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Sacramento Area Plant Communities

Plant communities are relatively distinct regional patterns of vegetation. The Sacramento area has five local plant communities: valley grassland, riparian woodland, foothill woodland, chaparral, and freshwater marsh. Using these local, natural plant communities as a model allows you to work with nature to create spectacular landscapes that can help replace what’s so often been degraded or lost. More information is available at the Sacramento Valley chapter of the California Native Plant Society.

Valley Grassland

Although once occupying most of the floor of the Central Valley, California’s prairie has suffered from agricultural development, introduction of invasive weeds, and urbanization. Valley Grassland was originally made up of perennial bunch grasses and wildflowers. Seasonal displays of wildflowers, sometimes stretching for miles, can still be seen in years with abundant rainfall. The native grasses have completely disappeared in large areas and have been replaced by weedy annual grasses. Valley Grassland still survives in scattered remnants even though 99 percent of native grasslands are gone.

Vernal Pools are a temporary wetlands in the Valley Grassland, occupying depressions that fill with water during the rainy season. In spring, the pools begin to dry up and various annual plant species begin to flower. More than 200 plant species grow in Vernal Pools and half of these are rarely found outside this unique habitat. Nearly 90 percent of California’s Vernal Pools have been destroyed or damaged due to urban growth and vineyard expansion. Ecologically, vernal pools are unique and important elements of the Valley flora. Horticulturally, however, they are very difficult to imitate or reproduce.

Some plants common to Valley Grasslands:

Quercus lobata (Valley Oak)
Achillea millefolium (Yarrow)
Asclepias fascicularis (Narrow-Leaf Milkweed)
Asclepias speciosa (Showy Milkweed)
Chlorogalum pomeridianum (Soap Root)
Dichelostemma capitatum (Bluedicks)
Elymus glaucus (Blue Wildrye)
Eschscholzia californica (California Poppy)
Lasthenia californica (Goldfields)
Layia fremontii (Tidy Tips)
Lupinus microcarpus var. densiflorus (Golden Lupine)
Lupinus nanus (Sky Lupine)
Melica californica (California Melic)
Nasella pulchra (Purple Needlegrass)
Sisyrinchium bellum (Blue-Eyed Grass)
Sporobolus airoides (Alkali Sacaton)

Riparian Woodland

Riparian areas are the green, vegetated areas on each side of streams and rivers. These lush, tree-lined corridors stand in strong contrast to the surrounding summer dry grasslands. Riparian plants are highly adapted to flooding, and riparian areas support a diversity of plant and wildlife species. Riparian ecosystems are used by more bird species than any other community in California. Riparian Woodland is a dwindling treasure in the Central Valley; between 89 and 96 percent of riparian areas have been lost due to farming, urban development, gravel mining, dams, and levees.

Some plants common to Riparian Woodlands:

Acer negundo var. californicum (Box Elder)
Fraxinus latifolia (Oregon Ash)
Juglans californica var. hindsii (California Black Walnut)
Platanus racemosa (California Sycamore)
Populus fremontii (Fremont Cottonwood)
Quercus lobata (Valley Oak)
Salix laevigata (Red Willow)
Salix lasiolepis (Arroyo Willow)
Salix goodingii (Black Willow)
Cephalanthus occidentalis (Button Bush)
Cornus sericea (Red Twig Dogwood)
Rosa californica (Wild Rose)
Sambucus mexicana (Blue Elderberry)
Artemisia douglasiana (California Mugwort)
Carex barbarae (Santa Barbara Sedge)
Juncus effusus (Common Rush)
Muhlenbergia rigens (Deergrass)
Leymus triticoides (Creeping Wildrye)
Aristolochia californica (Dutchman’s Pipe)
Rubus ursinus (California Blackberry)
Vitis californica (California Wild Grape)

Foothill Woodland

Covering the slopes east of Sacramento, Foothill Woodland is characterized by scattered trees -- predominantly oak (valley oak, blue oak, and interior live oak) -- with an undergrowth of herbaceous plants and low shrubs. Valley Oak Woodland on the floor of the Sacramento Valley has been almost entirely eliminated because it occurred on valuable agricultural land. Blue Oak Woodland is still common in foothill areas. Nearly 80 percent of remaining woodlands are in private ownership, and low oak regeneration is a major concern.

Some plants common to Foothill Woodlands:

Aesculus californica (California Buckeye)
Acer macrophyllum (Big-Leaf Maple)
Pinus sabiniana (Gray Pine)
Quercus douglasii (Blue Oak)
Quercus lobata (Valley Oak)
Quercus wislizeni (Interior Live Oak)
Umbellularia californica (California Bay)
Baccharis pilularis (Coyote Brush)
Calycanthus occidentalis (Spicebush)
Cercis occidentalis (Western Redbud)
Heteromeles arbutifolia (Toyon)
Mimulus aurantiacus (Bush Monkeyflower)
Ribes malvaceum (Chaparral Currant)
Sambucus mexicana (Blue Elderberry)
Styrax officinalis var. redivivus (Snowdrop Bush)
Symphoricarpos albus var. laevigatus (Snowberry)
Collinisia heterophylla (Chinese Houses)
Epilobium canum (California Fuchsia)
Eschscholzia californica (California Poppy)
Festuca californica (California Fescue)
Gilia tricolor (Bird’s Eyes)
Lupinus microcarpus (White-Whorled Lupine)
Melica imperfecta (Oniongrass)
Muhlenbergia rigens (Deergrass)
Nassella lepida (Foothill Needlegrass)
Penstemon heterophyllus (Foothill Penstemon)
Sisyrinchium bellum (Blue-Eyed Grass)
Solidago californica (California Goldenrod)
Triteleia laxa (Ithuriel’s Spear)


Chaparral occurs in the foothills ringing the Central Valley and is one of the most characteristic vegetation types of California. It is a community of mostly short, evergreen shrubs with thick, leathery leaves. Grasses, herbaceous plants, and trees are sparse or rare, except after a fire when grasses and wildflowers briefly flourish. Chaparral is fireprone and typically burns every 10 to 40 years. Development is a major threat to Chaparral in the foothill areas of the Sacramento region, and those who build in Chaparral also expose themselves to the threat of fire.

Some plants common to Chaparral:

Adenostoma fasciculatum (Chamise)
Arctostaphylos manzanita (Common Manzanita)
Arctostaphylos viscida (Whiteleaf Manzanita)
Ceanothus cuneatus (Buckbrush)
Cercis occidentalis (Western Redbud)
Cercocarpus betuloides (Birch-Leaf Mountain Mahogany)
Fremontodendron californicum (Flannelbush)
Heteromeles arbutifolia (Toyon)
Rhamnus ilicifolia (Holly-Leaf Redberry)
Rhamnus tomentella (Hoary Coffeeberry)

Freshwater Marsh

Extensively found in the Central Valley along rivers, creeks, sloughs, and in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, Freshwater Marsh occurs wherever there are fairly large expanses of standing or very sluggish water. This community is dominated by emergent perennial and floating plants. Freshwater Marsh provides important nesting, feeding, and resting habitat for waterfowl, and also critical staging areas for some of the most threatened native and migratory fish species in California. Freshwater Marsh plants protect levees from erosion and improve water quality by trapping sediments. Intensive farming, levee construction, and water diversion have reduced Freshwater Marsh to less than 6 percent of its original extent in California.

Some plants common to Freshwater Marshes:

Salix lasiolepis (Arroyo Willow)
Anemopsis californica (Yerba Mansa)
Carex barbarae (Santa Barbara Sedge)
Carex praegracilis (Slender Sedge)
Eleocharis macrostachya (Spikerush)
Hibiscus lasiocarpus (California Hibiscus)
Sagittaria latifolia (Arrowhead)
Scirpus acutus var. occidentalis (Tule)
Typha latifolia (Common Cattail)

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