My Thoughts on Native Plants…

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Turns out I know about native plants. Question is, which native plants do I know about, and the answer is… mostly West Coast natives—but all plants are native somewhere, and a good horticulturist knows this, so, I work diligently to better understand growing conditions and climates all over the world.

I want to be not just a good horticulturist, I want to be a responsible one.

Oxalis oregana ‘Klamath Ruby’, a lovely collection originally from the wild, but now widely available in cultivation.

I know a lot of plants, and I’m familiar with many biomes.

It’s always important to know where plants are native to—all over the world. This helps us to better understand how to grow plants in different locations, especially if it is one we’re working on for conservation.

Berries on Aralia californica. Don’t let the name fool you. This plant is also found in SW Oregon.

These topics of conversation are regularly discussed at work and with my friends and colleagues away from work. This is why I don’t write about them here on my site.

I work with experts in this field, and it feels silly to regurgitate the same things they say over and over, but I think in the year to come, I’ll begin to write a bit more about this topic, in my own way, in my own voice.

I’ve just not been comfortable doing so yet. One of the primary reasons for that has been an inability to spend more time in the field. I’m ready for that now.

Viola hallii, one of a handful of amazing violas found in Oregon.

If you want to work in horticulture, and stand out as a great grower or designer, start learning your earth and natural sciences. This goes beyond just traveling to be in the field, and posting pictures as you go. What this entails, is really learning how it all works, and being able to communicate it to others. Just like everything else in life, stories matter.

You can delve into science by reading about it, asking about it, writing about it, or just opening up your mind more to better understand everything around you and how it’s connected.

I know lots of folks with scientific minds, and I’m glad to have always had them in my life. Going back to my youth, it has always mattered a lot to me to have folks to seek out when I wanted to better understand something. Sadly, too many have too much pride to admit they don’t know and they don’t ask.

Science is a group activity. Sadly, not everyone feels comfortable with that “hat on” but that’s often because of incidents where others may have made you feel stupid or even dumb. Don’t let that stop you though, don’t give up, and don’t believe that your brain doesn’t work that way!

Folks can be mean in either direction. As in all things in life, all I can add here is: Don’t Be an Asshole.

Yes, some scientific folks can appear to have poor skills with other people, and yes, those who are not so scientific can seem judgmental and shallow. We can get beyond our differences though if we only realize, we’re not all the same, we don’t have to be, and diversity in people is as important as diversity in other things.

The space between people can get blurry and dangerous when it comes to science. Instead of speaking with ego, try to tell a better story. This can help us to better communicate in either direction, and reach out to one another.

Coastal redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens) are also found in Oregon, but does this make them native or is it just a small pocket that’s stretched over our border?

Oftentimes I joke about being known more for houseplants than I do for the work I do at Cistus Nursery, and yet, I don’t write much about what I do because I assist in the work of someone else, and it has not become what I do at home.

Fragaria chiloensis is a wide ranging and useful garden plant.

Really, I don’t think it’s unusual to want to have your own thing, but I’ve had to think long and hard about sharing my thoughts about native plants because it means potentially walking into a quagmire.

Seeds from Calycanthus occidentalis collected at work. This is a native shrub we propagate. Usually we make a crop from cuttings, but the seeds are pretty amazing so I collect and grow them sometimes.

While I am a memoirist in a world of plants, I’m not a scientist working through data, but I’ve collected plenty of observations over the years.

Lewisia tweedyi is a stunner.

One of my first lessons was to ask someone who’s more of a botanist at which point does a wild collected plant become a cultivated one.

The answer is the moment you place it in the container and it grows.

This is why so many people often mistakenly dig up things in the wild, and then they fail to prosper, and then the plant dies. A mature wild plant is frequently not cultivated so easily, and this is why it’s best to grow native plants sold in cultivation. I also support the purchase of seeds and plants grown in cultivation by professionals because I believe my industry is an important one and that we have a lot to offer to consumers.

Of course rescue digs on property slated for development is a different matter, and I am happy folks dig in community when possible, but nurseries are great resources worth protecting and sustaining.

Devil’s club is a personal favorite of mine from my childhood. Oplopanax horridus is not exactly a friendly garden plant though with its stems covered in thorns.

I am proud to be part of this process when I grow plants from seed. The seedlings that survive are doing the work for us. They’re the ones that prosper in cultivation. They’re the ones we’re most likely going to succeed with in our gardens. (The same can be said for the vigor of a handful in a batch of cuttings.)

But as my botanist friend would point out, this can also mean that the plants which are dying are possibly better suited for the wild. These are the ones that won’t like the posh comfort of nursery soil and the protection offered in cultivation.

Soils are a BIG deal. I won’t go into all of that here, but as a consumer you’ve likely noticed how many growers use different kinds of soil mixes. A BIG PART of horticulture is understanding how to successfully grow plants in containers. These mixes are akin to the secret sauces created by great chefs lol.

I grew this Iris tenax from seed nearly two decades ago for a garden I once worked in. It was part of a project to restore part of the native oak savannah of the Willamette Valley at that site.

I am not saying a lot, but I think this is enough for now.

The blurred lines between different states in a region are not always the same borders plants pay attention to so we can be a bit open there too, but we could speak more specifically about the different clones, and where they’re collected from since in the long run, much of that does matter.

But not today…

Seeds from the Dicentra formosa plants in my garden. I used to sell fresh seeds of this plant. Give it space to roam in if you choose to plant it in your garden.

So, I will remain honest and transparent about a few things.

First and foremost, I do love our native plants. I love my region of the United States, but it is not a competition. I admire and want to learn about all of the plants all over the world though.

This is why I am not solely a native plant horticulturist.

Mahonia piperiana ‘Spoonleaf’ in the display garden at Cistus Nursery.

I’m challenged by climate change, as we all are, and I believe in creating xeric gardens since wasting a natural resource that’s vital to our survival matters to me. Yes, we use a lot of water in horticulture, but in the future we’ll need to think more about that…

Vaccinium ovatum ‘Cascade Sunburst’ is an amazing ornamental selection of our native evergreen huckleberry.

All plants are native to somewhere. We need to keep saying this. We also need to keep reminding ourselves that they may support more insects in their native range, and that here, even though they might be pretty to our eyes, they’re not sustaining as many insects as native choices, and this means less food for other animals.

Humans have been transporting plants and plant products for various reasons since the very beginning of civilization. We need to think about this too. We’re part of this system, part of the problem, and it is part of who were are, who we have been, and who we will be…

And we should know that diversity is good, and yet, mono cropping means efficiency and more profits. We live between these two realities. This is why I love ecological designs, diversity, and gardeners who understand that plants provide a lot more to us than a refreshing look that makes our minds calm because it is pretty and organized. We need to place more value in this kind of investment.

Pretty can be many things to many people and I am ok with non-native ornamentals mixed in so long as it’s diverse, but let’s still chose to be honest about this system and how virtue signally can be just as negative as creating water-hogging landscapes in deserts.

We can do better on both accounts and I hope we will see change.

One of our many native plants along the Oregon Coast, this is Angelica hendersonii.

I believe in working more and more in the in-between zone, and being receptive to new ideas and change.

Not everyone will want to have purely native plant gardens, and no matter what, more native plants in any region will be better, but this means pushing to have more of them planted in our parks, community gardens, schools, and municipal plantings.

Plants are part of our culture, and we’re sentimentally attached to different ones for our own reasons. When we move around from place to place, we bring those ideas with us, but we need to better appreciate that maybe our sentimental ideas are not good for the planet, and that we can seek out new stories about the plants in our new communities. It’s not easy to have to give up on plants we somehow see as part of our “identities” but our own personal style does not matter as much as we think, and we can make a difference. I think in the last 30 years the concept of many styles of gardens has already changed dramatically, and I love the regional takes on these different looks.

I hope we can keep going with this…

Oxalis oregana in the garden.

Plants speak of place, and an awareness of where we live should be appreciated by us as humans. As I age, and as I watch the internet evolve internationally, sadly, I think I see more and more people living online, carrying this “place” with them in their day-to-day lives.

Thanks to capitalism, we still see much more aspirational content—than inspirational.

It’s part of our human condition I suppose.

One of my favorite plants, Salix scouleriana along the banks of the Columbia River near its mouth.

After many years, I feel like I can quietly enter into this conversation though about native and non-native plants, but on a blog post, don’t expect a well researched or groundbreaking conclusion.

I’m more of a memoirist after all folks, so I won’t try to be a voice I am not.

I’m just going to do what I can, the best that I am able to, and there is no reason I shouldn’t speak up more about sustainable plantings and the importance of the work I do and why I love the different kinds of plants that I help to keep in cultivation and commerce at BOTH of the nurseries where I work.

Lastly, while I am often called a native Oregonian, I cringe more when I hear that. My family has been here since the 1850s, but I am not native here. My family has been here for generations, and I have an incredible attachment to this place, through the stories of my own ancestors, and others. Like many here, I live though on the lands of the Chinookan peoples, and because I grew up with a father who is an avid fisherman, I learned my geography through river drainages. I feel connected to that land in a unique way, and I am very connected to the fish, and to the plants that have protected the fish runs for generations. As for being indigenous, like many other citizens of the US, my paternal line traces back to the Mediterranean and my maternal line returns to Great Britain. Other “tributaries” from North African, the Middle East, and Western Europe flow into the river that is me, but I am not native to this place.

Like many who came before, I’m just passing through.

I want to steward the land, and leave no trace.

Autumn from My Corner of the World of Horticulture

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Mahonia gracilipes in the garden at Cistus Nursery.

This weekend I finally crashed after 5 weeks of nearly non-stop activity. Even now—after a day of rest—I’m still struggling to post something. I’ve been negligent these last two weeks (at least when it comes to writing) due to having had the honor to have been asked to give two public presentations by different groups.

I’m not complaining!!! I had a blast doing both, but it’s a lot of work. Doing it weekly is rough.

I LOVE to give talks, it’s just that I’ve not had a lot of time to rest. Preparing talks, and getting plants ready to sell at one of the talks, meant spending time AFTER work getting things done. Those things can make for very long days, but it is worth it!!!

A white-berried Sorbus prattii in Medford (Oregon) at Italio Garden, the home of nurseryman and great friend Baldassare Mineo. It’s likely that this is Sorbus cashmeriana but I’m not certain.

Don’t hesitate to ask me if your organization is longing for some of my creative and unconventional views. I felt badly when I had to turn down a statewide Master Gardener Conference recently because it happened during my trip. It would have been an interesting and different experience than I’m accustomed to and I would have enjoyed the challenge.

But, begonias… (I do not regret going to the convention in Atlanta a bit!)

If I ever have the pleasure of designing a new garden for myself, I will definitely include at least one x Gordlinia grandiflora along with my other favorite tree, Oxydendron arboreum.

So if you need someone to give a presentation, keep in mind that there is usually a fee. As someone who helps with a plant society, I better understand why it’s important to raise money, and to help professionals connect to and share their knowledge. Getting away from work to mix it up a bit oddly helps me a lot—even if it just feels good emotionally and tickles my brain a bit. I can’t say that we all react so positively, but I have enjoyed speaking more as the years go by and it’s likely due to the fact I always thought I would teach.

I was an instructor of ESL, I taught French Surrealist Lit at PSU for several terms, and there were gallery management classes as well. All of that was fun, but when you have a swelling disease that effects your body, and in my case my lungs, it can make speaking, well, unpredictable. Gasping for air causes confusion, panic sets in, and the anxiety (all combined) can have you speaking in a strange pattern. Embarrassment comes on last and you wonder if others can tell you’re not well.

When you go to school, funny how you don’t think about things like this. The new medication is helping me though. I only struggled with chest tightness on the longest day this week. I didn’t end up feeling very self-conscious about it, but I did feel tired.

Chrysanthemum ‘Matchsticks’ putting on its show at Secret Garden Growers last week. It’s one of the best autumn perennials.

Last week it was a talk in Medford to a garden club, and this week I was the keynote speaker for an event supporting women in horticulture at Chemeketa Community College. At both I connected with members of the audience, and after the trip I just took, I felt even more confident and prepared.

After having seen the Sorbus prattii tree down in Medford, I remembered to look for our Sorbus cashmeriana in the hedgerow at work this week out in Canby. Ta da! Don’t you just love those clusters of white berries?

Now you’re likely wondering when I’ll stop blathering on about myself, and get to the point.

What is autumn like in my corner of the world of horticulture?

Believe it or not but I have an answer to that question!!!

A display of radicchio varieties at the Sagra del Radicchio held this week in Portland. Since I’ve already been enjoying this “rad” food for decades, the highlight of the entire evening event was finding a few foods I could eat, as well as two local chefs who discussed my allergies and are willing to feed me sometime. (FYI I am allergic to black pepper so eating out is not often possible.)

Fall (to me) partially feels a bit like spring, but that’s only because we muck out and freshen up the greenhouses. I tend to think of this as being similar to spring cleaning, but it’s probably closer to a nesting bear about ready to hibernate. The problem with that though is that I’m not at all inclined to empathize with the home gardeners who chomp at the bit to “get back out there” during the ensuing cold and dark months ahead. I AM back out there. I am not indoors and warm looking at seed catalogs. I get to do that after work, but by now I already know what I am after, and that’s another difference with my life.

Fall is really when I begin to think about the year ahead, and when we folks at work are planning out crop plans for the next season.

There is no way we can bring a few things in to protect them over the winter either without making sure the houses are cleaner after all of the new growth has occurred during the summer months. With more watering, this leads to slippery weed cloth—and I’m talking about what “reality” greenhouses are like since I don’t work in fancy ones.

While some folks in horticulture get to work in decently climate controlled and heated greenhouses during this time of the year, well, my situations are both more like heated garages. If for any medical reason I simply CANNOT deal with the cold, then I can stay home, but if you do that too often, you’re just not cut out for the job. Lots of folks will say I’m crazy to do this for the pay, but I do love what I do, and oddly, I’m not so bad at it. Let’s just add to that too that I care very much about having a wide range of plants available in cultivation that larger growers ignore.

Growing more difficult to cultivate crops is important. If you’re a designer or curator and you use these plants, it’s important to understand how they’re made, and how they’re grown. I see this issue, and these products, becoming more important to the industry in the years to come. And why is that? It’s because there are fewer small specialty nurseries like the ones where I work keeping these plants available on the market. I cannot stress enough, consumers can better understand our products alongside those of other growers. I’m not generalizing that they are better or worse, but rather, we depend upon and NEED one another as well as an informed and fair marketplace.

The Slow Food Movement entered my life back when a chapter became active here in Portland in the early 1990s. I never attended any of their events, but I DID signup for announcements by email. In exchange I took home this awesome sticker.

This week all things converged when it comes to this beloved drum I beat upon. Thinking back to my recent trip during my work hours, sharing in food discussions with friends and strangers thanks to the Sagra del Radicchio, and even because of questions asked during my talks, it turns out that I still very much enjoy growing crops of plants from seed, and keeping small batches of plant crops going. I even enjoy introducing plants into cultivation although that’s not something I’ve done often.

And so the cycle of life goes on, as we enter into the seasonal holiday period at the end of October where we say goodbye to the harvest, and begin out journey into the season of darkness and cold. I still have a lot of plants to bring in at home—the annual migration—but now that I’m home for many weeks, I’ll do what I can while dreaming up more blog posts to write.