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.


  1. Alison- I like the flowering currants too, your're photos are great! But I haven't noticed my other natives particularly suffering from drought, and I really like the Oregon Holly Grapes and Salal for their leathery foliage and edible berries. But the flowering currants are my favorite flower of the bunch, for the beautiful color and abundance, and they are actually growing wild in my yard and have self-sown to a few more places. I'm still waiting for my Spirea douglasii to bloom, after a couple of years in the ground, though the Philadelphia lewisii that is the same age has bloomed 2 or 3 years and smells delightful. I do have to protect it from deer, unlike the flowering currant. Last spring I pruned a few of the flowering currants and propped up some that were flopping after being overrun by blackberry vines, so they looked much better. I also have Indian Plum, Oso Berry (Oemleria cerasiformis), but didn't know it had an edible berry because my plants must be male, since they don't set any fruit, or else they need a pollinator. I wouldn't say anything good about them in particular, I thought they were just a weedy small tree until I found out what they were this year. I'm still looking for fruit on them.

  2. Hannah, Yes the Indian plums are dioecious--either male or female. I loved seeing them, their early blooms used to light up the woodland next to me in my last home. Next year check out the flowers to determine if you have a male or female then if you want fruit get the one you need. Mine barely fruits, so there must be one in the neighborhood but far enough away that it doesn't get pollinated very well.

    Alison, Ribes are such a cool plant, the returning hummingbirds love them, as well as the residential ones. They are drought tolerant, but most natives are, this year has been harder then most years, but they should all survive.

  3. I'm so happy to hear it does so well. I bought 3 plants last spring & can't wait 'til they get as tall as yours. I love your pics.

  4. Now that is a beauty! the leaves look like gooseberry leaves.

  5. I also love this great shrub for the cheerful early spring color but mine has never produced berries. Maybe I need more than one. Great post about this cool plant!

  6. Very pretty shrub, Alison. I don't think it would survive our winters, so I shall covet it from afar and enjoy it in your garden. The blooms are gorgeous.

  7. My best luck with natives comes when they plant themselves. The Ribes does that, plus the deer do all of the pruning. Ain't nature grand?

  8. Hooray for native plants. I like using natives as much as possible. I have a native gooseberry growing in my woods....not nearly as attractive as your Ribes.


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