Why Use Mediterranean Plants in the Pacific Northwest?

A dramatic vignette in Linda Cochran’s garden: from the front, pale pink Phlomis purpurea, globular flowers of Allium ‘Globemaster’, russet tones of a fading Euphorbia characias subsp. wulfenii ‘Lambrook Gold’, and tall spikes of foxtail lily (Eremurus). Photographs by Terry Moyemont

A dramatic vignette in Linda Cochran’s garden: from the front, pale pink Phlomis purpurea, globular flowers of Allium ‘Globemaster’, russet tones of a fading Euphorbia characias subsp. wulfenii ‘Lambrook Gold’, and tall spikes of foxtail lily (Eremurus). Photographs by Terry Moyemont

Certainly, we are not California, not even Humboldt County in the far northern corner of the state. We’re on the fringe of the mediterranean-climate zone; you could call us the Gran Canaria of the West Coast or the Scilly Isles of North America.

We have always been fascinated with the Mediterranean—its culture, its art, its many languages, and, most of all, its plants. We even bought an abandoned village house in the mountains of Crete and, a few years ago, joined the Mediterranean Garden Society. Now we operate a greenhouse/nursery called Mesogeo (Greek for Mediterranean) and grow mediterranean-climate plants and hardy tropicals suited to the Pacific Northwest. When we look around us here on Bainbridge Island, Washington—at our friends and colleagues, our clients, gardeners of long experience, and newly enflamed novices—we see that we are not the only ones smitten by these passions.

People have long compared the Northwest to moist Japan or to the colder regions of southern Canada. Yet, our summers have lower rainfall and humidity than Japan (eg, no rain at all in 2003 between mid-June and mid-August), with hot spells in the mid-nineties, whereas winter freezes and snowfalls are infrequent and brief. As a result, gardeners here are now exploring plants from the five mediterranean climate regions of the world, as well as plants that adapt well to the climate, such as those from New Zealand and the American Southwest.

But why are so many people, all at once, gravitating to mediterranean-climate plants—in an area where gardeners have typically relied on plants native to the Northwest or typical of Japanese or English gardens? Dissenters, opting for plants from southern Europe and similar mild zones, often suffer the taunts of “zonal denial.” We decided to ask ourselves and our gardening friends on Bainbridge “why do you like and use mediterranean plants?” The answers sketch a topography of desire and design, horticulture and aesthetics that addresses our question better than might any historical theory or horticultural imperative.

Bold colors and textures in Linda Cochran’s garden: flowers of Oriental poppy (Papaver orientale) contrast with magenta flowers of Geranium palmatum whose palmate leaves mix with the glaucus, deeply lobed leaves of honey bush (Melianthus major)

Bold colors and textures in Linda Cochran’s garden: flowers of Oriental poppy (Papaver orientale) contrast with magenta flowers of Geranium palmatum whose palmate leaves mix with the glaucus, deeply lobed leaves of honey bush (Melianthus major)

Linda Cochran

Linda Cochran has worked for twelve years to find selections of both mediterranean and tropical plants that are best adapted to the Northwest climate. She smiled at our question and replied, “Because it’s fun!” That breezy, yet confident answer echoes in her garden as we walk past exuberant drifts of plants, setting off occasional sculptural specimens. Linda pointed out something else of great importance to gardeners almost anywhere on the West Coast: “Deer don’t eat these plants.” Plants with woolly or even slightly tomentose surfaces, or with oily and aromatic foliage—characteristics meant for conserving water in an arid climate—are indeed unattractive to deer; consider, for instance, rosemary (Rosmarinus), lavender (Lavendula), Jerusalem sage (Phlomis), and rock rose (Cistus). Deer are also not fond of the highly alkaline and sappy favorites, such as Euphorbia and Helleborus. Nor for yuccas (Yucca), century plants (Agave), Astelia, Celmisia, and New Zealand flax (Phormium)—spiky plants that seem so well adapted to our summer-dry climate. For a garden that stands up to our local conditions, deer-proof is on a par with drought tolerance in importance.

One can feel Linda’s delight as her garden shines in the play of color and texture in both foliage and flower. And we felt it, too, noting the eclectic mix of the solidly mediterranean—palms, euphorbias, Jerusalem sage, honeybush (Melianthus), and red hot pokers (Kniphofia)—with the tropical—Tetrapanax, cannas, bananas (Musa), gingers (Hedychiums), and taro (Colocasia). Perhaps the key that sets the Northwest apart from other summer-dry climates is the intermingling of plants from cool temperate climates—bamboos such as Chusquea couleou and Phyllostachys aureosulcata, foxtail lilies (Eremurus), Sambucus nigra ‘Black Beauty’, and golden catalpa (Catalpa bignoides ‘Aurea’). These plants might also be found in a private garden in the cooler parts of northern Spain, the Italian lakes, or Southern France, for example, but would require more water and protection than is possible against the drying winds and persistently soaring temperatures of a typical summer in Athens or Crete.

Using mediterranean-climate plants intelligently requires a certain flexibility and knowledge of which mediterranean region you reside in. What are its limits? Which climate zones do we most resemble? In our own work, we choose from all five mediterranean regions (South Africa, Chile, southern and southwestern Australia, our own West Coast, and the Mediterranean Basin), but we find plants from South Africa, the Mediterranean Basin, and our West Coast to offer the best fit. Linda’s garden illustrates this perfectly, with its lengthy list of South African and Mediterranean Basin natives, and her choice of predominantly emphatic plants from the American Southwest (Yucca, Agave, and Beschorneria).

The bluish foliage of Euphorbia characias subsp. wulfenii ‘John Tomlinson’ contrasts dramatically with the red leaves of a Japanese maple (Acer palmatum ‘Red Dragon’) in Carol Johansen’s garden

The bluish foliage of Euphorbia characias subsp. wulfenii ‘John Tomlinson’ contrasts dramatically with the red leaves of a Japanese maple (Acer palmatum ‘Red Dragon’) in Carol Johansen’s garden

Carol Johansen

Only a few miles from Linda’s garden, Carol Johansen gardens on a steep slope leading down to the Puget Sound. With Terri’s help for the first five years, she developed a series of gardens, each with a different emphasis in style and plantings. The result today, after nine years of maturation and refinement, is a seamless flow between grass, woodland, cottage, Japanese-influenced, and mediterranean gardens. While the last resides above a rock wall in the hottest, most exposed part of the site, the lower gardens also resonate with New Zealand flax, euphorbias, cycads, and other water-conserving plants that help to unify the overall design. She explained, “I like the texture of mediterranean plants. Yes! And the colors and shapes.” She added, “They’re exciting, surprising! I want something that will stop people dead in their tracks when they walk through my garden.” For Carol, there is drama as well as painterly composition in her garden, and the contrast that comes by juxtaposing mediterranean plants with more familiar ones, creating just the right balance between boldness and subtlety. Constantly redesigning and expanding her garden and composing new plant combinations, Carol added a third response: “Mediterranean plants are a challenge. I see something and say ‘I want this!’ After I try it, I might conclude, ‘Oops! That didn’t work!’ or ‘Yes, I’ll keep it.’” A scientist as much as an artist, Carol uses mediterranean plants to test the limitations of her land.

A gigantic pomegranate in the Little and Lewis sculpture garden; flanking the sculpture is the glaucus foliage of honey bush (Meliathus major), bold leaves of a banana (Musa), bronze foliage and yellow flowers of Lysimachia ciliata ‘Purpurea’, and scarlet flowers of Crocosmia ‘Lucifer’

A gigantic pomegranate in the Little and Lewis sculpture garden; flanking the sculpture is the glaucus foliage of honey bush (Meliathus major), bold leaves of a banana (Musa), bronze foliage and yellow flowers of Lysimachia ciliata ‘Purpurea’, and scarlet flowers of Crocosmia ‘Lucifer’

Little and Lewis

The enthusiasm for growing mediterranean-climate plants often expands to include less-hardy options, such as African, Asian, and Australian tropicals. George Little and David Lewis said “Certainly! Mediterraneans and tropicals together. It’s part of the ‘look’.” George grew up in Texas, always loving tropicals. He tends toward plants with colors and leaf forms that he could not find in a strictly native or cool temperate palette—plants such as Colocasia ‘Black Stem’, Thalia dealbata, Tibouchina, black Abyssinian banana (Ensete ventricosum ‘Maurelii’), Begonia boliviensis, and Tasmanian tree fern (Dicksonia antarctica). Plants that highlight and frame their water features are his favorites, along with the giant-leafed Gunnera and Tetrapanax that feature in the garden sculptures created by this talented duo. (See Pacific Horticulture, April ’01)

David, on the other hand, spent much of his childhood on Crete and later returned for archaeological digs there. He responded “because it reminds me of visits to Crete! All the Mediterranean plants are so fragrant. I would return from mountain walks with wild sage caught in the cuffs of my pants. To trigger that visual and olfactory memory is worth the effort and time to put them in the garden.”

Some of their specimens go into the greenhouse for the winter, a minor hassle worth the effort, because the real point is that the plants help to establish “a romantic feeling.” From this flows an astoundingly varied array of garden vignettes in a rather tiny space. In one sense, the Little and Lewis garden is an opposite of Linda Cochran’s, with its huge masses and large open spaces. But, as you walk through both, you see similar plants and closely parallel relationships of color and form. In short, planting “mediterranean” is as much about style and personal vision as about horticultural and climatic fit.

Our Experience

We have found that many plants from the Mediterranean Basin and South Africa, as well as other mediterranean zones, are extremely fast growing when planted in the Pacific Northwest; this is likely due to our longer rainy season and shorter dry season. Most are evergreen, offering handsome foliage and gentle textures that help to knit a planting together. For many years, the most common request from Terri’s clients was for low maintenance and predominately evergreen gardens—in addition to color, foliage variety, and novelty. Mediterranean plants have found their place in these gardens, as they satisfy all of those desires.

In describing what she loves most about the Mediterranean Garden Society’s garden at Sparoza, near Athens, Greece (The Mediterranean Garden, January ’04), Caroline Harbouri distinguished between two types of plants. The “interesting” ones include most of those at Sparoza and mediterranean plants in general; the “flashy” ones are “those with large, brightly colored flowers with which garden centers tempt us.” That simple observation explains our deep affection for the garden at Sparoza (see Pacific Horticulture, January ’02).

Who could not love the heavy night scent of angel’s trumpet (Brugmansia) or the tissue-paper spirals of a deep purple Gallica rose? We in the Pacific Northwest, however, have become more appreciative of the value of foliage, with a fascination that approaches our love of exotic scents and highly romantic plants. We love the many painterly colors in leaves, as well as the bold architectural interest that some plants provide—perhaps another reason why mediterranean plants and their allies, the hardy tropicals, have achieved such rapid popularity here.

Why do we choose mediterranean plants at Mesogeo? For all the above reasons, even before we truly identified them as “mediterranean.” We recognized a pattern: these plants come from areas with a similar climate, yet are far-flung, literally from around the world. This makes them appealing to those of us who search for the new and different—perhaps it’s their “intellectual appeal.” Testing to determine which species of Geranium from South Africa (try Gereanium caffrum) and the Canary Islands (G. palmatum) are sturdy, evergreen, and have unusually good foliage in our region offers the same excitement that others find in hybridizing to develop choice new plants for the garden.

Mediterranean-climate plants—and plants in general—chosen for their natural affinities (same climate, country of origin, foliage character, shape, or tone) produce a surprisingly compatible effect as a group, whether on the greenhouse table or on the loading dock ready for delivery to a new landscape project. If they look beautiful as a group—away from the garden—they will shine in the garden as well.