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Gardeners go native

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Ashland native plant garden is one of a dozen on virtual tour
Photo by Rhonda NowakOne of Sherri’s favorite native plants is Oregon Sunshine, a drought-tolerant plant with cheerful yellow flowers.
Photo by Rhonda NowakSherri Morgan points out one of her favorite native berry bushes, the red-flowering currant.
Photo by Rhonda NowakSherri Morgan's Ashland garden is small but packed with many different kinds of native plants.
Photo by Rhonda NowakThis unassuming native plant, sulphur buckwheat, is partially responsible for a famous novelist’s visit to Ashland in 1953.
Photo by Rhonda NowakWestern bleeding heart is a native perennial that likes shadier spots in the garden.

“Knowledge generates interest, and interest generates compassion.”

— Douglas W. Tallamy, “Bringing Nature Home: How Native Plants Sustain Wildlife in Our Gardens” (2009)

In February, I focused my columns on Tallamy’s book “Nature’s Best Hope” (2020), in which he reiterates the importance of growing indigenous plants in our gardens and landscapes in order to attract native insects and birds. In both books, Tallamy’s message is clear: the health of our local ecosystems depends on homeowners working together to bring more native flora and fauna back to the Rogue Valley.

Ashland resident and gardener Sherri Morgan has been an advocate of native plants for several years. She’s worked hard to raise local awareness about the significance of native plants through her professional work as a landscape designer and her volunteer work with the Ashland Garden Club and the Jackson County Master Gardener Association. Sherri recently invited me to visit her relatively new native plant garden, which she designed and has been installing on her property since she moved in almost two years ago.

Sherri’s native plant garden is an impressive example of not only how homeowners can grow a wide variety of native plants in a small yard, but also of how native plants can be incorporated along with non-natives that have similar growing needs. Sherri’s natives grow harmoniously with Mediterranean plants in sunny areas of her yard and with woodland non-native species in shady areas.

Not long after we started the tour, Sherry pointed to one modest-looking plant and said enticingly, “I have a literary story for you about this native.” Of course, I was all ears.

The plant she was pointing to was a sulphur buckwheat (Eriogonum umbellatum), a summer-blooming native perennial that produces clusters of bright yellow flowers. Sulphur buckwheat grows wild on Mount Ashland, where it attracts a variety of native butterflies, including species that are found only in the Siskiyou Mountains.

During the summer of 1953, Russian-American novelist and lepidopterist Vladimir Nabokov rented a house on Meade Street in Ashland with his wife, Vera. In between hikes up Mount Ashland collecting butterflies, Nabokov worked on his controversial book “Lolita,” which was published in 1955 and quickly became a classic.

Suddenly, the rather unexceptional buckwheat plant in Sherri’s garden (it wasn’t blooming at the time) became a plant I want in my garden, not only because it brought Vladimir Nabokov to our area and inspired his mentioning of several butterfly species in “Lolita,” but also because buckwheat is such a hardworking pollinator plant. There are several native Eriogonum species that have adapted to different growing conditions, so Sherri thinks we should all have native buckwheat in our garden, and I agree.

In fact, Sherri has many different kinds of native herbaceous perennials, annuals, shrubs and small trees in her yard. Here’s a listing of 25 of them:

Herbaceous perennials

Blanketflower (Gaillardia aristata)

Oregon Sunshine (Eriophyllum lanatum)

Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)

Seaside daisy (Erigeron glaucus)

Milkweed (Asclepias fascicularis and Asclepias speciosa)

Shooting star (Dodecatheon poeticum)

Elegant tarweed (Madia elegans)

Wild ginger (Asarum caudatum)

Western columbine (Aquilegia formosa)

Jacob’s ladder (Polemonium carneum)

Western bleeding heart (Dicentra formosa)

Tidy tips (Layia platyglossa) (annual)

Shrubs/small trees

Serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia)

Coffeeberry (Rhamnus californica)

Dwarf strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo ‘Compacta’)

California wax myrtle (Morella californica)

Evergreen huckleberry (Vaccinium ovatum)

Red-flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum)

Golden currant (Ribes aureum)

California lilac/blueblossom (Ceanothus thyrsiflorus)

Western azalea (Rhododendron occidentale)

Vine maple (Acer circinatum)

Mock orange (Philadelphus lewisii)

Western trumpet honeysuckle (Lonicera ciliosa) (vine)

Dwarf red-twig dogwood (Cornus sericea)

Sherri said one of her favorite native herbaceous plants is “Oregon Sunshine.” “It’ a long-blooming, but short-lived perennial with lovely yellow, daisy-like flowers over silver-gray foliage,” she told me. “It's a great edging plant, very drought tolerant.”

She also enjoys the berry-producing shrubs in her garden, especially the red and golden currants, serviceberry and coffeeberry bushes. “I’m looking forward to seeing the birds harvesting them,” she said.

I asked Sherri what advice she would give to gardeners who want to grow more natives. “Pay attention to the soil and the hardscape first,” she suggested. Before she planted her natives, Sherri brought in compost to add more organic matter, and she installed a fence, deck, gravel pathway with metal landscape edging, water fountain, and a new irrigation system.

Sherri recommends using matched precipitation rate (MPR) sprinkler heads, which are water-saving devices that provide irrigation similar to a light rain. MPR nozzles are particularly useful for sloped sites because they help to prevent waste from water run-off, Sherri said.

Finally, she suggests gardeners learn more about the native plants they want to grow by participating in local programs sponsored by the Nature Conservancy in Oregon, Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center, North Mountain Park Nature Center, Native Plant Society of Oregon and others.

“Just because a plant is native, that doesn’t mean it will grow well in your garden,” Sherri said. Some natives need full sun, others require shade; some natives are drought-tolerant, some are riparian plants that need more water. Although many native plants are fire-resistant, some natives are highly flammable, such as ceanothus and wax myrtle.

Visiting Sherri’s native plant garden was certainly inspiring. I can imagine Vladimir Nabokov felt similarly inspired after hiking Mount Ashland and seeing all of the wildflowers and the native butterflies they attract. Actually, I don’t have to image how Nabokov was inspired because he wrote a poem about the butterflies he saw called “Lines Written in Oregon” (1953).

Esmeralda! now we rest

Here, in the bewitched and blest

Mountain forests of the West.

Here the very air is stranger.

Damzel, anchoret, and ranger

Share the woodland's dream and danger…

Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, teacher and writer. Email her at Rnowak39@gmail.com. For more about gardening, check out her podcasts and videos at https://mailtribune.com/podcasts/the-literary-gardener.

Native Plants Garden Tour

Sherri Morgan’s garden is one of a dozen native plant gardens on the Jackson County Master Gardener Association’s virtual Native Plants Garden Tour, available through July at https://jacksoncountymga.org/native-plants-garden-tour/.

The video tour features small and large, new and mature native plant gardens throughout the Rogue Valley. A $10 suggested donation supports JCMGA and the local Master Gardener program. The tour webpage also provides helpful resources about finding and growing native plants in our area. I really appreciate that the featured gardens can be viewed a few at a time without breaking a sweat during our triple-digit heat wave.

Share your garden story

I would love to talk with you about your garden and share your garden story in an upcoming column. Email me at rnowak39@gmail.com.