A Few of my Favorite Flowering Shrubs

Headshot of Nan Sterman

In other regions of the country, residents are aching for the long, drab winter to end. As if to hasten its end, they take this time to plan bright displays of annual flowers that mark the transition to spring.

We don’t create those kinds of displays here in the San Diego region. We have flowers and foliage year-round so there’s no need for over-the-top springtime floral indulgence. Instead, we plan gardens to have flowers just about every month. And the best way to do that is with flowering, waterwise shrubs.

These shrubs bloom primarily in the cooler months of spring and fall, with a smattering of winter flowers too. They are tough, drought resistant, and almost bullet proof. Best of all, whether in bloom or out, they are a constant background for spring, summer, fall, and winter flowers.

Here are a few of my favorites for our region:

Sphaeralcea ambigua, desert mallow, is a small, open desert native that grows two-to-four feet tall and wide. Its small, silvery green leaves are ridged and covered in fuzz. In early spring, cuplike flowers cover the branches, typically apricot colored, but sometimes white, pink, or pale purple. There is a selection called ‘Louis Hamilton’ that has watermelon colored flowers. Some years, these plants bloom again after the summer. In early fall, thin out dead branches, then cut the plant back to six inches tall. It will flush with new growth. Occasional new plants sprout to replace old ones that die out. Plant them in the full sun, in well-draining soils and water to establish. After establishment, the plants need little if any irrigation. This plant looks beautiful when combined with a blue-blade agave.

Grevillea ‘Moonlight’ is a surprise from down under. This larger member of the Grevillea family has long, narrow, almost needle-like deep green leaves and grows tall, at least eight-to-12 feet tall, and six-to-eight feet wide. In the cooler months, the branches form long, cone-shaped spidery flower clusters that are a pale butter yellow. Their color shows best when the plant is sited against a sage, terra cotta, or coco brown walls. These flowers are hummingbird magnets. They are also easy-to-grow and waterwise. Do not fertilize.

Abutilon palmeri, Indian mallow, is another desert native. This one contains extensive, soft green, and very fuzzy leaves that grow broad, almost like a maple leaf. Site this plant near a walkway so you can feel the leaves as you walk by. Deep, gold yellow flowers form at the branches tips, mostly in spring and fall, with some present, year round. This shrub grows surprisingly large, at least four feet tall and five feet wide. After most flowers are past, cut the spent flower stalks off. You can also cut the plant back at least by a third. This plant is extremely drought tolerant. Water little if any, once it’s established. Hummingbirds and butterflies are frequent visitors.

Ceanothus, California lilac, are not lilacs but rather a large group of evergreen shrubs native to different regions and habitats up and down the state. Some are the size of small trees (Ceanothus ‘Ray Hartman’ grows to 20 feet tall) and some are low groundcovers (Ceanothus griseus horizontalis ‘Yankee Point’ grows two-to-three feet tall and eight-to-10 feet wide), and all sizes in between. In early spring, these shrubs form rounded clusters of tiny flowers, in shades of white-to-deep indigo blue. If you’re close, you’ll notice the flowers’ fragrance, too. Ceanothus get a bad rap for being short lived in the garden, but that is usually from being planted where they get too much irrigation or are overwatered in general. Instead, water regularly through the first summer to establish, and then only during long dry periods from fall through spring. Water little, if at all, in the summer – that’s Mother Nature’s pattern too! Excellent plant for attracting wildlife to the garden.

Eremophila glabra ‘Kalgoorlie’ is a small, evergreen shrub from Australia, just three feet tall and four-to-six feet wide. It has narrow, ghostly silver green leaves and tubular flowers that are apricot and gold. The spring and summer flowers are subtle, but there are so many that collectively, they make a big impression. Plant in the full sun, well-draining soil, and shear back by a third after the bloom has past. I like to grow this on a slope, under taller flowering shrubs like Grevillea ‘Moonlight’. Both have hummingbird-attracting flowers.

Garden expert, designer, and author Nan Sterman specializes in low water, sustainable, and edible landscapes. Nan hosts A Growing Passion, a show about all the ways that San Diego and California grow. A Growing Passion airs on KPBS television Thursdays at 8:30 p.m. Episodes are also posted online at agrowingpassion.com. Nan is also author of California Gardener’s Guide vII, Waterwise Plants for the Southwest and the upcoming Hot Colors, Dry Garden. More information is at plantsoup.com.