Recognizing Native Plants In Youth
The coastal Pacific Northwest is home to a treasure trove of plants, from tremendous firs and cedars to Bear Grass and Paintbrush. Though much of the coast has been developed over the past 150 years or so, the soil remembers when dense forest stretched from Alaska into Northern California. Disturb the soil in your garden and you’ll get weeds, for sure, but almost as certainly you’ll find seedlings of a wide range of native plants, from annuals, perennials and shrubs to those towering trees. Before yanking up unknown volunteers, take time to familiarize yourself with some of the most attractive natives in their youthful forms.
One good way to do this is to visit local nurseries. Many independent nurseries carry garden worthy natives, especially as gardeners’ interest in supporting native birds and pollinators increases. Naturally enough, native critters prefer native plants, though many are quite happy to move on to visit imported bloomers when the native flowers are spent. Fortunately, natives can coexist easily with other plants as long as they all enjoy the same conditions and care. Where native plants are sold in small pots, you can learn to recognize their form and foliage as youngsters. When you bring a few back home, you may discover that what you thought were weeds were in fact hopeful seedlings of handsome natives that will be very welcome in your garden.
The Native Returns
In regions that were forested for millennia, many of the returning natives will be shade lovers. Indeed, after sheets of ivy are removed from woodland areas, it’s quite common to find colonies of long-suppressed natives returning to their traditional homes. I recently visited a woodland garden where the well-meaning gardener was upset by persistent “weeds” which he was removing to make way for ground covers. It turned out that many of the “weeds” were Saxifrage cousins, native kin to coral bells (Heuchera). It took a lesson from the pages of Plants Of The Pacific Northwest Coast (by Pojar and MacKinnon) to convince my friend that he was ripping out hundreds of dollars worth of native ground covers that are every bit as lovely as the ones he wanted to plant.
Ironically, he had actually bought starts of some of the very plants he was uprooting, not recognizing them as younger version of his chosen replacements. Among these were a similar looking trio of perennials often called the Three T’s of the Northwest (Tolmeia, Tellima, and Tiarella). Tolmeia menziesii, aka Piggy-back Plant, may be better known to many people as a houseplant. It’s also called Mother Of Thousands for its habit of producing tiny plantlets at the base of older leaves. These babies will produce roots and transplant themselves as the fading foliage falls to the earth. The heart-shaped, palmate leaves are softly hairy, as are the stems decked with small chocolate colored flowers. Tolmeia is very apt to appear in damp shade, tucking its evergreen clumps comfortably between other plants.
Fringecup & Tiara Plant
Equally robust, Fringecup, or Tellima grandiflora also has hairy, heart-shaped leaves and flower stalks, but its flowers are larger, showing their relationship to coral bells (Heuchera). Pale green or rosy, the little bell blossoms are deliciously fragrant and quite long lasting in little desktop bouquets (and May baskets!). When well suited, Fringecups put on a significant floral display from mid spring into summer and the semi-evergreen foliage holds its looks well into autumn. Fringecup is one of my favorite “fillers” for informal woodland beds and borders, making attractive clumps under and between Oregon Grape, huckleberries, and rhododendrons. It’s also a good companion for snowdrops, snowflakes, and other spring bulbs, spreading its rounded skirts as the bulb foliage fades.
As the name implies, Tiarella trifoliata, or Foamflower, has divided leaves that come in threes, causing my friend to think it might be poison ivy. (“Leaves of three, let it be”, right?) As it happens, quite a few plants with leaves of three won’t cause your skin to break out, and Tiarella is among them. More delicate than its cousins, Foamflower produces clouds of tiny white flowers that sparkle in shady settings. A hardy perennial, it pops up in moist shady places, much to the delight of native bees and butterflies.
Though not related to the other three, another excellent native was among the uninvited guests in my friend’s garden. Inside-Out Flower (Vancouveria hexandra) is a charming, delicate looking perennial ground cover with sprays of tender green leaflets and wiry, arching stems tipped with bobbing white flowers like tiny birds on a wire. These are deeply reflexed, with petals bending backwards like shooting stars. Totally deciduous, the dainty leaves appear in late winter, making carpets of fresh, light green. A happy healthy plant, Vancouveria spreads companionably (never aggressively) between shrubs and larger perennials such as hellebores. It moves most quickly in damp soils but more slowly in summer-dry situations and transplants very easily.
By the time we sorted out which plants were actually weeds (notably ivy, holly, shotweed and stinky Bob) and which were little treasures, my friend had accumulated a pile of pictures on his phone for future reference. This is a great way to learn to recognize our native neighbors so we can appreciate them instead of ripping them up. It’s also a good way to make sure that we don’t hoe up clumps of seedlings that we carefully sowed last autumn; always plant a few in a small labeled pot and leave it where you scattered seeds. When they start coming up, take pictures every week or so at first, then every month to record the various stages they pass through on their way to maturity. Onward, right?