Gardeners in California face problems that others in the country don’t have.
In a state ravaged by drought and the threat of wildfires, gardeners have to think carefully about what they plant and the amount of water they’ll have to use to sustain their plantings.
Fortunately for home growers, the climate of much of the state of California means that homeowners can plant temperate to subtropical species as well as some tropicals in warmer coastal areas.
1. Carob (Ceratonia siliqua) – Shade Tree
Carob is an evergreen leguminous tree with an upright spreading growth habit. The leaves form a dense canopy and are glossy round and compoundly pinnate, casting great shade and remaining dark throughout the winter. Catkin-like flowers appear in late spring on female trees, whilst males don’t flower or fruit.
The fruit of the carob are showy brown pods that are displayed in late fall. They have a taste somewhat like chocolate and boast numerous health benefits, according to Healthline.
Carob trees are good at attracting butterflies and bees to your yard. Carob trees also fix nitrogen into the soil so will benefit other plants and trees nearby.
Carob trees need full sun and will tolerate a variety of soil types; from moist to dry. They can’t tolerate standing water. They are drought-tolerant trees, being natives of the Mediterranean, and can handle salt, as well as urban pollution.
Other Common Names: Locust Bean, St John’s Bread
Growing Zones: 9-11
Average Size at Maturity: 50-55 ft tall and 16-26 ft wide
Flowering Season: Fall
2. White Mulberry (Morus alba) – Shade & Fruit Tree
Mulberry trees are deciduous with varying sizes and forms. They are highly adaptable and can serve as both a shade and fruit tree, although fruitless varieties are also available.
Mulberry trees like the heat and even thrive in the low desert. They can also tolerate alkaline soils and drought once established but will grow better and faster with regular water.
The White Mulberry produces flavorful pinkish, white or purple berry-like fruit. The Red Mulberry (Morus rubra) is a North American native whose fruit is reportedly less flavorful and because of this is a threatened species.
Mulberries will grow best in deep moist well-drained loam. They are fast-growing and young trees should be staked as they quickly develop a crown and become top-heavy.
Other Common Names: Chinese White Mulberry, Common Mulberry, Silkworm Mulberry, Russian Mulberry
Growing Zones: 3-9
Average Size at Maturity: 30-66 ft tall and 30-40 ft wide
Flowering Season: April
3. Camphor (Cinnamomum camphor) – Shade Tree
Camphor is a native of China and Japan and is one of the best shade trees you can plant in Southern California. The stems are green and tinted with red on young trees.
Small flowers appear in the spring and are followed by small berry-like drupes which provide food for birds and other animals. When crushed, the leaves produce the typical camphor scent.
Camphor trees have a sprawling growth habit and the attractive bark provides winter interest. The shade provided by camphor is dense, making it difficult for anything to grow underneath, so bear this in mind before planting in your yard.
Other Common Names: Camphor Laurel, Camphorwood
Growing Zones: 9-11
Average Size at Maturity: 50-65 ft tall and 50-60 ft wide
Flowering Season: Spring
4. Mango Tree (Mangifera indica) – Fruit Tree
Mangos are evergreen trees native to the Indian Subcontinent and will not tolerate areas with prolonged frosts. Extended exposure to temperatures below 30F can kill mango trees. They will do best in SoCal in areas away from the ocean in the foothills where they can bask in the heat.
Some mango varieties should be able to survive in protected coves in the Central Valley. There are growers in the Southern California Desert (Coachella Valley) who have mastered the art of growing mangos.
Early fruiting varieties of mangos are best for SoCal as the growing season is quite short (except in the low desert.) In SoCal, mango trees can be grown in full sun and are drought tolerant. Mangos have a deep taproot so can only be grown in areas with deep soil that’s well-draining.
Other Common Names: Mango
Growing Zones: 9-11
Average Size at Maturity: 25-32 ft tall and 20-30 ft wide
Varieties Suitable for Southern California: Glenn, Haden, Keitt, Kent, Manila, Valencia Pride, Espada, Tamaraca
Flowering Season: Early Spring
5. Australian Flame Tree (Brachychiton acerifolius) – Southern California
The Australian Flame tree is native to the seasonal rainforests of Eastern Australia. Flame trees stand out in the landscape due to their attention-grabbing fiery scarlet-red blooms which appear in abundance on the end of bare branches and can cover the whole tree.
They attract many kinds of native pollinators so work well in butterfly or bird gardens. The buds are obvious in the landscape even before they open. Be aware, though, that Australian Flame Trees are erratic bloomers.
The foliage of the Australian flame tree varies greatly in size and shape, with younger trees having deeply lobed leaves, with older trees having shallowly lobed to oval foliage. The foliage turns yellow and provides a colorful display of a different palate, just before flowering.
The Australian Flame Tree grows best in full sun but will tolerate partial shade and will tolerate any soil as long as it’s free-draining.
Other Common Names: Illawarra Flame Tree
Growing Zones: 9b-11
Average Size at Maturity: 30-50 ft tall and 16-50 ft wide
Flowering Season: Late spring to early summer
6. Crepe Myrtle (Lagerstroemia indica) – Small Tree
Crepe Mrytle’s can be grown either as a small tree or shrub. There are many different varieties of Crepe Myrtles to choose from, with some being deciduous and others evergreen.
Crepe Myrtles are good small flowering trees for warmer climates. Whilst they are drought tolerant once established, they do require more water than many other small trees suited to Southern California.
Crepe Myrtles can add wonderful color and depth to a small yard or patio, but ultimately it’s up to you to decide whether the extra water they need in the summer months is worth it.
The flowers resemble crepe paper and can be found in pink, white, or purple. They require little maintenance and can be grown in a small space.
Other Common Names: Crêpe myrtle, Crepeflower
Growing Zones: 7-10
Average Size at Maturity: 15-25 ft tall and 6-15 ft wide
Flowering Season: June to fall
7. Bay Laurel (Laurus nobilis)
Bay Laurels are evergreen trees native to the Mediterranean region that can be grown in full sun, partial sun, or shade. They are well suited to be grown in small spaces including container cultivation.
They can easily be pruned to keep them in your desired shape and size, and the leaves can be saved for use in the kitchen and around the house.
Bay Laurels naturally grow as a broad-based shrub and the dense evergreen growth habit makes them well-suited as a background tree, shrub, or screen. They readily respond to pruning and as such are a good choice for topiary. Small yellow flowers are followed by ¾” dark berries.
Plant Bay Laurel in well-draining soil. Once established, they require little water to thrive.
Other Common Names: Bay Tree, Sweet Bay, True Laurel, Grecian Laurel, Laurel
Growing Zones: 8-11
Average Size at Maturity: 15-40ft tall and 15-40 ft wide
Flowering Season: April
8. Dwarf Meyer Lemon Tree (Citrus × meyeri)
Dwarf Meyer Lemon Trees like all dwarf fruit trees are suited to small spaces and are prolific fruit bearers and bloomers.
The foliage of the Meyer Lemon is evergreen dark and glossy and adds additional interest to the landscape. Meyer lemons are naturally shrub-like in form but can easily be pruned into tree shapes.
Meyer lemons are more cold-hardy than Eureka or Lisbon Lemon trees, but still need warm temperatures year-round to produce a harvest and won’t tolerate prolonged frosts.
They will need a sunny yet sheltered position to thrive that has excellent drainage, as they won’t tolerate saturated soils.
Other Common Names: Dwarf Meyer Lemon
Growing Zones: 9-11
Average Size at Maturity: 6–10 ft tall and 4–8 ft wide
Flowering Season: All year, but mainly fall and spring
9. Peanut Butter Tree (Clerodendrum trichotomum) – Small Tree
If you’re looking for a tree that’s relatively uncommon, then consider the Peanut Butter Tree. The common name comes from the aroma the leaves emit when bruised, which is said to resemble peanut butter.
Small and attractive delicate flowers appear in the late summer and eventually turn to red star-shaped structures that open to reveal hard fruit that’s a surreal shade of blue.
Peanut Butter Trees have a tendency to get wide and shrubby, but can be kept under control by regular pruning. Plant in full sun to partial shade in chalk, clay, loam, or sand.
Other Common Names: Harlequin Glorybower
Growing Zones: 7-10
Average Size at Maturity: 10-20 ft tall and 10-20 ft wide
Flowering Season: Late summer
The climate of California varies from zone 5a-11a, meaning that the variety of trees that can be grown in your home yard will change greatly depending on where you’re situated in the state.
Those nearer the coast will be able to experiment with exotic subtropicals due to the milder climates. Those in harsher inland or mountainous areas can still grow plenty of temperate species suited to the growing conditions that are no less spectacular.
- 9 Best Trees for Your Backyard in California (All Types)
- 12 Drought Tolerant Trees for Southern California
- 30 Best Flowering Trees in California (Purple, Pink & More)
- 10 Best Dwarf Fruit Trees to Grow in California
- 10 Fast Growing Shade Trees for California to Plant Today
Thomas worked for a number of years as the head of plant propagation for a horticultural contractor taking care of many different species of ornamental trees & shrubs. He learned how to propagate certain endangered endemic species and has a love of permaculture, sustainability and conscious living. When Thomas isn’t hiking in nature he can be found playing music, reading a book, or eating fruit under a tree.