Three Fantastic PNW Natives for a Dry Summer

Although awareness of the value of our native plant palette is growing, all too often our local plants are passed over at nurseries in favor of exotic, newfangled, over-bred introductions from lands far away.

Permit me to remind you, dear reader, that when European plant explorers first arrived in the Pacific Northwest, they absolutely LOST THEIR MINDS over the breadth and depth of the horticultural offerings provided by our region. Indeed, the proceeds alone from David Douglas’ introduction of Ribes sanguineum to Europe paid for his entire expedition to Cascadia.

So instead of groaning, “What, that old thing?” when your local native plant enthusiast begins once again extolling the virtues of something he just transplanted into his garden from the alley behind his house, you might want to pause to consider the advantages of using a locally adapted species with all the four-season-interest of some of those imported, often pricier options.

Permit me to present 3 of our natives that will hold their own horticulturally against anything the rest of the planet has to offer.

Vaccinium ovatum

 Vaccinium ovatum in Kubota Gardens

Vaccinium ovatum in Kubota Gardens

Our native evergreen huckleberry is a versatile and vastly underused garden shrub, yet we’ve known about it for as long as human feet have trod greater Pugetopolis.

Native tribes had been using the berries for millennia before your great-great-grandmother began popping them into pies, tarts, and cobblers, and the foliage has proven useful for centuries by ethnobotanists and herbalists in treating a variety of maladies including gout and diabetes.

Distribution ranges from the coasts of British Columbia to the redwood forests of Northern California, with populations peeking over the crest of the Cascades and Sierras in some locales. Small, florist quality evergreen foliage flushes in hues of copper and bronze in spring and turns a lustrous green during the summer. In full sun the leaves take on purple and red tones. Mid-spring brings urn-shaped pink flowers with a blush of white which are much beloved by our native pollinators.

 Vaccinium ovatum spring foliage

Vaccinium ovatum spring foliage

Those qualities alone would merit it a place in any garden, but the real prize follows the flowers in the form of delicious black berries. Tribes often travelled long distances to harvest the crop, which, both fresh and dried, was a mainstay of their diet.  Rich in vitamins and antioxidants, the berries make a healthy snack and a tasty ingredient in a variety of preserves, pastries, sauces, smoothies, and just about anywhere else your culinary inspiration takes you. Although the berries are small and time consuming to pick, they stay in good harvesting condition for months and freeze beautifully. My spousal unit Heidi considers huckleberry harvesting to be the best way to achieve a meditative, zen-like state whilst simultaneously stuffing your face.

 Vaccinium ovatum berries

Vaccinium ovatum berries

Preferring part shade but tolerating full sun, the plant is happy from the crest of the Cascades all the way down to the salty shores of the Pacific. In shade the plant can eventually reach 10 to 12 feet, but in sun you can expect a 4 to 5 foot shrub in 10 years. Maintenance is as complicated as you wish to make it; pruning isn’t necessary, but if you are one of those folks who prefer their shrubs to look like cubes and spheres, knock yourself out, as they tolerate shearing about as well as anything else.

Plants in sun will appreciate occasional watering, plants in shade in good soil are very drought tolerant. Our huckleberries are growing in morning to mid-day sun in about 6 inches of decent manufactured topsoil mix hurriedly dumped onto the edge of a wider-than-necessary gravel driveway. They are happy as pigs in mud and pump out copious quantities of delicious berries starting in early August. I try to water them a couple of times a month, but when I forget they don’t seem to mind much.

Acer circinatum

 Acer circinatum 'Monroe' (cutleaf form)

Acer circinatum 'Monroe' (cutleaf form)

Another vastly underused native, our native Vine Maple is often shoved into the corner at the nursery while those fancy pants Japanese Maples are given top billing on a table right next to the cash register. Unfair, I say! Our maple is hardier, tolerant of a wider range of conditions and abuse, and varieties are now available in dwarf, cut leaf, and several other forms.

The native range of the plant mirrors that of Vaccinium ovatum, and its preferred growing conditions are similar as well, so the two plants make excellent companions. When planted in full sun, vine maple becomes a short tree or multi-stemmed shrub slowly growing to 25 feet or more over time. In shade the form becomes more rambling and contorted as the branches twist their way through the underbrush in search of light. Stems will often root as they touch the ground, creating impenetrable thickets that prompted French trappers to christen it with the epithet “Tree of the Devil”. Native tribes put the tough, flexible wood to a variety of uses, including bows, tools, and basketry, and a tea useful for treating colds was made by boiling the bark.

 Acer circinatum fall color

Acer circinatum fall color

In the garden the tree’s primary asset is its spectacular fall color, which is variable from specimen to specimen and which comes in an array of hues from yellow to red to purple. Purchase your tree in the fall to assure that you get a specimen in your preferred color range, as occasionally the fall color on some trees is a somewhat-less-than-thrilling shade of ruddy brown. Another horticultural strength of the tree is its utility, as it is happy in full sun to deep shade, and in a wide variety of soils as long as they are not sodden. The seeds are consumed by a plethora of birds and small mammals, and fall leaf drop reveals interesting bark and branching patterns.

 Vine Maple seed pods

Vine Maple seed pods

 Acer circinatum fall color

Acer circinatum fall color

So there you have it, a tree with just as many if not more attributes than any of the 17 gazillion foreign maples vying for your attention. Next time you get all breathless over that exotic, mysterious maple from overseas, take a deep breath and consider whether there is room in your garden for the girl next door.

Myrica californica

 Myrica californica in the Leaning Pine Arboretum, Ca.

Myrica californica in the Leaning Pine Arboretum, Ca.

Myrica californica (commonly known as Pacific Wax Myrtle) has recently undergone a name change to Morella californica, but the trade has been slow to follow suit, so you will most likely find it under its old moniker. Although the experts disagree as to this plants historical nativity in the greater Pugetopolis area, it is currently found hugging the Pacific coast from Vancouver to Long Beach in California, where it is often shaped by the wind into waist high hummocks.

Unpruned in a more sheltered locale it can eventually reach twenty to thirty feet tall and wide over long periods of time, but in the garden it generally tops out at about ten feet in an equal number of years. Reasonably fast growth and dense foliage when clipped make this a great plant for screening; it is a perfect substitute for more bio-invasive hedging options such as English or Portugal Laurel.

Happy in deep shade to full sun, in soils from soggy to dry, and tolerant of ocean wind and salt spray, the plant will even re-sprout from the crown after being burned to ground level in a fire. You can expect plants in shade to assume a bit more leggy and open posture, although with a bit of clipping dense growth can be achieved if desirable. Leaves are narrow and often clustered at the end of branches on unpruned specimens. When crushed the leaves provide an aromatic, spicy aroma; though not as strongly scented as its eastern cousin Myrica pennsylvanica, the smell of the foliage packs enough punch that deer find it unpalatable.

 Pacific Wax Myrtle 'Thunderbird' berries

Pacific Wax Myrtle 'Thunderbird' berries

Several species of butterflies use the leaves as a larval food source. Inconspicuous yellow flowers in late spring are followed in fall by tiny black berries covered in a white, waxy bloom. Birds find the berries delicious. Native Americans used the berries in soups and for making dyes and candles, although M. pennsylvatica is also a better option for candle making, the berries having a higher wax content than M. californica.

As a final bit of advice, I feel compelled to remind you, dear reader, to use these and any other native plants with caution, as they can be habit forming. Given their four seasons of beauty, plethora of practical attributes, and ease of care, you just might find yourself ripping out some of those fussy foreigners and seeking the path of least resistance by going native!

Happy gardening!

GB