit capsules.
Willow shrubs love moisture, so they often grow in the wild near streams, swamps, and rivers. This is a good pick if you have a pond or a regularly flooded space. It spreads via its roots, stabilizing banks and slopes and filtering out sediments.
Coyote willow supports vast amounts of wildlife, so it’s a good choice for eco-friendly gardens. For example, over 300 lepidopteran species eat the leaves from their bendy, whippy branches.
3. Bush Monkey Flower (Mimulus aurantiacus)
The four to five-foot-tall bush monkey flower shrub is an excellent choice for California’s USDA zones 3-9. It’s incredibly versatile and not at all fussy. If you’re busy or don’t like gardening that much, this is at the top of this list.
It prefers dry conditions, so avoid consistently damp soil. A sunny or partially shaded spot is best, especially slopes or rocky, sandy areas that mimic its natural habitat. Very little water is required, but a good soak once or twice a month in drought conditions helps keep the flowers blooming.
4. Serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia)
Serviceberry is a good bet for California’s zones 4-9. Position this native Californian deciduous shrub in well-drained but moist, acidic soil (or use pine to bracken mulch in the planting hole). In spring, pale green foliage emerges, turns deep green over summer, then matures to a fiery display of yellow, red, and gold during fall. It’s one of the best native shrubs to plant in California.
Pretty white flower clusters bloom in spring, which turn to deep, black-purple edible fruits across summer. Birds adore serviceberry fruits, and in the past, settlers would bake the berries and preserve them in animal fat.
Beautiful but vigorous serviceberry shrubs need annual pruning to keep their size manageable, but it’s worth the effort for their ornamental mass of flowers and edible berries.
5. Huckleberry (Vaccinium ovatum)
Along the Pacific Northwest coast, evergreen Californian huckleberry makes a home along forest margins. It’s an eight-foot-tall upright shrub with red new growth and glossy dark green leaves. In spring, creamy bell-shaped flowers feed hummingbirds, while its leaves host over 100 butterfly and moth species. In summer, flowers mature to blue-black berries that attract birds, chipmunks, foxes, and squirrels. We can eat them too! Huckleberries make excellent pies, muffins, and sweet treats.
Huckleberry grows best in coastal zones 7-9 in well-drained acidic soil. It’s drought tolerant and copes well with poor soil because it grows slowly. Many Californians use huckleberry as a wildlife-friendly hedging shrub. It needs an annual trim to keep a neat shape.
6. Toyon Shrub (Heteromeles arbutifoli)
Toyon shrub is also called the Christmas berry or California holly. It’s an evergreen that’s endemic to western California and the Sierra foothills but common across California’s warm zone gardens because it’s so tolerant and easy to manage.
Drought tolerant and best in hot zones 7b to 10, toyon shrub reaches eight feet tall in domestic gardens but over 30 feet in the wild. Its narrow evergreen leaves have sharp points; in spring, small white flowers appear in clusters. Bees and butterflies love toyon flowers. In late spring, a toyon hums with pollinator life. Later, the pollinator-magnet flowers mature into deep red berries that feed birds through winter, hence its name, Christmas berry. It’s one of the best shrubs to plant in California for winter interest.
7. California Barberry (Mahonia pinnata)
Evergreen seven-by-five-foot California barberry resembles a holly with its prickly thick foliage, but its flowers and fruit are different.
In early spring, California barberry’s bright yellow cheerful flowers bloom above its leaves, signaling to early waking pollinators. This is a tremendous Californian shrub for bees in spring and for birds in summer when its blue-black grapelike berries emerge. Although it’s good for bees and birds, this prickly shrub isn’t attractive to deer and rabbits.
This shrub natively grows on mountain slopes near the coast, so it likes a well-drained spot in the yard. It’s pretty cold tolerant in a sunny to partially shady spot but struggles in zones below 7. The best Californian hardiness zones for barberry are zones 7-8.
Toyon shrubs prefer sunny spots in well-drained soil and struggle in California’s cooler 4-7 zones. However, if you have a place in full sun that is sheltered from cold wind, it will do its best there.
8. Stanford’s Manzanita (Arctostaphylos stanfordiana)
Evergreen Stanford’s manzanita thrives in zones 5-9. It’s one of the best flowering shrubs in California because it’s so handsome and easy to care for.
This attractive shrub has crooked branches and deep reddish bark and is endemic to northern California. It ranges in size from two feet up to ten feet tall with lance-shaped two-inch leaves that feel waxy. Over winter and into spring, pale pink urn-shaped flowers attract pollinators before transforming into smooth green-brown stoned berries.
Versatile Stanford’s manzanita likes most well-drained soils and partial shade. It’s a good bet for mixed flower borders.
9. Bluebeard (Caryopteris incana)
Sweetly scented bluebeard thrives in California’s 5-9 zones, and with some extra protection, it manages well in zone 4 as well.
This beauty produces blue flowers in late summer that last into fall. It typically grows to six feet in a mound of pale green foliage and bendy stems. Bees love its easy-to-spot blue flowers and they make attractive cut flowers too. Deadhead them to encourage fresh new blooms into fall.
Bluebeard likes a dry, sunny, well-drained spot; it gets leggy fast in the shade. Give it water during droughts and mulch the roots overwinter to ensure it receives lots of nutrients to produce those iconic blooms.
10. Rubber Rabbitbrush (Ericameria nauseosa)
One of the best shrubs to plant in cooler California areas is the rubber rabbitbrush, named for its rubbery hair-covered foliage. It sounds nasty, but the leaves are soft and fluffy to the touch! This beauty grows in zones 4-9.
Rubber rabbitbrush is perennial and a member of the aster family, so it’s no surprise it produces clusters of cheerful, bright yellow flowers in late summer and early fall. The whole shrub can reach heights of eight feet, but it chiefly reaches two to three feet tall in gardens.
Rubber rabbitbrush prefers alkaline conditions and minimal water. It requires pruning in spring to keep a manageable shape. It’s virtually impossible to kill unless you overwater it.
11. Western Mock Orange (Philadelphus lewisii)
Aromatic western mock orange is a graceful shrub with many small white flowers that delivers glorious perfume across a Californian garden in zones 4-8.
It’ll reach over seven feet tall with its soft green foliaged branches arching over the top of a mixed flower border or from a large well-watered container.
In late summer, when the flowers drop, their sepals remain in place, which gives the impression of current flowers. It’s a very attractive shrub and rightly popular for its good looks and non-fussy soil preferences. This beauty will grow in most well-drained soils in full sun or partial shade.
Expect flowers in mid-spring and gently shedding bark across winter. Be sure to plant this one near a seat, window, or path to take full advantage of its knockout scent.
The photo featured at the top of this post is © Joseph Sohm/Shutterstock.com
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