9 Best Native Plants for Portland

Close-up of red serviceberries

What’s one way you can make your Portland lawn greener without dumping chemicals? Easy –– grow native plants. These nine best native plants for Portland can help save you time, money, and energy. But more importantly, they’re good for the environment and your landscape’s ecosystem. 

Unlike nonnative plants, Portland native plants are adapted to our local climate and soil conditions, which means they need less fertilizer to thrive. Less chemical usage means less toxic runoff polluting our environment (and fatter wallets, too). Native plants are also: 

  • Resistant to many diseases and pests occurring in Portland, which means less money spent on pesticides. The fewer pesticides you use, the better for the environment. 
  • Accustomed to local precipitation levels, which means you can conserve water and spend less time watering the garden. 
  • Natural habitats and delicious food sources for native wildlife

1. Globe gilia (gilia capitata)

Looking for a flower that puts on a show but doesn’t require much work from you? Look no further than the globe gilia. Its tall stem is topped with a globe-like puffball of 50 to 100 tiny blue flowers that last from late spring through mid-summer. 

Globe gilia is an annual plant, but that needn’t deter you. You can easily propagate this drought-tolerant annual from seed. And the globe gilia readily self-sows, which means it will reliably return next spring, similar to a perennial. 

The charming flower tolerates many soil types, including dry, rocky soil. It doesn’t require too much water or maintenance, and it doesn’t have many problems with pests or diseases. Pop those seeds into the ground, and let this easy grower enhance your Portland yard. 

  • Plant type: Wildflower
  • Hardiness zones: 7-10
  • Sun: Full sun
  • Water needs: Low
  • Soil: Loam, sand, chalk, well-drained
  • Duration: Annual
  • Mature height: 1-3 feet

2. Oceanspray (holodiscus discolor)

Oceanspray is a deciduous shrub with slender, slightly arching stems. Its lobed and toothed green leaves are white and hairy underneath. The shrub grows 3 to 10 feet tall but can reach heights up to 20 feet tall, so be sure to give it plenty of room. 

The shrub is adorned with delicate, long clusters of creamy-white, fragrant flowers spring through summer. The graceful flower clusters are a sight to behold, and the hummingbirds and bees love to stop by for lunch. 

  • Plant type: Shrub
  • Hardiness zones: 6-9 
  • Sun: Full sun, partial sun
  • Water needs: Low to Medium
  • Soil: Loam, chalk, clay, sand, well-drained, dry to moist
  • Duration: Perennial 
  • Mature height: 3-10 feet tall, but can reach heights up to 20 feet

3. Pacific bleeding heart (dicentra formosa ssp. formosa)

Add a touch of elegance to your Portland landscaping with the Pacific bleeding heart. The perennial flower features drooping clusters of heart-shaped, pink flowers which dangle over a mound of fern-like foliage. 

The Pacific bleeding heart will get frequent visits from hummingbirds and butterflies. It doesn’t have many pests or disease problems, and it’s resistant to deer and rabbits, too. 

The Portland native plant readily self-seeds and spreads by rhizomes. It grows best in part shade, making it an excellent addition to your shade garden where dappled light occurs. The perennial plant tolerates full shade, but you won’t see many blooming hearts.

  • Plant type: Flower
  • Hardiness zones: 3-9
  • Sun: Full sun to partial shade, thrives in partial shade. It tolerates full shade, but fewer flowers will bloom. 
  • Water needs: Low to medium
  • Soil: Moist, well-drained, humus-rich soil
  • Duration: Perennial
  • Mature height: 1-2 feet

4. Riverbank lupine (lupinus rivularis)

Turn your meadow, prairie, or cottage garden into a breathtaking attraction with riverbank lupine. The showy plant features elongated clusters of purple-blue to white flowers which sit atop unbranched stems. The flowering clusters are typically two or more shades, creating a dreamy blanket of color in the landscape. 

Not only is the riverbank lupine a beautiful flower, but it’s also an environmental hero: 

  • The plant’s long taproot extends up to 5 feet in the ground, which helps control erosion. 
  • Riverbank lupine is a pioneer plant, which means it’s one of the first plants to colonize barren areas, particularly deforested areas. 
  • Are your other plants struggling in soils with low nitrogen? Riverbank lupine has nitrogen-fixing roots, which means it adds nitrogen to the soil. 

Riverbank lupine often grows in sand dunes and along roadside slopes. It’s native to British Columbia, Western Oregon and Washington, and Northwestern California. 

  • Plant type: Flower
  • Hardiness zones: 7-9
  • Sun: Full sun
  • Water needs: Medium
  • Soil: Sand, loam, moist, well-drained
  • Duration: Perennial
  • Mature height: 1-5 feet

5. Salal (gaultheria shallon)

Salal is an evergreen shrub that provides year-round interest with its glossy, green, oval leaves. The shrub blooms small, dangling, urn-shaped pink to white flowers spring through early summer. Make sure to pick its ripe berries before the birds do! The berries make tasty jams and jellies.

Salal grows well in partial to full shade, with heights ranging between 1 and 5 feet tall. The shrub tolerates full sun but typically won’t reach higher than 3 feet tall. Salal will spread over time, creating a dense thicket and natural backyard habitat for birds. 

  • Plant type: Shrub
  • Hardiness zones: 5-9
  • Sun: Partial shade, full shade
  • Water needs: Medium
  • Soil: Moist, acidic, well-drained
  • Duration: Perennial
  • Mature height: Grows up to 5 feet in the shade and up to 3 feet in full sun

6. Western sword fern (polystichum munitum)

The western sword fern is one of the most abundant ferns in Western North America. Its long, narrow, dark-green fronds are toothed and shaped like daggers. The evergreen fern can showcase as many as 100 of these finely textured fronds. 

The western sword fern creates beautiful borders around the landscape and fits seamlessly into a traditional garden design. It can survive occasional drought but grows best in shady areas with consistent moisture. 

  • Plant type: Fern
  • Hardiness zones: 3-8
  • Sun: Partial shade, full shade
  • Water needs: Medium to high
  • Soil: Chalk, loam, clay, sand, moist, well-drained
  • Duration: Perennial
  • Mature height: 3-6 feet

7. Tall Oregon grape (mahonia aquifolium)

Make room for Oregon’s state flower–– the tall Oregon grape. The magnificent evergreen shrub offers seasonal interest year-round, plus it makes delicious jellies with its edible grapes. What’s not to love about this Portland native?

The holly-like shrub produces lightly fragrant, striking yellow flowers in early spring. The blooms are followed by tart, dark-blue berries in summer that cluster together like grapes. The glossy foliage is deep green in summer and changes to burgundy in autumn through early spring. 

The slow grower is perfect for a shade or woodland garden. Remember to remove its suckers if you don’t want it to spread and naturalize. Avoid planting it in highly alkaline soils, as it will become chlorotic and not produce enough chlorophyll to stay green. 

Pests and diseases to look out for include leaf spots, rust, leaf scorch from sun and wind, aphids, and whiteflies. 

  • Plant type: Shrub
  • Hardiness zones: 5-8
  • Sun: Partial shade, full shade
  • Water needs: Medium
  • Soil: Loam, acidic, well-drained
  • Duration: Perennial
  • Mature height: 6-8 feet

8. Vine maple (acer circinatum)

Does your landscape look a bit gloomy in winter? Give your Portland lawn a splash of color with the vine maple. The deciduous shrub’s bright red bark and multiple trunks make for beautiful winter decor. 

Commonly grown as a large shrub, the vine maple can eventually form into a small tree. It has a short trunk (often multiple) with several twisting branches growing near its base. The vine maple emerges in spring with bright green foliage and changes to orange and red come fall. 

The plant is native to woodlands and streambanks in Western North America. It grows best in cool, shaded, moist locations, though it can tolerate full sun, too. It will not perform well in dry, hot areas in the landscape. 

The vine maple needs little pruning, which means less work for your sore green thumb. The large shrub is resistant to deer but is susceptible to a few pests and diseases, including verticillium wilt, aphids, and mites. 

  • Plant type: Small tree, large shrub
  • Hardiness zones: 5-9 
  • Sun: Full sun, partial shade
  • Water needs: Medium
  • Soil: Loam, sand, clay, moist, well-drained
  • Duration: Perennial
  • Mature height: 15-30 feet, sometimes reaching up to 40 feet

9. Yellow monkey flower (mimulus guttatus)

Need to freshen up your bog garden? Throw in some sunshine with the yellow monkey flower. This bright yellow flower looks stunning grown in masses, and it spreads easily by seed and rhizomes. It can make a striking border around your water garden or a helpful addition to your eco-friendly rain garden. 

The yellow monkey flower craves a moist environment, and it attracts butterflies, birds, and hummingbirds. The showy perennial also can make a beautiful ground cover in moist areas of the landscape, which means less lawn mowing for you. 

  • Plant type: Flower
  • Hardiness zones: 6-9 
  • Sun: Full sun, partial sun
  • Water needs: High
  • Soil: Humus-rich, moist, sand, clay, loam
  • Duration: Perennial
  • Mature height: 1-2 feet

Make a big difference one native plant at a time

As proud Portlanders, we work hard to protect the city’s surrounding nature. Why not make our lawns just as green? Native plants are the greener choice, and they help make our yards and gardens more eco-friendly. 

Unlike nonnative plants, native plants are adapted to our local environment. They don’t require much chemical assistance to grow, and they conserve precious water. 

Want to find more native plants for your Portland yard? A collaborative effort led by the Adult Conservation Educators working group has revised an extensive plant list originally created by Metro. The document includes plants native to the Portland metropolitan area and the Coast Range, Cascades, and Willamette Valley ecoregions. 

Other Portland native plants to consider include: 

  • Pacific madrone (Arbutus menziesii)
  • Hairy manzanita (Arctostaphylos columbiana)
  • Red twig dogwood (Cornus sericea)
  • Western trillium (Trillium ovatum)
  • Western crabapple (Malus fusca)
  • Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii)
  • Blue elderberry (Sambucus mexicana)
  • Red huckleberry (Vaccinium parvifolium)
  • Oregon white oak (Quercus garryana)
  • Serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia)
  • Red alder (Alnus rubra)
  • Bitter cherry (Prunus emarginata)

Don’t have time to plant a new flower bed? Need help finding fire-resistant native plants that will protect your home against Oregon’s wildfires? A local Portland lawn care pro can help ease the burden and do the hard work for you. 

Main Photo Credit: Brian Crawford | Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0

Jane Purnell

Jane Purnell is an artist, writer, and nature lover. She enjoys teaching readers about the importance of eco-friendly lawn care, integrated pest management, biodiversity, and sustainable landscaping.