Column written for San Diego Home and Garden, entitled "The Drier Garden", March 1991

The list of plants that will thrive in dry shade is relatively short since much of the drought-tolerant plant palette comes from the parts of the world where summers are dry and open chaparral is the predominant type of vegetation. Yet there are dry woods, even in San Diego County (Torrey Pines State Park and San Clemente and Los Penasquitos Canyons are examples), and these woods as well as the dry woods of Northern California, Australia, central Chile, South Africa and the Mediterranean Basin are home to many of the plants that we can count on to beautify the dry, shady spaces in our own yards.

Most of have tried with limited success to grow shrubs and flowers under existing large trees. Or, as our once-small plantings mature, the largest ones now cast shade on the smaller specimens which, in turn, shrivel and die. In both situations, the soil is probably knit tightly with roots of the large plants and little water is available to new plantings. Furthermore, the dense canopy of foliage which is provided by large trees can actually reduce the amount of water from rainfall which reaches the ground. In still another scenario, plants which enjoy plenty of sunshine in the summer are suddenly cast in deep shade when the sun's path is tilted to the south in winter.

So, if we want to enjoy colorful flowers and varied foliage in our shady spaces and still limit the amount of water that we use, what are the plants that can be used successfully? The following varieties, arranged according to size, should be able to survive and even thrive in dry, moderate shade once they are established. Many of them are small enough to be grown in pots and watered with their own drip irrigation line if it is not desirable to water the mature plantings which create the shade. Most of the plants on the list are available at any local nursery. Those plants marked with an asterick are California natives and may be found at one of the nurseries specializing in native plants.



  • Arbutus unedo, Strawberry Tree
  • *Cercis occidentalis, Western Redbud
  • Laurus nobilis, Sweet Bay
  • Pittosporum varieties
  • Podocarpus henkelii, Long-leafed Yellow-wood
  • Podocarpus macrophyllus maki, Dwarf Shrubby Yew Pine
  • *Prunus ilicifolia, Hollyleaf Cherry
  • Taxus baccata'Stricta', Irish Yew



  • Aloe varieties
  • *Arctostaphylos densiflora ‘Howard McMinn', McMinn Manzanita
  • Aucuba japonica, Japanese aucuba
  • Camellia Sasanqua, Sun Camellia
  • *Carpenteria californica, Bush Anemone
  • Cistus salvifolius, Sage-leaf Rockrose
  • Crassula argentea, Jade Plant
  • Daphne odora, Winter Daphne
  • Ilex altaclarensis ‘Wilsonii', Wilson Holly
  • Ilex aquifolium, English Holly
  • Ilex vomitoria, Yaupon
  • Mahonia lomarifolia, Mahonia
  • *Mahonia pinnata, Nevin Mahonia
  • Myrtus communis, True Myrtle
  • Nandina domestica, Heavenly Bamboo
  • Osmanthus fragrans, Sweet Olive
  • Osmanthus ilicifolia, Holly-leaf Osmanthus
  • Pittosporum varieties
  • Raphiolepis indica, India Hawthorne
  • *Rhamnus californica, Coffeeberry
  • *Rhus integrifolia, Lemonadeberry
  • Sollya heterophylla, Australian Bluebell
  • Xylosma congestum, Shiny-leaf Xylosma


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  • *Arctostaphylos uva-ursi, Bearberry
  • Coprosma kirkii
  • Festuca ovina ‘glauca', Sheep Fescue
  • Hypericum calycinum, St. John's Wort
  • Nandina domestica ‘Nana Purpurea', Dwarf Heavenly Bamboo
  • *Ribes viburnifolia, Catalina Perfume
  • Sedum varieties, Stonecrop


  • Distictis buccinatorea ‘Rivers', Royal Purple Trumpet Vine
  • Gelsemium sempervirens, Carolina Jessamine
  • Hardenbergia violacea,Lilac Vine
  • Lonicera japonica ‘Halliana', Hall's Honeysuckle
  • Macfadyena unguis-cati, Cat's Claw
  • Wisteria sinensis, Chinese Wisteria



  • Acanthus molle, Bear's Breech
  • Agapanthus orientalis, Lily-of-the-Nile
  • Centranthus ruber, Jupiter's Beard
  • Clivia miniata, Kaffir Lily
  • Crocosmia varieties, Montebretia
  • Cyclamen persicum, Cyclamen
  • Digitalis purpurea, Foxglove
  • *Dryopteris arguta, California Wood Fern
  • Freesias
  • Helleborus, Corsican Hellebore
  • Hemeracallis varieties, Daylily
  • *Iris douglasiana, Douglas Iris
  • Kalanchoe varieties
  • Kniphofia uvaria, Red-hot Poker
  • *Mimulus/Diplacus varieties, Monkeyflower
  • Narcissus
  • Pelargonium peltatum, Ivy Geranium
  • *Penstemon varieties, Beard Tongue
  • Scilla peruviana, Peruvian Scilla
  • *Sisyrinchum bellum, Blue-eyed Grass
  • Zephyranthes candida, Fairy Lily


Nurseries for natives----

  • Weber's (Encinitas)
  • Pacific Southwest (Chula Vista)
  • Tree of Life (San Juan Capistrano)
  • Plants for Dry Places (Lake Elsinore)
  • Las Pilitas (Escondido)