Wednesday, June 23, 2010


Years ago, a friend of mine, who then owned a small native plant nursery, asked me to help with her booth at a plant sale at the Bellevue Botanical Garden. At the time, I didn't know much about Northwest natives and I thought it would be a good way to spend some time with her and learn more.

As we unloaded her truck, she pointed to a flat of plants. "These are Lewisia," she said as if I should know the significance of that. "Keep an eye on them or they will disappear," she added, somewhat sternly. I looked at the plants. They didn't look like anything special. None were in bloom. The leaves formed a flat, fleshy rosette that looked like they could be related to Echeveria (hens and chicks). Surely she didn't mean that anyone would steal one of these when we weren't looking?!

We set up our display and she brought out signs with descriptions of the various plants, and for those not in bloom like the Lewisia, photos of the flowers. When I saw the photos, I began to understand why these plants might be of interest. These beautiful little alpine flowers will stop you in your tracks.

What I also didn't realize was that very few people at that time propagated Lewisia for sale. They weren't available at nurseries then (although the L. cotyledon you see in the photo above is one I bought at West Seattle Nursery several years ago). You would have to go up into the mountains, as she had, and collect seed or get the seed from someone who had. Getting the seed wasn't even half the battle. These plants aren't easy to grow. They need sharp drainage and a fair amount, but not too much, sun.

Of course, the plant enthusiasts at the sale that day already knew all of this. Once the sale began, word spread rapidly that we had Lewisia for sale. A crowd gathered. My friend could have sold that flat of plants 10 times over! She said she would sell only one plant to a customer. She knew how hard they were to grow and felt that if several gardeners each got a plant, there was a greater likelihood that some plants would survive than if just one or two people got them all. There was a lot of pleading and begging going on, but she stuck to that policy. We sold out of Lewisia in mere minutes.

Lewisia is much more available today than it was back then. But it still isn't easy to grow. That doesn't mean you shouldn't try. If you are interested and have a sandy, rocky spot, buy a plant and see what happens. Every summer when my Lewisia blooms, I'm glad I did.

If you'd like to learn more about Pacific Northwest native plants, I recommend Arthur Kruckeberg's classic reference, "Gardening with Native Plants of the Pacific Northwest."