In The Garden Now…..Vanilla Leaf

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Deer’s Foot or Sweet After Death 

Text and photo by Victoria Gilleland

Vanilla Leaf is a strikingly elegant Northwest native plant that is at its best right now. Its white bottle brush flowers are held above large showy leaves. A stunning addition to the shade garden!

The Sweet After Death common name for the plant refers to the fact that when leaves are dried and crushed ‘dead’ they smell like vanilla. Some Northwest native tribes as well as European settlers hung vanilla leaf sachets to give their homes a sweet fresh scent. The folded leaf somewhat resembles a Deer’s Foot (or hoof) so that nickname is a little more predictable.

Vanilla Leaf is native to woodland areas from British Columbia to Northern California.

It produces dainty white bottle brush flowers that stand above fan shaped leaves in spring. Plants typically reach 12-18 inches high and spread as a tall groundcover over time. They are typically found growing in soils rich in organic material shed to the forest floor.

Some of my gardening friends have said that this plant is very difficult to grow successfully in a home garden bed. I have not tried that. My plant has been in a pot for about four years and was planted in a mix of potting soil with woodchips added to lighten the mix. It’s in full shade.

It has been under planted with groundcovers and ferns over the years so it has proven it can succeed with root competition. It sailed through our recent cold snowy winter and was one of the first plants to break ground when it started to warm. In fact it has flourished since the day I planted it!

When I first saw this plant I loved the foliage. I wanted to grow it in a pot so that the foliage would be closer to eye level. I didn’t know that it might be difficult to grow in a home garden. I didn’t know it would do well in a pot. I was just plain lucky that it liked growing in that container, with the soil I mixed, in that location, in my garden. It was a happy accident!

Gardening is made up of lots of happy accidents, trial and error, good and bad luck. It’s a difficult world for those who relish predictability and lean towards perfectionism.

So based on my experience and what my fellow gardeners have said… if you were going to add a Vanilla Leaf plant to your garden I would recommend growing it in a good sized pot for a few years. 

Enjoy those beautiful leaves close up. I think your chances of success would be greater than planting directly in a garden bed. The plant can always be moved to an in ground location when you’re ready to relocate it and perhaps take a chance on its well-being!

The bottom line may be that we’ve found another great plant for the container garden. That’s a good thing!

(Botanical Name: Achlys tryphylla)

Victoria Gilleland is the owner of Cottage Garden Designs, a Garden Design company specializing in Redesign of Residential Gardens, Garden Consultation and Coaching. She has been designing gardens in the northwest for over 25 years. (


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