The Wild Plants of BC

The Wild Plants of BC

Written by Ingrid Hoff

What is that old saying, “you don’t always appreciate what you’ve got until someone takes it and starts using it themselves.” Okay, that’s not really an old saying anyone uses, but it’s what I think when someone starts talking about native plants. We have such and incredible wealth of diversity here in beautiful British Columbia which can be seen in all the lovely plants covering our landscapes. But often gardeners “poo-poo” native plants as being “pedestrian” and not worthy of space in their garden. That is until someone else (like many historic English plant breeders) takes them away to grow in off-shore gardens. Then we are all clambering to get one ourselves. 

But then there is another issue when talking native plants which is the murky waters of what exactly is a native plant, and that is not a simple answer. Obviously, it depends on where you live, but also on how far back in time you go. There are such things as naturalized plants, which are plants that have been introduced to our landscape but have managed to fit in quite nicely and don’t cause too much trouble (unlike invasive weeds). And then there are the philosophical questions of, if you plant it in your garden does it cease to be native? What about cultivars of wild plants? Are they still native even though some plant breeder has been playing around with them (I’ve heard them called a “nativar”)? There is a lot of debate going on out there, but personally I look at native plants as those (or perhaps their parents) have had many generations to adapt to the local environment. This means they come pre-loaded with the ability to thrive in your garden because they are used to it. So, planting native plants in your garden is just a smart thing to do. 

However, don’t be lulled into the belief that native plants are magical plants that can simply be planted anywhere in the province and they will flourish. Remember what I said about how diverse BC is? We have everything from shady rainforests, arid deserts, alpine tundra, windswept ocean shorelines, and everything in between. So, you still have to do a bit of research and match the native plant to your site. If you do, you can usually rest assured that once they are established, they will perform with little input or effort on your behalf. Being that you’ve planted them where they’ve spent millennia adapting to the environmental conditions, you will find they are easy to maintain, often drought tolerant, and a vital resource for native pollinators such as butterflies, bees and birds. 

It’s incredibly hard to choose my top favourite native plants since there are just so many out there so here is just a sampling of what to look for. 

Shrubs/Small Trees 

  • Ocean spray (Holodiscus discolor) – will grow where others will not, tolerant of poor soil and salt spray. A deciduous shrub with white almost foamy looking flowers. 

  • Vine maple (Acer circinatum) – with delicate arching stems this multi-stemmed small tree can even be grown in a container. It has beautiful fall colour. 

  • Elderberry (Sambucus racemosa) – is a deciduous shrub with tall branches sporting large compound leaves. The white fluffy flowers are followed by red berries. 

  • Mock orange (Philadelphus lewisii) – a deciduous shrub with clusters of the most wonderfully fragrant white flowers. 

  • Oregon grape (Mahonia sp.) – with evergreen spikey holly-like leaves, vibrant yellow clusters of flowers that are followed by edible purple/blue berries. The leaves often turn an eye catching red/burgundy colour as well. 

  • Red flowering current (Ribes sanguineum) – okay if I had to pick a favourite it might be this deciduous shrub that becomes a mass of pink flowers in the early spring. I’m slightly biased but everyone needs at least one of these shrubs. 

  • Evergreen huckleberry (Vaccinium ovatum) – glossy evergreen leaves with reddish arching stems, dainty bell-shaped flowers, followed by juicy dark blue berries. Enough said. 

Ferns 

  • Western Sword (Polystichum munitum) – evergreen with stately arching dark green fronds. 

  • Deer (Struthiopteris spicant) – a small fern with smooth light green fronds. The sterile fronds lie flat while the fertile fronds are help upright. 

  • Northern maidenhair (Adiantum pedatum) – dainty fronds with dark black stems, this is a stunning fern and if I had to pick a favourite… 

Perennials 

  • Broadleaf stonecrop (Sedum spathulifolium) – a native groundcover succulent with beautiful grey/blue/green leaves that have a wonderful habit of turning red. The yellow flowers are prolific and can turn this plant into a carpet of gold. 

  • False lily of the valley (Maianthemum dilatatum) – need something that will grow under a cedar tree, look no further than this herbaceous groundcover with almost translucent leaves. 

  • Kinnikinnick or bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi) – an evergreen groundcover with glossy dark green leaves, pink bell-shaped flowers, and red edible berries. 

  • Goatsbeard (Aruncus dioicus) – a herbaceous perennial with tall feathery white flowers 

  • Western trillium (Trillium ovatum) – the pure white flowers of this spring flowering herbaceous perennial is a welcome sight in any shady spot. 

  • Wild ginger (Asarum caudatum) – an evergreen groundcover with deep green heart shaped leaves. If you stop and lift up the leaves you might find the unique burgundy coloured flowers. 

  • Pacific bleeding heart (Dicentra formosa) – a herbaceous perennial with lacey fern-like leaves and dainty pink nodding racemes of heart shaped flowers 

  • Red columbine (Aquilegia formosa) – with nodding red and yellow distinctive flowers it will self-seed about the garden if it’s happy. 

If you’ve never considered adding some native plants into your garden then you should. Contrary to what I recently heard someone say, it will not make your garden look like a wild space (unless of course you want your garden to look like a wild space). We have so much home-grown amazing beauty and colour there is no need to look to exotic shores. 

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