by Lisa Albert
Vine maple flower (Acer circinatum)
Welcome to my garden! Every plant you see is a native. The coral bark maple (Acer palmatum 'Sango-kaku’) in my front garden hails from China, Korea and Japan. The New Zealand flax (Phormium tenax) is native to that island nation. Indigenous to the Southeastern and Eastern United States, respectively, are the oak leaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia) and the sourwood tree (Oxydendrum arboreum) that share a garden bed. My vine maples (Acer circinatum) and Hooker’s fairy bells (Disporum hookerii) are native to my home, the Pacific Northwest.
All plants are native to some region in the world. To avoid confusion, discussions about native plants should begin with a definition and a region defined. Most native plant enthusiasts deem a plant as native to the United States if it was in existence before the arrival of European settlers. Within our region, there are many different types of plant communities, such as Douglas fir forests, prairies, salt marshes and oak savannahs. Some native plants will be found in many different plant communities throughout our corner of the United States, while others will be found growing only in specialized habitats.
Native plants vary in form, size, growth habit, growing environment and garden behavior, as much as plants from other regions. Some are demure and spread painfully slowly in my garden, such as bunchberry (Cornus unalashkensis, syn. Cornus canadensis), while others are gregarious, happy minglers. One of my favorite groundcovers, twinflower (Linnaea borealis) rambles politely, weaving among but never overwhelming its bedmates. Then there are the bold, prolific spreaders, such as fireweed (Epilobium angustifolium), that grow both within and without their designated spot in the garden, clearly oblivious to any boundaries. While not everyone will welcome these plants’ bold and brassy behavior, some will give them carte blanche and revel in their abundance.
Inside out flower (Vancouveria hexandra)
The reasons to choose natives are as varied as the gardeners who grow them. Some of you will choose to grow native plants because you want to preserve or restore the bio-diversity and culture of our region. You delight in discovering a plant’s folklore and history. Your interest may spur you to join efforts to conserve and protect natives in their natural environments, where the uncontrolled spread of invasive weeds poses the second largest threat to native plant survival.
Or you may heed the low-maintenance siren call of native plants. There are exceptions, of course, but since native plants have grown up (pun intended) with our wet winters, dry summers, acidic soils and indigenous pest problems, they generally perform better with less care than non-native plants. Remember, though, that all plants, even drought-tolerant natives, should receive supplemental water for at least the first season while they become established in the garden. For even more success, choose plants appropriate for your garden’s environment and amend the soil to match the plant’s natural habitat when necessary.
Madrona bark (Arbutus menziesii)
Natives provide a bounteous feast for wildlife visitors, adding an additional dimension of beauty to your garden. Over hundreds of years, our region’s native flora and fauna have developed rich, complex and mutually supportive relationships. One native plant may provide food and shelter not only to birds, bats and larger animals but also to as many as 50 species of fungi, insects and invertebrates. A non-native plant is unable to provide as richly for wildlife. It is no surprise, then, that birds, bees, butterflies and hummingbirds are increasingly drawn to gardens that feature native plants. For the biggest wildlife impact, stick with the species forms because cultivars (cultivated varieties) of natives may not retain all of the species wildlife appeal.
Lastly, we gardeners will choose natives for the same reason we choose any plant for our gardens: its beauty. This can range from the knock-your-socks-off spring floral display of red-flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum) to the sweet innocence of inside-out flower (Vancouveria hexandra) to the ethereal quality of western trillium (Trillium ovatum).
The beauty of natives goes beyond floral display to include garden stars in bark, leaf and berry. Winter sun glancing off the peeling, cinnamon-colored bark of a madrona tree (Arbutus menziesii) or the candy-red stems of red osier dogwood (Cornus sericea) provides us with a visual treat. The bright chartreuse foliage of the red elderberry, Sambucus racemosa ‘Sutherland Gold’, will light up a shady corner of your garden. Its bright red berries will provide additional seasonal interest.
A dozen years ago, I could not name ten native plants. I was woefully ignorant of the horticultural wealth our region offers. However, as my love and knowledge for native plants has grown, their presence in my garden has increased. Today, more than 60 native species grace my garden. Through subsequent articles, I hope to introduce you to more of our local beauties so that you, too, will learn that there are native plants just perfect for your garden, regardless of your needs and style.
Images by Debbie Teashon