10 Best Native Plants for Your Tacoma Garden

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close-up of bright yellow blooms of a Western wallflower

Tacoma is home to many artists, musicians, and business people, and that vibrancy of people mirrors the diversity of the best native plants for our ever-changing weather.

Why choose native plants? These flowers, trees, shrubs, and ground covers are best suited to our climate. Going native in your landscaping is a sustainable, eco-friendly, and easy way to enhance your yard. (And the wonderful fragrances you’ll enjoy can help combat the Tacoma Aroma). 

Advantages of Washington native plants:

  • Adaptive: Native plants can handle the change from Tacoma’s wet winters to dry summers. 
  • Pest resistant: Native plants resist local pests and diseases better than invasive ones can.
  • Low maintenance: Native plants thrive in the Pacific Northwest naturally, so you won’t need to be a pro gardener. 

How to choose native plants for your Tacoma yard:

When choosing native plants for your Tacoma yard, look for species suitable for our 8b Hardiness Zone where the lowest temperatures in the winter range from 15-20 degrees Fahrenheit. 

To make it easy for you to plan your yard or garden, we’ve collected 10 of the best and most fragrant native plants for Tacoma. Note, though, that this is just a fraction of the 2,300+ native plants available in the Tacoma area. 

1. False Solomon’s seal (Smilacina racemosa)

close-up of tiny white flower of False Solomon's seal
born1945 | Flickr | CC BY 2.0

The arching, flowery false Solomon’s seal blooms every spring, offering a rose-like fragrance and growing to about 3 feet tall. After the tiny white flower clusters bloom in the spring, little, round, red berries follow in late summer. In the fall, the leaves turn brown. 

Also known as the feathery false lily of the valley, false Solomon’s seal attracts pollinators, like birds, bees, and butterflies, and the red berries are food for mice and birds. False Solomon’s seal is found in every state except Hawaii, all over Canada, and in Mexico.

Native Americans are known to have boiled the roots and leaves of false Solomon’s seal to make medicinal tea. Native Americans also ate the young shoots of false Solomon’s seal. After the shoots are simmered, the flavor is said to taste similar to asparagus. 

Note: False Solomon’s seal needs a lot of shade to thrive. It does well in moist areas and looks best when planted in groups. If you plant only a few false Solomon’s seals to start with, you can propagate them by dividing the clumps in the spring or fall.

  • Plant type: Ground cover
  • Hardiness zones: 4-9
  • Sun: Part shade to shade
  • Water needs: Medium
  • Soil: Soft, well-drained soil (dry and rocky soil can be tolerated)
  • Duration: Perennial
  • Mature height: 3 feet

2. Mock orange (Philadelphus lewisii)

close-up of mock orange flowers with white petals and pale yellow centers
Hans | Pixabay

If you love a sweet orange scent, mock orange is the native plant for you. Mock orange is an adaptive plant that can tolerate sun or shade and is drought-tolerant, though a little water at times can help this deciduous shrub produce even more flowers. 

Mock orange has blooms that are a beautiful white with a pale yellow center and attract lots of wildlife. Birds, like bluebirds, finches, and chickadees, love their seeds, and butterflies eat nectar from mock orange flowers. 

Mock orange is also attractive to bees, so best not to place this plant near doorways or where people often gather. 

But if you welcome sights of elk and deer, place a mock orange where you can see wildlife coming near to eat the shrubbery. 

Historically, Pacific Northwest tribes made multiple tools — such as combs, baskets, spears, and breastplates — from the wood of the mock orange shrub, and the leaves were used to treat skin injuries and infections. 

  • Plant type: Shrub
  • Hardiness zones: 4-8
  • Sun: Full sun, partial shade
  • Water needs: Low-medium
  • Soil: Prefers gravelly and nutrient-rich soils
  • Duration: Deciduous
  • Mature height: 5-8 feet

3. Western wallflower (Erysimum capitatum)

close-up of a bee on a cluster of bright orange Western wallflowers
Light in Colors | Flickr | public domain

The western wallflower’s European relatives were known for growing along stone walls, and while these North American versions don’t necessarily do that, the name stuck. The western wallflower’s boldly colored flowers stand out among the crowd, unlike their name may imply.

In May, June, and July, western wallflowers produce densely clustered heads of bright red, yellow, or orange flowers that grow up to an inch long. Because of their bright color and sweet fragrance, western wallflowers attract butterflies and bees and are also food for caterpillars. 

These Washington state natives are the most widespread of all the wallflower varieties and are found from Seattle, Washington, to Juneau, Alaska, to Richmond, Virginia. Western wallflowers prefer sandy, rocky, or clay-like soil. 

  • Plant type: Herb
  • Hardiness zones: 7-10
  • Sun: Full sun to shade
  • Water needs: Low
  • Soil: Well-drained soil
  • Duration: Biennial
  • Mature height: 1-3 feet

4. Red-flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum

close-up of a cluster of vibrant red flowering currant flowers
Peter Stevens | Flickr | CC BY 2.0

The red-flowering currant’s color varies from white to pink to deep red, which explains why it’s also sometimes known as the pink winter currant or blood currant. Red-flowering currant is a fast-growing plant that may reach heights of 4 to 5 feet within just a few years. 

The red-flowering currant’s fragrance is similar to that of sage, and its bright colors attract rufous hummingbirds, bees, and butterflies. Elk and deer eat the foliage, and multiple kinds of birds and small mammals savor the blackberries. 

Red-flowering currant is drought-tolerant and can thrive in the summer without water, so planting it on the borders of your garden where your watering hose may not reach would be just fine. It also does well with or without sun. In western Washington, you can look forward to seeing red-flowering currant blooms as early as February, March, or April. 

  • Plant type: Shrub
  • Hardiness zones: 6-8
  • Sun: Sun to part-shade
  • Water needs: Low-medium
  • Soil: Well-drained
  • Duration: Deciduous
  • Mature height: 3-10 feet 

5. Tall Oregon grape (Mahonia aquifolium)

The tall Oregon grape is a colorful shrub throughout all seasons, turning from copper in the spring to shiny green in the summer to a bronzy-purple in the fall and winter. Because it’s an evergreen, tall Oregon grape is well-suited for hedges, barriers, and borders. 

Tall Oregon grape produces blue berries that are similar to grapes (hence, the name) that birds love to eat. You can eat them, too! Here’s a recipe for some Oregon grape jelly you can make at home. If you’re feeling extra crafty, you can even make a bright yellow dye from its bark. 

If you’re more of a “sit back and enjoy the view” type of person, this Northwest native plant will attract lots of wildlife, like butterflies, hummingbirds, and robins, for you to enjoy. 

Bonus points: Tall Oregon grape is a deciduous shrub that is practically pest- and disease-free year-round. 

Note: Often confused with holly, tall Oregon grape’s leaves are prickly with sharp spines, so don’t plant it near walkways where people can brush up against it and be scratched. 

  • Plant type: Shrub
  • Hardiness zones: 5-8
  • Sun: Partial sun
  • Water needs: Low
  • Soil: Slightly moist, acidic, well-drained
  • Duration: Evergreen
  • Mature height: 4-8 feet

6. Nootka rose (Rosa nutkana)

close-up of a nootka rose with light pink petals and a yellow center
Leslie Seaton from Seattle, WA | Wikimedia Commons | CC BY 2.0

The nootka rose has large pink flowers and straight thorns on its branches. The flowers have the same rose fragrance we all love, but they don’t produce much nectar. As a result, the main pollinators you’ll see around nootka rose are bees.

Nootka rose does well as a barrier plant because of how thick it gets, which makes it perfect for nesting areas and hiding spots for birds and small mammals. Virtually all parts of the flower are edible. 

In fact, nootka rose often is referred to as “deer candy.” Deer and bears eat the fruits, while rodents, squirrels, and other small mammals chomp on the twigs and leaves. And people? We can make nootka rose jams and jellies from the hips.

  • Plant type: Shrub
  • Hardiness zones: 4-8
  • Sun: Full to partial sun
  • Water needs: Low
  • Soil: Sandy, loamy, or clay; well-drained soil
  • Duration: Perennial
  • Mature height: 2-9 feet

7. Pacific red elderberry (Sambucus racemosa var. racemosa)

cluster of Pacific red elderberry
Walter Siegmund | Wikimedia Commons | CC BY-SA 3.0

Don’t let the name fool you. Pacific red elderberry produces light, creamy white flowers with dark green leaves. The name comes from the bright red berries it produces. 

The scent of Pacific red elderberry is light, floral, and delightful when flowering, but beware: Don’t crush the leaves! Crushed leaves emit a foul scent that will send you running for the Cascades. 

As a garden plant, Pacific red elderberry is often used for erosion control and revegetation. Pacific red elderberry flowers in early spring to midsummer and grows best in partial shade and well-drained soil. Pacific red elderberry is native to much of North America from New Mexico up through British Columbia. 

You may notice deer and elk nearby after planting Pacific red elderberry. Wildlife loves to eat the foliage, bark, and buds. Birds eat the berries, and small mammals nosh on the fruit. 

All varieties of elderberry offer numerous medicinal benefits. Native Americans would use the berries for aching muscles, and the flowers were boiled to make a tea used to treat coughs and colds. You can still find elderberry in most stores as a homeopathic remedy for mild illnesses.

Elderberries are highly nutritious when fully ripe, and although edible, might be a bit bitter. Cooking elderberries and adding sugar will make them more palatable for turning into wines, jellies, syrups, and preserves. 

Note: Elderberry seeds are not edible and are considered poisonous, so be sure to strain them out completely.

  • Plant type: Shrub
  • Hardiness zones: 3-9
  • Sun: Partial shade
  • Water needs: Medium
  • Soil: Well-drained, loamy
  • Duration: Deciduous
  • Mature height: 3-10 feet in a garden (up to 18 feet in the wild)

8. Pacific madrone (Arbutus menziesii)

white flowers of pacific madrone
John Rusk | Flickr | CC BY 2.0

The Pacific madrone is a gorgeous evergreen tree that blooms clusters of white flowers in the spring, followed by bright red berries in the fall. The Pacific madrone is not the easiest tree to grow and maintain, but if you have the space and patience to give it the care it needs, you’ll be in for a real treat. 

Here we’ll highlight the challenges and rewards of the Pacific madrone:

The Pacific madrone must be planted from a seed and transplanted when small. Pacific madrone needs to be watered only a little when young, and after that, you can pretty much leave it alone. Pacific madrone does need a lot of sunshine, and if it gets too much shade, you’ll notice it reaching for sunnier areas of the yard. 

The bark of the Pacific madrone peels away, “littering” the ground. What this means: Regular cleanup of this litter is required unless you have an open area where you won’t mind the mess. But once the bark is gone, a smooth, copper-colored trunk is exposed. 

In the fall, doves and pigeons feast on the berries of the Pacific madrone. Deer also love the berries, as well as the young shoots.

Note: Bark beetles and wood borers are common insects that invade the Pacific madrone, but they only cause minor damage and are not a major concern. 

  • Plant type: Tree
  • Hardiness zones: 7-9
  • Sun: Partial shade when young, more sun needed with age
  • Water needs: Low
  • Soil: Fast-draining, non-compacted, slightly acidic (clay, loam, sand)
  • Duration: Evergreen
  • Mature height: 50 feet (over 100 feet in the wild)

9. Common beargrass (Xerophyllum tenax)

Common beargrass gets its name from reports of bears eating the young fleshy stems and using the leaves in their winter dens for cover. 

Common beargrass usually takes several years to flower, and when it does, its main flower stalk grows over a foot above the leaves, giving way to a thick plume of creamy-white flowers. Common beargrass typically blooms in the spring and summer, and the scent it emits varies from sweet to musty. 

Common beargrass could be incredibly helpful for homeowners near Puget Sound since it is a great plant for erosion control, has a high tolerance for frost, and has a low need for nutrients. Common beargrass is often sought out by deer, elk, rodents, beetles, bees, birds, and butterflies for food and cover. 

  • Plant type: Herb
  • Hardiness zones: 4-8
  • Sun: Full sun to semi-shade
  • Water needs: Low
  • Soil: Moist
  • Duration: Perennial
  • Mature height: 3-6 feet

10. Milkweed (Asclepias)

close-up of an insect on a cluster of pink milkweed flowers
La55i3Girl | Pixabay

As the sole source of food for Monarch butterfly caterpillars, milkweed is a sure way to grow a butterfly garden. Milkweed flowers vary from yellow to gold to orange to red, and the leaves and stems leak a sticky milk-like substance when broken, which explains the plant’s common name. 

Milkweed’s genus name, Asclepias, comes from the Greek god of healing since this native plant is known for its use by many indigenous tribes that used the milkweed sap in salves and infusions to treat multiple ailments, like swelling, rashes, coughs, fevers, and asthma.

Homeowners in Tacoma and the surrounding areas, like Puyallup, Auburn, Seattle, and Olympia, will love the fact that milkweed is easy to transplant, is deer and rabbit resistant, but attracts tons of caterpillars, butterflies, honeybees, and bumblebees. 

Milkweed does attract aphids, but these pests are easy to control. You can either leave aphids for ladybug food or you can spray the insects and leaves with soapy water or a high-pressure stream of water. 

  • Plant type: Shrub
  • Hardiness zones: 3-10
  • Sun: Full sun to partial shade
  • Water needs: Low
  • Soil: Dry to moist, well-drained, sandy
  • Duration: Perennial
  • Mature height: 2-3 feet

How native plants make gardening easier in Tacoma

Native trees, grasses, shrubs, and ground covers will make your Tacoma garden gorgeous, offer food and protection to local animals, and are the least needy plants when it comes to care.  

Native plants can handle all the weather changes here and also resist most of the common diseases and pests. When you want low-maintenance landscaping that’s great for the local ecosystem, native plants like the ones on this list are the only way to go. 

Most native plant nurseries in the Tacoma area will carry these plants, but if these 10 suggestions don’t fit your vision for your yard or garden, check out this plant list for Pierce County from the Washington Native Plant Society for more options. The WNPS also provides lots of helpful tips for gardening with native plants. 

When to call in a Lawn Love pro

If you feel like digging, weeding, and growing native plants is still too far out of your comfort zone, ask a local Lawn Love gardening pro for help. He or she can consult with you on the perfect garden design, advise on native selections, and then plant and tend to your greenery, giving you the beautiful yard you’ve always wanted. 

Main Photo Credit: Calibas | Wikimedia Commons | CC BY-SA 4.0

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