The Coastal Bluffs are dominated by grasses and herbaceous perennials, along with some low growing shrubs adapted to coastal conditons. The cool coastal conditions provide a long growing season without the extremes of hot or cold. The coastal fog ensures that there is very low stress from drought. If you have the privledge of landscaping or restoring in one of these zones, you are very lucky. This is one of the easiest and most rewarding areas to develop a beautiful natural landscape.

A complete list of the grasses, shrubs and herbaceous perennials that grow on central and northern California coastal bluffs is extensive. We are providing a partial list, emphasizing the plants you are most likely to find as you travel along the coast. These are also the plants most likely do perform well on natural landscapes and restoration projects.

Plants adapt to the salt spray and high winds by adopting a low or prostrate stature. Their leaves are commonly covered by wax, so that the foliage often appears grey or blue. The wax not only protects their leaves against water loss, but gathers nutrients from the salt spray.

Coastal Bluffs

California Native
Plant Palettes


Bromus carinatus

California brome

Bromus maritimus

Coastal brome

Calamagrostis nutkaensis

Sand reedgrass

Danthonia californica

California oatgrass

Deschampsia cespitosa

Tufted hairgrass

Elymus glaucus

Blue wildrye

Festuca idahoensis

Idaho fescue

Festuca rubra

California red fescue

Hordeum californicum

Meadow barley

Koeleria macrantha

June grass

Nassella pulchra

Purple needlegrass

The coastal prairie forms the stable matrix in which the other species grow. When doing native restoration on seabluffs, you should pay particular attention to developing a solid, weed-free stand of native grasses. You'll be way ahead.

A typical combination of coastal grasses is Nassella pulchra and Danthonia californica, creating extensive coastal prairies. Actually, this is a typical combination throughout the coast range, not just the shoreline. Festuca rubra and Festuca idahoensis are regularly found in the coastal prairies, with F. rubra being more common. These grasses grow throughout the outer coast range, but their frequency increases greatly as you approach the ocean. They are often associated with Koeleria macrantha.

Another regular combination includes the coastal forms of Bromus carinatus and Elymus glaucus. These have thicker foliage and tend to grow in richer and more mesic soils, often near woodlands or on north facing slopes. Low shrubs can grow beautifully within this grass combination, but herbaceous perennials may have some trouble with the dense foliage.

Stands of Deschampsia cespitosa grow in the moist areas of the coastal prairie, partcularly where there is high wind as well. Calamagrostis nutkaensis is found in moist, sandy areas, especially on wind protected sites and east facing slopes.

Herbaceous Perennials

Anaphalis margaritacea

Pearly Everlasting

Rich, deep soils. Protected

Angelica tomentosa


Armeria maritima

Sea thrift

High wind, facing the ocean

Artemisia pycnocephala

Coast sagewort

High wind, facing the ocean

Artemisia suksdorfii

Coast mugwort

Aster chilensis

California aster

Open coastal grassland

Calystegia purpurata

Morning glory

Grows within shrubs

Dudleya farinosa


Rocky slopes, high wind

Erigeron glaucus

Seaside daisy

High wind, facing the ocean

Eriogonum grande var. rubescens

Catalina buckwheat

High wind, facing the ocean

Eriogonum latifolium

Coastal buckwheat

High wind, facing the ocean

Eriophyllum lanatum arachnoideum

Oregon sunshine

High wind, facing the ocean

Erysimum franciscanum

Franciscan wallflower

Rocky slopes

Eschscholzia californica

California poppy

Highly adaptable

Fragaria chiloensis


Highly adaptable

Grindelia stricta platyphylla


High wind, facing the ocean

Iris douglasiana

Douglas iris

Highly adaptable

Phacelia californica

California phacelia

High wind, facing the ocean

Sidalcea malviflora


Open coastal grassland

Sisyrinchium bellum

Blue-eyed grass

Open coastal grassland

The herbaceous perennials are the most distinctive and interesting part of the coastal landscape. The climate and site conditions seem ideally suited to vigorous and highly diverse stands of perennials. If any place seemed like a natural garden, this is it.

I tried to think of typical combinations or groups, but the choices are so vast, I wasn't able to do it justice. I decided instead to give you some hints of where the plants are typically found in the wild. "Highly adaptable" means these plants are found in a wide variety of vegetation types.

Sedges and Rushes

Carex barbarae

Whiteroot sedge

Carex pansa

Meadow sedge

Carex praegracilis

Slender sedge

Juncus effusus

Bog rush

Juncus patens

Soft rush

Scirpus cernuus

Fiber optic grass

Sedges and rushes are found in swales and low spots on the bluff where water collects or where high levels of soil moisture last late into the summer.

Shrubs and Trees

Arctostaphyls uva-ursi

Bearberry, Manzanita

Baccharis pilularis pilularis

Prostrate coyote brush

Ceanothus griseus


Cupressus macrocarpa

Monterey cypress

Eriophyllum staechadifolium


Galvezia speciosa

Island snapdragon

Garrya elliptica


Gaultheria shallon


Lupinus albifrons


Myrica californica


Pinus contorta

Shore pine (Lodgepole)

Toxicodendron diversiloba

Poison oak

Hate to say it, but the most common woody plant on the coastal bluffs is Toxicodenron diversiloba. It is usually about two to three inches tall, and totally hidden within the coastal grasses and herbaceous perennials. You only find out about the poison oak when you get the rash a few days later. When you're on the seabluffs, watch out. It's there.

You tend to see islands of shrubs in the fields behind the bluffs and along the edges of the cliffs. It is hard to say with confidence how great the shrub cover was 150 years ago because the flat land was all grazed or cultivated. The land near the cliffs still has native cover because the farmers didn't dare drive their tractors any closer to the edge. My guess is the shrub cover was fairly extensive, and the herbaceous zone may have only been near the edge, in the areas of highest wind.

California Native
Plant Guide