The Toughest of the Tough Part I: Evergreen Plants

List in my head. Time to put it down. Place it in a blogpost lest the head-part fails. Which plants are the easiest to care for in my garden? Which plants asked, "What extreme weather" these past few years? Which plants don't flop every time we cross the 90-degree mark? Time to advance the conversation. Sun or shade, evergreen or deciduous, here are some tough plants that are worthy of repeating from my perspective. They not only survived record heat the past two years, but record spring rain and our late freezes didn't phase them, enduring through both ends of the spectrum. 

The list shall be amended as the future is so uncertain and stresses from recent years could take a long time to manifest. Plants may be added or subtracted as observation continues and these are, well, living things after all. That said, here we go with Part I focusing on evergreen shrubs and small trees for both sun and shade. Part II in my next post will feature perennials, grasses and deciduous shrubs that have passed the toughest of the tough test.
Evergreen Shrubs for Sun: Leptospermum namadgiensis, an Australian Alps tea tree, is stunning. I have literally never watered this soft-leaved beauty. During the April snow it folded down, laden with heavy snow and then bounced back with no breakage. Its soft flowers in spring are a bonus.

This photo was taken this week with dormant "grass" so you get a sense of how dry it is out there. Still no water and the tea tree just humbly holds the labyrinth garden in looking cool and fresh.

Speaking of leptospermums or tea trees, I have a few other species. This is Leptospermum grandiflorum, a larger species than the former. It is on the south side of the property, about as far away from the hose as you can get. Never watered (except when getting established several years ago) this silvery beauty is more upright and larger than the former at about 7' or 8' tall.

On the left, juxtaposed with other foliage, you can see the silvery foliage. In the middle is Ceanothus c. 'Adair Village' and Grevillea 'Neil Bell' - more on these in a moment. This area is literally the hottest and driest part of the garden and look how lush and full these look. No summer irrigation.

A third leptospermum, Leptospermum lanigerum 'Silver Form', is just as tough, it just happens to be crammed in so it doesn't have a chance to breathe and look its best. It is equally as strong and has been with me for well over a decade with no ill effects from weather.

Grevillea 'Neil Bell' next to Leptospermum grandiflorum. Outstanding large shrub that receives no summer irrigation, has fabulous orange flowers that the hummingbirds practically live in and blooms sporadically year round. This is in poor, unamended soil that drains well and is on a slight slope.

It is a Xera Plants introduction and one I would highly recommend. This particular specimen had been planted in the labyrinth garden early on and did not thrive. It had slightly amended soil as I had added compost originally to the labyrinth area when creating that garden. It was also probably in too much shade, albeit high shade for a short period. It nearly got the compost pile treatment, it looked kind of dead. On a whim and after re-reading Xera's description, I stuck it in unamended native soil and walked away. Look at him now. Exactly what he wanted. 

Speaking of grevilleas, G. lanigera 'Coastal Gem' is thriving despite crazy weather and apparently being not entirely hardy for my zone. The other, G. x gaudichaudii sadly perished this wet spring. For my money, 'Neil Bell' is one grevillea to definitely repeat.

Moving on to manzanitas or Arctostaphylos. All are incredibly fabulous. I can't complain about any - they have all handled the extremes with aplomb. This happens to be Arctostaphylos pumila and is a rather dense low shrub. Nothing special, again no irrigation by me ever and it keeps on performing. The birds love to use it for nesting and hiding.

Arctostaphylos 'Sentinel', a form I am pruning the lower limbs from to show off its gorgeous bark. Another favorite is of course A. 'Saint Helena'. So many arctos, all fabulous and well-adapted so far to what Mother Nature has thrown at us. Well-drained, unamended soil and I've noticed the more air circulation you give them the better. Although some branches weighed heavily with our April snow, they were healthy and did not die. Some are a little flatter in form but overall bounced back. I did a post surveying the arctos in my garden, you can read that here.

Callistemon sieberi has been with us a long time, brought from the old house. An Australian plant at home in both wet and dry conditions, it also handles sun or part shade. As it ages it gets a rather twisted form, kind of fun. This, C. viridiflorus, Callistemon pityoides 'Mt. Kosciusko' and C. 'Woodlander's Red' in the garden are all nearly zero maintenance, nearly no summer water (they probably get a little from surrounding areas) and have performed beautifully for us.

Hebes can be tricky, but there are some that just keep going. This is Hebe 'Western Hills' - I have several - and they are not so huge they split open in snow but are large enough to have a presence. Silver-gray foliage that looks neat year round. Really no maintenance at all and no summer water outside of what surrounding plants might get.

Here it is in full bloom in spring. Quite pretty.

While most hebes in my garden (I have a lot) have done remarkably well, I am super impressed with H. 'Quicksilver', a groundcover-ish type low grower that is so tough, it's kind of mind-boggling. I have had one come with me from the old garden that withstood terrible winters and that old Portland east wind, frozen tundra situations, sweltering heat and by golly, it always looks good. It gets a little surrounding water but I don't water it directly or intentionally. Well-drained soil and full sun to part shade.

Oh, this beautiful oak - Quercus hypoleucoides, silver oak, is an evergreen beauty. We bought this from Gossler Farms several years ago after seeing it in Maurice's (my former boss and current friend) garden. It's really rather silvery foliage, but this photo taken in spring when the grass was going, looks more greenish. A beautiful specimen tree that is on a slight slope with well-drained soil. Full sun to part shade. Extreme weather has not been an issue for this tree at all.

Brachyglottis greyi (syn. Senecio greyi), daisy bush is another that hails from New Zealand. Silvery felted leaves on this evergreen shrub that reaches 4' or so in height and width. Super drought adapted and takes poor soil in full sun. 

I thought that the heavy April snow would have done it in but it did not skip a beat. It bent over a little but righted itself. It might be a touch flatter than before, but it's healthy and growing. I've also been told this is an excellent plant for drought-prone California gardens. Here it has spread into a neighboring Arctostaphylos 'John Dourley' on the southern edge of the labyrinth and receives no summer water. Yellow daisy flowers, some of us cut them off as not to distract from the beautiful foliage.

This may be in the "indestructible" category. Olearia lineata 'Dartonii' is a narrow leaved large shrub from New Zealand (also commonly called daisy bush). It reaches about 8' tall (at least) and is pretty willow-like in appearance. Don't let that fool you, however: this is a super drought adapted plant. Oh my gosh. I have one that fell over in the April snow (it had been planted on a berm and became top heavy with snow) so I ripped it out, literally, and stuck it along our roadside in heavy wet soil and walked away. If it made it, fine - if not, so be it. It has never been watered and it looks fantastic - is growing like crazy in a hedgerow along our road.

Here is a detail of its foliage, so pretty. You can literally cut this back to the ground and it will keep growing, albeit in a much denser form. I like to keep the bottom limbs pruned up so I can see through it (up to this point I have noticed a lot of silver and gray we detect a theme?). I think this will be a super useful plant moving forward with this heat.

OK, out of the silver gray foliaged plants into Bupleurum fruticosum. A handsome evergreen shrub that reaches around 5' or so and is adapted to a wide range of soils. It also tolerates a bit of high shade.

It blooms in late summer and is THE plant to attract pollinators, including beneficial wasps. The one in the garden at Joy Creek Nursery made me stop in my tracks every time it was in bloom for the sheer quantity of pollinators. It is super adaptable and easy and makes a fabulous backdrop shrub to show off brighter colors in the garden.

Teucrium chamaedrys, oh, how I adore you. Small, evergreen shrublet at about 2' tall and a little wider, blooms in summer, attracts bees and small butterflies. It can be pruned like a boxwood or left to be. I never give these supplemental water. I do prune them once a year, but other than that there is no maintenance. They make great edging plants and perform best in well drained soil and full sun, though I have a few in partial high overhead shade. Crummy weather be damned! They don't care.

Calluna vulgaris 'Firefly' is on this list for me because it keeps on giving with no care. OK, I do give these a little summer irrigation, they are not totally drought adapted, but they are in heavy clay soil so that probably is partially why they are happy....water retentive soil. Some say to prune calluna and erica species, which I probably should do, but I don't and they are wonderful.

Evergreen Plants for Sun or Shade: Moving from full sun plants to plants that can do sun or some shade, Lonicera nitida and its cultivars are so easy. They are also the future of plants for me because I never water them and they grown and make me happy with their stiff arching branches and structural form. I have a few cultivars, shown here is Lonicera nitida 'Lemon Beauty', I also grow 'Red Tips', 'Briloni' and 'Silver Beauty' (which does revert to all green). As well as sunny locales they are also an easy shrub for dry shade. These can be pruned to all manner of shapes and are essentially evergreen. I have noticed a lot of pollinator action on the inconspicuous spring flowers. I have many in a wooded area that is in part sun for a couple of hours a day. However, they are fine in full sun.

Here it is used as a clipped hedge in my former boss' garden.

Osmanthus deserves a lot more attention. Osmanthus heterophyllus ‘Rotundifolius’ is just one of about 15 osmanthus in our garden. They are evergreen shrubs for sun to part shade, I have many in a decent amount of shade. All have well-drained soil but now they are established receive no supplemental water. Many such as O. delavayi have beautifully fragrant flowers in autumn, perfuming the air for quite a distance. Most make a great hedge, so I am told, although I grow these as mixed border plants at the edge of the shade garden for the most part. They grow and are forgiving of neglect and are a great option for part shade in my book.

Osmanthus heterophyllus ‘Purpureus’ has deep purple new growth that is more pronounced in sun. By the way, I am told if you want a more dense shrub that pruning can take care of that.

Osmanthus heterophyllus ‘Goshiki’ in the Joy Creek garden. For me this one has been painfully slow growing, they all are fairly slow for me to be honest. I think it is because I grow so many plants with very little water. Great fragrance on this one, too, by the way.

Abelia x grandiflora 'Francis Mason' in quite a bit of shade. If in full sun the foliage takes on a warm yellow glow. This is so easy, it's embarrassing. Blooms in summer with fragrant pinkish white flowers. These too receive very little summer water from me and perform great. Can be pruned or cut back hard and will regrow with no problems. This is another plant for the future of my garden, it is so adaptable. Mostly evergreen, I have seen it lose many leaves during a particularly harsh winter in the gardens at Joy Creek Nursery.

Evergreen Plants for Shade: Aucuba japonica 'Gold Variegated Sport'. This is a bright cheerful evergreen shrub for full shade - dry shade at that. It can take some sun although I've seen it burn with intense sun. It has been a slow grower for me but hasn't skipped a beat in all kinds of weather. Just easy and will eventually be quite large at 10' tall or so. Aucubas in general perform very well in my garden, where there is very well-drained soil.

Our native sword fern, Polystichum munitum, cannot be ignored for its ease of care. It survives the worst that we can give it and is so forgiving. This spring many were especially huge as they really drank up the overly wet spring we had. They are ubiquitous in our forests and are also in my shade garden. Full shade to full sun (if given enough water).

Our native evergreen huckleberry, Vaccinium ovatum is lovely. For me, to be honest, they are very slow growing and that could be due to the lack of water I give them but they just keep doing their thing no matter what the weather is. I have seen huge ones on the Oregon coast at 10' tall but most I have seen in gardens are about 3' tall at the largest. Full sun on the coast is probably fine, but here inland I have burned quite a few in too much sun so they get dappled shade.

Mahonia nervosa, low Oregon grape (our state flower!), is another gorgeous Pacific Northwest native plant. It's all over here in our hedgerows, planted by nature. It reaches a couple of feet in height, has yellow flowers and these attractive fruit. I do nothing, literally. A wonderful addition to our garden, as is salal or Gaultheria shallon. Both are allowed to spread at will and add so much texture and richness to our shade gardens and are so welcome in winter when naught much else is happening.

Sarcococca or sweet box cannot be forgotten for the shade garden for its evergreen presence. This is Sarcococca hookeriana var. digyna 'Purple Stem' in the garden at Joy Creek Nursery. I have several S. ruscifolia and S. saligna in my shade garden. Their fragrance in winter is unreal and their tolerance for dry shade is legendary. So easy, so forgiving. Not the fastest growers but they hold their own in a sea of Oxalis oregana. Some will reach a few feet tall but are mostly on the smallish side.

Tying it all together: In the sunny labyrinth garden in early evening, Cotinus 'Pink Champagne' on the right plays its rosy tones well with silvery Miscanthus s. 'Cabaret' grass (more on that next post) on the left, while Teucrium chamaedrys (before it blooms) keeps them all behind the line. A patch of creeping thyme grows between to teucriums and somewhere in there a Nepeta 'Dropmore' (on the right) struggles to make its presence known. In the center is an Ozothamnus 'Silver Sussex', another lovely evergreen drought adapted plant for sun. This whole scene is representative of a successful drought and wet adapted garden (it is in well-drained soil) and gives me something to look at for the majority of the year. Experimentation has yielded a palette of plant material that I think can look lush and inviting despite the climate challenges (for now).

Tying it all together in another area: Let's break this scene down: 1 - Quercus hypoleucoides, 2 - Arctostaphylos 'Saint Helena', 3 - Callistemon sieberi, 4 - another Arctostaphylos 'Saint Helena', 5 -  Leptospermum lanigerum 'Silver Form', 6 - Yucca gloriosa 'Variegata' of which I have not discussed. All yuccas have done remarkably well.

Here's the unobstructed version. Just a lovely late summer sunset looking past a sea of climate-adapted plants. Sometimes I breathe a sigh of relief.

There you have it, a survey of the toughest of the tough in the form of the evergreen plants. If the weather were hotter and we didn't have the cold/wet extreme then I would be looking to incorporate more gorgeous Southwest native plants. That would not work for they would rot in our cold, wet winters. If I focused on cold/wet loving plants, they would fry in the summer heat and drought. That sweet spot is the unicorn that I long to find, hence this breakdown of some successful options. Next up on the blog we will cover a selection of perennials, grasses and deciduous plants that have all passed the sweet spot test, the toughest of the tough test (for now).

That's a wrap for this week at Chickadee Gardens. As always, thank you so much for reading and commenting, we love hearing from you all and what is successful for you in these challenging gardening times. Happy gardening, wherever you are!


  1. Anonymous12:11 PM PDT

    It would be a nice add in your comments whether deer resistant.

    1. I thought about that, but I really have little to no experience with deer resistance as our garden has a deer fence around the whole property. At Joy Creek Nursery where I worked that was the #1 question and the answer was "it depends on the deer" - some plants such as Cistus sp. that are reportedly deer resistant were ravished in my boss' garden surprisingly one year. I will say that fuzzy and sometimes spiky leaves I am told are left alone. I also think that Osmanthus sp. are supposed to be. I welcome readers to chime in with their deer experiences, as I can't really speak to the subject personally.

    2. Anonymous7:16 AM PDT

      Deer develop individual tastes depending on what is available so one herd will devour some things while other herds completely ignore them. The best practice to keep plants off the menu is to make them unpalatable as soon as you plant them. There are a variety of sprays that are absorbed into the plant tissues and last for 2-3 months. Have had great success with this method.

  2. That's an excellent survey, Tamara. It's an exercise I need to perform myself once we get beyond the current 10-day heatwave and the 15-day outdoor watering ban. Leptospermums, particularly L. polygailfolium 'Copper Glow', have also done well here. In contrast, Hebes are more iffy - I killed 'Quicksilver' twice but 'Wiri Blush' and 'Purple Shamrock' have held on for years, even surviving gopher activity below ground in the case of 'Wiri Blush'. I don't know why I've been so reticent to plant Arctostaphylos, especially as I've got A. bakeri 'Louis Edmunds' hanging in on the hellscape that is my back slope when even the Sunset Guide it wasn't suited for my climate - I need to try some of the low-growing varieties (despite killing 'Emerald Carpet' years ago). Abelias in general are happy here too.

    1. Thank you, Kris. I think it's helpful for the long run to document things as I swear I will remember it ALL....ha ha....which is of course not true. Interesting about your Quicksilver, perhaps just too hot? I can't grow Hebes like Purple Shamrock with success, the larger leaved ones tend to be more tender so it makes sense they would do well in SoCal. Do arctos just not do well for you? Glad to hear abelias are good for you as well. Hang in there, what a terrible heat wave you are going through. My friends in San Jose are also having some super high heat....not surprising but scary all the same.

    2. It's always gratifying to see plants that thrive without constant intervention. Moving through your post I noticed a theme of gray leaves, smaller leaves, adapted native and plants from Australia. You have created a wonderful tapestry of interesting plants that you can rely on.

    3. You are so right, Elaine. It is true so many of these have gray leaves and all the categories you mention. I think this may be a theme moving forward? Thank you for your kind words and comments!

  3. Great post! Your garden is absolutely amazing! Just a little correction: Olearias aren't related to olives, but as the common name "daisy bush" suggests belong to the daisy family Asteraceae. The genus Olearia is named after a person (though many species look very olive-like).

    1. Oh my gosh, thank you for the catch! Of course Olea and Olearia are different, d'oh! I have both and should know better ;) Thanks again!!

  4. Anonymous8:56 AM PDT

    It is lovely to see an extensive list of what stands up to erratic whether. Many of the shrubs are too large for my smaller garden, but I'm glad they are doing so well in yours: repeating what works make for a happier, less disappointed gardener. If I could ever integrate an Arctostaphylos into the garden, I would. Those sexy legs always get me!
    We share a number of the smaller plants such as Hebe quick silver, Senecio greyi and Calluna vulgaris 'Firefly'. They rarely require extra effort on my part, which make them perfect.
    Looking forward to part 2.

    1. Hello Chai, those Arcto legs are the best, aren't they? Great to know we have the same experience growing some of the same plants. Little effort on our part is the goal!

  5. That shot of Osmanthus heterophyllus ‘Goshiki’ in the Joy Creek garden hit me unexpectedly hard and had me mourning that which we've lost as PNW gardeners; The joy of visiting Joy Creek.

    I wonder if you've planted any Leucothoe fontanesiana 'Rainbow' or Metapanax delavayi. Obviously you can't cover everything you've got growing out there so I suspect there might be some of both hanging out. If not I recommend them, they are tough evergreens in my garden.

    1. Ah, yes....I go through my thousands of Joy Creek photos from time to time and it does evoke a little melancholy.

      Oh, yes, Leucothoe is great, I have two. They do require a lot of extra water from me as they are planted under fir trees so dry out quickly. But I do love them. Now you have me on the hunt for Metapanax delavayi - I do have Schefflera delavayi (which I adore) but not metapanax. I must find one! Thanks for the suggestions.

  6. An invaluable list, hard-won through some tough times! Thank you!

    1. Ah, hard won but with joy and tears and all the feels. Thank you, Denise! Cheers.

  7. Anonymous3:08 PM PDT

    Your gardens are lovely! At the start of your blog, you mention that the focus is on native plants, but there were very few mentioned, which I find disappointing. So many from New Zealand! Improving our biodiversity and benefiting our native pollinators means we need to be planting more native wildflowers, and plants that are at least native through southern Oregon and northern California.

    1. Hello Anonymous and thank you for your comment. I do mention several including Arctostaphylos, Polystichum munitum, Vaccinium ovatum and Mahonia nervosa. I have hundreds of other natives, just not mentioned on this particular post. This post is specifically about evergreen plants that have handled our recent extreme weather with aplomb and the plants I list I stand by. If you look at the next post, Toughest of the Tough part II (perennials), for example, about a third are natives and include native wildflowers. There are plenty of other posts on my blog over the past 9 years featuring native plants. Have a look. Thanks.

  8. I'm looking for a bright evergreen shrub that will be happy in part sun/shade to replace a lime smokebush, which succumbed to verticillium wilt last summer. there are plant lists ('susceptible to' & 'resistant to' verticillium wilt), but they aren't comprehensive. When I search for individual plants disease issues, I've found the results not very informative. Do you have this issue? Any ideas? Thanks - I'm in Anacortes, WA zone 8a....

    1. Hi there Jan, yes - disease issues are hard to pin down in plants, I'd look to a good source such as the Missouri Botanical Garden, for example, for individual plant problems. Lonicera 'Lemon Beauty' or Osmanthus 'Goshiki' or Osmanthus 'Ogon' are good choices if you are looking for sunny yellow-foliaged evergreen plants. Lonicera nitida also has other foliage colors such as a variegated with white leaf margins ('Silver Beauty') and plain green and are really easy in either sun to shade. Bupleurum fruticosum is a really forgiving and great shrub, it does ok in shade but better in sun. Native options are Vaccinium ovatum, our evergreen huckleberry and Mahonia - also Morella californica (syn. Myrica californica) is a really pretty broad leaved evergreen native shrub that is easily pruned to shape. I haven't had any verticillium issues with any of these. I hope this is helpful!


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