Field Notes 11

Pacific Northwest BY VALERIE EASTON / Seattle, Washington, Zone 8

Remembering Lewis & Clark

WE NORTHWESTERNERS take our native flora for granted, forgetting that our intensely green backdrop of Douglas fir and western red cedar, with an underlay of vine maple, huckleberry, and salal, looked pretty curious and 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 and river courses all the way to the Pacific Ocean, but also to botanize. As they searched for the fabled and clusivc Northwest Passage, they also paid close attention to the flora and fauna along the way. President Thomas Jefferson was anxious that they bring back descriptions and specimens of all new western American flora. They filled eight volumes of journals not only with laments about the soaking wet winter the group spent miserably huddled at Fort Clatsop on the Columbia River (near Astoria, Oregon), but also with delicate specimens of Mimulus lewisii and Clarkia pulchella (pictured left and right).

What did this little band of explorers think when they first sighted enormous conifers looming through a thick blanket of fog? Our native trees have extraordinary presence and atmosphere, and in the huge and hushed forests, the little band of explorers must have felt dwarfed. They were seeing plants unknown in the world at the time, like western hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla), which Lewis recorded as the most plentiful tree, and the Sitka spruce (Picea sitchensis), which he described as an immense fir, measuring “27 feet in girth, six feet above the earth.”

The soggy adventurers caught their first glimpse of what they thought was the Pacific Ocean on November 7, 1805 (it was really Gray’s Bay, but they were close), and then the rainy season closed in on them for four long months. The bridles rotted off their horses, and the corps of 30 men (plus one woman and a baby) looked back longingly to the winter they’d spent in North Dakota. Lewis had plenty of time during the weary wet months at Fort Clatsop to describe in rich detail not only the coastal plants around the fort, but also the specimens collected along the trail west.

The bicentennial celebration of the Lewis and Clark expedition begins this year, with events planned coast to coast. Their adventures and discoveries make such an exciting story that Stephen Ambrose’s book Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West (Touchstone, 1996) has become a best-seller.

Many of their plant discoveries, like Oregon grape (Mahonia aquifolium) and red-flowering winter currant (Ribes san-guineum), were the rage in English gardens decades before they were widely grown in their native soil. During this bicentennial celebration, while we spend time arguing over how Sacajawea is pronounced, or visiting the interpretive site where the expedition extracted salt from sea water, perhaps we’ll also have a renaissance in appreciation for our own native flora.

For more information on the bicentennial celebration of the Lewis and Clark expedition, visit

To do in the garden

  • As soon as the temperature stays above 50’F at night, tomatoes, basil, and other heat-loving annuals can be planted outdoors.

  • Prune wisteria lightly after blooming and clip back regularly through the summer.

  • Turn and work the compost heap, adding water if the weather is dry.

  • Even if the weather is misty and damp, remember to water containers, under the eaves, and anything newly planted.

  • Sow seeds of larkspur, rudbeckia, zinnia, and cosmos for an autumn cutting garden.

Worth growing

Japanese snowbell Styrax japonica

It is often too chilly and wet to be outside to enjoy the early flowering of crab apples and cherries, so the June-blooming Japanese snowbell is especially appreciated in our climate. It is a graceful little tree with white, bell-shaped flowers that droop downward, so it is best planted beside a pathway or patio where you can look up to see the flowers dripping from the tiered, horizontally spreading branches. Japanese snowbell thrives in sun or partial shade and needs summer irrigation, so it is a good companion for hydrangeas and hostas. USDA Zones 5–8. Sources, page 92.

Related Posts:

  • No Related Posts

Leave a Reply