March 2021 Plant Profile: The Gaultherias of Pacific Connections

The Pacific Connections Gardens is a great place to admire examples of related plants from different parts of the globe. One excellent example of this is the genus Gaultheria. Only a few steps separate Gaultheria species hailing from Chile, China, and the Pacific Northwest!

large patch of salal
Gaultheria shallon

The genus Gaultheria includes over one hundred and fifty species hailing from North and South America, Eastern and Southeastern Asia, New Guinea, Australia, and New Zealand. In Ericaceae, Gaultheria species tend to be evergreen and prefer moist, well-drained sites, making many of them well suited for Northwest gardens.
Many of us in the Northwest are familiar with our common native, Salal, (Gaultheria shallon). This hardy evergreen species is prized in the floral industry and exported around the world for use in bouquets. While it is an important species in Northwest forests and a staple fruit for coastal tribes, G. shallon is an increasingly problematic invasive in the UK where it can outcompete native flora and dominate forest understories. Gaultheria shallon is widespread in the Cascadia Forest Garden.
Less well known are two other Northwest natives, Gaultheria humifusa and Gaultheria ovatifolia. Gaultheria humifusa is an adorable groundcover with small evergreen leaves and bright red berries. One specimen can be seen at the high point in the Cascadia Forest. Gaultheria ovatifolia is somewhere between these other Northwest species, with leaves and growth habit smaller than G. shallon but larger than G. humifusa. To make matters more complicated, G. humifusa and G. ovatifolia are known to hybridize where their ranges overlap. I collected G. ovatifolia seed on a backpacking trip this summer, and the resulting plants should be ready to install in the Cascadia Forest in the next couple years.

close up of leaves
Gaultheria humifusa
Gaultheria ovatifolia

Gaultheria mucronata (formerly Pernettya mucronata) is a popular garden plant prized for its striking purple berries and evergreen foliage. This species is more tolerant of dry conditions than other Gaultherias in our collection, although it becomes scraggly with less water. A patch of G. mucronata is established in the Chilean Entry Garden, and several are in a new planting along the Arboretum Loop Trail behind the Stone Cottage.

view of berries
Gaultheria mucronata


habit of plant
Gaultheria phillyreifolia

Gaultheria phillyreifolia is another evergreen shrub from Chile and Argentina with small serrated leaves and a dense growth pattern. Like many Gaultherias, G. phillyreifolia produces white urn-shaped flowers in the spring, and berries, in this case dark blue-black, in the fall. The original planting in the Chilean Entry Garden of over a dozen of these plants grown from wild seed collected by Dan Hinkley on Mt. Orsono in Chile has dwindled over the years to just a couple of specimens. Competition for water from nearby large conifers is likely to blame.

In the China Entry Garden is a healthy stand of the shrub Gaultheria hookeri. The fuchsia-tinged new stems are reminiscent of Salal, but the thick, dark-green leaves are narrower and deeply veined. The hot-pink buds are now appearing and will soon open to reveal tresses of creamy white flowers.

close up of leaves
Gaultheria hookeri

Also in the China Entry Garden is a cute creeping representative of the genus, Gaultheria nummularioides. In its native habitat G. nummularioides forms mats of delicate foliage in the forest understory. Foot traffic in the area has reduced the original planting to one survivor, and is an important reminder to keep to established trails while exploring the gardens.

close up of leaves
Gaultheria nummularioid

In this time of COVID-19 when our international travel plans are on hold, it can be refreshing to take a stroll through the Pacific Connections Gardens and admire plants from far-away lands. Take a moment to come visit the Gaultherias of world and remember how connected our planet really is.

Family: Ericaceae
Genus: Gaultheria
Species: Over 150
Origin: North and South America, Eastern and Southeastern Asia, New Guinea, Australia, and New Zealand.
Height and Spread: From groundcovers to trees
Bloom time: Varies by species, mostly spring
Location: Six species can be seen in the Pacific Connections Gardens.