Going Native on the Olympic Peninsula
by Debbie Teashon
Maianthemum stellatum (star Solomon's seal)
Achlys triphylla (deer foot)
When I became serious about gardening, I wanted to plant a meadow of wildflowers. I drove down to the local nursery and bought packets of wildflower seed. I prepared a field by removing sod and raking the area smooth. Following the instructions, I planted, watered and waited. By midsummer, the meadow was attractive with red and orange poppies, cornflowers, yarrow, larkspur and other lovely flowers. A few years later, it struck me that many of the flowers in the wildflower packets weren't native to where I lived. Even packets sold as Pacific Northwest wildflower mixes, full of annuals and a few perennials and grasses, are not native.
The realization hit me while hiking the Olympic peninsula. The native plants I identified on my hikes were not the plants I grew in my wildflower garden! I began to search out and learn about both common and unique Northwest plants I wanted to grow. Western bleeding hearts (Dicentra formosa), fringe cups (Tellima grandiflora), and piggyback plants (Tolmiea menziesii) were a few of the native perennials I first planted at the edge of a woodland.
Living on the Olympic Peninsula, I drive to the seashore or the Olympic Mountains to inspire many new ideas. In the old growth forests, fern, moss and lichen reign in the understory of ancient native trees. Near the shore, ocean spray (Holodiscus discolor), wild roses (Rosa gymnocarpa and Rosa nutkana), salal (Gaultheria shallon) and the red flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum) bloom beneath madrone trees (Arbutus menziesii). A hike through a wetland brings the discovery of our carnivorous sundews (Drosera rotundifolia) and cobalt blue flowers of king gentian (Gentiana sceptrum). Up near the timberline in the mountains, the alpine plants make a brief but astonishing show. The best landscaper in the world, Mother Nature, has a native plant for every condition. Indigenous plants adapt flawlessly in the garden, providing they are placed in a similar environment to where they grow in the wild.
We take many of our native plants for granted or judge them weeds because they are so common; yet in other areas of the world, they are coveted. Some of our amazing natives finally found acceptance here after Europeans embraced them as exotics in their landscapes. Many of these plants are incorporated into every gardening style, from cottage to formal English gardens.
The Pacific Northwest has few annual wildflowers, and many of these are found only in the southernmost portion of the region. However what the Olympic Peninsula lacks in annuals that need to be planted every year, it makes up for in beautiful flowering perennials, bulbs, shrubs and trees that live many years in "captivity."
What kind of native plants best suit your garden? Begin by assessing your space; then choose plants suitable for your conditions and needs. This will result in lower maintenance and lower water bills. Besides easy upkeep, many indigenous plants of the Olympic Peninsula are perfectly adapted once established, to our Mediterranean climate of wet winters and dry summers. Visit local habitats throughout the growing seasons to find the plants you will enjoy at home. Bring along field books to help with identification, and make lists of the plants you find most intriguing and beautiful.
The Olympic Peninsula has numerous sites to visit for native plant viewing. Kah Tai Prairie Preserve, located within the Port Townsend Municipal Golf Course, is a remnant of the grasslands leftover from the retreat of glaciers after the last ice age. Most open meadows, if left alone, will eventually cover themselves in trees. Indigenous people kept prairies open by burning fields every year.
Go often throughout the growing season to see the succession of blooms from many native perennials and bulbs. Columbia lily, sometimes commonly referred to as tiger lily or Oregon lily (Lilium columbianum), has bright orange flowers with dark red or purple spotting. Northwest coast people ate the bitter, peppery-tasting bulbs. In these prairies, they grew blue camas (Camassia quamish) with stunning blue flowers, to use as a root vegetable. Although poisonous, mountainbells (Stenanthium occidentale), with brownish purple bell-shaped flowers, and checker lilies (Fritillaria affinis) are wonderful additions to the native meadow garden.
For lowland forest wildflowers, the Peabody Creek Trail, located at the Olympic National Park Visitor Center in Port Angeles, Marymere Falls at Lake Crescent, and Spruce Railroad Trail close by are day hikes that show off spring wildflowers from mid-April to May.
You can find suitable plants on these hikes as examples for your own shady, woodland garden. Beyond sword ferns (Polystichum munitum), the shamrock-like leaves of trillium-leaved sorrel (Oxalis trillifolia) and redwood sorrel (Oxalis oregano) creep under our dense conifer forests. Trillium-leaved sorrel sends up a stalk topped with 2-9 white to pale pink flowers, while the redwood sorrel sends up long stalks with a solitary flower, bearing white to pink petals, sometimes striped with red veins.
Deer foot, sometimes called vanilla leaf (Achlys triphylla), is another native that grows in the shade of conifers. Their unmistakable leaves make them easy to identify. They spread by underground roots and will cover the toes of Douglas firs and other conifers in no time. The fragrant leaves rise about a foot high on long stalks, looking like clover on steroids. Don't plant this where other small plants grow; this plant will vigorously cover the area.
Also growing in the shade of conifers are our beloved western wake-robin (Trillium ovatum); its spring flowers are always a welcome site. Other natives that grow well are star Solomon's seal (Maianthemum stellatum), false Solomon's seal (Maianthemum racemosum), Smith's fairybell (Disporum smithii) and Hooker's fairybell (Disporum hookeri).
Yellow to cream flowers of a clasping twisted stalk (Streptopus amplexifolius) and pink flowers of rosy twisted stalk (Streptopus lanceolatus var. curvipes) are commonly found growing in the Northwest and all the way up into Alaska. The diminutive, bell-shaped flowers hang from the leaf nodes from spring to early summer.
Our native orange honeysuckle (Lonicera ciliosa) grows in forests and thickets from 5500 feet down to sea level. The vine grows as a trailer or climber with citrus-orange, tubular flowers in a whorled spike just above the upper fused leaves.
In late May and June, the wildflowers of mid-elevation, mountain forest (montane forests) are at their peak. On the way up to Hurricane Ridge and Deer Park roads you will pass through these zones, and trails at Heart of the Hills, Elwha, Staircase, Dosewallips, Sol Duc, and other locations are also trails that pass through montane forests. There you can view the diminutive dogwood flower of the bunchberry (Cornus canadensis) carpeting the forest floor and sometimes growing up the trunks of trees. Also our delicate native orchid, fairy slippers (Calypso bulbosa), in addition to many other attractive natives, bloom in the shady realm of a montane forest.
At the top of the world in the Olympic Moutains, you can find alpine plants flowering after the snow melts. Some of these plants can translate into rock gardens for the more experienced gardener. Although it is a short growing period, Deer Park and Hurricane Ridge offer easy access for seeing the progression of blooming plants.
Do not dig plants in the wild; in many areas it is illegal to do so, and in most cases the plants you dig will die. Buy your plants from reputable sources that grow native plants themselves or sell rescued plants dug with permits from areas slated for habitat destruction. This sometimes means paying higher prices but helps keep native plants from disappearing from their dwindling habitats.
To learn more about our wonderful native plants and how to grow them, there are many resources available. The book considered essential for this is Gardening with Native Plants of the Pacific Northwest by Arthur R. Kruckeberg. In the field, I carry two books for identifying plants, Wildflowers of the Pacific Northwest by Mark Turner and Phyllis Gustafson, and Plants of thePacific Northwest Coast by Jim Pojar. These are also very useful in the garden because they describe the environments where each plant thrives.
The Washington Native Plant Society is another terrific resource. The Olympic Peninsula has its own chapter, too, if you want to join and participate with other local native plant enthusiasts. For more information visit their website.