Plant Now for Spring Flowers

In addition to some lovely fall bloomers — Smooth Aster, Tall Sunflower, Obedient Plant, among others –Beaux Arbres will be bringing some spring -bloomers to the Ottawa Westboro Farmers’ Market this Saturday, September 14th. Experienced gardeners know they can get a much better show next spring by planting now, rather than by waiting until next spring to plant.

Wild Columbine, Prairie Smoke, Foxglove Beardtongue are great additions to your flower garden. For the early spring rock garden, add some tiny Common Bluets, Arctic Roseroot, or Early Saxifrage. An especially lovely little plant for rock gardens is the diminutive Dwarf Arctic Iris, a wild iris very much like the Quebec floral emblem Blue Flag Iris, but only about 8″ tall.

Common Bluets or Quaker Ladies
Prairie Smoke in the garden at Beaux Arbres.

Some Wildflowers of Late Summer

Silverrod (Solidago bicolor) has delighted me this year with its abundance of cream-coloured bloom. Like many wildflowers, Silverrod is often a wispy little thing in the wild, struggling to compete. Give it its own place in a garden, and the picture above shows what it can do. The blooms are constantly abuzz with native pollinators.

Some other nice flowers from the past week:

Bottle Gentian (Gentiana andrewsii)
Clustered Prairie Mallow (Callirhoe)
Standing Cypress (Ipomopsis rubra)
Kankakee Mallow (Iliamna remota)
Great Blue Lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica)

Great Plants for Shade

I love Spikenard (Aralia racemosa), a big shrub sized perennial. The flowers are not much, small and greenish white, but the bold leaves and dark purple stems are handsome enough throughout the summer. It is in the autumn that the plant shines. The little white flowers develop into red berries that turn black when fully ripe. The little fruits grow in large showy clusters.

We grow this shade-loving forest plant on the north side of our barn, where we need something large to be in scale with the wall but where any woody shrub would get crushed in the winter by snow and ice crashing off the barn roof. The herbaceous perennial Spikenard is safely underground for the winter.

Spikenard fruit is appreciated by birds. Spikenard is fast-growing for a shade plant, and it will bear fruit in its third year from seed. If you have a shady spot and want to provide for birds, a planting of Spikenard will reward you and the birds sooner than most shade-tolerant shrubs.

Very few wildflowers for shade have large showy flowers. Producing big flowers is just not in the energy budget for a plant that survives on the scraps of sunlight that the canopy trees miss. What they lack in size, forest wildflowers make up in charm. The bright pink flowers of Panicled Tick-trefoil (Desmodium paniculatum) are a fraction of the size of those of its meadow-growing relative, Showy Tick-trefoil (D. canadense). They are, however, held upright in dainty, airy sprays, which maximizes their effect. Both of these wildflowers from the Pea family are attractive to native bees. Both also have sticky seeds, the tick-trefoils, so its is wise to site the plants carefully, away from paths where the family pooch walks.

New to me this season is American Ipecac (Gillenia stipulata). This plant of oak savannahs and rocky glades does not occur in the wild in Canada; native to Michigan and New York State down to Texas, it is adapted to drier conditions than its close relative Bowman’s Root (G. trifoliata). It has more finely divided leaves and very similar starry white flowers. Not for deep shade, but it will likely prove to be a useful addition to the roster of plants for dry, dappled or part-day shade.

chèvrefeuille dioïque

May I Introduce: Glaucous Honeysuckle

Although it is quite common in woods and hedgerows, this native honeysuckle is known to few gardeners.

Glaucous Honeysuckle’s red tubular flowers with yellow anthers, in mid-spring, have the same colour scheme as the much better known Wild Columbine, and it should come as no surprise that ruby-throated hummingbirds are the pollinators it has evolved to attract. The buds are a deep, dark red. This seems like it should be an exciting colour but, in fact, dark red is quiet and hard to spot in the landscape. This may be part of the reason why this vine is so little known. As well, the flower clusters, and the berry clusters which follow, are often partially hidden in a cup formed by the uppermost pair of leaves. The bright red fruits, which ripen in early summer, are, like most soft summer fruits, taken very quickly by birds.

I am amused by the joined, or perfoliate, pairs of leaves, around the flower clusters — they remind me of the Tin Man’s hat. This is a nice vine to plant to by a sitting area, to enjoy the intricate flowers, and their hummingbird pollinators, close-up.

The botanical name for Glaucous Honeysuckle is Lonicera dioica. Dioica as a specific name, should mean that the plant is dioecious, i.e with male flowers and female flowers on separate plants. However, Glaucous Honeysuckle is NOT dioecious. Botanical names are assigned by whomever describes the species first, not necessarily by accuracy.

Glaucous Honeysuckle is a twining vine. It does not have tendrils or other clinging mechanisms. In the wild, it is often found growing as a shrub-like sprawling jumble. Give it a trellis or other support and a tiny push in the right direction, and it shows off its limber and obliging nature. (Limber Honeysuckle is an alternative common name in the U.S.) It is not a tall vine, topping out at about 2 m.

hélianthe de Maximilien

A Portrait of Sunflowers

We went to hear Kerri Weller, of the Ottawa Society of Botanical Artists, at the Nepean Horticultural Society, last Thursday evening, Ms Weller gave a quick overview of the history of botanical art and illustration in Western art. She pointed out a lovely feature of the classic plant portraits by Maria Sybila Merian from the 1700’s: the flowers were painted accompanied by their appropriate pollinators.

After a break, Kerri showed some slides of her own work, briefly illustrating how her style has developed from a more English-modern style – watercolour against a pale, unpainted background — to her current work in oil paint. She, too, likes to position, among her flowers, appropriate pollinators, of which the arbiters of botanical art correctness do not always approve. Kerri brought a few of her absolutely gorgeous canvases to the talk, including one of some yellow daisy-style flowers. Eying the yellow daisies picture, propped on an easel, for the duration of Kerri’s talk, I kept thinking, “That looks a lot like Maximilian’s Sunflower.” Sure enough, when she came to talk about that canvas, Maximilian’s Sunflower (Helianthus maximiliani) was the species she had so beautifully and realistically painted. Kerri kindly gave a word of appreciation to Beaux Arbres, for supplying the plant she painted, and praised the October-blooming Maximilian’s Sunflower for attracting a host of pollinators.


primevère du lac Mistassini

May I Introduce: Dwarf Canadian Primrose

My first encounter with this charming little native primrose was on the wave swept shore of Lake Huron, on the Bruce Peninsula, where limestone pavements shelve incrementally down to the water’s edge. Nestled in tiny, moist cracks in the limestone, never far from the spray, were some small pink flowers with yellow centres, Primula mistassinica. I have since encountered this plant in other locations in eastern Canada, almost anywhere there is damp limestone, such as in seepage areas on limestone cliffs. Primula mistassinica is named for Lake Mistassini, the largest lake in Québec.

Limestone coast of Lake Huron.

Brought into the garden, this little primrose flourishes and has many more flowers in each cluster. The buds form the previous year, visible but nestled deep in the basal rosette of leaves, and ready to bloom very early in spring. This is a charming little plant for a damp spot in a rock garden or a trough.

Dwarf Canadian Primrose
Dwarf Canadian Primrose growing in a seep on a limestone cliff.

When I initially encountered Primula mistassinica, I called it Bird’s Eye Primrose. I have since learned that that name is perhaps better reserved for a very similar species, with a slightly more eastern distribution, Primula laurentiana, and P. mistassinica should be called Dwarf Canadian Primrose, although getting folks, including me, to alter the common names they learned in childhood is not an easy task. From their written description, I find it difficult to know exactly how the species differ. I decided the thing to do would be to grow them side by side. I was able to acquire some wild-collected Bird’s Eye Primrose seed, from the Ontario Rock Garden Society Seed Exchange, in 2018. The little P. laurentiana seedlings have not yet bloomed for me, and, honestly, did not look that different from P. mistassinica for most of the summer. However, by November, there were some differences apparent: Bird’s Eye Primroses have fewer and broader leaves and they are less persistently evergreen, as we can see in the photo below. Both plants have buds in their centres, ready for next spring’s early bloom.

Bird’s Eye Primrose (left) and Dwarf Canadian Primrose (right).

May I Introduce: Downy Skullcap

While active outdoor gardening is on pause, this is a good time to introduce some wildflowers which may not be known to most gardeners in the Ottawa area.

These flowers may be unfamiliar because they are not native to the the Ottawa Valley, but hail from further south in the USA, as does today’s species, or, perhaps, from the tall-grass remnants from the extreme south west corner of Ontario. Species which are not locally native are obviously not appropriate for ecological restorations. But for gardens? There are arguments for and against restricting your gardening choices to locally native species, which we will leave to another day.

Another reason wildflowers may be unfamiliar to gardeners is that they are confined to highly specific habitats such as alvars or fens. Or they may be diminutive and easily overlooked until they are brought into cultivation in rock gardens and troughs.

Scutellaria

Downy Skullcap (Scutellaria incana)

Downy Skullcap, a fine border plant from the eastern USA, contributes nice blue colour and distinctive flower shape to the late summer garden. The summer leaves are edged with dark purple. Purplish pigments suffuse the leaves in the autumn.

Downy Skullcap autumn foliage.

Some other Skullcap species do occur in the Ottawa area: Marsh Skullcap (Scutellaria galericulata), the curiously named Mad-Dog Skullcap (S. lateriflora), also found in damp areas, and the diminutive (S. parvula) , which grows on alvars, including Ottawa’s Burnt Lands alvar. They all have blue flowers with the distinctive skullcap shape. Closely related, Downy Skullcap is suitable, in showiness and in size and in growing requirements, for a place in a perennial border.