Following are of some of my favorite native plants. I define ‘native plants’ as plants that were on this continent before the arrival of European settlers. Native plants grow well in local gardens; they are accustomed to the extremes of moisture, temperature, and soil types in the Pacific Northwest. They thrive without any human intervention. They are also an important part of the ecosystem as they provide wildlife and insects with food and shelter.
Ostrich Fern (or Shuttlecock Fern) Matteuccia struthiopteris
The beautiful Ostrich Fern is native to northern North America, Asia, and Europe. It likes a damp and shady site that is protected from wind. In early spring, the emerging fronds uncurl slowly to 1 meter high. Fronds can be cooked and eaten (as you would with asparagus) while they are still curled, young, and tender. Ostrich Ferns make a wonderful ground cover and will create a colony in just a few years. They are deciduous and can look tatty in late summer so keep that in mind if you choose them for use in your garden.
False Lily of the Valley (Maianthemum dilatatum)
False Lily of the Valley is a low-growing native perennial. It is a beautiful addition to the shady woodland garden. It emerges in April with glossy green leaves and offers a nice contrast to the moss around it. The photo above was taken in mid-April at a relatively high elevation. The leaves have just emerged from the ground. As the summer progresses, the leaves become larger and look more heart-shaped. The tiny white flowers are extremely small and can only be seen if you look closely in the spring. They reward those who make the effort to see them.
Deer Fern (Blechnum Spicant)
Deer ferns grow well in the Pacific Northwest. They will colonize an area that they are happy in; an area with shade, moisture, and conifer trees above. They are not invasive. If they spread too far, they are easy to dig out. One downside to these ferns is their tattiness in the winter, but May and June will see them resurface beautifully. Their bright-green new growth is lush and they have gorgeous new “ladders” that grow from the center. Quite spectacular in early June at a high elevation.
Western Bleeding Heart (Dicentra Formosa)
Western Bleeding Heart is a delicate, airy perennial that is native to our Pacific Northwest in moist woodland. The pale pink flowers emerge in mid to late spring and are a source of ethereal beauty. The finely divided soft foliage will go dormant in the summer, re-emerging in the fall or the following spring. This was one of the first woodland natives I planted in my backyard because it makes a beautiful, non-invasive groundcover for shady areas. There are numerous cultivars of Western Bleeding Heart and a number of hybrid cultivars that have been developed using other species. You can choose flower colors in white, pink tones, or deep red. The lovely hanging flower of Western Bleeding Heart are attractive to hummingbirds and a number of beneficial insects.
Western Bleeding Heart does not tolerate sun, so you must find a shady section of moist garden before planting. I still remember a healthy clump of Western Bleeding Heart I saw on a hike through the Hanes Valley last August. Vancouver had a deep snow pack the previous winter, so the trail was only safe late in the summer. I started climbing a large rock scree up behind Dam Mountain and Goat Ridge where there is almost no vegetation. The area is usually in shade for most of the day due to the high cliffs on three sides. I came over a few boulders and found a large flowering clump of Western Bleeding Heart nestled firmly in the midst of the rocks; it was growing in basically no soil. It was a special treat to see.
Consider planting Western Bleeding Heart as a low-maintenance native groundcover in your own shady backyard.
Thuja Plicata (Western Red Cedar)
The Western Red Cedar is a must-have tree if you live in the Pacific Northwest and have a large yard. It needs to spread its lovely branches and grow to its full potential. Remember a healthy specimen can grow to about 65 meters and the trunk can grow 3 to 4 meters in diameter. You can expect it to reach about half that height in a garden setting. My Western Red Cedars grow about 1-2 meters per year. The branches sweep downwards and make the trees look naturally conical. You want to place this tree where it will never need to be topped. It is extremely sad to see one these majestic giants butchered by topping. You can thin the branches for dappled sun if you find your sunlight is being blocked.
Western Red Cedar cones are small and decorative. The foliage is dark green with scale-like leaves that are very irritating to your skin. Cover your arms with long sleeves and wear gloves if you do any pruning. Also be careful to purchase the native form of this tree. A lot of nurseries will try to sell you Thuja Plicata ‘Excelsa’. This is NOT the same plant! It may have the same foliage and smell but it does not have the same natural form.
If you want to plant beneath the Western Red Cedar, try to put in your shrubs while the tree is still young so the roots will gradually intertwine. I have underplanted my Thuja Plicatas with ‘Vulcan’s Flame’ Rhododendron, Sword ferns, Solomon’s Seal, and Girard’s ‘Pleasant White’ Azalea. The dark green foliage of Western Red Cedar looks lovely as a background for any color, but whites and reds look stunning in front of this tree.
The Western Red Cedar is important to our local wildlife. Many birds and insects survive because of the shelter and food these trees provide. Below is a photo of a Black Capped Chickadee in my Thuja Plicata. It has caught a bug that it will take to its nest.
Foxgloves are well-known and beloved native biennials that grow throughout the Pacific Northwest. The late spring and early summer blossoms look like little finger-gloves. I have seen flower colors in purple, pink, white, or yellow. Most commonly you will see purple or white. You will find Foxgloves easily in your local garden center. Foxgloves make lovely additions to the woodland or cottage garden. Just remember that all parts of a Foxglove are toxic.
Western Sword Fern (Polystichum Munitum)
Western Sword Ferns are versatile evergreen perennial native plants. They grow about a meter high and wide, but are also easily divisible in early spring. Western Sword Ferns are maintenance free, although you can tidy them up in the spring by cutting away any dead foliage. Their fronds are feathery and look wonderful next to large flat-leaved plants, such as rhododendrons or camellias. Western Sword Ferns like moist shade, but will tolerate quite a bit of sun if well watered. They generally require no watering in the summer other than the rainfall that occurs naturally.
Creeping Dogwood or Canadian Bunchberry (Cornus Canadensis)
Canadian Bunchberry is one of my favorite perennial groundcovers. Whether I see it while I am hiking up a mountain on a mossy trail or in my own garden under Japanese Maples and Rhododendrons, I am always amazed at its beauty. The beautiful late-spring white flowers resemble the common dogwood and are part of the same family. In late summer, the bright edible red berries appear and bring color to the forest floor. Canadian Bunchberry grows slowly and prefers total or part shade in moist, acidic soil. The foliage will turn yellow and orange late in the season before dying down for the winter. The maximum height is about 20cm although I have never seen any Canadian Bunchberry grow taller than 6 cm.
Kinnikinnick or Pinemat Manzanita or Bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi)
Kinnikinnick is a beautiful ground hugging native shrub that grows all over Canada – in every territory and province and at many different elevations. Kinnikinnick is evergreen and is interesting in all seasons. In the spring, pretty bell-shaped flowers appear and slowly turn into bright red prolific berries. These flowers and berries are attractive to wildlife including many bird and insect species. The leaves are also eaten by deer and small mammals.
There are a number of cultivars available. I grow ‘Massachusetts‘ and ‘Vancouver Jade’, both of which grow quickly and effectively suppress weeds. Kinnikinnick generally grows about 15 cm high and spreads 1 to 2 meters. Kinnikinnick prefers acidic soil that is somewhat dry; although I live in rainy Lynn Valley and my plants thrive. I have planted them, however, on slightly raised soil. Kinnikinnick shrubs also prefer a sunny spot and, again, I have planted mine in less than ideal conditions with part shade and they are growing quite happily.
Salal, Oregon Wintergreen, or Shallon (Gaultheria Shallon)
Salal is a native evergreen sprawling shrub that belongs to the Ericaceae (or Heath) family. It grows to 0.5 to 2 meters and prefers part shade although it can tolerate sunnier sites. Salal has small pinky-white flowers in May and June that become deep purple edible berries (really sepals). Salal berries are quite tasty and high in antioxidants. The First Nations people used Salal extensively as a food source. The leaves are very tough and thick but the young tender spring leaves are supposed to be edible as well, although I have never felt tempted to try them. Salal can be somewhat invasive in a garden setting but they make a thick impenetrable ground cover should you desire that. Just ensure you border your Salal with rocks or concrete to protect your more delicate plants. Cuttings from Salal make great long-lasting evergreen additions to flower arrangements.
Wintergreen, Eastern Teaberry, Checkerberry, or Boxberry (Gaultheria procumbens)
Wintergreen is a low-growing native groundcover shrub that grows to 10 to 15 cm in height. Wintergreen leaves are evergreen but in the winter they turn shades of red, green, and yellow. The bright red berries that persist on the shrub look lovely nestled in this mix and they make wonderful Christmas decorations in outdoor containers.
Red Flowering Currant (Ribes Sanguineum)
Red Flowering Currant is one of my favorite spring shrubs. Depending upon where you are located, the deep pink flowers appear between March and May. The hummingbirds will arrive very soon thereafter. Red Flowering Currant is their favorite food source in my area, and they will dart in and out of these shrubs for weeks until the flowers fade. Later in the summer, there will be edible purple berries that are not very showy. I have personally never eaten one so I cannot recommend them. The shrub grows to about 4 meters high but is very prunable. Plant in sun to part-shade. Red Flowering Currant is also extremely easy to propagate. These shrubs are glorious in the spring but not too exciting for the rest of the year. Plant them at the back of a border or mixed with showier shrubs.
Some of the many cultivars of Red Flowering Currant are King Edward VII, White Icicle, and Pulborough Scarlet. May you bless a hummingbird by planting a Red Flowering Currant!
Skunk Cabbage (Lysichiton americanum)
Skunk Cabbage is a native perennial growing about 1.5 meters tall and wide. It loves swampy forests and grows well in the woods in any boggy area. The flowers emerge in April and May and you can smell them very readily. They really do smell like a skunk!
The native people used to eat the cooked roots and leaves of the skunk cabbage when there was little else to eat. Be careful not to do the same, however, because in large doses the plant can be toxic. Bears will often eat this plant when they emerge from hibernation.
Most people do not plant these in their gardens, probably due to the smell in the spring. If you have a boggy, shady area in your yard then this would be a suitable native plant to grow. In fact, the skunk cabbage is quite popular in England and Ireland. The grass is always greener…..