A Horticultural Heritage
Our land is forever altered, but the Corps left a trail for today's gardens
"There is more wet weather on this coast than I ever knew in any other place; during a month, we have had three fair days and there is no prospect of a change," wrote a soggy Capt. Clark from Fort Clatsop on Dec. 5, 1805. Despite the relentless rain, or perhaps because of it, the explorers had plenty of time to fill their diaries with plant descriptions. They found plants unknown in the world at the time, except, of course, to the native peoples who had long been using them for food and medicine.
The little band of explorers must have felt dwarfed by the majestic presence of our native trees; Lewis records the Western hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla) as the most plentiful, and he describes the Sitka spruce (Picea sitchensis) as an immense fir, measuring "27 feet in girth." He wrote that the bigleaf maple was "the ash with the remarkable large leaf," and describes the Pacific madrone as "the tree with the leaf like that of a small magnolia, and bark of brickdust red colour."
Jefferson believed that "the greatest service which can be rendered any country is to add a useful plant to its culture," and he was intensely interested in the garden significance of the plants his Corps brought back. While the dried specimens from the journey, preserved in the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, have historic significance, and the drawings and later botanical names form a fascinating record, how useful, really, are the plants so meticulously collected by the damp yet persevering Lewis and Clark?
I think we need to face up to the fact that our gardens in no way resemble the forests and prairies navigated by the Corps two centuries ago. Logging, dams and development have forever changed the face of the land. We don't garden in ancient duff piled up beneath Douglas fir, but rather in a couple of inches of scanty topsoil. Or along sidewalks, expecting trees to live with restricted root zones and in microclimates heated up by concrete.
Vaccinium ovatum: The evergreen huckleberry is one of those perfect evergreen shrubs; it stays small (3 to 4 feet) and has clusters of bell-shaped blossoms and pink new growth in spring. It thrives in moist soil and semi-shade.
Cornus canadensis: A low, evergreen groundcover with a white dogwood-like blossom followed by orange-red berries in autumn, it grows well under rhododendrons or vine maple, needs shade and moisture and resents any disturbance of its roots.
Trillium ovatum: The supremely beautiful spring woodland bloomer, Western trilliums are fragrant and bloom early; they need moist soil and semi-shade.
Philadelphus lewisii: Our native mock orange, named after Lewis, has broad, white, fragrant flowers. It is highly adaptable, growing vigorously in sun or shade.
For many more suggestions, see "Native Plants in the Coastal Garden" by April Pettinger and Brenda Costanzo, or Art Kruckeberg's "Gardening With Native Plants of the Pacific Northwest."
Valerie Easton is a Seattle free-lance writer and contributing editor for Horticulture magazine. Her book, "Plant Life: Growing a Garden in the Pacific Northwest" (Sasquatch Books, 2002) is an updated selection of her magazine columns. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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