Archive for the ‘Yellow’ Category

More bees on Scabiosa cousin Cephalaria tchihatchewii - 10 feet tall and alive with humming visitors. Hill Farm, July 21, 2014

Cephalaria tchihatchewii – Tchihatchev’s Cephalaria. This Scabiosa cousin is a true bee magnet. It reached 10 feet tall and was alive with humming and buzzing visitors at Hill Farm, July 21, 2014. Image: HFN

Perennial. Zone 2. Dipsacaceae – Teasel Family. Native to Turkey and Iran. The genus name Cephalaria originates from the Greek kephale, “head”, and ala (alaria), “winged”, in reference to the large outer petals of the blooms. Tchihatchewii is after the Russian naturalist and biologist Pyotr Alexandrovich Chikhachyov (alternatively Chikhatchev/Tchihatchev), 1808-1890, who traveled widely throughout his long life and documented the flora of Asia Minor in his 3500-species Herbarium Chikhatchev.

This big, back-of-the-border, trouble-free plant has thrived here for almost twenty years. It originally arrived as part of an order of interesting perennials from a small, now-defunct Canadian prairie mailorder nursery. It has given me a whole lot of pleasure over the years, and has received a lot of positive comment from garden visitors.

Occasionally we dig it up and move it to a new position, knocking a division or two off to share with others, and it always settles back in without any issues, other than shorter bloom stalks for the season of the move.

Great big clumps of raggedly cut foliage reach 2 or 3 feet tall and wide, and send up many tall, multi-branched stems, 6 to 10 feet tall, which are starred by round, creamy sulphur-yellow, white-stamened “pincushion flowers” in July and August.

Bees and butterflies of all sorts love Cephalaria, as they do its close relation Scabiosa.

This plant is not particularily showy in the traditional sense of the word, but it is decidedly attactive. It is a good accent plant for others sharing its bloom season, and is a long-lasting cutflower for mixed bouquets. Place it mid or back of the border, where the graceful blooms can be best appreciated as a foil for the other things sharing its space.

It doesn’t generally need staking. Bloom stalks with their bristling, rounded seed clusters may be left intact to delight small birds in autumn, or cut back in the interests of garden tidiness. It will self sow if allowed, but we have found young plants easy to remove from where they’re not wanted. One plant is probably enough for any but the most expansive garden.

Tchihatchev’s Cephalaria has a number of equally garden-worthy relations, including the well-known Cephalaria gigantea – just as large, with identical blooms – I’m not quite sure what the botanical differences are, because they look pretty well interchangeable to me – and Cephalaria alpina, slightly smaller and more compact at a mere 4 to 6 feet.

Sun is best, average soil and moisture. Quite drought tolerant, but not what I’d call a true xeriscape plant, as the foliage yellows in very dry locations, and flower production suffers.

Cephalaria habit hill farm, July 2, 2014. Image: HFN

Cephalaria tchihatchewii. At the back of a sunny border, Hill Farm, July 21, 2014. Image: HFN

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Cepahalaria foliage hill farm july 2, 2015 Image: HFN

Cephalaria tchihatchewii. An out-of-focus glimpse of the foliage clump. (Leaves in left foreground are Echinops sphaerocephalus.) The Cephalaria‘s substantial dark green leaves are large and divided with raggedly-margined leaflets. Flowers are produced on individual stems coming from the leaf axils of the bloom stalks, starting at the base and going all the way up. Image: HFN


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Perennial. Zone 3. Asteraceae. Central Europe, namely France, Italy and Spain. Tomentosa = Latin term meaning “covered with hairs”, referring to the dense silver hairs covering the leaves and stems of this species.

This tends to be one of those quietly ignored species. It is not showy or particularly exciting, but it is completely charming, especially in spring, when its freshly-emerged woolly rosettes are truly beautifully, especially when misted with tiny drops of morning dew.

After emergence of the ferny, fuzzy foliage rosettes, densely furred bud clusters emerge in May, opening up into corymbes of clear yellow flowers on 6 inch tall stems. These bloom through June and into July. The bright yellow tarnishes as the clusters fade, and the plants can then be shorn of bloom stalks, which, quite frankly, look rather tatty once flowering is finished.

The foliage and flowers are warmly aromatic when touched.

Achillea tomentosa is well suited to rockery or border edging, and thrives on well drained soil. It is very drought tolerant once established, and is a good xeriscape plant. It spreads to a foot or so in diameter, and makes a good cover plant over small bulbs such as crocus or species tulips, or early spring-blooming alliums.

The main named variety found under the name Achillea tomentosa  is ‘Maynard’s Gold’, also listed as ‘Aurea’.

There is another tomentosa-connected cultivar, ‘King Edward’, a hybrid cross (Achillea x lewisii), which is taller, with soft sulphur yellow flowers.

Sun, average soil, good drainage.

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Lysimachia punctata - Dotted Loosestrife - July 2011 - Hill Farm. Image: HFN

Lysimachia punctata – Dotted Loosestrife – July 2011 – Hill Farm. Image: HFN

Perennial. Zone 2. Myrsinaceae, formerly Primulaceae. A.k.a. YELLOW LOOSESTRIFE, GOLDEN STARFLOWER. Austria, Italy, and east to Turkey.

This rather romping species is native to Europe, and has been grown in gardens for centuries. It was thought to have medicinal properties, being used as a wound herb to stop bleeding, and also to repel insects. Now we grow it strictly for ornament, for its adaptability and the summer beauty of its bright yellow star flowers.

Looking at the vivid yellow, unmarked flowers, you may wonder why Dotted Loosestrife is a common name, but if you look very closely at the undersides of the leave, you will see the tiny dark oil glands which led to Linnaeus choosing punctata – in Latin, “a point” – as its specific designation.

Lysimachia punctata detail Image: HFN

Lysimachia punctata detail, showing the tiny oil glands – the dark specks on the leaf undersides, looking rather like little spots of dirt – which have led to the “dotted” designation. Image: HFN

This plant is quite a tidy clump former its first few years, but keep an eye on it, as it will suddenly decide it needs more ground and it will expand outwards in all directions, though not by runners, merely by shouldering aside less robust neighbours. Lysimachia punctata is a well-respected garden plant, but it is not exactly what one would call shy, so you will want to site it appropriately.

Though Dotted Loosestrife is decidedly a moisture lover, I have had great success with it in a rather dry, neglected bed. It shares its space with a huge clump of ribbon grass (Phalaris arundinacea picta), ‘Europa’ tawny daylily (Hemerocallis flava), and a perennial sunflower, Heliopsis helianthoides, all of which are equally vigorous and have reached a kind of boundary stalemate. This combination has been working nicely for over ten years, though I do occasionally steal a few divisions to put elsewhere or to sell. I did initially grow it in a moist, fertile, newly prepared bed, but it was much too happy there and overran some more delicately precious plants, hence its relative exile to its present location.

Lysimachia punctata and Ribbon Grass (Phalaris arundinaceae picta) - summer morning - Hill Farm - July 2012. Image: HFN

Lysimachia punctata and Ribbon Grass (Phalaris arundinaceae picta) – backlit by summer morning sun – Hill Farm – July 2012. Image: HFN

Lysimachia punctata grows to about 2 feet tall and wide in its present place; I suspect it would be even taller with more care. It’s a beautiful plant when in bloom, and something I particularly enjoy is its habit of shedding spent flowers like a cloud of star-shaped confetti all over the ground. It blooms for weeks and weeks, mid June right through July and into August most years, and even after flowering the foliage stays handsome, though a few leaves will brown a bit. It is also an excellent cutflower, though it does shed flowers from the bottom up.

A galaxy of fallen starts - Lysimachia punctata - Hill Farm - July 2011. Image: HFN

A galaxy of fallen stars – Lysimachia punctata – Hill Farm – July 2011. Image: HFN

There are two variegated varieties which are now in cultivation, both developed from spontaneous colour breaks in plantings of Lysimachia punctata in England.

The first is a white-edged sport called ‘Alexander’, or sometimes ‘Alexander’s’, named after the late husband of its discoverer, Pauline Alexander. First identified in 1990, the plant was patented in 1998, after nursery trials proved its colour stability and growth trait predictability.

Lysimachia punctata 'Alexander'. Hill Farm, July 2013. Image: HFN

Lysimachia punctata ‘Alexander’. Hill Farm, July 2013. Image: HFN

‘Alexander’ is much slower growing than its mother species, and needs a bit of nurturing and a good moist soil at least the first few years. It has extremely appealing pink-blushed emerging growth in spring, very exotic! If this cultivar has a fault it is that the variegation causes puckering along much of the foliage; “purse-stringing”, as it is called. This puckering looks rather like disease or insect damage at first glance, and may be worrisome if you’re not aware that this is a varietal characteristic.

Spring foliage

‘Alexander’ Lysimachia punctata – exceptionally attractive early spring foliage. Image: HFN

Whatever genetic mutation was at work was not quite finished yet, for in 1998 another colour break was observed, this time in a test planting of ‘Alexander’ at Walburton Nursery in England. The leaf edges were golden, instead of white, and without the drawstring puckering which marked ‘Alexander’. ‘Golden Alexander’ was separated out, reproduced, and patented as a separate variety in 2003.

Both ‘Alexander’ and ‘Golden Alexander’ are hardy and suitable for the Cariboo-Chilcotin. They are not as vigorous as the green-leafed species, and require some care to ensure they reach full potential, but their bright colour is very appealing and they are worth growing for their strong curiousity value.

Something to watch out for in both of these cultivars is their strong tendency to revert to their all-green state. Vigilantly nip out any green shoots appearing in your colony, as these will quickly take over if allowed to remain.

Lysimachia punctata in all its colour variations thrives in full sun to part shade. It can happily be grown very moist, but accepts drier conditions with aplomb. It appreciates average garden soil – don’t grow it too rich. In general, a tough and trouble free species.

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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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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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Aconitum lycoctonum ssp. vulparia; syn. Aconiyum lamarckii. Hill Farm, August 2011.

Aconitum lycoctonum ssp. vulparia; syn. Aconitum lamarckii. Hill Farm, August 2011. Image: HFN

Perennial. Zone 2. Ranunculaceae. A.k.a. NORTHERN WOLFSBANE, FOXBANE, YELLOW MONKSHOOD. The Aconitums are in general a rather complex genus, with much natural adaptation and inter-species hybridization, so this species (or slight variations thereof) may appear under various names. A. lycoctonum is frequently thought to be synonymous with A. lamarckii and/or A. pyrenaicum and/or A. ranunculifolium (obsolete); it may also appear under the name A. vulparia. This somewhat variable species is native to Southern Europe, being found in the wild in France, Spain, Morocco, Northern Greece, Bulgaria and Romania. It grows in high-shade forest, in meadows and by stream sides, and flowers in July and August.

The genus name Aconitum is thought to come from the ancient Greek village of Akonai, the site of which is now in Turkey. Nearby is a cave which was said to house the entrance to Hades, which was famously guarded by the three-headed dog Cerebus. The places where the froth from Cerebus’s maddened slavering fell to earth was thought to have been marked by these plants, which were notorious for their poisonous properties.

The species name lycoctonum originates from the Greek: lycos = wolf, and kteinein = kill, which is the origin of the common name wolfsbane, as the roots were used to formulate arrow poisons, and were added to meat left out to bait wolves and foxes.

The many members of the large Ranunculus (Buttercup) Family are in general excellent garden plants for colder regions such as the Cariboo-Chilcotin, and this unusual Monkshood is no exception, being hardy, attractive, and trouble free.

The foliage is lush, dark green, and raggedly cut. It forms clumps to 2 feet tall and wide, from which many slender stems arise in early summer. These produce clusters of intriguing greeny-yellow buds, which slowly expand into elongated, pale sulphur yellow, hooded blooms in mid and late summer. The bloom stalks tend to overbalance themselves when flowering is at its peak, so sturdy neighbours or a bit of modest staking is beneficial.

Buds and blooms are often tinted green. Hill Farm, August 2011.

Buds and blooms are often strongly tinted green. Hill Farm, August 2011. Image: HFN

Margery Fish, writing in 1964 in  A Flower for Every Day, has this to say:

Aconitum lycoctonum may not have enough colour for everybody, but some of us enjoy the greeny cream narrow flowers, perched like birds on rangy stems. It is not a compact plant and likes to behave in our gardens as it does in its native Austria. It doesn’t take kindly to restraint, so the thing to do is to grow it with perennials with which it can intermingle and make a pleasing picture. I have it in front of tall species Phlox paniculata, which has soft lavender flowers, and behind that is a big clump of Achillea [filipendulina] ‘Gold Plate’.

I share Margery’s fondness for this quietly attractive plant, and have a single sturdy clump which I rather cherish. It is very long-lived, and prefers a permanent garden spot where it can be undisturbed. I have occasionally moved my plant, and, several years ago, decided that it was large enough to divide for sale. I chopped it into what I thought were generous clumps and replanted several after potting up the majority of the divisions. While all took this treatment with fair aplomb, the pieces I replanted sulked flowerless for several years, obviously needing to get their roots well down until putting energy into blooming. The plant appears to be happy again, giving me a nice display in 2014, but I will think hard before I dig it up again. I may try it from seed in order to increase it for the nursery; there are some ripe seed heads now in October which I intend to shake out into a flat to stratify over winter.

Blooming stalks reach 4 feet or so, but are rather airy in effect, so mid-border is a good location. Aconitum lycoctonum appreciates humus-rich soil and generous summer moisture. It is happy in full sun to high shade, and would be perfect in a woodland garden setting.

Though one should definitely be aware of the plant’s potential toxicity, unless one gardens with small children prone to random leaf sampling, there should be no issues with using it in the flower border. The foliage is extremely bitter to taste and accidental poisonings are very rare; one would definitely notice something amiss very early on. Be careful when pruning and transplanting, wear gloves if you will be in contact with the running sap, don’t plant it in the culinary herb garden, grow it mid-border – away from small visitors and chewing puppies – and you should be fine.

Hill Farm, August 2011.

Yet another picture of the bloom cluster. Check out the typical “monk’s cowl” (or “birds-on-a-branch”) flower structure, as well as the developing bud cluster at bottom right. Hill Farm, August 2011. Image: HFN

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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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Cushion Spurge - Euphorbia polychroma (syn. E. epithymoides) - Prince George, B.C. - May 18, 2014

Cushion Spurge – Euphorbia polychroma (syn. E. epithymoides) – Prince George, B.C. – May 18, 2014 Image: HFN

Perennial. Zone 1. Euphorbiaceae. Native of Europe from southern Germany to the Ukraine, Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey, where it grows in dry forests, mixed meadows, and on rocky hillsides.

Euphorbia was named by Linnaeus in 1753 for Euphorbus, the Greek physician of King Juba II (circa 12 B.C.E.) of ancient Numidia and Mauretania (approximately present-day Morocco), who reportedly discovered medicinal uses for the local species. While Linnaeus assigned the species name epithymoides for this plant, it was renamed polychroma in the 1850s by yet another classifying botanist, Anton Josef Kerner, and this name soon took precedence and is the more commonly recognized designation today. Polychroma is after the Greek polu – ‘many’ – and xrwma – ‘colour’, a reference to the shaded colours of the bracted stem tops and ornate flower clusters.

Sun to part shade; average conditions. This appears to be a deer resistant plant – something to note for those of you afflicted by these increasingly bold and destructive garden pests.

It’s well into May, and everywhere I go these days I note the unmistakably glow of this unique specimen plant. It flourishes happily in mature, well established gardens as much as in newer, more avant-garde plantings accenting newly built homes in the posher parts of town. When (and where) the lilacs bloom, then (and there) too the cushion spurge.

I first became aware of this rather unusual and eye-catching ornamental during our first spring living in an older neighbourhood in a small Alberta town. Many of the front porches of the modest clapboard-sided 1930s’ and 40s’ era homes were flanked by perfectly globular, neon-yellow-tipped twin bushes. Some kind of exotic shrub? – I wondered to myself, until a visit to the botanical garden at the Calgary Zoo acquainted me with its Latin name, and I was able to track it down in the gardening books. (This was long pre-internet – I smile at the memory of how laborious this sort of rather basic research used to be, before the wonders of the Google image search!)

The natural form of this plant is neatly globular, though it may occasionally "birdsnest" with summer thunderstorms. If this happens, a hard trim to within 6 inches or so of the crown will result in quick regrowth to tidy cushion shape.

The natural form of this plant is neatly globular, though it may occasionally “birdsnest” with summer thunderstorms. If this happens, a hard trim to within 6 inches or so of the crown will result in quick regrowth to tidy cushion shape. Image: HFN

Cushion spurge grows to 18 inches tall and 2 ft. wide where happy – which is most places, as it is an adaptable, good-natured thing. It thrives in sun to part shade, and in modestly moist to dry soils, though it doesn’t care for overly soggy ground. Once established it is very drought tolerant, though it will definitely appreciate the occasional soaking in hot summers.

Clumps of woody-based stems are lined with whorls of soft green, rounded foliage, which are tipped with the modified leaves commonly referred to as bracts, though the correct term in this case is cyathium leaves. These turn a vivid, glowing, chartreuse-yellow, centered with clusters of tiny, even brighter yellow petal-less florets. These clusters include nectar-rich glands – nectaries – which reward foraging pollinators. I have not noticed that bees are particularly attracted to the blooms – though they do visit – but the highest traffic seems to be small flies, and ants and other crawling insects.


Note the small visitor. Image: HFN

An even closer view showing flower structure, and the downy hairs which give the entire plant its velvety texture.

An even closer view showing flower structure, and the downy hairs which give the entire plant its velvety texture. Image: HFN

After blooming and pollination – peak bloom time is all through May and into June – the yellow colour fades to a uniform green. Seed capsules form which eventually pop open later in the summer, catapulting seeds out into the garden, where they sprout in modest numbers. Seedlings are easily removed or transplanted to more desirable locations, where they quickly settle down to the business of growing and forming yet another perfect little globe.

Cushion spurge remains attractive through summer, and can be left to fend for itself or clipped back to produce fresh foliage. The plant fades to yellow in the autumn, frequently showing a red stage before the leaves finally wither after the last, hardest frosts.

Several “improved” (or perhaps one might say “enhanced”) cultivars of Euphorbia polychroma are popular in the nursery trade, including the burgundy-blushed ‘Bonfire’, a patented selection of the Euphorbia polychroma ‘purpurea’ sport which has been grown as a desirable rarity for many years, sometimes under the cultivar name ‘Candy’, and the white-pink-green ‘First Blush’. Of these two types I much prefer the red-leaved variety, as I’ve noticed that the white-variegated form is much less vigorous, and seems to show a high percentage of deformed and puckered leaves.

Euphorbia polychrome 'purpurea' - red-leafed form - an excellent specimen plant, more restrained and smaller than the green-leaved original.

Euphorbia polychrome ‘purpurea’ – red-leaved form – an excellent specimen plant, slightly more restrained and measurably smaller than the green-leaved original. Hill Farm, May 21, 2014. Image: HFN

E. polychroma 'purpurea' shows its richest dark red shading just before the yellow bracts fully develop; after blooming it fades to a uniform green.

E. polychroma ‘purpurea’ shows its richest dark red shading just before the yellow bracts fully develop; after blooming it fades to a uniform green. Image: HFN

The common form of this handsome plant is a venerable garden old-timer, having been grown for centuries both for ornament and for occasional medicinal use. John Gerard’s masterwork The herball, or Generall historie of plantes, first published in England in 1633, reported of  Spurge that “…the juice or milke is good to stop hollow teeth…”  A modern commentator theorizes that the poisonous latex probably destroyed the nerve endings. The specific species of Euphorbia referred to is unknown, though all share the same milky (and irritating) sap. 

Another medicinal use, and the origin of the common name of this very large genus (over 2000 species, found worldwide), is that of a purgative – a vigorous laxative – though one that was prescribed with some caution, as the violence of its action could be fatal if the decoction was too strong. From the French medical term describing the process, “espurgier”, came  the English “purge”, and hence “spurge”, or so the theorizing goes. Though we no longer find ourselves partaking of the plant in any way except that of enjoying its attractive appearance, it is a good idea to treat the plant with sensible respect.

The sap of some species was used to beautify the complexion, and to remove warts, but the herbalists warned about the dangers of letting it get into the eyes, as it could cause severe damage, even blindness, a caveat which has been brought forward to the present day. Some people experience a skin rash from handling the cut foliage, so it is best to be on the safe side and use gloves while pruning. Avoid contact with the milky sap, and supervise young garden visitors if they are too young to heed “don’t touch” warnings.

Don’t let this last bit about the fearsome qualities of the sap put you off – this is a very widely grown plant and incidents of problems with it are exceedingly rare. It doesn’t need much fussing, and can safely be handled with the same common sense that applies throughout the garden. “Don’t put the monkshood leaves in the salad; don’t poke yourself in the eye with the spurge.” There, see how easy that is?! 🙂

One final note. Euphorbia polychroma/epithymoides was awarded the Royal Horticultural Society’s prestigious Award of Garden Merit in 1993, confirming its excellent ornamental qualities to the world at large. Experienced gardeners will have taken this as a confirmation of what they already knew. This is a quietly grand garden plant.



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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.


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.


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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Spring's first flowers - Sagebrush Buttercups on the Hill Farm hillside, April 16, 2014.

Spring’s first flowers – Sagebrush Buttercups on the Hill Farm hillside, April 16, 2014. Image: HFN

Perennial. Zone 2. Ranunculaceae. Western North America. Interior and subalpine regions of B.C. and Alberta and into Saskatchewan; in the U.S.A. south to New Mexico, and east to North and South Dakota and Nebraska.

As the snow recedes from our river-valley hillsides each spring we eagerly kneel on the snowmelt-soggy ground to check on the state of the sagebrush buttercups. First of the spring flowers by far, blooming as soon as late March, their opening signals the very beginning of the progression of other springtime markers – the first returning Canada geese; the first robins and bluebirds; the appearance of the pollen-dusted catkins of the poplar tress and then the cottonwoods; the first evocative smell of “green” after a spring rainfall; the first day the horses leave their hay piles untouched and instead nuzzle through last autumn’s rustling fallen foliage for those first elusive but oh-so-welcome blades of grass…

We’ve made it through another cold time, for look, here are the buttercups again!

This is a tiny creature, but its cheerful blossoms shine like the sun, and a flourishing colony in full bloom is an amazing sight in late April and early May.

The specific name glaberrimus means “smoothest”, and refers to the foliage: freshly green, gently lobed, and slightly succulent. Purple-flushed flower buds appear on short stems which lengthen as the flowers open to a height of perhaps six inches at the utmost; most are only three or four inches tall. Five-petalled buttercups are typical of their race, being reflectively shiny as to petal surface, with a ring of thick yellow anthers surrounding the protruding cluster of pistils – potential achenes which will mature into ripe seeds in May and June.

Clusters of shallowly anchored, thickened, semi-tuberous roots provide the stored energy for R. glaberrimus‘s early spring flourishing; plants remain green through the entire growing season, and an investigation in autumn reveals the next spring’s buds already formed in the leaf axils at the base of the foliage; ready for emergence after a winter dormancy under the snow.

Enjoy this buttercup on your spring rambles; it is locally abundant throughout the Cariboo-Chilcotin, especially along roadsides through the Fraser River valley’s Douglas fir belt, and in the grasslands around Williams Lake.

Though I have never been tempted to bring this pretty wildflower into my own garden – it is happily abundant on the grassy hillsides of our farm and makes an ideal excuse for many springtime excursions to check on the progression of the colonies’ blooming – I have seen it established in a number of alpine gardens where it thrives generously, for it appears to be a healthy and adaptable plant.

Full sun suits Ranunculus glaberrimus best if its natural habitat is any indication, and it is very drought tolerant once established, though it appreciates springtime moisture.

Though technically Ranunculus glaberrimus has five petals, some populations show a tendency to producing extras, doubling or tripling the modest prototype.

Though technically Ranunculus glaberrimus has five petals, some populations show a tendency to producing extras, doubling or even tripling the modest prototype. Image: HFN


Image: HFN


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