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.

New for 2021: Starflower

The tiny white seeds of Starflower (Trientalis borealis) are easy enough to collect but I did not have great success germinating them. So I have only a handful of plant available for Spring 2021. I have no idea how popular this quiet but charming little woodlander will be. I can imagine folks who love the north woods might like it. It seems quite adaptable to a variety of shady situations, under conifers and deciduous trees.

Starflowers grows scattered throughout the woods at Beaux Arbres, in sites both moist and dry. (The soil at Beaux Arbres is mostly sandy and moderately acidic.) Their stems of whorled leaves resemble another woodland plant, Indian Cucumber Root (Medeola virginiana) but Indian Cucumber Root is much less common in our area, and occurs almost exclusively in relatively rich, moist bottomlands. In our woods, Starflower never masses to make a notable floral display. I don’t know if it is possible to coax it to do so in a garden situation. Worth trying, for the little starry blossoms have a lovely simplicity. They are also botanically interesting, for they are one of the very few flowers which have seven petals.

The indispensable William Cullina, who is only garden writer I know of who has taken Starflower seriously, has this to say about it:

[I]t adds a note of diversity and authenticity to naturalized plantings and woodlands, and I think it looks lovely growing among mosses, wintergreen, partridgeberry, and others.

The New England Wildflower Society Guide to Growing and Propagating Wildflowers of the United States and Canada, 2000.

Starflower has recently been put into the genus Lysimachia, with the yellow-flowered native Loosestrifes, such as the very pretty native Swamp Candles (Lysimachia terrestris). Thus Starflower should be properly called Lysimachia borealis, but most books and websites will have it listed as Trientalis borealis.

Feature photo, above: Matthieu Gauvain via Wikimedia Commons

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.

Plant Availability, May 24

New plant availabilty List to download in PDF or Xcel formats:


Bowman’s Root plants in the nursery.

Not yet in bloom but looking very good: Bowman’s Root (Gillenia trifoliata) and its close relative American Ipecac (G. stipulata). both have starry white flowers and pretty fall foliage colour. American Ipecac ‘s range is further south and west so I expect it to be more drought-tolerant than Bowman’s Root.

A great companion for Bowman’s root is the lovely Wild Geranium.

Mountain Pussytoes are starting in to bloom. This is a very low Pussytoes with grey-pink flowers, very nice for rock gardens.

Mountain Pussytoes in the Rock Garden.

The two smaller wild Irises are budding nicely, little Dwarf Arctic Iris and mid-size Beach-head Iris.

I am a big fan of Spikenard, an imposing plant for shade with a great fruit display in the fall. They were slow to get going this spring, but are now making up for lost time.

Psst, wanna buy a clematis?

We could meet in a parking lot, wearing masks. Not necessarily at dusk, and I don’t know if I could hide the clematis under my overcoat, but the new retail normal is … odd.

I have one pot of the native Purple Clematis (Clematis occidentalis) still available of the plants from my original seed collecting. I now have this species established in my garden, but it will be a few years till I have mature plants available for sale again. This is a woodland clematis with large (for a wild clematis) purple flowers in the spring. Native to the Ottawa Valley but not at all common. It is much more restrained in growth than the abundant white-flowered Virgin’s Bower (C. virginiana). The individual plant I have for sale is 4 years old and has abundant flower buds.

I also have two pots of Fremont’s Leather Flower I am willing to sell. I raised 5 plants from seed from the Ontario Rock Garden Society seed exchange. Now, I do like to keep at least 5 plants of unusual species that I hope to collect seed from, but Fremont’s Leather Flower is one of the limestone-loving Clematis. A realistic assessment of the space I might someday have in my yet-to-be-built limestone garden (realistic assessment is a hard task for plant lovers) suggests I am never going to have the space for 5 Fremont’s Leather Flowers. So I am keeping only three.

Fremont’s Leather Flower is a non-vining Clematis from the south-eastern US. it has dangling white or lavender urn-shaped flowers in June on a clumping herbaceous plant about a foot and a half high. In the wild it is found on dolomitic glades and limestone prairies

I Purple Clematis and 2 Fremont’s Leather Flower

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.