Curious Lola

Native Plant Rant

Stop native plant abuse!

Yesterday, I got a new landscape design project and while I welcome all projects in this ho-hum economic climate, this one invited a groan. Well, first a weird little laugh, then two hands smearing each cheek downward, and then a groan.

The project is a gas station, one of the most exposed, rough, and polluted places to ask a plant to live in. It’s like leaving your kid in the desert, giving her a kiss on the cheek, telling her it’ll be okay, and then driving away. Except a plant doesn’t have feet. So it’s a little different…

It’s not that the project is difficult, it’s just that it reminded me of one of my greatest peeves brought on by the good intentions of the sustainability/ green movement. The native plant craze…. The idea that since we are in Seattle, any plant that touches its sweet soil should have a history in Seattle that predates yo momma’s momma’s momma’s momma’s grand-momma. Or since the last glaciation.

The problem is, the requirement for this gas station is to be all native plantings…

My beef: Native plants are native because they like the native natural growing conditions of the forest, stream bank, rocky outcrop, prairies, whatever. Places with years of squishy plant debris build-up and soil that is only compacted occasionally by a wandering elk. Soil that because of its NON-compacted state, can actually suck in the water that is dropped on it.

This gas station, however, will have fill dirt harvested from who knows where and an onslaught of pollutants from spilled oil to Big Lou’s chaw to the occasional beer. There will be boots, sneakers, eco-friendly hemp shoes, and heels, tromping through my dear plants home, squishing the soil and damaging the roots. There will be the blistering sun, reflected heat from pavement and cars, run off water piped underground, the inevitable failing irrigation system, AND I’m pretty sure plants react badly to club music.

Fortunately, there are plants that would be better suited for these terrible conditions. Unfortunately, they are not likely to be native.

The result? native plants die all together or end up looking like abused, burned fraggle muppets. The question I’m left with is, commit native plant abuse? Or, sneak in some hybrids and cultivars with names that are close to native species in hope of duping the unsuspecting reviewers?

Here’s a list of natives that, in my experience, just really aren’t a good idea for exposed urban environments.

Foot traffic + harsh sun+ compacted soils= unhappy swordfern

Red-twigged dogwood actually doesn’t do bad in urban environments and is has beautiful twigs but often gets too large. So what ends up happening is people hack to try to make a hedge out of it.

Oregon grape is what I was thinking of when I said fraggle muppet. This plant does terribly with pollution and its odd shape lends itself to brutal and strange pruning practices.

Salal looks beautiful and lush in part shade. It can handle sun and dry conditions just like your hair can handle going platinum. It works… kinda… for awhile.

Vine Maples are another of those plants that do best in part sun. Exposure dries them out and pollution makes the leaves look sickly. If babied for a few years, I’ve seen it look nice in rough locations.

Plants I have seen look all right are Kinnickinnick, Strawberry, Tufted Hairgrass (when given enough water), and I’ve been wanting to try Wooly Sunflower (Eriophyllum lanatum). I haven’t seen it done but think it could work as a perennial for tough environments that call for natives.

Mmmmmmm… Lilacs.

Lilacs are to me what an ice cream truck is to a five year old. I wait for them, and when they are around, I freak out. I want them… all of them. I have mapped out in my mind where all the lilac bushes live in my neighborhood and in the days leading up to the height of their bloom, I stalk them. Almost daily, I stalk and I sniff. I call my parents to see if their lilacs are blooming and compare lilac schedules.  I daydream about why a lilac in Sequim is 3 weeks behind a lilac in Tacoma.

I may or may not have been guilty of swiping a bloom-laden twig from a neighbor’s yard. During this greedy act, I may or may not have even scanned the area first for onlookers. I may or may not have tucked the twig in a jacket that I specifically wore  for my lilac-pilfering, criminal purpose and scampered home like a bug.

Recently, on a trip down to Oregon, I stopped by the Hulda Klager Lilac Species Garden in Woodland. OH YAY! I cannot explain the amazing-ness. I was introduced to not one, but many new (to me) varieties AND species I had not known existed. Below is some show and tell.

This Garden is on Hulda’s old farm, now run by the lilac society. Hulda moved from Germany in the late 1800s and was responsible for 14 new varieties of lilacs.

Syringa 'Belle de Nancy'

I love the bicolor look of darker buds against lighter flowers.

Syringa 'Crystle'

Crystle is a nice size and shape for larger landscapes. So many lilacs can look scraggley.

Syringa 'Frank Klager'

Hulda’s hubby?

Syringa 'Glory'

Big, fat, floppy blooms! Dark purple flowers.

Syringa 'Krasavitsa Moskvy' (my favorite)

LOOK! Pink buds and creamy flowers. So delicious.

Syringa pubescens subsp. microphylla 'Miss Kim'

This one is a dwarf variety that grows to about 8 feet instead of the typical 10-20′.  Tinkerbelle is another dwarf variety that I didn’t take pics of.It is even smaller.

Syringa 'Paul Therion'

Syringa 'President Grevy'

There were  a few varieties with president somewhere in the name. Another was ‘President Lincoln’ which had past its prime. The ‘Presidents’ tended to be almost blue.

Syringa 'Prophecy'

Syringa 'Sensation'

This is the only lilac that I know of that is widely available. Also the only one at Hulda’s that had this type of coloring.

Syringa pubescens susp. microphylla 'Superba'

This one is called little leaf lilac and if from Korea. While it can get to 20′, this one was kept at around 4 and looked great.

Syringa 'Sweetheart'

I love this one too!

Syringa 'Nadezhda'

This is my second fave.

There were more. Many more. I can’t believe I didn’t take a picture of ‘Congo’ which has deep purple huge blooms.

I tried to find some useful tidbits on care for lilacs. Since they are suckering shrubs, they can look wily. One book suggests not to prune them at all for 4 years, after which older canes can be removed. Lilacs like full sun and do not like soggy soil. The varieties that seem to be most widely available are ‘Sensation’, the Syringa pubescens species, ‘Congo’ and ‘Belle de Nancy’, BUT the Hulda Klager garden propogates all of the varieties shown.

Cutting Garden: Part 1 Late Winter/ Early Spring Bouquet

The Groundhog was wrong. Spring seems to be early. And struggling to the surface of my brain are all the past year’s dreams of garden completeness. A perfect place where each plant is planned according to garden micro-climate and pollinators are aplenty.  A place that is not only lovely, but supplies me with endless inspiration and material for flower projects.

It didn’t happen, just like it didn’t happen the previous 3 years since we’ve moved into our house on a hill. Blackberries DID happen. BUT, this year is different and I am ready to attack. Beginning next week….  This week, I plan.

I’m trying to work into my plant palette landscape shrubs, perennials, and annuals that will give me a range of textures and forms to work with for floral design while still keeping a coherent landscape. I’d also like to have something to use during all times of the year. So, part one begins with plants that look good now or will look good in a couple of weeks. Most of them smell good too. There’s something about wet dirt and spring flowers smell that is so good. We’ll all have to imagine the potential arrangements until these sweet smelling plants beef themselves up.

First are hellebores. They are always so unexpected and lovely. I love Helleborus foeditus called Stinking Hellebore (I have not found the stinking part to be true). They are tough too.

Then Creeping rosemary. Rosmarinus officinalis ‘Prostratus’. I have limited hot spots in my yard. But where there are, they are also on top of rockeries. This will look good dripping down and give me those deliciously pungent, beautifully textured leaves. (side note, I made rosemary orange jelly last year and it rocked my world, you should try it)

And there must be Daphne. If you don’t know about this plant, inform yourself.  It’s not that it’s all that eye-catching but the smell is unbelievable. It will seriously stop you in your tracks and turn you into that weirdo walking down the street looking feverishly through the bushes. (I am that weirdo, I could use a fellow weirdo)  Also, it’s toxic. To what degree? I dunno.  I just don’t eat it. Me or Fido. I promise to find out before I make you an arrangement of the stuff. Botanical name is Daphne odora.

I also like the foliage of the licorice plant. So sweet and soft. It’s not a hardy plant in the Northwest but I’ve been told that sometimes it will more than one season. Helichrysum petiolare. The picture is a variegated variety. (by the way, this one and the creeping rosemary are also great in pots… hmmmm. shall we do a container gardening post in the future? I think so.)

And Pieris. Now I know this plant is everywhere but something about this time of year makes me seek it out. I rearrange my walking route just to encounter a sniff of this stuff. One smell of it and I can remember my elementary school. The grounds were full of white pieris. Good memories, not like Juniper which brings back memories of middle school. Juniper= bad memories. (Juniper and I are currently reconciling.)

And I’d really like some willow. It’s so versatile.

And finally this Flowering Quince. My family has a red one on our Lavender Farm. Most of the summer when people are buzzing about, it is generally a big scrambley, crazy bush filled with birds. Right now, it is jaw-dropping gorgeous. I actually just planted one. Color is unknown, but this light pink one would look lovely in our imaginary arrangement. Botanical name is Chaenomeles speciosa.

There, one gorgeous winter/ early spring arrangement. This is going to get harder as it gets warmer.

Paper Flowers

Bah! I had visions of posting cheap, easy ways to make loads of gorgeous paper flowers with whatever spare paper was lying around your rooms. I was envisioning delicate paper flowers dripping from windows, spilling out of vases, dangling from above beds.  Alas, that which is cheap is not easy. On a past trip to Cuernavaca, Mexico, I encountered gazillions of little bright paper beauties and have since longed to create my own.  I’ve pored over many books on the subject and had settled on one simple book that not only was easy to follow but created beautifully crafted flowers. It is: Making Flowers in Paper, Fabric, and Ribbon by Steve and Megumi Biddle and goes a little something like this:

Yes, I bite my nails... don't judge.

Step one: Cut out a petal shape with a longer base so you can connect them.  Step two: mess around with the petal to make it more flexible. Step three: loosely fold two ridges near the base of the petal. Press the top of the ridges back so the petal becomes concave.  Step four is where it gets frustrating: the Biddles tell me to somehow wrap these silly petals together with wire. Not happening. I ended up using a blend of floral tape and ridiculous amounts of hot glue.  And, TADAH!

I made the rose. While beautiful, it was time consuming and not realistic for larger projects. I also used bits and pieces of sketch paper I had lying around instead of the handmade paper or crepe paper that was recommended. (mmmmight have something to do with it) Instead of the floral project I was going to use them for, I ended up using the flowers for a mask, one of eight I constructed for a client’s fabulous masquerade dinner.

The white roses went into the Snow lady mask. The snow lady had a forest partner. The rest were either birds or fish. At first I was going to use feathers but soon realized the masks were looking more and more like a drag queen left out in the rain.  And of course, when there is a need, an opportunity presents itself. My sister had gifted me a couple of those little flower paper bunches. AND, when cut up into pieces, made perfect feather or scale like bits. They are so handy.

Thought I would share:

Snow lady

Flamingo Face, Pouf Head, and Owl.

My favorite: Fish Face

If you’ve got some great paper flower how-to sources, please let me know!

Rock. flower. frog.

I’m often filling my pockets with beach rocks, twigs, and pods. I’ve got the stuff spilling out of bowls on shelves, in and around frames, just everywhere. Usually it sits there waiting for me to use it in some manifestation of craft glory. Most of the time it collects dust and sometimes houses an unlucky bug.  I finally pulled these larger rocks down to put together a quick, easy, but elegant floral arrangement that could be placed solo on a table for simple elegance, or massed for an odd, minimalistic nature scene. Used are iris and tulips. The leaves I removed. I kept some to arrange independently in the frog and others went to the compost heap.  A frog is a heavy piece of metal either with dense spikes, or a cage to separate and hold stems in a vase.  I used this monstrous one, but there are small frogs the size of a button that are more inconspicuous.

These arrangements were not in a vase, so they did not get watered. I suppose a small dish with small frogs could get enough water to the flowers and still conceal the mechanics.

Here are the arrangements,

This is so fast, cheap, and simple that it would be great for a DIY bride or party host to throw together, or delegate to a helper.

The whole water thing can be tricky however. I had never figured out how long these flowers would hold up out of water. I figured I’d bring everything to my office and see which flower came out on top in a battle to the death. Here are the results:

Please keep in mind, these flowers were removed from water at 7:30, handled at my morning coffee shop stop, and then endured a jostling bus ride to my office. The tulip got the brunt of the abuse on the bus by unknowingly being tossed under a seat, resulting in an awkward encounter with a stranger and an even more awkward conversation about fabric weight of slacks these days.  AND it’s cold here in Seattle so the flowers did not have the heat to contend with (important if your party or event is in the summer or in areas with hotter climates).

Ultimately, my not-so-scientific experiment tells me that a tulip can handle about 2 hours of no water while the powerful iris can handle about 5. Also interesting was that when placed back in water at the end of their tortuous ordeal, both flowers perked right back up.


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