Tag Archives: Astragalus nuttallii

milkvetch update


I wrote earlier about a little patch of Nuttall’s milkvetch (Astragalus nuttallii), a new California native groundcover I’m trying out. Last time, I was pretty enthusiastic. Now, after eight weeks with less than a quarter inch of natural rainfall, I’m a little less excited.

At this point, at the end of April/beginning of May, the plant continues to be interesting up close: a mix of reddening stems, small green-gray leaves and dramatic red-tinged cream-colored pods.

When the seeds have ripened inside the pods, they rattle in a really interesting way. You can see why many Astragalus are called “rattlepod”:


But the down-side about this plant, I’m finding out, is how it looks from a distance. The red stems, whitish pods and green leaves all give the impression of a brown, dying plant. Just squint while looking at the next image and you can begin to see that it’s not the most kempt looking selection for one of the first things you encounter.

This introduction might work well in an informal area, mixed in with big plants that will take up the slack when this one takes a vacation. A spot that gets occasional garden water also might keep this plant looking nicer, longer. But since I planted it at eye-level, right at the front sidewalk in a spot that gets no supplemental water all summer, I’ve decided it’s probably not the right plant for this spot.

So…I’ve cut it back pretty heavily, and it may be out of this spot if it doesn’t look a lot better quickly. That’s the fate of a lot of California natives: They look great during the cool, wet growing season, but look less wonderful during when it dries out and get hotter, which unfortunately also happens to be the season when people want to be outdoors, enjoying their gardens.

Don’t let that discourage you from planting natives, however. Some of the buckwheats I’ve planted next to the milkvetch are still green all over and are about to begin their long season of flowers and dramatic dried seed heads. And there are many other options for plants that look good throughout the year. It’s just a matter of finding the right plant for the right spot in the garden.

a new groundcover


Here’s a look at a new groundcover I’m trying out. The plant, Nuttall’s milkvetch (Astragalus nuttallii) is native to coastal Central California, and seems to be adapting easily to my coastal San Diego location–maybe a little too well!

Las Pilitas Nursery, who seems to be the only firm propagating the species, estimates its height to be 3-18 inches and 18 to 36 inches wide. The plant went into the ground October 12, and has topped out at a foot or so high–so far so good. But its spread, now at over six feet, has easily hit more than double the estimated maximum plant size. And that’s with no supplemental watering after the first couple of months in the ground. We’ll see if it slows down as the weather warms and the ground dries out.


The milkvetch bore some of these small, ivory-white flowers on it in October, and it’s never been without them in the intervening six months. Now that the weather is warming, the plant is getting even more interested in flowering.


As much as I enjoy its flowers, my favorite thing about this milkvetch is its delicate foliage. It’s fern-like, and so far has maintained its clean, green-to-grayish green coloration. I have the plant at front edge of the retaining wall next to the front sidewalk, so it’s easy to get face to face with the flowers and leaves. A front of the bed location would also let people enjoy this delicately textured plant.

So, if you’d like a distinctive, delicate, low, mounding groundcover for a dry spot in a zone 9 or 10 landscape, this might be just the ticket, even if the plant might get a little wide and need to be cut back.

PS: I should also mention that one of this milkvetch’s common names is “locoweed,” and the plant is supposedly poisonous. I have no idea whether it’s in the category of nightshade or no more dangerous than tomato plants. Since I have no small children around or pets that get into anything other than catnip, I’ve never let an interesting plant’s supposed toxicity stop me from growing it. But you might consider that before planting a couple acres of it.