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: 12" tall
- Light requirements: full shade, part-sun/part-shade
- Moisture requirements: moist soil
- Bloom time: March - June
- Growth rate/ease: medium growth rate, moderately difficult to grow
- Wildlife support: flowers attract and support bees and other insect pollinators; overall plant is a caterpillar host plant and larval food source for native butterflies and moths.
- Native range: common in coniferous forests, from sea level to 1500m, from western British Columbia south to northwestern California. Portland Plant List - yes.
- Special & features uses: groundcover; ethnobotanically the leaves have a pleasant smell that can act as an insect repellant when dried and used for a hair wash; medicinally, indigenous people have used preparations of the leaves to treat tuberculosis and to induce vomiting.
What to Expect + 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.
NOTE - this plant will likely already be dormant during fall plant pickup dates. Depending on winter and early spring weather, it may not be up or just emerging during the early spring pick-up dates.
Photo Credit 1: "Vanilla Leaf" by Mount Rainier NPS is licensed under CC BY 2.0
Photo Credits 2, 3: Nikkie West, Sparrowhawk Native Plants