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All the Plants that Died, Died

April 12, 2011
Staghorn Ferns on Tree Ferns in California in January - Don't try this in Seattle!

Staghorn Ferns on Tree Ferns in California in January - Don't try this in Seattle!

Ellen from Bellevue, WA wrote in over the weekend to find out if she’s alone with a garden full of winter-croaked plants this spring. She saw a number of (her words not mine) California type plants give up the ghost along with decades-old hydrangea. Her inquiry prompted me to put together a write up similar to this one from past harsh winters sharing what I’m seeing dead or near-dead around town this Spring.

Although I haven’t seen any well established hydrangeas around town that have bit the dust, Ellen’s two California type plants that are now among the dearly departed are joined by many of their cousins around town. And, there are quite a few other surprising hardy plants that also took heavy hits this winter. Some are dead; some might just surprise you yet!

The Seattle area is known for wildly fluctuating micro-climates. While one hilltop may be frozen and windy, a block away, a gully may be much more temperate. This makes getting the right plant in the right place all that more difficult. So, if you had a failure or two, remember the old saying, “you’re not a gardener until you’re killing things.” (Sorry, I don’t know who said it first. Do you?)

Okay, and yeah, the ferns on the right aren’t the plants Ellen asked about, but let’s be clear. If these ferns can manage January in San Francisco, there’s no wonder the hardy shrubs like those that follow can as well!

Read on for a list of what died and made it on my “no plant” list and what’s maybe not dead or is still worth (imho) planting:

Hebe buxifolia heavily defoliated from winter freezes (can be sheared hard to rejuvenate)

Hebe buxifolia heavily defoliated from winter freezes (can be sheared hard to rejuvenate)

The Ones I Won’t be Planting Again (Note: some made my “no plant list” years ago, but I share them here ’cause folks keep planting them)

  • New Zealand Flax: Not even ‘Amazing Red’ is looking good this year.
  • Hebes: Although Quicksilver, Pinquefolia, James Stirling and Procumbens made it in my garden, I’m done spec’ing any of these in Seattle. Love them, but they’re too inconsistent through winter.
  • Ceanothus ‘Dark Star’: While Dark Star is one of my hands-down favorite cultivars, it burned in winter like nobody’s business. Pt. Reyes and Julia Phelps fared much better, though Julia is probably going to have a very short styling this spring. (One of Ellen’s losses)
  • Evergreen magnolia: Once again, these trees fried from the top down. Done, and done.
  • Escallonia: A plant that dies on one side every year just isn’t worth it to me. RIP (it out)!
  • Pittosporum: Like Ellen says: California plant. Leave it there!

Garrya elliptica blooming beautifully in winter

Garrya elliptica blooming beautifully in winter

Plants I’ll Continue to Use with Notes of Caution:

  • Nandina: I adore Nandina. For the most part, it’s a consistently beautiful evergreen shrub with multi-colored foliage, blooms and berries. Fortunately, it’s also a cane grower, so when it has a defoliation year like this one, cut it hard to the ground to encourage new growth from the base. Or, try a series of alternating cuts to nodes on existing canes that are alive. Odds are, it’ll sprout right out.
  • Cistus: Rockrose is such a cheap, easy care, low maintenance, low water shrub that I’ll still use it. I’ll probably stick with tried and true older cultivars though. (Another of Ellen’s losses)
  • Lavender, Rosemary, Sage, Erysimum: See Cistus.
  • Camellia sasanqua: I love this evergreen shrub that blooms through winter. Unfortunately, because it is evergreen and blooming in winter, it can be extra susceptible to winter damage. I can forgive it for occasionally losing its bloom to Mr. Freeze.
  • Cotoneaster lacteus: I adore this plant. Evergreen. Blooms white in May, attracting and feeding all sorts of bees that pollinate an abundance of red berries to feed the birds. The November snow took this shrub by surprise and not only destroyed the berries before the birds could enjoy them, but it also really knocked back the plants significantly. Fortunately, with some heavy pruning, it looks like they’ll come back.
  • Garrya elliptica: See Camellia sasanqua
  • Daphne odora: I love a Daphne. I think everyone should try one in their garden. But, know that they sometimes simply give up the ghost. And, don’t expect them to live up to promises of being evergreen. Mine were evergreen for the first few years of their lives; now they defoliate each year only to bloom beautifully and fragrantly on bare stems each spring.

One thing you might notice about the plants on this list is that many of them are considered evergreen. I believe that some of the hardier plants on this year’s list of the dead and injured were significantly weakened during the storm that hit Seattle just before Thanksgiving. It was early enough that maybe, just maybe, these evergreens hadn’t quite set up their winter protection systems all the way, and when that freeze hit, their defenses were lacking.

So, what else you got that you think might be dead? Anything new made your “never again” list after this winter?


  1. Catherine says:

    After the winter we had a couple of years ago I learned some plants to avoid, especially hebes which I really like but heard that so many people lost them. I’ve lost several plants this winter including a 10 year old Hydrangea and a rose. The Hydrangea surprised me the most.
    My sister in Seattle had a landscape designer fill her garden with things like New Zealand Flax and Hebes when they redid their front and back yard two summers ago, I tried to warn her that those probably weren’t the best choices but I think she assumed her designer knew best. Now they are left with many holes to fill.

  2. I love it, you’re not a gardener till you’ve killed something! Well I have well and truly deserved the title of gardener this year then…lol! I lost a 8yr old mop-head hydrangea this year, also all my evergreen jasmine, a rosemary and an azalea (I didn’t even think you could kill those!) Its been an extra hard winter this year in Seattle, we are still waking to frost!!

  3. Susan Maki says:

    I am going to have to enjoy Camellia sasanqua in other people’s gardens – not mine atop the Sammamish plateau. I replaced it last year, only to have it severely damaged once again! Even my roses suffered this winter. But I love them too much to give up.

  4. Maitreya says:

    love the Jim Carroll reference 🙂

  5. Cate says:

    Gosh, I’m actually hapy to hear that I’m not the only one. I was suprised by how bad everything looked but a few things that I thought were gone do seem to be coming up at the base so there is that. Thanks for the list!

  6. Heather says:

    The late great JC Raulston said that “if you are not killing plants you are not stretching yourself as a gardener”.

    I have had several customers complain of losing phormiums, Hebes, and other marginally hardy plants, which hasn’t surprised me at all after our cold wet winter. I was not surprised to lose my Phormiums, Uncinia, pittosporum Golf Ball Kohuhu, Abutilon, cast iron plant, and Acacia pravissima. I had some damage on my young Magnolia Little Gem, Arbequina olive, and boxwood Hebe which also came as no surprise, especially since it behooved me to dig and move practically every plant in my garden the week before Thanksgiving. But the number of customers complaining about losing established Nandinas , Camellias, and Hydrangeas has me befuddled. Any ideas about why? I am thinking some normally very hardy plants just hadn’t shut down for the winter before that really cold snap right after thanksgiving. I had several evergreens defoliate but are coming back fine now. But most surprising is that my Melianthus, Cistus, Ceonothus ‘Tuxedo’, Azara, Drimys, Euphorbia ‘Tasmanian Tiger’, Hebe Cupressiodes, Zantedeschia, Goldcrest Cypress, and Hebe Red Edge all came through the winter just fine. ????? Crazy.

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