Archive for the ‘Shade’ Category

Myrrhis odorata - Sweet Cicely - Hill Farm - June 2013. Image: HFN

Myrrhis odorata – Sweet Cicely – Hill Farm – June 2013. Image: HFN

Perennial. Zone 3. Apiaceae syn. Umbelliferae. Central Europe, the Pyrenees and the Caucasus. Widely naturalized in Europe and Great Britain. Myrrhis is from the Greek, in reference to the similarity of this plant’s aroma to that of the sap of the tropical myrrh tree (Commiphora species), much valued for perfumery. (The true myrrh was traditionally one of the costly gifts presented to the Baby Jesus by the Three Wise Men.) Odorata is from the Latin, “scented”.

I have never seen this lovely herb for sale in commercial nurseries in our area, which is why I was so thrilled to find it in a small roadside nursery near Bella Coola way back in 1998. I tucked it into a corner of the flower border, where it has maintained itself ever since, forming quite a vigorous colony of ferny, liquorice-scented foliage accented by lacy umbels of pure white blooms in spring.

The lacy flowers of Sweet Cicely are highly attractive to pollinating insects of all sorts. Hill Farm, May 2013. Image: HFN

The delicate flowers of Sweet Cicely are highly attractive to pollinating insects of all sorts. Hill Farm, May 2013. Image: HFN

I’ve transplanted seedlings – very carefully, for Myrrhis odorata has a long, brittle tap root – into various shady spots, where it happily settles in and adds its delicate leafiness to the general green tapestry effect. The blooms are followed by upright clusters of huge, light green seeds, which slowly darken to glossy black.

Sweet Cicely seed cluster - Hill Farm, May 2014. Image: HFN

Sweet Cicely seed cluster – Hill Farm, May 2014. Image: HFN

Where happy the plant reaches a substantial size, easily 2 feet or taller, and eventually several feet wide as the foliage expands through spring into early summer. Once blooming is finished, the plant may be shorn back to the ground, where it will re-sprout with renewed vigour and provide a pleasant backdrop for later-blooming flowers.

The texture of the foliage is delicately downy – it feels as soft as it looks. I have occasionally added it to cut flower bouquets for its ferny effect, but it isn’t really happy once cut, so I now mostly enjoy it in the garden.

Sweet Cicely has a long history of use as an herb, being strongly anise (licorice-like) scented in all of its parts, and having a very sweet flavour. It is one of the benign “innocent herbs” – edible in all of its parts, and free of potentially harmful components.

Myrrhis odorata will thrive in the sunny mixed perennial border, as it enjoys fertile soil and summer moisture. It can also be placed in quite deep shade, and, if encouraged to self-sow, will spread to fill in the area under high-pruned shrubs and trees.

I have not found Sweet Cicely to be particularly weedy – seedlings are easy to identify and easily plucked out – but it is a persistent plant once established (that taproot goes a long way down), so consider its siting carefully. Mature plants do not move well, so container grown starts and young seedlings are your best bet for bringing it into your own garden or for spreading it around.

Myrrhis odorata - Sweet Cicely - Hill Farm - June 2014. Image: HFN

Myrrhis odorata – Sweet Cicely – Hill Farm – June 2014. Image: HFN

Maud Grieve’s massive reference book, A Modern Herbal, first published in 1931, has these notes on Myrrhis odorata:

It is a native of Great Britain, a perennial with a thick root and very aromatic foliage, on account of which it was used in former days as a salad herb, or boiled, when the root, leaves, and seed were all used. The leaves are very large, somewhat downy beneath, and have a flavour rather like Anise, with a scent like Lovage. The first shoots consist of an almost triangular, lacey leaf, with a simple wing curving up from each side of its root. The stem grows from 2 to 3 feet high, bearing many leaves, and white flowers in early summer appear in compound umbels. In appearance it is rather like Hemlock, but is of a fresher green colour. The fruit is remarkably large, an inch long, dark brown, and fully flavoured. The leaves taste as if sugar had been sprinkled over them.

It is probable that it is not truly a wild plant, as it is usually found near houses, where it may very probably be cultivated in the garden. Sweet Cicely is very attractive to bees; in the north of England it is said that the seeds are used to polish and scent oak floors and furniture. In Germany they are still very generally used in cookery. The old herbalists describe the plant as ‘so harmless you cannot use it amiss.’ The roots were supposed to be not only excellent in a salad, but when boiled and eaten with oil and vinegar, to be ‘very good for old people that are dull and without courage; it rejoiceth and comforteth the heart and increaseth their lust and strength.’


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Brunnera macrophylla - Vancouver, B.C. - April 2014. Image: HFN

Brunnera macrophylla – Vancouver, B.C. – April 2014. Image: HFN

Perennial. Zone 2. Boraginaceae. Syn. Anchusa myosotidiflora. A.k.a. SIBERIAN BUGLOSS. Caucasus Mountains; Asia Minor. The odd common name “Bugloss” is derived from the Greek words for “ox’s tongue” – bous = head of a cow, and gloss = tongue – in reference to the shape and texture of the leaves. The Siberian moniker is a bit inaccurate, as there is another, very similar, but much rarer species, Brunnera sibirica, which no doubt better deserves the title. The genus is named after Samuel Brunner (1790-1844), a Swiss botanist. Macrophylla = “large leaves”, again in reference to the substantial basal foliage.

I am very fond of this attractive spring bloomer, though I must admit that I once killed a newly transplanted colony through neglect one hot, busy summer, from lack of water. It’s definitely a shade/good soil/plenty of moisture sort of thing in our Cariboo-Chilcotin climate, and it is very happy in the high shade of trees, or even at the north side of the house, far enough out from the wall so it can catch a few sun rays for part of the day.

Handsome, heart-shaped, rough-textured, deep green foliage in big clumps to 18 inches tall produce many clusters of tiny, true blue, yellow-eyed, forget-me-not-like flowers from mid-spring into summer.

An excellent pairing of Brunnera macrocephalla and a red-leaved Epimidium at the UBC Botanical Garden, April 2014. Image: HFN

An excellent pairing of Brunnera macrocphylla with a red-leaved Epimidium at the UBC Botanical Garden, Vancouver, B.C. – April 2014. Image: HFN

Brunnera macrophylla received much attention in 1802 from European botanists and gardeners when it was collected during an exploratory expedition to the Caucasus Mountains led by Count Apollos Apollosovich Mussin-Pushkin, a dedicated scientist with interests in both mineralogy and botany. Others had apparently noticed the plant’s horticultural possibilities before the roving Russian Count brought it home, as the plant was first documented in English gardens almost a century earlier, in 1713.

I think it’s a rather wonderful plant, and so did the noted American gardener and writer Louise Beebe Wilder, for in her charming and informative 1935 book, What Happens in My Garden, she had this to say in the chapter titled “True Blues Among the Early Blossoms”:

Anchusa myosotidiflora, like a giant dark blue Forget-me-not and blooming before it, is invaluable. It grows well in sun or shade, but likes a soil that is not too dry. It has a thousand uses in the garden. It wreathes the yellow skirts of the Forsythias with lovely effect, is lovely in low borders with early Trollius, Doronicum, and blue and white Camassias, is lovely as an interplanting for Tulips of almost any colour. Try it with some of the “difficult” bronzes, as well as those of purer hue…The Anchusa enjoys a long season. It is, I believe, now properly known as Brunnera macrophylla.

Stylish silvery-white-variegated cultivars of this old-fashioned plant are supremely popular right now, but the good old green-leaved sort sets off the pretty flowers without distraction, and I think I may still like it best.

A silvery-variegated cultivar of Brunnera macrophylla pairs up with species daffodils at Van Dusen Garden in Vancouver, B.C. - April 2014. Image: HFN

A silvery-variegated cultivar of Brunnera macrophylla pairs up with species daffodils at Van Dusen Garden in Vancouver, B.C. – April 2014. Image: HFN

And here is a lovelu planting of a strongly variegated cultivar at the now-closed Minter Gardens in Chilliwack, B.C. - May 2013. Image: HFN

And here is a handsome planting of a strongly variegated Brunnera macrophylla cultivar at the now-closed Minter Gardens in Chilliwack, B.C. – May 2013. Image: HFN

Once the flowers finally subside in early summer, the plants can start to look a little bit tired, but can be refreshed by some judicious pruning, and perhaps some compost or well-rotted manure gently scratched into the soil at the base of the foliage crowns. Don’t forget to water this in well, and keep an eye on soil moisture levels, especially through the heat of July and August.

Brunnera macrophylla is shallow rooted, and is anchored in the ground by long, brittle rhizomes. It spreads to form a substantial colony where happy, but is very easily curbed by pulling back encroaching roots. It divides well in early spring, though divisions may take a season to re-establish.

Sun to shade, good soil and moisture.

Brunnera macrophylla has a long bloom time. Here it is, getting a bit tired but still lovely, in mid-June, 2011, at Van Dusen Garden in Vancouver, B.C. Image: HFN

Brunnera macrophylla has a respectably long bloom time. Here it is, flower clusters looking a bit tatty after 3 months of continual show in the coastal climate, but still very appealing, in mid-June, 2011, at Van Dusen Garden in Vancouver, B.C. Image: HFN

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Aquilegia alpine - Alpine Columbine - Chilliwack, B.C. - June 2013. Image: HFN

Aquilegia alpina – Alpine Columbine – Chilliwack, B.C. – June 2013. Image: HFN

Perennial. Zone 2. Ranunculaceae. From the European Alps and Apennines.

This is a grand, very long-blooming species, native to European mountain meadows and open forests. It has been grown in gardens for centuries, and has been much used in Aquilegia hybridization.

Large, short-spurred, dusky violet-blue flowers in profusion top 12 to 18 inch tall plants from mid-spring well into summer. A tidy plant, hardy and adaptable. It will self sow, and will cross pollinate with other Aquilegias growing nearby, so your seedlings will always be something of a surprise as to colour and form.

Aquilegia alpine - Vancouver, June 2011. Image: HFN

Aquilegia alpina – Vancouver, June 2011. Image: HFN

It is noted by Aquilegia authority Robert Nold in his definitive 2003 monograph, Columbines: Aquilegia, Paraquilegia, and Semiaquilegia, that Aquilegia alpina in its pure form is seldom to be had in the plant trade due to the general promiscuity of this genus, to whit: “As with many columbines, the genetic purity seems to have been diluted by cultivation through the centuries…”

Plants I have grown from reliably-sourced seed labelled “alpina” have always shown a strong similarity in colour and habit; the species (or at least the cultivated, evolved form of the species) seems to exist in a fairly stable type.

It would be interesting to grow out some wild-collected seed from Aquilegia alpina’s native habitat to compare with the cultivated strain; perhaps I will request some from this fall’s collectors’ seed lists and see what we come up with.

Sun to shade, good soil and moisture.

Aquilegia alpine - June 2013. Image: HFN

Aquilegia alpina – June 2013. Image: HFN

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Viola riviniana - Van Dusen Garden, Vancouver, B.C. - June 2011. Image: HFN

Viola labradorica ‘purpurea’/Viola riviniana ‘Purple Group’ – “Labrador Violet” – Van Dusen Garden, Vancouver, B.C. – June 2011. Image: HFN

Perennial. Zone 2. Violaceae. Eastern North America, or possibly Europe.

There presently exists some confusion among botanists as to whether the plant widely distributed in the plant trade as Viola labradorica (from eastern North America, including Labrador, and also in Greenland) is actually a very similar European species, Viola riviniana. Until the final verdict is in, there seems to be a broad agreement to keep calling this pretty little violet by the best-known common name, Labrador Violet.

Whatever the classification, it is most garden-worthy.

Viola labradorica 'purpurea Van Dusen Garden, Vancouver, B.C. - April 8, 2014. Image: HFN

Viola labradorica ‘purpurea’/Viola riviniana ‘Purple Group’ – Van Dusen Garden, Vancouver, B.C. – April 8, 2014. New spring foliage is darkest in colour, and decidedly glossy in texture. Image: HFN

The most instantly noticeable thing about this violet is its silken-textured red-purple flushed foliage. This is particularly noticeable in early spring, but the foliage remains dark-blushed all summer, with deeper shades developing in autumn. Plants reach 6 inches or so tall, and spread in a gently determined sort of way to form substantial colonies. It self-seeds about quite abundantly, but the young plants are easy to transplant or pull out if they overstep their allotted bounds.

Classic small purple violet flowers are produced in great abundance in spring and early summer. Sadly, these are not noticeably fragrant, but they are beautifully decorative. A hardy and attractive groundcover for under ferns, taller perennials, and shrubs, or in the nooks and crannies of rockwork.

Labrador Violet is content in sun to deep shade, in average soil with some summer moisture.

Viola labradorica purpurea (?) - "Labrador Violet" - May 2014, Hill Farm. Image: HFN

Viola labradorica purpurea (?) – “Labrador Violet” in a lush carpet under an old apple tree – note the fallen petals – May 2014, Hill Farm. Image: HFN

Another look at this pretty plant - "Labrador Violet" - May 2014. Image: HFN

Another, closer look at this pretty plant (and possible imposter) – “Labrador Violet” – May 2014. Image: HFN

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Aegopodium podagraria

Variegated Bishop’s Goutwort – Aegopodium podagraria ‘variegata’. Penticton, B.C., June 2014. Image: HFN

Perennial. Zone 1. Apiaceae, formerly Umbelliferae.  Europe, Northeast Asia. Aka HANSEL-AND-GRETEL, JACK-JUMP-ABOUT, BISHOPSWEED, SNOW-ON-THE-MOUNTAIN, GROUND ELDER. 12 to 16  inches tall; spread infinite. Any soil, average moisture, sun to shade.

Aegopodium is derived from the Greek aix or aigos (a goat) and pous or podos (a foot), from the fancied resemblance in the shape of the leaves to a goat’s foot. Podagraria comes from the Latin word for gout, podagra, because this plant was highly valued as a treatment for that ailment in medieval times.

Goutwort is an attractively variegated pale green and ivory foliage plant, though it does produce umbels of tiny, creamy white flowers in summer.  It is an insidiously invasive but very valuable groundcover for difficult sites. A solid edging or path will generally contain it.

Avoid planting in a mixed border, as it will gobble up less rambunctious neighbours. I have had success growing it with other hold-your-own plants, namely with Lily-of-the-Valley (Convallaria majalis), Ribbon Grass (Phalaris arundinaceae ‘picta’), and Joe-Pye Weed (Eupatorium purpureum), but I do believe it is generally best alone, in a place where it can flourish to its (and the gardener’s) heart’s delight.

An excellent example of perfect placement of this exceediningly successful groundcover. Aegopodium podagraria grown in a shady border between a structure and a mown lawn in Penticton, B.C.  June 2014

An excellent example of perfect placement of this exceediningly successful groundcover. Aegopodium podagraria grown in a shady border between a structure and a mown lawn in Penticton, B.C., June 2014. Image: HFN

Bishop’s Goutwort is an old-time, pre-Medieval garden plant, once used in medicine and cookery. From Maude Grieve’s 1930 Modern Herbal:

 It has a creeping root-stock and by this means it spreads rapidly and soon establishes itself, smothering all vegetation less rampant than its own. It is a common pest of orchards, shrubberies and ill-kept gardens, and is found on the outskirts of almost every village or town, being indeed rarely absent from a building of some description. It is possible that Buckwheat might drive it out if planted where Goutweed has gained a hold.

It was called Bishopsweed and Bishopswort, because so frequently found near old ecclesiastical ruins. It is said to have been introduced by the monks of the Middle Ages, who cultivated it as a herb of healing. It was called Herb Gerard, because it was dedicated to St. Gerard, who was formerly invoked to cure the gout, against which the herb was chiefly employed.

The white root-stock is pungent and aromatic, but the flavour of the leaves is strong and disagreeable. (However) Linnaeus recommends the young leaves boiled and eaten as a green vegetable, as in Sweden and Switzerland, and it used also to be eaten as a spring salad.

A poultice made from the boiled leaves and roots was used with reportedly good effect as a treatment for all sorts of joint pains.

Aegopodium podagraria 'variegata'- Hill Farm, July 2011.

Aegopodium podagraria ‘variegata’– Hill Farm, July 2011. Image: HFN

Nowadays this plant is grown strictly as an ornamental, and it is a very good plant for difficult sites, as long as its land-grabbing habits are taken into consideration. Propagation of the variegated form is by division; it seldom sets viable seed. There original species is solid green, even more vigorous than its creamy-leaved sport, and a profuse self-seeder. Luckily it is not at all common in our country – the variegated version is sufficiently successful in our gardens.

Bishop’s Goutwort is frequently seen in old gardens and around abandoned homesteads. A particularly nice Cariboo planting is behind the Theatre Royal in the restored 1860s’ Gold Rush town of Barkerville, B.C., where it thrives in a lush colony hemmed in by Mountain Bluet (Centaurea montana) and Lady’s Mantle (Alchemilla species), both vigorous survivor-type plants in their own right.

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Corallorhiza striata - Striped Coral-Root. Near Tyee Lake, B.C., June 12, 2014.

Corallorhiza striata – Striped Coral-Root. Near Tyee Lake, B.C., June 12, 2014.

Perennial. Zone 1/2. Orchidaceae. From the southern Peace River district and through B.C. and the Pacific Northwest into California. Found in most Canadian provinces and in many American states, and into Mexico and Central America.

This unusual and rather rare orchid is occasionally found in the moist forests of the Cariboo-Chilcotin, most often in conjunction with rotting wood, as it is a saprophyte, a plant which feeds entirely off of decaying organic matter in the soil. As it has no need of chlorophyll, the leaves are merely small bracts on the stem, and there is no green coloration to any part of the plant.

I was very pleased to come upon this thriving clump yesterday, on the edge of a wet meadow next to a fallen poplar tree. It may be found in bloom from May into mid-summer, and is often an unexpected find, having no foliage clump to mark its presence in the times before and after blooming, though the dried flower stems will give the sharp-eyed botanist a clue.

The bloom stems arise from rhizomes – elongated underground stems – and vary from a single spike to a generous grouping. Stems are pale brownish-purple, and typical hooded orchid flowers are vividly striped with darker purple over a whitish background.

Up to 20 intricate flowers are produced on each 12-inch (or taller) stem, and are pollinated by a variety of insects, including mosquitoes and tiny parasitic wasps. There is no detectable (to a human) fragrance. Seed capsules form after pollination, and mature many tiny seeds which are dispersed by wind or by disturbance of the dried flower spike.

Lewis J. Clark, Wild Flowers of British Columbia, 1973:

Like most members of the Orchid family, the Coral-roots are becoming increasingly rare as cultivation progressively destroys their habitats. The plant-lover should not attempt to transplant Corallorhiza species to the garden, because the odd, clubbed rhizomes are associated, for their work of extracting nourishment from decayed organic materials, with a complex group of fungi found only in natural sites.

A plea, then, to enjoy in the wild, and to leave undisturbed in the hope that this unusual flower may continue to thrive as part of an intricately balanced natural forest community.

Corallorhiza striata - June 12, 2014

Corallorhiza striata – June 12, 2014

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Convallaria majalis - Lily-of-the-Valley - Williams Lake, B.C. - May 23, 2014

Convallaria majalis – Lily-of-the-Valley – Williams Lake, B.C. – May 23, 2014. Image: HFN

Perennial. Zone 1. Asparagaceae, formerly Liliaceae. Woodland flower of Northern Europe, from England east and south to the Caucasus, into northern Turkey. Also found in Japan, and the North American Appalachians, though there is some speculation that the American population originated from introduced plants.

Lily-of-the-Valley has been grown in gardens since at least 1000 B.C. It is well documented in many herbals and plant lists, and was an important medicinal herb as well as a highly-regarded ornamental. Today most of its uses are decorative, though the species’ chemical constituents are being studied for various medicinal applications, and it is used in homeopathy as a remedy for various heart conditions.

By mid to late April in Cariboo-Chilcotin garden, the tightly furled spikes of Lily-of-the-Valley start to emerge, soon unfolding into dark green, mule-ear shaped leaves, with the bloom clusters visible at the base of each foliage cluster.

A thriving colony of Convallaria majalis in early May - Hill Farm, 2014. If you look closely you will see the emerging flower buds at the base of the leaf clusters.

A thriving colony of Convallaria majalis in early May – Hill Farm, 2014. If you look closely you will see the emerging flower buds at the bases of the leaf clusters. Image: HFN

As May progresses the leaves expand to form a solid carpet of green, and the bloom stems lengthen, until one long-anticipated day one becomes aware, by catching a waft of the unmistakable fragrance, that the first flowers have opened.

Early June, Hill Farm, 2010.

Early June, Hill Farm, 2010. Image: HFN

The blooms are pristinely perfect: tiny pure white bells with pale yellow stamens, arranged in gently arching sprays. Thickly textured and long lasting, these are marvelous cut flowers, being free of their fragrance even after several days in a vase. Lilies-of-the-Valley are classic wedding bouquet flowers, and are commercially grown for the specialty florist market, though brides in months other than when the plants naturally flower should be prepared to pay a premium price for the artificially-forced greenhouse-grown blooms, which will also not be as fragrant as their garden-grown counterparts.

In the Victorian “Language of Flowers”, Lily-of-the-Valley signified “return to happiness” and “expectation of love”, which, along with the delicate virginal beauty of the blooms, no doubt accounts for its many bridal associations.

The fragrance of the flowers is outstanding, and perfumers have tried for centuries to mimic it in their concoctions, for though it is freely produced, it is not able to be captured in any sort of usable way. Reasonable imitations have been produced chemically, but there is truly nothing like the real thing, from a cluster of the dew-wet blooms picked on a fresh May morning.

To grow your own plot of Convallaria, you should first prepare a patch of shady ground by removing all surface tree and shrub roots and potentially competing grasses and other plants, and then digging in some well-rotted compost or manure. Plant the shallow-rooted pips just as they come out of their pots, with the rhizomes extending at right angles from the leaf clusters. Keep well watered and weeded the first season, and after that the plants should settle in to form an ever-expanding, maintenance-free colony. 

Lily-of-the-Valley does very well under trees and high-pruned shrubs, thriving on the filtered sunlight coming through leaves. Though very shade tolerant, plants do need some natural light if they are to bloom, so avoid dense shade such as that on the north side of buildings. Also avoid planting these in the mixed border, as they are happier where they can form a single-species colony. Very vigorous larger plants will crowd them out, and they in turn will gobble up more delicate things; the ongoing struggle will not be a happy thing, so it’s best to dedicate an area to your plantation right from the start.

Many people inquire as to the poisonous aspects of this plant, as it does appear on many “toxic garden flower” lists. Though all parts of the plant contain cardiac-affecting glycosides and digestive system-affecting saponins, though there are very few confirmed cases of actual poisonings, and no confirmed fatalities. It is theorized that, though potentially dangerous, the chemical constituents in the fresh plant matter are poorly absorbed by the digestive tract, so though accidental consumption might make you feel quite sick, it probably won’t kill you. (And I can’t imagine why one would accidentally consume this plant, as it is quite distinctive and not likely to be mistaken for anything else during any stages of its growth.)  The plants frequently produce red berries in the summer and autumn and this may be of some concern to those with very young children; be aware and garden with this in mind.

Convallaria majalis ‘striata’ – Hill Farm – May 26, 2014. Image: HFN

There are a number of interesting variations of this venerable garden plant occasionally available at specialty nurseries. We are in the process of propagating our own small colony of the striped-leaved variety, Convallaria majalis ‘striata’, and hope to be able to share these in a few more years. There is also a rosy-pink variation, Convallaria majalis ‘rosea’, and a double type, Convallaria majalis ‘prolificans’, though these last two are much less vigorous than their ancestors.



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Asarum europaeum - European Wild Ginger - Dense foliage mat - Williams Lake, B.C. - May 23, 2014

Asarum europaeum – European Wild Ginger – Showing the beautiful foliage and densely mat-forming habit – Williams Lake, B.C. – May 23, 2014 Image: HFN

Perennial. Zone 3. Aristolochiaceae. Central Europe, Scandinavia, Russia to western Siberia. A creeping groundcover of moist deciduous and mixed forests. Received the Royal Horticultural Society’s Award of Garden Merit in 2007. A.k.a. Hazelwort, for its presence under hazelnut bushes in its native woods, and Asarabacca, perhaps in reference to its long-ago use as a medicinal snuff.

Thickly textured, very glossy, slightly marbled, heart-shaped foliage is the main attraction to this quietly handsome woodlander.

Plants spread by creeping roots and modest self seeding to form dense mats, a slow process but very rewarding in the long term.

Excellent with woodland ferns and as an underplanting to trees and shrubs, as long as there is sufficient soil and humus to keep the Asarum well nourished. Shade and adequate summer moisture are much appreciated; this is not a particularly drought tolerant plant.

Leaves reach 4 inches or so in height; each plant is about 4 to 6 inches wide or so, so it is best to plant several in a group to get a head start on your own wild ginger patch. The plant is evergreen in mild climates, but dies down over winter in the Cariboo. Do not clip back or pull away the old foliage but leave it be to shelter new growth. Completely maintenance free!

The common name comes from the mild ginger aroma of the shallow, rather fleshy roots. The roots were once used medicinally as a purgative, and for various skin ailments, and to induce sneezing. Leaves apparently smell and taste like pepper; I haven’t investigated this myself. Asarum europaeum is still used in homeopathy.

The flowers of this plant are exceedingly unique. They are tiny, three-lobed, tubular structures, and are produced at the very base of the foliage. These lie flat on the ground, and emit a faint carrion-like aroma, which attracts pollinating insects – small flies, ants, and crawling beetles. One thing to note is the woolly hairiness of the stems and outer blooms, in contrast to the glossy smoothness of the leaf surfaces.

Close-up of Asarum europaeum flowers. Completely hidden under the foliage, these are pollinated by beetles and crawling insects.

Close-up of Asarum europaeum flowers. Completely hidden under the foliage, these are pollinated by beetles and crawling insects. Image: HFN


Happily at home in a Williams Lake garden, under native fir trees on a west-facing slope, Asarum europaeum attractively coexists with natives such as holly-like Oregon grape (Mahonia aquifolium). Image: HFN

Gently encroaching on another dense mat-former, Gentiana acaulis, in a Williams Lake woodland garden. May 23, 2014.

Gently encroaching on another dense mat-former, Gentiana acaulis, in a Williams Lake woodland garden. May 23, 2014. Image: HFN

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Mukdenia rossii syn. Aceriphyllum rossii - Hill Farm, Macalister, B.C. - May 21, 2014

Mukdenia rossii syn. Aceriphyllum rossii – Hill Farm, Macalister, B.C. – May 21, 2014 Image: HFN

Perennial. Zone 4. Saxifragaceae. Native to Korea, Northern China and Manchuria, where it grows in cool deciduous forest and on rocky slopes and subalpine ravines. The name Mukdenia comes from the Chinese province of Shenyang, then called Mukden, while the specific name, rossii, is after a Scottish missionary John Ross* (1842-1915) who established one of the first Christian churches in the region.

Quietly beautiful in all stages of growth. I fell for this the first time I saw it in autumn-leaf mode, long after flowering, in a coastal garden. The silk-sheened foliage was flushed with crimson, but that was merely what initially caught my eye; on closer examination I saw that the structure and habit of the plant made it a perfectly self-contained woodland garden sort of clump former. A bit of research and a description of the starry white spring blooms merely confirmed my first impression that this was a Very Good Thing, and so I set off on my quest to obtain it for myself.

This proved much more challenging than I had anticipated. Though various coastal nurseries occasionally showed the deluxe cultivar ‘Crimson Fans’ on their stock lists, there never seemed to be one available on my infrequent visits. I did find one rather bedraggled specimen on an end-of-season sale table for a breathtaking $40, but couldn’t bring myself to buy it for that sum, not knowing if it would prove hardy for me. (All plant people are by nature gamblers of sorts, but, like most of us, I do have my limits!)

Then, ten years or so ago, I found Mukdenia rossii listed on Kristl Walek’s most excellent Gardens North perennial seed list. A half dozen tiny seedlings survived the rigors of the germination and growing out stage, and I was set. I mulled over a suitable placement for them, and settled on the front of the border on the west side of the house, an area shaded by trees in the afternoon, and well protected by snow from the house roof in winter. The plants approved, and settled in happily, to expand their clump modestly each season and to give me more and more spikes of their tiny white starflowers with every succeeding spring. There they are at the top of the post, and here they are in close-up mode.

Hill Farm - May 21, 2014. A closer look at the starry blooms will show this plant's membership in the venerable Saxifrage family.

Hill Farm – May 21, 2014. A closer look at the starry blooms will show this plant’s membership in the venerable Saxifrage family. Image: HFN

I occasionally consider stealing some divisions from my cherished little colony, but so far I have resisted that temptation. It is modestly thriving but is in no way outgrowing its allocated space; I think I will leave it well enough alone. Seed remains hard to come by, and I haven’t seen it on Kristl’s list recently. I have managed to germinate a few seedlings from my own plants, but as they are delicate things in the early stages I sadly lost them all before they reached transplanting stage – damping off, too hot a greenhouse, and a day’s missed watering during the busiest time of the nursery year spelled their various dooms. I shall try again, though, because this is something I would love to share with my fellow Cariboo gardeners.

So, on to the nitty gritty.

Mukdenia rossii forms a compact clump which expands by slowly creeping rhizomatous roots. Rosy-blushed, crowded bud spikes emerge in earliest spring a little before the foliage, and the budding stems and leaves grow a little day by day, until at last, in late April or early May, the first white stars appear. These add to the number day by day, until at last the branched panicles are drooping from their combined weight; the show lasts for weeks, well into June if we don’t have a heat wave. The flowers slowly fade to brown, and the aging seed heads may be left in place or clipped off if you are of the exceedingly tidy sort.

Foliage is broad, fan-shaped with serrated edges, and of a most attractive silken texture, with a lovely light-catching sheen. The leaves are well flushed with dark red upon emergence, and though this fades to a uniform green for the majority of the growing season, autumn again brings out the red tints, until the plants disappear under the snow.

Mukdenia appreciates humus-rich soil and a fair bit of moisture in the heat of summer, though it never droops. Afternoon shade is definitely appreciated; this can be grown under tree cover in a woodland setting.

Once established, bloom stems will reach a foot or so in height, with clumps expanding to 1 or 2 feet. Perhaps nicest in a colony, with several planted together, as it is grown in the University of British Columbia Botanical Garden, and, in a more modest way, my own shady border.

A gorgeous colony of Mukdenia rossii in full bloom, UBC Botanical Garden, Vancouver, B.C. - April 8, 2014.

A gorgeous colony of Mukdenia rossii in full bloom, UBC Botanical Garden, Vancouver, B.C. – April 8, 2014. Image: HFN

UBC - April 8, 2014

UBC Botanical Garden – April 8, 2014 Image: HFN

I did eventually acquire a small start of ‘Crimson Fans’, but sadly it inadvertently spent a recent winter with the crown crushed under a brick which had tipped sideways – it (the brick) was meant to protect a promising hellebore seedling – and it (the mukdenia) was not looking at all well, so is now residing in a pot, being nursed back to health.

This is the one you will likely find if you are yourself scanning the more southerly nurseries. It is also sold under the original Japanese name, ‘Karasuba’. Ignore whatever the zone rating on the tag says – it might be a conservative Zone 6 or 7 – and give it a try. I would be confident to recommend it to at least Zone 4, or even Zone 3 if it can be guaranteed good snow cover. The red colour does fade by mid spring, after which it looks pretty much like the species type, but it is very pretty while it lasts.

Nice plant. Worth a try.

*I wondered if John Ross was also involved with botany in some way, but I found no mention of it in the few places I checked. There is this short biography, however, from the Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Christianity:

Born in northern Scotland, Ross served several Gaelic-speaking churches before leaving for China under the United Presbyterian Church in 1872. His ministry deeply touched two areas, Manchuria and Korea. By 1873 he had preached his first sermon in Chinese and had pioneered Manchurian work through wide itineration from his post in Shenyang (Mukden).

Known for his generous spirit toward Confucianism and Chinese ancestral rites, he supported the idea of a Chinese church that would not be a Western replica. In 1873, living on the northern border of a Korea still closed to outsiders, he met traders from the “hermit kingdom.” His growing interests produced the first Korean primer (1877) and grammar (1882) in English, the first history of Korea in any Western language (1879), and, under his direction, the first Korean translation of the New Testament (1887). Its unheralded distribution in Korea produced an authentic church there before Protestant missionary itineration began widely within the country. He retired to Scotland because of ill health in 1910 but continued to write and lecture.


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UBC Botanical Garden, Vancouver, B.C. April 8, 2014

Trachystemon orientalis – UBC Botanical Garden, Vancouver, B.C. April 8, 2014. Image: HFN

Perennial. Zone 4/5. Boraginaceae. Syn. Borago orientalis. Bulgaria, Turkey, northern Asia.

Something of a bio plant (“botanical interest only”) but one which I am intrigued by, having long had a strong affection for the members of the Boraginaceae as a whole.

Deep green, crisply wrinkled, rather bristly leaves arise in early spring, along with many 6-inch stems topped by loose spikes of many small, star-shaped blue blooms with curiously reflexed petals and prominent stamen clusters. A rich nectar source, the flowers are a favourite of foraging bees. Once the flowers subside in May, the foliage expands to form a dense colony of 18-inch long, bright green leaves, reminiscent of a colony of furry-leaved hostas.

Most literature dismisses Trachystemon orientalis as hardy only to Zone 6, but properly sited, in humus-rich soil in areas with reliable snow cover, this one is worth a try in our region’s Zone 4-ish woodland gardens.

From UBC Botanical Garden horticulturist Jackie Chambers, April 2, 2008:

A fine example of Trachystemon orientalis can be found in the David C. Lam Asian Garden here at UBC. The coarse-textured, heart-shaped leaves are bright green and reach 25-30cm long. However, it is the dainty blue flowers, currently in bloom, that are the most striking feature of this perennial groundcover.

The flowers are held on hairy, purple flower stalks of 15-30cm in height. Flower stalks emerge in early spring (March-April) before the leaves have reached full size. Individual flowers are about 1cm in diameter, and are hermaphroditic – meaning they have both staminate (pollen producing) and carpellate (ovule producing) structures. Stiff hairs and blue flowers are typical features of members of Boraginaceae.

Trachystemon is derived from the Greek trachys, meaning rough, and stemon, a stamen. The species name orientalis means eastern or from the orient, and is a reference to the native distribution of this species. Trachystemon orientalis is endemic to southeastern Europe and western Asia.

In Turkey, the plant is eaten as a vegetable, and has the common name aci hodan. The flowers, stems, young leaves and rhizome may all be cooked and eaten.

English common names include Abraham-Isaac-Jacob, and Eastern or Oriental borage.

From a horticulturist perspective, this plant is an extremely useful groundcover; while it prefers partly shaded woodland locations, it can tolerate full sun to shade, and a range of soil conditions. It even performs well in dry shade which is always a challenge for gardeners.

Trachystemon orientalis grows in forested and subalpine areas of its native lands, where it is collected in early spring as a much-loved delicacy. It is sold in the local farmers’ markets and prepared rather like spinach, though I would fervently hope that the overall bristly texture is subdued by cooking.

A gardener from Ankara, Turkey, shared this comment on an online garden forum I occasionally visit:

This plant is highly edible and grows in the Black Sea mountains in Turkey. Much like spinach it needs a very good soak and rinsing several times because of the bristles. It is a lovely food, stem and flowers included, when chopped and added to sautéed chopped onions then whisked eggs stirred in and allowed to cook through. Salt and pepper to taste.

It is a seasonal plant and not available except by foraging for it. (The common name in Turkey is) ‘Kaldirik’.

Grown as an ornamental in Great Britain since the 1860s, it was reportedly introduced to North American in the 1970s by renowned plantsman John Elsley, who has been instrumental in introducing many new-to-the-continent species and cultivars to the North American nursery trade.

Still very rare in the nursery trade in Canada. Reported to be easy from seed, so a good place to start would be the various alpine garden club seed exchanges, or keep an eye out if visiting a coastal specialty nursery. Hill Farm Nursery hopes to be able to offer this plant in the future. A test planting is in the ground as of fall 2014.

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