Backyard Botanizing: What the Fence means to the Natives

One of the most exciting things for me about fencing off half of the property, including several natural, uncultivated wooded sections, is what will happen now that the deer are no longer over-browsing most of the native vegetation (not to mention my garden plants). At one point, we had a native Ribes sanguineum. The deer defoliated it until we put a cage around it. Ironically, we ended up killing it after moving it from its original location, the base of a tree that was earmarked for removal. Two or three black twinberry (Lonicera involucrata) also appeared one year, but disappeared a couple years later from being constantly eaten by the deer. Trilliums are lucky to go a year without having their one, trifoliate leaf bitten off, let alone bloom. Western trumpet honeysuckle (Lonicera ciliosa) is scattered all over, but rarely manages to grow past the slow ground-creeper stage to climb up a nearby shrub or small tree and bloom, because as soon as one produces long vining shoots a deer comes along and clips it back. The few that have managed to climb and bloom are at the edge of the property or in large salal "islands" where the dense brush protected the vines and at least one small tree for the honeysuckle to climb. There's really very few small trees or shrubs in the woods for the honeysuckle to climb anyway.

Although the deer still have access to the largest portion of woods on the property, several section are within the fence. They may actually be more diverse than the larger woods, because they aren't completely carpeted by sword ferns (Polystichum munitum). Those ferns are a double-edged sword. On the one hand, they are very dense, preventing most things from growing under them. On the other hand, some things can grow under them or in holes in the middle of groups of ferns, and these hiding places allow some plants to grow unmolested almost to a height where they are safe from deer.

Yesterday I went through the woods, doing a thorough search of plants I want to move from the lower half of the property to the portion inside the fence, and seeing what exists inside the fence that I get to watch finally grow unimpeded. None of the images below are from cultivated areas. All are from uncultivated, natural areas, which make up most of the five acres I garden on. The reality of acreage is a lot of unused space, unless you farm, have livestock, or have unlimited funds for developing the entire property into a garden, or whatever you want to use your money for (though why you'd use it for anything else I can't imagine).

One of only two western hemlocks (Tsuga heterophylla) on the property, this one was planted while the other is naturally-occurring. I just freed it from its gallon prison planted it last year, I think (maybe the year before) after subjecting it to many years in a container. You can see the tiny old needles in contrast with the healthy, full-size new growth this year. It's so happy to be free! The old needles have even changed from their depressed yellow-green to a nice healthy green. Huh, if you plant a tree after keeping it in a pot for far to long, it suddenly grows a lot better. Who knew? I don't know what took me so long to put the poor thing in the ground. The deer don't eat it, so there was nothing stopping me but myself.

 Licorice fern (Polypodium glycirrhiza) started popping up here and there four or five years ago on some of the trees that had become mossy enough to support them, as well as ones like this, on the ground near the base of trees. Not deer food, but I like them so I'm sharing.

It's a good thing I decided to survey the woods. I used to do frequent ivy patrols, but haven't for several years because, well, I haven't really lived here for several years. Luckily, this ivy was the largest, at about 3 feet long.

Inside-out flower (Vancouveria hexandra) isn't much bothered by deer that I've noticed, though I'm sure if I had moved some from the woods to one of my garden beds it would have been like laying out a salad on the table. As a somewhat aggressive spreader, this plant has become quite common in the woods in the last few years, but has only just begun to colonize the area that is now enclosed in the fence. I may help it along by transplanting some into the shady garden areas.

There are only three blooming-size ocean spray (Holodiscus discolor) on the property, and two of them are on the very edge where dense salal and other brush protected them. There are perhaps three or four young plants, too, but only one of them is inside the fence. The one photographed below is just outside the fence against the back of the woodshed. It's also possibly the only one small enough to easily transplant, so I'll be moving it inside the fence come fall. I haven't seen any smaller than this, and it makes me wonder what a seedling looks like. Do they just materialize overnight at 2 feet tall and grow from there?

Both woodland strawberry (Fragaria vesca) and coastal strawberry (F. chiloensis) occur on the property. The fruit of the Fragaria vesca in the photo below was delicious.

One year, enchanter's nightshade (Circaea alpina) suddenly appeared here and there in the woods. I have no idea what triggered this sudden colonization, but it has really taken off since then.

I find the patches of this delicate perennial to be quite beautiful, even, dare I say, enchanting, in a quiet way.

Actually, one of the things I like best about enchanter's nightshade is that it seems to be successfully competing with the invasive herb robert (Geranium robertianum). They seem to like growing in the same areas and the Circaea starts growing earlier, thus shading the ground and denying the herb robert seeds and seedlings light. I've noticed a lot less herb robert each year since this enchanter moved in.

Salmonberry (Rubus spectabilis) plays a game of chance with the deer. Will it grow enough to surpass the reach of hungry deer, or will one happen by before the shrub can grow above it. This shoot lost this year.

There are enough around that have grown enough to escape the deer that I don't worry too much about them.

Red elderberry (Sambucus racemosa ssp. pubens) is infrequently eaten by deer, but often enough that there aren't many taller than a few feet. However, there are enough of these inside the fence that can grow up safe from browsing that I won't bother moving any. Though it might be nice to have some in sunnier areas where they might grow and bloom sooner to attract more birds. I saw a pair of cedar waxwings the other day collecting nesting material from the edge of the dry creek bed. They were a common sight at our previous house and a rare one here, and I believe it's because there were lots of native berries and other fruits at the other house for them to eat, while here the deer have prevented any substantial development of plants like salmonberry, elderberry, and Indian plum.

 A new plant sighting! I believe this is star-flowered false Solomon's seal (Smilacina stellata), but it could be Smilacina racemosa. Though this one was in the half of the property outside the fence, I also found a similar plant in the fenced area, so this one can stay put and hopefully produce a nice colony.
 As I said earlier, not much understory. Just a field of sword ferns under a relatively young canopy of almost pure Douglas fir. This was probably Weyerhaeuser land until about 50 years ago (totally guessing) and was logged and replanted accordingly. The two mature grand firs, three stands of red alder, and one small western hemlock are purely incidental.

I confess I'm not sure if this is Hooker's (Disporum hookeri) fairybells or Smith's fairybells (D. smithii). The difference is that the former has tiny hairs on the stems, leaves, and fruits, while the latter is smooth. I haven't had the gall to check if the Disporum in these woods shave or not. Either way, it's rare to see one this large, almost two feet tall. Usually one this size would have been eaten by the deer. Somehow, they manage to fruit and have become quite common both inside and outside the fenced area, so I don't need to move any. I just get to enjoy watching the ones inside the fence grow nice and big like this one.
 Another new plant on this property, at least in the last 15 years or so, I'm fairly certain this is Pacific waterleaf (Hydrophyllum tenuipes).

The flowers aren't really showy, but I love the purple filaments coming out of those little cream blooms.

A bizarrely unmolested saskatoon (Amelanchier alnifolia). Usually they're chewed to nubs with only a few leaves. I wish this one luck. There are plenty of seedlings in the fenced area, and mature plants in the general area to provide seed via birds, that I won't worry about moving any.

Same goes for this Indian plum (Oemleria cerasiformis). This one found a nice hiding place among the sword ferns. I hope it stays safe.

Beaked hazelnut seems to be left alone for the most part, so there are a decent number of them down in the woods. The same doesn't hold true for the ones in the area south of the house where the logging was done several years ago. They had to be cut down because they were growing right at the base of Douglas firs slated for removal. Of course the hazelnuts resprouted from the base, but the deer then decided to keep them mowed down to 2-3 feet tall. And they were once the largest ones on the property. Now that the fence is protecting them, maybe they will be again.

 Pacific bleeding heart (Dicentra formosa, yes still a Dicentra as far as I can tell) has grown for years in a very protected spot where a cascara arches over the back fence (old, half-collapsed barbed wire that wouldn't stop a three-legged, arthritic deer) and dense sword ferns close in around it. Every once in a while it pops up elsewhere in the woods, but is always mowed down eventually. This patch had lots of ripe seed, which I collected and spread in moist spots inside the new fence.

Foamflower (Tiarella trifoliata) doesn't seem to be bothered by deer and is already growing both inside and outside the new fence, but I want some in the shady garden areas so I plan to dig some up from the woods.

This tree fell across the back fence a few years ago. My parents hardly ever go this far into the woods, so it's likely this natural cage will remain to protect whatever may be growing within until the branches decompose.

The field area is full of oxeye daisies (Leucanthemum vulgare), an introduced weed from Europe. Frankly, to me the flowers smell like somethings rear end. The young shoots are edible though. Before they produce flower buds they are tender, sweet, and just a little spicy.

The large-leaf lupine (Lupinus polyphyllus) once covered a large portion of the field in a solid mass that created a purple lake in spring. Regular mowing reduced them to almost nothing, but recently they've been making a comeback. The warm spring this year made the flowers a bit of a flash in the pan, though. Usually the lower flowers are still looking decent by the time the top ones open. The last couple years they've browned out almost as soon as they open.

Surprisingly, foxgloves are rare occurrences here, so the two (one pictured below) that showed up at the edge of the field this year are a welcome novelty.

This has turned into a very long post, so I'm breaking it into two segments. Part 2 will cover plants inside the fenced area.


  1. I love natives, so I found this post very interesting, even though you thought it was long. I don't know if you need any more natives, but I do have a vine maple and an Indian plum, both too big to fit in my car. If you have a vehicle that you can transport them in, and you make it up this way this year, you can have them. They're already dug and potted up.

    1. Vine maples are in short supply here, and so are Indian plums taller than 6 inches. I'd love to take you up on that offer if I can fit them in my Subaru. I have lots of reasons to make my way north. Add another to the list!

  2. Sounds like a fun time, trekking around and tracking what's growing. You took me back to my youth on our 5 acres in the foothills of Mt Spokane. There were a lot of interesting things growing there and I loved exploring it.

    1. It was a nice reminder of my childhood, too. I used to do this regularly.

  3. I marvel at your vast knowledge of plants in general and natives particular. It's quite astonishing. Ever thought of guiding small groups of enthusiasts through the woods for a show-and-tell?
    I love the blend of wild natural garden with the human tended garden.

    1. Thank you, Chava. I usually play the role of botanical tour guide on hikes and have helped my mother with her students in an "outdoor classroom" natural area they go to. If I were to lead groups regularly, though, I'd use the state park, which is almost next door. It has actual trails, bigger trees, and better examples of more diverse plants than my woods.

  4. Your deer seem even more ravenous than ours. Good thing, as we live in a forest zone where no fences are allowed. You identified several plants that were mysteries to me. Thanks!

    1. They're giant furry locusts around here. Glad I solved a few mysteries for you!

  5. Interesting insight into what's native there in your area Evan!

    1. Looking back through it myself, I'm struck by how many plants I didn't show. But it does show a little bit of the flora here.

  6. You have all sorts of treasures you can plant - that should save at least one or two visits to the plant nursery.

    1. One or two, certainly. But most of what I have here prefers shade and I have a lot of sunny areas to plant. Haha, any excuse to keep visiting nurseries!

  7. I have lots of most of the same natives here, and the deep woods are similar with the expanses of sword ferns. I get the Circaea and Hydrophyllum in abundance here, and also the occasional Phacelia hastata. I was tickled at the local fair by the weed booth, they had Circaea there labeled as an example of garlic mustard! I have big clumps of Trilliums that were only eaten one year out of 21, so my deer don't damage my natives as much as yours (?). I also have areas with carpets of Mahonia nervosa and Salal, so edible berries! My Oemleria don't seem to fruit. The wild plants really add to my enjoyment of my garden, but it is marred by very many thistles and Himalayan, native, and Evergreen blackberries which are a constant struggle, hopefully you lack those, though the berries can be tasty.

    1. Too funny! Those weed people need to do a bit more research before the fair next year. It's always interesting what deer eat or don't eat from one area to the next. I have tons of salal and some Mahonia nervosa, though the latter doesn't always fruit much. I love salal. I think they're delicious, though not everyone agrees. Unfortunately, I don't lack any of those weeds, though neither of the invasive blackberries seem to be too horrible here and I appreciate the few patches I have for the berries. The deer were probably keeping them under control. Now I'll have them everywhere.


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