Introducing Cascara - A Fantastic Pacific Northwest Native Tree

Introducing Cascara—A Fantastic PNW Native Tree

In this episode, we’re going to look at cascara trees. Cascaras are a fantastic Pacific Northwest native tree. Adaptable, great for wildlife, and not too big this is a great native tree to add to your property.

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Cascaras were one of the first new trees that I learned about when I first started doing restoration work in western Washington.

I was out with one of my colleagues checking out a site that needed some work. I knew some of the trees and plants native to western Washington but not many.

All my previous work had been in eastern Washington, northern Idaho, and England.

Some of the trees and shrubs in western Washington were actually the same as those found in northern Idaho and eastern Washington.

But despite this many were brand new to me. And cascara was one of them.

In many ways, this relatively small tree doesn’t really stand out compared to its larger neighbors such as black cottonwoods, red alder, and the conifers like Douglas firs.

I might not have even really remembered it except for the story my colleague shared with me when he introduced me to cascaras.

Cascaras used to be far more common in western Washington—especially in the riparian area around rivers.

But cascaras were harvested heavily for use as a laxative before synthetic alternatives were developed. This led to the population of cascaras being reduced due to overharvesting for pharmaceutical use.

I found this story to be an interesting piece of history and I never forgot about this tree. Though it did take me a bit longer to get good at identifying it.

Today cascaras aren’t rare but they’re also a lot less common than they used to be. But you can help these great native trees recover by planting them on your property.

And not only will you support these trees but you will also support all the wildlife that need them.

But before we talk more about cascaras I want to take a quick moment to say thank you to our newest patron Bronwen.

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Okay, let’s get started.



Getting Started with Cascara

Try growing cascara in your hedgerows

Most of the tall plants along this hedgerow are cascara trees. They make a great addition to our hedgerows and the wildlife love them.

The scientific name for cascara trees is Rhamnus or Frangula purshiana. Depending on the source both are used.

Cascara naturally grows along the coastal range from British Columbia down into northern California and it’s also found in northern Idaho.

Though I didn’t know that when I was working in that area.

Caping out at around 30-feet in height these aren’t big trees. And they tend to be smaller in hotter and drier areas.

This makes them a fairly easy native tree to add to even a small backyard if you live in the Pacific Northwest.

Though they don’t do great in urban areas and despite their small size they’re not a good street tree. Some sources say they don’t do well with urban pollution though we have a bunch growing along a busy road without any issues.

I think they would likely grow fine in a suburban environment along the edges of a city or town but not in the middle of the city.

Cascaras tend to grow quickly—the ones I planted 4 years ago are now around 15-feet in height and fairly thick.

The leaves of these trees really stand out. Smooth and shaped like an oval they have deep veins that are really distinctive once you’ve seen them.

In late spring small greenish flowers bloom and are attractive to native pollinators like bumblebees. Though they don’t stand out to the human eye. But the pollinators like them and I’ve even seen small songbirds going from flower to flower to get nectar.

Later in summer, the flowers turn into small purple fruit that birds and other wildlife love to eat. This also means that you can expect some volunteer cascara trees to start popping up once you have some established on your property.

Cascara trees can grow in full sun or partial shade. Often you will find these trees growing mixed in with other larger native trees and along the edges of forests.

Though I also find them growing in fields as an early successional tree helping to transition the field to a forest.

Cascaras can grow in wet or dry conditions though they will grow slower and stay shorter in drier areas. Ours have never had issues with the summers here in western Washington.

And they can grow in USDA zones 3 to 9 making them fairly tolerant of cold winters but they don’t seem to need much in the way of chill hours to still produce fruit.

Other than urban areas these trees are very adaptable and a great native tree to add to your landscape if you live in the Pacific Northwest.

Benefits of Planting Cascara on Your Property

Cascara supports native insects like the American tissue moth

This little caterpillar is a tissue moth caterpillar. They do some damage to the leaves but the trees still do fine despite it. And the birds love to eat all the caterpillars. Can’t have songbirds without a lot of caterpillars and planting native trees is a great way to support native butterflies and moths.

Planting cascara trees is a great way to support native wildlife. Songbirds love the fruit from these trees and other wildlife also use them.

As a native plant, these trees support a range of picky insects such as the American tissue moth. This little moth relies on the cascara tree and maybe our local oaks for its caterpillars. No other trees work for it and the oaks are unfortunately also a lot less common than they used to be.

Supporting picky insects like the American tissue moth is a big reason why I plant native plants like cascaras.

But these trees are also great in hedgerows.

In last week’s episode, we talked about the need for small spreading native shrubs planted along the sunny side of a hedgerow.

These shrubs work great to make a thick outside barrier.

But adaptable trees like cascaras are great when planted along the opposite side of a hedgerow. Since they’re able to handle some shade they will happily grow behind the smaller shrubs until they get above them.

Then they will quickly fill in above the smaller shrubs helping to create a tall and thick hedgerow.

You could also mix cascara trees in with your fruit trees to help support wildlife such as the predators that will keep pests in balance.

If you’re looking for a small, native tree for the Pacific Northwest then I highly recommend checking out cascara trees.

Native plant nurseries in the Pacific Northwest will likely have cascaras for sale. They grow great planted from pots or as bareroots and plugs. I rarely have issues with these great little trees.

And stay tuned for our next episode where we will look at goumi berries. These berries taste good and fix nitrogen making them a good addition to food forests and orchards. And don’t forget to check out the show notes for more links and resources related to this episode.


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Daron

Daron is a restoration ecologist, lifelong gardener, and founder of Growing with Nature. He created this site to help people enjoy wildlife, grow food, and help heal our living world. He has managed the restoration program for a local non-profit, and he’s applying principles of restoration and permaculture to transform his property in western Washington to forests, wetlands, hedgerows, food forests, and permaculture gardens. He holds a Masters in Environmental Studies and an Associate of Applied Science degree in Water Resources. He loves sharing the joy of growing food with his two beautiful children.

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