The Unrealized Allure of Northwest Native Plants

I feel like I mentioned this previously, but earlier this year I heard a well-known speaker (not Richard Hartlage or anybody) give a presentation in which he described the set of Northwest native plants that are useful in gardens/landscapes as “all eight of them.” It is clear that there is much more work to be done… no, that I have much more work to do, to educate people about the vast array of native plants that are, in fact, valuable garden subjects, and not boring. So to wrap up this series on native plants (for now anyways – at least until I write something else about them) I present this third and (if we’re lucky) final installment on the subject, to try to convince you that native plants are, in fact, exciting. Think of it like the third movie in a trilogy: as such, we can only hope that the second post ended disappointingly enough to make this one look good.

To start with, some of you might be wondering by now, what’s a dryland plant? Is that different from a native plant? Had I been giving myself a little more time to proofread and edit these posts for clarity, I would have been more careful to define terms first. Oh well, better late than never.

Furthermore, it may have sounded like I contradicted myself by stating (essentially) most native plants like shade, “and thus make poor choices for urban gardens” and then going on to allude to all these exciting native plants that are out there that people “should be growing.” Huh? – am I making sense at all? What are all these supposedly great plants that are out there; and if they’re so great, why don’t we know about them already? This post is to clear up some of these questions, and to hopefully get gardeners a little more excited about some of our lesser-known native species.

So, here is the deal with native plants, and dryland plants. It is easy to look at an undisturbed native forest and be overawed at the grandeur of giant trees. We think, wow, here nature is at its climax! – and rightly so. Where it is easy to go wrong is when we conclude that this “climax” supports the widest possible selection of native species. We often have a seemingly inherent tendency to associate lushness with diversity. Perhaps that is because we have all been taught that the amazon rainforest contains tens of thousands of species per acre, or something. Which may be true, but things are different in the tropics.

In reality, in the Pacific Northwest, as well as many other temperate regions of the world (one might make an exception for China, but I have never been there), a mature native forest supports only a relatively limited number of plant species. They represent a climax of successional maturity, but not of diversity. To find the greatest diversity of plants, you have to look elsewhere than our lowland forests. Plant diversity increases as you go up in altitude (exposed subalpine and alpine areas), and east (rainshadows and deserts), as well as south. Basically, the more trees you leave behind, the more room you have for a diverse range of sun-loving dryland species. That is why it is easily possible to “get out in nature” in western Washington and not see much of horticultural interest, until you venture away from the lowlands.

So, if we’re looking for interesting native plants to add to our gardens, we need to look up (alpine natives) and east (dryland natives). Now some of you might be thinking, “But I don’t want a rock garden!” (I can’t imagine why not, but we won’t go there for now.) Ok, so skip the alpines, and just go with dryland natives. There are still hundreds from which to choose (well, potentially, if nurseries start growing them).

Dryland native plants are those that occur in the open forests and deserts on the east slope of the Cascade range and beyond, and in a few localized drier places on the west side, especially within the Olympic Rainshadow. That means west of the Cascades, these plants are not common in the wild, nor are they as diverse as on the east side. The important thing characterizing all of them is their ability to tolerate sun, and our period of summer drought. (More broadly, dryland plants can those be from anywhere in the world that occur in similar dry open forests, deserts, or scrub: think of the Mediterranean region, for example. But that goes beyond the topic of this post.)

Now fortunately for us, urban gardens offer the perfect situation for many dryland plants (native or otherwise). Sometimes older neighborhoods are heavily treed; but many are not: there are large areas of the city with plenty of sun. It is in the city that rockeries to provide drainage, walls to reflect heat, and pavement abound. Also, water tends to be expensive: why plant stuff that is going to need a lot of water for its whole life? Dryland plants and urban gardens really are a match made in heaven, if not in a “hell strip.”

What kind of plants am I talking about? Well, when was the last time you saw a Ribes aureum or Artemisia tridentata in a Seattle garden? How about never? Because when you go to a nursery specializing in native plants, they mostly sell the usual limited palette of boring, lowland forest plants, and maybe a few of the easiest and most common alpines (Potentilla fruticosa, Artemisia ludoviciana). This, I suppose, is largely from a lack of awareness that so many other great native plants exist; and to the extent that nurseries are aware of them, they haven’t figured out how to grow them yet, and/or recognized the potential market for such plants.

So, what to do if you want to learn more about these plants? We Northwesterners seem to be somewhat lacking in resources for people interested in exploring and growing our native plants. There are some field guides available of varying quality, and there may be some books about our native alpines or other web sites devoted to this topic that I am not aware of. (Let me know, please!) The only really noteworthy reference I know of specifically dedicated to the cultivation of Northwest Native Plants is Arthur Kruckeberg’s Gardening with Native Plants of the Pacific Northwest. Now before continuing on to discuss a couple of books, I must firmly establish that these are, in fact, excellent and very valuable works, authored by true experts in their field. It’s going to sound like I’m complaining about their shortcomings with nothing positive to say. That is not the case at all: I simply wish to make a point that there is a lot about these plants that we don’t know. The dilemma is, how can a noted author or expert speak with authority on a topic when the knowledge isn’t available in the first place? How do we know whether or not Krascheninnikovia lanata thrives in a sunny Seattle garden until someone has tried it?

So in Kruckeberg’s book, numerous dryland natives are mentioned, but with a lot of talk of “this is really happier east of the Cascades” as if we don’t dare try to grow them on the west side. I cannot help but wonder how many of these have actually been attempted west of the Cascades in the kind of conditions they prefer (i.e. sun, and no summer water once established). The much shorter commentary on these compared to well-known forest natives leads me to suspect that some of these plants may have been attempted once without success and then given up on, or not tried at all. I don’t really know that for a fact, and I may well be entirely wrong; but I do note that some of the comments in this book do not agree with my personal experience. Penstemons, for example, are accused of being “spectacular” but also “short-lived.” “Short-lived” has not been the case for me: they lived for years and years, even when I grew them in rainy Olympia, on heavy clay soil. (Heck, they’re probably still there!) My conclusion: if you want Penstemons to live longer, just don’t water them so much!

And why can’t we extend this principle to most of our other dryland native plants as well? Let’s be sure to give plants a fair chance before we dismiss them. Once again, I don’t know how extensively some of the plants described by Kruckeberg were tried, so I acknowledge the possibility that I may be quite incorrect. Or maybe I’m just halfway incorrect: perhaps half of them will grow here under drier conditions, and half of them still won’t no matter what you try. (Like I said, I have a lot of work to do!) Maybe Kruckeberg’s perspective on dryland plants is reflective of a time when there were still a lot more undeveloped/wooded pockets in the greater Seattle area than there are today: perhaps the region in general felt a little more forested and less urban than it is today, when the book was first authored.

In what is probably my favorite native plant book right now, Wildflowers of the Pacific Northwest by Mark Turner and Phyllis Gustafson, the authors note that they “put particular emphasis on central and eastern Washington and Oregon and on the Klamath-Siskyou region in southern Oregon and northern California because most other field guides have glossed over these areas.” Wonderful, hooray for them, I say. Now if only gardening references would do the same! Even they, however, admit the shortcomings of their book. It is quite comprehensive, but not quite complete. Some plants are not pictured, only described briefly under the headings for related species; others are skipped over entirely. And of course, since it is not a gardening book, it only describes what the plants look like and where they can be found, not how to cultivate them. (Of course that’s perfectly appropriate for a field guide.) They also exclude any plants that don’t fall under the category of “Wildflowers,” such as our native trees and ferns. And finally, the photography is outstanding and more than worth the price of the book even if it lacked descriptions; but when you only see a close-up flower photo of Purshia tridentata or Luina hypoleuca, you are likely to think “what an ugly little flower” without knowing how cool the plant is when you see a whole one. So that’s not a complaint against the book itself, just an inherent shortcoming of a book of its nature and scope: you can’t get a feel for what many of these plants will look like in their entirety, or how they could potentially be used in the garden, from a book of this type. This book is excellent, and a valuable reference: get it anyways!

So, as far as I can tell, there is not really any one reference that brings it all together, communicating the exciting world of Northwest native plants in its entirety to a broad audience. While Kruckeberg’s book is excellent, I am daring to question whether some of the statements presented are not worthy of challenge. (Also, the book might have achieved broader appeal with more color pictures, especially of more obscure and interesting species. Having color pictures alongside the plants always helps make a book more accessible too, but I know that also makes it more expensive – oh well.) Wildflowers of the Pacific Northwest is superb, but it is a field guide, with its inherent limitations. Plants of Western Oregon, Washington and British Columbia by Eugene N. Kozloff contains an excellent collection of photos in the center section, but again most of these are close-up, and the text of the book is primarily botanical in nature with few tips for gardeners. (I won’t comment further on that one, because I haven’t looked at it very much, except for the photos.) And of course Hitchcock and Cronquist are great, but 98% of people, in other words most normal people, are not going to get excited about native plants from reading that!

Anyway, if you want to see more than eight species of garden-worthy native plants, you may need to get off the beaten path. Forget about looking in nurseries. Go explore for them in the wild. Go east! Go up! Follow the field guides and wildflower hike books, but don’t forget to look at everything – the ferns, trees, and plants that may have nondescript flowers but excellent foliage and form. And then recall that they’re perhaps not so difficult to grow as commonly believed. Maybe someday people will figure this out and we will see more of them in our nurseries and gardens.

Ceanothus integerrimus, a dryland naitve that is very showy and easy to grow.

Lomatium utriculatum, “Fine-leaf desert parsley” is a neat little dryland plant that even occurs west of the Cascades. I photographed it here in the Olympic Mountain foothills not far from our nursery.

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4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Desert Dweller
    Sep 10, 2012 @ 21:30:47

    I tend to think of warmer-wetter as being the center of diversity, but you make a good case on not so wet, sunnier, less trees, but not over the top with hot-dry.

    I agree that plant books need to show whole plants, from nature to gardens. So do designs in the dryland garden…too many ugly-messy gardens in xeriscape. I rarely use xeriscape except to those who know!

    Reply

  2. georgeinbandon,oregon
    Sep 10, 2012 @ 22:48:23

    interesting post with some very worthwhile ideas. IMHO, “looking east” (of the cascades) has much to offer in potentially udeful garden plants BUT “looking south and west” to drier warmer areas west of the cascades AND exposed, rocky, sandy, heat and drought stressed areas and exposures therein (think interior s.w. oregon and th inner side of the siskiyous) might do just as well. fro example, using various shrubs/samll trees like baccharis, cercocarpus, garya, arctostaphyllos, ceanothus and shrub type evergreen oaks like sadleriana and vaccinifolia for south and west exposures and salal, huckleberry, vine maple and possibly myrica for north and east locations can give the “dry garden” a fairly lush and well furnished look thruout the year. moreover, there is a fair chance that these kind of plants will be more tolerant of wetter winters and less than perfect drainage compared to some of the east siders??? as you know, there are many west side natives that are attractive and drought tolerant when sited properly and given proper initial care during planting and establishment. however, the problem may be that folks still try to treat them like standard garden plants with lots of summer water (especially when planted in or adjacent to a traditional lawn) OR treated like some kind of cactus that (suppossedly) doesn’t need any water at all after planting—both are at best not ideal scenarios for these or anyother plants. .as for books you might consider “the encylopedia of northwest native plants for gardens and landscapers” by robson and richter from timber press and a good field guide for wildflowers for the area is “pacific states wildflowers” from the old peterson series. of course, many of the wildflowers in the later book tend to be annuals or bulbs and perhaps difficult to grow long term anywhere under garden conditions.

    Reply

  3. Ian
    Sep 11, 2012 @ 11:20:47

    Desert, if I had wanted to make this post even longer (LOL) I could have mentioned that, in the Northwest, plant diversity seems to drop off again in areas that receive less than about 10-12″ of precipitation annually. I suppose that in the Southwest, with its year-round warmer climate (compared to the same altitude here), one could assume that this number would be even higher. So, yeah, with the Southwest not having a whole lot of really dense (by our standards) forest, except in pockets on the higher mountain ranges; I could see that the greatest diversity would be in areas of higher precipitation. In the Southwest there is less forest in the way of desert plants blending with alpine flora.

    George, thanks for mentioning that book – it appears I completely overlooked a very important book! I know I have seen the cover before, but for some reason never made the connection that it was about native plants… I don’t know, I just forgot about it. I will have to get a look at it sometime. It is not in our library. From the reviews it sounds like it is comprehensive and pretty good quality. So, yeah, I guess that is why I asked about books!

    I heartily agree that plants from the Siskyou/Klamath region are also very much appropriate for Northwest gardens. I could have incorporated them into the post, but as soon as I suggest we might be growing things that come from California then people in Seattle will feel like I’m no longer talking about native plants! After all, we wouldn’t want to associate ourselves too much with California, LOL. Of course, I personally think there are all kinds of plants from California, and from Arizona, and beyond, that are every bit as useful here.

    Reply

  4. georgeinbandon,oregon
    Sep 11, 2012 @ 17:57:19

    Ian, to address the “no california plants” concerns (as you well know) most of the broadleaf evergreen trees and shrubs (plus many other plants) that are nominally native to the PNW are also native to the golden state. in many cases, their main center of distribution is down there with relatively limited outlaying populations of these species further north. kruckberg i believe mentioned how well the native umbellularia CALIFORNICA does in northwest gardens. like so many things in horticulture the greatest problem is not so much the behavior/suitability of various plants but the basic ignorance of so many gardeners in how to use them. FWIW, i completely agree that the opportunities for drought tolerant and attractive plants from california, arizona and the s.w., and( especially in my experience) from mexico are HUGE. i grow a number of mexican pines, oaks, and other plants and i have in the course of over 10 yrs lost hardy a one to our “interesting” PNW weather and with very little care at all once established in ground (knock on wood). BTW, i have a copy of the book you mentioned and would be glad to bring it with me to the salme hardy plant sale if you are interested in borrowing it for awhile..

    Reply

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