Columbia lewisia – cheerful and helpful!

Central Washington has some gorgeous species from the Portulacaceae, among them the Western spring beauties (Claytonia lanceolata) that begin the season, the striking flowers of bitterroot (Lewisia rediviva) that appear to pop out of rocks, the awesome Tweedy’s lewisia (Lewisia tweedyi), and the rare and unforgettable alpine spring beauty (Claytonia megarhiza), one I was introduced to on Iron Peak in the Wenatchee Mountains last summer.  I reserve a special affection, however, for one widespread and often overlooked species: Columbia lewisia (Lewisia columbiana).

From a crowded basal rosette of fleshy leaves arise the sprays of pink and white striped flowers.  Each flower may be only 1/2-3/4″ across but each plant will have many flowers in an airy mass 5-10″ high, and the plants tend to occur in large groups so the effect can be, well, charming!  You’ll find them in rocky areas and on cliffs on the east slopes of the Cascades, from about 2000′ to well above tree line.  As a nurseryman I love that they are so accomodating, being very drought tolerant yet not prone to root rot with occasional overwatering, traits that favor them in the landscape as well.  I’ve seen them growing in but 2-3″ of soil atop a granite boulder; I’ve got them in 4″ of pumice in a green roof and they are self-seeding there, creating more plants to add to the display, which can last for 6-8 weeks or more.  I don’t like fussing with touchy plants (or people, for that matter!), so the Columbia lewisia will be one I’ll always want to grow.

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