These 7 non-thirsty natives can help your garden get through the dry summer months.
WE TEND TO overestimate native plants, expecting them to be easy to grow because they evolved here in the Northwest. But unless you’re living in an undisturbed conifer forest or never-cultivated meadow landscape, that’s not true. Natives aren’t adapted to live in urban and suburban gardens with scant canopy and disturbed soils.
That said, there are some versatile, non-thirsty natives ideal for carrying your garden through the droughty months of summer. Not only do they get by on little or no water once established, but these workhorse plants create essential habitat for a wide variety of birds, pollinators, insects and other creatures.
Keeping beauty, drought-tolerance and general garden-worthiness in mind, here’s a short list of native plants to consider for the dog days of summer, in order from tree-sized to ankle-high:
• If Acer circinatum, or vine maple, weren’t a familiar native tree, we’d be paying big money to import it. This elegant, spreading, multitrunked tree is scaled for smaller gardens, reaching just 12 to 20 feet high. Grow vine maples in dappled sun or shade; they’re perfect companions for hydrangea, rodgersia, ferns and more ferns. Last spring I planted a cultivar with leaves the rich, deep color of oxblood. A.circinatum ‘Pacific Purple’ is a showstopping version of vine maple. It tops out at 12 feet; the new leaves come on bright burgundy and darken over the summer.
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• California wax myrtle (Morella californica, recently updated from Myrica californica) is one of those workhorse evergreens that forms the backbone of the garden. In winter, it’s stand-alone handsome; in summer, this big shrub serves as the perfect glossy green backdrop for perennials and roses. It’s also an evergreen component in mixed hedgerows. Happy in sun or deep shade, it’s exceedingly drought-tolerant and is even deer-resistant.
• Western sword fern (Polystichum munitum) is one of the most dramatic and easy-care plants we can grow. When planted in shade, and cut back in earliest spring, a stand of sword ferns will grow 5 feet tall and so lush they’ll be the stars of the summer garden.
• Cascade Oregon grape (Mahonia nervosa) is as tough as a sword fern, plus it produces nectar-rich yellow flowers to feed the hummingbirds. The jewel-like strings of dusty blue berries drape along the toothed leaves to create quite a scene in summer and autumn … or until the birds gobble up all the fruit.
• Evergreen huckleberries (Vaccinium ovatum) are a Great Plant Pick, described by the program as “the most versatile and underused native plants in the Pacific Northwest.” These small shrubs grow dense in full sun, and more open and airy in the shade. They can even be sheared into a dense, formal hedge, although I can’t imagine treating these natural beauties like that.
• The western trumpet honeysuckle (Lonicera ciliosa) blooms in May to the delight of hummingbirds. And to the delight of gardeners, it doesn’t grow as rampantly as its Japanese cousin. By summer, the vine sports shiny reddish-orange berries.
• Western wild ginger (Asarum caudatum) is a ground cover for dry, shady locations, despite the near-tropical look of its shiny, bold, heart-shaped leaves. Which are surprisingly slug-resistant.
You’ll save yourself from spending time and money on watering, plus contribute to the health of the Earth, by growing these native plants. Remember, though, that even the toughest of plants grows more luxuriant, and blooms and fruits more extravagantly, if given an occasional drink during the driest weeks of summer.