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Lewis & Clark

A Horticultural Heritage
Our land is forever altered, but the Corps left a trail for today's gardens
Most of the famous early botanists left their fingerprints on the red-flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum). First discovered by Archibald Menzies in 1793, then collected by Lewis and Clark along the banks of the Columbia River on March 27, 1806, it was introduced into horticulture 20 years later by David Douglas. It remains a fine garden plant, adding needed color in March and April while providing early nectar for hummingbirds.
VAST, ROUGH CONIFER trunks looming through the mist must have looked pretty impressive to Lewis and Clark's Corps of Discovery 200 years ago. When Captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark left Saint Louis in 1804, their charge was not only to explore uncharted terrain all the way to the Pacific Ocean, but also to botanize. President Thomas Jefferson was eager to have them bring back descriptions and specimens of all new Western American flora, so they must have been peering down as well as ahead as they made their way through vine maple, huckleberries and salal, searching for the elusive Northwest Passage.

"There is more wet weather on this coast than I ever knew in any other place; during a month, we have had three fair days and there is no prospect of a change," wrote a soggy Capt. Clark from Fort Clatsop on Dec. 5, 1805. Despite the relentless rain, or perhaps because of it, the explorers had plenty of time to fill their diaries with plant descriptions. They found plants unknown in the world at the time, except, of course, to the native peoples who had long been using them for food and medicine.

The little band of explorers must have felt dwarfed by the majestic presence of our native trees; Lewis records the Western hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla) as the most plentiful, and he describes the Sitka spruce (Picea sitchensis) as an immense fir, measuring "27 feet in girth." He wrote that the bigleaf maple was "the ash with the remarkable large leaf," and describes the Pacific madrone as "the tree with the leaf like that of a small magnolia, and bark of brickdust red colour."

Jefferson believed that "the greatest service which can be rendered any country is to add a useful plant to its culture," and he was intensely interested in the garden significance of the plants his Corps brought back. While the dried specimens from the journey, preserved in the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, have historic significance, and the drawings and later botanical names form a fascinating record, how useful, really, are the plants so meticulously collected by the damp yet persevering Lewis and Clark?

I think we need to face up to the fact that our gardens in no way resemble the forests and prairies navigated by the Corps two centuries ago. Logging, dams and development have forever changed the face of the land. We don't garden in ancient duff piled up beneath Douglas fir, but rather in a couple of inches of scanty topsoil. Or along sidewalks, expecting trees to live with restricted root zones and in microclimates heated up by concrete.
Illustration Now In Bloom
Phygelius aequalis 'New Sensation' is a compact and vividly colored cape fuchsia that blooms for months. Unlike the usual large and leggy varieties, 'New Sensation' grows only a couple of feet high, but has plenty of blossoms to attract swarms of hummingbirds to its slender, tubular flowers. It will reward a spot in the full sun with burgundy spikes dripping in claret flowers with a paler throat and deeper red ruffle.
Nevertheless, if we pay close attention to soil, sun and shade, recognizing that the tree canopy under which many of our native plants evolved no longer exists, we can still celebrate Lewis and Clark's botanical heritage in our gardens. These are just a few of the garden-worthy specimens they collected:

• Vaccinium ovatum: The evergreen huckleberry is one of those perfect evergreen shrubs; it stays small (3 to 4 feet) and has clusters of bell-shaped blossoms and pink new growth in spring. It thrives in moist soil and semi-shade.

• Cornus canadensis: A low, evergreen groundcover with a white dogwood-like blossom followed by orange-red berries in autumn, it grows well under rhododendrons or vine maple, needs shade and moisture and resents any disturbance of its roots.

• Trillium ovatum: The supremely beautiful spring woodland bloomer, Western trilliums are fragrant and bloom early; they need moist soil and semi-shade.

Philadelphus lewisii: Our native mock orange, named after Lewis, has broad, white, fragrant flowers. It is highly adaptable, growing vigorously in sun or shade.

For many more suggestions, see "Native Plants in the Coastal Garden" by April Pettinger and Brenda Costanzo, or Art Kruckeberg's "Gardening With Native Plants of the Pacific Northwest."

Valerie Easton is a Seattle free-lance writer and contributing editor for Horticulture magazine. Her book, "Plant Life: Growing a Garden in the Pacific Northwest" (Sasquatch Books, 2002) is an updated selection of her magazine columns. Her e-mail address is

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