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.

Plants into Ottawa, Saturday, September 11th

Beaux Arbres will be bringing plants into Ottawa on Saturday, September 11th. We will be distributing prepaid orders of native plants from a Britannia area parking lot on that Saturday, from 9:30 am until noon. This will probably be our last delivery of plants for the season. The nursery will still be open until the end of September.

Ironweed ($12) and the native hibiscus, Swamp Rose Mallow ($18) are now available and looking very good. We still have seedling Butterfly Milkweeds available — now is a good time to get this much-in-demand species. Many other species are still available. Because some species are available only in small quantities, rather than post a new Availability list, I am asking you to use the August Availability List as a wish list, and I will fill your orders to the best of my ability, in the order they come in.

September is the ideal time to add early spring bloomers to your garden. Some great early blooms, which cheer you and help feed overwintered pollinators, are Prairie Crocus, Early Buttercup, Common Bluets, and Early Saxifrage.

Please email your orders to me by the evening of Thursday, September 9th, and I will get back to you with details about payment etc.: naturalgarden@xplornet.ca

chèvrefeuille dioïque

Plants coming to Britannia and to Navan

Beaux Arbres Native Plants has a new Plant Availability List out. We will be bringing pre-paid orders to our regular Britannia area parking lot on Thursday, July 8th, and then, on Monday, July 12th, we will be bringing plants to an address in Navan. Both days the plant order distribution will be in the afternoon, from 4 to 7:30 pm. We expect folks have plans on summer weekends, hence the weekday dates, but we don’t expect our east-end customers to fight the rush hour traffic across town, especially with all the road construction, so we are trying out the new address in Navan. (Order Plants)

Customers who come to the farm have often picked up some species which hasn’t made it on to the Availability List because I only have one or two of them in stock. This spring, one lucky customer happened to ask about Hobblebush on the very day I decided that I would never have room for all three of my precious Hobblebushes, so she left with a pot of seed-grown local genotype Hobblebush. Yes, children, that actually happened. So for this issue of the Plant Availability List, I start the list with some of the oddments and singular items that wouldn’t usually make it on. The larger shrubs are things I have grown for our own landscaping and I have been selling off the extras. Once, say, the last Grey Dogwood is gone, it probably won’t be on the list again. The herbaceous items are just things I happen to be low on.

I should point out that the Pearly Everlasting is available with or without resident American Lady Caterpillars, while supplies last. And while we are talking about caterpillars, the Butterfly Milkweed is not yet big enough to include on the list, but it will be on a list coming out soon. They are coming along nicely but not yet ready to plant out.

I have a couple of new things for the Rock Garden: Showy Jacob’s Ladder and Littleflower Penstemon. Not locally native at all, just little cuties from the Rocky Mountains.

Oh, and yes, that Glaucous Honeysuckle vine that I have been promising will be ready any week now — it is ready now and is on the list. Everybody should consider planting a Glaucous Honeysuckle: not too big, two seasons of interest with flowers and fruit, and a host plant for the caterpillars of the charming Hummingbird Clearwing Moths. What’s not to love?

casse sauvage

Plant Availability, August 10

Beaux Arbres will be bringing a delivery of prepaid orders to Ottawa on Wednesday, August 19th, to our west-end parking lot in Britannia. If you would like to order native plants, please download our current Plant Availability list, in either PDF or Excel format, contact us with your choices, and we will get back to you by email with details about the pick-up location and payment options.

We are now accepting sturdy nursery pots for re-use. If you have purchased plants from us, we welcome the return of our 4 1/2″ tall or 2 1/2″ black pots or black nursery cans. In fact, because of lock-down and the provincial border closing, we were unable to get to our supplier of pots this spring, and are now very short of 2 1/2″ pots for seeding for next year. We do not use cell packs or other flimsy nursery plastic.

The photo is of Wild Senna.

Rescued Marsh Marigolds

I noticed some Marsh Marigolds growing in the ditch of the dirt road that runs down the side of the farm. I also knew that the road, which was in rough shape where it slopes down to the creek, was due for some grading from the municipality. So I dug up the clump that was furthest into the road, divided it into four, and potted it up. I should have taken more. Re-visiting after the road work, I notice some of the clumps in the ditch had been uprooted, dragged, and partially covered with gravel. I rescued the roots and potted them.

In the feature photo you can see the original four, in large pots at the back, blooming beautifully. I plan to keep these to collect seeds. The plants in front are in rough shape. A few may recover in time for this year’s sales. Most won’t be salable till next year, if they recover at all.

Not the FoF Mothers’ Day Sale

These are some of the plant I would have been bringing to the Friends of the Farm Mothers Day Sale on Sunday. They are the best looking bunch of plants I have had in the six years since Beaux Arbres first attended the sale.

However, I can bring them into Ottawa for you next week. We are aiming for Wednesday, May 13th, to bring prepaid orders to a west-end Ottawa parking lot.

Eastern Shooting Star (Dodecatheon meadia)
Rocky Mountain Columbine (Aquilegia saximontana)
Bird’s Eye Primrose and Dwarf Canadian Primrose
Common Bluets (Houstonia caerulea)
Siskiyou Lewisia (Lewisia cotyledon)
Eastern Shooting Star (Dodecatheon meadia)
Pussytoes with some volunteer Common Bluets
Prairie Smoke (Geum triflorum)

Some other species that are looking especially fine in bud but with flowers not yet open: Wild Geranium, Wild Eastern Columbine and its dwarf form ‘Little Lanterns’, Dwarf Mountain Fleabane, Early Meadow-rue, Foam Flower.

Seed list for Seedy Saturday, March, 2020

Update March 17: We have run out of White Turtlehead, Fringed Gentian, Compass Plant, Prairie Smoke, and Nodding Prairie Onion.

To whet your appetite for wildflowers, I have posted the list of seed species Beaux Arbres will be bringing to Seedy Saturday in March. This year we have over 80 species available in seeds. New species include: Lead Plant, Compass Plant, Purple Clematis, White Camas, Dwarf Mountain Fleabane, and Bottle Gentian (featured image).

Print off the list (PDF) to help plan your Seedy Saturday shopping.

Some of the seeds I have in very small quantities, perhaps because that was all I was able to harvest, or sometimes because I think the plant is a bit specialized and will be attractive to only a few gardeners. Tall Coreopsis (Coreopsis triptera) is one such. It is a nice, easy, tall yellow daisy, but the number of gardeners who need a 7 foot plant which runs is limited. However, if you have an expanse of Big Bluestem Grass (Andropogon gerardii) and want to add colour and diversity to your fledgling tall-grass prairie, Tall Coreopsis would be just the thing. If you want a tall yellow daisy which very much stays put, I have seeds, new this year, of Compass Plant (Silphium laciniatum), tap-rooted, with elegant leaves.

Another species I have only a couple of seed packs for is Fen Grass-of-Parnassus (Parnassia glauca). Everybody loves this little charmer when they see it in bloom, but I have to warn you it is both fussy to site and very, very slow from seed – a species only patient and experienced gardeners should attempt from seed.

Fen Grass-of-Parnassus (Parnassia glauca)

Lead Plant (Amorpha canescens) is a lovely summer-blooming little shrub in the Pea family. It is slow to mature but otherwise not difficult to grow in a dry, sunny spot. Each pod has only one seed, and the hard, tightly-wrapped pods must be removed for the seeds to germinate. I suspect that folks who have had difficulty germinating this species were not using hulled seeds. I go at a small heap of the pods with a heavy marble rolling pin and some elbow grease. Some of the seeds get crushed in the process but I do manage to release many seeds. I have had great germination success with seeds I have prepared this way and now offer for sale. Lead Plant is so slow and tap-rooted, it almost never appears in the nursery trade, which is a shame.

Lead Plant (Amorpha canescens)

Dwarf Mountain Fleabane (Erigeron compositus) is a charming species, easy to geminate and easy to grow. I think anyone with a rock garden might like to have this little mat-forming daisy in quantity. It grows in the Canadian Rockies and also across the north to the Atlantic. It seems to be tolerant of the hot, humid summers of the Ottawa Valley.

vergerette à feuilles segmentées
Dwarf Mountain Fleabane in the Alpine Garden, Montreal Botanical Garden
Dwarf Mountain Fleabane in the Rock Garden at Beaux Arbres.
zigadène glauque
  • White Camas in front of orange Butterfly Milkweed.

A few species want such a long period of cold-moist stratification I have put them in little bags with moist vermiculite and they are already (December) in my fridge: White Turtlehead, Dwarf Arctic Iris, and Beach-head Iris. If you take any of these home from Seedy Saturday in March, you can place them back in the fridge until you are ready to sow them, probably when it starts getting warm about the beginning of May. Alternatively, you can sow them and place their pot outdoors to experience natural winter temperature fluctuations.

Dwarf Arctic Iris with Dwarf Hairy Beardtongue in the Rock Garden at Beaux Arbres.
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.

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).