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Planting under oak trees in California

There are many plants that grow naturally under oaks in California. Some genera are common in most of California and are commonly associated with oaks. Plants that are not normally associated with oaks cause many problems for the oaks and the oaks and their allies will expend resources attempting to exclude them. Research has shown that this occurs, but the specific causes are harder to identify. We've seen many times, over many years, diseased trees with a near leafless canopy come back to health by controlling the weeds, lawn or petunias.

Arctostaphylos hookeri Wayside Manzanita, Monterey Manzanita grows well in full sun in coastal gardens, but will tolerate more shade than most manzanitas. A very nice 1-2 ft. high ground cover. - grid24_12
Arctostaphylos Wayside , Harmony Manzanita are manzanitas grow well under oaks in all but the shadiest conditions.
Corethrogyne filaginifolia, California Corethrogyne flowers - grid24_12
Corethrogyne filaginifolia , California Aster works well under deciduous oaks or in part shade of evergreen oaks.
Solanum xanti hoffmannii grows from about Santa Barbara south into San Diego County.  - grid24_12
Solanum, nightshades. The nightshades are common under the oaks in most of the coastal regions of California.
Yerba Buena, Satureja douglasii is a beautiful green groundcover with soft green leaves. - grid24_12
Yerba Buena, Satureja douglasii grows in the leaf litter of Coast Live oaks, Canyon Live oaks and even Blue Oaks. Excellent along serene walkways and under benches as it's flat and it smells real good.
Satureja chandleri Shrubby Yerba Buena - grid24_12
Satureja chanderi, Mountain Balm is a shrubbier form (1 foot) that grows under oaks in Southern California. A snoot will find this cute beaut is a hoot and smells mighty fine. Mountain Balm is huggy, not buggy, and makes a very clean mass of green.
Giant Rye, Elymus condensatus - grid24_12
Elymus condensatus, Giant Rye is one of the few grasses that grows under oaks. Although Giant Rye will grow in full sun, particularly with regular water, it will grow well in full shade with no extra water in most of California. For those of you that seem to want a grassy prairie and don't know a buffalo from an, oh I guess I can't type that.
 - grid24_12
Diplacus , the shrubby monkey flowers love the edges and half day sun under oaks. Full shade is a bit too much for monkey flowers, but full sun is commonly too much. Those little spots of sun under the oaks where the hallo of sun beams come together in the afternoon is where you plant these. Put a garden bench near that spot with Yerba Buena under it and the monkey flowers/ hummingbird sage as the feast to look upon.
A clump of Salvia spathacea, Hummingbird Sage as groundcover under Desert Willow next to Sulfur Buckwheat. - grid24_12
Salvia spathacea. Hummingbird sage grows great under the oaks. In the wild Hummingbird sage grows in full shade and into full sun. I've only seen a few spots where the weeds haven't overwhelmed the sage and stunted the tree. In one spot one plant had filled an area of 50X50 feet with the foliage just above the leaf litter making a carpet of green with pink/magenta flowers that the hummingbirds love.
Monardella villosa, Coyote Mint,  with a Monarch Butterfly - grid24_12
Monardella villosa and some of the Coyote Mints grow under or at the edge of oak trees in much of California. Big hat perennial ladies, butterflies and hummingbirds like these. Nice flowers and they smell nice.
Here is an older photo of the flowers of Lonicera hispidula, California Honeysuckle, with the bright yellow contrasting stamens.   - grid24_12
Lonicera hispidula and Lonicera denutata Let's see, honeysuckles are generally evergreen, have pretty flowers, need little care, are usually not eaten by deer, have berries for the birds and are decent to look at.
Christmas berry or Toyon with berries is what Hollywood was named after. Toyon will grow in most of Los Angeles with no water after first year. - grid24_12
Toyon grows under oaks in most of California. Near the immediate coast Toyons move into the sun but in areas like Los Angeles or Riverside, Toyons are mixed with the oaks and commonly grow even at the trunks.
Rhus trilobata, Squaw Bush Sumac with berries hanging down bank. - grid24_12
Rhus trilobata, Squaw Bush grows under oaks in the interior coastal valleys. A deciduous sub-shrub that has great fall color and berries for the birds. Funny, the people who HATE deciduous plants are often the ones looking for 'fall color'.
Lepechinia fragrans, Island Pitcher Sage grows on the island and from Ventura, through Los Angeles into the San Gabriel Mountains.  - grid24_12
Lepechinia fragrans and Lepechinia calycina both do well under oaks with little care. Pitcher plants can grow in full shade into part sun. Picture a six foot high shrub with digitalis flowers.
Climbing Penstemon, Heart leaved Keckiella, or Heartleaf Keckiella, Keckiella cordifolia  is hanging over our driveway and is native from about Santa Margarita  south to San Diego. This Native Penstemon was all over the north and east slopes of Los Angeles and parts of Southern California. A great addition to a native garden. - grid24_12
Keckellia cordifolia grows great under coast live oaks, Keckellia breviflora grows great under the deciduous oaks , but has also done ok here under our coast live oaks. This is a deciduous penstemon, dead stickus in fall, pretty flowers in summer.
This Utah service berry actually was in the Sierras but native throughout most of California mountains. - grid24_12
Amelanchier, the Service Berries can be very interesting as a contrast to the oaks. In many of the coastal woods Service berry can become a mini-tree under the high shade of oaks. Sometimes you'll have the full 100 foot oak, then the 10 foot service berry 'tree' and under it either Satureja douglasii or Symphoricarpos or Lonicera. Sometimes there's even a Ribes between the oak and the Amelanchier.
Symphoricarpos mollis, Southern California Snowberry as groundcover - grid24_12
Symphoricarpos albus and Symphoricarpos mollis both are snowberries and both grow well under oaks. Thrashers, Thrushes, and other native birds use the berries as survival food in winter. The berries taste like Ivory soap, but I'm not a bird, maybe it tastes different to them.
Aristolochia californica, California Pipevine, grows in the shade of, and climbs up trees, such as Quercus wislizenii, and Umbellularia californica, in the Sierra Nevada foothills of California.  - grid24_12
Dutchman's Pipe is a big vine that grows under the Bay trees and Oaks Trees up in the North Coast and Sierras.

Good things to do.

Bad Things you can do.

Plant associated plants.

Plant junk that has never grown near an oak tree and needs a ton of water and fertilizer. Why would you expect a plant that grows in full sun along a river in Brazil to grow under your oak? A lawn also comes to mind. If you did use a ton of water, gradually remove the input over a couple of years.

Leave the oak leaves.

Remove the leaves from under the oaks. Bare ground and green weeds are better than that nasty layer of leaves. THE OAK NEEDS THE LEAVES!

Think like a tree. Long term, no sudden changes, no tilling, disking, poop, or water Lean and mean. Hang a hammock and put yourself in it. .

Plant short term stuff and kill the tree slowly. Pansies and petunias are a cruel joke under an oak.

Prune out the dead stuff and trim the branches up off of the ground.

Prune the trees hard or in some weird manner like pollarding. Forcing new growth draws from the trees resources and often triggers a cascading failure in the system of the oak tree.

You can wash the foliage off occasionally on dry, dusty years.

Put a lawn under the tree and you'll have a sick lawn and a sick tree.

Salvia spathacea, Dutchman's Pipe, Snowberry, Monkey flower, Coffeeberry, Elderberry, Solanum xantii, Yerba Buena, and Big Leaf Maple in the full shade of oaks, with no irrigation.
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Edited on Oct 18, 2019. Authors:
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