Oregon has over 3,600 species of native plants, while Washington State has over 2,300. From flowering blooms to creeping greenery, Pacific Northwest natives can be used in a variety of landscapes—they are excellent choices for garden borders, groundcover, shade gardens, wildlife gardens, and more.
Why Landscape with Native Plants?
- Natives are beautiful and they provide year-round interest.
- Many are low maintenance and have low water needs.
- They help provide habitat for birds, butterflies, and other wildlife.
- Planting natives preserves our natural and cultural heritage, and it gives our neighborhoods a sense of regional identity.
Tips for Designing with Natives
- Match the right plant to the right place—know your site and the requirements of the plants you’re considering. Pay attention to the mature size of the plants (height, width, growth rate).
- Choose plants with interest at various times of the year, including bulbs, conifers, and winter-blooming shrubs.
- Think in layers—tree canopy, understory plants, and groundcovers.
- Always be sure to choose nursery grown stock from responsible suppliers—digging from the wild contributes to the decline and extinction of natives in their natural habitat.
- With smaller flowering plants, use several of the same variety in a clump so pollinators will notice them more readily.
- Don’t forget to add a bird bath or a fountain for water!
Caring for Native Plants
They are “low maintenance” when planted in an appropriate spot, not “no maintenance”.
- Just like other garden plants, water regularly until established. Ideal planting time is between September and March to give roots a chance to grow before the dry summer months.
- Mulch to conserve soil moisture and reduce weeds.
- Most natives do not require fertilizer, but the soil should be amended with compost.
- Prune lightly or not all at once—spent flowers, seed heads, and other plant parts make great food, nesting material, and habitat for birds and beneficial insects.
- Cut back deciduous grasses and perennials in late winter before new growth begins—it’s nice to leave them up over the winter for birds and insects. Remember—native butterflies and moths are caterpillars when young, and need to feed on plant leaves, so tolerating some insect feeding is an important part of creating habitat.
Backyard Habitat Certification Program
Portland Audubon and Columbia Land Trust teamed up to design a unique program that supports local urban gardeners in their efforts to create natural backyard habitats! The intent of the Backyard Habitat Certification Program is to provide technical assistance, financial incentives, encouragement, and recognition to people who want to create natural, low-maintenance gardens that support people, wildlife, and the planet.
In efforts to provide additional resources for purchasing native plants, we are listed as a participating garden center and have a 10% coupon in their brochure, which is sent out to all active members. The program has also provided us with materials and incentives, including a hard copy of the Portland Plant List, plant tags, and several other helpful items. Keep in mind that the program does not recognize cultivars of native plants as equivalent to the straight species (i.e. Ribies sanguineum is considered native, but the cultivar R. sanguineum ‘King Edward VII’ is not). This is a continued topic of discussion among various horticultural academics (native plants versus cultivars of natives) and is yet to be resolved, however, more research must be done before reaching a conclusion. For more information on how to get certified, click the button below:
Some of Our Favorite Northwest Native Plants
PPL = on the Portland Plant List
Cascara (Rhamnus purshiana): small; foliage is oval-shaped with deep ribs, dark green above, lighter underneath; flowers are greenish-white and small—although hidden, butterflies will seek them out; purple-black fruit loved by birds; grows in sun to shade and dry to moist soil; PPL
Vine Maple (Acer circinatum): many-stemmed, multi-trunked large shrub/small tree; nearly round light green foliage that turns orange, yellow, or scarlet in fall; sun to shade with moderate water; high disease resistance; PPL
Western Hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla): large and tall; delicate, down-sweeping branches hold feathery sprays of foliage resulting in a graceful appearance; grows in part shade; tolerates dry to moist soil; PPL
Western Red Cedar (Thuja plicata): very large at maturity; pyramidal in shape with slender drooping branches of dark green sprays of foliage, part shade to full sun; moderate water (tolerates quite moist soil); PPL
Shore Pine (Pinus contorta): especially on the coast; large conifer 20–50 feet tall, 30 feet wide; easy to grow and very adaptable; good erosion control
Coast Silk Tassel (Garrya elliptica): large (can be trained as small tree), evergreen, elliptical leaves with wavy margins are dark green on top and woolly grey underneath; long flower tassels (catkins) occur mid-winter into spring followed by purple fruits (on female plants) that persist through summer if birds don’t eat them; part to full sun; can withstand drought once established
Douglas Spiraea (Spiraea douglasii): durable, fast-growing; reaches 4-8 feet tall with plumes of lightly scented, pinkish purple flowers in mid-summer; grows in full sun to part shade; tolerant of moist soil; attractive to hummingbirds, butterflies, bees, and other pollinators
Evergreen Huckleberry (Vaccinium ovatum): Fantastic evergreen foliage with bright red, new growth; white flowers produce small edible fruit late in the season; PPL
Oregon Grape (Berberis; formerly Mahonia): Hardy evergreen; glossy green leaflets that resemble holly leaves; new growth tinged red and takes on purplish color with cold; yellow flowers in spring followed by edible blue-black fruit in summer; PPL
Red Elderberry (Sambucus racemosa): small; deciduous; lance-shaped, divided green foliage; white pyramid-shaped flowers followed by red berries; part shade to sun with moist soil; PPL
Red Flowering Currant (Ribes sanguimeum): medium to large; deciduous; dark green maple-like leaves and drooping clusters of pink flowers in the spring; tolerates clay soil; drought-tolerant once established; PPL
Salal (Gaultheria shallon): Hardy evergreen; glossy, nearly round green foliage; white or pinkish bell-shaped flowers followed by edible berries; great for groundcover and cutting gardens; PPL
Snowberry (Symphoricarpos albus): small; roundish green leaves; flowers in spring and are pink bells borne in clusters which turn into white fruit late summer and persist through winter—great food for birds; tolerates shade and little water, but flowers more with sun and regular water; PPL
Wild Mock Orange (Philadelphus lewisii): medium; deciduous; loose habit of upright arching branches; soft green foliage is a stunning backdrop for its large, fragrant white flowers in early summer; part to full sun and moist to dry soil (more vigorous with regular water); PPL
Camas Lily: PPL
Fringecup (Tellima grandiflora): 15 inches; semi-evergreen; heart-shaped foliage bears long stalks that are adorned with spikes of numerous tiny white or pink flowers mid-spring through mid-summer; part sun to full shade; moist, rich soil; PPL
Goat’s Beard (Aruncus dioicus): flowering herbaceous perennial with large, white, feathery blooms through summer; great for shade gardens
Nootka Rose (Rosa nutkana): forms a thicket 3-9 feet tall/wide with small pink, fragrant flowers May through June followed by a showy, red fruit (hip); tolerant of a wide range of conditions
Pacific Bleeding Heart (Dicentra formosa): 18 inches; blue-green, feathery, fern-like foliage appears in spring; clusters of pink heart-shaped flowers are prolific; naturalizes readily in mostly shady areas with relatively moist soil; PPL
Pacific Coast Iris (Iris tenax): PPL
Pacific Coast Trillium (Trillium ovatum): 12–18 inches; in spring stout bare stems give rise to whorls of 2 green, spade-shaped leaves and 1 large, white flower that ages to rose-purple, dies back and goes dormant in summer; naturalizes if left undisturbed; part to full shade and rich, well-drained, moist soil; PPL
Western Columbine (Aquilegia formosa): 32 inches; low-growing; twice-divided, blue-green foliage late spring into summer; striking, large, nodding, spurred, orange-red and yellow flowers are borne on erect stems up to nearly 3 feet above the foliage—hummingbirds can’t resist them! Full sun to part shade; moist, fertile, well-drained soil; PPL
Deer Fern (Blechnum spicant): 18 inches; evergreen; dark green, leathery fronds—fertile fronds are held above those that are tufted and sterile; moist soil and shade; PPL
Licorice Fern (Polypodium glycyrrhiza): 12 inches; evergreen (semi-evergreen if summer air becomes too dry); glossy green fronds thrive in well-drained, moist soil and shade; PPL
Western Maidenhair Fern (Adiantum alueticum): 12–24 inches; herbaceous; delicate fan-shaped leaflets of glimmering light to bright green hold onto black stems—glamorous! Moist, well-drained soil and shade; PPL
Lady Fern (Athyrium filix-femina): 3–6 inches; herbaceous; erect frond of light to dark green lance-shaped fronds; moist, well-drained soil; shade to part-sun (prefers shade); PPL
Sword Fern (Ploystichum munitum): PPL
Bunchberry (Cornus canadensis): 6 inches, semi-evergreen to evergreen, deeply veined, medium-green, roundish to oval foliage, white flowers in late spring through summer give way to orange-red berries that are a beloved bird treat! PPL
Inside Out Flower (Vancouveria hexandra): 12 inches, green foliage resembles duck feet, late spring into early summer nodding stems hold white, shooting star-like flowers that have bent back petals, shade to part sun and fertile, well-drained, moist soil; PPL
Beach or Coastal Strawberry (Fragaria chiloensis): 4 inches, evergreen, glossy foliage is dark green above and silvery underneath, white flowers in spring, small edible red fruit in summer, sunny site with regular water
Creeping Oregon Grape (Berberis repens; formerly Mahonia repens): to 12 inches, evergreen, 3–7 toothed leaflets make up a leaf of blue-green color (amazing winter color of bronze to purplish-rose), small yellow late spring flowers, blue berries in summer (birds love ’em!), full sun to part shade, minimal water needed once established; PPL
Low Oregon Grape (Berberis nervosa; formerly Mahonia nervosa): PPL
Native Plant Resources
- Metro’s Native Plants for Willamette Valley booklet
- Portland Plant List
- Back Yard Habitat Certification Program
- Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast book by Pojar and MacKinnon
Inspiration from Natural Places & Local Gardens
Some places to see native plants in garden settings:
- Bishop’s Close at Elk Rock Garden (SW Portland)
- Leach Botanic Garden (SE Portland)
- Bosky Dell Natives Nursery (West Linn)
- Hoyt Arboretum (SW Portland)