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.

Dropping some species

Anyone who has visited the nursery knows how little bench space I have. To make room for the new species, some less popular species are going to be dropped from the nursery.

Thimbleweed is certainly locally native but it is not that showy. I tried to keep two very similar species going, Thimbleweed and Long-headed Thimbleweed, but neither was very popular. I will still have Thimbleweed available in seed as it is a good choice for naturalizing.

I am dropping both Bluestars (Amsonia spp.), Common and Hubricht’s. Neither is locally native and they are often available in garden centres. I have cooled on Hubricht’s Bluestar – it was trendy for a bit – although I still like Common Bluestar as a garden plant and will keep a couple of plants of it in the garden.

Wild Blue Indigo is also not locally native and usually available in garden centres. It is a BIG perennial and very slow to mature and I just don’t have the patience for it. I am going to continue to stock Lesser Wild Blue Indigo. The original seed for this plant came to me from Gardens North; it is seldom available commercially. About half the size of its larger cousin, it is also quicker to mature – just a nice blue for the flower border with interesting black seed pods.

I am also dropping Prairie Cinquefoil – almost the only ones I have sold in two years were ones I put into garden designs. I am not sure why this plant doesn’t sell. I like it, but it is not very emphatic. It is very easy from seed and I will continue to grow it in my garden and offer it in seed form.

American Ipecac (Gillenia stipulata) is also going to go. I was happy to be able to try it out and see how it differed from Bowman’s Root (G. trifoliata). Bowman’s Root is clearly the prettier plant. If you happen to specifically want some American Ipecac, say for herbal purposes, I still have some plants in the garden I could collect seeds from.

I am giving up on Prairie Cord Grass (Spartina pectinata). I never did figure out a good way to offer this big, coarse grass with amazingly tough spreading roots. It has a certain usefulness in the landscape for erosion control and because it is salt-tolerant, but…

I am also dropping Riverbank Wild Rye (Elymus riparius). It just cannot compete with its much showier relative, Bottlebrush Grass (E. hystrix).

The larger shrubs I have sometimes had available in small quantities were surplus from some I had grown for our own landscaping. I sold most of the surplus this past summer. Beaux Arbres will concentrate on smaller decorative shrubs, such as Kalm’s St. John’s Wort, and a few very special shrubs that are hard to source. I will leave it to other nurseries to carry the more tree-like shrubs.

I have been telling folks that I was not going to continue with Gray Dogwood (Cornus racemosa). However, my stand of Gray Dogwoods has started to produce volunteers among the adjacent prairie grasses. Not too surprising, since Gray Dogwood is one of the woody species whose spread in prairies may need to be controlled by managed burns. It is also the most drought tolerant of our native dogwoods. All dogwood fruit (pictured above, with Brown-eyed Susans) is very nutritious for birds so I feel Gray Dogwood is useful in our gardens and it is not that available. I may pot up a few of the volunteers.

One plant that will be back in stock next year is Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea). I had thought that I needn’t carry this species as I believed it to be readily available in garden centres. However, quite a number of customers asked about my Purple Coneflower clump, saying that all they could find in the garden centres were highly modified oddities, that the straight species was hard to come by. Purple Coneflower is NOT native to Canada — the only Echinacea that has any claim to be native to Ontario is Pale Purple Coneflower, based on two tiny populations southwest of London. However, this past summer I watched the Great Spangled Fritillaries fly past the Pale Purple Coneflower to zoom in on the Purple Coneflower. Obviously, Purple Coneflower earns its place in Butterfly Gardens. It is also much more tolerant of partial shade than Pale Purple Coneflower, a plant of open prairies that flops sideways and flowers sparingly in even a little shade.

Purple Coneflower

Seeds available, Winter 2021/2022

Growing native plants from seed is an economical way to get more plants, whether to plant a large area or to have extras to share with friends. This winter, Beaux Arbres is offering seeds from more than 80 species of wildflowers native to eastern North America. The species in this collection are among the easiest wildflowers to grow from seed, all seeds tolerant of dry storage and none demanding tricky germination techniques. Packets are $4.00, minimum order – 5 packets.

Many native woodland plants are challenging from seed — either the seeds are intolerant of dry storage or require multiple winters (or both). Because of that, the collection is slanted toward the sunny meadow species. Blue-stemmed Goldenrod (Solidago caesia) and White Snakeroot (Agertina altissima) are plants for shady gardens that are also easy from seed.

Some other seeds have very hard seed coats that require physical abrasion (scarification) to allow water to get into the seed. They may have evolved to pass through the gizzard of a relatively large bird like a grouse or a turkey, or they may be shoreline plants that have evolve to roll about on a beach, being abraded by the sands and gravels. Frankly, I hate dealing with these fussy seeds. There are some seeds on this list that require scarification but they are all species that I have had success with by using the much easier boiling water method to soften the seed coat. (Basically, put the seeds in a cup, pour boiling water over them, let cool and soak overnight, and drain off the water in the morning.)

The commonest germination technique for native seeds is cold, moist stratification. Essentially, the seed needs to experience winter. This prevents it from germinating on an unusually warm afternoon in December. You can either use the outdoors or a refrigerator. If you do use the outdoors, best to place your pot in a snow-covered place out of the late-winter sun (which can be very warm). The only at-all-tricky species on my list are White Turtlehead (Chelone glabra) which needs a longer than usual cold period, and Blue-eyed Grass (Sisyrinchium montanum), which responds much better to fluctuating outdoor temperatures than to “winter” in a refrigerator.

Wood Mint

Visitors to the nursery this past summer were impressed by the fine clump of Downy Wood Mint (Blephilia ciliata)(pictured above) in front of the hoop house. Had I any plants for sale, I could have sold dozens. But every single last pot of Wood Mint that I had in the hoop house failed to overwinter. Every last plant of Wood Mint that I planted in the garden wintered just fine. There are some plants that, in western Quebec, well north of their native range, are just like that. They are hardy in the garden but just not hardy enough to overwinter in pots, even when well protected. (The lovely Wood Poppy is another problem child this way.) Fortunately, Downy Wood Mint is fast and easy from seed. Like many plants in the Mint family, it is attractive to small bees. It also has the advantage of being moderate in height and having a long period in bloom, nice features for the flower border. Despite the ‘Wood’ in the common name, this is a plant for places that are more sunny than shady. And, although it is related to Mints and the plants expand a bit after flowering, the roots do not run about all over the place the way true mints (Genus Mentha) do. (Downy Wood Mint is on the Seeds list and I should have seedlings available for sale next summer.)


With so many other tall yellow daisies for late summer to chose from, the rather gangly Wingstem (Verbesina alternifolia) was never a big seller and I dropped it from my nursery list. I just had to tell folks that Tall Sunflower was the better looking plant. However, if the main focus of your garden is to provide for birds (and, yes, there are lots of birding enthusiasts for whom this is the main reason to garden) then Wingstem is a serious contender for inclusion. (Do also consider Tall Sunflower, as well). The flat, winged seeds of Wingstem are arranged in a rather different pattern than those of most of the yellow daisy clan — more of an accordion file than a tightly packed cone. They are eagerly sought by Goldfinches. Although the yellow daisies of Wingstem are rather small for the height of the plant, if bird-watching is your aim, plant a clump of Wingstem where it is easy to see from the sunny spot where you sit to drink your coffee or tea on September mornings. After several years off the list, Wingstem is again available in seed.


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.

Good News

Horticultural business are going to be allowed to re-open in Quebec as of April 15th. Whoop! We are cautiously optimistic that we will be able to deliver pre-orders to customers in Ontario and to Chelsea and Aylmer.

I had been frantically trying to scale up the web site and create a pre-order pick-up system when the provincial border shut down drew an abrupt halt to all that. Then the inter-regional travel restriction disallowed even folks in Chelsea or Breckenridge from coming to the farm to pick-up an order in our drive-way. So this decision by the Quebec government is welcome news indeed!

We still are not quite open as much of our stock is still emerging but (fingers crossed) you can start planning your orders now. Our plants are looking great this year — early spring flowers are already budding nicely — and I will keep on posting pictures and availability lists. We are looking at the first week in May for our first run into Ontario for your pre-order/pick-ups.

Ordering Plants

We think gardening and nature appreciation are going to be big this year. Perhaps this is the right year to add lots of native plants to your garden. So, until we can help you in person at our ususal venues, we are exploring ways to to help you get nursery-propagated native plants, while respecting guidelines for physical distancing. 
You can pre-order plants for pick up at a west-end Ottawa location . We hope to have our first-of-the-season plant orders available to pick up at a west-end location in the second week of May, by appointment.

It looks like Ottawa Farmers Markets will be happening this summer, with appropriate rules. This is still being worked out, but if we can be at the Westboro Market, we will be there for at least some Saturdays. Stay tuned. We may also do a delivery / pick-up in a driveway in Gatineau, if there is sufficient interest.

You may phone us at the farm (Contact) for help selecting your plants but please be patient. We do not have cell phone service at the farm so I cannot take your calls while I at work in the nursery. If you would like a return phone call, please include some good times to call you back.

Use our species profiles (under the Plants menu) to develop lists of plants suitable to your garden conditions. We also have Slide Shows to quickly view a variety of plants. You can then check our current plant availability and price list (download on the button below).

How to order plants?   

To place an order, download our most current Plant Availability list below (Excel format). Enter the numbers you want in the Quantity column and email your order to (Alternatively, print out the PDF, fill it in with pen or pencil, scan, and attach scanned file to an email.)

  • include contact information
  • would you prefer an afternoon or an evening pick-up time?
  • indicate where you’ll be picking up your plants — at Westboro Market (if available) or our west-end parking lot

We will email you a finalized quote that includes instructions for sending us an e-transfer.

How to pick up plants?  

We will email you to schedule a pick-up appointment. We will have your order ready and clearly labeled at the minimal contact pick-up area.

Notes on Reusing Pots: In usual times, Beaux Arbres re-uses our plastic nursery pots. Until the Covid-19 issue is resolved, please do not return pots to us.

From left to right: 2 1/2″, 4″, 4 1/2″, 4 1/2″ tall.

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.

Plants To Buy In August

It is not only possible to add perennials to your garden in August, some great native plants are going to be available as potted plants only in late summer.

Case in point: Poke or American Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana). This tall purple-stemmed perennial is a warm-season plant that doesn’t get going until the soil warms. It is impossible to start it from seed and have it up to any size for sale in the spring. With an enormous fleshy root, it also hates overwintering in a pot. Now, Poke is not difficult from seed and it grows quickly. Because it is at the very northern edge of its range here, Poke may be fussy to site. It needs a relatively warm, well-drained site to survive the winter. You may need several tries to get it in a favourable site. So, it makes sense to get a packet of seeds from us at Seedy Saturday and raise your own, to have some spares to experiment with – if you are handy at raising perennials from seed. If you are not experienced with perennial seeds and you would like to acquire a Poke plant growing in a pot, August is your best, or, indeed, only time to do so.

Get your Poke plant into the ground while the soil is still warm. Once you have a well-grown specimen, birds will eat the fruits and spread the seeds about and you will see volunteers from time to time. This is a good thing because you may well lose your original Poke in a harsh winter. In the mid-Atlantic states, Poke is a prodigious seeder and it is considered a weed. This far north, the volunteers are nothing to be feared.

Wild Lupin (Lupinus perennis) is another native plant that is really best raised from seed, direct sown where you want it. Wild Lupins are deeply tap-rooted and I find I cannot hold them in pots for very long. If the plants do not get into the ground at a fairly young age, they wither and die. This species only thrives in very well-drained, sandy soil; it will not succeed in tight clays. I will be bringing some young Wild Lupins in pots to the Westboro Market this coming Saturday (August 10). They can be transferred to the garden with care – note the extraordinary length of the taproot as you remove the still small plants.

lupin vivace
Wild Lupin growing in the wild.

Returning to Westboro Farmers’ Market

Beaux Arbres will be back at Westboro Farmers’ Market on Saturday, August 10th, bringing some spectacular late-summer wildflowers.

Folks sometimes ask: Is it too late to add plants? If you can bring water to your new plants with a hose (or even a bucket from the lake, at the cottage), you can continue to plant potted nursery stock throughout the summer and early fall. The heat-loving prairie plants are in active growth right now and they are better able to make new roots than if you wait until the soil cools in the fall.

Native wildflowers are the key to having a garden than does not fade in the hot weather. All those lovely Bellflowers and Wallflowers and Paeonies of an English-style cottage garden are gorgeous in the spring, but gardens based on these non-natives struggle in the heat of summer in our continental climate.

For spectacular flower displays that thrive in heat, look to the deep-rooted flowers of the prairies: Blazing Stars, Ironweed, Culver’s Root, Prairie Mallow, Rattlesnake Master, Wild Bergamot, Showy Tick-trefoil, Cardinal Flower, and a huge diversity of tall yellow daisies. These natives also provide for native pollinators: bumblebees and other wild bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds. Later, many will also provide nutritious seeds for seed-eating birds like the vivid yellow and black Goldfinches.

Create a garden that is full of life and easy to care for by putting native plants at the centre of your garden planting.

Prairie Blazing Star (Liatris pycnostachya)
Culver’ Root and Cardinal Flower
Tall Sunflower (Helianthus giganteus) at Beaux Arbres