It has begun. While preceding months have occasionally teased with gentler days, leaving dashed hopes as nature capriciously reverted to her winter ways, spring is actually here.
Warming temperatures, nurturing showers and a landscape of effervescent color now give evidence the season of dormancy is clearly in hindsight.
New growth is everywhere, as deciduous trees, hydrangeas, wisteria, roses and a cast of garden companions too numerous to count unabashedly display their signature hues and fragrance. Beyond the confines of cultivars and garden spaces groomed to our liking, however, there exists the oft-overlooked beauty of the native wildflowers. These free spirits of the floral kingdom carpet hillsides, grace the under-canopy of forests and survive the most unlikely of habitats amidst urban sprawl. It’s time to take a closer look.
During my years as a nursery owner with a passion for landscape design, I often relied on the admittedly bold and visually stunning ornamentals typical to the average garden. I did, however, use native plants to accommodate areas prone to drought, and other conditions less favorable to non-natives. Natives additionally lent a more subtle beauty in contrast to the more ostentatious newcomers.
With the diminishment of the natural habitat, and wild places becoming more rare by the year, I have a renewed appreciation for those species that greatly predominated the meadows and general outdoors in my earlier life. Indigenous wildflowers, blooming trees and shrubs are finally receiving their long overdue recognition within the gardening community, and I’ve personally adapted recent projects to accommodate the use of native plants while using non-natives in a more peripheral role.
Historically, native plants and flowers were used as medicine, food, basket materials, ropes, and clothing, to name a few. Early European explorers to the Pacific Northwest and southern California were astounded at the depth and diversity of botanical life in the new world. These early visitors returned home with seedlings and starts, to commence propagation of their new-found wealth from our region.
Interestingly, for many years these same plants were rarely considered for use in home gardens, or landscaping in the Pacific northwest, particularly in California. It wasn’t until the early 1900s that horticulturists and botanists began paying attention to these ubiquitous beauties. This acknowledgment initiated efforts to protect, cultivate and educate, and thus avoid the possibility of losing these irreplaceable gifts forever.
Notable botanical gardens were established in California during this same period for the express purpose of preservation and education and by the mid 1960s the California Native Plant Society was formed in support of this same goal.
Fortunately, those of us inhabiting northern California and southern Oregon still enjoy a significant expanse of wilderness relatively unmarred by the human footprint. Most notably, certain botanical specimens are endemic to our particular region of paradise exclusively, while Mid-March to early April marks the blossoming period for these unique natives.
Within this context, I began my own exploration into botanical systems from the coastal town of Smith River, inland to the Jedediah Smith park, the Smith River canyons, and east, deep into the canyon to Big Flat. Here are some of my favorites from the many treasures I discovered, and in bloom right now:
Skunk cabbage: Latin (Lysichiton americanus) — Tolowa (Daa-chuu-se’s)
Found in coastal bog/fen/wetland locations this striking bright green leaved/yellowish-green flowered native plant is the largest wildflower of our region. Considered to be foul-smelling, it nonetheless is beautiful to behold. Used by the Tolowas, its leaves were a food preservative, a vessel for drinking water and a container to bake sturgeon eggs. The steamed root was used medicinally as a treatment for arthritis, stroke, tuberculosis and back pain.
Coast Strawberry: Latin (Fragaria chiloensis)
Blooming April to June right after spring thaw this hardy groundcover is easy to identify. Looking essentially the same as its garden variety cousin but smaller, this hardy perennial creeper can be brought into a traditional landscape provided it is planted in rich, well drained soil. Its tiny berries are quite tasty. Medicinal uses have been varied. Strawberry-leaf tea is acknowledged to possess diuretic and astringent properties, while high in vitamin C. In addition, fresh leaves have been chewed to treat mouth sores.
Oregon Grape: Latin (Berberis aquafolium) — Tolowa (Dan’-dee-ch’ee-ye)
The Oregon Grape grows from the Pacific Coast to the eastern slopes of the Rockies. Resembling holly, it is often mistakenly identified until spring when it bursts forth in glorious bright yellow blossoms followed by juicy reddish purple berries. Its edible berries are quite sour but can be eaten raw or cooked. The cleaned, dried, and chopped root was used by the Tolowa tribe as a blood purifier, as a treatment for pancreatitis and for liver and kidney problems. Additionally, the root was used as a dye for basket making materials.
Tough-leafed Iris: Latin (Iris tenax)
The hardiest of all in the native Iris family, this sturdy, mounding iris was everywhere I explored. Traditionally its tough leaf fiber was used to make nets, snares and ropes. As a landscape plant, once established it can handle drought and then reseeds. Considered the easiest iris to grow, it enhances any garden as a perennial border and/or edge of a garden pathway.
Trillium: Coast Trillium: Latin (Trillium ovatum)
Rare and endangered in many places, this is one of the most unique and endearing of Springs early bloomers. The first time I came in contact with the coast trillium it was growing in dappled light in one of the last stands of old growth Douglas Fir forest in Humboldt County on the Lost Coast. The slightly sweet fragrance combined with a delicate three-petal flower that changes color from white to pink to mauve as it matures makes it one of nature’s most incredible creations.
Growing requirements are moist, humus-rich, well drained soil with protection from the hot sun. They are long-lived garden perennials and can take up to 5-7 years to produce a first blossom. If picked while blooming, they may die so leaving them undisturbed is recommended. If you’re driving the U.S. 199 corridor from U.S. 101 toward Hiouchi, take a moment to stop and appreciate the abundance of trilliums in cohabitation within lush stands of fern and old-growth redwoods. They make outstanding companion plants with the trillium flower illuminating the deep greens and browns of the forest.
Giant Purple Wakerobin: Latin (Trillium kurabayashii)
The last and most remarkable native plant revealed itself to me just last week on my own land. It initially escaped my notice, as it blended so well with the other forest colors. Its green leaves with brown mottled spots and purple-brown flower keeps this treasure hidden from all but the educated eye. With the realization that I discovered a very large trillium variety, considered a rarity in the Trillium genus, I knew my garden was home to something remarkable.
It occurred to me that this lone trillium in my yard would most probably indicate its presence in the surrounding, undisturbed wooded areas. As anticipated, not far from my house in deep, rich, moist forest surrounded by ferns, I found an incredibly large grouping of these same trilliums. A thrilling find indeed.
I recently cleared a sunny slope in preparation for two large packages of a perennial native wildflower seed mix, including California poppies, lupine, yarrow, and bluebells to create a native wildflower habitat on my own property. Wildflower seeds are easy to plant, needing only a mere 1/8 to 1/4 of an inch of soil to top dress, with no need for fertilizer; Nature rewarded my efforts, with wonderful spring showers the very next day.
I now joyously anticipate the first signs of my very own field of wildflowers, and whatever other hidden spring delights that await my notice. There’s still time for you to do the same.
As a longtime nursery owner and overseer of Alfa Vedic Botanical Gardens, Deborah Lando conducts community gardening classes from basics to master level, and shares her substantial knowledge in organic gardening practices and garden Feng Shui. She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org and her website is www.alfavedic.com.