Lesser Known Shrubs of the Klamath Mountains
by Jeanne DeBenedetti Keyes
Ecoregions of the Northwest and Northern California
The Klamath Mountain region of Southern Oregon is quite remarkable, for not only its gorgeous scenery and rushing rivers, but because it is host to a high diversity of plants. The flora of the wetter Pacific Northwest and plants of drier Northern California are equally at home here. This graphic shows the region (78 on the map), bordered to the West by the Coast Range (1), the Willamette Valley to the North (3) and the Cascades to the East (4). The range of the Klamath Mountains ecoregion encompasses the differing plant communities of the Umpqua Valley to the North and the Sacramento Valley to the South.
Several years ago when I was looking for plants that could thrive in a full sun, dry location in Portland, Oregon, I knew I could count on specimens from the Klamath Mountains to beautify the area. The plant gallery on this web site showcases some terrific plants that grow in this region such as madrone (Arbutus menziesii) and western azalea (Rhododendron occidentale); after doing some research, I found a whole host of other beauties to try.
One of my favorites is silk tassel bush. It is a broadleaf, evergreen, small tree that produces these lovely silvery-gray flowers that hang in long chains, 6-12 inches for male plants. Female plants produce clusters of purple fruit. According to Arthur R. Kruckeberg in Gardening with Native Plants of the Pacific Northwest: Second Edition, Revised and Enlarged , silk tassel bush (Garrya elliptica) is generally restricted to coastal bluffs and hills in Southwestern Oregon; its cousin Garrya fremontii grows in woodlands and brushy slopes. I found both plants very easy to grow if you give them full sun, and sharp drainage. G. ellipitica can easily get to 20 feet high, with G. fremontii’s a bit smaller. G. elliptica’s leaves have a wavy margin while G. fremontii’s are smooth and hairless.
Another under-utilized plant is Oregon box (Pachistima myrsinites), also called mountain lover. With a name like that, how could you not love it? This plant resembles Japanese holly (Ilex crenata) or boxwood (Buxus sempevirens), thus earning its moniker, but Oregon box has attributes that make it so much better. Oregon box is a small shrub, growing to three feet tall. The leaves are evergreen, elliptical in shape and sport tiny, serrated edges. The flowers are tiny, mahogany-red flower clusters, reportedly fragrant, although I have never detected a scent. Oregon box does best on dry slopes and in open woods. It is quite comfortable under open crowned trees such as madrone. In the garden, it is useful as border plants or low hedging, although I have not found it to need much pruning. I much prefer its natural shape.
Birchleaf mountain-mahogany (Cercocarpus betuloides) is another beautiful and interesting plant from Southwestern Oregon. It is a medium to large shrub, growing to 20 feet and is found on brushy hillsides and dry rocky slopes. It has simple evergreen (although sometimes partially deciduous) leaves that resemble, as its name implies, birch leaves, with pleated and serrated edges. This shrub can be multi-stemmed with an open structure and branching pattern. The Field Guide to Shrubs of Southwestern Oregon, written by Oregon State University Extension Service and the Middle Rogue Watershed Council, reports that birchleaf mountain-mahogany has white flowers that grow in clusters along the twigs, although I have never observed white flowers on my specimen. Maybe I will have to take a closer look! Curlleaf mountain-mahogany (Cercocarpus ledifolius), cousin to Birchleaf mountain-mahogany, is also native to the Klamath Mountains ecoregion but has leaves with smooth margins.