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

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Wildflower Wednesday -- Vanilla Leaf/Achlys triphylla

I first encountered Vanilla Leaf/Achlys triphylla at the very first plant exchange that I attended here in Washington, only a few months after our move. It was hosted by a woman in Edmonds who had the most lovely shade garden, and she was growing Vanilla Leaf there. We were still living in a rental house in North Seattle, but I had attended a few plant swaps while living in Massachusetts, and they were always quite a lot of fun. I decided when I saw it that I wanted to grow it in my new garden, as soon as we chose where that would be. My patch has been growing for about 3 years, and was one of the first native plants that I bought.

Vanilla Leaf is a deceptively robust plant, spreading via rhizomes just under the soil surface. I've planted it a couple of times since this first patch, always assuming it wasn't coming back each year. It doesn't arrive late, it just looks so delicate to me. It reminds me of Jeffersonia diphylla, an eastern native that is also growing in my garden.

My Encyclopedia of Northwest Native Plants for Gardens and Landscapes, by Kathleen A. Robson, Alice Richter and Marianne Filbert says of Vanilla Leaf: "Plants apread slowly but once established form a luxuriant ground cover. This species is a graceful addition to the shady woodland garden, pond, or stream margin but does poorly in containers."

The Plants for a Future website says that the flowers are hermaphroditic, having both male and female parts, and are self-pollinated by wind. I've seen photos online of seed capsules that form on the flower, but I've never found any on mine. Native Americans used it to treat tuberculosis and cataracts, as a hair wash, and as an emetic, which leads me to believe that using it to make tea as recommended by some websites is possibly not the best idea. Native Americans also hung the leaves to dry in order to repel flies and mosquitoes.

When dried, the leaves smell of vanilla, hence the common name. It is also called Sweet-after-Death. It is found in the wild along the western side of North America, from British Columbia to northwest California. See its distribution range here. Like other PNW natives, it is well-adapted to our wet fall/winter/spring and dry summer.
Mine is growing far in the back Northeast corner of the garden, in a shady woodland area under some Douglas firs. The area also harbors PNW native shrubs such as Elderberry, Vine Maples, Ocean Spray, Red Osier Dogwood, and Ninebark, as well as other perennials native to the PNW, such as Trillium ovatum, Bleeding Heart, Columbine, Maidenhair fern, Shooting Stars, and Fawn Lily. Also weeds. Lots of weeds.

The lovely three-part leaves

I love how the raindrops pool on the leaves

Here's what the delicate little bottlebrush flower looked like on May 8, a few weeks ago.

The faded flower today -- no seed capsules

Here's some cultivation info, culled from the Internet:

Hardiness: Zone 3-7
Height: 6-12 inches
Sun Exposure: Partial to Full Shade
Bloom Time: Mid-Spring to Early Summer
Soil Requirements: Well-drained, fertile, acidic, highly organic
Propagation: Via rhizome division or seed, which must be freshly sown

Wildflower Wednesday is hosted by Gail Eichelberger of clay and limestone, a celebration of wildflowers from around the world. Her post today is about Scentless Mock-Orange. Check out her blog to see her post and links to other bloggers' posts.


  1. Excellent! Another large-leafed plant for my files. Thanks.

  2. I see this all the time when I'm out hiking...just love it, especially when it forms large, lush colonies!

  3. Your Vanilla Leaf looks very happy. I tried some once and did't succeed. It grows at a nearby lake, though. I will have to try again someday. It isn't a wildflower that comes up in my yard, unfortunately.

  4. What a lovely plant. You west coasters have the absolute best plants. Just enchanting.

  5. It is beautiful!
    Love the leaves and the delicate bloom spire.
    I'm going into my kitchen and get a sniff of vanilla to imagine its smell!
    Lea's Menagerie

  6. I have never heard of Vanilla Leaf before, it is stunning! The flowers remind me of cimicifuga. I have so much catching up to do; your posts are always a treat for me and educational as well. I've been away for far too long.

  7. I love the texture of the leaves, reminds me a bit of lady's mantle.

  8. That is a cool plant! Love the shape of the leaves and the white flower. Learning about new plants is exactly why I started WW...thank you for joining us. gail


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