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Growing from a wide-ranging slender rhizome, vanilla-leaf often forms pure stands in forest and woodlands.
This deciduous perennial sends up 10 to 30 cm (4 to 12 in.) tall stalked leaves directly from a rhizome just under the surface of the ground. At the tip of each leaf stalk sits a three-parted leaf, each hairless leaflet shaped like a broad fan, its edges coarsely to bluntly toothed. The main leaves of a vanilla-leaf stand are often arranged horizontally, presenting a pleasing flattish surface. In the shade, the leaves are a soft warm green often in contrast to the predominantly dark green within the forest canopy. However, when the sun’s rays angle through the trees to the undergrowth, these leaves glow with a remarkable greenish warmth, a gently heated chartreuse rarely seen in nature. This special sight is so striking and symbolic of spring rebirth that, like the translucent early leaves of Indian plum (Oemleria cerasiformis), it warms my soul to see it.
Vanilla-leaf flowers are also most fascinating. The flower stalks rise above their leafy layer directly from the rhizome, with numerous tiny flowers forming a 2 to 5 cm (3/4 to 2 in.) long creamy-white spike at the tip of each stalk. These blooms apparently have neither sepal nor petals, but consist of a spidery mass of eight to 10 stamens surrounding a diminutive pistil. The flowers appear from mid-spring in the lowlands to early summer on the mountain slopes, followed by numerous brownish to reddish-purple dry fruits. Vanilla-leaf is a widespread species on the coast ranging from southern British Columbia to northern California. In B.C. it is strictly coastal, inhabiting southern Vancouver Island, the adjacent Mainland coast and the Fraser Valley to the beginning of the Canyon. Its preferred habitats include moist, shady, open forests and glades, especially along streams, but it also grows widely at forest edges, often on sides of roads and tracks that pass through the forest. At high elevations, where the summer’s heat is less intense, vanilla-leaf grows in the open along with other wildflowers. The plant can be grown from its rhizomes, pieces of which can be removed carefully from the soil and replanted in forest humus in a shady and moist but not wet site. Or, it will sprout from small seeds sown in peaty or humusy soil as soon as they are collected in the summer or fall. Once germinated and established in a pot, the whole mass can be removed and planted directly into the chosen site.
Art Kruckeberg, in his book Gardening with Native Plants in the Pacific Northwest, describes an enchanting combination of a vanilla-leaf carpet under rhododendrons punctuated by lilies. Shady rock gardens make another good potential setting for this unique plant. Aside from its striking looks, vanilla-leaf has other interesting properties. The Saanich people of southern Vancouver Island used vanilla-leaf mainly as an insect repellent, gathering bunches of leaves and hanging them to dry indoors to deter flies and mosquitoes.
The first European settlers likely learned this trick from the Saanich, and adopted the habit of hanging vanilla-leaf indoors to enjoy its sweet vanilla scent. Fresh leaves have little or no fragrance, but if left hanging from a nail or drying in a basket, before long their sweet odour will lightly drift though the room. Even a scant three or four leaves can perfume an entire room for several weeks. Another common name for vanilla-leaf, sweet-after-death, reflects this potent post-harvest scent. If you’re keen on bringing texture into your coastal garden, try our native vanilla-leaf. Then, as its leaves begin to fade, bring them indoors to enjoy their scent – and perhaps chase off a few mosquitoes, too. The following plants are hardy to the zone number indicated: • Achlys triphylla – zone 7, possibly 6 • Oemleria cerasiformis – zone 6 An expert on native plants, Richard Hebda is curator of Botany and Earth History at the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria.