Vanilla leaf has a large delicate, sweet-scented leaf that is divided into three leaflets with scalloped edges that resemble wings. From late spring through early summer, foamy spikes of tiny, white flowers shoot a few inches above its whimsical foliage, followed by reddish-brown, leathery fruits. Over time, in wooded areas with the right soils, it can form an attractive carpet, intermingled with native shrubs.
- Plant type/canopy layer: deciduous, perennial, herbaceous plant
- Size at maturity: 1' tall
- Light requirements: full shade, part-sun/part-shade
- Moisture requirements: moist soil
- Bloom time: March to June
- Growth rate/ease: moderate growth rate and difficulty
- Wildlife support: bees and other insect pollinators, caterpillar host plant/larval food source (Oregon Flora Project)
- Native range: Common in coniferous forests of the Olympic, Cascade, Coast and Siskiyou Ranges and the West Gorge, 0-1500 meters; as well as areas of CA, WA and B.C. Portland Plant List - yes.
- Special & features uses: groundcover, medicinal, the leaves can act as an insect repellant when dried. Native Americans also use preparations of the leaves of Achlys triphylla to treat tuberculosis, for a hair wash, and as an emetic (D. E. Moermann 1986).
Gardening with Vanilla Leaf: Vanilla leaf is gorgeous, though moderately difficult to grow, largely because it requires soil that is rich in organic matter and lots of forest duff. It will not grow in clay soils or other depleted urban areas. But if the soils are right, it will spread nicely by rhizomes and create a stunning groundcover in your shady woodland garden. It is often found growing among stands of Lady Fern, Thimbleberry and Salmonberry. It can even tolerate dry summer soils, but may need occasional supplemental water during the summer drought. If your goal is to achieve a continuous groundcover we recommend starting with several to many individual plants (depending on the size of the area you wish to cover) to ensure it establishes with good coverage.
Photo Credit: "Vanilla Leaf" by Mount Rainier NPS is licensed under CC BY 2.0