tofieldie glutineuse

May I Introduce: Sticky False Asphodel

tofieldie glutineuse
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.)