Posts Tagged ‘Perennials’

Sweet Coltsfoot - Petasites frigidus var. nivalis - near Tyee Lake, B.C., May 9, 2014.

Sweet Coltsfoot – Petasites frigidus var. nivalis – near Tyee Lake, B.C., May 9, 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. Alpine Coltsfoot, Arctic Butterbur.

With the departure of the last of the sodden winter snow and the first faint flush of green as plants awake from their long dormancy, the sudden appearance of the exotic-looking coltsfoot bloom stems is a welcome surprise to the keen native plant gardener or roving botanist.

Thick, fleshy stems appear, lined with bract-like leaves and topped by clusters of densely packed disc flowers. Plants are either male, with all disk flowers, or female, with ray as well as disk flowers, as in the photo above. This plant’s membership in the Composite Family (think sunflowers, Helianthus annuus, as the poster child of the composites with well-differentiated ray and disk flowers in a single head) is very obvious once one takes a close look at the flower structure, and especially when the feathery, dandelion-like seeds start to mature.

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Image: HFN

Blooms are most frequently white, but can be shades of pink, and occasionally a deep ivory-yellow.

Leaves appear a few weeks after the bloom stems, and as they often arise at some distance from the flowers due to the plant’s extended underground rhizomatous root system they are often  not associated with the flowers. Many of the Petasites have massive foliage – the leaves of the vigorous Japanese Butterbur, Petasites japonicus, easily reaching 2 feet across, and those of another common British Columbia species, P. palmatus, often reaching a foot wide – but P. frigidus var. nivalis is a more modest creature, with glossy, deeply wrinkled, raggedly toothed, grape-like leaves only 6 to 8 inches across.

The common name “coltsfoot” arise, according to Lewis J. Clark, from the appearance of the leaves, rather than the flowers:

Soon after the appearance of the flowering stems, stout leaf-shoots emerge. They are folded in an extraordinary manner, with the hairy lobes reflexed, at an early stage evoking the metaphor of the little foot of a colt.

Sweet Coltsfoot is often found in wet locations, thriving in boggy areas and on stream and lake edges. It is something of a spreader, forming thriving colonies where happy, and is occasionally seen as a happily domesticated “tamed wildflower” in bog and woodland gardens.

Typical habitat of Petasites frigidus var. nivalis, along a boggy lakeshore.

Typical habitat of Petasites frigidus var. nivalis, along a boggy lakeshore. Image: HFN

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

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

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

Lewis J. Clark calls it

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sun; average conditions; tolerates summer drought.

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

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

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

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

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Perennial Cornflower blooming in late May, 2014 around the ruined foundation of an old ranch house near Roberts Lake.

Centaurea montana – Perennial Cornflower blooming in late May, 2014 around the ruined foundation of an old ranch house near Roberts Lake, northeast of Williams Lake, B.C. Obviously a relic of a one-time cherished garden, for nestled in the grass growing over the tumbled foundation stones we also found creeping sedums and a solitary Dianthus deltoides (Maiden Pink), as well as the ubiquitous rhubarb plants and a few straggly lilacs. Image: HFN

Perennial. Zone 2.  Asteraceae. Europe, “from the Ardennes in Belgium south to the Pyrenees in Spain and east to Poland and Yugoslavia, growing in subalpine meadows and open woods, flowering in May-July”, according to the reliable Roger Phillips and Martyn Rix, in their two-volume masterwork, The Random House Book of Perennials.

This is a clump former which spreads to 2 feet or so in diameter where happy, depending on stoloniferous underground stems to slowly expand its girth every year. Though not exactly shy about advancing on its garden neighbours, it is easy to keep in check in the garden by some judicious trowel work in the spring.

Deep green, silky-haired, broadly lanceolate leaves alternate up the multiple sturdy stems, which are topped by numerous black-bracted buds. These open into large, electric blue cornflowers in late May, and continue well into July.

Some years the plants may “bird’s nest” in heavy rainfall. If this happens, ruthlessly shear the whole plant back to 6 inches or so, and tactfully ignore it for a week or two; it will quickly recover and regrow into a much more tidy clump, and will usually rebloom later in the season.

An excellent bee plant and attractive to numerous species of butterflies.

Esteemed Ontario gardener Patrick Lima, in his 1987 book The Harrowsmith Perennial Garden, has this to say about the Mountain Bluet:

Early in June…and for almost a month, 2½ foot stems rise up, carrying the many dark blue thin-petalled blossoms that always remind me of little jets of flame.

Perennial cornflowers look best set in groups of three or more – a single plant makes little show – just back of front [in the border] in company with poppies, irises of any colour, dianthus and the like…They might be left out of smaller garden in favour of something showier…but are a good choice for next-to-no-maintenance flowerbeds that could include Siberian irises and daylilies.

Although they are not spectacular, perennial cornflowers are practically indestructible; A. Clutton-Brock says in Studies in Gardening (1916) that if the hardy cornflower “were not so easy, it would be prized, and it deserves to be more prized for its easiness.”

There is a white mutation of the common blue variety, ‘Alba’, which is very pretty, and a number of recent hybrids, of which the purple-centered, white-petalled ‘Amethyst in Snow’ shows great promise in my garden. There is also a golden-leaved, blue-flowered form, ‘Gold Bullion’, which looks rather interesting. These last two are patented hybrids from the venerable Blooms of Bressingham in England, and are often found in the “premium perennials” section of our better nurseries. (Try Richbar Nursery in Quesnel, and Art Knapp’s in Prince George.)

Flower bud detail showing the distinctive bracts. The Centaureas are also known as "Knapweed", and the highly invasive range Diffuse and Spotted knapweeds, Centaurea diffusa and Centaurea biebersteinii, are serious rangeland invaders, being highly unpalatable to grazers and browsers both wild and tame. We pulled some knapweed last year which appeared on the side of the railroad tracks which pass through Hill Farm, and the plants left a bitter residue on our hands even through our leather gloves, which took several days to completely subside despite numerous scrubbings. Our garden denizen Centaurea montana does not appear to be quite as unpalatable, but keep an eye on it and confine it to your garden, just to be on the safe side.

Flower bud detail showing the distinctive bracts. The Centaureas are also known as “Knapweeds” due to these overlapping bracts, and the highly invasive Diffuse and Spotted knapweeds, Centaurea diffusa and C. biebersteinii, are serious rangeland invaders, being completely unpalatable to grazers and browsers both wild and tame. We pulled some knapweed last year which appeared on the side of the railroad tracks which pass through Hill Farm, and the plants left a bitter residue on our hands even through our leather gloves, which took several days to completely subside despite numerous scrubbings. Our garden denizen C. montana does not appear to be quite as unpalatable – I have seen sheep eat it with great relish – but keep an eye on it regardless and confine it sternly to your garden, just to be on the safe side. Image: HFN

This Centaurea will be very familiar to those who garden in the Quesnel and Prince George regions, as it thrives in the cool, moist subclimates of the aspen-forested areas, and in some places has escaped gardens to form thriving naturalized colonies along road edges and in ditches, where it is very lovely in its long bloom season. There are some handsome specimens growing in Wells-Barkerville area gardens, and it grows up on the hillside behind the Barkerville Heritage Site buildings, where it coexists quite nicely with native lupines, Indian paintbrush (Castilleja), arnica and wild valerian.

The invasive plant people are keeping an eye on it, being concerned that it might some day become a pest, but I am not overly worried about it, as it has been grown in our region for well over a century, and its “naturalization” appears to be confined to areas of disturbed soil, or places where there have been previous gardens. In my own microclimate it has in fact proved rather difficult, apparently not caring much for my clay soil and sun-baked summers.

Sun to light shade; average soil and moisture. Very long-lived.

Naturalized at the site of an old garden, near Roberts Lake, B.C.

Naturalized at the gone-to-bush site of an old garden, near Roberts Lake, B.C. Image: HFN

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Eryngium planum 'Blue Cap" - thriving in less than ideal conditions at the 108 Heritage Site, Lac La Hache. We planted the raised perennial beds at the rest stop over 10 years ago with "tough, no-maintainence" plants, and it is quite interesting to see what has survived and, in some cases, thrived. This sea holly and Achillea filipendulina, Salvia nemerosa, Lychnis coronaria and Silene maritime, a goodly number of columbines, Erigeron 'Pink Jewel' and various sedums are hanging right in there. Exposed site, no supplementary water or fertilizer, and lots of traffic back and forth - we're pretty happy with how this planting has held up.

Eryngium planum ‘Blue Cap” – thriving in less than ideal conditions at the 108 Roadhouse Heritage Site, Lac La Hache. We planted the raised perennial beds at the rest stop there over 10 years ago with “tough, no-maintainence” plants, and it is quite interesting to see what has survived and, in most cases, thrived. This sea holly and Achillea filipendulina, Salvia nemerosa, Lychnis coronaria and Silene maritima, a goodly number of columbines, Erigeron ‘Pink Jewel’ and various sedums are hanging right in there. Exposed site, no supplementary water or fertilizer, and lots of traffic back and forth – we’re pretty happy with how this planting has held up. Photo taken in the late evening while stopping by for a quick break to stretch our road-trip weary legs, mid-August, 2012. Image: HFN

Perennial. Zone 2. Apiaceae. Central Europe, from Germany and Austria eastward to Russia; throughout the Caucasus Mountain region and into central Asia, where it grows happily in grassy meadows and on rocky, sun-baked hillsides.

I’ve been a die-hard fan of the sea hollies in general and this species in particular ever since my mother planted one out on her difficult-ground shale hillside north of Williams Lake over four decades ago. It self seeded about, and made a thriving colony, and provided untold hundreds of sturdy bloom stems which ended up being dried and made into everlasting wreaths and arrangements which Mom then gave to friends and sold at various arts-and-crafts sales.

It really is as blue as it looks, and the stems carry that cobalt blush as well, almost as if the whole thing were dusted with spray paint by someone seeking to enhance things.

Leathery, silvery-green, rounded leaves in basal rosettes send up 18-24” tall multi-branched stems topped by loose clusters of bristly, bracted, cone-shaped flower heads summer through fall.  Stems and flowers are flushed a deep electric blue. A very long season of bloom through summer into autumn.

An excellent cutflower and everlasting. A popular bee and butterfly flower, always alive with insect activity.

‘Blue Cap’ – translated from ‘Blaukappe’ – is a premium German selection of the species, and is even more compact and floriferous (and darker blue) than its attractive ancestor. A number of other E. planum cultivars have appeared in recent years, such as the very dwarf ‘Blue Hobbit’, and white forms such as ‘Silver Salentino’ and ‘White Glitter’.

A variegated form, ‘Jade Frost’, with pink-blushed, white-edged foliage, has been appearing in garden centres for a few years; I have a small planting of this cultivar and am at this point not terribly impressed, as one of the original trio mysteriously withered and died, and the other two are less vigorous than I had hoped for from this generally reliable species.

Sun; any soil; drought tolerant. Fantastic xeriscape plant. A generous self-seeder, but not a “runner” – individual plants stay put, and are tap rooted and very long lived. Oh – and it is reasonably deer resistant, too!

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Definitely approved by bees! A late evening forager on ‘Blue Cap’ Sea Holly at the 108 Roadhouse Heritage Site at Lac La Hache, B.C., mid-August, 2012. Image: HFN

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UBC Botanical Garden, Vancouver, B.C. April 8, 2014

Trachystemon orientalis – UBC Botanical Garden, Vancouver, B.C. April 8, 2014. Image: HFN

Perennial. Zone 4/5. Boraginaceae. Syn. Borago orientalis. Bulgaria, Turkey, northern Asia.

Something of a bio plant (“botanical interest only”) but one which I am intrigued by, having long had a strong affection for the members of the Boraginaceae as a whole.

Deep green, crisply wrinkled, rather bristly leaves arise in early spring, along with many 6-inch stems topped by loose spikes of many small, star-shaped blue blooms with curiously reflexed petals and prominent stamen clusters. A rich nectar source, the flowers are a favourite of foraging bees. Once the flowers subside in May, the foliage expands to form a dense colony of 18-inch long, bright green leaves, reminiscent of a colony of furry-leaved hostas.

Most literature dismisses Trachystemon orientalis as hardy only to Zone 6, but properly sited, in humus-rich soil in areas with reliable snow cover, this one is worth a try in our region’s Zone 4-ish woodland gardens.

From UBC Botanical Garden horticulturist Jackie Chambers, April 2, 2008:

A fine example of Trachystemon orientalis can be found in the David C. Lam Asian Garden here at UBC. The coarse-textured, heart-shaped leaves are bright green and reach 25-30cm long. However, it is the dainty blue flowers, currently in bloom, that are the most striking feature of this perennial groundcover.

The flowers are held on hairy, purple flower stalks of 15-30cm in height. Flower stalks emerge in early spring (March-April) before the leaves have reached full size. Individual flowers are about 1cm in diameter, and are hermaphroditic – meaning they have both staminate (pollen producing) and carpellate (ovule producing) structures. Stiff hairs and blue flowers are typical features of members of Boraginaceae.

Trachystemon is derived from the Greek trachys, meaning rough, and stemon, a stamen. The species name orientalis means eastern or from the orient, and is a reference to the native distribution of this species. Trachystemon orientalis is endemic to southeastern Europe and western Asia.

In Turkey, the plant is eaten as a vegetable, and has the common name aci hodan. The flowers, stems, young leaves and rhizome may all be cooked and eaten.

English common names include Abraham-Isaac-Jacob, and Eastern or Oriental borage.

From a horticulturist perspective, this plant is an extremely useful groundcover; while it prefers partly shaded woodland locations, it can tolerate full sun to shade, and a range of soil conditions. It even performs well in dry shade which is always a challenge for gardeners.

Trachystemon orientalis grows in forested and subalpine areas of its native lands, where it is collected in early spring as a much-loved delicacy. It is sold in the local farmers’ markets and prepared rather like spinach, though I would fervently hope that the overall bristly texture is subdued by cooking.

A gardener from Ankara, Turkey, shared this comment on an online garden forum I occasionally visit:

This plant is highly edible and grows in the Black Sea mountains in Turkey. Much like spinach it needs a very good soak and rinsing several times because of the bristles. It is a lovely food, stem and flowers included, when chopped and added to sautéed chopped onions then whisked eggs stirred in and allowed to cook through. Salt and pepper to taste.

It is a seasonal plant and not available except by foraging for it. (The common name in Turkey is) ‘Kaldirik’.

Grown as an ornamental in Great Britain since the 1860s, it was reportedly introduced to North American in the 1970s by renowned plantsman John Elsley, who has been instrumental in introducing many new-to-the-continent species and cultivars to the North American nursery trade.

Still very rare in the nursery trade in Canada. Reported to be easy from seed, so a good place to start would be the various alpine garden club seed exchanges, or keep an eye out if visiting a coastal specialty nursery. Hill Farm Nursery hopes to be able to offer this plant in the future. A test planting is in the ground as of fall 2014.

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UBC Botanical Garden, Vancouver, B.C. April 8, 2014

UBC Botanical Garden, Vancouver, B.C. April 8, 2014 Image: HFN

Perennial. Zone 3. Araceae.  Western North America; California north to Alaska; throughout British Columbia from coastal regions to lower elevations of mountain ranges. 

This spectacular native wildflower emerges from its winter hibernation before the snow is completely gone, appearing in wet and swampy areas in April and early May. Tight-packed green flower spikes are enclosed in a large, bright yellow bract. Pollinated by flies and beetles, which are attracted by the musky fragrance of the flowers. Club-shaped seed pods mature in late summer.

Foliage is strongly pungent when bruised, hence the common name. Massive, glossy, fleshy fleaves are 3 to 4 ft. tall.

Excellent for those with larger gardens, and adds early spring interest to the bog garden and pond edge. Prefers shade. A moisture lover, which demands wet feet to be happy. Fairly slow growing, but long-lived and maintenance free where happy.

Yellow Skunk Cabbage may be found in our in the wild in our area in wetter regions, generally where cedars thrive. Look for it in the bush around Likely and Horsefly, and in lower elevation wet areas in the Cariboo Mountains. Abundant in Wells Grey Park.

From Lewis J. Clark’s superb 1973 masterwork Wild Flowers of British Columbia:

The whole plant has a smell of spring, of surging growth, that would be objectionable in a closed room but is not unpleasant in its own habitat. For the record, it does not smell at all like the mephitic spray of the skunk. Bears consume the whole plant, including the short thick rootstock, while deer occasionally browse the leaves.

This huge plant is related to the taro, staple food of the Polynesians. Both plants produce a stinging sensation in the mouth, due to calcium oxalate. Ages ago, however, the natives in our area discovered, as did those of the South Seas, that roasting and drying the root drove off the substance responsible for the stinging, burning taste, after which it could be ground to an edible flour.

Fraser’s Thimble Farms on Saltspring Island is the only commercial source that I am aware of, but you may be able to acquire this by special order through local nurseries such as Richbar in Quesnel.

Lysichiton americanus has received the Royal Horticultural Society’s Award of Garden Merit.

UBC Botanical Garden, Vancouver, B.C. April 8, 2014.

UBC Botanical Garden, Vancouver, B.C. April 8, 2014. Image: HFN

UBC Botanical Garden, Vancouver, B.C. April 8, 2014

UBC Botanical Garden, Vancouver, B.C. April 8, 2014 Image:HFN

Mid-summer foliage. Wells Gray Park, north of Clearwater, B.C. July 20, 2011

Mid-summer foliage. Wells Gray Park, north of Clearwater, B.C. July 20, 2011 Image: HFN

Maturing seed pod. Wells Gray Park, north of Clearwater, B.C. July 20, 2011

Maturing seed pod. Wells Gray Park, north of Clearwater, B.C. July 20, 2011 Image: HFN

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UBC Botanical Garden, Vancouver, B.C. April 8, 2014

UBC Botanical Garden, Vancouver, B.C. April 8, 2014 Image: HFN

Perennial. Zone 3. Araceae. Kamchatka Peninsula of northeastern Russia, Sakhalin and Kuril Islands, northern Japan.  Closely related to the native yellow-spathed Skunk Cabbage, Lysichiton americanus.

Very early blooming, emerging through the last of the snow and flowering from late April through May. Big white spathes with a central green spadix packed with tiny green flowers. Large, thick, shiny green leaves.

Pollinated by beetles and flies, which are attracted by the somewhat transient fragrance of the flowers. Foliage is musky-scented when bruised, hence the common name. Foliage clumps are 2 to 3 ft. tall.

A handsome species for the bog garden, edge of pond or stream, or wet woodland garden. Prefers shade. This one thrives in moist conditions, and will require some extra care to establish in Cariboo gardens, though it should prove fully hardy where happy, especially in areas where the native Skunk Cabbage already thrives. It is reported to hybridize with Lysichiton americanus; offspring will show cream coloured spathes which will be larger and more showy than both parents, according to botanical garden reports from England.

Of most interest in earliest spring into early summer, when the seed pods form and the foliage starts to get a bit tired. The “skunky” aroma is not particularly offensive, but it is noticeable when plants are disturbed.

Very rare in cultivation in our region; one for the serious collector. Fraser’s Thimble Farms on Saltspring Island is a good place to inquire if you are keen on giving this one a try. Slow growing, taking five years or so to reach full size, but long-lived and problem free once established.

Lysichiton camschatcensis has received the Royal Horticultural Society’s Award of Garden Merit.

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Image: HFN

Perennial. Z2. This is a relatively new cultivar, introduced in 1998. It is a hybrid of the gorgeous bicoloured monkshood, Aconitum cammarum, and a Himalayan species, A. spicatum. The individual hooded flowers look rather like bleached out versions of its variegated parent, being grayish white with faded purple veins, with a darker stamen cluster, but the overall effect is really something quite wonderful. Instead of the loosely arranged florets of A. cammarum, ‘Stainless Steel’ produces densely flowered spikes.

The plant is very vigorous and reliably sturdy, and the 3 to 4 foot stems stand tall without staking. It blooms for me for a very long time, through July and August, with reliable autumn rebloom if the first spent spikes are trimmed back. It sets abundant seed, but so far I have not seen any seedlings; I suspect that it may be a sterile cross. The photo included here is of the secondary bloom; the first spikes are much more lush and full.

If you see this one anywhere, buy it! It’s an excellent Monkshood. I may have a few divisions to spare this spring, as I’m thinking of moving my 5-year-old parent plant, but this depends on what I find when I get the clump out of the ground. Some Aconitums divide quite readily, while others are difficult to separate without damaging the crowns. I’m including it in this list just because it is so grand, and I’d like to recommend it, even if it’s not for sale from us!

Site carefully, as it does take a few years to really get going, and will resent being moved around too much, if it’s anything like its relations. Light shade is best, with good soil and some summer moisture. Note: All monkshoods are poisonous in all of their parts. Keep this­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­ in mind when dividing, and if you garden with very small children.

Edited April 13, 2013 – I have been poking around in the garden and – such a disappointment! – it looks like ‘Stainless Steel’ did not make the (very mild) winter of 2012-13. Which was completely unexpected, as it had seemed quite happy and had reached quite a magnificent size. Monkshoods in general are tough and long-lived, so not sure what this is all about. I’ll be looking for another one; my recommendation still stands. Just one of those things in the perennial plant world, I guess…

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Althaea officinalis – Marsh Mallow. Hill Farm, summer 2010. Image: HFN

Perennial. Zone 2. Malvaceae. North Africa, Western Asia, Europe. 

This ancient medicinal herb makes a pleasant border background plant. It’s definitely not showy but it has a certain presence about it. The plant forms a long-lived, many-branched clump of 6 foot tall stems lined with  maple-leaf-like, soft, grey-green foliage.

The rather small, inconspicuous, white to pale purple flowers like miniature single hollyhocks are produced over a very long season, from summer well into fall.

An “innocent” plant, as the old herbalists called it – all parts are safe to consume, with no harmful properties. The soothing properties of the plant made it a popular and reportedly effective treatment for sore throats, and it was one of the herbs grown in the monastery gardens of Medieval times.

The plant was also used to produce original “marshmallow” confection, with the roots yielding a mucilaginous sap which was mixed with honey by the ancient Egyptians to form a candy. French confectioners of the 1800s whipped the root extract with sugar to form a frothy dessert. Eventually the plant sap itself was replaced with egg white and sugar, and the popular snow-white marshmallow candies we know today were developed.

A highly adaptable clump former which thrives with some moisture and can tolerate some standing water, Marsh Mallow is just as happy in dry garden soils, though it will be shorter. The occasional seedling may appear, but never enough to cause a problem.

Sun to light shade; average conditions.

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Vernonia noveboracensis – Ironweed – University of British Columbia Botanical Garden, Vancouver, B.C. – September 2008. Image: HFN

Perennial. Zone 3.  Asteraceae. Eastern North America.

In the months of lavender, late summer

and early fall…

…in the ageing fields

ironweed opens bright fur to nectar moths…

Purple Asters ~ Robert Morgan ~ 1981

My first glimpse of Ironweed at the UBC Botanical Garden in Vancouver left me completely smitten. I’d certainly heard about it before, often recommended as a back-of-border fall-bloomer, but the reality of the eye-popping neon purple and the intricacy of the flower clusters was hugely more appealing than any of the rather washy photos I’d seen.

Vernonia is a huge genus estimated at over 1000 species worldwide. A number of the tropical species are important food plants, producing edible foliage. I have not yet heard of a similar use for any of the more temperate varieties, though a study of ethnobotany would doubtless find culinary and medicinal uses on this continent as well.

Of the 17 Vernonia species documented in North America, noveboracensis is probably the best-known. It is named after the English botanist William Vernon who first collected specimens of the plant in Maryland in 1698. The specific name, noveboracensis, refers to its wide occurrence in the state of New York, and indeed through a large range on the eastern seaboard from Massachusetts to Mississippi. It does not appear to be native to Canada, though it is now widely available from specialist nurseries in this country.

Ironweed’s common name most likely comes from the rusty-red colour of the seedheads. As the vivid purple petals eventually wither and turn brown, clinging to their calyxes, small puffs of rather dandelion-like seed clusters emerge. These are eagerly consumed by chickadees and other small seed eaters, who love to perch on the sturdy ironweed clumps to forage for food and to survey their surroundings from a safe height.

The stems of ironweed are also iron-strong, as one of the UBC gardeners joked to me. This is not a flower to be casually snapped off – pruning shears are definitely in order when harvesting blooms for bouquets. And you will definitely want to do that. The vivid purple tassels contrast perfectly with other fall bloomers; the paler mauve Joe-Pye Weed, any of the Rudbeckia, Echinacea and taller Sedums, late-blooming Phlox paniculata, plume poppy, the Michaelmas daisies and the last of the annual sunflowers all combine to make a sweetly fragrant and long-lasting autumn arrangement.

Ironweed is definitely a wildflower; unkind souls might even dismiss it as rather weedy. Undeniable – I certainly would not place it in a front-row position. At the border back it provides a nice foliage presence to frame more “domesticated” earlier flowers, and, once these are over, a welcome burst of colour to usher in autumn.

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A closer look at the bloom clusters. Note the unique “checkering” of the buds. Image: HFN

                         October inherits summer’s hand-me-downs: the last of the ironweed, its purple silken tatters turning brown, and the tiny starry white asters tumbling untidily on the ground like children rolling with laughter…

Rural Free ~ Rachel Peden ~ 1961 

This is a rambly sort of Plant Portrait; I really do like this plant. Perhaps I should concentrate on its garden attributes. Read on! (If you so wish.)

Brilliant purple, sweetly fragrant tassel-flowers emerge from clusters of elongated, geometrically-checkered buds mid-August through September.

Foliage is undeniably rather coarse. Heavy, pointed and lightly serrated 6 to 8 inch long, lanceolate leaves are dark green with paler undersides. THese are arranged alternately along the sturdy stems.

This ironweed is a sturdy clump-former, 4 to 6 feet tall, with a 2 to 4 foot spread. It grows largest on moist soils. It does not run from roots. It may self seed, but is not invasive in my experience.  For shorter, bushier plants, cut back when 24″ tall; new growth will quickly re-sprout and produce double the flowers in late summer on more compact plants.

Handsome in its own rough way, Ironweed is best sited as a back-of-border or wild garden plant. It comes into its own in late summer and fall when the main perennials bloom seasons is over.

Rather similar in effect and garden use to Joe-Pye Weed (Eupatorium) but colour is much more vibrant, being a “neon” shade of bright purple. Blooms fade to red-rusty brown, which is likely the reason for the common name.

A grand bee and butterfly flower, and an important nectar source in late summer. It is visited by migrating hummingbirds as they travel southward. The seed heads may be left on plant to provide seed for wild birds (though this may result in self-sown seedlings next year), or clipped off. Sturdy stems stand up to heavy snowfall; a favourite perch for small seed-eating birds if the seed heads remain.

Oh, and it’s deer resistant.

Widely adaptable to most situations. Likes moisture but tolerant of dryness. Prefers soil on the acidic side, but happily tolerates alkalinity.

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