Bringing Plants to Ottawa, Wednesday, July 13th

Beaux Arbres will be bringing plant orders to Ottawa on the evening of Wednesday, July 13th to distribute them from our Britannia area condo’s Visitor Parking Lot. I know some folks were not able to make the Saturday morning Farmers’ Market and others did not want to pick up a large order with Westboro’s potentially congested parking situation. So we are reverting to the parking lot distribution point we used during the pandemic and bringing the plants in mid-week. We will be back at Westboro in September.

I have a new Plant Availability List to download (below). This year’s seedings are maturing so there are lots of species now available in the economical $6 size. Noteworthy are Butterfly Milkweed, at the $6 price, and Downy Wood-mint, which I cannot overwinter in pots and so it is only ever available in the summer. (I have potted up a few Poke, which is another plant that I only ever have available mid to late summer, as it almost never overwinters in pots.)

As I mentioned earlier, this spring I completely sold out of some of the choice woodland plants such as Bunchberry and Twinflower. They will not be available again until next year. However, shade-loving stalwarts, Blue-stemmed Goldenrod and White Snakeroot are back in the $6 size. I have American Spikenard again in gallon pots. (I love Spikenard — the Spikenards behind our barn have benefited from the wet spring and are going to top 7 feet!) I have three new and interesting plants for the Shade Garden: an eastern North American Monkshood, and two delicate Tick-trefoils. Another hard-woking ground cover native for shady spots is Large-leaved Aster. I have a few now with lots more to come soon.

Although one of the common names of the Monkshood is Southern Blue Monkshood, as opposed to the vanishingly rare Northern Blue Monkshood, it’s native range comes up to central New York State and the plants in my garden came easily through last winter’s rather brutal cold temperatures. It is just as toxic as the European monkshoods — so definitely NOT a plant for a daycare garden — but if you are looking for truly deer-resistant species, this one might be for you. The blue flowers in late summer are gorgeous (featured photo above). It gets about a meter tall in my garden and twines in among other plants in a vine-like manner. Moist soil and light or dappled shade are what it wants.

Email me with your selections by Monday, July 11th, 6 pm and I will get back to you with payment details, etc. Email: naturalgarden@xplornet.ca

Notes on Plant ID

I had an email this morning from someone whose plant ID app was telling her that plants she had bought from me as Anise-hyssop were Stinging Nettle or possible Catnip. Now, I have never used a plant ID app but, for plants whose most easily distinguishing features are non-visual — familiar scents for Anise-hyssop and Catnip, and irritating stinging sensation for Stinging Nettle — using a purely visual method of IDing seems inadequate. Although I haven’t used an app, I see many posts and comments from people who encounter errors in their app’s IDs.

So, what do I recommend for IDing plants? Honestly, I think the best place to start is good ol’ Peterson’s Field Guide. Yes, it has errors and, yes, it hasn’t been updated since it was first published a zillion years ago, but for the beginner, it is easy to use and it covers many of the basics. When I started growing Prairie Blazing Star (Liatris pycnostachya) I realized I would need to be able to tell it apart from Spike Blazing Star (L. spicata). I knew Prairie was taller and a bit later in bloom than Spike, but when one is growing them in pots, that’s not very helpful. I thought I would need to sit down with some pretty heavy-duty dichotomous keys and actually do some botany. But, hey, both are in Peterson’s and Prairie Blazing Star’s field mark was clearly indicated by an arrow on its line drawing. Excellent!

For less common species and more up-to-date botany, I look on-line for resources such as the University of Michigan Herbarium. I found a dichotomous key there when I was puzzling over the differences between Long-leaved Bluets and Canada Bluets. However, even though I knew exactly where on the Bruce Peninsula I had collected the seed of what I thought was Canada Bluets, I am still puzzled, because published authorities do not agree on the ranges for the two. Oh, well, they are both very pretty.

That’s the thing with keys, They are only definitive for the geographic range they are intended for. Still, you can often get good descriptive information when you get down to species using a key. Lets’s take a Goldenrod I have recently started carrying as an example.

Last year, Berit Erikson of the Corner Pollinator Garden, gave me some seedlings of something she called Ontario Goldenrod (Solidago ontarioensis), which is now on my list. Let’s see if Berit and I were right about its name.

I know that Ontario Goldenrod is considered Rare in Ontario, so the first place I am going to look is a booklet called “The Asters, Goldenrods and Fleabanes of Grey and Bruce Counties” published by the Owen Sound Field Naturalists. Yes, Ontario Goldenrod is one of the species described in this book. Because I already think I know what my plant is, I am going to skip the dichotomous key and go straight to the description.

The first thing I notice is that this booklet, published some years ago, calls the plant Solidago simplex var. ontarioensis. Is that the correct botanical name for Ontario Goldenrod? A quick check of VASCAN (Database of Vascular Plants of Canada) and I learn that the currently accepted botanical name IS Solidago ontarioenis. Yay, Berit. (Technically, it is Solidago ontarioensis (G.S. Ringius) Semple & Peirson, but let’s not get into that today.) The Flora of North America website says that Solidago simplex, or Sticky Goldenrod, splits into seven varieties. Likewise, the Grey-Bruce booklet says “Solidago simplex splits into a number of varieties with specific geographic distribution.” This underlines the importance of knowing where your seed came from. If I really needed to know exactly what I have got, I would have to quiz Berit more closely than I did on the origin of her seed — maybe down to which county in Ontario.

However, Ontario Goldenrod is considered distinctive enough to now rate as a species, and its distinguishing characteristics are clearly described: “rather sticky stem and flower head bracts”.

Comparing one of my plants of putative Ontario Goldenrod to the description, it agrees: early bloom time, downy stems on flower heads, tapering, slightly arched panicle, leaves narrowly oblanceolate, not sheathing the stem… Check, check, check. Now for the final test: Are the stems and bracts sticky? (Drumroll, please.) And …. I dunno. A bit gummy. Not as sticky as Sticky False Asphodel, certainly. A close reading of the description advises me that the stems are “slightly sticky”. Are these stems slightly sticky? I guess. Sort of. Thus concludes another great adventure in plant identification.

As a check, I went back to the key to Goldenrods and carefully read both choices at each level and got to, er, not Ontario Goldenrod. I go astray at a point where I have to chose “racemes in axils of leaves which are much shorter than the racemes.” Nope. But then, I am not in Grey-Bruce County looking at a wild plant, either.

Flora of North America, which is calling the plant Solidago simplex var. ontarioensis, gives one of the distinguishing characteristics as “peduncle bracteoles 1-3”. This is really getting into the weeds, if I may use that phrase. But, yes, my plant checks out. It has 3 peduncle bracteoles on the lower peduncles and 1 on the upper peduncles. Spellcheck is objecting to the word “bracteoles” and I am getting fed up with the very sight of the silly green thing in front of me.

Oh, dear. We are all trying to make our gardens livelier and more supportive of wildlife, not doing a doctorate on goldenrods or naturalizing a sensitive area on the Bruce. I think I can still call my plants Ontario Goldenrod. The flowers are not yet open, so perhaps the racemes will elongate as they mature. Also, I cannot get a good look at the bracts until the flowers get a bit larger. I will revisit this when the plants are in full flower.

This gives you an idea of the problems and puzzlements of doing plant identification. Sometimes one needs to revisit the plant at more than one season. Getting a key that pertains to your exact area in not always easy, or even possible. A plant growing in a garden out, even slightly, of its native range, has already lost defining information about range and habitat. Also, naturally occurring hybrids between species are relatively common. If a specimen of, say, Aster, or Goldenrod (two of the more troublesome groups) is giving you a hard time, it may be a hybrid. At some point, we can just leave the questions to be chewed over by professional botanists and note that the plant is doing its job of attracting pollinators and providing food for caterpillars in our gardens. For the most part, ecological connections are similar for plants within a genus, so we can leave geographic variants to the experts.

The featured photo above shows specimen of Ontario Goldenrod I was puzzling over. Please note the coffee cup, the single most important tool for investigations of this kind.

Some Ottawa Valley Wildflowers

We had something to pick up in Wilno and a delivery to make to Killaloe, so we made a little holiday of it, a break from the nursery, having a nice picnic at Golden Lake, and lovely walk in a bit of publicly accessible alvar at the Fourth Chute.

Here are some photos of some spring wildflowers growing in their alvar habitat in the Ottawa Valley. The featured photo above is Small Skullcap (Scutellaria parvula). All these little known wildflowers are truly lovely additions to sunny rock gardens, especially if the garden is built with limestone rocks (or marble or dolomite or urbanite* – all calcium carbonate rocks).

Rock Sandwort (Sabulina michauxii, formerly Minuartia michauxii) growing in a little alvar near the Fourth Chute of the Bonnechere River.
Hairy Beardtongue (Penstemon hirsutus) growing in its alvar habitat.
Seneca Milkwort (Polygala senega).
Balsam Ragwort (Packera paupercula). This bright flower is a true alvar indicator plant. However, its strict need for a limestone substrate and its biennial nature make it a difficult subject for our nursery. We do carry the closely related perennial Golden Ragwort (P. aurea) – a bigger plant, for moist sites.
  • A fancy name for re-cycled concrete.

Native Thistles

As a kid I loved the big Bull Thistles that sometimes appeared in our garden. True, the first year basal rosettes could be painful to a child who, like me, went barefoot as much as she could, but i loved them. I loved their enormous, prickly stature and their gorgeous purple flowers. Thistles have been valued by other gardeners: the silvery biennial Scotch Thistle called Miss Wilmott’s Ghost is a component of the most esteemed British gardens, and some northern gardeners struggle to grow cardoons, a Mediterranean artichoke relative, for their statuesque thistleyness.

Far too few Ontario gardeners know that there are lovely native thistles. The native Field Thistle (Cirsium discolor) has just as lovely a flower as as the non-native Bull Thistle, the plant is almost as large, but it is never an aggressive self-seeder in gardens. Field Thistle is well-armed with prickles, but, unlike the Bull Thistle, the prickles occur only on the leaves and in the axils of the leaves, they do not extend down the stems. This is the easy distinguishing field mark between the native and the non-native: the non-native Bull Thistle has thorns on the stems, the native Field Thistle does not. Field Thistle is found in the wild almost exclusively in very high quality natural sites. It is uncommon in Ontario and I believe it is officially considered Rare in Quebec.

The native thistles are such important nectar sources for native bees and other pollinators that the Xerces Society has devoted a publication just to promoting native thistles and their ecological connections. After the flowers, the high fat, high calorie seeds are very desirable for small birds such as goldfinches. I think you might want to grow a Field Thistle or two in your native plant garden.

I shall be bringing Field Thistle seedlings to the Wesboro Farmers Market’ this Saturday, June 4th. Like so many Thistles, they are biennials. They will flower in their second year and then die, although sometimes they leave small offsets at the base to keep the plant going. They get 5 or 6 feet tall, depending on the soil. They are plants of prairies and sunny meadows, so provide them with lots of sun and well-drained soil. Do be sure to wear serviceable gardening gloves when clearing away the spent flowering stems – the plants are thistles, after all. I think you will be pleased with all the bees and butterflies they attract, and the goldfinches will love you.

A Giant Swallowtail on a wild Field Thistle.
An Eastern Tiger Swallowtail and a bee on a wild Field Thistle.
Field Thistle in the garden at Beaux Arbres.

First Flower of the Spring: Prairie Crocus

Last post, when I said I would have to move the Prairie Crocuses to a cool spot to keep them in bloom for the Friends of the Farm sale, I wasn’t joking, but I didn’t think I would have to start doing the move on April 2nd. Yesterday, the largest bud on the Prairie Crocuses in the hoop house started to open in the warmth of the afternoon sun. Perhaps this is the one I shouldn’t sell but keep for seed, for future very early blooms.

In the Rock Garden, the fuzzy buds of Prairie Crocus are visible but still small.

Finding the first wild Prairie Crocus to bloom is something of an obsession for naturalists in Manitoba. Manitoba’s floral emblem occurs in the wild in Ontario, in a few locations near the Manitoba border. Prairie Crocus can be cultivated in rock gardens in the Ottawa valley, providing early floral resources for pollinators and cheering gardeners with their very early bloom.

Seed Collecting Fall 2021

I have finished collecting all the seeds I intend to collect this fall and have picked over and done preliminary cleaning on most of them. I will be posting a list of the available species soon.

Pink Turtlehead

Pink Turtlehead (Chelone lyonii) — pictured above — seeds will be available this year. I almost gave up on this species. It is not native to Canada but native to eastern USA and it is generally available in garden centres, so I was willing to let it go. It ripens its seeds so late in the year I had never been able to collect good seed from my plants. However, this summer’s heat and the long, open fall weather produced a good crop of seeds.

Nothing replaces the locally native White Turtlehead (C. glabra) as a host for the caterpillars of the beautiful Baltimore Checkerspot butterflies. Baltimores lay eggs on White Turtlehead and the young caterpillars eat only White Turtlehead. The caterpillars overwinter at the third instar stage. The following spring, however, the larger (and very hungry) fourth and fifth instar caterpillars will eat White Turtlehead and several closely related plants, including Pink Turtlehead and Hairy Beardtongue.

Pink Turtlehead is showier as a garden flower than is White, not only because of the colour but also because it often has more flowers open at once on a stalk. It is also a bit shorter and less dependent on constant moisture, although it too does like a moist soil. If you have an appropriate spot for White Turtlehead, do plant several for the Baltimore Checkerspot butterflies, but you might also like to include some Pink Turtlehead in a nearby flower border, to provide additional food resources for the larger caterpillars.

Seed pods of Pink Turtlehead, waiting to be cleaned.

May I Introduce: Water Plantain

It is extra-ordinarily difficult to capture in a photo the charm of Water Plantain (Alisma trivale). The small, white, three-petalled flowers are widely spaced on a tall but insubstantial inflorescence, which, in a photo, is mostly just not there. In life, however, the transparent scrim of little stalks and buds and flowers, held high above the water, has delicate appeal. The leaves are relatively small on long petioles, glossy and pointed, and arranged in a rosette at the base of the stalk.

Water Plantain delights in mucky soil and shallow standing water. Unlike some other desirable wetland natives, Water Plantain actually likes stagnant water, so it is a good choice for hard-to-plant, out-of-the-way corners of constructed ponds. It also tolerates a bit of drying out by late summer, so it also thrives in natural wetlands and pond edges.

Water Plantain requires full sun, or nearly full sun, to promote flowering.

Feature photo, above :
Bff
CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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May I Introduce: Sticky False Asphodel

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Seeds of Sticky False Asphodel

This charming little wildflower deserves to be much better known and more often cultivated. Grassy foliage, glossy and attractive, grows about 20 cm tall and spreads by rhizomes to fill in an area. In mid summer, the flower stalks rise above the foliage. The initially pink buds open to white flowers. After flowering, the vivid orange-red seed capsules are as showy as the flowers were. Pretty, short, and two-seasons of interest; why is this plant not more widely grown?

The answer probably lies in the rather specialized habitats in which it grows in the wild: fens, fen-ish prairies, and calcareous shorelines. Although it will put up with less than ideal conditions in cultivation, if you want it to thrive, you should give it moist, sweet soil, lots of sun, and not too much competition. This setting is not easy to supply in many urban gardens.

It occurs to me though, that in the Ottawa exurbs, there are many residential areas on the limestone bedrock, from Almonte to Dunrobin and beyond, where gardeners, trying to grow more traditional flowers, are frustrated by the shallowness of the soil. If you have a pocket of soil on limestone which remains moist for a long time after rain, you may have just the site for some unusual wildflowers such as Sticky False Asphodel.

I think there might also be a call, in more urban areas, for not-too-tall plants for rain gardens. Larger rain gardens and drainage swales are good places for tall, lush wetland plants such as Swamp Milkweed, Blue Vervain, and Purple-stemmed Aster. Great plants, fabulous for pollinators, but quite possibly overwhelming for small-scale gardens. Plants that can endure occasional inundation but do not grow too tall would be most valuable for smaller rain gardens. In sun, you could combine Sticky False Asphodel, Bottle Gentian, Upland White Aster, and, if you can source it, Van Brunt’s Jacob’s Ladder.

It is also possible that keen native plant enthusiast and wildlife gardeners might contemplate creating a pond or water feature that is particularly conducive to growing some our fabulous native wetland plants. The stunningly beautiful Fen Grass-of-Parnassus is worth creating a fen garden to enjoy, and Sticky False Asphodel would be one of its companions in this setting.

For my webinar on Alvars for the West Carlton Garden Club earlier this month, I played with re-imaging some very modernistic gardens, pictured in gardening magazines, redesigning them as Alvar Gardens. The picture below, of an installation for the Chelsea Garden Show a few years back, shows an Alvar and Fen garden waiting to happen – slabs of limestone and shallow pools. Imagine this planted up with Sticky False Asphodel, Fen Grass-of Parnassus, and a pocket of Lizard’s Tail in one of the pools. My point is that native wildflowers can be used to create many styles of gardens, including the sleekest contemporary styles. Exploring the range of native plants beyond the well-known meadow species offers extra-ordinary possibilities for innovative gardens.

(If you missed my Alvar talk, my list of Alvar species for Ottawa gardens is downloadable here.)

May I Introduce: Fringed Sage

Soft, silvery, foliage is a desirable decorative feature in gardens. To augment the bright silver of native Pearly Everlasting and subtle silvery-grey of Parlin’s (Plantain-leaved) Pussytoes, I now offer the silky silver of Fringed Sage. It is much more hardy than the popular but notoriously finicky and short-lived Silver Mound, the standard garden centre offering. Compared to the neat rounded shape of Silver Mound, Fringed Sage (Artemisia frigida) is informal. Indeed, it can look a bit unkempt during flowering. If you want a low, neat effect, trim the flowering stalks as they form in mid-summer to promote attractive silvery bushiness for the autumn garden.

Fringed Sage requires dry, infertile soil and full sun; it does not survive in seasonally wet sites. It prefers an acidic soil. Fringed Sage is technically a sub-shrub, that is, it has a woody base. The woody structure can be pruned lightly to help shape an individual plant. If you have the space, consider growing Fringed Sage in a mass planting, to emphasizes the lovely soft silvery effect. The little bushes are rhizomatous and will, in time, form a ground-covering mat, easily limited by shade from taller neighbours.,

Fringed Sage has a large range in western Canada, extending north into North West Territories and Yukon. It does not occur naturally in the Ottawa Valley. There are a large number of Sage or Sagebrush species native to western Canada but only one native to eastern Canada, Field Sagewort (Artemisia campestris) and it is biennial and not especially decorative.

The flowers of Fringed Sage are wind-pollinated so it is of no interest to pollinators. The aromatic foliage is not eaten by deer or other mammals. On their native prairies, Sages have several specialized insect herbivores. In our area, Field Sagewort is eaten by certain insects, and they may also eat Fringed Sage.

I have not yet tried it, but I read that leaves of Fringed Sage can be burnt on campfires to repel mosquitoes.

May I Introduce: Ditch Stonecrop

Ditch Stonecrop in flower, photographed in Shaw Woods.

This is an oddity for sure. A lanky plant, 30 to 60 cm tall, with undistinguished leaves and small cream or pale green flowers, it is an unlikely candidate for inclusion in our gardens. Ditch Stonecrop’s only ornamental asset is its colourful seedpods. In late summer, the capsules turn pink — grown in sufficient sun, they turn a bright pink.

Ditch Stonecrop (Penthorum sedoides) grows in damp ditches, often in some shade. However, at least half day sun is better to bring a bright colour to the seed capsules. It tolerates shallow standing water so it could be grown in the shallow shelf area of preformed ponds. It thrives in mucky soil. Ditch Stonecrop spreads by rhizomes.

I appreciate late colour in our garden, and interesting shapes to contrast with the ubiquitous daisy shape are especially valuable. A few customers saw the colourful pods last summer and were intrigued. Is this a plant for everyone? Hardly, but if you have a damp ditch, or a natural pond edge, and would like some late season pink, then Ditch Stonecrop might be the right plant for you.