Much of the landscape we
know today was created by what a glacial ice sheet left behind when it
retreated 15,000 years ago: the Puget Sound, lakes and rivers, and south from
Olympia to the Columbia River (and beyond), deep, gravelly soils that became
open prairies. Colonized by grassland steppe plants from the east and oak
woodlands from the south, prairies covered only 10% of the post-glacial
landscape. They were preserved by Native Americans with controlled fires so
that they might harvest the bulbs and forbs (herbaceous flowering plants) that
grow in fire’s wake. Today, only 3% of the original prairies and oak woodlands
plants native to the prairie are found in other areas in the Northwest, so may
be familiar garden plants. Columbine (Aquilegia formosa)
and camas (Camassia
spp.) are garden favorites, as are yarrow (Achillea millefolium) and chocolate lilies (Fritillaria affinis). Native Americans steamed
chocolate lily roots and camas
bulbs in pits. They also relied heavily on biscuit-root (Lomatium
utriculatum and others), and actually distinguished between a
greater number of species of lomatium than modern botanists did until molecular
analysis verified the First Peoples’ intimate knowledge of the plants.
those interested in growing Northwest native plants, species from the south
Puget Sound prairie are perfect for that sunny, gravelly, drought-prone patch
that is all too often sacrificed to the weeds. For that hard-to-water “hellstrip”
between your sidewalk and the street—a prairie garden might be just the thing.
And who knows? You might attract the endangered Taylor’s checkerspot butterfly
(www.xerces.org/Endangered/taylorscheckerspot.htm) as well as interest and
admiration from your neighbors.
south Puget Sound prairie ecosystem is dominated by Roemer’s fescue (Festuca
subsp. Roemeri). Fescue grass makes a natural-looking matrix within
which to plant flowering herbs and bulbs in your prairie garden. It is a
long-lived, cool-season grass which grows through the winter, so is important
as a space-holder, and is attractive in its own right with bluish blades
forming dense tufts to 12 inches. It does not spread by runners.
virginia) and kinnikinnik (Arctostaphylos
uva-ursi) are also ground-covering plants that can form the
background from which the taller plants arise.
Two camas lily species
offer sequential flowering: common camas (Camassia quamash)
and great camas (Camassia
leichtlinii). The first blooms in
early May, followed by the second two weeks later. Cultivars include Camassia
quamash ‘Orion’, with deep violet-blue flowers.
Blooming at the same time
as common camas is Henderson’s shooting star (Dodecatheon hendersonii). The rocket-shaped corolla
is pink, with a yellow
base and dark stamens. This prairie-adapted shooting star goes dormant in
summer, so it is drought-tolerant.
new plant for me is cut-leaved microseris (Microseris laciniata). The jagged-edged succulent
leaves have a very
distinctive look, with yellow daisy flowers hanging on nodding stems.
speciosis) is definitely showy. If you cut the blue flowers back after it
finishes blooming in spring, it will flower again through the summer and offer
a third flush in autumn. The foliage forms a dense 12” tall tuft of narrowly
Delphinium nutallii is one of my favorites. It
has one the deepest violet
flowers that I have ever seen. I am told that it is slow to establish, so be
careful not to weed it out!
Oregon sunshine (Eriophyllum lanatum)
is a wonderful, low-growing
yellow daisy whose narrow, silver leaves provide a foil to the blue flowers of
the erigeron mentioned earlier. It is one of the easiest prairie plants to
grow. This tough groundcover takes drought in stride.
gracilis) is a small shrub with
buttercup-yellow flowers summer through fall.
If You Like a Challenge…
there are some harder-to-grow species for those who like a challenge:
deltoida) is a big, beautiful
perennial with soft gray-green “mules ears” and huge yellow daisies. It needs a
deep root run because of its taproot, so plant it high and dry!
hispida) is rarely grown in
cultivation, but it is possible. It usually grows with a “host” which enables
the paintbrush to derive more nutrients and water. This extra requirement does
make it a challenging plant to propagate, so few nurseries carry Indian
paintbrush at this time.
Home of the Golden Indian
rare yellow flame is a charismatic ambassador (as much as a non-mobile species
can be) for Northwest prairie ecosystems. Golden indian paintbrush (Castillija
levisecta), is listed as a threatened species in Washington and
British Columbia. It is extirpated from the Willamette Valley, but there are
plans to reintroduce it to selected sites later this year. Populations in under
a dozen sites in Washington and British Columbia comprise from 10 to around
special attention given to protecting the golden indian paintbrush has fueled
restoration efforts in prairies throughout the region. Such activity provides a
good example of the cross-over benefits that can occur when the world of
gardening and the world of restoration ecology meet.
Conservation of prairie
recently toured The Nature Conservancy’s (TNC) Glacial Heritage Preserve near
Little Rock, about 10 miles south of Olympia, WA. My guides, Dan and Pat
Montague, are dedicated volunteer coordinators who spend their Tuesdays (and
many other days) at the preserve pulling invasive Scotch broom (Cytisus
scoparius), collecting seed, and planting native prairie
seedlings. I was fortunate to see Castilleja levisecta
in bloom—and felt guilty for not having earned the privilege by pulling Scotch
Montagues are members of the Northwest chapter of the North American Rock
Garden Society, and have created a beautiful rock garden featuring native
plants and dwarf conifers at their home north of Olympia. As Dan led me over to
the open, mounded area where they grow a prairie garden in miniature, featuring
Roemer’s fescue, showy fleabane, lupines, camas, lomatium, shooting star (in
bloom) and Oregon sunshine, Pat explained, “Prairie restoration efforts are
relatively new. When we first became involved about 10 years ago, there wasn’t
much known about propagation or reintroduction of these plants.” Yet here were
all these species thriving in a garden situation.
as I toured TNC’s Shotwell Nursery, run by horticulturist Daeg Byrne, it was
obvious that propagation efforts were paying off. Raised beds were filled with
a single species in each box, while rows of seedlings filled covered benches.
Harsh paintbrush was in full bloom, filling one raised bed for 30 feet in
shades from yellow to orange. They were grown with Oregon sunshine, the host,
for transplanting out or seed collection. Such a gorgeous sight makes one
wonder: where can I buy these for my home garden? Indeed, Pat told me that they
sometimes get a visitor who inquires whether the nursery would sell to a retail
customer. And sometimes they do. It’s all very new.
The Hunt for Prairie Gems
as it was once difficult to find Northwest native woodland plants at retail
nurseries, it is a challenge to find nurseries that sell prairie plants.
Wholesale nurseries are selling great numbers of these plants for restoration
projects. My best advice is to ask your local native plant retailer to put an
order in for you with their next wholesale order. Once the word gets out,
nurseries will stock more prairie gems for their demanding customers. In the
meantime, you could volunteer at one of the south Puget Sound prairie preserves
to get your prairie plant fix.
The Nature Conservancy 206-343-4345
Washington Native Plant Society
888-288-8022 (inside Washington)
Prairie Plant Sources:
In Washington (this site
also lists nurseries in
Defenders of Wildlife webpage
has an appendix listing native plant nurseries in the Willamette Valley and