Colorful Very Low Shrubs And Trees For Banks

In many California housing developments, roads are created on hillsides and pads bulldozed off for houses. Then the problem becomes how to cover steep banks with plants to hold the soil. In some case banks are steep and extensive. Ground covers often are not sufficient to hold the soil through heavy rains. What is needed is a mix of groundcovers cloaking the ground and deeper-rooted shrubs and trees to grip deeply into the subsoil. Here is a list of possible choices that was created by us for a housing scheme where the landscape was 30 years old and needed replanting with better replacements for plants and more drought-resistant plant choices than those planted by the developer.

Very Low Shrubs: (Up to 3 feet tall, not higher than 4 feet.)

Use these as fillers on banks or at the tops of banks.
(Sensitive to frost, but if you place these high on banks they should be in a frost-drained site, thus safe from frost.)

  • Bottlebrush (Callistemon viminalis ‘Little John’) 3 feet tall and wide. Very colorful waves of flowers fall, winter and spring, on superior dwarf bottlebrush with weeping habit.
  • Dwarf New Zealand Tea Tree (Leptospermum scoparium ‘Nanum Ruru’): 2 feet tall and wide. Dense growth. Dark-pink single flowers in winter, spring, into summer.
  • Dwarf New Zealand Tea Tree (Leptospermum scoparium ‘Pink Cascade’): 1 foot tall and 3-to 4-feet wide. Single pink flowers, sprawling, weeping, cascading growth.
  • Dwarf Pohutukawa (Metrosideros villosa ‘Tahiti’) (to 3-feet tall and wide): No pruning needed. Gray-green leaves and clusters of orange-red flowers in spring, with sporadic rebloom. (Sensitive to frost, but high on banks should be a frost-drained site.)
  • Groundcover New Zealand Tea Tree (Leptospermum scoparium ‘Horizontalis’): 3 to 4-feet tall, 12 feet wide. Profuse show of white blossoms on drooping branchlets, spreading plant, makes good bank cover.
  • Groundcover New Zealand Tea Tree (Leptospermum scoparium ‘Snow White’): 2 to 4-feet tall, 4 to 5-feet wide. Double white flowers with green centers on compact, spreading plant
  • Shrubby New Zealand Christmas Tree (Metrosideros collina ‘Fiji’): is even smaller, just 2 feet tall and wide. Available from Monrovia Nursery. Red powder-puff flowers, winter and spring, bring butterflies.
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  1. I saw the Metrosideros villosa Tahiti yesterday in a beach garden and fell in love with it. I’m sure I would also love the M. collina Fiji, but where in the county might I be able to find it? It’s so frustrating to see plants that would be perfect, but so often the nurseries don’t have much out of the ordinary. Any suggestions? (I looked online at and even they don’t seem to have any in stock.) Thanks for your help.

    • I agree it is annoying to have one’s heart set on a particular plant and not be able to find it. However, one should be able to order relatively new plants from any good local nursery. The problem is that unless you know the specific wholesaler, the manager of your nursery may not be able to find the plant you want. I have noticed chain nurseries such as Armstrong Nursery, will often feature a few brand new and colorful things when they are flowering and fresh from the grower, but due to available room they can’t have everything on hand. One of the reliable wholesalers is Monrovia Nursery. Plants from Monrovia cost a little more so cheaper nurseries don’t use them, but Armstrong carries Monrovia selections. Currently, a good San Diego County wholesale grower, San Marco Growers is propagating Metrosideros kermadesensis ‘Tahiti’, which is the same thing as M. villosa ‘Tahiti’) As far as I know, another good wholesale house in San Bernardino County, Redlands Nursery carries Metrosideros collina var. vitiensis ‘Figi’. This selection is not always available and may be more expensive since it’s propagated by tissue culture. It is unique in coloration because it has narrow leaves and bright copper new foliage. Metrosideros ‘Springfire’, ‘Tahiti’, and ‘Fiji’ are all Redlands Homelovers® releases. One retail nursery that always carries a wide variety of outstanding plants is Rogers Gardens in Corona del Mar The manager, Ron Vanderhoff, is remarkably well-informed and has his finger on the pulse of the best, newest and trendiest plants. Rogers Gardens should be able to find virtually anything for you if it is available. If you go in there, please tell them I said so. (I speak at Rogers Gardens every spring, usually in March.) These relatively new, dwarf or compact Metrosideros selections are especially eyecatching. They are popular with landscapers and landscape designers and landscape architects so I expect many more will be appearing as time progresses. Wholesale nurseries send reps to New Zealand and Australia where many new plants well adapted to our Mediterranean climate are being selected and developed. Botanical gardens, such as The Los Angeles Arboretum, The San Diego Botanic Garden, and Huntington Gardens, are often among the first to try out new selections and offer them to the public at plant sales where rare and less-known plants are featured above that which is ho-hum-been-there-done-that.

  2. p.s. Re: a source for Metrosideros villosa Tahit: I am in San Diego County.

  3. Thank you for your wonderful web site and your generosity with sharing your wealth of knowledge with us all!

    My husband and I have recently moved into a new home in the San Luis Rey area of Oceanside, CA (zone 23 I believe). Our home is located on a golf course (Arrowood) on a coastal finger canyon.

    Like many new homes we have a blank slate for a yard with an approximate 7 foot high slope to our north abutting our neighbor’s yard.

    I read this post with great interest, but noted that most of the plants you’ve recommended call for full sun. Being on the north side of our two story home, most of the slope will be in shade for much of the day/much of the year.

    Any recommendations for plants that would fit a Mediterranean garden?

    • The two most satisfying bank covers for shade I have ever found and use extensively in my garden are (1.) clivia (Clivia miniata) and (2.) Pride of London (Crassula multicava.) The problem is that whereas if you have either of these plants already, you will have masses of them, they may be difficult to find in any quantity and in the case of clivia, at an appropriate price. I use both in my garden and therefore I have masses of each of them. I use clivias close to the house and the crassula further away, even in places that rarely are watered. If you water clivia once a week, fertilize annually in mid-February and control snails annually, once a year in March you will have an attractive, one-to-two-foot tall, strappy-leaved ground cover that is dark green and tidy looking year-round with the bonus of eye-catching orange flowers in late February to early March. The problem is that few people can find enough clivias at a price reasonable enough for covering a bank. I happen to have hundreds, perhaps thousands in my garden since I have lived here over 50 years and have divided the clivias after bloom whenever they needed it. Another and perhaps more practical solution is to cover the bank with a ground cover adapted to shade such as star jasmine (Trachelospermum jasminioides.) Nurseries sell flats of a number of other flatter ground-covers for shade and these would give you a shorter and smoother look, but some of these may need considerable care. Star jasmine does look better with some splashes of sun, however. When using star jasmine as a ground cover always start with plants that have been cut short and pruned for this purpose. The plants will stay low for several years. When they begin sending up twining growth, cut it off annually after bloom with a long-reach pruner. Small leaved ivy, such as ‘Needlepoint” is often used to cover banks in shade and looks nice and is quite drought resistant. Fortunately rats don’t tend to live in it as they will in Algerian ivy. I do not recommend planting Algerian ivy. Besides the fact that rats make their homes in it, is rank and difficult to eradicate. A final idea is to cover the bank with ferns. Leather leaf fern (Rumohra adiantiformis) is good for this purpose and is drought-resistant. Cut off faded fronds. In a side yard you might also consider growing camellias and azaleas. These plants are ideal in north-facing shade and, once established, are far more drought-resistant than one might think. An azalea’s roots must never dry out or it will die, but a good layer of mulch and once a week water, or a drip system can fix that. My own azaleas are huge and have survived for many years in north-facing shade, including through droughts. Be sure to plant azaleas and camellias in acid soil mix and provide watering basins.

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