In the Garden – March


A recent discussion of native plants (via the Washington Native Plant Society, I think) led me to check out Hitchcock and Cronquist’s Flora of the Pacific Northwest. When this hefty tome arrived at the Library, I admit that I was disappointed. When I think of the word ‘flora,’ I think of the parts of the plants easily visible to the naked eye. But this book was a detailed compendium of plants found in the Pacific North West wilds, with a distinct focus on seeds. It took me a while to determine the precise source of my disappointment.

Years ago, a friend looked around my garden and surmised, “You like foliage.” I’m not sure that she meant this as an insult, but it gave me pause. Yes, I do like foliage. I mean, flowers have their place. I love the flush of spring flowers in my rockery. I hope to make it once again to the Skagit Valley Tulip Festival with its fabulous floral colors. And of course, there are particular flowers that I am fond of, such as the Hellebores that are blooming right now.

But what touches my heart is the amazing variety of greenery in forests, open spaces and gardens. Moreover, I tend to rely on foliage to identify a plant. To me, the flowers are a bonus, but not always the driving force in selecting plants for my garden.

As I write this in late winter, I can look out my office window and see what delights me. The gray-green leaves of a sprawling Senecio Brachyglottis ‘Sunshine’ planted to screen a propane tank. The persistent greenery of wallflowers that will later burst forth with flowers. A golden aromatic evergreen. The perky leaves of rhododendrons. The gold and chartreuse blades of Acorus (sweet flag). The persistent green backdrop of Western red-cedars and Douglas firs skirted with sword ferns, without which our winter landscapes would be bleak. These give pleasure all year.

Of course, not all that is green gives pleasure. I find that recognizing foliage is a key to successful weeding. Is that spot of green the hated weedy popweed (Cardamine hirsuta) that I must rip out before it sprays its horrid seeds far and wide? Or is it mâche (corn salad) destined for the winter salad bowl? Or even dainty Kenilworth ivy? It’s easy to tell at a glance because their leaves, while similarly ground-hugging and green, are quite distinctly different in form and habit.

A friend once asked me if a particular weed was edible purslane or a look-alike poisonous plant. One glance at its rich green fleshy leaves told me that it was purslane, and not a poisonous plant like spotted spurge with smaller, flatter, gray leaves, often sporting a characteristic red-brown splotch.

Yes, foliage both evergreen and seasonal has a place in every gardener’s life! Not only is it the engine of plant growth, it pleasures the senses. The delight it gives the eye is obvious, but touch and scent should not be ignored. Although lambs ears can get ungainly and weedy, what child does not love to stroke those woolen leaves? I cannot resist passing my Alpine mint bush without stroking its leaves and smelling them. The same is true for the rosemary bush and curry plant that form parentheses around my front door. Culinary sage and an Artemisia ‘Powis Castle’ also trail over the front walk so that I can run my fingers over them to release their aromatic delights. Indeed, scented foliage is one reason that I like to locate my aromatic plants alongside walkways. That way, even in winter, I can doff a glove to touch a leaf and inhale the fragrance on my forays outside.

A number of public gardens have sensory gardens where people are invited to touch and smell plants as well as behold them. Brooklyn Botanic Garden has a great garden in which fully three-quarters of the plantings are devoted to plants with interesting textures or scented leaves. (The remaining quarter bear fragrant flowers.)

Our children used to love to look and touch here. Interestingly, both this garden and the now-gone sensory garden at Tsawwassen’s Earthwise Society placed these plants in narrow hip-height raised beds to make the plants accessible without bending. That might not suit most home gardens, but there are lots of other plans about how to select plants for home sensory gardens. When designing or refreshing a garden, remember that there is more to a garden than flowers, and more to delight than just beautiful flowers.

Foliage enhances a garden year-round. You can appreciate the attraction of wind-stirred dry ornamental grasses at the corner of Johnson and Tyee on a Garden Club berm. Summer greenery is the secret behind the popularity of Hostas. While I do like flowers, I must admit that I love


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