Don't be fooled. Inside this thin coating of sweetness is a fiery core of total insanity.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The Best, Most Drought-Tolerant PNW Native Shrub in My Garden

Ribes sanguineum, pink-flowering currant, is hands-down the winner.

Unlike many of the other Pacific Northwest native shrubs I grow here, my four Ribes sanguineum survived our long, dry summer just past, one of the longest and driest on record, pretty much unscathed. It may have dropped a handful of lower leaves, but given that I watered them at most twice the entire summer, that's pretty good. Others -- Holodiscus discolor/Ocean Spray, Physocarpus capitatus/Pacific Ninebark, Cornus stolonifera/Red Osier Dogwood, Amelanchier alnfolia/Serviceberry, Lonicera involucrata/Twinberry, Sambucus racemosa/Red Elderberry, Philadelphus lewisii/Mockorange -- all lost many lower leaves and/or had their fruit dry up like raisins on their branches.

Why did I include the word "Best" in my title? Because pink-flowering currant has other wonderful attributes to commend it:

Gorgeous, bright pink, early spring flowers that hummingbirds love.

Wonderful dusky blue-gray drupes of berries that did not wither in drought, and, according to online references,  are attractive to wildlife, although I have not personally witnessed birds or animals eating the berries.

A nice, natural form that can be left unpruned.

The many-branched Ribes is on the right. The smaller shrub on the left is Philadelphus lewisii/Mockorange, and the naked stems in the forefront on the far right are Sambucus nigra, which is not a PNW native.

Interesting striated bark on older branches.

Most of my other native shrubs have already lost quite a few of their leaves, but the Ribes is still holding onto its mostly green, maple-shaped leaves. Like many other Pacific Northwest deciduous natives, its fall leaves turn primarily yellow, although there are touches of red in mine.

It has also been very easy to grow. My four shrubs came from the Pierce Conservation District's early spring sale three years ago as little more than sticks with roots, and have grown into many-branched, healthy, 6-foot tall shrubs. Three of them fill a corner of my back garden, and a fourth grows along my back fence. It makes a great backdrop to other plants in a mixed hedge.

Although in my experience, the species is completely garden-worthy, there are several cultivated varieties of Pink-Flowering Currant, the most well-known of which is probably 'King Edward VII', a variety with a much redder flower. There is also a variety with a white flower called 'White Icicle.'

If you are looking for a Pacific Northwest native shrub for your garden, you can't go wrong choosing a Ribes sanguineum. I only have experience with it in my PNW garden in Zone 7b/8a, so if you are in another area of the country, looking for a drought-tolerant shrub, proceed with caution. Like many other PNW natives, it is not only tolerant of our dry summers, but also undoubtedly accustomed to our wet winters, and may require our particular climate to thrive and perform its best. Keep in mind that drought-tolerant doesn't necessarily mean that a plant will look its best without water. It often means that it will survive, perhaps just barely, with minimal watering.

You can find more information about Washington state native plants at the website of the Washington Native Plant Society here.