If you're new to Seattle from the great plains of the Midwest, or the deserts of Arizona, or the suburbs of California, or the metropolis of Seoul, the first thing you're likely to notice is the region's emerald environs.
In this medium-sized jewel of capital, misty rain falls from a monocloud for eight months of the year before yielding to a clear and mild summer (barring intense wildfire smoke). These conditions conspire to create the signature quality of Seattle's verdure: big-assness.
"We have some of the same things other places in the country have; it's just we have them bigger in a lot of cases," said Raymond Larson, curator of living collections at the University of Washington's Botanic Gardens. "Our trillium has one of the biggest flowers, our dogwoods have the biggest dogwood flowers, and our sword fern is the largest evergreen fern."
My Missouri upbringing gave me no names for the megaflora growing all around this place. So for all those new to town, I offer this handy little field guide to the big, common, gorgeous plant life you'll see everywhere around here.
This august conifer built the timber economy of the Northwest, thanks to its lightweight, straight-grain wood. If you're looking at a house, chances are you're looking at a very well-organized pile of Douglas fir trees. Though they stand out for their size, what I love most about them are the distinctive, shaggy, three-pointed bracts that hang over each of the cone's scales. They make the cones look like they just rolled out of bed.
Western red cedar
It's not a true cedar, but like true cedars, the western red cedar's bark smells real good, and it's rot resistant. Due to these properties, Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest have made clothes and canoes from the bark and wood of this tree since time immemorial. Its flattened, scaled greenery allows it to tolerate shade.
If you see a big-leaf maple leaf on the ground, you will instinctively say "Wow," pick it up, and then compare it to the size of your friend's head. Unless your friend is a trash-can lid, the leaf will likely eclipse him in size. You'll find them growing on the hillsides of Queen Anne and Magnolia. "They go pale yellow or old-gold in fall," Larson said. "Some years are better than others."
Western sword fern
Most evergreen ferns don't get as big as the western sword fern; our wet environment allows them to get huge. The leaves can grow several feet long, and each of its pinna is serrated. Go on any walk in any kind of woods and you'll find these carpeting the understory. Historically, Larson said, these plants have been used as bedding.
Seattle's first sign of spring. This shrub produces bunches of rose-colored flowers that attract hummingbirds. These plants were popular with the English nobility in the 19th century, Larson said, but they're not just for royals. They're pretty, and they don't get too big—most grow to about eight feet by eight feet—so you'll see them in a lot of front yards here.
This snow-white wildflower is another herald of spring. Take a walk in the mountains and you'll see these three-petaled, three-leaved flowers freaking out along trail sides and banks of streams. They can live for a long time, and they turn pinkish as they age.
Though the showiest varieties come from China, the Pacific rhododendron is the Washington State flower, and it has the distinction of being the largest evergreen rhodie in North America. They're lightly fragrant, and the pale-pink pom-pom flower clusters can grow nearly a foot wide. You'll find these all over the place. The University of Washington's campus is covered with them, and Federal Way has an entire botanical garden devoted to their cultivars.