Native Plant Highlights

The last couple weeks have been busy and the blog has suffered for it. Sometimes living life takes precedence over recording it. I'm still trying to find my balance again with my busy new schedule and will do my best to get back to posting weekly.

For this week, I'm featuring some of my favorite native plants from May. I know, it's a bit late, but I wanted to share these photos.

Some of my favorite native plants in mid to late spring are the native penstemons. I love the evergreen, semi-shrubby mat-forming species. Many of them grow in the mountains and may struggle in the higher summer temperatures and longer dry season of the lower elevations, but can be grown successfully with careful siting. In my garden, I have the most success in a bed that gets sun until about 2pm, with shade during the hottest part of the day. A raised bed amended with gravel provides good drainage. Watering deeply, as often as every 2 weeks at the height of summer, keeps them from turning to a crisp. Other native penstemons grow in the Columbia River Gorge or at lower elevations on both sides of the Cascade mountains and are more tolerant of heat and drought.

First up is Penstemon rupicola. This is the fussiest of the three native species I grow, primarily because it's the most heat-sensitive.

But with flowers like these, and glaucous blue-green, evergreen foliage, this rock garden gem is absolutely worth a bit of attention to siting and soil amendment.

Penstemon cardwellii is a bit more vigorous and resilient at lower elevations than P. rupicola. My best plant is growing just a couple feet away from my rupicola. While rupicola is growing in soil heavily amended with gravel, cardwellii makes due with a thin layer of soil over a root on a burnt out stump. I've had limited success introducing it to other areas of the garden, especially with the heat of the last two summers. The other sites have had too much afternoon sun, but cardwellii has lasted longer than rupicola in those locations.

Penstemon cardwellii in full bloom. This species grows everywhere in the blast zone of Mt. St. Helens and it's a sight to see, blooming with red Castilleja species and Lupinus lepidus.

Penstemon rupicola in the foreground with P. cardwellii and P. serrulatus in the background.

Focusing in on P. cardwellii and P. serrulatus.

Penstemon serrulatus, unlike the previous two species, is an herbaceous species with upright stems from a semi-woody base. It dies down in winter to evergreen leaves at the base. It's more adaptable to the average garden, handling heat and average, even somewhat heavy, garden soil with ease as long as it has decent drainage.

This year I noticed the funny terminal flowers on some of the clusters. Penstemon flowers are typically bilaterally symmetrical. You can draw a vertical line down the face and get two halves that mirror each other. These funny terminal flowers show radial symmetry. You can draw a line across the end from any point and get two equal halves.

I love the blue shades on these flowers. They seem to be more prevalent in cooler weather. The last two springs were warmer and these flowers had hardly any blue. I love my cool springs for so many reasons.

This is definitely my most impressive patch of Penstemon serrulatus. It's actually three plants close together.

I love it with the chartreuse lime thyme in the background.

I've started spreading it around the wider garden.

It looks a bit small and lost against this ridiculous stand of yarrow that resulted from my seed-sowing a year ago. I'm debating cutting back and ripping out large amounts of that yarrow, both here and other spots where it's a bit overenthusiastic. But I hate to remove something so substantial when most of my other plants are so small. I will at least cut it back and let it produce flowers at a lower height.

More Penstemon serrulatus and yarrow, mingling with a non-native bronze Cordyline australis, with a single red California poppy.

A purely native combo of Penstemon serrulatus and a young Gaultheria shallon. The salal will have to be controlled or removed so it doesn't overwhelm the penstemon. A more evenly matched but similar combination would be native Gaultheria ovatifolia, if you can find it, or Gaultheria procumbens, if you can't. Penstemon serrulatus can tolerate partial shade to grow with either of those plants. If you're thinking that I like Penstemon serrulatus a lot because I included so many photos, you would be right.

Moving on to other natives. Lupinus polyphyllus, or bigleaf lupine, has started volunteering randomly in the garden, and is most welcome.

Here it is a bit later. I kind of like how the flowers age to brown, as long as the weather is cool and they don't fry and curl.

When the salal was in full bloom earlier this month, the honey bees finally made their appearance in earnest. They had been slow to appear this year. A few would show up here and there, but with the salal in full bloom, they showed up in swarms. Stands of salal vibrated and buzzed like cars racing in the distance. As the salal fades, I hope they find enough other flowers to their liking to stick around. Even though salal can be a very aggressive native, difficult to fit into or contain in small urban gardens, it seems worth growing if you have the space or are willing to contain it. The evergreen foliage and flowers are quite attractive and it is clearly beloved by honey bees. The raw fruit is tasty to some (like me) and makes good preserves to others, in addition to feeding wildlife. Unlike the honey bees, the native pollinators have had no problems this spring. The garden has been alive with native bees and pollinating flies of all sizes.

One of my very favorite spring wildflowers is the tiny starflower, Trientalis borealis ssp. latifolia, has glowing white or pale pink (sometimes both) flowers shaped like seven-pointed stars. The flowers appear to float above the leaves, held on delicate stems that almost disappear except on close inspection. I always love when this plant volunteers in garden beds. Here it mingles with Blechnum penna-marina ssp. alpina, native Fragaria chiloensis, and Prunella vulgaris.

Another mingling of native and non-native, with lots of starflower, Anaphallis margaritacea (pearly everlasting) and Alyssum spinosum.

Such a delicate appearance, yet this little native can grow in some quite dry places at the base of Douglas firs, thanks to the small tubes they grow from. While they can spread and pop up through other plants, I've never seen them actually smother other plants. The foliage dies back in early summer, allowing other plants to grow.

I have a mix of native and non-native vetch (or vetch-like) species in one section of woods. I'm sure it would look weedy to a lot of people, but I've been enjoying the texture of the foliage, dotted with purple and blue-ish flowers. This is in one of the many areas that I allow to grow wild, with only minimal interference when necessary to remove the more aggressive invasives. This particular section has such difficult conditions that those invasives aren't really a problem, except perhaps the vetch. I know I have native Lathyrus nevadensis ,or maybe L. polyphyllus (or both), but I think I also have some non-native relatives in the mix here.

The legumes, native or otherwise, ramble happily over the salal and other plants in this area, enriching the soil by fixing nitrogen in their root nodules.

Tiarella trifoliata is a lovely native preferring moist woods. I have two areas where this native occurs naturally and I've started transplanting it to the shady, moist part of the garden. Normally delicate and dainty in appearance, I was shocked by how robust it grows when planted in a bed mulched with compost, lacking the competition of close neighbors. This one plant is roughly two feet tall and wide, creating a solid clump of flower stems instead of just a few weaving through other plants.

The tiny white flowers, like flecks of foam, give rise to the common name of foam flower, and are very difficult to photograph without a good macro lens.

Vancouveria hexandra is another beloved wildflower. Here, the odd, reflexed petals (making the flowers appear inside out) mingle with the blooms of a native Luzula, or wood sedge.

Montia parvifolia is a fun little native with succulent leaves and dainty stems of pale pink flowers. It loves moisture and will grow along shady stream banks or more sunny sites. In my garden, it manages without a stream, growing in places with almost full sun that become quite dry in summer, returning from seed if the plants dry out too much. It does prefer mossy spots under larger plants, though. It seeds around and also spreads by small plantlets that form on the flowering stems.

Iris tenax grows throughout the more open areas of the woods and woodland edges here. One year it started volunteering in one of the garden beds and I've been encouraging it ever since

This year, I noticed something amazing on a plant that was already my most special Iris tenax because of the white flowers with blue streaks (see photo at the bottom of this post). Now it's doing something else amazing by producing a variegated sport. Interestingly, the leaves are more heavily variegated on one side (the side shown in the photo) than the other. Needless to say, I'll be keeping a close eye on this fun little mutation.

I'll end this post with a newcomer to the woods here, Sambucus caerulea, the blue elderberry. Until this year, I've only ever seen red elderberry, Sambucus racemosa, in this area, and always wondered why blue elderberry appears to skip over us and reappear not far to the north or south. Blue elderberry has more leaflets and a glaucous stem, compared to the red. When this young plant reaches blooming size, it will have flowers in flat clusters rather than pointed and, of course, blue berries instead of red. Unlike red elderberries, blue elderberries can be eaten raw, though they should still be eaten in moderation as they can give some people upset stomachs. I happen to not be bothered by them and enjoy their flavor raw (most people prefer them cooked into deserts or preserves.

Finding new native species on the property is one of my favorite things, which is why I've included this young elderberry in this post. I know it wouldn't be very exciting otherwise (and probably still isn't to most of my readers). While the logging industry supports my family and community, I can't help but lament the loss of diversity and old growth forests. Any increase in diversity on this small plot of former logging land makes me happy.


  1. Wow, you've a great collection of native plants, Evan! I love the penstemons in particular but haven't done particularly well with anything in that genus in this garden. I've planted P. heterophyllus 'Margarita BOP', said to be good here, a couple of times but they've never survived more than a couple of years . Our drought may have factored into the equation but the small plant I put in this year doesn't seem to be doing much better than its predecessors. Perhaps I'll follow your lead and look for an afternoon shade location for it.

    1. Thanks, Kris! I hope you find luck with penstemons. There are so many, maybe you just haven't found the right one for your conditions.

  2. Such a great, floriferous post, Evan. So loving those penstemon in a very envious way. P. serrulatus might make it in my climate, but the other two-nah. Just wonderful. I'll keep experimenting with Penstemon from the rockies and great plains because they are wonderful plants.
    That's great that you noticed the odd, radially symmetrical terminal penstemon flower. I've seen photos of some foxgloves pulling the same trick with a terminal flower exhibiting radial symmetry.
    That's a great Tiarella. I've never heard of it before or seen one so large.

    1. Thanks! Good luck with your Penstemon experiments. I actually saw quite a few of those odd terminal flowers on P. serrulatus this year. Tiarella trifoliata is restricted to the West Coast, Idaho, and Montana, and I don't think it's particularly appreciated even in its native range. I'm not surprised it's obscure to you.

  3. I remember in an older post you visited a garden that had a gradual transformation from a tended garden to the wilder natural woods, and I'm happy to see you apply it to your own garden. You have a large space to "fill" that you can be generous with volunteers. I'd be encouraging Iris tenax too if it ever showed up in my small garden. I love how the tiny Starflower lights up the woodland garden. P. cardwellii is a favorite. I'll be looking for Penstemon serrulatus to add to my collection.

  4. going native never looked so good

  5. Wonderful plants. Like Kris, I have no luck with Penstemons. The Tiarella is something like a northern, moist-environment version of our So Cal native Heuchera. What dainty little flowers it has!


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