Posts Tagged ‘Full Sun’

Monarda fistulosa - Lilac Bee Balm - July 2014 - Soda Creek, B.C. I see at least three insect visitors - these plants were a-buzz with nectar gatherers. Image: HFN

Monarda fistulosa – Lilac Bee Balm – growing in the wild – July 2014 – Soda Creek, B.C. I see three insect visitors on this one small flower cluster, including a wild bumblebee (Bombus sp.) – these plants were a-buzz with nectar gatherers the hot summer day these photos were taken. Image: HFN

Perennial. Zone 2. Lamiaceae. Native to North America, including the Okanagan, Thompson-Nicola, and Cariboo-Chilcotin regions of B.C.  A.k.a. HORSEMINT, PURPLE BEE BALM. Monarda was the name given to this species by Linnaeus, after the Spanish botanist Nicolas Monardes, who published a well-regarded treatise in 1574 describing the plants of the New World, though Monardes himself never travelled there, and worked from specimens collected by others. The Latin species name fistulosa = “hollow, pipe-like’, in reference to the tubular structure of the individual flowers.

This is a somewhat variable but always lovely species native to prairie and foothills ecosystems. It grows wild in the Cariboo-Chilcotin on dry hillsides and on the fringes of Douglas fir forest throughout the Fraser River corridor at least as far north as Marguerite.

Monarda fistulosa - Wild Bergamot - Soda Creek, B.C. - July 2014. Image: HFN

Monarda fistulosa – Wild Bergamot – Soda Creek, B.C. – July 2014. Image: HFN

2014 was a stellar summer in our area for Wild Bergamot and many other wildflowers. The hillsides around Soda Creek were ablaze with purple for weeks in June and July, as the bloom times of the aster-like native Showy Fleabane, Erigeron speciosus, overlapped with that of the Monarda.

The First Nations peoples of the areas where Monarda fistulosa grows thought very highly of it as a useful plant. The strongly aromatic foliage, which is high in the compound thymol, was used in cooking and medicine, as a tea, insect repellant and smudge ingredient. European settlers appreciated it as well, in particular using it as a tea ingredient; the “bergamot” of the common name refers to the similarity of this species aroma and flavour to that of the Bergamot Orange (Citrus bergamia) essential oil which gives Earl Grey Tea its distinctive character.

Wild Bergamot was adopted into domestic gardens as soon as specimens made it back to Europe and England, for its usefulness as well as its considerable beauty. Monarda fistulosa has been widely used in hybridization with others of the genus, in particular the showy Scarlet Beebalm, Monarda didyma, to produce a number of stellar Beebalm cultivars, such as ‘Violet Queen’, and the wonderful ‘Blue Stocking’.

Monarda fistulosa is a grand garden plant in our area, and particularly useful in xeriscape plantings, though it also appreciates the richer, moister climate of the traditional perennial border.

Monarda fistulosa - bee balm with a butterfly visitor - July 2014 - Soda Creek, B.C. Image: HFN

Monarda fistulosa – bee balm with a butterfly visitor  – Painted Lady, Vanessa cardui – July 2014 – Soda Creek, B.C. Image: HFN

Sturdy clumps of 24 to 36 inch tall, square-sided, leafy stems are topped by large whorled clusters of pale lilac-purple “dragon’s head” blooms in summer. Shades range from almost-white palest lilac to a rich rosy purple; the norm is the shade shown in these images.

The common name Bee Balm is very apt; these plants are highly attractive to bees of all sorts, to butterflies, and to hummingbirds. The tubular blooms are rich in nectar, and on sunny days the clusters are busy places, being “worked” flower by flower neatly around the floral ring by various foragers.

The Herb Society of America chose Wild Bergamot, Monarda fisulosa, as its Notable Native of 2013.

Sun, average conditions. Very drought tolerant once established.

This species can be afflicted by the fungal powdery mildew in very dry years; cut back affected plants and dispose of the clippings away from the garden – do not compost – to reduce its future occurrence. Occasional supplemental watering in very dry years, even in your drought-resistant xeriscape plantings, will strengthen plants and prevent such problems from occurring.

As individual blossoms mature, they drop away, exposing the central crown of the maturing seed head. Image: HFN

As individual blossoms mature, they drop away, exposing the central crown of the maturing seed head. Image: HFN

Last year's seed heads are an interesting architectural feature of this wild clump. Note the geometric precision of the assembly of tiny seed cups. Image: HFN

Last year’s seed heads are an interesting architectural feature of this wild clump. Note the geometric precision of the assembly of tiny seed cups. 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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Perennial Sweet Pea - Lathyrus latifolius - naturalized at Pitt Lake, near Maple Ridge, B.C., August 2011.

Perennial Sweet Pea – Lathyrus latifolius – naturalized along the shores of  Pitt Lake, near Maple Ridge, B.C., August 2011. Image: HFN

Perennial Herbaceous Vine. Zone 3. Fabaceae, formerly Leguminosae.  Originally native to Southern Europe, now sometimes seen naturalized in disturbed-soil areas as a garden escapee throughout Europe, Great Britain, and parts of North America, including coastal British Columbia. Lathyrus is from the Greek lathyros, pea; latifolius from the Latin latus + folium, wide + leaf.

Clump former to 18 inches wide; sprawls or climbs 3 to 6 feet tall by twining tendrils in the leaf axils. Fine in average soil and moisture; prefers full sun. Established plants are reasonably drought tolerant, but thrives best with summer moisture and fertile soil.

This pretty climber/sprawler is rather rare in Cariboo-Chilcotin gardens, but I have seen it thriving often enough here and there in Zone 3 and 4 Williams Lake and Quesnel area plantings to be able to confidently recommend its hardiness and adaptability.

The plant forms a vigorous clump of rapidly elongating stems lined with paired, blue-green leaflets. Bloom stalks and twining tendrils emerge from the leaf axils as the stems lengthen. Clusters of very showy, sweet pea-like flowers bloom for a long period June through August, and are followed by typical large, flat pea-pods filled with big round seeds. (These are not considered edible, by the way, and occasionally are referenced as “poisonous”, though I have not seen any mention of actual incidents of poisoning.)

Sadly, the “sweet” reference is merely to its similar appearance to the highly fragrant annual sweet pea, Lathyrus odoratus, as Perennial Sweet Pea is not noticeably fragrant.

Vines reach 3 to 6 feet long – tallest where it can climb, and where grown in moist, fertile soil – and either sprawl along the ground or twine their way up whatever support they can find. Very nice grown on a bank where it can cascade, or on a sturdy trellis or garden obelisk arrangement. Vines are completely herbaceous, and die back to the ground in the winter, to re-sprout in spring. Sometimes late to emerge, so keep an eye out for it when digging about in the spring garden.

A very long-lived plant, which should be sited where it can remain as it does not transplant well. It may self sow, but though definitely a “survivor” where established, it is not aggressive and is not considered an invasive plant in our climate, though it is occasionally seen as a naturalized garden escapee in disturbed soil areas along coastal British Columbian roadsides where it has joined other exotics such as butterfly bush (Buddleja sp.), touch-me-not (Impatiens sp.), and the ubiquitous Himalayan Blackberries.

Lathyrus latifolius naturalized along the shoreline roadway at Pitt Lake, near Maple Ridge, B.C. August, 2011.

Lathyrus latifolius naturalized along the shoreline roadway at Pitt Lake, near Maple Ridge, B.C. August, 2011. Image: HFN

Lathyrus latifolius has been grown as a prized garden flower for centuries throughout Europe and the British Isles, and in North American colonial plantings, and the pink strain appears in the 1801 species inventory of Thomas Jefferson’s famed Monticello garden.

This plant often shows up on old herb garden lists, but no medicinal uses are recorded. Apparently the foliage was occasionally used as a pot herb, and the seeds cooked and consumed for their high protein content, but present-day consumption is definitely NOT recommended, as the seeds of some of the species in the Lathyrus genus do contain potentially harmful amino aids. Best to enjoy it for its beauty alone, as most of our gardening predecessors did.

Many species of bees and butterflies visit the flowers in search of nectar, as do occasional questing hummingbirds, but the floral structure is designed for pollination by bumblebees, as they alone are strong enough to part the keel petals which enclose the reproductive parts of the blooms.

Three old-fashioned named strains are still available; all are very lovely. ‘RED PEARL’  – rich carmine pink. ‘ROSE PEARL’ aka ‘PINK BEAUTY’ – pale pink flushed darker at petal edges. ‘WHITE PEARL’ – pristine snow white.

Lathyrus latifolius - Perennial Sweet Pea - 'Red Pearl'

Lathyrus latifolius – typical of  ‘Red Pearl’ colour strain – Maple Ridge, August 2011. Image: HFN

 

 

 

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

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

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

A dainty and lovely biennial.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

 

 

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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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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.

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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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