Creating the Perfect Zone 7 Sylvan Glade

The following recipe is based on a composite of a certain type of quintessentially Californian “magical spot”, a sort of place often? encountered in the Zone 7 country of the interior foothills; these places are welcoming and attractive at any time of year, but in early spring they are truly Magical.  Their essence then is freshness and delicacy.

A spot like this can be (roughly but effectively) duplicated even in a smallish corner of your property, even a tiny suburban backyard, and it can transport you to a cleaner, happier world.  

It works best if you have a small, preferably rocky, hillock or mound to work with, but it can also be done on flat ground, so long as the drainage is decent.

Here are the ingredients.*  [*All but a few of these are California natives, but there is no reason not to substitute or augment with non-California counterparts so long as they “fit” in other respects.  Use all of them or a reasonable subset.  (By the way you don’t have to be in Zone 7:  almost any place in low- and middle-elevation California will probably work, especially Zones 14-17. 

Trees:  Plant a single tree or clump of trees as a central, focal point for you glade, or you can use trees to encircle/enclose the whole thing, giving it a more sheltered feel.  Gray pine (=foothill pine, etc.) (Pinus sabiniana), or for substitutes you might try Torrey pine (P. torreyana, larger, faster, broader, coarser), especially if you live near to ocean, or the giant Mexican pinon pine (P. maximartinezii) a supremely elegant, refined, silvery tree, and extremely rare in the wild.  If you want something of a darker, deeper green to set off the paler, fresh, light colors of the other plants, you can scarcely do better than the common, prosaic old Douglas-fir, provided you have the space for it.

Next, you will need a buckeye tree and/or one or more oaks, preferably, a deciduous oak of some kind.  Here the logical choice would be blue oak (Quercus douglasii) but only if you live away from the coast.  Gray pine, buckeye, and blue oak are the quintessence, the collective arboreal signature of Zone 7.

All sorts of other oaks, though, “native” or not, would also seem to fill the bill admirably.  Several evergreen oaks, for example coast live-oak (Q. agrifolia), canyon oak (Q. chrysolepis), and eastern/southern live-oak (Q. virginiana), are all magnificent and beautiful trees, but they are all just a bit too overwhelmingly big for the intimate scale of your little glade.  So are valley oak (Q. lobata), “English oak” (Q. robur), black oak (Q. kelloggii), and many other deciduous species—all of them absolutely glorious trees but all out of scale . . . Blue oak is a bit smaller and quite a bit slower growing; in other words it stays smaller much longer than the others—it should stay in scale with the rest of your little grove as long as you are around to enjoy it.  Another, and if anything better, choice of oaks would be any one of the several “scrub oak” species, all of which behave like natural bonsais.  It is a wonder to me why such a perfect, stunningly fine, refined little treelet like Q. berberidifolia, for example, is not as commonly grown as liquidambar.

[Note to self: There are really 2 ways of doing this: one that is based more on foothill woodland (Zone 7) and another more based on riparian-and-forest (coastal) themes.  Make this distinction and redo the whole business.]

Now that we are down among the realm of shrub-trees, a number of other candidates come to mind.  Among the native ones are . . .

  • Foothill ash (Fraxinus dipetala)
  • (Ptelea
  • Western redbud (Cercis occidentalis)
  • Juneberry (Amelanchier pallida)—or any Amelanchier
  • ? Prunus subcordata, emarginata, demissa

Shrubs:  Depending on microclimate/microenvironment/location:

  • California hazelnut (Corylus californica)
  • Snowberry (Symphoricarpos albus)
  • Oceanspray (Holodiscus discolor)
  • Cercocarpus betuloides
  • Redberry (Rhamnus crocea)
  • Manzanita (Arctostaphylos, preferably glauca but any large, upright grower is good, e.g. A. manzanita, A. stanfordiana, A. densiflora)
  • Ceanothus, preferably cuneatus, also quite a few others, including C. sorediatus, C. integerrimus
  • Ribes spp., especially R. glutinosum, R. speciosum, R. aureum, others?


  • Clematis lasiantha

Perennial herbs, including bulbs, grasses, ferns:

  • Polypodium spp.
  • Pentagramma triangularis
  • Adiantum jordanii
  • Pellaea andromedifolia
  • Wyethia
  • Cynoglossum
  • Saxifraga californica
  • Lithophragma
  • Sidalcea malvaeflora
  • Ranunculus californicus
  • Aquilegia formosa
  • Delphinium nudicaule, patens etc.
  • Monardella villosa
  • Dichelostemma spp.
  • Triteleia spp.
  • Fritillaria affinis
  • Trillium chloropetalum
  • Smilacina spp.
  • Disporum hookeri
  • Zygadenus fremontii
  • Melica torreana
  • Poa secunda
  • Koeleria macrantha
  • Agrostis pallens
  • Festuca rubra
  • Carex tumulicola
  • Galium californicum, G. porrigens
  • Stachys ajugoides rigida
  • Pedicularis densiflora
  • Castilleja spp.

Annual herbs (self-sowing):

  • Claytonia perfoliata or C. parviflora
  • Collinsia heterophylla
  • Nemophila menziesii
  • Plectritis spp.
  • Thysanocarpus
  • Clarkia spp.

Next:  California meadow in a can