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Ornamental Natives

Some of the best native plants for our climate
White-flowered Ribes sanguineum
White-flowered Ribes sanguineum

Studies show that native plants attract a wider variety of pollinating insects than standard garden ornamentals do, and pollinators need all the help they can get these days. That’s just one more reason to include native plants in your landscape. This top 10 list of showy, well-behaved native shrubs reaches a bit beyond the boundaries of the Willamette Valley, but all will tolerate conventional garden conditions, including summer irrigation.

Vine maple (Acer circinatum)

You can call this super plant a shrub or a small tree, depending on the scale of your property. It prefers moist, well-drained sites with partial shade but it is also quite adaptable, although perhaps a bit little less tolerant of drought and sun than Japanese maple, which it resembles. Vine maple’s attractions include spring foliage of the most vivid green imaginable, splendid fall color and, in some specimens, red coloration of young branches. Selections exist with coral-colored stems, golden spring foliage or finely divided leaflets. 

Variegated red-osier dogwood (Cornus stolonifera, C. sericea

Red-osier dogwood makes a great spot of color in winter, especially if it is cut back hard each spring to promote plentiful new growth. But ‘Hedgerows Gold,’ a native selection with yellow leaf margins, is gorgeous in spring and most of the summer, too. It grows in sun or shade, and appreciates moist soil.

Silk tassel (Garrya elliptica)

This coastal native can be a scrawny plant, and the dark, evergreen leaves don’t exactly jump out at you. But after a few years it will bear strikingly long, silver-green catkins in winter, and you’ll remember why you planted it. Male plants have the showiest catkins. Plant silk tassel in sun, with irrigation, or full shade. You can also train it on a north-facing fence. 

Long leaf Oregon grape (Mahonia nervosa, Berberis nervosa)

In addition to its graceful sprays of fragrant, light yellow flowers in mid-spring, this elegant forest evergreen has the finest leaves of all our native mahonias. Growth is slow to moderate, to about 2 feet. I think the leaves lose much of their beauty in full sun, where it is better to grow M. repens or M. aquifolium ‘Compactum.’

Mock orange (Philadelphus lewisii)

Its flowers may not be as large as those of some mock orange cultivars, but they are pure white, abundant and fragrant as can be. This ultimately tall and rangy shrub is best in the background, but it needs sun to bloom well and adapts well to dry soils. Keep it more shapely by pruning out older stems from time to time. 

Pacific ninebark (Physocarpus capitatus)

The warm-brown stems and upright, arching habit of this big shrub are best appreciated in a spacious setting where you won’t be tempted to prune it too much. It also boasts attractive foliage and showy, rounded heads of small white flowers in spring. Pacific ninebark is a wetland plant in nature but will grow just about anywhere.

Pacific rhododendron (Rhododendron macrophyllum)

Familiar at the coast and in the mountains, this handsome rhodie isn’t often used in gardens. It’s a classic, large-leafed, medium to large rhododendron with a slightly open way of growing. Flowers vary from white to deepish pink, but are most often somewhere in between. 

Western azalea (Rhododendron occidentale)

You’ll see this fabulously fragrant deciduous azalea in the Siskiyou Mountains and along the Rogue River. In gardens it grows slowly to about 8 feet, and blooms quite late in spring. The flowers are white or light pink, with deep pink and yellow markings. It seems to be less susceptible to the mildew that so often mars the leaves of other deciduous azaleas.

Red flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum)

There’s a lot of discussion among naturalists and gardeners about what conditions this plant prefers. Best to think of it as a short-lived shrub, give it good drainage and moderate summer water and be prepared to replace it. Flowers are usually pink in the wild, but deep red and pure white selections are available. White ones bloom a week or more before the pink and red ones. The nectar is an important early food source for rufous hummingbirds, who don’t seem to care what color the flowers are.

Evergreen huckleberry (Vaccinium ovatum)

With neat, glossy leaves, pink flowers, compact growth and tasty fruit this coastal native is both a choice evergreen and a tremendous work horse in the garden. It grows best in sun or light shade, and makes a nice hedge with a minimum of pruning. I’ve seen it doing fine in a bewildering variety of locations, but be prepared to water it in summer if you plant it in full sun.