Blooms for Early Spring

The very first flower at Beaux Arbres is almost always a little non-native rock garden Iris, Iris reticulata. Although I discourage the use of many of the little bulbs from the garden centre, because they readily leap from garden to woodlands, I have never seen nor read of any problem with the little Irises. At the same time, Payson’s Whitlow-grass, a little yellow Draba from the northern Rocky Mountains, blooms in a small pocket of soil in the south facing rock garden. Within a week or so, these early pioneers are joined by several more ground-hugging sun-loving stalwarts of the early spring garden.

The little spring flowers of the deciduous forest – Trout Lillies and Bloodroot and others — are recognized by most fans of wildflowers. Early spring flowers for open sunny places deserve to be better known.

Prairie Crocus

(Pulsatilla nuttalliana) The great spring wildflower challenge in Manitoba is to be the first to spot a Prairie Crocus blooming on a south-facing slope. The native range of Manitoba’s much loved floral emblem extends, just, into western Ontario. We can grow this lovely wildflower in our Ottawa Valley gardens to enjoy their lovely, fuzzy, and very early blooms.

Early Buttercup

(Ranunculus fascicularis) This cute, low-growing native buttercup carpets the ground on alvars (limestone pavements) in Central Ontario. In the Ottawa Valley, it grows on only one area but it is abundant there. As the photo shows, it can grow where the soil is very shallow. It escapes the searing heat on the rock surface in the summer by going dormant after ripening its seeds in June. Early Buttercup persist on alvars that are grazed because it is avoided by herbivores, and that includes deer.

Early Saxifrage

saxifrage de Virginie
Early Saxifrage on Carden Alvar.

(Micranthes virginiensis) The flower buds of Early Saxifrage can be seen in late winter, nestled deep in the centre of the rosette of fleshy, evergreen leaves. The flowers stalk lengthen and the little white flowers open with warming temperatures. The basal rosettes often turn an attractive red with cooling temperatures in the fall. This adaptable little native can grow in almost no soil.

Hooked-spur Violet

Hooked-spur Violet

(Viola adunca) This is a small violet of infertile, sunny places. It is sometimes called Early Violet and it does bloom very early in the spring. In the Ottawa area, it grows on sandy hills and on open alvars. Like other violets, it is a host plant for Fritillary butterflies. It is too small to compete with lawn grasses – this is not one of the native violets which grows in lawns. Hooked-spur Violet is a lovely native addition to sunny rock gardens.

Prairie Smoke

(Geum triflorum) The nodding pink flowers of Prairie Smoke emerge very early. The most noticeable part of the flowers, the crazy pink jesters’ caps, are sepals; the actual flower is a cream or pale pink flask, within the jester’s cap, that never opens. Bumblebees force themselves into the centre of the flower to pollinate it. As the flowers fade, they turn and face upwards, and the ripening seeds extend a mist of smoky purple-grey. Hence the name. The leaves of Prairie Smoke persist into the fall and green up early in the spring. Prairie Smoke will slowly fill in but it does not run about. Its low, tidy habit and two seasons of interest make this a very popular choice for the front of a border.

New for 2021: Goldthread

The very glossy, evergreen leaves of low-growing Goldthread (Coptis trifolia) are most attractive, but before you start thinking this may be the ideal shade-loving ground cover for your shady garden, be aware that this little cutie demands a cool, acidic organic soil, and is not suited for warm urban conditions. It grows in damp moss under conifers and it sometime covers very old, decaying stumps, to lovely effect. When I lived in Toronto, I became accustomed to seeing Goldthread in only the coldest and most organic spots. So I was delighted, and a bit surprised, to see Goldthread in a woods near Beaux Arbres, romping along the side of an old logging track, in partial sun no less, forming an extensive low ground cover, even weaving in and out among the grasses and hawkweeds and other weeds in the trackway, finding the ordinary leaf litter and needle duff sufficiently organic for it to thrive. It is worth remembering that, compared to almost any spot in southern Ontario, this old track has cool and acidic soil. Still, it showed what is possible in the Ottawa area, if the right conditions for Goldthread are present.

Goldthread blooms in early spring. The pretty white flowers, with a boss of white stamens, are very briefly open. The white petal-like parts are actually sepals, and the true petals are modified into yellow nectar cups. If you can catch its very brief flowering, it is worth giving the flowers of Goldthread a close look. I have not been able to find out much about Goldthread’s pollinators but those little cups, brimming with nectar, suggest it is an important food source for somebody.

The plant spreads by thin rhizomes, which are bright yellow, and give the plant its common name. An older botanical name is Coptis groenlandica, the reference to Greenland giving us a clue to its preference for cold places.

Goldthread is one of the little woodlanders I will have in small quantities this spring. Although indisputably native to the Ottawa area, it is so little adaptable to urban conditions, I find it difficult to guess what the demand for it may be. Away from the downtown heat island, in a very well shaded garden, it might be worth trying Goldthread in, say, a wooden trough filled with a specially prepared soil mix (lots of well-rotted needle duff), with other charming miniatures, such as Common Wood Sorrel, Creeping Snowberry, and Bunchberry.

Back for 2021: Virginia Waterleaf

The nodding flowers in mid to late spring are modest to our eyes but extraordinarily attractive to all manner of forest pollinators. Although usually pale lavender in colour, the flowers of Virginia Waterleaf in the wild can be pure white, a nice mid-range purple, or pale pink. The distinctively lobed leaves emerge in the spring spotted with silver. It is the silvery spots which give the plant the name Waterleaf. Alas, the pretty spots fade as the leaves mature.

Virginia Waterleaf spread by rhizomes and by seeds so, where it is well suited, it can easily form a robust ground cover. It prefers dappled deciduous shade and it is tolerant of heavy clay soils. Thus it is an excellent choice for shady city gardens with compacted soils. If summer droughts have left the foliage looking tattered, the plants can be cut down and they will produce a crop of fresh leaves for autumn.

Good companions for Virginia Waterleaf might be White Snakeroot, Wild Geranium, and Zigzag Goldenrod.

New for 2021: Grey Goldenrod

As gardening for pollinators, and insects in general, has become popular, I see many more customers interested in Goldenrods. The bright yellow sprays, differently shaped for different species, are ubiquitous in old fields and along country roads. Their very abundance gives us clues to how important they are for late summer pollinators.

Grey Goldenrod (Solidago nemoralis) is a short, tidy goldenrod of dry infertile places. It is often found in old fields in areas where the soil is sandy and thus especially dry and infertile.

Very unobtrusive in the early part of the summer, Grey Goldenrod sends out flowering stems (about 30 cm tall) from its basal rosettes in late summer. The ends of the inflorescences tip over in a graceful curve in a way that is characteristic for the species. It is a great goldenrod for sunny urban meadows, combined with a short grass such as Blue Grama Grass. For gardeners who want to provide for late summer pollinators, but who think introducing Canada Goldenrod or Tall Goldenrod to their gardens might send the neighbours into conniption fits (with some justification, as these are large and aggressive plants), the unthreatening Grey Goldenrod might be just right.

Kapik sniffing for voles in an old field, with a blooming Grey Goldenrod by his face.

Beaux Arbres offers some other garden-worthy Goldenrods: the lovely Blue-stemmed Goldenrod, for shady spots, and Stiff Goldenrod, a handsome clumping plant for flower borders

New for 2021: Prairie Crocus

Beaux Arbres has a few bright, lovely Pasque Flowers plants in our rock garden. We grew this beloved European spring flower from seeds from the Ontario Rock Garden and Hardy Plant Society Seed Exchange, and offered some of our surplus for sale. However, we long wanted to get a good supply of the North American species, the true Prairie Crocus, Manitoba’s floral emblem. We tried several times and our germination was poor for this wild North American. Last winter, we acquired some high-quality, fresh, wild-collected seed from southern Manitoba and, voilà, a fine flourish of Prairie Crocus seedlings.

The wild Prairie Crocus is paler, shorter, and even fuzzier than Pasque Flower. Wildflower enthusiasts in Manitoba start scanning south-facing, well-drained, sandy slopes in April, wanting to be the first to spot a Prairie Crocus in bloom. They often report their first up to three weeks before we get a Pasque Flower in bloom at Beaux Arbres. This gives us a clue to just how early this flower can be in a sheltered, sunny spot. Because of the subtlety of its silvery lavender colouring, Prairie Crocus is most effective grown in groups. On those dry south slopes on the Prairies, Prairie Crocus some years escapes the summer drought by going dormant, but we haven’t seen this phenomenon in our plants in the Ottawa Valley. It is good to know just how drought-tolerant Prairie Crocus can be, if you are planning a xeriscaping garden.

Prairie Crocus’s seeds are tricky to germinate, but once you are past that stage, they seem to be tough and enduring little plants, with one caveat: they are susceptible to slug predation. That suggest that, in the east, they need a dry, warm, gritty site, with perhaps a gravel mulch, certainly not any organic mulch. They are great little plants for a south-facing rock garden and perhaps for a large hypertufa trough. On the prairies, they grow in thin grassland.

Prairie Crocus grows all across the Canadian Prairies, into the northern tier of US plains states and up into Yukon and Alaska. Its range extends into north-western Ontario, but it has no claim to be native to the Ottawa Valley. We are enthusiastic about it because it extends the selection of early spring flowers for feeding newly emerged pollinators, and to cheer winter-weary gardeners, without risking the invasiveness of so many of the early spring bulbs on sale at the garden centre. (“Good for naturalizing” on the packet of Chionodoxa bulbs should be a red flag that they will escape into wild areas.)

We also have a hankering to grow all the Canadian floral emblems that we can. The Pacific Dogwood, emblem of BC, is beyond our scope, and Yukon’s Fireweed is something we hesitate to bring into the garden, although it is all over the utility corridor along the Sixth Line near our farm. Nunavut’s gorgeous Purple Saxifrage is finicky this far south, although we are game to try, if we can acquire some seed. If we are willing to accept the local Prickly Rose as a stand-in for Alberta’s Prairie Rose (possible, but too rampant in the east), the other emblems are doable, in fact we are already growing many of them.

Prairie Crocus is not, strictly, new at Beaux Arbres for Spring 2021 — sharp-eyed customers spotted the first offerings of this species last summer. We expect to have a good supply for sale this spring. Watch the website for the Availability Lists in the spring.

Pasque Flower in the Rock Garden. Not native, but very charming.
Prairie Crocus

New for 2021: Early Buttercup

This cheery little flower is an under-appreciated Ottawa Valley native. Along with its early-blooming companions in the wild, such as Early Saxifrage, Prairie Smoke and Hooked-spur Violet, Early Buttercup (Ranunculus fascicularis) is a great choice to provide floral resources for newly emerged pollinators. Early Buttercup is a true spring ephemeral — the plant withers into dormancy shortly after the seeds ripen in late spring. The leaves re-emerge from the somewhat tuberous root almost as soon as the snow is gone the next spring.

Early Buttercup grows wild on only one alvar in the Ottawa Valley. It is more common on the alvars of central Ontario. Beaux Arbres’ stock of Early Buttercup was grown from seed collected in the Ottawa Valley, i.e. it is local genotype.

Early Buttercup occurs in the wild only on alvars and similar open, calcareous habitats. This gives us a clue to what it likes in the garden: full sun, sweet soil, and not being crowded by larger neighbours. Like other alvar inhabitants, it is tough, adapted to heat and cold and spring wet, and its summer dormancy allows it to endure the droughts of summer.

I am making an assumption, on this snowy day in January, that I will have Early Buttercup available in the spring of 2021. We went into the winter with a good supply of seedlings. However, I have had unexpected winter losses in the past, and I am never totally sure plants are available until I see them start to grow in the spring. I will be posting Availability Lists in the spring, as growth resumes.

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.

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
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.


An Urban Pollinator Garden

Berit Erickson dropped by last week to pick up some native plant seeds and talk to me about her demonstration pollinator garden, on a busy corner lot in the west end of Ottawa .

Working in her yard, Berit realized how interested passers-by were in her flowers. Berit herself had noticed how much more lively and inviting to bees, and butterflies and birds her city garden became when she increased the proportion of native plants. Although she had been a skilled gardener for years, the connections between native plants and wildlife had not been part of her garden lore.

What Berit saw happening in her garden, and happening relatively quickly, changed her whole approach to gardening. Berit writes, “I’m not exaggerating when I say that creating this pollinator garden was one of the best decisions I ever made and that it has changed my life.” She wanted to share her newfound understanding. She labelled the plants visible from the sidewalk, and created, printed, and set out a pamphlet “Create Your Own Pollinator Garden: you can make a difference.” More than 150 pamphlets have been picked up by passers-by. You can read more about her garden, and gain valuable practical pointers on creating your own pollinator garden, on her blog: cornerpollinatorgarden.net.