Cover Story Plant Life On Fitness Northwest Living Taste Now & Then

Thriving in the Margins
A new book finds the fascination in our native plants

"Wild Plants of Greater Seattle"
by Arthur Lee Jacobson, self-published, 2001 ($24.95). Available at Flora and Fauna Books in Pioneer Square, in the gift shop at the Washington Park Arboretum or by order from any bookstore.
DO YOU EVER WONDER about the names and natures of plants that push their way up through the cracks of the sidewalk, or grow in masses alongside the highway? We often assume these are plants indigenous to our area. But most often they're feral garden plants escaped from cultivation to grow wild, without water, fertilizer, mowing or any other human intervention. While most field guides are written for native plants in specific geographic regions, the persistent plants like bluebells or the daisies in the lawn are what we city and suburban dwellers see most often. "They're not just perennial but eternal," says Arthur Lee Jacobson, who has spent nearly 20 years observing, sniffing, tasting and studying these "background" plants that grow all around us.

The result is a fat, 496-page new book entitled "Wild Plants of Greater Seattle: A Field Guide to Native and Naturalized Plants of the Seattle Area."

These weeds, natives and escaped garden plants grow in parks, along streets and in our gardens, despite the fact we haven't planted them. They thrive in the margins, needing only a scrap of dirt to spread into.

A wiry, bearded bike-rider with an explosion of gray-streaked curls, Jacobson is a curious mix of detail-driven scientist and enthusiastic kid, fueled by the fervor of a gourmet. He sniffs every plant, and tastes most of them. He recommends sprinkling big-leaf maple's chartreuse, nectar-filled flowers on salads, and puzzles over what could have happened to all of our native mints. Jacobson found herbarium specimens of 14 different native mints, and their boggy habitats are still plentiful. But despite an exhaustive search, Jacobson has found only one native mint, growing in a little pond on Bainbridge Island.

Now In Bloom
Winter pansies (Viola x wittrockiana cultivars) are one of the few things left in bloom by the winter equinox. For most impact, choose warm, rich colors and mass them near doorways, preferably raised up in pots or windowboxes. While flowering falters during cold snaps, pansies will bloom again once it warms up a bit. Like any pansies, these need frequent deadheading to encourage them to keep flowering until spring.
"I'm fascinated by plant edibility, fragrances and medicinal uses as well as ecology," explains Jacobson of his massive endeavor. "I transcended the city limits, and went all the way to Lake Sammamish," he says, excluding only the Issaquah Alps because of their colder, wetter climate. He started out in 1982 with a typewritten list of wild plants, then spent the intervening years visiting every park and wild area at different seasons of the year.

Jacobson didn't stop with plants alive today; he also researched preserved plant specimens collected by 172 people, held at three herbaria. In this one hefty volume we have the combined observations of botanists who surveyed the wild flora of Seattle over hundreds of years.

Dismayingly, Jacobson found that 145 native species reported growing here in the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries have been wiped out. This isn't a surprise to us native Seattleites who have watched the pace of development around here.

Jacobson is widely known for his tree expertise, with books on the trees of Green Lake, Seattle and North America. The last one won a national award. "People think I'm a tree guy, but that was a diversion," he says, explaining that before he got sidetracked into trees, he was cataloging Seattle's wild plants. What motivated such exhaustive study? "I ask why, why, why, and then I think about these things — many are highly curious," Jacobson says solemnly.

With plentiful black-and-white line drawings, histories and colorful descriptions of hundreds of wild plants, Jacobson makes it easy for us to learn about the natural world growing all around us. The book is arranged by plant family ("the virtue of family arrangement grows on you," he assures me). Common names, a thorough index and listings by habitat and calendar make the book accessible despite its thickness.

When I questioned Jacobson's claim that the book includes "all of Seattle's wild plants briefly noted" (how could anyone ever begin to think they'd found them all?), he laughs and then says quite seriously, "Oh, I've probably missed at least one. But I'm sure I've gotten virtually all, and I'm noted for my diligence and persistence." Not unlike the plants he celebrates in this impressive new book.

Valerie Easton is a horticultural librarian who writes about plants and gardens for Pacific Northwest magazine. She is the co-author of "Artists in Their Gardens" (Sasquatch Books). Her e-mail address is

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