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Top 10: Native plants for your home and garden

May 2nd, 2013 | Category: Growing

by Chuck McClung

These days, many gardeners are already aware of the many advantages of using native plants in the landscape; they are tough, drought tolerant, and a source of beauty and food. I was recently asked what are some of my favorite native plants. Following is my top 10 countdown of favorite native plants for northwest gardens.

Columbines in the garden. Photo by Carol Boswell/Camelot Ranch Alpacas

Starting out at number 10, the Camas Lily (Camassia leichtlinii) is one of my favorite spring blooming perennials. Also called Large Camas, this tuberous perennial produces spectacular flower spikes to four feet tall adorned with large white or blue star shaped flowers. Provide average garden soil and enjoy long-lasting cut flowers.

Number 9 is the Pacific Dogwood (Cornus nuttallii), my favorite native, deciduous tree. The Pacific Dogwood can grow quite large to 50 feet tall, so be sure you have the space for one. I love seeing huge white flowers (bracts) brighten a dark background like a green space or edge of a woods. Spectacular!

Perhaps one of the most durable native plants for northwest gardens is Number 8 on my list, Salal (Gaultheria shallon). This deer resistant, drought tolerant, sun or shade, evergreen perennial, has colorful, edible berries, and large textured yet glossy leaves. Salal greens are often used in holiday arrangement. Plants that tolerate dry shade (e.g. under a large cedar tree) are sometimes tough to find. Many native plants, like Salal, are adapted for these conditions. Very persistent and tough, Salal grows taller in the shade to two or three feet, but often stays shorter, sometime under a foot, in sunny dry locations. Also be sure to enjoy the clusters of white flowers that are followed by purple berries.

Another durable plant for dry shade is number 7, the Western Sword Fern (Polystichum munitum). The common Western Sword Fern thrives in a variety of conditions from quite a bit of sun to total shade. Lovely fine textured foliage provides good contrast and movement. Older fronds on the bottom of the plant can be removed annually to tidy the plant, or if left on will provide year round shelter for small birds. Grow as single specimens, even in pots, or as a larger ground cover. And remember most ferns are also deer resistant!


Number 6 is Piggyback Plant (Tolmeia menziesii), so named because of unique growth habit of creating new plantlets that grow from or “piggyback” on the center other leaves. This spreading, low growing perennial is best planted as a groundcover in the shade under taller trees or shrubs. In late spring, interestingly details small flowers are produced on slender, delicate stems to 18 inches tall. The piggyback plant also is unique in that it happens to make a good hanging houseplant.

Another great ground cover for dry shade is number 5, the Inside-Out Flower (Vancouveria hexandra), named for its cute little spikes of funnel-shaped flowers that look like they’re stuck backwards on the stem. Sometimes this plant can be hard to find in nurseries. Treat it like one of its relatives, Epimedium, a low-growing semi-evergreen perennial that often gets cut back in late winter to early spring right before the flowers appear.

Tall Oregon Grape (Mahonia aquifolium) is number 4 on my list, and just happens to be in the same family (Berberidaceae) of the Inside Out Flower. I love the vivid, glossy, red winter foliage that is followed by fragrant clusters of yellow flowers in late winter or early spring, and later purple berries. Tall Oregon Grapeis very adaptable to sun or shade and most soils growing from three to sometimes five feet tall. Each plant is unique with their irregular growth habit. Oregon Grape spread with underground runners, so plant as a hedge, groundcover, or “in the mix.” And this is another one the deer tend to leave alone!

Number 3 is my favorite native shrub, the Vine Maple (Acer circinatum), which is one of the best native plants for colorful fall foliage. Attractive “in the wild” or as an uplimbed shrub, I like the open growth habit that lets in light. Vine Maples make greatfocal points (both in containers and in the ground) or blended with other plants in the landscape.

Piggyback up close. PHOTO BY DAVE TIMMER

I love columbines, so the number 2 native plant is the Western Columbine (Aquilegia formosa). This elegant, yet sturdy perennial grows to two feet tall or more with sprays of intricately detailed, nodding, reddish-orange and yellow, lantern-shaped flowers. The Western Columbine, blooms over a long time in spring and performs best part shade. Watch for seedlings and watch for hummingbirds attracted to the flowers!

And my favorite, number 1 native plants for northwest gardens is the Evergreen Huckleberry (Vaccinium ovatum). This very versatile, evergreen shrub, can be grown in sun or shade, is drought tolerant, and has edible berries. Growing to two to four feet tall with brilliant bronzy fall color, this small-leaved shrub can even be made into small hedges. Evergreen huckleberries are also deer and slug resistant! C’mon, you can fit one of these in somewhere!

So that’s my top 10 countdown of favorite native plants for northwest gardens. I hope you’ll try one out this year.

Native plant walks

If you’re interested in learning more, try one of these free introductory plant identification walks with the Koma Kulshan Chapter of the Washington Native Plant Society. (For more information contact Vikki Jackson at 319-6988 or

• Hidden Forest Foray: Explore the plants of the Sehome Hill Arboretum with guidebook author Mark Turner. Look at trees, shrubs, wildflowers, and a vine or two. Takes place Wednesday, May 8 from 6 p.m. to dusk. Meet in the parking area at the top of Arboretum Drive (off Bill McDonald Parkway).

• Backyard Habitat Fair Padden Lagoon Walk: Walk trails around Fairhaven Green to Padden Creek to see a variety of fun native plants on Saturday, May 18 from 1 to 3 p.m. Meet at the Fairhaven Green.

• Sprout Walk – A Family Plant Walk at Tennant Lake (Hovander Park): This walk is designed for children 4-6 yrs old with adult guardians. Explore plants together and discover shapes, textures, and colors. Takes place Sunday, May 19 from 2 to 3:30 p.m. Contact Monika Lange to register at Meet at the Tennant Lake Interpretive Center (Fragrance Garden).

• Downtown Plants: Enjoy an evening walk investigating native plants in the urban environment. Follow the Native Plant Teaching Trail in Maritime Heritage Park along Whatcom Creek and learn about the plants, their names, and uses in native Salish tradition. The walk will be led by anthropologist Allan Richardson, co-author of Nooksack Place Names. Takes place Thursday, May 30 from 6 p.m. to dusk. Meet at the Environmental Learning Center on West Holly Street at Maritime Heritage Park

• Wild Foods of Chuckanut Bay: Thursday, June 13 from 6 p.m. to dusk. Meet at the end of Fairhaven Ave. in Chuckanut Village.

Published in the May 2013 issue of Grow Northwest

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