Water-wise Plants for California

Garden Tips  |  SHARE 

FUSCHIA ca landscapeMaking smart plant choices is one way that you can be a more water-wise gardener. Water-wise, or drought-tolerant, plants are ones that can thrive with little or no supplemental water once they are established. There are a variety of water-wise shrubs, perennials, trees, and grasses that are naturally suited to California’s Mediterranean environment. Fortunately, many of these plants are not only beautiful to look at but are easy to maintain and come in all shapes, sizes, and colors with different sun and soil needs to fit the various microclimates of California. By choosing low-water plants and employing other water-smart practices such as mulching and efficient irrigation, you can make your garden green and lush without wasting a drop.

California has so many diverse environments and microclimates, it’s important that you select plants that are suitable for the conditions in your region. Many (though not all) plants that are native to California are water wise and well adapted to our dry summers. But just carrying the “California native” label is not enough to tell you how that plant will do in your garden. Coastal plants may not grow well in the Central Valley and alpine plants are not likely to thrive in the Southern California desert regions. Non-native plants from other Mediterranean climates, where summers are typically hot and dry and winters are warm and wet, can thrive here as well. This includes plants from countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea, as well as Australia and South Africa.

Consider your soil type and terrain when selecting low-water plants. Most succulents will do well in fast-draining, sandy soil but they might struggle in heavy clay soil where their roots will get water-logged during the rainy season. If your garden has sloping ground, a low shrub like manzanita would likely be a good choice. If the area is particularly windy, look for plants like lavender and juniper, whose needle-like leaves can take the winds without drying out or shredding.

To help you select your water-wise plants, you can download a list of recommended low-water/moderate-water use plants broken down by region: Central Valley, High Inner Desert, Low Desert, South Inland Valley, South Coastal and North Central Coast. Some popular choices include the following:DSC_1356 (Planting Tree Start)


  • Crape myrtle (Lagerstroemia indica)
  • Incense cedar (Calocedrus decurrens)
  • Olive (Olea Europaea)
  • Pistache (Pistacia)
  • Strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo)


  • California wild lilac (Ceanothus)
  • Lavender (Lavandula)
  • Manzanita (Arctostaphylos)
  • Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis)
  • Salvia Lavender

Vines and Groundcovers

  • Cape honeysuckle (Tecoma capensis)
  • Catalina perfume (Ribes viburnifolium)
  • Lady Banks’ rose (Rosa banksiae)
  • Wisteria
  • Yellow trumpet vine (Macfadyena unguis-cati)


  • CA FuschiaCalifornia fuchsia (Zauschneria)
  • Fountain grass (Pennisetum setaceum)
  • Lamb’s ears (Stachys byzantine)
  • Sticky monkey flower (Mimulus aurantiacus)
  • Stonecrop (Sedum)


  • Blue thimble flower (Gilia capitate)
  • California poppy (Eschscholzia californica)
  • common poppyCoreopsis (Coreopsis tinctoria)
  • Lupine (Lupinus microcarpus)
  • Tidytips (Layia platyglossa)

One of the best resources is your local nursery, where staff members can give you advice specific to your region and help you select the plants that are best suited to your microclimate. They can also recommend landscape designers and irrigation specialists if you want to makeover your garden into a water-wise oasis.

The UC Davis Arboretum has a list of 100 All-Star plants that they’ve tested for water efficiency and recommend for low-water gardens, as well as a list of retailers across the state that carry the All-Star plants.

Your local Master Gardeners are another terrific source of information on water-wise plants. Many regional water agencies also have information on low-water use plants for your local area.

When you install drought-tolerant plants in your garden, be sure to water them regularly until they are well established. For some plants, that can take a few weeks, while trees and some shrubs may take a year or more to settle in. One way to test if a plant is established is to tug gently at the stem. If you feel the stem wiggle in the soil or the root ball lift slightly from the ground, then it isn’t established and you need to continue with a regular watering schedule.

Whether you plant succulents in a hanging basket or transform your garden with California natives, incorporating water-wise plants is an important step to being a water-wise gardener and saving thousands of gallons of precious water over time.