Archive for the ‘Spring’ Category

Polemonium pauciflorum - Yellow Jacob's Ladder - Hill Farm, June 2011. Image: HFN

Polemonium pauciflorum – Yellow Jacob’s Ladder – Hill Farm, June 2011. Image: HFN

Short-Lived Perennial. Zone 4. Polemoniaceae. Arizona, New Mexico, Texas.

This is a Jacob’s Ladder with a difference. Instead of the usual clusters of blue and lavender wide-open flowers, P. pauciflorum produces graceful downfacing sulphur yellow trumpets, blushed with dusky red.

The specific name, pauciflorum, translates as “few-flowered”, but this is a relative designation. There may be few in each cluster compared to the dense arrangements of many of its relatives, but there are many blooming stems produced. So many, in fact, that Yellow Jacob Ladder frequently “blooms itself to death”, fading away completely after its exertion.

Delicate, many-leafleted foliage in lush 12-inch wide clumps. The graceful flower clusters on slender, 12 to 18 inch stalks appear in spring and early summer.

A very nice little plant, rarely found commercially but popular in the “plant fanatic” seed exchange world, which is where I originally obtained mine, from a gardener in Wales. (A rather roundabout trip from its native home in southern North America!)

Polemonium pauciflorum frequently blooms profusely in its first season, so may be treated as an annual, though technically it is perennial. Allow it to set seed and self sow to ensure its continued presence in your garden. If collecting seed for sharing or growing out, be aware that it has a short viability period in dry, cool room temperature storage, of 6 months to a year at most in my experience.

Sun to light shade; average soil and moisture.

This plant's membership in the Phlox Family is very evident from the appearance of the tightly furled buds - something I hadn't really noticed regarding other species. Image: HFN

This plant’s membership in the Phlox Family is very evident from the appearance of the tightly furled buds – something I hadn’t really noticed regarding other species. Image: HFN

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Biennial or short-lived perennial. Zone 2. Brassicaceae. Syn. Cheiranthus x marshallii. Despite the common name, Siberian Wallflower is most accurately described as originating in England. It was a deliberate cross made by John Marshall in 1846 between Erysimum perofskianum, originally native to the Middle East, in specific Persia, and E. decumbens, from northern Spain, the Pyrenees and the southwestern Alps.

The Brassica Family makes up for its generally utilitarian foliage – think of the humble cabbage, and kale, and all of the mustards, not to mention the inconspicuous foliage of our cottage garden stalwarts such as Dame’s Rocket (Hesperis) and Stocks (Matthiola) – by frequently having the sweetest scented of flowers. The Wallflowers surpass all of their relatives in this characteristic, being famously planted in combination with less-fragrant spring bulbs such as tulips, both for the contrasting beauty of their velvety flowers and for their outpouring of honey-rich, spicy fragrance.

Sadly, the “traditional” English wallflowers, Cheiranthus/Erysimum cheiri, with their large blooms in shades of antique red and rich brown, copper, cream and crimson are not reliably hardy in our Canadian climate, unless one happens to live in gentler-wintered regions such as B.C.’s lower mainland. The Siberian Wallflower happily steps in to fulfill the role of its more delicate cousin for us Northerners, and it does so in a most eye-catching and deliciously fragrant way.

Siberian Wallflower is technically a biennial, but I have had it flower profusely in its first year from early-sown seed. From fast-growing clumps of strap-shaped foliage sprouted in early March, an abundance of bud clusters appear in May, which quickly pop open in an endless succession of very fragrant, absolutely neon-bright orange blooms well into mid-summer.

The plants elongate and get a bit weedy looking as summer advances, but it is best to ignore this and leave at least a few plants to mature their seeds, because this pretty flower is quite happy to establish itself as a self-sowing permanent resident in the garden. It naturalizes quite nicely; we’ve seen it used among other wildflowers as a bank erosion planting, as well as in more traditional plantings.

Despite the self-sowing trait, it is considered non-invasive; seedlings are shallow rooted and very easy to eliminate, but are generally welcome wherever they appear, or you can clip the plants back after blooming.

Siberian Wallflower is a fairly modest thing, size-wise, growing about a foot or so tall. It is easy to tuck in here and there where its vibrant colour will accent other spring and early summer flowers, and it harmonizes particularly beautifully with its fellow biennial Forget-Me-Not (Myosotis), the warm orange and cool sky blue proving the artistic theory of contrasting colours to be a Very Good Thing in the garden as well as on the canvas.

Siberian Wallflower is occasionally offered in a bright yellow variation, ‘Citrona Yellow’, and in a number of other named strains in various degrees of yellow, gold and orange.

Full sun is preferred, and any sort of soil. Thrives with average fertility and watering care, and is quite drought tolerant once established.

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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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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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Petasites sagittatus (syn. frigidus var. sagittatus) - Arrow-Leaf Coltsfoot, in roadside swamp, Gibraltar Mine Road, McLeese Lake, B.C. - June 9, 2014.

Petasites sagittatus (syn. P. frigidus var. sagittatus) – Arrow-Leaved Coltsfoot, in roadside swamp, Gibraltar Mine Road, McLeese Lake, B.C. – June 9, 2014. In full seedhead development, which is the plant’s most conspicuous stage. The pure white “fluffs”, on foot-high (or taller) stems, are extremely eye-catching. These quickly disperse, leaving only the broad leaves as evidence of the plant’s presence. Image: HFN

Perennial. Zone 2. Asteraceae. (Syn. Compositae.) Widespread through Northern North America, Alaska to Labrador. Found in wet seepages, swampy lake margins, and boggy meadows.

“I’ve seen a plant that I think you should look at,” reported Edwin the other day. “It’s got pure white flowers on tall stems, and it’s growing in the swamp on the Gibraltar Mine hill, just where the great blue heron hangs out.”

Well, that was like catnip to a cat, and off we went, camera at the ready. “What could it be?” I pondered, with dreams of finding something exotic. But as soon as we got close, the identification was immediate. It was the rather spectacular seed stage of yet another Coltsfoot.

This is decidedly the most noticeable Coltsfoot – Petasites –  in the Cariboo-Chilcotin, with its large (up to a foot long) arrowhead shaped leaves, green on the surface, and felted white underneath.

Leaves are large, thickly textured, and entire, with sharply toothed margins. The leaf surfaces are quite smooth, but the undersides are thickly coated with tiny, silky white hairs, making for an interesting contrast.

Leaves are large, thickly textured, and entire, with sharply toothed margins. The leaf surfaces are quite smooth, but the undersides are thickly coated with tiny, silky white hairs, making for an interesting contrast. Near McLeese Lake, June 9, 2014. Image: HFN

Petasites sagittatus has a creeping rootstalk, with flower stalks rising from it some distance away from the leaves. The flower stalks emerge in early spring, well before the leaves, and are thick, conspicuously bracted, and topped by clusters of typically Composite Family flowers, consisting of many disc flowers and surrounding ray flowers. Flowers range in shade from a slightly greyish white to faintly pink.

The seedheads are tall, up to 18 inches, and display cotton-ball white clusters of long-haired achenes, which soon disperse on the wind.

June 9, 2014 - Almost ready to fly away...

June 9, 2014 – Almost ready to fly away… Image: HFN

...and there they go.

…and there they go. Image: HFN

This species will sometimes overlap with the other regional Petasites, P. frigidus var. nivalis and P. frigidus var. palmatus, and hybrids showing a mixture of traits may result, but in general this is the easiest of the Coltsfoots to positively identify.

This plant will happily naturalize in a cultivated bog garden, though its vigorous nature and substantial size should be taken into consideration before introducing it.

First Nations’ uses of all of the Coltsfoots included use as an early spring green (cooked), and as a salt substitute (the leaves were burned, leaving a salty residue), and medicinally for chest and stomach ailments. These uses duly noted, it is not recommended that one experiment with consuming or self-medicating with any of the Petasites, as they all contain potentially harmful, liver-damaging alkaloids.

A handsome and unique genus.

One last look - June 9, 2014.

One last look – June 9, 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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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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