Blooms for Early Spring

The very first flower at Beaux Arbres is almost always a little non-native rock garden Iris, Iris reticulata. Although I discourage the use of many of the little bulbs from the garden centre, because they readily leap from garden to woodlands, I have never seen nor read of any problem with the little Irises. At the same time, Payson’s Whitlow-grass, a little yellow Draba from the northern Rocky Mountains, blooms in a small pocket of soil in the south facing rock garden. Within a week or so, these early pioneers are joined by several more ground-hugging sun-loving stalwarts of the early spring garden.

The little spring flowers of the deciduous forest – Trout Lillies and Bloodroot and others — are recognized by most fans of wildflowers. Early spring flowers for open sunny places deserve to be better known.

Prairie Crocus

(Pulsatilla nuttalliana) The great spring wildflower challenge in Manitoba is to be the first to spot a Prairie Crocus blooming on a south-facing slope. The native range of Manitoba’s much loved floral emblem extends, just, into western Ontario. We can grow this lovely wildflower in our Ottawa Valley gardens to enjoy their lovely, fuzzy, and very early blooms.

Early Buttercup

(Ranunculus fascicularis) This cute, low-growing native buttercup carpets the ground on alvars (limestone pavements) in Central Ontario. In the Ottawa Valley, it grows on only one area but it is abundant there. As the photo shows, it can grow where the soil is very shallow. It escapes the searing heat on the rock surface in the summer by going dormant after ripening its seeds in June. Early Buttercup persist on alvars that are grazed because it is avoided by herbivores, and that includes deer.

Early Saxifrage

saxifrage de Virginie
Early Saxifrage on Carden Alvar.

(Micranthes virginiensis) The flower buds of Early Saxifrage can be seen in late winter, nestled deep in the centre of the rosette of fleshy, evergreen leaves. The flowers stalk lengthen and the little white flowers open with warming temperatures. The basal rosettes often turn an attractive red with cooling temperatures in the fall. This adaptable little native can grow in almost no soil.

Hooked-spur Violet

Hooked-spur Violet

(Viola adunca) This is a small violet of infertile, sunny places. It is sometimes called Early Violet and it does bloom very early in the spring. In the Ottawa area, it grows on sandy hills and on open alvars. Like other violets, it is a host plant for Fritillary butterflies. It is too small to compete with lawn grasses – this is not one of the native violets which grows in lawns. Hooked-spur Violet is a lovely native addition to sunny rock gardens.

Prairie Smoke

(Geum triflorum) The nodding pink flowers of Prairie Smoke emerge very early. The most noticeable part of the flowers, the crazy pink jesters’ caps, are sepals; the actual flower is a cream or pale pink flask, within the jester’s cap, that never opens. Bumblebees force themselves into the centre of the flower to pollinate it. As the flowers fade, they turn and face upwards, and the ripening seeds extend a mist of smoky purple-grey. Hence the name. The leaves of Prairie Smoke persist into the fall and green up early in the spring. Prairie Smoke will slowly fill in but it does not run about. Its low, tidy habit and two seasons of interest make this a very popular choice for the front of a border.

New for 2021: Goldthread

The very glossy, evergreen leaves of low-growing Goldthread (Coptis trifolia) are most attractive, but before you start thinking this may be the ideal shade-loving ground cover for your shady garden, be aware that this little cutie demands a cool, acidic organic soil, and is not suited for warm urban conditions. It grows in damp moss under conifers and it sometime covers very old, decaying stumps, to lovely effect. When I lived in Toronto, I became accustomed to seeing Goldthread in only the coldest and most organic spots. So I was delighted, and a bit surprised, to see Goldthread in a woods near Beaux Arbres, romping along the side of an old logging track, in partial sun no less, forming an extensive low ground cover, even weaving in and out among the grasses and hawkweeds and other weeds in the trackway, finding the ordinary leaf litter and needle duff sufficiently organic for it to thrive. It is worth remembering that, compared to almost any spot in southern Ontario, this old track has cool and acidic soil. Still, it showed what is possible in the Ottawa area, if the right conditions for Goldthread are present.

Goldthread blooms in early spring. The pretty white flowers, with a boss of white stamens, are very briefly open. The white petal-like parts are actually sepals, and the true petals are modified into yellow nectar cups. If you can catch its very brief flowering, it is worth giving the flowers of Goldthread a close look. I have not been able to find out much about Goldthread’s pollinators but those little cups, brimming with nectar, suggest it is an important food source for somebody.

The plant spreads by thin rhizomes, which are bright yellow, and give the plant its common name. An older botanical name is Coptis groenlandica, the reference to Greenland giving us a clue to its preference for cold places.

Goldthread is one of the little woodlanders I will have in small quantities this spring. Although indisputably native to the Ottawa area, it is so little adaptable to urban conditions, I find it difficult to guess what the demand for it may be. Away from the downtown heat island, in a very well shaded garden, it might be worth trying Goldthread in, say, a wooden trough filled with a specially prepared soil mix (lots of well-rotted needle duff), with other charming miniatures, such as Common Wood Sorrel, Creeping Snowberry, and Bunchberry.

New for 2021: Starflower

The tiny white seeds of Starflower (Trientalis borealis) are easy enough to collect but I did not have great success germinating them. So I have only a handful of plant available for Spring 2021. I have no idea how popular this quiet but charming little woodlander will be. I can imagine folks who love the north woods might like it. It seems quite adaptable to a variety of shady situations, under conifers and deciduous trees.

Starflowers grows scattered throughout the woods at Beaux Arbres, in sites both moist and dry. (The soil at Beaux Arbres is mostly sandy and moderately acidic.) Their stems of whorled leaves resemble another woodland plant, Indian Cucumber Root (Medeola virginiana) but Indian Cucumber Root is much less common in our area, and occurs almost exclusively in relatively rich, moist bottomlands. In our woods, Starflower never masses to make a notable floral display. I don’t know if it is possible to coax it to do so in a garden situation. Worth trying, for the little starry blossoms have a lovely simplicity. They are also botanically interesting, for they are one of the very few flowers which have seven petals.

The indispensable William Cullina, who is only garden writer I know of who has taken Starflower seriously, has this to say about it:

[I]t adds a note of diversity and authenticity to naturalized plantings and woodlands, and I think it looks lovely growing among mosses, wintergreen, partridgeberry, and others.

The New England Wildflower Society Guide to Growing and Propagating Wildflowers of the United States and Canada, 2000.

Starflower has recently been put into the genus Lysimachia, with the yellow-flowered native Loosestrifes, such as the very pretty native Swamp Candles (Lysimachia terrestris). Thus Starflower should be properly called Lysimachia borealis, but most books and websites will have it listed as Trientalis borealis.

Feature photo, above: Matthieu Gauvain via Wikimedia Commons

New for 2021: Partridgeberry

Partridgeberry is one of the low evergreen vines that cover the forest floor in northern woods. It can easily be distinguished from Twinflower, Trailing Arbutus, and Wintergreen by the distinct pale midrib down the centre of each leaf. Although Partridgeberry comes into its own in damp conifer woods, it is also found in mixed forests, which suggests it is not quite as dependent on strongly acidic soils as the others.

Beaux Arbres expects to have Partridgeberry plants available in the spring. Last summer, when walking through the woods of our good friend on the next concession, I came across an enormous, dense patch of Partridgeberry, forming a thick and extensive ground cover. I had never seen such a lush display of this plant and it required that I re-evaluate my opinion of Partridgeberry’s potential value in the garden. Margaret generously allowed me to take cuttings from this patch (which didn’t make the slightest dent in its abundance) and as soon as they are well rooted, I will offer them for sale.

I prefer to grow from seeds, which creates genetic diversity, but for a few of the sprawling woodlanders, which are slow from seed but easy from cuttings, it is just more practical to propagate from cuttings. Creeping Snowberry is another little evergreen that is much easier from cuttings. If I can ever offer the handsome Pipsissewa (Chimaphila umbellata) — a long-term goal, not imminent — it will have been propagated from rooted offsets, as this glossy evergreen ground cover plant is impossible to grow from seeds in cultivation.

Although only a mile away from us, the headwater wetland in the woods behind Margaret’s farm is wetter and more acidic than almost anywhere on our farm. Some beautiful little plants, such as Bunchberry and Trailing Arbutus, flourish there, but the cold, organic, acidic conditions gives us clues as to why these lovely plants can be challenging to establish in urban gardens.

Feature photo, of Partridgeberry, above: Ryan Hodnett, via Wikimedia Commons

New for 2021: Prairie Baby’s Breath

This lovely and little-known wildflower from the western prairies also grows in prairie remnants in south-western Ontario. Although it is not at all related to the florist’s Baby’s Breath (which is considered a noxious weed in the prairie provinces), Prairie Baby’s Breath (Euphorbia corollata) contributes an airy filler effect to a meadow or flower border, in a manner similar to the way florist’s Baby’s Breath fills in a bouquet. Its wispy nature is unlikely to overwhelm border companions and it is great at finding suitable space for itself in an informal meadow planting. And, yes, you can use it as a cut flower in a bouquet — what looks like petals are actually white bracts (the flowers are the tiny things in the centre) and that gives it a longer vase-life.

Prairie Baby’s Breath, aka Flowering Spurge, wants lots of sun and lean, well-drained soil. Good companions might include mid-height prairie species such as Smooth Aster, Little Bluestem Grass, Grey Goldenrod, and Butterfly Milkweed. Prairie Baby’s Breath blooms from mid-to late summer and is usually knee high, although it can become longer and floppy in moist, rich soils. It is highly deer-resistant.

Back for 2021: Virginia Waterleaf

The nodding flowers in mid to late spring are modest to our eyes but extraordinarily attractive to all manner of forest pollinators. Although usually pale lavender in colour, the flowers of Virginia Waterleaf in the wild can be pure white, a nice mid-range purple, or pale pink. The distinctively lobed leaves emerge in the spring spotted with silver. It is the silvery spots which give the plant the name Waterleaf. Alas, the pretty spots fade as the leaves mature.

Virginia Waterleaf spread by rhizomes and by seeds so, where it is well suited, it can easily form a robust ground cover. It prefers dappled deciduous shade and it is tolerant of heavy clay soils. Thus it is an excellent choice for shady city gardens with compacted soils. If summer droughts have left the foliage looking tattered, the plants can be cut down and they will produce a crop of fresh leaves for autumn.

Good companions for Virginia Waterleaf might be White Snakeroot, Wild Geranium, and Zigzag Goldenrod.

No Mothers’ Day Sale for 2021

We have received official word that the the Friends of the Farm Plant Sale, colloquially known as the Mothers Day Sale, has been cancelled for 2021.

We are still hopeful that the Farmers’ Markets and the June Fletcher Wildlife Sale will be held this spring, with appropriate protocols.

New for 2021: Canada Mayflower

Canada Mayflower is such a small, ubiquitous woodland plant, it is easy to take it for granted. It grows in just about every kind of forest, in every kind of soil, and is one of the few natives that manages to eke out some sort of straggly existence in spruce plantations. It is a great colonizer and, with so much of its energy going into vegetative spread, relatively few of the leaf clusters will put out a flowering stem.

Canada Mayflower grows in all the forest areas at Beaux Arbres. Although I am very conscious of the demand for adaptable, shade-tolerant plants for city gardens, Canada Mayflower seemed just too trifling to cultivate. I have overhauled my opinion. There is a spot beside the side road where I walk Kapik nearly every day, a damp depression in deep shade, which is thickly carpeted with Canada Mayflower and it slowly dawned on me that, there, Canada Mayflower made a handsome ground cover with two seasons of interest.

Canada Mayflower is closely related to False Solomon’s Seal, which has more history as a garden flower. Like False Solomon’s Seal, it has a sprig of small, sprightly white flowers in late spring. Despite the common name, Canada Mayflower is more likely to be blooming in June in our part of the world. As summer comes to a close, each flower stalk bears a small cluster of bright red berries.

Another common name for this plant is Wild Lily-of-the-Valley, from the similarity in leaf shape and colonizing habit to the European garden plant. Unfortunately, the existence of this name has misled many into thinking that the non-native, indeed invasive, Lily-of-the-Valley is a native species that can be introduced into woods. It is not. I love its fragrance, muguet, and if there were a way to safely contain the plant, I would grow it, to pick little nosegays to bring into the house. Alas, there is no safe way to grow Lily-of-the-Valley if you are near native woodlands, as it spreads both by rhizomes and by seeds contained in the poisonous red fruit. (Note: the fruits of Canada Mayflower are not toxic. Not tasty, but not poisonous. Some years they disappear quickly as they are eaten by many species of birds.)

Another consequence of my lack of serious attention to this plant is I do not have a good photo of it of my own. The feature photo above is by Blue Canoe from Wikimedia.

Back for 2021: Ozark Sundrops

Although Ozark Sundrops has absolutely no claim to be native to the Ottawa Valley, this startlingly large flowered species from central US is such a garden-worthy beauty, from time to time we include it in our offerings at Beaux Arbres. The flowers can be 8 cm across on a plant only about 20 cm tall

Ozark Sundrops’s lax stems sprawl just a bit, forming a low cushion, growing from a single tap-rooted crown, so it is never overwhelming. It wants well-drained, lean, neutral soil, and full sun. It does not compete against taller aggressive neighbours. A large sunny rock garden is ideal.

Ozark Sundrops is pollinated by large sphinx moths. Night-flying sphinx moths are not colourful but they are large and attractively patterned in white and cream and grey and brown. They are not attracted to lights, so spending a warm summer evening monitoring a stand of pale-flowered wildflowers, such as Ozark Sundrops, is the best way to monitor which sphinx moths are visiting your garden.

New for 2021: Grey Goldenrod

As gardening for pollinators, and insects in general, has become popular, I see many more customers interested in Goldenrods. The bright yellow sprays, differently shaped for different species, are ubiquitous in old fields and along country roads. Their very abundance gives us clues to how important they are for late summer pollinators.

Grey Goldenrod (Solidago nemoralis) is a short, tidy goldenrod of dry infertile places. It is often found in old fields in areas where the soil is sandy and thus especially dry and infertile.

Very unobtrusive in the early part of the summer, Grey Goldenrod sends out flowering stems (about 30 cm tall) from its basal rosettes in late summer. The ends of the inflorescences tip over in a graceful curve in a way that is characteristic for the species. It is a great goldenrod for sunny urban meadows, combined with a short grass such as Blue Grama Grass. For gardeners who want to provide for late summer pollinators, but who think introducing Canada Goldenrod or Tall Goldenrod to their gardens might send the neighbours into conniption fits (with some justification, as these are large and aggressive plants), the unthreatening Grey Goldenrod might be just right.

Kapik sniffing for voles in an old field, with a blooming Grey Goldenrod by his face.

Beaux Arbres offers some other garden-worthy Goldenrods: the lovely Blue-stemmed Goldenrod, for shady spots, and Stiff Goldenrod, a handsome clumping plant for flower borders