Thursday, February 25, 2016


When I started creating gardens I knew nothing.

That ignorance allowed me to put plants in places they were never adapted to live in, then observe and learn as they died out, or not. In the earliest years I simply ordered plants that sounded interesting and put them where I wanted to see them.

Much to my surprise, a few of them not only survived my appalling ignorance, but thrived. Here are two:

Camassia cusickii, or quamash lily. 

Why I bought it:
The fat bulbs are huge and golden and sweet. Native Americans traveled far to harvest these. They were easy to carry and delicious to eat. They naturalize into big drifts with starry flowers. This sounded like a plant that could take care of itself, feed populations, and dazzle (the word "starry" usually gets me).

What it needs to grow well:
It's a native of moist meadows in the Pacific northwest. Every description of this plant stresses that it grows and naturalizes in damp areas. Moist, damp, wet, rich soils and not-dry conditions are what it needs.

What it gets in my garden:
Dry shade under two large trees with root competition.

How it's doing here:
It has naturalized into a thick stand of glossy green strappy foliage that explodes in earliest spring -- it's the greenest thing in the garden in early May. In mid May the starry pale blue spikes appear. They're subtle but elegant.

The planting is between a large maple and a big river birch. The camassias live right between the two, and as the trees have matured, everything else planted in this area has disappeared as root competition and shade and very dry conditions have taken over.

Later in the summer the foliage dies down, and then there's a blank spot between the two trees. I'd like to put in something to succeed the camassias after they go by each season but I can't find summer bloomers that will grow under those two trees. But the damp-loving moisture-needing camassias do just fine.

Xanthorhiza simplicissima, or yellowroot.

Why I bought it:
The botanical name. It starts with X and rolls off the tongue like a river of whispers.

What it needs to grow well:
It's a native of the deciduous forest understory and wants dappled shade along stream edges.

What it gets in my garden:
Full west sun competing with spruce tree roots.

How it's doing here:
In full sun on a dry berm six small plugs have grown rampantly into an undulating thicket of dense woody shrubs. I have divided and moved and split these plants and given them away and replanted in other spots and they happily fill out wherever I put them.

Other gardeners have told me they can't get yellowroot to grow well for them. When I have seen it in its natural setting in wetland woods, it is an open, delicate plant, usually growing in a few clusters.

Mine is full and lush and spreading easily. In summer it is a long hedge of clean green foliage; in fall the leaves turn a complex rusty orange mix.

Part of the low bank of yellowroot gets some morning shade now that the river birch and the spruces are bigger, but initially those six small plugs spread out to form this long row in full blaring sun.

They have funny purple flowers in early spring that form a haze all down the row of plants, and the rich fall colors look like a river of molten copper.

The difference between the yellowroot growing on my berm and the way it is supposed to grow is astounding.

By all rights these two plants that I stuck in the ground in the wrong conditions for their best growth should not be growing for me at all, much less so robustly.

Plenty of other plants that I did the same thing to were much less forgiving of my ignorance.


  1. Two excellent plants by the sounds of it. I like the way you note what the plants' ideal conditions are and what it receives in your garden. Very helpful, hopeful!

    1. Patty, I really had no idea how to grow either of these plants, and it's good thing I didn't heed the instructions on where to plant them!