Desire Under the Oaks

One of the more frequent questions I get in my capacity as local plant nerd is what can I plant underneath my oak trees.

Planting under oaks is tricky for a number of reasons.  First, they are large and evergreen, thus allowing precious little sunlight to reach the ground anywhere near the trunk.  Secondly, oak leaves have tannins, which do a good job preventing anything from growing successfully underneath.  Finally, oaks hate regular summer water, and it’s difficult to plant anything and not water for six months.  Oaks have relatively shallow root systems and the more you disturb and water the higher your risk of damaging the tree.

My solutions are threefold:

Don’t plant anything within 5 feet of the trunk of your oak

Find tougher species that can handle the dappled sunlight and harsh tannins

Plant in October, so you can get 6 months of water to your new plants without risking damage to your tree.

Now to the species I enjoy, from small to large.  Not all are local natives, but all are relatively easy to find at Theodore Payne or Santa Barbara Botanical Garden:

Coral bells

Coral bells

Heuchera, or coral bells.  Come in a million different colors.  My favorite part is you can divide these each year to make new ones.

Yerba buena

Yerba buena

Yerba buena forms a slowly spreading carpet with darling little white flowers.  Some medicinal uses for you backyard pharmacists.

Hummingbird sage

Hummingbird sage

Hummingbird sage.  Well, duh. Also great for divisions.

Juncus mexicanus

Juncus mexicanus

Juncus is my favorite grass for under oaks.  In my yard I have them mixed in with:

Catalina dudleya

Catalina dudleya

Dudleya hassei, I have to admit this was Antonio from Nopalito’s idea.  It’s a great color combo and they need little to no water.  I’ve also done divisions of these this year.

Monkeyflower

Monkeyflower

Monkeyflower also comes in a million colors.  They may look a bit scraggly in August (what doesn’t) but they are staples for under oaks, lasting 4-8 years.

Barberry groundcover

Barberry groundcover

Barberries are my new favorite.  Also known as Mahonias.  Repens and Compacta are both slowly spreading and forming low cover for all the birds and lizards in my yard.  Berries are edible for humans as well.

Snowberry

Snowberry

Snowberry isn’t remotely fancy, but dependable, spreading and fruiting.  Dormant for a few months in the winter.

Purple nightshade

Purple nightshade

Nightshade goes a bit dormant late summer but it’s a reliable spreader and provides some nice under-oak purple to the palette.

Catalina perfume

Catalina perfume

Ribes has numerous species that I like to use in my yard.  For low growing nothing beats Catalina perfume, which stays evergreen unlike its cousin species.  For mid sized I prefer the gooseberry:

Fuchsia flower gooseberry

Fuchsia flower gooseberry

Now we start to get a bit larger, 5-7 feet:

Bush anenome

Bush anenome

Carpinteria californica, or bush anenome.  Blooming right now in my yard.  They will do better with more water but are fine with just occasional in the summer.

Manzanita- Howard McMinn

Manzanita- Howard McMinn

If you are like me you need to have at least one manzanita per 20 square feet.   Howard McMinn to the rescue, he doesn’t mind a long waterless summer as much as most.

Joyce Coulter ceanothus

Joyce Coulter ceanothus

And if ceanothus is your obsession I have had tremendous success with my favorite lady Joyce Coulter (sorry this belongs with the ground covers, she’s a creeper)

Coffeeberry

Coffeeberry

I have never had great success with coffeeberry.  But they come in a number of varieties and are lush and will bear fruit if you are patient (both literally and metaphorically)

Toyon

Toyon

Toyon is about as big as I’d want to plant under an oak.  They don’t grow quickly, and you won’t see fruit for about a decade but they can do well once established.

Well I hope that gave you plenty of ideas… Please comment if you think there’s something I missed.

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4 Responses to Desire Under the Oaks

  1. lanny@herbwalks.com says:

    I have a well-established Toyon growing under my Coast Live Oak and it seems to love it. I keep it pruned in a rounded shrub shape. I’m also growing some Hollyleaf Cherry (Prunus ilicifolia) seedlings in pots under the tree for future planting. They are resistant to Armillaria, root rot fungus, and can grow in partial shade so they seem like they might work under an Oak. What do you think?

    • ojairambler says:

      Lannster I think I’m going to agree with June here… I have 2 Prunus under my canopy, in 4 years I have seen minimal growth, though to be fair I have always heard that it takes a while for them to establish before they burst forth. Not that they can’t survive, but to thrive and produce reliable fruit I think they need more sun and water than under-oak can afford.

  2. JJ says:

    Lanny:
    Thanks, Rambler, for the complete list, most of which I am growing, although I lost a Howard McMinn and two monkey flowers in what I thought were the perfect spots. Catalina perfumes have been slow for a year, but are taking off now, growing long canes. The Nevin’s barberries even flowered although slow growing and still under a foot high, but seem to be in the right place under the oaks. I think snowberry looks best in deep shade – the white berries seem to glow there.

    Toyon is the first thing I plant under oaks and agree they seem to love it there. However, I’ve only ever seen or grown Prunus ilicifolia as a medium tree/large shrub in more sun than shade, slow, but handles low water well.

  3. Pingback: Ojai and Southern California Herb Walks with Lanny Kaufer » Wondering what to plant under Oaks?

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