Archive for the ‘Xeriscape’ Category

Annual. Papaveraceae. Syn. Argemone platyceras, A. intermedia, A. intermedia var. polyanthemos. A.k.a. WHITE PRICKLY POPPY, BLUESTEM PRICKLY POPPY. North America; Eastern base of the Rocky Mountains and throughout the Great Plains. Argemone is from the Greek argema, referring to an eye cataract, as the sap from the plants was once used to treat that ailment. Polyanthemos = many flowered.

The North American prickly poppies are surprising things. Stems, foliage and even the flower buds are wickedly armoured with thorny spines, yet the large blooms are silken textured and fragile-looking out of all expectation. The weaponry is obviously there to protect against grazing animals, and that useful adaptation has me wondering what purpose the showy flowers fulfill. Perhaps as a beacon and landing stage for pollinating insects, which may be scarce in Argemone‘s desert and near-desert natural habitats?

Whatever the reason for the extravagant floral display, the beauty of this wildflower and its equally attractive relatives is without debate, and it has become a treasured garden annual in botanical and collectors’ gardens around the world.

Grey-green, white-veined, relatively softly spined foliage clumps produce elongated bloom stalks topped by clusters of spiky buds. These bud sheaths break apart to release large, pure white, golden-eyed blooms in June, July and August. Petals are silken-sheened and wonderfully crinkled; the golden stamen clusters release their pollen to colour the flower centers a delicate yellow tint. Pollen darkens with age, tipping the central stamens with burgundy. Individual blooms last only a few days each, but are continually followed by others, for a prolonged period of show.

If you have occasion to snap off a leaf or stem, you will notice the sticky, bright yellow sap. This was once used medicinally by First Nations peoples for a variety of complaints, including eye ailments, and as a remedy against nervous irritability. Argemone polyanthemos is currently used in herbal medicine as a non-opioid, non-addictive, reportedly highly effective pain reliever, similar in action but not in side-effect to that other famed poppy product, morphine. However the body apparently quickly builds up a resistance to the effects of Prickly Poppy’s active alkaloid, argemonic acid, so it is useful for short term effects only. It also is reported to have no effect (beneficial or otherwise) on those already habituated to morphine and codeine use.

Argemone polyanthemos is quite a large plant, from 2 to 4 feet tall. It frequently branches out from a central stalk to form a somewhat bushy clump, though it is in general taller than it is wide. Crested Prickly Poppy fits in well with perennials in the permanent border, or among other annuals.

Reblooms if deadheaded, but leave a few pods to set seed, for if you are fortunate this will self-sow.

Poppies in general are notoriously difficult to transplant, so handle potted seedlings very carefully to avoid disturbing the delicate tap root, and try to get to self sown seedlings when they are still tiny, taking a generous trowel-full of soil with each baby you wish to relocate.

Sun; well-drained soil; drought tolerant.

 

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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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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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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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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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Corydalis aurea – McLeese Lake, B.C. – May 17, 2014.  Image: HFN

Annual/Biennial. Zone 2. Fumariaceae. North America. Widespread throughout North America, in particular in areas disturbed by development, logging and forest fires. Common in the Cariboo-Chilcotin on recently disturbed ground – on graded roadsides, in gravel pits, and in newly logged areas.

This interesting and largely ephemeral early spring bloomer is occasionally abundant and always something of a surprise to see, appearing in the most unexpected places. Once it blooms in earliest spring, it quickly fades away after casting out its seeds, which can remain dormant for decades until germination conditions are again to its liking.

Technically a winter annual, Yellow Corydalis sprouts in the summer, makes an inconspicuous foliage clump which overwinters in semi-evergreen state, and then advances quickly into flowering stage in early spring. By July its life cycle is nearing its end; the beautiful, lacy, grey-green foliage is turning yellow and the plant is fading fast. No sign of it will be left by autumn.

Corydalis aurea - growing in a gravel pit near McLeese Lake, B.C. - May 17, 2014

Corydalis aurea – growing in a gravel pit near McLeese Lake, B.C. – May 17, 2014. Image: HFN

Plants expand quickly from their over-wintered rosettes, reaching 6 to 12 inches in height and spread. Roots are tap-rooted and fleshy, with spreading side roots. Foliage is rather “carrot-like” in appearance, being much divided, slightly succulent, and softly blue-green.

Tubular blooms are bright yellow blushed with green and are produced in great abundance during the few weeks of flowering time. Early-foraging wild bees are attracted to the nectar-rich blooms, and sometimes bore into the tubes to avoid having to negotiate their way past the stamens at the opening of the flowers.

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Corydalis aurea – detail of flower cluster. Image: HFN

Seeds produced by Corydalis aurea are small, black and shiny, and form encased in slender, cylindrical pods. They are very attractive to ants, who aid in their dispersal by caching the seeds in underground storage chambers; it is theorized that when these nests are disrupted the seeds are brought back to the surface where they then germinate in great abundance.

This plant may be introduced into the rock garden as it is very showy in early spring, but as its ongoing garden presence depends upon random germination of the seeds and the plants themselves disappear after blooming, it should be sited with this in mind, and not depended on as a feature plant.

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The tiny, slender, legume-like seed pods may be seen at the base of the central floral cluster. Image: HFN

Corydalis aurea is reportedly very toxic to sheep, and less so to cattle and horses, though I am unaware of any poisoning incidents in our region. Because of the plant’s early emergence, and its palatability – sheep paradoxically find it quite delicious – stock owners might be advised to keep an eye out for this plant when investigating their spring pastures before turnout.

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Low Larkspur growing on grassy dry sidehills along the Chilcotin River at Farwell Canyon, near Riske Creek, B.C., May 13, 2010. Note contrasting violet veining on the cobalt blue petals.

Perennial. Zone 2. Ranunculaceae. Western North America, from California north to southern third of British Columbia, and eastwards to southern Sakatchewan, South Dakota and Wyoming. Abundant in areas of the eastern Rocky Mountain foothills.  A widely variable species, from alpine forms only a few inches tall to grassland individuals reaching 18″ or taller, D. bicolor is now sometimes classified as D. nuttallianum, with regional subspecies.

This low-growing spring-blooming flower is frequently found on the dry hillsides and grasslands of the Cariboo-Chilcotin, especially along the Fraser River corridor in the dryland fir and sagebrush belt. Though a close relative of the tall garden delphiniums and larkspurs, as flower form and colour show, this is a much more petite thing, growing from 6″ to 18″ or so in height, and blooming briefly in April and May.

Lewis J. Clark calls it

…A small but showy species, inhabiting Bunch-grass and Ponderosa Pine country from Osoyoos to the Rockies.

At Macalister, just south of Quesnel on the Fraser River, we are at the northern limit of its grassland range, though variant populations have been reported in subalpine regions northwest of Prince George.

Low Larkspur is a tuberous rooted plant, which frequently behaves like a summer ephemeral. Slender bloom stalks appear in earliest spring, the flowers expand and are pollinated by butterflies and long-proboscissed bumblebees, and the finely divided foliage then withers on the stems, with the plant fading away into the surrounding vegetation, leaving clusters of innocuous yellow seed capsules in place of the cobalt and purple-blue blossoms.

On our own dry and rocky Fraser River hillside, this lovely larkspur blooms in early May alongside golden Arnica, creamy Heuchera cylindrica, sulphur-yellow Lithopspermum ruderale, and rosy-flowered Geum triflorum – a rewarding palette of contrasting wild colour for the springtime rambler to enjoy.

Despite its great beauty there is a sinister side to this gorgeous flower. In its spring growth phase, D. bicolor (and, incidentally, all of its relatives) is highly toxic to cattle. Because its foliage turns green before many of the rangeland grasses, browsing cattle sometimes seek it out, and there are numerous well-documented cases of mass bovine fatalities in regions where wild larkspur is abundant. By seed stage the toxicity has greatly abated; in our region this generally coincides with range turnout, and I am not personally familiar with toxicity episodes in the Cariboo-Chilcotin, though when I was working on a ranch in the Alberta foothills it was a very real concern for local cattlemen during spring turnout. Interestingly enough, the toxic effect seems specific only to cattle; sheep and wild browsers appear to be unaffected, and sheep have been used to eliminate the plant in some areas where bovine larkspur poisonings are of particular concern.

Low Larkspur moves happily into the cultivated garden, but with its delicate habit and summer dormancy it is best planted in an alpine bed, or among grasses, where conditions mimic those found in its natural habitat. I do not generally condone transplanting of wildflowers into the garden, but the collection of a modest quantity of mature seed in midsummer – being sure to scatter some about; never collect the entire contents of a plant’s seed capsules – should in no way impact our local populations. Sow immediately, preferably in a nursery bed, and look for seedlings the following spring, as many of the Ranunculaceae family (of which D. bicolor is a member) require a winter stratification period to trigger germination.

Sun; average conditions; tolerates summer drought.

This and following photos were all taken in the same area of the Chilcotin, at Farwell Canyon. Note the variability of the flowers even within this small population. May 13, 2010.

This and following photos were all taken in the same area of the Chilcotin, at Farwell Canyon. Note the variability of the flowers even within this small population. May 13, 2010.

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Hooked spurs and contrasting “bee” petals are nicely portrayed here. Some individuals are also intricately veined with bright violet – as in the first photo at the top of this post – which is the inspiration of the species name, “bicolor”.

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The entire plant is finely pubescent, with the central “bees” being prominently hairy. Note the long spurs, which are often hooked. The nectary is so deep and narrow that only certain insects – most notable butterflies and native bumblebees – are able to access the nectar.

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