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Eugene Weekly : Gardening : 11.12.2009

 

Necessary Natives

Every yard needs evergreens

By Rachel Foster

My husband and I recently moved to a new house, and one goal I have for our new garden is to plant a sizable chunk of it with native shrubs and grasses. I look forward to planting vine maple, red flowering currant and mock orange, and perhaps ocean spray or Pacific ninebark. But all these shrubs are deciduous, and I would like some smallish evergreens as well to keep things interesting in winter. Oregon grape is an obvious candidate for wildlife value and its assertive leaves. There are already one or two plants of tall Oregon grape (Berberis aquifolium) and a little bit of shade where I can plant long leaf Oregon grape (Berberis nervosa). I’ve just planted my favorite, compact form of tall Oregon grape on a sunny corner, where it will develop great winter color. What else?

At first glance it may seems that, conifers aside, native evergreen shrubs are a little thin on the ground. But I am not going to be a purist about this native business, if that means limiting myself to species found right here in the southern Willamette Valley. That’s just too strict for my gardener’s heart to contemplate. But if you interpret “native” as indigenous not only to the Willamette Valley but to all of western Oregon, the list of plausible evergreens grows quite long and various. Local nurseries have long sold Oregon wax myrtle and kinnickinnick, which are not valley natives. Including other species from the coast and from the mountains provides the wonderful evergreen huckleberry (Vaccinium ovatum), native rhododendron (Rhododendron macrophyllum), coast silk tassel (Garrya elliptica) and even, for those of us with some very free draining soil, manzanita. 

Hairy manzanita (Arctostaphylos columbiana) does belong in the valley, according to my references, but we don’t see it often. There are other less familiar valley and foothill natives, such as buckbrush (Ceonothus cuneatus), an evergreen ceonothus that can grow to 8 feet. Two smaller plants in this category that particularly interest me are coyote brush and Oregon boxwood. Sun-loving coyote brush (Baccharis pilularis) has small, silvery green leaves and fall flowers that are attractive to insects. Deer do not seem to eat it. At 4 to 8 feet, this is not always a small shrub, but it seems to tolerate considerable pruning, and the leaf color is appealing. It’s not a common plant in nurseries, but Fern Hill Nursery in Cottage Grove sells it. I’m thinking of making a coyote brush hedge. 

Oregon boxwood (Pachistima myrsinites), also called mountain lover (and sometimes spelled paxistima), is common in the mountains and occasional in the foothills. It has little dark green leaves and a dainty way of growing. Last spring I noticed it teaming up with beargrass, right at the edge of the cliff above Tamolitch Pool on the McKenzie River. They made a lively combination that I hope to reproduce just as soon as I can provide a gritty slope in light shade. Oregon box is not always easy to please, but it is well worth trying if you want a native, shade-loving low-growing evergreen (1 to 3 feet). Unfortunately it is difficult to find. ForestFarm in Williams, Ore., lists it but is currently out of

stock.

Rachel Foster of Eugene is a writer and garden consultant. She can be reached at rfoster@efn.org