Meeting the Natives: A Guide to Selected Native Plants of the Coastal Sage Scrub
Common Native Plants
Black Sage (Salvia mellifera)
This aromatic shrub is commonly found on dry slopes in southern California below 2,000 feet. Black sage grows to about six feet tall. The small, button-like flower clusters are usually pale blue to white and bloom from April to June. Black sage became a common name because the whorls of blooms that remain after they set seed form dark spheres along the dry stalks. Black sage is too strong to put into turkey stuffing, but the highly nutritious seed have a rich nutty flavor and were ground into a meal by the Indians.
Bladderpod (Isomeris arborea)
Bladderpod is the most common member of this tropical family found in southern California. This is the only shrub-member found in this area. The dull yellow, showy flowers may appear at any time of the year, but are most numerous in spring. The large leathery, much-inflated seed vessels, like fat pea pods, droop on long stalks, rattle when dry, and are a prominent feature, hence the name. The fruit is reported to taste like radish. Bladderpod has a wide distribution, growing on the hills, bluffs, and stabilized dunes of the sea coast and ranging into the desert edges.
Blue Dicks (Dichelostemma pulchellum)
This unusual looking herb is seen growing in between and rising above small shrubs. Blue dicks is a perennial, meaning it grows year round. The naked flower stalks appear in early spring and grow to about two feet. At the end of the stalk is a large compound purple flower that is rounded like an inflated ball. This little herb is common on flats and hillsides below 5,000 feet. The little corms (root bulbs) are tasty and were enjoyed by the Indians. English-speaking people who moved to the area in the 19th century called them grass nuts.
California Buckwheat (Erigonium fasciculatum )
California Buckwheat is the most common member of this large family of herbs in the area. It occurs in areas below 3,000 feet. The leaves are small, leathery, and rose-pink, appear during much of the year but are most noticeable in spring. They dry on the plant, turning a rusty-red color, persist through the summer, and add color to the drying landscape. California buckwheat is cherished by bees and makes a fine honey. Even though this plant is closely related to the buckwheat plants of flour fame, the seeds are too small to use efficiently as food.
California Encelia (Encelia californica)
The California encelia is a bushy year-round plant (perennial) up to five feet high. The flower heads are showy with golden-yellow rays and brownish-purple disks. California encelia blooms from March to June. This ragged plant has a strong odor and is rough to the touch, but it is very colorful and attractive. The woody stems were chewed and used by the Indian to treat a variety of pains.
Chamise, Greasewood (Adenostoma fasciculatum)
This evergreen shrub covers wide areas below 5,000 feet on dry ridges and steep slopes. Chamise grows up to fifteen feet and is also known as "greasewood" because of the violent way it burns. Chamise is from the Spanish word "chamisa," meaning brush or firewood. Indians, and later settlers, made chamise tea, and drank it in large quantities to cure tetanus, rabies, and syphilis. A bath in chamise water was a treatment for paralysis and skin infections.
Coastal Deer Weed (Lotus dendroideus )
Coastal deer weed is a common year-round plant below 5,000 feet. The flowers found in clusters have a pea flower shape and vary in color from yellow to orange to reddish as the season progresses.
California Sagebrush (Artemisia californica)
California Sagebrush is a dominant plant in coastal sage and occurs usually below 2,000 feet. It is a much-branched shrub two to five feet tall with numerous grayish-green leaves parted into thread-like divisions. The leaves have a clean but bitter fragrance. Spanish Californians used the plant as a flea repellant in San Diego, which was famous in colonial times for the little insects.
Coastal Prickly Pear Cactus (Opuntia littoralis)
Coastal prickly pear is found at low elevations along the coast, blooming from May to June. It is a sprawling plant with broad, flat joints (spiny, thick "cactus" leaves). The showy flowers are pale yellow with many overlapping, waxy petals up to 2 inches long. The fruits are pear-shaped, dark reddish-purple, and covered with bristles. Known as a tuna in Spanish, the fruit is edible and quite tasty; something like kiwis without the skin, but with many seeds.
Laurel Sumac (Malosma laurina)
This large, evergreen shrub or small tree has smooth, reddish-brown bark, grows up to fifteen feet tall, and is common on dry slopes below 3,000 feet. The highest leaves on the plant partly fold up to protect themselves from the hot sun. Down in the shady part of the plant, the leaves stay flat. Early farmers in Southern California used the plant as a guide to planting citrus orchards. The shrub has little tolerance for cold, so where it grows so too will the citrus trees.
Lemonadeberry (Rhus integrifolia)
Lemonadeberry is a rounded aromatic shrub that grows up to nine feet high in areas below 2,600 feet. It is most often found naturally on ocean bluffs and in canyons and dry places. The thick oval green leaves are leathery and waxy to protect them from drying out. The reddish fruit is covered with a viscous acid substance when mature. The berry can be used to make a cooling but bitter drink that tastes "lemony." The shrub is a popular ornamental in California.
Scrub Oak (Quercus dumosa)
Scrub oak is found in many areas below 5,000 feet near the coast. It is an evergreen shrub three to ten feet high with tough, rigid branches. The acorn is oval and broad at its base. Scrub oak reminded early Spanish settlers of a similar shrub from home called chaparro. They developed "chaps" to protect their legs when horseback riding in "chaparral."
Toyon, Christmas Berry (Heteromeles arbutifolia)
In southern California, toyon is also known as Christmas berry, because of the occurrence of its bright red berry-like pomes in December. It is also known as California holly and is believed to be the source of the name "Hollywood," the famous southern California city of movie fame. It is an evergreen tree-like shrub that may reach a height of twenty-five feet, and is common in areas below 4,000 feet.