Encyclopedia of Northwest Native Plants for Gardens and Landscapes

This massive volume is a must-have for those serious about growing native plants (and strong enough to lift it). While the authors suggest it is not their intent that the book be used as a field guide to the identification of native plants, it is comprehensive enough (though too hefty) to almost serve this purpose.

The included plants are grouped into the basic categories of ferns, conifers, annuals, perennials, shrubs, and trees. For each plant, the format of information offered is essentially the same. First come comments about each new genus if it offers more than one species suitable for cultivation; in addition to the family and common names associated with that genus, these comments address the taxonomy, distribution of species, number of species, and methods of propagation that are effective for the particular group of plants.

For each species, there is considerable information about growth habit, flowers, and fruits. A paragraph headed “Cultivation” describes how best to situate the plant, noting its soil, exposure, and watering preferences.

Then follow paragraphs headed “Propagation” and “Native Habitat.” The first offers specific information on how the particular plant is best propagated. The second describes where one might expect to find the plant growing in the wild, including its general distribution. In a final section called “Notes” are particulars about the taxonomy, physical description, and occasionally information about medicinal uses. Each species is illustrated in a sizeable and useful color photograph.

It’s natural to wonder how this book compares to Gardening With Native Plants of the Pacific Northwest by Arthur Kruckeberg. Aside from the obvious difference in bulk, Kruckeberg devotes considerably more space discussing the ecology of the region and how to grow natives. His information about propagation goes beyond a mere mention of the best methods to try; he elaborates on those methods as if the reader were quite unfamiliar with such techniques. His historical perspectives make for interesting reading.

The titles of these two useful books suggest their basic differences. The Encyclopedia is largely that—an encyclopedic botanical reference to plants potentially of use to gardeners. There is more information offered about the taxonomy, nomenclature, and diversity of native plants than practical horticultural information. With Gardening you get an ecologist’s and a horticulturist’s view of many useful natives—not all by any means, but perhaps the easiest to try.

At the back of the Encyclopedia are some useful tables offering a concise view of plants that are drought tolerant; suitable for bogs or wetland situations, hedgerows, shade; useful in wildflower meadows, rock gardens, or as groundcovers; attractive to butterflies or birds; adapted to sandy beaches; and valuable for erosion control.

In the Introduction, the authors state that wild plants should be protected in their native habitat, and not ruthlessly (and illegally) collected. They further comment:

“Certain plants are the targets of great gardening lust. These are usually the plants that are the most difficult to grow, requiring special conditions or relationships with mycorrhizal fungi or other soil microorganisms. We don’t yet have a good understanding of the needs of some plants, but we are discovering more about these mutualistic relationships, and helpful mycorrhizal spores are now commercially available. A few extremely uncooperative species can be grown “in captivity,” but cheap they are not! Others persist in rejecting cultivation.”

In the presence of handsome photos and interesting commentary, it is difficult to believe that the authors’ cautionary words about collecting plants from the wild will actually dissuade serious amateurs from this illegal activity. I would have preferred that the book feature only plants available from commercial sources, with a complete listing of such nurseries. It would have been a different book—undoubtedly smaller—but perhaps just as useful.

Richard A Brown, director, Bloedel Reserve
Bainbridge Island, Washington