Northwest Native Plant Spotlight – Indian Plum

Indian Plum, or Oso Berry (Oemleria cerasiformis, aka Osmaronia cerasiformis), is a northwest harbinger of spring, being one of our first native plants to bloom, and fully leaf out, starting late in winter.  This plant is currently in bloom now, along with our native willow trees.  This wonderful woodland inhabitant provides an early nectar source for mason bees and hummingbirds, and also later provides fruit which a number of bird species will dine on (but which are questionably palatable to humans).  Its growth habit and size makes it more along the lines of a large shrub than a small tree, since its tendency is to sucker at the base growing multiple stems, though it can be pruned into a single stem tree with work each year.  I prefer its shrubby habit (and less pruning) and it complements our natural areas well.

Oso Berry in Spring - Oemleria cerasiformis

I must say that this plant is not always extremely photogenic.  It’s hard to capture the full appeal of Indian Plum this time of year, when its white, dangling blooms hang and sway below the bright green foliage which both work to light up the bare forest floors in which they are often located.  Though their preference is for part shade, they are quite adaptable, growing well in full shade to full sun.  With at least a little shade they can handle dry soil conditions so they are a good choice for those areas beneath mature conifers where not much will grow.  These vigorous growers can also handle somewhat wet conditions in the winter and will easily tolerate clay, though they love a good woodsy, organic soil.

Being dioecious, there are male and female plants, and as such the males have better flower power and only the females will fruit.  Because of their flowery show the male plants are more commonly sold.  Disappointing if you’re wanting some fruit, as that can really draw in a lot of birds in the summer time.  I plan on finding a female this year and taking a cutting so I can start a new plant right next to the male in my yard.  Poor guy’s lonely…

Oso Berry flowers

Osmaronia cerasiformis

Unripened fruit of the Indian Plum, or Oso Berry. These will develop into a dark plum color, with a similar look to commercially-sold plums, though much smaller in size.

I only wish this plant had some noteworthy fall color.  The leaves usually do yellow a little before they drop (which happens earlier in the year than a lot of plants, since it’s one of the first to leaf out) but it’s not spectacular.  But that aside, Indian Plum is a very garden-worthy plant and a great choice for wildlife.


Northwest Native Plant Spotlight – Red Twig Dogwood

Some like it wet.  Particularly if you live in the Pacific Northwest.  Here, you wear your raindrops proudly.  Having a soaked shirt is like sporting honorable stripes.  And those rain deflection devices (umbrellas, right?), those are for the tourists and foreigners.  However, put us in a situation with more than a few inches of snow and it’s a winter apocalypse, at least according to the local news stations.  But I digress…

One of the locals perfectly content in the wetness is our native red twig, or red osier, dogwood (Cornus sericea syn. Cornus stolonifera).  This is a relatively common shrub, or small tree, in low to mid elevation moist to wet sites.  However, “common” really only describes its distribution and availability.  Red twig dogwood is an exceptional plant offering year-round appeal, particularly showy in winter when the color of its branches are intensified to a glowing red to maroon.  This coloration is strongest when the plants are in full sun and on the newer growth.

Dogwood bark

In springtime, attractive mid to dark green, veined leaves (similar to other dogwoods) are born and white flower clusters appear shortly thereafter (May in my yard – and technically they are an inflorescence, and more specifically a cyme) which the bees find irresistible.  Sometimes these plants will rebloom sporadically throughout the year.


Cornus sericea foliage and flowers (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The flowers ripen into white berries, which can persist on the plant for quite some time depending on how often the birds come to dine.  Many bird species eat the berries but the regulars in my yard are the robins and cedar waxwings.  I especially appreciate any plant that will draw in the cedar waxwings.

Red Osier Dogwood fall color and white berries

The “googly eye” berries, and stunning fall color, of red twig dogwood

As you can see by the pic above, another outstanding feature of this plant is its red to purple fall color.  In the natural area behind our home there is a grove of mature specimens, which are a little more like small trees than shrubs, and each year I look forward to their fall show, which works wonderfully with the yellow fall color of the nearby pacific ninebark (Physocarpus capitatus) and the evergreen slough sedges (Carex obnupta) at their feet.

I attribute the poor drainage, high water table and light, open shade conditions behind our home to the beautiful mass that’s back there, but red twig dogwood really is an irregularly adaptable plant, able to withstand summer drought for quite some time when established in the right soil, and also content in full sun to shade conditions.  Just keep in mind that, like most other plants, when placed in more sun red twig dogwood will need more moisture and in full shade the flowering and fruiting will diminish and the leaves will grow larger and thinner to capture more light.

Red twig dogwood is also a great plant for the economical gardener, being inexpensive to incorporate into the garden as it grows easily, and quickly, from cuttings.  Also, the epithet stolonifera from the scientific name refers to the stolons with which it can spread and multiply.  New roots/plants can form when these low, horizontal branches come into contact with the soil, allowing them to form thickets.

You also can’t go too wrong on pruning these dogwoods.  They can withstand severe pruning, and since the most vivid winter branch coloring is on new growth, most people prefer to prune them this way.  It’s recommended that you only cut them down to the ground (technically about 4-6 inches from the ground) every 2 to 3 years, but this could depend on how vigorous the plant is.  Now, late winter, is the time to do this, right before the new spring growth comes.  I think the plants look best when pruned this way, as opposed to doing light cutback pruning.  Or you could just remove a few of the oldest main stems down to the base each year, so you aren’t left with a hole in your garden for a season.  I’m okay with waiting for a season, but this is an indispensable plant, filling a niche in the garden.

Red osier dogwood leaf in snow (Cornus sericea syn. Cornus stolonifera)

Frozen Foliage

Mt. Hood sunrise

Here in the greater Portland area we’ve had quite the cold and dry spells recently.  After dealing with the cold for weeks I’ve been hoping we would at least be rewarded with some snow, but, as it normally happens here, once the clouds roll in the temperatures quickly rise above freezing and we are instead dowsed in its crystal-challenged counterpart.  Oh well.  The recent rains at least keep me from having to go out to water the plants that were needing it.

Even without the snow, there is a beauty found on those cold days when a light dusting of frost covers the landscape.  Interesting patterns in nature are accentuated, with frost accumulating on ridges and edges.  Click on any of the pics below to open the image carousel.

I especially enjoy the patterns and texture of the Oakleaf Hydrangea, which is quite the semi-evergreen shrub here.  Its maroon leaf coloring and peeling bark add great winter interest, and it pairs especially well with winter-blooming Ivory Prince Hellebores around its base.  Another great semi-evergreen shrub here is the Virginia Sweetspire.  I bought a dwarf form earlier this year, Itea virginica Little Henry.  These plants have wonderful red fall (and winter) coloring.  The one pictured here is just in part sun, so the red coloring isn’t incredibly strong, but I have been impressed by how well-clothed this plant has stayed through the winter.  So modest.

One of the fully evergreen, dwarf shrubs in my yard also with great winter appeal is the Japanese Lily of the Valley shrub cultivar ‘Cavatine’ (Pieris japonica ‘Cavatine’).  Aside from its clean, dark green foliage, it keeps a very compact form and is loaded with colorful flower buds this time of year.  When frosted over it almost appears to be a variegated form, with each edge highlighted in white.  I bought Helleborus HGC Jacob, an evergreen perennial, mostly for its foliage, but it’s been very nice to have some blooms this time of year.  When you start off with such pristine white flowers it can be hard to enjoy them for long since you can quickly see any blemishes or fading, but for the most part I like the way these long-lasting flowers age, developing a pink cast to them and growing large seed pods.  Helleborus lividus ‘Pink Marble’ (not yet in bloom) is also a nice foliage plant, with its lightly veined foliage and pinkish-red petioles, but they are so diminutive, they’re probably best just used in a container planting.

Well, along with the birds, that’s what I’ve been enjoying in my yard this last week or so.  I’d love to hear what you’ve been enjoying from yours recently.

For Winter Color, Bring in the Birds

When flora takes more of a backseat in winter, encourage the fauna to liven up your yard.  For the birds, a little seed goes a long ways.  Your reward will be their colorful plumage, euphonious sounds and entertaining behavior.  Of course, an ideal bird-friendly yard will seek to meet all of their needs, but I’ve been surprised at how many birds have been flocking to my yard with the simple addition of cheap seed and suet.  I feel as though I now have the bird-summoning power of Mary Poppins (still trying to find out where I can buy seed for only tuppence a bag though).  Although I must admit, even though I’ve only provided some additional food, I am very fortunate to live adjacent to a park with wetlands and natural areas, where water is always available and the forests and thickets allow for their protection and shelter.  That probably (definitely) has something to do with it…

Just keep in mind that if you decide to feed the birds in winter, it’s recommended that you continue to do so through the remainder of the season, at least through the particularly cold, icy or snowy times, when natural food sources may be hard for them to get to.  This is particularly true if you have hummingbirds that have decided to stick out the winter with you.  Keep an eye on any nectar feeders to be sure they haven’t frozen over, and keep the nectar fresh.  A simple mixture of one part sugar to four parts water (boiled then cooled) will work nicely.

As part of my developing avian avocation I’ve been trying to improve my photography skills.  I think sometimes it’s easy to underestimate the refinement of skill (and patience) needed in any given activity when you have yet to fully delve into it.  However, as it often goes, the more you know about something, the more you realize you don’t know.  I keep learning this lesson in gardening, and such is the case with bird photography.  I never realized it would be such a challenge getting those little guys in focus, even after having multiple photography classes in the past.  I thought getting great shots of birds would be somewhat comparable to getting great shots of plants.  It turns out plants are a bit easier to sneak up on.  I may need to move the feeders a little closer to the house, but they are right at the forest edge where the birds feel comfortable.  I still managed to get a few good shots though which I saved for you.

This last weekend I had the big, winter-time three in my yard all at once – the Northern Flicker, the Scrub Jay and the Varied Thrush.  For my specific habitat these are the largest birds that will somewhat regularly show up in my yard this time of year.  I’ve heard of Scrub Jays referred to as nuisance birds, but I enjoy their company and great coloring.  They normally scare off the other birds when they show up but this Varied Thrush didn’t seem intimidated (the Scrub Jay’s bill is pointing at him if you have a hard time finding him).

And what a beautiful bird the Varied Thrush is, with their great orange coloring and unique markings.  This is a bird that loves to rummage through the leaf litter, looking for little critters or other treats on the ground to eat.  The females have more muted coloring, but are also beautiful.  It’s funny though, as I’ve noticed the male Varied Thrush gets along fine with the other birds, but when that female Thrush comes along, he’ll chase her away in no time.  Maybe there was a bad breakup in their past.

Ixoreus naeviusMy favorite backyard bird though is the Northern Flicker.  What a beautiful woodpecker, especially when in flight, when you can more easily see the reddish-orange coloring on the undersides of their wings and tail.  Here’s a red-shafted one performing some acrobatics on the suet feeder.

Northern Flicker doing some acrobatics

Colaptes auratusWe tend to like yards manicured and tidy.  Not the birds.  We keep our yards “clean” to their detriment.  Though I can’t say I would blame anyone for not wanting a decaying, broken-down tree in their yard (and one could pose a valid safety concern), it sure would make a great home, and food source, for one of these cavity-nesting Flickers.  It’s just a shame that there are not more areas that are able to be left in their natural state, where nature can take its course uninterrupted.  Even our parks are all too often overly domesticated, with large expanses of sod consuming them, which are also regularly mowed.  One thing we can easily control, however, is our use of pesticides and herbicides.  When we use herbicides we actually destroy not just the unwanted weedy plants, but also some of the microbial life in our soil, which ultimately can have an affect on that which is connected to it, including the birds.  Also, when we use pesticides we may be successful in killing the insects, but we should also be aware that this will not only deplete the amount of them available for birds to feed on, but this can also lead to the poisoning of birds if these sprayed insects are later consumed.  Keep in mind that most insects are beneficial or neutral to your yard’s well-being.  Experts who study insect populations estimate that more than 90 percent of insects are either harmless or actually help control other pests.  Some may be more of a nuisance one year if they have had favorable weather conditions, but it is normal to see an ebb and flow in insect populations from year to year.  I’ve learned though that many insect “problems” will naturally work themselves out over time, without lasting or serious damage to the infested plants, but if in fact control methods are needed, there are plenty of environmentally no- or low-impact solutions available to employ.

As I finish typing this a new-to-our-yard woodpecker just jumped on the back of the suet feeder.  It’s hard to tell, but it looks like it may be a Downy or Hairy Woodpecker.  I’m thankful for the excitement and joy that comes when new birds stop by to visit.  It’s great to be rewarded with their beauty and antics for just a small amount of planning and work.

Great Willow Bark!

There is a magical place that comes alive every winter, not far from Portland.  And, fortunately for any local sightseers it is conveniently located right off of I-5, just southeast of Ridgefield Exit 14.  It’s hard to build mystery and anticipation for your reader when your creative subject line is so telling, but yes, I’m talking about a stand of willow trees.  Not your idea of exciting?  Maybe it takes a certain kind of person to get excited about willows, but this beautiful bark just amazes me, and I’m sure all can appreciate it:

Salix lasiandra bark

Pacific Willow (Salix lasiandra, syn. Salix lucida ssp. lasiandra)

Look how much this tree stands out against the drab backdrop of alders:

Salix lasiandra, syn. Salix lucida ssp. lasiandra

Pacific Willow, disguising as a smokeless flame

As best as I can tell (without being able to examine one up-close, being on private property), these are Pacific Willows (Salix lasiandra), or a type of one.  The bright, yellow-orange stems really helped aid in identification, or supposition, to be accurate.  Since there are around 400 species from the genus Salix, (200+ in cultivation, not counting cultivars), it’s hard to know if you’ve narrowed down that list enough for a definitive answer when trying to identify one, especially since they are cross-fertile plants, often creating hybrids.  I like what OSU’s site has to say about willows:

“As a group, willows are easy to identify – in fact, pussy willows are one of the first trees that many of us learn.  But distinguishing between different types of willows, is a different story.  The reason is that there are so many willows – North America has approximately 90 different types – and that many of the species interbreed, with the offspring having characteristics of both parents.  As a result, most people are satisfied knowing that a tree is a willow, and leave it at that.”

Even with all that family competition, these willow trees really stand out from most others that I’ve seen.  Just imagine this below stand of willows planted with large drifts of our native Red-twig Dogwood (Cornus sericea, syn. Cornus stolonifera), shown here in a previous post.  Red-twig, or Red Osier, Dogwoods share very similar cultural requirements (loving themselves a riparian area) and would not only provide striking bark contrast, but they would also work great proportionately as a foreground plant to these willows, only coming up to about half of their height.

Stand of Salix lasiandra

Willow woods

In general, willows are rather susceptible to pests and diseases, and branch breakage can also be a relatively common occurrence (however, they also re-sprout and re-root easily), but they also come with many benefits which I believe easily outweigh the negatives if you have a large, moist to wet, natural area for them.  Native, riparian willows like these can help provide soil/waterway stabilization with their extensive, fibrous root systems, improve shoreline and aquatic habitat by offering food, shelter and shade (the shade helps reduce temperatures in nearby waterways improving the conditions for many fish), improve water quality, grow quickly to establish a natural screen, and lend a relatively fine texture and movement to a landscape.  Also, the early spring flowers not only add interest to the garden, but are also a great early nectar source for our bees.

I wish we had the room for a few of these willows in our yard, but 6,000 square feet is not going to cut it.  Better add a larger yard to the Christmas list…

Late Winter Blues? Meet Late Winter Blooms

As I’m sitting down to type this I can see at least six robins and a northern flicker rummaging for food out in our cozy backyard.  Cozy is one word for it, another is small (all this time I spend around realtors is apparently affecting my diction), but abutting the wetland/park at least makes it feel much larger.  The frogs have been starting to make their presence known at night, and we’ve already “sprung” ahead an hour.  Well, at least our clocks, our bodies may still be catching up.  Temperatures are slowly rising and the ice cream man has already been spotted making his rounds.  Yes, it seems as though spring has arrived.  Maybe not officially, but we definitely seem to be entering a new season.  Here’s what’s currently in bloom this mid March.  Enjoy.

Helleborus Ivory Prince

Red Dragon Paper Bush

Spring is right around the corner!

(All photos are property of Luke Bennier)

Sticks and Stones Will Build Your (Garden’s) Bones

Oregon grape holly & miniature fountain grass

For added winter interest in your landscape, work on building strong bones, another one of the four ‘B’s as I had mentioned in my last post.  One way I would describe the bones of a garden is anything within it that is still standing during winter’s battle upon it.  Garden tools and soil amendment bags aside.  But of course I would never leave such things outside…

I’m referring mostly to plants here, but also to garden ornaments, hardscapes, boulders, etc.  A well-planned design will take into account the plant life that fades away this time of year, or any changes, and make sure the garden still adheres to the principles of design.  Some of which are particularly at risk this season, namely balance, rhythm, proportion and focalization of interest.

Evergreen trees and shrubs, whether needled or broad-leafed, are an obvious choice to aid in this problem.  Like faithful garden sentries they stand strong and also act as great cover, and sometimes food, for your furry or feathery friends.  There are many great things to be said about these plants, however, an over-abundance can also make a garden feel a little stiff.  Evergreen perennials, which in this case I’m referring to plants other than shrubs or trees that retain their foliage through the winter, are another great, but more obvious option.

From top left clockwise: tufts of Ophiopogon (Mondo Grass), groundcover Sedum (Stonecrop), and Bergenia (Pigsqueak)

So, looking beyond evergreens what else can help make strong garden bones this time of year?  Deciduous trees can still have a great impact this time of year, not just for their bark, as highlighted in my last post, but also for their form or skeleton.  Harry Lauder’s Walking Stick, Corylus avellana ‘Contorta’, is a great example of this with its twisted, gnarly branches.  I don’t know much about the namesake, but I imagine he must’ve been quite the comic using one of these branches as his walking stick.  This is also a great winter specimen because of the greenish-yellow pendulous catkins it produces mid to late season.

Other great deciduous plants with twisted branches are the Twisty Baby Dwarf Black Locust (Robinia pseudoacacia ‘Lace Lady’) and the Corkscrew Willow (Salix matsudana ‘Tortuosa’), both with more upright habits.  Both of these trees are fast growing and will get much larger than Harry Lauder’s Walking Stick.  Also, the branching habit and silhouette of deciduous trees and shrubs can have great appeal as well.  Many dogwoods have gorgeous skeletons, gracing gardens this time of year with their elegance.  The Pagoda Dogwood (Cornus alternifolia) is a unique, beautiful specimen with its wide, angular and tiered branching pattern.  Many Japanese Maples also have great architectural forms; a mature Threadleaf Japanese Maple, such as Acer palmatum var. dissectum ‘Crimson Queen’, is a real sight to behold in winter time.

A Japanese Maple (Acer palmatum) in the Portla...

A Japanese Maple (Acer palmatum) in the Portland Japanese Garden. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Also, what about those dried out, lifeless-looking perennials?  The changes they undergo this time of year can make some of them just as appealing, or even more so, in this season as in the prior ones in my opinion.  Just take a look at these ornamental grasses:

Part of what makes these grasses so appealing this time of year are their fluffy seed heads that glow in the light.  Cut and dried these also look great decorating the interior of our homes.  Other perennials with great winter seed heads include upright Sedums, Echinacea and Phlomis, just to name a few.  The birds will appreciate them too.  However, with some of these you may want to cut down a portion of the stems earlier in the year before seeds form, as whatever energy is spent on seed production this year can have an effect on how much is available for subsequent flower production.

From top left clockwise: Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’, Northwest native Spiraea douglasii (Western or Rose Spiraea), Echinacea purpurea (Purple Coneflower), Miscanthus sinensis (Eulalia or Maiden Grass), and another shot of Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’ with low-lying stonecrops.

To help retain a focalization of interest this time of year, garden ornaments go a long ways. Even something as simple as a thoughtfully placed ceramic ball.  With an Asian/Zen garden, rock cairns (rocks stacked one on top of another) or bamboo art would work nicely.  Or if you have a cottage garden a bird bath or wood tuteur may be more appropriate.

Lastly, it’s hard to deny the appeal, or even necessity, of stone in a garden, whether it be a dry riverbed, gravel or flagstone pathway, or boulders placed throughout your garden rooms (which can also help establish a rhythm and balance).  Boulders can act as a backdrop to plants, provide habitat, make the garden look more natural, and even be used as a chair when weeding, maintaining or just relaxing.  They will never grow out of their allotted space or require a feeding.