Archive for the ‘Full Sun’ Category

Geum triflorum - Prairie Smoke, Nodding Avens - Alice Wolyzuk Botanical Garden, University of Northern British Columbia, Prince George, B.C. May 2014. Image: HFN

Geum triflorum – Prairie Smoke, Nodding Avens – Alice Wolczuk Alpine Garden, University of Northern British Columbia, Prince George, B.C., May 2014. Image: HFN

Perennial.  Zone 1. Rosaceae. A.k.a. PURPLE AVENS, THREE-FLOWERED AVENS, OLD MAN’S WHISKERS. Native to a large area of North America, from British Columbia through the prairie provinces, as far south as California, and eastward across the northern United States. Geum comes from the Latin name gaeum, “a plant with aromatic roots” which is derived from the Greek geno, “to yield an agreeable fragrance”. Triflorum = three-flowered, from the habit of the blooms to appear in clusters of three.

One of my favourite spring wildflowers, this pretty plant flourishes from the dry hillsides of the Cariboo to the prairie grasslands east of the Rockies. It happily adapts to the garden, and I always enjoy meeting it unexpectedly, flourishing in alpine and botanical gardens in its quiet way, as content to be treated with care in a plant collection as it is on the rocky slopes of the higher points of Hill Farm.

According to Plants of Northern British Columbia (1992: MacKinnon, Pojar, Coupé), Geum triflorum was used by the Thompson and Okanagan First Nations people to make a root tea for treating colds, flu and fever. The Blackfoot in Alberta were reported to use the crushed seed as a perfume.

Geum triflorum - flower details. Macalister, B.C., May 2010. Image: HFN

Geum triflorum – flower details. Macalister, B.C., May 2010. Image: HFN

Tidy clumps send up multiple 6 to 12 inch tall stems topped by triplets of dusky pink, nodding, bell shaped blooms. These never properly open, but are sought out regardless be tenacious early-foraging wild bees, which force their way into the downfacing bells. The insects’ great pollinating success is evident by the profuse seed heads which develop a little later.

These seed heads are Geum triflorum’s main attraction, and its showiest feature in June and July. Large, feathery, often spiralled, and very long lasting, they are prettily blushed with pink, which makes a delicate contrast to the soft green of the developing seeds at the centre of each cluster.

After pollination, the feathery seed heads start to expand. Prince George, May 2014. Image: HFN

After pollination, the feathery seed heads start to expand. Prince George, May 2014. Image: HFN

Foliage is softly downy, a gently sage green, and rather ferny in effect. It forms basal clusters, and stays attractive all season, eventually blushing rich red in autumn.

Nodding Avens has a rhizomatous root system, and gently spreads to form a generous colony where happy, but is never invasive or ill-behaved. Very nice for spring and early summer interest in the rockery or at the border front. Very good on slopes.

Best in sun but will tolerate light shade. Very adaptable to all sorts of soil. Very drought tolerant, but appreciates some extra moisture at the peak of summer.

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Star-of-Persia - Allium christophii - June 6, 2014

Star-of-Persia – Allium christophii. Summerland, B.C., June 6, 2014. Image: HFN

Perennial. Zone 4. Liliaceae. Syn. Allium albopilosum Originally native to Iran, Turkey, and central Asia – general region of ancient Persia.  This lovely plant has been grown in western gardens since its first introduction to England in 1884.

I first grew this beautiful ornamental onion over 20 years ago, and I well remember how the reality of it exceeded my already high expectations. It is a wonderful thing.

This is a spectacular allium, gorgeous in all its stages, bud to bloom to seed head. Clumps of long (to 20 inches), grey-green, strap-shaped leaves appear in early spring, soon followed by 12 to 24 inch stalks topped by a quickly expanding sheathed bud, which explodes in late May into a huge bloom cluster – up to 12 inches in diameter – which consists of many pale lavender star flowers.

Allium christophii - unfolding star flowers - a beautifully fascinating process. Image: HFN

Allium christophii – unfolding star flowers – a beautifully fascinating process. Image: HFN

These continue to look good for weeks, gradually transfiguring into plump green seed pods, which can be left alone to eventually dry in place, giving a rather surreal accent to the border. (Or they can be harvested just as they start to turn yellow and hung to dry as unique everlastings.) The fresh and green seed stage blooms are wonderful as cutflowers, too.

The foliage quickly withers and is gone by midsummer, by which time other plants have filled in to hide the yellowing leaves. Where happy, on well-drained soil in full sun, these bulbs will slowly reproduce to form an increasingly large colony.

Bulbs may be lifted in midsummer to early fall, and (if they have formed a cluster) separated and replanted. Because of the size of the blooms, it is best to space them fairly generously, up to a foot apart, or a bit closer if you are going for a cluster effect.

Sun; average soil & moisture. Quite drought tolerant. Appreciates good drainage.

A flourishing colony of Star-of-Persia in the Summerland Ornamental Garden. June, 2014. Image: HFN

A flourishing colony of Star-of-Persia in the Summerland Ornamental Garden. June, 2014. Image: HFN

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Achillea filipendulina – ‘Cloth of Gold’ Fernleaf Yarrow. Hill Farm, July 2014. Image: HFN

Perennial. Zone 2. Compositae. Syn. Achillea eupatorium (obsolete). Eupatorium referred to the plant’s native presence around the city of Eupatoria (Yevpatoria) on the Crimean coast. The species is native to Europe’s Caucasus Mountains, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, and Afghanistan. There are a number of improved cultivars which are widely grown in gardens. ‘Cloth of Gold’ is a well-known older variety, which received the Royal Horticultural Society’s Award of Garden Merit in 1999.

Poor Fernleaf Yarrow – it seems to be named mainly for its resemblance to other plants! The specific names filipendulina refers to its foliar similarity to Meadowsweet, Filipendula species. The common name “Fernleaf” needs no explanation.

Esteemed horticulturalist William Robinson, in his 1883 masterwork, The English Flower Garden, had this to say:

Achillea eupatorium (sometimes called A. filipendulina) is a tall-growing, vigorous, herbaceous plant, somewhat woody in its lower growth. Its flowering corymbes are flat, bright yellow in colour, and elevated on stout stems to a height of 3 ft. to 4 ft.; they retain their beauty and freshness for at least two months. This is admirably adapted for a shrubbery border, where its brilliant yellow flowers and its erect habit of growth show to wonderful advantage amongst the evergreen foliage. It is native to the shores of the Caspian Sea, and is one of the finest of perennials.

Shining yellow flowers in flattened domes top strong 24-inch or taller stems. In habit, Fernleaf Yarrow is a non-invasive clump-former. Foliage is light sage-green, and warmly aromatic.

This is a superb everlasting and cutflower – heads can reach 5 inches or more across. Some years ago, when I was growing everlastings and making wreaths and arrangements for sale, this was outstanding for its effect and attractive colour.

Close-up of the tightly packed flower head, with 6-legged visitors.

Close-up of the tightly packed flower head, with 6-legged visitors. Completely pest-free, though frequented by insects of all sorts seeking nectar and pollen. Hill Farm, July 2014. Image: HFN

Fernleaf Yarrow is one of those bombproof plants which just keep on looking good (or at the very least decent) even in challenging conditions. It has times of great beauty – new spring foliage is downy-soft, pleasingly aromatic, and elegantly fern-like, while the huge corymbes of tiny, bright yellow flowers remain gloriously untarnished for an astounding length of time – but even when the gold fades to brown and the leaves get a bit dusty-looking round about the beginning of autumn it remains upright and respectable.

This plant is a star of the xeriscape garden, thriving in sunny and dry locations, though it is appreciative of some supplemental moisture at summer’s peak. However, too rich a soil and too much moisture will cause Fernleaf Yarrow to produce lush foliage at the expense of flowers.

This plant is reputed to be very deer resistant, likely because of its downy foliage and high aromatic oil content.

 

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Slene dioica aurea - Ray's Golden Campion. Hill Farm, June 2012.

Silene dioica aurea – ‘Ray’s Golden Campion’. Hill Farm, June 2012. Image: HFN

Perennial. Zone 4. Caryophyllaceae. Syn. Melandrium rubrum; syn. Lychnis dioica. (Both names are now obsolete.)  The green-leaved Silene dioica, Rosy Campion, is a common European wildflower which has been grown in gardens for centuries. There are numerous cultivars, of which ‘Ray’s Golden’ is one of the most recent, and notable because of its ease of cultivation and trueness from seed.

This is one of those garden colour combinations which really shouldn’t work – shocking pink with chartreuse – but it does, and extremely well, too.

‘Ray’s Golden Campion’ is a recent introduction from English nurseryman Ray Brown at Plant World in Devon, who painstakingly stabilized this sport of the well-known Rosy Campion. When I received my packet of seed, I was warned to rogue out any green-leaved seedlings which appeared; this was tremendously easy to do, as the gold-foliaged seedlings were immediately conspicuous from the first unfolding of their cotyledons.

The first season the plants formed lush rosettes; the striking foliage colour remained true all summer. By late spring of the second year bloom stems appeared. I was very pleased to note that these were flushed with a contrasting red tint, as were the buds, which popped open into pretty, white-eyed, hot pink flowers in mid June. They bloomed and bloomed and bloomed, right through July, subsiding at last in mid August, when they started to mature seed in tiny, bottle-shaped capsules.

A few of the plants in my test row succumbed to their second winter, but most soldiered on. Self sown seedlings were mostly gold-leaved, and the population sustained itself quite nicely up in the “delphinium jungle” of my neglected growing-out garden. After the second year I did not bother rogueing out the green seedlings, and now, five years later, much of the stand has reverted to green foliage. Still very pretty – Rosy Campion is a nice cottage garden flower even in its “unimproved” state – but not nearly as eye-popping as the original planting.

This is a mid-sized sort of plant. Foliage rosettes are about a foot in diameter; bloom stalks are 12 inches or so tall when they first bloom, elongating to 18 inches by mid-summer. Nice in a foreground planting. These combine beautifully with delphiniums; the pink and gold of the Silene contrasting beautifully with any of the delphinium blues.

This plant appreciates full sun. It is not fussy as to soil, and, though it flourishes most lavishly with regular summer watering, it has proven itself quite drought tolerant, surviving and blooming for most of the summer among the grasses which have taken over the neglected sections of the nursery garden.

 

Blooming at the same time as delphiniums, Ray's Golden Campion is a eye-catching contrast plant and makes a grand foreground companion to the cobalts, azures, and sky blues of its garden neighbour. Hill Farm, July 2012.

Blooming at the same time as Delphinium, ‘Ray’s Golden Campion’ is a eye-catching contrast plant and makes a grand foreground companion to the cobalts, azures, and sky blues of its garden neighbour. Hill Farm, July 2012. Image: HFN

 

 

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physostegia variegate fall 2011

Variegated Obedient Plant – Physostegia virginiana ‘variegata’ – Hill Farm, late September 2011. Image: HFN

Perennial. Zone 3. Lamiaceae.  The species is native to eastern North America. This cultivar is a stabilized sport and is found only in gardens.

Clump former to 3 or 4 feet tall. Spreads slowly by creeping rootstalks. Sun to light shade; any soil fine; appreciates summer moisture in hot regions.

The genus name comes from the Greek: physa = bladder and stege = covering, referring to the inflated calyx at the base of each floret.  The common name comes from the hinged sockets which attach each floret to the main cluster; these can be gently twisted and turned, with the new configuration remaining for a few moments until the bloom slowly returns to its original position.

This handsome plant is one of my favourite fall bloomers. It starts to send out intricate bud spikes in August; these slowly extend and enlarge until mid-September when the first bright purple, cheerfully freckled, snapdragon-like flowers start to open. It is in peak bloom by Canadian Thanksgiving, lighting up the garden in stunning contrast to the yellowing foliage of the perennials around it.

physostegia variegate sept 2011

Variegated Obedient Plant reaches full glory as its garden neighbours start to fade, setting off their yellowing foliage to perfection. Here at Hill Farm it shares a bed with tall Joe-Pye Weed, Eupatorium purpureum, another eastern wildflower, taking over the show as its neighbour goes to seed. Image: HFN

Very cold tolerant, and lasts until the hardest frosts which finally blacken it in November.

In its native habitat Obedient Plant is found in meadows, open woodlands, and along stream banks. It is very adaptable, though it prefers not to be too dry in summer. The variegated cultivar is restrained in its spread, though it will expand to a sizable clump over the years. Keep an eye on more delicate neighbours. My treasured clump is due for division soon, as it is finally encroaching on its companion, an equally treasured clump of early spring blooming Liverleaf, Hepatica nobilis, after growing side by side with no conflict for the past 5 years.

Reaching a respectable 4 feet tall where happy, this plant tends to flop under the weight of its bloom spikes, so an unobtrusive staking mid-summer is a good idea. Years when I forget to do this I am punished for my neglect by the snapping off of full-flowered bloom stalks at their bases. Luckily it makes an excellent cutflower so all is not lost; however its value in the garden exceeds any bouquet so this is a situation one should strive to prevent.

As with many variegated plants, it is not as vigorous as its plainer relatives, so will take a few years to reach its full potential. The plus side of this is that it is very maintenance free, despite the staking recommendation and the occasional need for curbing/division in full maturity. Physostegia virginiana in all of its varieties is long-lived, and completely pest and disease free.

A grand plant, not terribly common in Cariboo-Chilcotin gardens, but very suitable for our conditions.

physostegia variegata close up 2 sept oct 2011

Just coming into bloom, September 2, 2011. Image: HFN

physostegia foliage detail variegata august 2011

The variegation extends to every part of the plant, including the intricately symmetrical bud spikes which start to form in August. Image: HFN

physostegia variegate close up 2 oct 2012

Another detail of the fascinating blooms and white foliar variegation. Hill Farm, October 2, 2012. Image: HFN

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White Moth Mullein - Verbascum blattaria albiflorum. Hill Farm, July 14, 2014.

White Moth Mullein – Verbascum blattaria albiflorum. Hill Farm, July 14, 2014. Image: HFN

Biennial. Zone 3. Scrophulariaceae. Europe, northern Africa. Verbascum is from the Latin barbascum, bearded. Blattaria comes from the Latin blatta, cockroach, in homage to the plant’s history as an insect repellant. Thrives in full sun to part shade. Happy in a wide variety of soils. Quite drought tolerant.

A dainty and lovely biennial.

In its first year, smooth, deep green leaf rosettes form and lie close to the ground, giving no hint of next year’s tall and graceful flower stalks.

The rosettes overwinter and start to show signs of further development in the spring of the second year, when slender, multi-branched stems emerge and elongate, reaching an ultimate height of 4 feet or so for the white form, and up to 6 feet for the yellow. Though tall, Moth Mullein’s general effect is airy enough for the front of the border.

Neatly folded, angular buds on short pedicels pop open into large, gleaming white flowers blushed on the petal backs with purple, echoing the bright purple, intricately furred stamens tipped with brilliant orange pollen. Blooms unfold in late June or early July, and continue through summer, ending at last in September.

Bloom detail, Verbascum blattaria albiflorum. Hill Farm, July 2014.

Bloom detail, Verbascum blattaria albiflorum. Hill Farm, July 2014. Image: HFN

The common name of Moth Mullein is thought to come from the resemblance of the stamens to the intricately haired antennae of moths. The flowers are also attractive to all sorts of insects, including nocturnal moths and early-foraging bees. Blooms unfold in earliest morning, and subside by noon, to reopen the following day.

An early-foraging bee visits Moth Mullein just before sunrise. Hill Farm, July 14, 2014. (All of the Verbascum family are veritable bee magnets.)

An early-foraging wild bee visits Moth Mullein just before sunrise. Hill Farm, July 14, 2014. (All of the Verbascum family are veritable bee magnets.) Image: HFN

Neatly dropped flowers are followed by hard, round seed pods, each containing hundreds of small, black seeds. Seeds of this species remain viable in soil for a long time; in one well-documented experiment  initiated by Michigan State University Professor William James Beal in 1879, Moth Mullein seeds sprouted over 120 years after their storage outdoors in an upside-down bottle buried in dry sand.

Arriving with early European colonists, Moth Mullein has been known to grow in North America since at least the early 1800s. It has become naturalized to various degrees across the United States and into southern Canada, being particularly successful at establishing itself on freshly disturbed ground.

Moth Mullein was traditionally used to safeguard fabrics against moths and other insects; American colonial gardens grew Moth Mullein for this purpose and also for use as a dye plant. With appropriate mordants Moth Mullein yields green and yellow dyes.

Verbascum blattaria has been investigated for various medicinal properties, and in 1974 was the subject of a study on its insecticidal properties, showing some intriguing possibilities as its application killed over half of the mosquito larvae in the study.

 

 

 

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Yellowtuft Alyssum - Alyssum murale - Agriculture Canada Research Station, Summerland, B.C., June 7, 2014.

Yellowtuft Alyssum – Alyssum murale – Agriculture Canada Research Station, Summerland, B.C., June 7, 2014. Image: HFN

Perennial. Zone 5, and probably colder. Brassicacea. Syn. Alyssum argenteum, A. chalcidicum. A.k.a. Rock Alyssum, Wall Alyssum. Native to the Mediterranean and Eurasia, where it is locally abundant on mineral-rich serpentine soils.  Introduced populations found in British Columbia, Washington, Oregon and California, where the plant has escaped cultivation from its experimental use as a heavy metal hyperaccumulator species being tested for use in mine reclamation.

On a recent trip to the Okanagan we stopped to explore the Summerland Ornamental Gardens located at the Agriculture Canada Research Station in Summerland, just outside of Penticton.

Established almost a century ago, in 1916, the gardens served as a testing ground for the local suitability of ornamental trees, shrubs and herbaceous plants. When the ornamental horticulture programs of the Station were phased out in the 1980s, the gardens seriously deteriorated through lack of maintenance. Luckily a community organization was formed to rescue the gardens from complete dissolution, and the result of thousands of hours of mostly volunteer labour is visible in the well maintained and updated plantings, in particular an ambitious and beautifully landscaped hillside xeriscape garden.

Lovely as the cultivated area of the Gardens are, though, we found some of the most interesting areas to be those on the outskirts of the manmade plantings, where the wild and the tame meet, with rather telling results. Domestic roses, clumps of iris, peonies and other old garden stalwarts flourish unpruned and gloriously untidy amidst the native grasses, and the steep sides of the Trout Creek ravine are starred with fragrant dianthus flowers obviously self-seeded from cultivars grown in the garden above.

Naturalized dianthus sp., just under the Kettle Valley Railway trestle over the Trout Creek ravine, Summerland Ornamental Gardens. We were visiting early in he morning, and the sun was just warming the ground, and the spicy fragrance of the dianthus flowers was astonishing in its clarity and reach.

Naturalized Dianthus species, just under the Kettle Valley Railway trestle over the Trout Creek ravine, Summerland Ornamental Gardens. We were visiting early in the morning, and the sun was just reaching the hillside, and the spicy fragrance of the dianthus flowers was astonishing in its clarity and reach. Image: HFN

And there was this unusual plant, which I didn’t recognize, at first thinking it might be some sort of Galium (Bedstraw) species, but on closer examination realizing that it did not fit into that family after all, for though the flowers were small and four-petalled and the leaf arrangement generally whorled, the bloomhead was more of an umbel than a spike, and the aged seedpods were round and silver. What could it be?

The mystery plant, showing cloudy yellow blooms, silver seedpods and a sturdy, tufting habit. Obviously a survivor, as it was happily growing among grasses and on the steep and eroding hillside. Wildflower, or another garden escapee?

The mystery plant, early morning under the shade of the Ponderosa pines at Summerland, B.C., June 8, 2014, showing cloudy yellow blooms, silver seedpods and a sturdy, tufting habit. Obviously a survivor, as it was happily growing among grasses and on the steep and eroding hillside. Wildflower, or another garden escapee? Image: HFN

One of the first things I did upon my return home was to search out the plant in my wildflower books. This was unsuccessful, so I turned to the internet, where I soon made a positive identification. The mystery plant is an exotic escapee, and a rather worrisome one at that, being classified as a noxious weed in several U.S. states due to its rapid spread in biologically sensitive ecosystems and its potential toxicity to livestock.

Alyssum murale, Yellowtuft Alyssum, is a native of Mediterranean regions, through central and southeastern Europe, being particularly common in Romania and Albania. It has been grown as an ornamental in North America for at least a century, being a prized rockery plant grown for its attractive habit and long bloom period.

Alyssum murale showing clump-forming habit and umbel arrangement of the flowers. Summerland, June 7, 2014.

Alyssum murale showing clump-forming habit and umbel arrangement of the flowers. Summerland, June 7, 2014. Image: HFN

The plant is clump-forming, with multiple stems reaching from one to three feet tall. (The Summerland plants were about a foot tall; the three-foot height might be attained under cultivation with supplementary water and fertilization.) Yellow flowers in generous umbels appear in late May, and bloom for several months. Stems are covered by fine white hairs, and show a variable red coloration on the older portions. Seeds are produced in clusters of round or oval flattened fruits, with an ornamental, silver-grey, papery silicle persisting after the outer sheaths and the large, flat black seed is dropped.

Undoubted visual appeal aside, Alyssum murale has some other qualities which make it both potentially valuable as a commercial crop and dangerous as an invasive.

The species is unique in that it has an extremely high tolerance to heavy metals in the soil, in particular copper, chromium and nickel, and it actually functions as a hyperaccumlator of these metals, uptaking them during the growth period and concentrating them in intense quantities in its stems, shoots and foliage.

In certain parts of Europe the plant is deliberately cultivated in a process referred to as phytomining, where the plants are cultivated on mineral-rich soils, and then harvested and burned, with the ashes being further refined to yield the desirable metals. Within the last decade, the plant has received serious study in North America as a potentially useful species for mine reclamation work, being planted on tailings areas to take up excess potentially toxic heavy metals; the plants are then removed and burned, yielding a small but significant amount of usable metals. The process is repeated until the site shows a marked reduction in the minerals-of-concern.

This unique adaptation of Alyssum murale becomes a drawback when the plant is consumed by wildlife or livestock, as it then becomes a highly toxic meal.

Alyssum murale is a generous seed producer and is highly drought tolerant and very adaptable to native soils, and has escaped from cultivation in areas where it is or was being tested and used in the mining industry, to become a vigorous invasive weed in some sensitive ecosystems in the western U.S. states.

I wonder where the Summerland Alyssum murale population originated? Is it an escapee from the research station, or from the ornamental plantings of the garden?

It is a rather pretty thing, and I can definitely see its appeal as a garden flower. It has apparently been grown as a desirable and problem-free ornamental throughout North America, Europe and Great Britain since its first collection and distribution by botanists in the late 1700s, but its new reputation as an invasive escapee from industrial applications does give serious pause when contemplating acquiring it for one’s own garden…

 

Alyssum murale naturalized among native grasses and cow vetch (Vicia cracca), fringes of the Summerland Ornamental Gardens, June 7, 2014.

Alyssum murale naturalized among native grasses and cow vetch (Vicia cracca), growing on the fringes of the Summerland Ornamental Gardens, June 7, 2014. Image: HFN

 

 

 

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Showy Jacob's Ladder, Polemonium pulcherrimum. NOt terribly common in our region, but there is a colony on Bull Mountain north of Williams Lake, where these photos were taken on June 10, 2014.

Showy Jacob’s Ladder, Polemonium pulcherrimum. Not terribly common in our region, but there is a colony on Bull Mountain north of Williams Lake, where these photos were taken on June 10, 2014. I have also seen it growing in various rocky places throughout the higher elevation areas of the province, and on the Chilcotin Plateau. Image: HFN

Perennial. Zone 1/2. Polemoniaceae. Western North American, California to Alaska, higher elevations from sub-alpine forest to past the timberline.

Lewis J. Clark explains the origin of the genus name – with a touch of opinionism! –  in the Polemoniaceae (Phlox Family) section of Wild Flowers of British Columbia (1973):

The family derives its name from the Greek polemos, war. Pliny (Roman soldier, statesman, and naturalist) states that “polemonia” was given this name from having caused a war between two kings, each of whom claimed the honour of first having discovered its medicinal virtues. The causes of some recent wars make no better sense. Incidentally, no member of the family is now used for any medicinal purpose.

The species name, pulcherrimum, also comes from the Greek, for handsome or beautiful. English botanist William Jackson Hooker named this plant after seeing a specimen collected by Thomas Drummond during an exploration of the Canadian Rockies in 1825-27.

Foliage, Polemonium pulcherrimum. Egg-shaped leaflets are arranged in pairs on a central stem. The fancied resemblance of the foliage arrangement to a ladder is the origin of the common name, from the Biblical Jacob, who dreamed of a ladder reaching to heaven, with angels climbing to and fro. In this case, the blue of the flowers might be seen as to represent the sky, wherein Heaven is traditionally thought to be located...

Foliage, Polemonium pulcherrimum. Rather egg-shaped leaflets are arranged in pairs on a central stem. The fancied resemblance of the foliage arrangement to a ladder is the origin of the common name, from the Biblical Jacob, who dreamed of a ladder reaching to heaven, with angels climbing to and fro. In this case, the blue of the flowers might be seen as to represent the sky, wherein Heaven is traditionally thought to be located…  Image: HFN

This very pretty small plant moves happily into the garden, though its preference for excellent drainage makes it best suited for a slope or rockery position. Plants are quite variable in height and spread, ranging from 6 to 18 inches in eight. Flower stems arise from a basal cluster of the leaves, and bloom through late May well into June.

Small, pale blue-lavender flowers have vivid yellow eyes and contrasting white stamens, and are diligently visited by various species of pollinating bees.

Very cold hardy, and self sows modestly where happy. Easy to start from seed, which is the most eco-friendly way to bring the plant into cultivation. Look for the distinctive leaves, which will support the aging flower stems topped by clusters of pointed seed capsules full of ripe seed in mid-summer.

Best in full sun, or very light shade. Though a tough little wildflower, it is not particularly drought tolerant, preferring a steady supply of summer moisture to perform its best.

Bull Mountain, June 10, 2014. Polemonium pulcherrimum and pussytoes (Antennaria sp.) 0 to give an idea of the scale of this delicate flower.

Bull Mountain, June 10, 2014. Polemonium pulcherrimum and pussytoes (Antennaria sp.) t0 to give an idea of the scale of this delicate flower. Image: HFN

Beautiful companions - we found this Jacob's Ladder blooming alongside Shrubby Penstemon (Penstemon fruticosus var. scouleri) on Bull Mountain, June 10, 2014.

Beautiful companions – we found Showy Jacob’s Ladder blooming alongside Shrubby Penstemon (Penstemon fruticosus var. scouleri) on Bull Mountain, June 10, 2014. Image: HFN

Plant habit when growing on shale on the edge of Douglas fir/lodgepole pine forest. Companion plants in this area include Penstemon fruticosus var. scouleri, Pussytoes (Antennaria sp.), Anemone multifida, Kinnickinick (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi), and Indian Paintbrush (Castilleja sp.)

Plant habit when growing in fractured shale on the edge of Douglas fir/lodgepole pine forest. Companion plants in this area include Penstemon fruticosus var. scouleri, Pussytoes (Antennaria sp.), Anemone multifida, Kinnickinick (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi), and Indian Paintbrush (Castilleja sp.)  Image: HFN

 

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Shrubby Penstemon - Penstemon fruticosus var. scouleri - low clumps of large, light purple blooms are locally abundant throughout the Cariboo-Chilcotin on rocky cliffs and steep, gravelly, roadside cutbanks in mid-spring. This photo was taken near Soda Creek, B.C., May 23, 2010.

Shrubby Penstemon – Penstemon fruticosus var. scouleri – low, woody, fine-leaved foliage clumps covered with large, tubular, light purple blooms are locally abundant throughout the Cariboo-Chilcotin on rocky cliffs and steep, gravelly, roadside cutbanks in mid-spring. This photo was taken near Soda Creek, B.C., May 23, 2010. Image: HFN

Perennial. Zone 1/2. Scrophulariacea. North America; in Canada throughout the southern third of B.C. east of the Cascades and west to the Rockies, and in the United States common in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. A.k.a. Shrubby Beardtongue, Scouler’s Penstemon.

In bloom from May until July, depending on elevation, this floriferous sub-shrub is unmistakeable when seen on the roadside. It favours steep rock bluffs, gravel pits and roadsides, flourishing best in well-drained, rocky/sandy soil. Its pale purple blooms range in shade of warm violet to cool mauve, with occasional (very rare) white sports.

Here is what Lewis J. Clark had to say in his 1972 Wild Flowers of British Columbia:

This subshrubby species is described by its name, fruticosus meaning shrub-like. It is a variable species, but in all its forms is very beautiful. Choice forms are easily obtained for the garden by taking short cuttings, which root very readily in sand…To keep the plants attractively compact and floriferous, they should be given gritty soil with very little food.

The plants are semi-evergreen, a proportion of the leaves usually turning reddish in the fall, and later dropping. Commonly the compact framework of branches is 6-12 inches tall. Leaves are generally without hairs, up to 2 inches long, but usually shorter…narrow, almost elliptic and obscurely toothed. Flowers are relatively large (up to 2 inches long), generally blue-lavender, but so highly variable that the gardener should always be on the alert for exceptionally good colour forms. White, and beautiful pink specimens are seen occasionally…

 

This close-up of Penstemon fruticosus var. scouleri found growing in generous abundance on the gravel roadsides opposite the huge open-pit Highland Valley Copper Mine east of Ashcroft, B.C. shows the reason for the common name of this genus - 'Beardtongue'. Lewis J. Clark: "The lower luip of the corolla is ornamented with two deep folds and with long white hairs. When the corolla is slit lengthwise, the anthers (and also the filament of the half-length infertile stamen) are seen to be densely white haired."

This close-up of one of the  Penstemon fruticosus var. scouleri clumps found growing in generous abundance on the gravel roadsides opposite the huge open-pit Highland Valley Copper Mine east of Ashcroft, B.C. shows the reason for the common name of this genus – ‘Beardtongue’. Lewis J. Clark: “The lower lip of the corolla is ornamented with two deep folds and with long white hairs. When the corolla is slit lengthwise, the anthers (and also the filament of the half-length infertile stamen) are seen to be densely white haired.” (Click on the image to open an enlargement, which will show the afore-mentioned long white hairs on the lip folds.) Image: HFN

According to Plants of Southern Interior British Columbia (Parish, Coupé, Lloyd – Lone Pine Publishing – 1996), traditional First Nations’ uses of this plant included the production of a dye to colour basket-making materials, in pit cooking to flavour root vegetables, and medicinally as a purgative, and to bathe sore eyes and sooth ulcers, wounds, and arthritic joints.

Though in general removing plants from the wild to the garden is frowned upon, in the case of this penstemon all of my guidebooks mention how easy it is to establish from stem cuttings rooted in grit or sand, and as this technique will not harm the parent plant, one may in good conscience give it a try. Seeds are abundantly produced in pointed capsules, but are difficult to germinate, so might not be the best way to obtain this lovely species.

This is definitely a plant for a specialized location, requiring full sun and extremely well-drained soil to thrive, as evidenced by its flourishing in pure gravel in the wild. It would be wonderful in a rockery where it could cascade over a border or down a slope. Bloom time is relatively short, a few weeks in late May and early June, but the plants stay reasonably attractive throughout the rest of the growing season. A good xeriscape plant.

Shrubby Penstemon and its many fellow species are much favoured by bees and hummingbirds, another point in favour of stopping to observe this plant in the wild, and of incorporating it in the garden if one has a favourable spot.

Growing in a roadside gravel pit, Highland Valley Copper Mine, Ashcroft, B.C. - June 8, 2014. A few miles west, the roadside display was even more spectacular - a veritable carpet of purple under the pine trees on both sides of the road.

Growing in a roadside gravel pit, Highland Valley Copper Mine, Ashcroft, B.C. – June 8, 2014. A few miles west, the roadside display was even more spectacular – a veritable carpet of purple under the pine trees on both sides of the road. Image: HFN

Plant habit is that of a tidy round mound. Closer investigation shows that the shrubby stems radiate from a central point, with a main taproot providing the anchoring point. Highland Valley Copper Mine, June 8, 2014.

Plant habit is that of a tidy round mound. Closer investigation shows that the shrubby stems radiate from a central point, with a main taproot providing the anchoring point. Highland Valley Copper Mine, June 8, 2014. Image: HFN

A brighter violet individual. The bloom time of Shrubby Penstemon coincides with that of the showy cream-coloured locoweed (Oxytropis sp.).

A brighter violet individual. The bloom time of Shrubby Penstemon coincides with that of the showy cream-coloured locoweed (Oxytropis sp.), making for an attractive colour combination which could be easily replicated in the rock garden. Image: HFN

One of the nicest displays of Penstemon fruticosus var. scouleri that I've ever seen is on a steep roadside cutbank above Dunlevy Ranch in Soda Creek, B.C., a few miles south of Hill Farm. May 23, 2010.

One of the nicest displays of Penstemon fruticosus var. scouleri that I’ve ever seen is on a steep roadside cutbank above Dunlevy Ranch in Soda Creek, B.C., a few miles south of Hill Farm. This photo was taken May 23, 2010. Image: HFN

 

 

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Wild Four-O-Clocks - Mirabilis nyctaginea. Spences Bridge, B.C. May 30, 2014.

Wild Four-O-Clocks – Mirabilis nyctaginea. Spences Bridge, B.C. May 30, 2014. Image: HFN

Perennial. Zone 6, possibly colder. Nyctaginaceae. A.k.a. Heart-Leaved Four-O’Clock, Umbrellawort. Native to the Great Plains of the United States, as well as southern regions of Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Ontario. Isolated introduced populations found throughout B.C., Alberta and Quebec.

On a recent road trip, heading through the arid rangelands and rolling hills south of Cache Creek and following the Thompson River’s deeply carved valley as it heads towards its spectacular rendezvous with the Fraser at Lytton, my attention was caught by several tall clumps of lush, dark green foliage, showing clusters of small but vivid magenta-pink blooms. Pulling over in a wide spot on the road, I looped back to take a closer look.

An initial examination of the flower structure and foliage gave me an “Aha!” moment. Could this possibly be wild four-o’clocks? It wasn’t in any of the wildflower field guides I had along, nor, when back home, in my trusty and comprehensive Lewis J. Clark’s Wild Flowers of British Columbia, but an internet search yielded an immediate confirmation.

Plant habit is eye-catching, in this case because of its unexpectedly lush greenness set against a background of silver-green sagebrush and bunchgrass-tufted hills.

Near Spences Bridge, May 30, 2014. Plant habit is eye-catching, in this case because of its unexpectedly lush greenness set against a background of silver-green sagebrush and bunchgrass-tufted hills. Image: HFN

My online research yielded these details.

The plants grow in vigorous clumps from 1 to 3 feet tall (these were about 2 feet tall), with broad, heart-shaped, opposite leaves clasping the angle-sided stems. Flower clusters show green bracts at the bases of the tubular flowers, which are of a bright magenta pink. Stamens are also magenta, tipped with yellow pollen. After flowering, the bracts enlarge into a papery “umbrella” centered by a cluster of large, rather hairy nutlet-type seed. These bracts then act as parachutes during the seed dispersion stage.

The plant forms a large, tuberous tap-root, which extends a foot or more into the soil, allowing the plant to thrive in arid conditions. This root is what has led this plant to be classified as a weed-of-concern in some regions, as it is very hard to eradicate once established, being highly herbicide resistant, and able to resprout from root fragments left in the soil after pulling. (And of course the wind-dispersed seeds would also be a major factor in its ability to spread, especially in areas of disturbed soil.)

The sweet-tasting roots of this plant were used by indigenous peoples as a poultice for skin ailments and burns, and as a medicinal tea to expel worms, and to treat fevers and bladder complaints. Though pigs apparently dig up and eat the roots with great relish – they are recommended for eradication in agricultural infestations – there is some speculation that Mirabilis nyctaginea may contain some mildly toxic alkaloids, so experimentation with herbal use is not advised.

I suspect that this plant would not be winter hardy in the Cariboo-Chilcotin, but it might well succeed as an annual, as its domestic relative, the lovely and fragrant Mirabilis jalapa (the commonly grown garden flower Four-O’Clocks, or Marvel-of-Peru) blooms generously as a summer-flowering annual, and forms a similar fleshy root which does not withstand freezing soil.

While decidedly pretty in a low-key way, Mirabilis nyctaginea is not particularly showy, and reports of its “weedy” tendencies would make me cautious to recommend this plant, though it might be an interesting addition to a wildflower planting if one is feeling adventurous, and is prepared to remove seedheads before they can disperse. Seed is often available for this plant through botanical seed exchanges, and commercially through some specialist native plant seed houses.

Near Spences Bridge, B.C. May 30, 2014.

Near Spences Bridge, B.C. May 30, 2014. Image: HFN

 

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