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Pikes/Pines | Please stop planting these four plants on Capitol Hill — and use these native ones instead

Sure, you can’t see neighbors with a laurel hedge. But then you have to do this regularly to not have problems with them either. Or in this case pay someone to do it. Credit: Brendan McGarry

For people who regularly read Pike/Pines, you might find yourself experiencing some whiplash.

I regularly comment on how our views of plants as “invasive” or “non-native” are not particularly helpful in our drastically altered spaces.

It’s true we’ll never be rid of blackberries, clematis, holly, english ivy, and so forth. But we can stop planting them.

In his book, Nature’s Best Hope, Douglas W. Tallamy encourages us to use our urban and suburban spaces to create useful habitat for a variety of wild creatures. While I completely agree with his ideas, there are times when the book drifts into what sounds like it’s describing a wonderland of places improved by white saviors. However, the ultimate goal, of increasing habitat and using even miniscule spaces we get to manage ourselves is a worthy one. Plenty of non-native species provide food and shelter to the animals we love on the Hill, but the ones that were here before colonization have deeper, more profound and healthy relationships.

And also, can we please stop planting boring plants? Can we stop using plants as building blocks rather than members of the communities we live in? Can we have more active relationships with plants around us, even if we only have room for one or two on our patio? That’s the real intent of my diatribe. And even if the people most culprit are the companies constructing buildings that don’t leave any space for plants, I still have to say it. So here are some plants that are on my no-no list. (A quick note – all the species listed below minus Leyland Cypress which doesn’t reliably reproduce, are either being watched or are actively being discouraged across Washington and in King County. So even if you disagree with my opinions, maybe that says something?)

1) Cherry Laurel Prunus laurocerasusv — You might know them as English Laurel (an artifact of where they came from as garden plants) but these waxy-leafed shrubs are native to regions surrounding the Black Sea. Plucked from context, we’ve forced them to become hedges. The problem with this is that they want to be a medium sized tree and like any good cherry (they are actually cherries not laurels), they respond to being cut by growing back and form a solid hedge that needs to be trimmed year after year. I get why people plant them – a site that sells them called “www.instanthedge.com” says it all – but even if you want to pretend you don’t have neighbors there are better choices. Laurels that are left to their own devices do things that seem wildlife friendly like flowering and fruiting, but ultimately they hog space and migrate into green spaces via avia GI tracts, where people have to work hard to remove them once they establish.

Ultimately my beef with them, aside from having spent years of my life trimming them, is that there are better choices, even if you think you are recreating a formal English garden on the Hill (just choose Yews). Two quasi-native shrubs, Pacific Wax Myrtle (Myrica californica) and Blue Blossom Ceanothus (Ceanothus thyrsiflorus), might not grow quite as vigorously as Cherry Laurels but they bring in more wildlife, are better looking, and don’t stress out your local habitat restoration efforts. They are both evergreen and will eventually give you a place to hide, but mostly they just have flowers and fruit that many birds and pollinators love (in particular Yellow-rumped Warblers devour myrtle fruit). Yes, you could shear them into squares – but don’t we have enough squares already?

2) Common Hawthorn Crataegus monogyna — Out of any of these plants, I pause on the Common Hawthorn for a few reasons. I like to carve spoons out of their wood, I enjoy their flowers, and indeed animals love their fruit (not to mention they are an untapped source for medicinal ingredients and free fruit for making preserves). But, like the laurel above, they spread like crazy, and to boot they are spiky as hell (this and because they are valuable wildlife plants make them excellent for hedges in places where they grow native). Various varieties and species of hawthorn, not all of them Common, are planted as street trees across Seattle and they do have brilliant blooms, pleasant forms without getting too large. And just like laurels, all it takes are birds eating them and depositing their seeds in a local park to get them established.

Common Hawthorne berries are certainly attractive, especially to birds that then spread them all over. Credit: Luc Coekaerts via Flickr.

This is my favorite alternative because it’s easy: there is a native tree, the Black Hawthorn (Crataegus douglasii). Don’t worry, they are still spiky as hell, and they have pretty flowers and fruits that many birds love. I wish that I knew why we don’t see them planted more often, possibly only by chance or because their flowers and leaves are just slightly different. Or maybe due to devious schemes of nurserymen?

3) Common Ivy Hedera helix — Just find something different. We don’t need ivy covering parking strips, collecting garbage and needles. We don’t need them covering trees in our parks. This is one of the few species that I really have a hard time considering differently. They might be fine basketry material or even be a source of soap making (be careful if you try this, their alkaloids can cause reactions), but ultimately they cover landscapes and girdle trees as they grow larger and seek sunlight. I often daydream about seeing plants like Common Ivy growing native (in this case Europe and Asia), in places where there are checks and balances for their ways because I imagine they are quite lovely. (And yet, this notion is one step away from xenophobic ideas that plague humanity and our country.)

Wouldn’t we rather have youth volunteers doing someting other than pulling ivy? Credit: Portland Corps via Flickr

The hard thing about replacing ivy in landscaping in the Pacific Northwest, which is why it is everywhere, is that it can grow in a lot of places. As a groundcover in full sun, as a wall covering vine in the shade. That’s hard to beat. Our native Orange Honeysuckle (Lonicera ciliosa) is semi-deciduous and more delicate, but sports beautiful blooms that hummingbirds love, and grows as a lovely vine. Kinnikinnick (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi) is a tough creeping evergreen that is fine with dry, hot spots, like parking strips. Their flowers and fruit are a treat too!

4) Leyland Cypress Cupressus × leylandii — Just stop it. Unless you have thousands of dollars or endless time to maintain a Leyland hedge, you are going to end up with a huge tree in a matter of years. That’s just what they were developed for, because unlike the others on this list, Leylands are the fever dream of plant cultivators and real estate developers (actually they are just a cross between Monterey Cypress and Nootka Cypress). Even Wikipedia mentions that they can result in property disputes because they are the bringers of instant shade. Mostly, they are the perfect example of what happens when we try to use plants as innate urban building blocks and don’t consider their biology.

Leyland Cypresses grow so fast they outpace their roots, especially when poorly planted. Credit: uacescomm via Flickr.

So just plant a Western Red Cedar (Thuja plicata). Yes, eventually they will become horrendously large, but not in ten years. And if you really must have a visual barrier or god forbid hedge them, they’ll do the trick too. Birds love them, they are far prettier, and they are native, which means they just fit better even if they aren’t quite as tolerant of pollution as Leylands are. Of course I am biased, because like laurels, I’ve pruned and sheared my fair share of them but a beautiful Western Red Cedar outclasses the hybrid vigor of a Leyland.-

Occasionally even my partner gets on my case about my desire to plant all natives and she’s not wrong. Ol’ Douglas Tallamy doesn’t say natives only either. And I agree, because it’s ridiculous to hold this standard in a place where we mish-mash so much else. A lot of plants hold special places in our hearts and connect us to distant homes and old memories. I love a beautiful old red oak as much as anyone else, no matter where they come from. However, if we like to see life increase, not diminish, around us we’ll do better to plant more thoughtfully, particularly if we have the privilege to make that choice in the first place. In many cases native plants can handle our environment better too, even on the Hill, and require less attention and fussing. But it’s time I stopped, I need to prune my magnolia (from the Deep South); it’s sunny outside.

 

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JohnAKA
7 months ago

Good choices and advice. thanks–now to get the nurseries and developers to help!

Money
Money
7 months ago

Laurel is fine as long as you keep it low enough you can trim it twice a year and keep it constrained in width and height,

Curtis
Curtis
7 months ago
Reply to  Money

I think that’s part of the point, plant to reduce constant maintenance. Also laurel spreads by seed quite easily.

Sam
Sam
7 months ago

Lovely, thank you – and some great planting ideas!

Michael Joyce
Michael Joyce
7 months ago

The Russian Olive and Butterfly Bush invasive. Let’s go Native. Clean water is the spice of life. Don’t mess with Mother Nature. Help clean up after natural disasters.

Nomnom
Nomnom
7 months ago

Good advice. What fills me with despair are all the new trees (usually English oak or Japanese maples, but still) planted for townhomes and apartment blocks that NEVER, ever, ever get watered once the construction crews walk away. It’s like all new homeowners think a garden gnome is going to magically appear and water their trees and maintain their yards. So now we have a neighborhood with block after block of dead or dying, dried-out trees.

bobtr
bobtr
7 months ago

“in particular Yellow-rumped Warblers devour myrtle fruit”

The YRW used to be considered two species, the western Audubon’s Warbler and the eastern Myrtle Warbler.

g g
g g
7 months ago

100, as usual.