Native Plants and Saint Mary's College

California Native Plants

by Kelly Cooper 

In California a native plant is one that grew here before European Settlers came.  Over time “native plants have co-evolved with animals, fungi and microbes to form a complex network of relationships.  These plants are the foundation of our native ecosystems, or natural communities” (CNPS).  The benefits native plants provide are efficient production of oxygen, cleansing of water, and diversity within an ecosystem.  Native plants support native animals as a source of shelter and food.  This promotes diversity of plants and animals that is important to the vitality of ecosystems.  This biodiversity contributes to human health and environmental sustainability.

Introduction of exotic plants can have one of two effects to the environment the first is somewhat harmless these exotics spread and become “naturalized” taking over a wild area and do little damage but introduction of exotics can also and many times does disrupt the balance of ecosystems.  Exotic plants spread and take over native plants like weeds because the exotic isn’t susceptible to the same variables that keep native plants in check.  The result is loss of native plants and the animals they support.  Exotic plants are not as efficient in cleaning our water or producing oxygen and we loose native animals along with native plants thus we loose our health. 


Native Plants and Saint Mary’s College

The campus of Saint Mary’s College of Moraga is located in a beautiful setting in the coastal mountain range of central California.  The campus is situated in a small valley nestled against the hills, surrounded by acres, and acres of woodland.  The woodlands consist primarily of native trees, shrubs, and grasses.  Madrone (Arbutus menziesii), Oak (Quercus species), California bay (Umbellularia califonica), and Pacific Wax Myrtle (Myrica califonica) abound (Stuart & Sawyer).  The campus is beautifully landscaped with a variety of native and non-native trees, bushes, and flowers as well as large expanses of grassy lawns.  The groundskeeper, Robert Kennedy, for practicality and aesthetic value, has carefully chosen the plants used around campus.  For example, plants with a lengthy flowering period are preferred.  Plants that attract butterflies and hummingbirds are especially attractive.  Despite the careful consideration given each plant chosen for the campus landscape, invariably problems can arise.  For example, there are numerous deer in the area, which like to browse on certain plants making it difficult to maintain them.  Roses and other non–native plants are favorites.  The choice of native deer resistant shrubs and flowers, such as California buckeye (Aesculuscalifornica), Wild lilac (Ceanothus species), and Rockrose (Cistus) species should be considered (Brenzel 155).    The rockrose in particular would be a good alternative choice to the standard rose in these unprotected areas of the campus.  It is a hardy plant, which prefers the hot dry summer temperatures and produces a profusion of showy flowers for a month or more from spring until early summer (Brenzel 276).  Another potential problem with non-native plants is that they may not be ideally suited for the particular climate zone in which they have been planted, and thus require more attention, more water, and extra cost to maintain (Brenzel 107).  The emphasis today is on using native plans as much as possible for landscaping purposes.  Regional native plants have the added advantage of bringing diverse textures and colors to the landscape.  They also are naturally suited to the climate and require less maintenance than many non-native plants.  Where water is scarce they are a good choice because of their ability to thrive on natural rainfall.  Also beneficial is the support native plants can give to other plants, insects, birds, and other animals in the area that may depend on the delicate natural balance between organisms for a natural ecosystem to flourish (CNPS).

Moraga is located in a climate zone that has been described as Northern California inland area with some ocean influence.  Marine air spilling through the San Francisco and San Pablo Bays moderates the temperatures, which tend to be mild.  Robert Kennedy the head groundskeeper at Saint Mary’s says as many as 9 separate microclimates exist within the St. Mary’s campus area.  The various micro-climates with the diverse topographical features consisting of hills, valleys, streams, level fields, and campus building structures, help determine which plant is most appropriate for which portion of the campus.  The lower levels of the valley floor, for example, tend to get colder than other areas of the campus during winter months.  Cold air descends onto the valley floor, creating frosty conditions, and in some cases freezing temperatures that may not exist in the higher elevations of the campus. Consideration must be given, therefore, to placing frost tolerant plants in these lower elevations.  The Yarrow (Achillea) plant is a good choice for such an area.  The golden flower head clusters are aesthetically pleasing and they attract bees and butterflies.  Janice a volunteer at Natives Here Nursery at Tilden Park say s that “the Yarrow is a very hardy plant that won’t freeze in the winter”.  Other considerations that must be made when choosing the appropriate plant for a particular area are for rocky areas, damp areas, windy areas, dry areas and shady areas.  Oak trees present some problems for the plants growing beneath them in that they tend to capture much of the moisture, and thus require drought-tolerant plants (Bernzel 150-51) such as Lemonade berry (Integrifolia), or California wood fern (Arguta species).  For my paper I have chosen to concentrate on four separate areas of concern and to determine the most suitable native plants for each situation. 


Concerns and Solutions

The first concern is the large number of deer that browse on the campus plants problem. Some plants are particular favorites of deer and others are for the most part left alone.  Many native shrubs and flowers are deer resistant.  Some good examples of native deer resistant shrubs along with those already mentioned are the Manzanita (Arctostaphylos Columbiana), which prefers sandy or rocky soils and produces red to brown berry-like fruits that attract birds, the California buckeye (Aesculus californica) which produces fragrant cream colored flower plumes which also attract hummingbirds, and the wild lilac (Ceanothus) with its beautiful blue to violet flowers. The small leaved Ceanothus are resistant to browsing deer (Brenzel 155).

The second concern is to provide a good supply of native plants that can also attract butterflies and hummingbirds, which would be good for those areas of the campus where students like to sit and relax, and have the opportunity to enjoy these beautiful little birds and insects.  The list of shrubs and flowers that can attract butterflies and humming birds is long, but include many fragrant and beautiful native plants, such as the Snapdragons (Antirrhinum majus), California fuchsia (Zauschneria californica), Columbines (Aquilegia califonica), Lupines (Lupinus), Coffeeberry (Rhammus californica), and Toyon or California Holly (Heteromeles arbutifolia). The milkweed plant (Asclepias tuberose) is favored by the Monarch butterfly, an endangered butterfly, and would be of special benefit for the survival of the species.  Shrubs that attract humming birds include many of the same plants mentioned previously, such as Manzanita, Ceanothus, Toyon, and Fuchsia, but also include plants such as the California sagebrush (Artemisia californica), the Western redbud (Cercis occidentalis), and the Coral bells (Heuchera micrantha). 

The third area of concern is for the steep and sometimes rocky inclines leading up to the dorms or paring areas.  In order to enhance the beauty of these areas, and to prevent soil erosion drought resistant native plants would be desirable.  Native California plants from the coastal ranges are naturally adapted to steep canyons and hills would meet this requirement perfectly.  These plants would require very little supplemental water through irrigation or expensive sprinkler systems.  Such plants would include the Lemonaid Berry (Rhus intregrifolia), the White Flowering Currant (Ribes indecorum), and the Pacific Wax Myrtle (Myrica califorinca).

The fourth area of concern involves the campus courtyards and breezeways used by student to traverse the campus.  Because of the excess heat radiated by the buildings, the environmental temperatures tend to be higher than in other areas of the campus, and due to the high level of foot traffic in these areas the threat of being trampled is greater.  The use of heat tolerant plants such as cacti and certain succulents may be appropriate for these areas. Some cacti produce beautiful blossoms in the sping, and the presence of thorns may help protect from being stepped on by students or eaten by deer.  Cactus plants may have the added benefit of complementing the early California mission theme of the campus building and architecture.  Plants that might be included int heis category are the Echeveria (Echeveria agavoides), The Barrel cactus (Echinocactus grusonii), Hedgehog cactus (Echinocerus engelmannii), and the Dudleya, or cliff lettus (Dudleya farinose). 

I think the best way to incorporate the native plants I have listed above into the Saint Mary’s College landscape is when an exotic plant needs to be replaced; we should replace them with native plants.  Also a good time to introduce native plants onto a campus according to Twyla Hansen, the landscape director at the campus of Nebraska Wesleyan is “after construction or when the landscape has been otherwise disturbed” (Keniry 25).   Future plans have been circulating that a new basketball stadium will be built at St. Mary’s; this would be a perfect time to introduce native plants to our landscape.  Student, teacher, and staff collaboration is needed to introduce small changes to our campus landscape such as native plants, which will benefit us all, in the long run. 



Bay Elder White Sage

























Blue Bud Ceanothus 


























Prunedale Manzanita























Toyon (Shaperal)





























Brenzel, Kathleen N. Sunset Western Garden Book.  Menlo Park, Ca.: Sunset

Publishing Corporation. (2001). 


California Native Plant Society (CNPS). “What is a native plant?” (2005).


Date accessed: 05/20/05


East Bay Municipal Utility District. Plants and Landscapes For Summer Dry Climates:

Of The San Francisco Bay Region. (2004).


Janice.  Interview by author, 30 April 2005. Native Here Nursery located in Tilden Park,

Berkeley California.


Keniry, Julian. Ecodemia: Campus Environmental Stewardship at the Turn of the

21st Century.  National Wildlife Federation. (1995)


Kennedy, Robert.  Interview by author 19 April 2005.  St. Mary’s College, Physical Plant

Office, Moraga.


Stuart, John D. & Sawyer, John O. Trees and Shrubs of California.  Berkeley:

University of California Press. (2001).



Works Cited


Brenzel, Kathleen N. (2001). Sunset Western Garden Book.  Menlo Park, Ca.: Sunset

Publishing Corporation.


California buckeye (Aesculus californica) (pg. 173)

Wild lilac (Ceanothus species) (pg.256)

Rockrose (Cistus species) (pg.276),

Yarrow (Achillea)(pg.170,

Lemonade berry (Rhus integrifolia)(pg. 576)

Manzanita (Arctostaphylos Columbiana) (pg. 198)

Wild lilac (Ceanothus) (pg. 257)

Snapdragons (Antirrhinum majus (pg.188)

California fuchsia (Zauschneria californica) (pg. 656)

Columbines (Aquilegia califonica) (pg. 195)

Lupines (Lupinus) (pg. 443)

Coffeeberry (Rhammus californica) (pg.566)

Toyon or California Holly (Heteromeles arbutifolia) (386)

Milkweed plant (Asclepias tuberose) (pg.204

California sagebrush (Artemisia californica) (pg.202)

Western redbud (Cercis occidentalis) (pg.263)

Coral bells (Heuchera micrantha) (pg.387)

White Flowering Currant (Ribes indecorum)(pg. 577)

Pacific Wax Myrtle (Myrica califorinca) (pg.475)

Echeveria (Echeveria agavoides) (pg. 322)

The Barrel cactus (Echinocactus grusonii) (pg. 322)

Hedgehog cactus (Echinocerus engelmannii) (pg. 323)

Dudleya, or cliff lettus (Dudleya farinose) (321). 


California Native Plant Society (CNPS) (2005). “What is a native plant?”.


Date accessed: 05/20/05


Cooper, Kelly. (2005). Pictures Prunedale Manzanita, Toyon (Shaperal), Bay Elder,


White Sage, Blue Bud Ceanothus.  Location: UC Davis Arboretum.


Date Photographed 03/12/05


Janice.  Interview by author, 30 April 2005. Native Here Nursery located in Tilden Park,


Berkeley California.


Keniry, Julian. (1995). Ecodemia: Campus Environmental Stewardship at the Turn of the

21st Century.  National Wildlife Federation


Kennedy, Robert.  Interview by author 19 April 2005.  St. Mary’s College, Physical Plant


Office, Moraga.


Stuart, John D. & Sawyer, John O. (2001). Trees and Shrubs of California.  Berkeley:


University of California Press.


Madrone (Arbutus menziesii)(pg. 150)

Oak (Quercus species)(pg.313),

California bay (Umbellularia califonica)(pg.403)

Pacific Wax Myrtle (Myrica califonica)(pg.475).