Planting native trees has the benefit that you know that what you’re planting is suited to the local climatic conditions.
Natives will also provide habitat for local birds, mammals, and a whole host of other forms of life, both big and small.
California is a huge landmass that encompasses a wide range of landscapes; from high mountains to low-lying deserts and coastal ecosystems, and as such has a corresponding wealth of tree species.
Both NorCal and SoCal encompass planting zones 5a-11a.
1. Catalina Cherry (Prunus ilicifolia ssp. lyonii) – Southern California
The Catalina Cherry is mainly native to the Channel Islands region, with some specimens on the mainland in Southern California. The Catalina Cherry has an upright form and is fast-growing once established.
It’s actively growing during the spring, summer, and fall seasons. White flowers appear in the springtime that are sure to catch the attention of passers-by.
The shiny evergreen foliage is a medium shade of green, and whilst the fruit is edible, it is usually left for the birds and other native wildlife to consume. In the wild, you can find the Catalina Cherry growing on rocky slopes at elevations between 0 and 2000 ft. This subspecies readily hybridize with others in the species.
The Catalina Cherry will handle a wide range of soil types and can be planted in full sun or partial shade.
Other Common Names: Hollyleaf Cherry, Evergreen Cherry
Growing Zones: 8b-9
Average Size at Maturity: 3-30 ft tall and 2-20 ft wide
Flowering Season: Spring
2. Island Ironwood (Lyonothamnus floribundus) – Southern California
The Island Ironwood is a native of Southern and Central California, primarily in the Channel Islands. In this area, it can be found on rocky slopes at elevations between 100 and 1600 ft in the oak woodlands and chaparral of the rocky coastal canyons.
Dark shiny evergreen leaves grace the Island Ironwood, with lighter undersides borne on a short petiole.
The bark is exfoliating and reveals shades of red, brown and gray. The inflorescence are clusters of wooly white flowers with short whiskery stamens.
Two different subspecies have slightly different leaf shapes; Ssp. asplenifolius (Santa Cruz Island Ironwood) is the more readily available species and has incised, fern-like leaves. Ssp. floribundus (Catalina Island Ironwood) has undivided, smooth leaves and is rarely seen horticulturally.
The Island Ironwood is tolerant of a wide range of soil types provided there is adequate drainage.
Other Common Names: Santa Cruz Island Ironwood, Fern-Leaf Ironwood
Growing Zones: 8-10
Average Size at Maturity: 50-60 ft tall and 12-20 ft wide
Flowering Season: May to July
3. California Nutmeg (Torreya californica) – North California
The California Nutmeg is a small evergreen tree that looks somewhat like a small Yew or Glossy Leaved Redwood. It has spreading and drooping branches and can be found in the Pacific Coast Ranges and the Foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
The California Nutmeg, which is not related to the true nutmeg, has a conical shape with whorled branches.
The leaves are needle-like and sharp, and are arranged spirally but twisted at the base and lie flat on either side of the shoots. The male pollen shoots are grouped linearly along the underside of the shoots. The female seed cones are either single or in groups of 2-5 together on a short stem.
They mature in around 18 months to a drupe like, single nut/seed surrounded by a fleshy covering and are dark green to purple at maturity in the fall.
The California Nutmeg prefers moist, well-drained soil in full sun to partial shade for optimal growth.
Other Common Names: California Torreya, Stinking Cedar
Growing Zones: 7-10
Average Size at Maturity: 17-90 ft tall and 10-30 ft wide
Flowering Season: May
4. Baja California Birdbush (Ornithostaphylos oppositifolia) – Southern California
The Baja Californian Birdbush is a member of the Heath family and shares many characteristics with other members of the family, including the Manzanitas and Summer Holly.
In the wild, it’s very rare, with only one population in San Diego County according to Calscape, where it is threatened due to increasing urbanization and border control activities. Where it does exist, it’s found in chaparral below 4000 ft.
Long, narrow evergreen leaves grace the Baja California Birdbush. The young bark, twigs, and branches are reddish.
Older specimens develop a basal burl from which trees will resprout after fire or branch dieback. Rounded, lantern-shaped flowers appear from drooping pedicels. Whilst drought tolerant, it’ll appreciate some summer irrigation.
The Baja California Birdbush will tolerate many soil types but prefers well-drained soils.
Other Common Names: Baja Birdbush, Palo Blanco
Growing Zones: 9a-10a
Average Size at Maturity: 10-15 ft tall and 5-10 ft wide
Flowering Season: Winter/spring
5. Northern California Walnut (Juglans hindsii) – Northern and Southern California
The Northern Californian Walnut is native to disparate spots throughout the state and was likely spread by the original inhabitants of the land.
It’s a large fast-growing tree that produces edible nuts and can be found in chaparrals and woodlands. The Northern California Walnut is allelopathic, making the cultivation of other plants near it difficult.
The leaf of the Northern California Walnut is approximately 1 foot long, with 13-21 2-5 inch leaflets. The nut has a smooth brown thick shell and is commercially important as a rootstock for other walnuts globally.
The wood of the Northern California Walnut is sometimes called claro and is used for woodworking due to its enticing and intricate patterns.
The Northern California Walnut will tolerate sandy and clay soils, grows best in full sun and has low to moderate water needs.
Other Common Names: Hind’s Black Walnut
Growing Zones: 7-10
Average Size at Maturity: 45-60 ft tall and 30-50 ft wide
Flowering Season: Spring
6. California Box Elder (Acer negundo californicum) – Northern California
The California Box Elder is native to the mountains of Central and Northern California. It’s a fantastic shade tree, provides good fall color, and is useful as a soil stabilizer and as a windbreak.
Once established, their California Box Elder is extremely drought tolerant and can tolerate desert heat and winds, and has been known to survive temperatures down to -20 Fahrenheit.
The California Box Elder can be grown in sand, clay, or adobe. In the wild, it’s always found growing near a water source and for this reason, will tolerate seasonal flooding. The flowers are an attractive pink color.
Other Common Names: Ashleaf Maple, Boxelder Maple, Three Leaf Maple, Boxelder
Growing Zones: 2-10
Average Size at Maturity: 50-75 ft tall and 30-50 ft wide
Flowering Season: Spring
7. Mountain Mahogany (Cercocarpus betuloides) – Northern and Southern California
The Mountain Mahogany is native to dry areas, usually in foothills throughout the state of California, often in chaparrals. The foliage is said to resemble Birch, hence the Betula in the name. They are distinct in that they have smooth edges from the base to mid-way up, and then become wavy to toothed towards the end.
The flowers of the Mountain Mahogany are small clustered and mildly scented and are followed by a tubular fruit with a thin, curly feathery extension protruding up to 3 inches. The wood is traditionally used by native people to make arrows, for spearfishing, and as a hardwood.
Mountain Mahogany works well planted as a screen instead of bamboo in the home. They also fix nitrogen in the soil via their root nodules so will benefit other plants nearby. They are also useful in erosion control and reforestation projects.
Other Common Names: Birchleaf Mountain Mahogany
Growing Zones: 5-9
Average Size at Maturity: 8-20 ft tall and 8-10 ft wide
Flowering Season: Winter, Spring
8. Fremont Cottonwood (Populus fremontii) – Northern and Southern California
The Fremont Cottonwood is native to much of the state of CA and is found in riparian areas near rivers streams, and wetlands. It’s a large tree with a smooth bark when young, becoming white fissured and cracked with age.
The flowers are clusters of long drooping catkins in the spring. The fruit looks like hanging clusters of cotton; hence the common name.
The leaves are heart-shaped with a finely toothed edge and white veins. The Fremont Cottonwood is an important tree for many species of birds and butterflies.
They can reach great heights with adequate access to enough water so are not best suited to smaller yards. Because of their natural growing area, they are more than capable of handling occasional flooding.
Other Common Names: Narrowleaf Cottonwood, Mountain Cottonwood
Growing Zones: 3-9
Average Size at Maturity: 70-90 ft tall and 25-35 ft wide
Flowering Season: March to April
9. Joshua Tree (Yucca brevifolia) – Southern California
The Joshua Tree is emblematic of the Mojave Desert and is the largest of all the Yucca species. They are typically found in the high desert at elevations of 600-6600 feet, though can be found up to 11,000 feet in the White and Inyo Mountains.
Joshua trees develop open branching once they reach 3-9 ft and the foliage develops in rosettes at the branch tips in the wild. In cultivation, however, they often lack branches and develop bent back leaves.
Small, creamy-white flowers develop at the end of long pannicles and turn into light green seed pods. They are an important food source for small mammals and birds. Around 25 species of birds use Joshua Trees as nesting sites.
Joshua Trees will grow best in areas similar to their harsh native deserts so are suited to rock gardens and xeriscaping.
Other Common Names: Yucca Palm, Tree Yucca, Tree Yucca Palm
Growing Zones: 6-10
Average Size at Maturity: 15-30 ft tall and 20-35 ft wide
Flowering Season: Spring
10. California Buckeye (Aesculus californica) – Northern and Southern California
The California Buckeye is in the Sapindaceae family and is the only Buckeye native to the state. They can be found over large swathes of the state; mainly on dry slopes and canyons in the Coast Ranges or Sierra Foothills.
They are often large shrubs or small trees, with a grey bark that is often covered in mosses or lichens. Typically, they are multi-trunked with a crown as wide as they are tall.
The dark green leaves contain 5 (occasionally 7) leaflets with a finely toothed margin. The tender leaves are prone to damage from frost and high heat, and will often shed their leaves in these instances.
The California Buckeye is drought tolerant, and white flowering varieties reportedly have lower water requirements.
Other Common Names: California Horse Chestnut, Shrub California Buckeye
Growing Zones: 7-8
Average Size at Maturity: 13-40 ft tall and 25-40 ft wide
Flowering Season: Spring, Summer
The state of California occupies a vast landmass and encompasses a variety of different landscapes. In these differing landscapes live a myriad of different native tree species, perfectly adapted to the local climatic conditions.
Planting natives is a great way to give back to the land on which you live. Native species provide habitat, food, and shelter for local fauna, with which they have co-evolved over millennia.
On top of this, they will often require much less attention if planted in suitable locations than other ‘imported,’ species. This often makes them better suited to beginner gardeners or those without the time or inclination to take care of more tricky and demanding trees.
- 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.