Posts Tagged ‘Low growing’


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

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

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

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

Whatever the classification, it is most garden-worthy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Perennial. Zone 3. Compositae. North Africa, Spain, Mediterranean regions. Syn. Anacyclus depressus, syn. A. maroccanus. A.k.a. SPANISH CHAMOMILE, ALEXANDER’S FOOT. Though I can find no reference to it other than the name on a number of alpine plant society lists, I am assuming that the latter allusion is to Alexander the Great and his historical presence in the areas where this plant grows.

This small charmer completely bewitched me the first time I grew it many years ago, with its tidy, fern-leaved, very furry foliage rosettes, and I was thrilled when it overwintered and bloomed enthusiastically in the spring. I’d rather wondered, what with its warm-climate origins, but hardiness doesn’t appear to be a problem, as long as the plant has its roots down in well-drained soil.

Little white daisy flowers with crimson petal undersides emerge in spring from mats of ferny, curling foliage. These open wide in the sun, but close up on cloudy days and in the evening, showing off the vividly contrasting rosy blush on the petal undersides. Bloom stems radiate in a circle from a central point; plants are literally circular in shape, and tightly hugging the ground.

A quietly beautiful rockery or edging plant. To about 4 inches tall, and a foot or so wide. Its only flaw is that it often blooms itself to death, so you will want to leave some seed heads to mature to self-sow, or to collect seed for a guarantee of replacement plants.

Full sun, and well-drained soil. Very happy among rocks, or on a slope.

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Aegopodium podagraria

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

...and there they go.

…and there they go. Image: HFN

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

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

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

A handsome and unique genus.

One last look - June 9, 2014.

One last look – June 9, 2014. Image: HFN

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Early June, Hill Farm, 2010.

Early June, Hill Farm, 2010. Image: HFN

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, on to the nitty gritty.

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

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

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

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

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

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

UBC - April 8, 2014

UBC Botanical Garden – April 8, 2014 Image: HFN

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

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

Nice plant. Worth a try.

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

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

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


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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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Palmate Coltsfoot - Petasites frigidus var. palmatus - Van Dusen Garden, Vancouver, B.C. - April 8, 2014.

Palmate Coltsfoot – Petasites frigidus var. palmatus – Van Dusen Garden, Vancouver, B.C. – April 8, 2014. Image: HFN


Perennial. Zone 2. Asteraceae. (Syn. Compositae.) Widespread through Western North America. Common to wet coniferous forest and subalpine regions of B.C. A.k.a. Arctic Sweet Coltsfoot.

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

Petasites derives from the Greek petasos, a broad-rimmed hat, which describes the wide basal leaves. Palmatus (is) from the large hand-shaped leaves…

Most Composites bloom late in the year, but the Colt’s Foot pushes its thick stem through the ground at the beginning of March, sometimes while snow still lingers. Soon the rapidly lengthening shoot displays a heavy, flattened cluster of purplish (sometimes white, rarely yellow) flower-heads. These are of two kinds, the staminate soon withering. The pistillate-heads usually have a few short ray-florets. By early summer they are succeeded by clusters of achenes whose radiating pappus recall a very large, but flattened, Dandelion “puff”.


Petasites frigidus var. palmatus – close-up of pistillate heads. Image: HFN


Palmate Coltsfoot – Van Dusen Garden – April 8, 2014. Image: HFN

This species is very similar to Sweet Coltsfoot, Petasites frigidus var. nivalis, and as the ranges overlap, hybridization often occurs, making positive identification something of a challenge.

No matter what the details of nomenclature, the native Petasites found throughout the Cariboo are quietly spectacular in a low-growing, botanically interesting sort of way, being among the earliest bloomers and a sign of the start of the brief but intense growing season proper.

These plants happily grow in the garden, being most suited to moist wild gardens and boggy areas. They do spread vigorously where happy via underground rhizomes, so that is something to keep in mind when siting.

Coltsfoot is reported to be attractive to early foraging bees and other pollinating insects.

Ethnobotanical uses of Palmate Coltsfoot (and its relations) include flowering stalks and young leaves being used as an early “potherb”, no doubt highly welcome after a long winter of no fresh greens. According to the field guide Plants of Northern British Columbia (MacKinnon, Pojar and Coupé, 1992), Petasites leaves were used to cover berries in steam-cooking pits. Medicinal uses were widespread, with decoctions used to treat chest and respiratory ailments, as well as externally applied to treat rheumatism.

An interesting use which I have seen referred to in several places is the value of the plant as a salt substitute, either as an addition to stews, or from the ashes of the burned leaves.

As with any medicinal or culinary use of plants, it is best to be cautious about consuming or applying anything one is not familiar with; the above uses are provided merely as historical notes and not recommendations or suggestions. Petasites species contain alkaloids which may cause liver damage when ingested.

Palmate Coltsfoot at UBC Botanical Garden, April 8, 2014. This population shows the rosy colour variation.

Palmate Coltsfoot at UBC Botanical Garden, April 8, 2014. This population shows the rosy colour variation. Image: HFN

Newly emerging foliage in the background - notice the "palmate" form of the "hand-like" leaves. UBC Botanical Garden, April 8, 2014.

Newly emerging foliage in the background – notice the “palmate” form of the “hand-like” leaves. UBC Botanical Garden, April 8, 2014. Image: HFN

Close-up of flower cluster. UBC Botanical Garden, April 8, 2014.

Close-up of flower cluster. UBC Botanical Garden, April 8, 2014. Image: HFN

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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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