South stream garden part 2

It is shaping up to be an extremely dry year, I’m afraid. After last year’s massive forest fires that darkened our skies for weeks and dropped ash on the surrounding landscape, I am more than a little apprehensive about what this year will bring. Almost no rain at all in April and May is starting out dry too. The clay out in our yard is already beginning to crack open.

You’ll probably noticed from last time that there are a lot of natives in the south creek garden. There’s a reason for this. They all can take the wet winter muck, the heavy blanket of poplar leaves, and then survive through our dry summers. Several of them die back and disappear for the summer (giant larkspur, false lily of the valley), which is a great survival mechanism for when water is scarce. Vanilla leaf (Achlys triphylla), another native, will sometimes do that if it can’t get enough water during the growing season, but is otherwise content to stay above ground for the most part. This one is a slow spreader in the barberry family. I’ve rescued a few from the tree plantations surrounding our property and planted them here. The dried leaves supposedly smell like vanilla, but I’ve never had the heart to cut them off and dry them to find out.

Three green leaflets on vanilla leaf
Achlys triphylla

Vanilla leaf gets little spikes of white flowers in April-May, which reminds me that all of the false lily of the valleys (flotvs) get white flowers too. I wonder if they’re related and why white is such a common spring flower color here in western Oregon? Nope, flotvs aren’t related at all to Vanilla leaf. Flotvs are in the asparagus family! But, speaking of the barberry family, here is another native plant from the barberry family that is in the south stream garden, the inside out flower. I’ve got three species on our property. The white inside out flower (Vancouveria hexapetala) grows around these parts naturally. But I’ve also bought the yellow one (Vancouveria chrysantha) and small, shiny leaved one (Vancouveria planipetala). None of them are blooming right now, but I do love their clean leaves this time of year. I first fell in love with this plant when I saw it blooming on the Cornell University campus in Ithaca, NY 14 years ago. Named after George Vancouver, a long-dead British explorer of the Pacific Northwest, whose name is also associated with at least one city (Canada) and one town (Washington) in the region.

You might have noticed the prickly leaved thing in the upper left hand corner of the previous picture? There, we have another native plant in the barberry family, the creeping Oregon grape (Mahonia repens). It never blooms much for me, but it is a reliable evergreen groundcover for a wide range of environmental conditions. One of three Mahonias that occur around here, the other two being Oregon grape, Mahonia aquifolium, and my personal favorite, dwarf Oregon grape, Mahonia nervosa.

By now, you may have picked up on a theme. Here we have seven (seven!) native plants that occur in Oregon that are in the barberry family. Hmm, I bet that is a good sign that other plants in the barberry family will do well here too. That leads to two of my top tips for success with plants. First, look for the native plants that already do well in your area that you think are attractive – they have adapted to your local conditions and will likely do well for you too. Don’t fight them, embrace them. Second, look for plants that are closely related to the species that occur naturally in your region. Since there are so many native plants in the barberry family that do well here, it seems likely that there will be plants in the barberry family from other states and countries that should grow for me too.

Picking up on that latter tip, I have been experimenting with a number of Epimedium species and cultivars (barrenworts). Basically, Epimedium is the Chinese equivalent genus of Vancouveria in Oregon. It is another plant in the barberry family that somewhat slowly creeps around the garden and has really cute flowers to boot. Unfortunately, it is a bit en vogue at the moment and commands a higher price than it should compared to other perennials. But the good news is that this means there is an overabundance of different cultivars to choose from and they are available in a lot of nurseries. I tend to pick the cheap ones (<$10) at first. I don’t start buying anything expensive until I figure out if it is going to survive in my yard. Here is Epimedium perralchicum, an old standby from the famous Wisley gardens. Reliable, cheap, and robust with neglect in my garden. I don’t water it at all in summer. It doesn’t care. Here it is towards the end of its blooming period. Now it will just be fresh green leaves until next spring.

Epimedium grandiflorum var. higoense ‘Bandit’. A mini, slow growing form. Love the purple border around the leaves, though it is hard to see against last year’s poplar leaves if I am not right up next to it. Very slow to emerge in the spring, which is how I ended up with two. I thought the first one had died, but no, it was just sulking underground waiting for warmer weather.

Still not totally enamored with Epimedium wushanense ‘Spiny leaved form’. I thought it would be cool, with fantastic wine-colored new leaves and a great spiny leaf. But honestly, it has been a bit of a disappointment. An ugly slowpoke with leaf spot problems. It gets a few new leaves every year and I think “Nice!” But then they turn all blotchy, blighted and brown by midsummer. You can see one of those leaves in the lower right and left. I’ve been picking off those ugly leaves in early spring hoping to reduce any fungal spores that might be residing there. If it doesn’t improve soon, it will probably get yanked and tossed. I don’t have time for disease prone messes.

Ok. Off of the barberry family theme for now. Next, I want to highlight the green flowered wood anemone (Anemone nemerosa ‘Viridiflora’), which is fast becoming one of my favorites. Slow clumping ephemeral perennial (dies down and goes dormant in summer), but this time of year it is at its peak. Fantastic chartreuse flowers with a purply white center. Another plant adapted for dry shade as long as it gets adequate moisture in winter and spring – perfect for our Pacific Northwest climate. And yay! My Paris polyphylla made it through its second winter (upper left). Maybe I will talk about that next time.

Accidental pairing with Japanese painted fern (Athyrium nipponicum) with a similar color scheme.

One last plant for this post. Another favorite this time of year is the cumbersomely named balm-leaved red deadnettle (Lamium orvale ‘Silva’). Note the splash of silver on the center of some the lower leaves (looking a little like a bit of bird whacky from my peripheral vision). Nice, nice, nice with large maroon-purple, intricately veined flowers that are in tiers. This is one that I can ignore for the summer, though it doesn’t like it. Gets real droopy and sad looking if I don’t water it, but survives. In really dry conditions, I have had it die back and go dormant, but it came back the following spring. This is a pretty darn good plant for somewhat dry shade.

Next time, probably some more plants from the south stream garden. There are a few more that I am super happy with that look really good this time of year. Always nice to find plants that do well under these sorts of conditions (wet clay, heavy leaf mulch, dry summer shade).