By James Young
The following Northwest native plants earned their status as favorites for having good foliage, all-around toughness, and ease of growth while still being beautiful and functional plants that will fit a smaller city garden.
One of the challenges of Pacific Northwest native plants is that they are typically, how shall we say this… subtle. Does this mean dull and depressing? This recently unearthed Haiku from an early Japanese settler may enlighten us to the beauty of the original NW landscape:
Grey, green, brown, green, grey,
Pacific Northwest like death,
so drab, kill me now.
OK, that may be a little harsh. That wasn’t written by a Japanese settler either. I wrote that. To get attention, no doubt.
Northwest landscapes are interesting and unique. Let’s just say you need to stop and look a little more carefully to reveal the inner beauty of a classic Northwest native planting.
General Planting Guidelines
Along with proper placement, the key to long term success with these plants is healthy soil. That means incorporating organic matter as much as possible and providing water where the urban environment has taken it away.
– Incorporate compost into your planting hole if the soil is infertile.
– Over the years, ensure a thick compost based mulch layer around the root zone while not suffocating the root crown at the base of the plant (keep the base of the plant clear of mulch then taper the mulch outward to a greater thickness).
– Water during dry times. If you’re not sure, dig a few inches into the soil gently (with your fingers is fine) to check for dark, moist soil. Dry times usually run from July through October, but it’s different for every garden. Do this for at least the first three years. An irrigation system is great investment to take care of this part.
Small Tree Favorite
Vine Maple (Acer circinatum): The vine maple is one of the Northwest’s most subtly beautiful trees. It very much resembles a Japanese maple in its delicate carriage. The rounded palm-sized leaves carry a soft green for most of the year, then turn brilliant orange, red, and yellow in fall. Be sure to properly prune it early in its life (train it) so that is has an evenly distributed structure of main branches that will serve its beauty and health well into maturity. In a small garden, it can serve as a focal plant.
It will eventually grow into a medium sized tree of about 25ft over much time. A nursery label might say 7-12 feet but the plants don’t know anything about those labels, they’re illiterate. That is just the seven to 10 years’ size and they will continue to grow despite the label. If you want to keep your little beauty a long time, give it a lot of headroom in your choice of placement. Very adaptable, can stand full sun to full shade, can stand a little wetness or dryness to the soil and competes well with roots of bigger trees.
Small Shrub Favorites
Red Flowering Currant (Ribes sanguineum): Ah, what a welcome sight for humans, hummingbirds, and the odd early rising bee. This Currant is one of the first native flowering plants, blooming in late March. A lot of Northwest native plants can be, what did we say? Oh yeah, subtle. In bloom this is one of the exceptions. Ruby pink flowers cover the plant at a time when little else is blooming. The little leaves are kind of neat-o and resemble maple leaves. A good background plant for the remainder of the growing season.
Grows to about 6-9 feet tall but stays a somewhat narrow fountain shape, full sun to part shade, can stand a little dryness when its roots have grown in well.
Red Elderberry Bush (Sambucus racemosa): This shrub has interesting compound leaves, a nice sort of rounded shape, sprays of cream colored flowers coming out of the ends of branches, followed by red berries. The berries are sour and sickening when eaten raw but can be cooked to make pies, preserves and wine. A good filler plant that supports wildlife, that is if you don’t denude it of berries to support your wine habit.
Eventually grows to about 15 feet if left unchecked but responds well to size-control pruning. In fact, it can be sort of coarse in its branching pattern when young. A careful pruning (never shearing) helps it fill out more fully and can be used to control its size for the smaller garden. Full sun to part shade, can stand a little wet soil.
False Solomon Seal (Smilacena racemosa): When this perennial takes over an area it is truly a thing of beauty. This guy sends up individual stems, each carrying kinda-Hosta-like leaves along its length, and topped off with creamy white, beautifully fragrant flowers that turn into red berries in fall. When these colonize an area, there’s a uniformity of growth that would make an obsessive compulsive gardener weep with joy. The leaves turn a nice yellow in fall. A shady plant for your “woodland” or a good back of the perennial border plant.
Sometimes it takes a while for these to settle in and they disappear completely in winter leaving a bare spot in the winter garden. Still worth it if you can manage those drawbacks. Grows to 3 feet tall and it’s best in a massing rather than a single lonely holdout, part shade is ideal, can go into more sun if the soil stays moist, consistently moist rich garden soil works best.
Fringecup (Tellima grandiflora): I know this is one tough native plant because the undeveloped part of our garden has this plant punching it out with the likes of stinging nettles, Himalayan blackberry, English ivy, overgrown turf grass, inconsiderate work boots, and the occasional pass of a lawn mower. And although its small stature (about a 10 inch tall clump of leaves) means it will never pulverize brutes the likes of Himalayan blackberry, it does not relent; it does not go quietly into that good night. And that’s a good thing because when the little leafy tufts of Fringecup start sending their dainty long tresses of yellow, sweetly fragrant flower stems up from the woodland floor, and shafts of light come thru to make the flowers glow like mythical little wispies, it really is a heavenly experience to encounter. It is then that Fringecup becomes a good friend.
If you know what a Heuchera is, then you have a good idea of what a Fringecup will do for you because they have the same growth habit. While a Heuchera can have fantastic leaf colors it never smells so good as a Fringecup in bloom.
Grows to 10 inches tall with flower stems to about 30 inches tall, full to part shade and I suspect it could take full sun with enough moisture but haven’t tried that yet; average soil.
Lady Fern (Athyrium felix-femina): as expected, is the most dainty and delicate of the three ferns here. It is clearly deciduous and crumples into a pile after frost. Leave those fallen fronds where they lay to protect the root crown thru winter.
Grows about 2 feet tall in shady conditions and average soil, can stand more sun if the soil stays moist.
Sword Fern (Polystichum munitum): is the most bullet-proof of these ferns once it establishes itself. In fact it is so tough that early settlers used the fronds as make-shift weapons to fight off grizzly bears and wolves. That is how it got its name. Not really but it is almost that tough.
Grows about 3 feet tall in the garden, full sun to full shade, officially evergreen but they often look quite scraggly during winter. After it’s established a couple years, don’t be afraid to cut off all the old fronds in late winter to see unfettered the beautiful sight of new unfurling fronds in spring when this fern is at its most regal. Can stand just about any soil once established.
Deer Fern (Blechnum spicant): is truly evergreen and is one of the ferns that have “flowering” stems. These are not flowers of course (ferns by definition don’t flower), rather they are spore-bearing fronds that are different from the normal fronds in that they grow straight upward. These sporing fronds are ringed by the regular fronds, which gives it a kind of neat-unique look. The “flower” stems die back in winter and don’t always come up every year but that’s nothing to fret about because the evergreen fronds stay tough and green through winter.
Grows about 2-3 feet tall, part to full shade, could stand more sun if the soil is moist, average soil will work.
If you have a favorite Northwest native plant you would like to share, please list them below in the comments.
James Young is the owner of Blue Wheelbarrow Landscapes in Edmonds.