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5 great native plants for the garden

My approach to gardening is informed by my natural history inclinations. While the garden has an aesthetic appeal, the greater appeal is the connection — the sense of belonging to the landscape, the sense of playing a part in a greater whole. Native plants illustrate in their genetic memory a response to thousands of wet winters and dry summers. They are part of many intricate relationships with birds, bees, fungi and humans, who rely on them for food and building materials along with so much more.

Early European plant collectors found the Pacific Northwest particularly appealing. The plant collector David Douglas explored this area between July1824 and October 1827, and introduced over 200 species from the Pacific Northwest into the European horticultural trade. Eighty or so species of plants bear his name, including the Douglas fir.

The following are five plants that caught his eye and continue to make an impression in gardens here and further afield:

Red-flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum)

red-flowering currant

The flowering of this plant and the arrival of the Rufous hummingbird go hand-in-hand. It blooms here around the end of March and early April. The genus name Ribes applies to currants and gooseberries, while the species name sanguineum refers to blood — presumably in reference to the colour of the flowers. Colour variation is typically shades of pink to red, but white cultivars are also available. Insect-pollinated plants use fragrances to advertise their attractiveness (pollen and nectar). This plant is pollinated by hummingbirds. Since hummingbirds don’t have a sense of smell, the red-flowering currant can forgo the metabolic expense of producing a scent and instead advertise with colour. And wow, what a colour!

Dull Oregon-grape (Mahonia nervosa) and tall Oregon-grape (Mahonia aquifolium)

tall Oregon-grape

Dull Oregon-grape is a very common understory plant in dry forests. Most of the prickly leaves are evergreen; with the occasional one, a striking crimson. David Douglas rated this plant highly for the English garden. José Mozino from the Spanish Malaspina’s Vancouver Island expedition sent live plants of a related species, Mahonia aquifolium (tall Oregon-grape), to Spain much earlier (around 1791). Tall Oregon-grape prefers more sun. The flowers of both species are bright yellow and fragrant. The berries are edible, but rather tart. First Nations Peoples mixed them with sweeter berries and dried them for winter use.

Salal (Gaultheria shallon)


Possibly the most prolific understory plant on the west coast, salal has gotten a lot of attention in the garden. It is also sought after by the floral industry for the attractive zig-zag form of its branches and its dark-green leathery leaves. The berries of salal can be plentiful, and it was an important traditional food plant for First Nations Peoples.

Wooly Sunflower (Eriophyllum lanatum)

The wooly sunflower, with its cheerful yellow flowers, has a long blooming period. It thrives in the sun and attracts bees and a variety of butterflies. The silvery-grey “hair” on its leaves reflects some light and reduces air movement across the leaf surface thus reducing evaporation and giving it drought resistance. It also makes this plant visually attractive. Because of its short stature, the wooly sunflower is a candidate for the front of flowerbeds or for use in rockeries. It also makes a great mid to late season show when planted in large drifts.

Kinnikinnik (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi)


Once established this tough plant does best in dry, sunny and poor-nutrient sites. I love seeing it grow on rock walls or through rockeries. The dark green leaves of the kinnikinnik contrast with its reddish-brown stems. The white to pink flowers also look good against its dark foliage. Because of this plant’s tolerance for tough environments, it is a popular choice for planting around parking lots. Spelled forward or backward, this neat sounding plant is still kinnikinnik — make of that what you wish. (It is also spelled kinnikinnick — but that isn’t as fun, is it?)

Many native plants are every bit as showy as garden ornamentals, but have the benefit of providing food and habitat for organisms with which they have co-evolved. By growing plants in your garden (or balcony), you can view in close proximity the processes of nature. Gardening with native plants is a great way to connect with and participate in nature.


Jay Rastogi is a naturalist, horticulturist and educator living in Yellow Point. ecoforestry [at] gmail [dot] com


Photos: Jay Rastogi

About the author: Angie