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Summer Strong


Summer Strong plants are not only beautiful but tough enough to handle the hottest days. PCWA is pleased to partner with the UC Master Gardeners of Placer County to highlight Summer Strong flowers, shrubs and trees that are water-wise, well-suited to Placer County's environment and available at local nurseries.

Fire-wise plants are also Summer Strong. You can learn more about Fire-Wise landscaping, including a list of plants used in the Maidu Fire Station Makeover in Auburn on our Fire-Wise, Water-Wise Landscaping page.

Featured Plant of the Month

BUZZ-WORTHY NATIVE

‘Valley Violet’ California lilac

‘Valley Violet’ California lilac
‘Valley Violet’ California lilac flower close-up

‘Valley Violet’ California lilac

Ceanothus maritimus
By Debbie Arrington, Sacramento Digs Gardening

Want happy native bees? Plant California lilacs. As bees wake from winter, their fragrant blooms offer a nectar pick-me-up. Butterflies and moths adore them too. Growing wild throughout our state, California lilacs (Ceanothus spp.) are not true lilacs (Syringa spp.), but their fragrant spring flowers reminded pioneers of lilacs back home.

Also known as “mountain lilac,” ‘Valley Violet’ forms low round evergreen mounds. HOA-friendly and a UC Davis Arboretum All-Star, this native shrub is considered the best small ceanothus for Central Valley and foothill gardens, according to water-wise gardening experts, because of its adaptability, compact growth and easy care. It tolerates almost any soil type including clay.

The UC Master Gardeners of Placer County Demonstration Garden at the Loomis Library and Community Learning Center features ‘Valley Violet’ as well as three other popular ceanothus: ‘Concha’ (Ceanothus ‘Concha’), one of the oldest ceanothus cultivars with intense bright blue flowers; ‘Dark Star’ (Ceanothus ‘Dark Star’), a tough hybrid with small dark green leaves and blue flower clusters; and buckbrush (Ceanothus cuneatus), a pollinator favorite with lavender-tinged white flowers.

Bloom: Ceanothus comes in many blue or purple shades (and a few pinks). 'Valley Violet' produces abundant clusters of - you guessed it - dark-violet flowers in late winter or early spring.

Water needs: Low, once established. Needs irrigation once or twice a month. While most ceanothus loathe extra water, ‘Valley Violet’ is unique in that it can withstand weekly irrigation in the home landscape.

Sun: Can take full sun in the foothills, but prefers partial shade, especially at lower elevations. A location with morning sun is ideal.

Size: ‘Valley Violet’ stays compact – 2 feet tall and 3 to 4 feet wide at maturity. Other California lilac varieties can reach 6 to 9 feet tall and 8 to 10 feet wide.

Care: Low water requirements after the first two years, once the roots are well established. Too much water and poor drainage kills these plants. They can’t take “normal” landscape irrigation, especially in summer; they’ll rot. Ceanothus is best planted in the fall in order to take advantage of winter growth. California lilacs need little pruning; remove any dead wood and gently prune to shape after spring blooms fade.

Availability: More nurseries are offering California lilacs especially those that specialize in low-water shrubs. Find ‘Valley Violet’ at the UC Davis Arboretum Teaching Nursery and other nurseries that specialize in natives.

Bonus plants: California lilacs love growing with other low-water California natives such as California fuchsia (Epilobium canum), deer grass (Muhlenbergia rigens), island alum root (Heuchera maxima) or Cleveland sage (Salvia clevelandii).

Previously Featured Plants

Click on any of the dropdown(s) below to see previously featured Summer Strong plants.

Western Redbud
Western Redbud with bee

Western redbud

Cercis occidentalis
By Debbie Arrington, Sacramento Digs Gardening

See purple? Think redbud. Native to the Sierra foothills, the Western redbud (Cercis occidentalis) is the ultimate right plant in the right place for Placer County. With its abundant early spring flowers in shades of pink-purple, it supports native bees, especially leafcutter bees that love its leaves, too. (They line their nests with circles of foliage.)

Related to peas and legumes, Western redbud is among California’s most popular and showy native shrubs or small trees, offering year-round garden interest. They’re a natural for low-water foothill gardens and often among the first plants to bloom, signaling the coming of spring. Much appreciated by hungry bees, redbud flowers pop before the season’s first robin chirps.

Bright-green heart-shaped leaves emerge after that eye-catching flush of flowers. In fall, rusty red-brown decorative seed pods dangle from the branches, adding more garden flair. Even the bare brown branches are attractive in winter.

Once established, Western redbud is as tough as nails, needing only monthly (if any) summer irrigation. They do their best with good drainage—a spot where water doesn’t accumulate or stand, especially in winter—and tolerate both clay and rocky soils.

Although they love Placer County, redbuds aren’t for all of California. All redbud varieties need four distinct seasons and a little winter chill to be successful; this plant can’t cope on the coast.

Bloom: With vibrant pink-purple blooms, redbuds flower in big clusters directly on their smooth brown bark in late winter through early spring, February-April.

Water needs: Low to very low, once established.

Sun:Full sun; some hybrids can take partial shade.

Size: Western redbud grows as a large deciduous shrub (with multiple trunks); other redbuds such as Oklahoma redbud (C. reniformis) can be shaped into a small tree (with a single trunk). Western redbuds can reach 20 feet tall (with too much water) but usually stay 7 to 10 feet.

Care: Low water requirements after the first two years, once the roots are well established. During winter dormancy after it loses its leaves, prune the tree gently to shape as it matures, removing any dead or diseased wood.

Availability: Western redbud is widely sold at local nurseries such as Green Acres Nursery & Supply. Big-box stores tend to carry other redbud cultivars such as Oklahoma and Eastern redbud hybrids (C. Canadensis), which need more irrigation. All redbuds like Placer County.

Bonus plants: Western redbud makes a good accent tree or shrub among other low-water California natives such as California lilacs (Ceanothus), California fuchsia (Epilobium canum), or Cleveland sage (Salvia clevelandii).

Margarita BOP Foothill Penstemon

‘Margarita BOP’ Penstemon or ‘Margarita BOP’ Foothill Penstemon

Penstemon heterophyllus ‘Margarita BOP’
By Laurie Meyerpeter, Master Gardener

What's with that name? Margarita BOP? …BOP??!?!! The “BOP” is short for “Bottom Of the Porch”! It's a natural hybrid from Las Pilitas Nursery and it was growing at the “bottom of the porch,” hence the BOP part of its name. The nursery took note of what a heavy bloomer it was and how tough the plant was (despite getting run over by bicycles, skateboards and dogs) and began to propagate it.

It's a California native. It's actually a hybrid of probably two native penstemons. One parent is our own local Foothill Penstemon, and it is thought that one grandparent may be Penstemon laetus, also a California native. Because it’s a hybrid, it exhibits a trait called hybrid vigor and the plant is extremely floriferous. The Placer County Master Gardeners were testing it in their Demo Garden a few years back, alongside a standard Foothill Penstemon, comparing how many pollinators each plant attracted and Margarita BOP Penstemon won hands down, simply because it had more flowers than its more ordinary sibling.

Bloom: A spring bloomer, ‘Margarita BOP’ Penstemon has stalks of clear, sky blue blossoms that change to a stunning purple as they begin to fade. Swoon! If you keep the dead flowers clipped off, it will bloom again.

Water needs: Low to very low, once established.

Sun: Full sun, part shade.

Size: ‘Margarita BOP’ is roughly 1-2’ tall with a 2-3’ spread, depending on location.

Care: Low water requirements. Snip the dead flowers and you may get a second and third bloom.

Availability: ‘Margarita BOP’ Penstemon is seasonally available just about everywhere in the spring. Other penstemons include the native Foothill Penstemon, often available at native plant nurseries and native plant sales, and other hybrid penstemons and cultivars like 'Electric Blue', 'Blue Spring' and'Catherine De La Mare', also available at seasonally at select local nurseries. Collect them all!

Bonus plants: For your own spring superbloom, combine ‘Margarita BOP’ Penstemon with California native wildflowers. Toss some California poppy seeds around ‘Margarita BOP’ in the fall or early spring for a stunning combination. ‘Island Pink’ Yarrow, Achillea millefolium ‘Island Pink’ is another native cultivar (and a UC Davis Arboretum All Star) and ‘Margarita BOP’s blue blossoms combine well with the pink yarrow flowers, blooming at roughly the same time. Various yarrows are widely available at local nurseries.

California Fuchsia wide angle
California Fuchsia close-up

California Fuchsia

Epilobium canum (or Zauschneria cana.)
By Laurie Meyerpeter, Master Gardener

This plant is one of our California natives and one of the few natives that blooms in late summer and fall. It looks good as a foliage plant throughout the summer and then after Labor Day, it’s SHOWTIME! Hummingbirds love this plant! A tough, low maintenance plant that looks good throughout our hot summers.

Bloom: Red to red-orange blooms resemble fuchsia flowers in late summer and fall.

Water needs: Low to very low, once established.

Sun: Full sun, part shade.

Size: Different cultivars have different heights from low ground cover to 1.5’ high and to 2-3’ wide. Low varieties spread more than others.

Care: Low to very low water requirements. After bloom, it should be cut back to the ground every year for best looks. Easy, once a year maintenance; low varieties are so forgiving that they can be mowed once a year after bloom.

Availability: Various cultivars are available seasonally.

Bonus plants: De La Mina Verbena (Verbena lilacina 'De La Mina' or Glandularia lilacina. This plant often has fall flowers.

Lion's Tail, a hummingbird magnet
Lion's Tail flower closeup

Lion's Tail

Leonotis leonurus
By Laurie Meyerpeter, Master Gardener

Lion's Tail blooms throughout the summer and fall. The orange flowers bloom in whorls up the stem. This plant is a hummingbird magnet! The leaves are a surprisingly lush green for such a low water plant. The blooms make good cut flowers.

Its common name is Lion’s Tail but the scientific name Leonotis translates to “Lion’s Ear” and leonurus “lion-colored”.

Bloom: Orange tubular flowers arranged in whorls up the stem of the plant, it blooms throughout the summer and fall.

Water needs: Low once established.

Sun: Full sun.

Size: 4-6’ tall and wide.

Care: Low water requirements. Can be cut back in late fall after bloom for best appearance next season.

Availability: Lion’s Tail is readily available seasonally.

Bonus plants: Nice companion plants include many of the low water, ornamental grasses that shine in late summer and fall. Here are two: Karl Foerster Reed Grass (Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’) and our native Deer Grass (Muhlenbergia rigens). Both are Arboretum All Stars.

Crape Myrtle

Crape Myrtle

Lagerstoemia hybrids and cultivars
By Laurie Meyerpeter, Master Gardener

Nothing says “Summer Strong” more than crape myrtle. Crape myrtle is one tough tree. When conditions get rough, crape myrtle is there, shouting its hot pink, red, white or lavender blooms while the rest of the region melts during our hot summers. When other plants wilt in the heat and the drought, crape myrtle growls, “Here, hold my beer,” steps up, and then knocks our socks off with its brilliantly colored flowers, throwing a party every summer with its crepe-paper-like blooms that just cover the tree for weeks. It doesn’t matter how you take care of them, whether you painstakingly prune them or ignore them, whether you water them weekly or forget most of the time, whether they you coddle them or give them tough love, Crape Myrtles bloom.

And if summer blooms aren’t enough, it goes on to have an autumn encore with brilliant fall color. Mature trees have gorgeous ornamental bark.

Crape myrtle cultivars come in many sizes, from trees to small shrubs. Choose cultivars that best fit your location, space, and color choice.

The hybrids are more resistant to powdery mildew.

This plant is an Arboretum All Star.

Bloom: Pink, lavender, red and white cultivars available. Peak bloom is during the hottest months of July and August.

Water needs: Low once established.

Sun: Full sun. Without full sun, it may flower slightly less and some flower colors like red will be muted.

Size: Size varies depending on the cultivar.

Care: Low water requirements. Needs little pruning or care. Excessive pruning is discouraged.

Availability: Crape Myrtles are widely available year-round.

Bonus plants: Supporting cast includes Lantanas (Lantana montevidensis. L. sellowiana, L. hybrids) which bloom profusely throughout the summer and fall. The flower colors often overlaps Crape Myrtle as well, for example ‘Muskogee’ Crape Myrtle shares a similar lavender color as Lantana montevidensis for a soft lavender effect, and ‘Natchez’ Crape Myrtle can be matched with white lantana hybrids for a “full moon” garden of “summer whites in the night”

De La Mina Verbena or Cedros Island Verbena

De La Mina Verbena or Cedros Island Verbena

Verbena lilacina 'De La Mina', Glandularia lilacina.
By Laurie Meyerpeter, Master Gardener

Just say it. Verbena lilacina 'De La Mina'. Fun, fun, fun! It just skips off the tongue like a nursery rhyme. Or if you're short on time, De La Mina Verbena is almost as fun to say. Either one is so rhyme-y and joyful. Glandularia lilacina is a newer name but many nurseries continue to use to the older name for this plant.

Everything about this plant is joyful. This charming perennial or small shrub has lovely fern-like green foliage and tiny purple flowers in profuse numbers. Its heaviest bloom is in the spring but it has profuse flowers in the summer and fall as well. In some climates, it can bloom nearly year round, although in this region, it seems to take a slight break during the cold season. It’s a selection from Cedros Island off Baja California and is hardy to about 25 degrees (similar to citrus). Butterflies love it.

This plant is a favorite of master gardeners and is a staff favorite at the UC Arboretum in Davis.

Bloom: ‘De La Mina’ Verbena blooms in spring, summer, and fall, and sometimes into winter during warmer years. The diminutive purple flowers are shades of purple and although small, the plant is usually covered in the tiny blooms. The flowers are butterfly favorites and have a light, spicy fragrance.

Water needs: Low, once established.

Sun: Full sun, part shade.

Size: This plant is 2-3’ tall, and 3-4’ wide with a rounded form.

Care: Low water requirements. Lightly prune in late fall to maintain compact form.

Availability: 'De La Mina' Verbena is available during the warmer months at local nurseries, sometimes sporadically. If not in stock, it’s worth asking when it will be re-stocked or check back in a few weeks.

Bonus plants: Many other low and very low water plants are butterfly favorites as well. Besides De La Mina Verbena, consider yarrows like ‘Island Pink’ Yarrow (Achillea millefolium ‘Island Pink’, an Arboretum All-Star) and other yarrows, Santa Barbara Daisy (Erigeron karvinsianus, an Arboretum All-Star), and Catmint (Nepeta x faassenii, an Arboretum All-Star). All bloom profusely in early and mid-summer with repeated blooms throughout summer, and make a nice combination. Yarrows, Santa Barbara Daisy, and Catmint are all readily available in local nurseries.

Santa Barbara Daisy

Santa Barbara Daisy

Erigeron karvinskianus
By Laurie Meyerpeter, Master Gardener

This is a tough plant with nearly continual bloom. It begins flowering about the time you pull out the shorts and sandals in spring and flowers until you get out a sweater in the fall. It may briefly shut down during an intense heat wave but will quickly resume once the swelter stops. If you're out in the heat, this plant is blooming.

Santa Barbara Daisy is lovely trailing over a wall or used in a container. It can stand on its own but it also shines as a supporting plant tucked in among other water conserving plants and flowers, where it flowers prolifically without stealing the show. It’s an underappreciated workhorse in the garden and it’s a wonderful plant for this region.

This plant is an Arboretum All Star, a group of water-conserving, heat-tolerant ornamental plants that thrive in this region. The plants have low maintenance needs and have value to birds and pollinators. Here is more information about the All Star program: https://ccuh.ucdavis.edu/arboretum-all-stars.

Bloom: Santa Barbara Daisy blooms from spring through fall. It may shut down bloom briefly during an intense heat wave but soon after, it will resume its floriferous habit.

Water needs: Low once established.

Sun: Full sun, part shade.

Size: Santa Barbara Daisy is a spreading or trailing groundcover-type perennial that grows 1-2' tall and can spreads 3-5'.

Care: Low water requirements. Can be cut nearly to the ground to renew if it gets too big or rangy.

Availability: Santa Barbara Daisy is readily available at local nurseries throughout the growing season.

Bonus plants: Other low-water, complimentary floriferous Arboretum All Stars include ‘Island Pink’ Yarrow (Yarrow (Achillea millefolium ‘Island Pink) and other yarrow varieties, Cape Balsam (Bulbine frutescens), several Lavenders like ‘Goodwin Creek’ (Lavendula x ginginsii ‘Goodwin Creek’) and ‘Otto Quast’ (Lavandula stoechas ‘Otto Quast’) , and Santa Margarita Foothill Penstemon (Penstemon heterophyllus ‘Margarita BOP’). Most are available at local nurseries on a seasonal basis.

'Winnifred Gilman' Cleveland Sage, Salvia clevelandii 'Winnifred Gilman'
'Winnifred Gilman' Cleveland Sage, Salvia clevelandii 'Winnifred Gilman'
'Winnifred Gilman' Cleveland Sage, Salvia clevelandii 'Winnifred Gilman'

'Winnifred Gilman' Cleveland Sage

Salvia clevelandii 'Winnifred Gilman'
By Laurie Meyerpeter, Master Gardener

Along with gorgeous flowers, the leaves of 'Winnifred Gilman' and other Cleveland sage cultivars are highly aromatic. When the Placer County Master Gardeners teach a propagation class at Del Oro High School, this plant is a huge favorite of the teens because of its beautiful aroma and the unique flowers.

'Winnifred Gilman' is one cultivar of Cleveland sage but local nurseries may stock similar and interchangeable Cleveland sage cultivars such as 'Allen Chickering'. And the terms "salvia" and “sage” are both used interchangeably to describe this very large family of plants. Many of them are California natives. Salvias are beloved by hummingbirds, bees, and butterflies.

Bloom: 'Winnifred Gilman' blooms in late spring into early summer, with a light bloom later in the summer. The distinctive whorled flowers are shades of blue and violet. When not in bloom, the plant forms a mound of gray-green leaves that are very aromatic on warm summer days.

Water needs: Low to Very Low once established.

Sun: Full sun, part shade.

Size: 'Winnifred Gilman' Cleveland sage grows 3-4' x 3-4' mounded shrub if unpruned. Other cultivars may be slightly larger and wider if unpruned.

Care: Low water requirements. Lightly prune in late fall to maintain compact form.

Availability: Cleveland sage is seasonally available. Local nurseries typically stock either 'Winnifred Gilman' Cleveland Sage or 'Allan Chickering' Cleveland Sage throughout the spring and summer months.

Bonus plants: Many other salvias or sages are Summer Strong plants with low water requirements and good summer looks. Besides 'Winnifred Gilman', 'Allen Chickering', and other Cleveland sages and cultivars, check out these readily available salvias: 'Bee's Bliss' Sage (Salvia 'Bees Bliss'), White Sage (Salvia apiana), and Hummingbird Sage (Salvia spathacea). A fantastic and popular family of plants! Available seasonally at local nurseries.

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