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What is a “Native” Plant?

Native plants (and their soil) are the building blocks for diverse, thriving habitat and wildlife. California natives generally refer to those plants that have been in California since before the Spanish landed. They’ve evolved over thousands of years with our local insects, birds and animals to form complex, interdependent relationships. Because the animals, birds and insects evolved with these plants, California native plants provide food for wildlife that non-native species don't provide.

Benefits of gardening with California natives - especially those native to your region:

  • Decreased water use:  Many California natives evolved to withstand long periods of drought, making them the perfect choice for the water-wise garden. There can be financial benefits too of reducing your water use. See the Bay Area Water Conservation Agency for potential rebates to replace your water-thirsty lawn and this rain barrel rebate program offered to help you further save water.

  • No need for chemical fertilizers or insecticides:  Again, plants that evolved here need no added soil inputs and have relationships with many local insects we, as gardeners, might consider “pests”. As a result of this co-evolution, native plants are better equipped to defend themselves from too much predation, while at the same time providing habitat and food for the insects and bacteria that are an essential part of the ecosystem.

  • Fostering and attracting wildlife to your backyard and contributing to your local habitat (see below).

  • Forming a sense of place - your place. You will become intimate with your local ecology and learn to appreciate that it has evolved over millennia - and works!

Non-native Ornamentals

Many invasive species in our open spaces were originally introduced by the nursery trade. However, most popular, non-native horticultural plants are not invasive, meaning they don't spread wildly. Under California’s normal climatic conditions these non-native ornamentals need help in order to survive, so they tend to only do well under a gardener’s care. They provide beauty and in some cases offer nectar or other food sources to more generalist native species, but they do not maintain the complex, interdependent relationships that native flora and fauna have with each other. Well-selected non-natives can be good additions to your garden.

Invasive Species

Pampas grass, vinca, english ivy and french broom, are just a few examples of plants that evolved elsewhere but thrive in our warm, dry-summers and our cool, wet-winters, and spread perniciously into the surrounding landscapes. (For a more complete list of invasive species visit CAL-IPC). These introduced plants thrive and spread because often they evolved in a similar Mediterranean climate as the San Francisco Peninsula. More importantly, they are invasive in our region because it lacks the animals and insects that kept them in check on their home turf. Since our native animals and insects do not recognize these plants, they escape predation and are instead left to spread unchecked. While the native plants, being the food source the local fauna evolved with, are eaten. This turns into a cycle of an ever declining native plant ecosystem and an ever increasing invasive plant monoculture that local wildlife cannot use.

Restoration Gardening

Fortunately, we as gardeners have the opportunity to DIRECTLY help wildlife, even in urban areas. First, we can keep invasive species out of our gardens. Then, we can provide habitat (i.e. food) for our local wildlife by planting California natives from our area. Your garden can be the meditative, beautiful refuge traditional ornamental gardens often strive to be, while at the same time providing habitat for butterflies, birds, pollinators and small mammals. Restoration gardening connects you with the broader ecosystem and offers you the opportunity of being a steward to nature rather than just a passive observer - and at the same time you’re beginning to mend some of the damage that has been done.

Mission Blue Nursery offers ongoing sales to the public

In addition to seasonal sales, plant purchases are available by appointment by contacting Ildiko, our Nursery Manager. All plants are from seed and cuttings collected on San Bruno Mountain. As a non-profit nursery, all sales help support the conservation and restoration efforts of San Bruno Mountain Watch on the Mountain. Learn more about gardening with natives - volunteer at the nursery every Wednesday!

More Resources

California Native Plant Society’s gardening program

Nature In the City - a partner non-profit that fosters wildlife in San Francisco

SF Plant Finder helps you find plants native to your San Francisco micro-climate

Cal Flora is a searchable database that tells you what is native where

Plant Right helps get invasive plants out of the nursery trade