By Linda Roe
Certified Professional Horticulturist, Wight’s Home & Garden
Summer is here and it’s time to go play outside. Some of us, like me, choose the mountains as our playground, while others choose to play in or on the water. Wherever you choose to play, take along a good field guide and get to know some of our beautiful Northwest native plants. Gardeners will find there are many natives that are truly garden worthy.
First, look up. Our natural landscape is dominated by large trees, such as the western hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla), western red cedar (Thuja plicata) and the big Douglas firs (Pseudotsuga menziesii). If you have one in your yard that is not impeding power lines or threatening your roof, treasure it as the wildlife sanctuary it is. Look for vine maple (Acer circinatum) underneath the big trees at the edge of the woods. It is a multi-trunked small tree often covered with moss. It goes unnoticed until fall, when it lights up the green landscape with leaves of orange, red and yellow. It likes partial shade and is happy in dry summers.
Wild currant (Ribes sanguineum) is a wildlife and gardener favorite. The dangling pink blooms in spring are a hummingbird treat, and the black currants produced in summer are quickly eaten by hungry birds. Red osier dogwood (Cornus sericea) is found where the roots can stay moist, from damp streams to mountain slopes. A garden workhorse for poorly drained soils, it colors up in fall with maroon leaves and has showy red stems in winter.
Evergreens come in other forms beside big trees, and some of the most useful are found growing underneath these towering giants. Evergreen huckleberry (Vaccinium ovatum) is found in lowlands all over the Olympic peninsula. It is a wonderful plant for any landscape, with small glossy green leaves, bell-like white flowers in spring and red new growth. The berries are edible too. It grows in sun or shade and will tolerate some dryness.
Looking for a problem solver? A species of Oregon grape (Mahonia) can be found for just about any condition except boggy soil. The bright yellow flowers are full of nectar for hummingbirds, bees and early butterflies. Some people make jam out of the berries, if the birds don’t get there first.
Anybody who likes the tropical look but is tired of half the plants dying in the winter should take a look at our hardy native ferns. Sword ferns (Polystichum munitum) can get three feet tall and as wide and the large leathery fronds make a statement. Generally found growing in the deep shade of mature forests, they adapt well to part sun in the garden. Prune off the old dead fronds in spring for a fresh look.
Don’t like big ferns? Try the dainty little deer fern (Blechnum spicant) often seen growing among rocks and old logs in wet woods. Our native hardy maidenhair fern (Adiantum ssp.) is just as delicate-looking as the tender houseplant, but this one will make it through any winter. The soft rounded little fronds will contrast nicely with a large leaved hosta in the shade garden.
Most native wildflowers are so site specific that they do not adapt well to a garden setting. However there are some that do quite well and are worth seeking out. Trillium (Trillium ovatum) is a showy shade plant in spring. Crisp white petals fade to pink, and the big green leaves are attractive all summer.
Goatsbeard (Aruncus dioicus) looks like white astilbe but is much tougher. It prefers damp soil in sun and is often found alongside old logging roads in the ditch.
Familiar to hikers, bunchberry (Cornus canadensis) is a cute little ground covering flower that looks like miniature dogwood, and it is indeed a member of the dogwood family. It grows along trails all over the Cascades and will grow in your garden, too. It is slow to establish, so have patience.
Bluebells of Scotland (Campanula rotundifolia) don’t come from Scotland at all – they are Northwest natives found growing in grassy meadows. The nodding blue flowers are easily grown in gardens.
Lewisia is a rare native that is more easily found in nurseries than on the trail. The bright, long blooming flowers are best grown in a pot that will give it the sharp drainage it needs.
There are many good native plants for your garden, so go out and discover some yourself. Whether you’re switchbacking up a steep mountain trail, or throwing a fishing line in the water, keep an eye out for beautiful Washington plants. But remember, take only pictures, leave only footprints.