WRITTEN BY VALERIE EASTON
Digging for Seattle's real botanical roots reveals a wealth of diversity
COURTESY OF RAY LARSON
True natives (from left) Trillium ovatum, skunk cabbage (Lysichiton) and Erythronium oreganum (called the dog’s tooth violet or trout lily) grew in abundance in the Seattle area 150 years ago and are easy-care, showy plants for today's gardens.
AS A KID, Ray Larson explored the ravines around his home in North Seattle. When he studied native-plant restoration at the University of Washington 25 years later, he remembered the skunk cabbage and salmonberries he'd found growing wild not all that long ago. Larson couldn't help but question which plants really were native to Seattle, and which had been introduced over the years.
"How would the Arboretum be able to determine which plants to use if they wanted to do a native-plant display?" he wondered. All this led to a three-years-in-the-making, 360-page master's-degree project entitled "The Flora of Seattle in 1850: Major Species and Landscapes Prior to Urban Development."
So what did Seattle look like before all the houses, highways and parking lots? It wasn't easy to find out, despite Larson's persistent sleuthing and his background in botany and history. "Short of a time machine, there's no way to know for sure," he says. He spent a great many hours searching King County survey records and the archives at the UW Libraries. He read accounts from early explorers and settlers, trying to catch a glimpse of our early ecosystem; he tracked down the oldest trees, stumps and undisturbed pockets of plants in every relatively undisturbed natural area in the city.
Larson found that the best places to gain a sense of our environmental heritage are Schmitz Park, in West Seattle, and the central part of Seward Park. Huge cedar stumps marked with early foresters' springboard notches still stand along Piper's Creek trail at the south end of Carkeek Park.
After years spent visualizing our infant city, it's hard for Larson to reconcile today's landscape with it. "Seattle used to be far more botanically rich and diverse than it is today," he says.
Remember those grade-school dioramas of the Denny Party landing at Alki, where stands of trees reached right down to the beach? Not true. Seattle once had a surprisingly wide range of habitats beyond the coniferous forest you might expect. A large, open meadow covered the ground where Seattle Center is today. Remnants of oak savannah persisted around Lake Washington. Many streams and five major bog systems laced the city, including where Dahl Field is now, around Sand Point and Northgate. Unusual and showy plants such as the Northern star flower and the Western kalmia thrived in these sunny, wet locations.
"The more I learned about our native plants, the more disgusted I became with the blackberries and Scotch broom that make up our wild landscapes today," says Larson. So many of these introduced species have run rampant, smothering the natives. Even the lowly dandelion was deliberately introduced, brought to Seattle from the East Coast for medicinal purposes by Doc Maynard's wife in 1853.
Before such scourges, a broad palette of plants grew in abundance, though most are now scarce or vanished altogether from the wild. The showiest, most garden-worthy of our true natives include the red-flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum), the Northern maidenhair fern (Adiantum aleuticum), wild ginger (Asarum caudatum) and Amelanchier alnifolia, a little tree with intense autumn color.
Larson found the Western mock orange (Philadelphus lewisii) and the drought-tolerant Rhododendron macrophyllum frequently mentioned in the accounts of early settlers. They dug the rhododendron out of the woods and planted it in their yards, where it died from being watered. Larson admires the mountain boxwood (Pachistima myrsinites), which looks like an evergreen huckleberry, Trillium ovatum and the wild orchid with mottled leaves called rattlesnake plantain (Goodyera oblongifolia).
Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer and contributing editor for Horticulture magazine. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.