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.

A Window to the Past

So, I hope we all survived the holidays with class – I know I did. Yesterday was my 33rd birthday. Though I may now congratulate myself for having exceeded the average male lifespan in 9th century England, I’m not really old enough to call myself old, nor do I especially want to. Some of you reading this are probably like “oh, he’s still a young’un.”

So, being relatively less old than many people, I don’t exactly have a great feel for what horticulture and gardening used to be like, say, 50, or 100 years ago. And many from among the earlier generations, from whom much could potentially be learned, don’t tell me about this subject; because as the nursery business has morphed over the years many of them have inadvertently abandoned the specialty nursery market to get sucked into the boring world of conventional horticulture, and/or been deluded into buying all their plants at box stores, so our paths never cross. But whenever I manage to learn something about this topic, it’s usually interesting.

So recently I happened across a book at Goodwill, called Rhododendrons of the World, written by David Leach in 1961. At 50 years old the book is pretty much an antique, yet it was in perfect condition. With 550 thick, letter-size pages I had thought it may be worth a fair sum of money (for example, in Powells’ vintage book section, or whatever it is) though it is listed online mostly in the $30-60 range. But at Goodwill it was $4, which, I thought, was good enough for me. $4 isn’t much to part with even if I’m not really that into Rhododendrons.

Anyway, it’s a spectacular book. Every aspect of Rhododendron history, culture, and descriptions of species are spelled out in meticulous detail. Then there is an appendix at the end listing several thousand (!!) Rhododendron hybrids and their ratings and features. Intended to be comprehensive, it shows that even 50 years ago the number of Rhododendron hybrids already in existence was truly immense.

Here are some thoughts I had after spending some time with this book. It is apparent that people were really into plants and gardening then, leaving one to wonder what happened later that things seem to be so different now.

First of all, the internet and all that comes with it is definitely making people stupider. Oh, wait, did I really say that? I mean, attention spans continue to be on the wane – mine too. I can’t think of many serious horticulturists today who could read a book this long and comprehensive, let alone write one!

This book is some incredibly deep plant-geekism coming from a horticulturist. The only work that compares in scope and detail (that I can think of) that I have in my possession from the modern era would be The Grevillea Book, by Olde and Marriott. I suspect this book did not sell as well as the Rhododendron book because Grevilleas are still not widely grown outside of Australia. But more importantly, these two are trained botanists first and foremost (though I think Marriott has, or had, a nursery). I find it curious that great monographs seem to be always written nowadays by botanists, not horticulturists. Could one consider this an area of deficiency in the horticultural realm?

But you don’t just get the feeling that the author was the only one who was into Rhododendrons. Hundreds of other people are cited and many of their actions involving Rhododendrons are described. An extensive list of Rhododendron breeders and their work is provided. There is also the definite sense that this book is written to an established readership of avid horticultural fanatics. From his writing style, one gathers that he’s not trying to win anyone over to Rhododendrons: everyone just loves Rhododendrons. Nowadays you can start reading a gardening book and feel midway through that the book is still trying to sell itself. This tells me that people just aren’t that into plants or gardening anymore, in general. I sort of knew that already, but it is interesting how that fact comes through by comparing garden books now with 50 years ago.

And (did people ever stop to think? Do they now?) why Rhododendrons? That’s really a great question, considering there are so many other kinds of plants in the world. There’s no denying that the decades-long obsession with Rhododendrons has permanently influenced the gardening culture of places where they can be grown, including the Pacific Northwest. Just look around; now we have a million Rhododendrons everywhere. They’re a part of our culture we can’t shake off. You could say their popularity still hasn’t ended. Any retail nursery in the Northwest is pretty much expected to have a Rhododendron section, and usually an extensive one with an excellent variety from which to choose. You could say the “fad” continues to this day, though the excitement has diminished somewhat along with gardening in general. We are left with the remnants of a passion that we forgot we had, or why we had it. But, looking to the future, as I tend to do; I like to think that the genus Arctostaphylos, our western-native “Rhododendrons,” (think about it – they’re in the same family!) has the potential to be just as exciting.

In the back of the book were numerous appendices, including one providing a list of nurseries where you could buy Rhododendrons, including quite a few of them in the Pacific Northwest. I only recognized a couple of their names. Now you have to wonder: what happened to all those other nurseries? What did they look like in 1961? What kinds of plants did they sell? I would be intrigued to learn more about that. Sometimes the past is the key to the future. Sometimes old geezers who think young people don’t care anything about what they have to say and therefore don’t make the effort should speak up and share some of the horticultural history they keep within their memory.

Meanwhile (because it wouldn’t be a blog post from me without one really cynical paragraph) everyone in my demographic has finally abandoned World of Warcraft to try to figure out how to get into the housing market which usually involves cutting all costs not deemed as absolutely necessary. This cost-cutting means there’s no point in shopping at your independent retail nursery (let alone a mail-order or specialty nursery!) when “we all know” that the cheapest source for landscape plants is the big box.

So before it starts to sound like I’m completely rambling, I’d better attempt to tie things together. The changes I note in the last fifty years of Northwest gardening, are but a few small pieces of a much larger and complex puzzle; which involve societal change and fragmentation, globalism, changing trends, a growing discontent among younger people, a shrinking middle class, and a challenging job market and housing market.

So what does it all mean? Is the past the key to the future? I have also been at times politely critical of nurseries that seem to go on as they always have, pretending nothing has changed. What is the appropriate balance when assessing the past vs. the future of Northwest gardening and nursery culture? Now I must admit, I have no shortage of ideas and views about this (what a surprise, right?), but they’re complex enough to be worth several blog posts; so, more to come! For the present, I leave this post open-ended: I am sincerely interested to hear your thoughts.

The Plants

I just thought I’d post this classic book cover as a literary expression of the story of me trying to maintain a nursery.

Actually, I read this book in high school.  Despite the alluring cover and description, the book was lacking literary quality, which was disappointing.  I wonder if the Olympia High School library still has it.