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The Seattle Times | Pacific Northwest
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Plant Life Valerie Easton

All Things Unusual

At Steamboat nursery, your specialty ship's come in

The clean pungent scent of eucalyptus tickles your nose as soon as you step out of your car at Steamboat Island Nursery. Rustling eucalyptus trees wreath the parking lot, lending a feel of Australian outback to a gravel parking lot a few miles south of Olympia.

There's quite a buzz about the exotic yet drought-tolerant plants being produced and sold by Laine McLaughlin and Duane Heier. The little "Steamboat Island Nursery" tag seems to garnish the pot of nearly every cool plant I find these days. But Steamboat's offerings are no overnight wonder. McLaughlin started the nursery more than a decade ago in this remotely beautiful spot on a skinny finger of land jutting into Puget Sound.

"I wanted to grow unusual plants that others weren't," explains McLaughlin, a woman who bubbles with enthusiasm over her plants. She grew up in Davis, Calif., where she studied horticulture at University of California-Davis. One of her professors was from Bellingham, causing her notes to be peppered with the words "Northwest plant." His influence lured McLaughlin north. Now she and her partner run a very busy little nursery, where staff tend display borders, ready plants to be shipped to nurseries and field questions from callers urgently looking for the latest euphorbia or restio, which along with eucalyptus are Steamboat specialties. The nursery is open by appointment during the week, and on weekends the place is full-on retail.

Where to go, what to know

Steamboat Island Nursery

8424 Steamboat Island Road, Olympia

360-866-2516; www.steamboatislandnursery.com

Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through September, and by appointment.

Find Steamboat Island plants and meet Laine McLaughlin at the Northwest Horticultural Society Plant Sale Sept. 14 and 15 at Magnuson Park (www.northwesthort.org; 206-527-1794) and at the Rhododendron Species Foundation sale Sept. 22 (www.rhodygarden.org; 253-838-4646).

So how many of these gorgeous eucalyptus are truly hardy here? McLaughlin points out that flower color is a clue to hardiness — the hardiest eucalyptus bloom white. She grows 25 kinds that weather our winters, the toughest being Eucalyptus glaucescens, which survives temperatures down to zero. The willow-leafed E. 'Neglecta' is particularly striking, with huge leaves and purple-flushed new growth. Then there's the weeping E. lacrimans with its drooping gray leaves, white exfoliating bark and big puff-ball flowers.

I'm most impressed with the yellow alpine gum (E. subcrenulata), which grows quickly into an evergreen screen. Could this be the hedging plant everyone is looking for? It doesn't spread like bamboo, sheds snow and holds its lower branches, so it does seem ideal for screening. Steamboat's specimens have grown nearly 30 feet tall since they were planted in 2003. But how tall might they grow? "That's the question," says McLaughlin. "The books say their eventual height should be 35 feet, but there are so few examples in the Northwest it's hard to know."

Such realism pervades McLaughlin's comments. She points out the nursery's most popular plant, which is a wild-looking shrub with black stems, huge splayed leaves and purple flowers called Kangaroo apple (Solanum laciniatum). She warns it's only hardy to 18 degrees. Then there's the pineapple broom with fragrant yellow flowers. "It gets so big," says McLaughlin, adding tactfully, "It's what they call a wall shrub in England."

Nursery tables hold a wide selection of euphorbia, ceanothus, hebes, small shrubs and groundcovers. Palm trees — including windmill palms and the more exotic jelly palm that will survive 15-degree cold if given good drainage — are another specialty here. Many of Steamboat's plants are ideal for containers because they're tough, easy-care and don't need constant watering. Which brings us to native plants. McLaughlin carries an impressive array, many salvaged from properties about to be bulldozed.

For fall planting, McLaughlin recommends redbud willow (Salix fargesii), which has bronze stems and red-toned leaves, and tops out at 9 feet. "This is the small tree everyone is looking for," she says. She carries the hardiest of the trendy restios (a plant that looks kind of like a refined horsetail). Cape Fold restio is a fluffy little thing that grows 3 to 4 feet high. Steamboat will be selling these and many more delectable drought-tolerant beauties at the September plant sales as well as at their nursery.

Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer and author of "A Pattern Garden." Her e-mail address is valeaston@comcast.net.

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