21 Hot Dates for Blackeyed Susan

Here we are in July, my Paintbox Garden month for yellow/gold. and what more summery illustration of that sunny part of the paintbox than blackeyed susan!

Rudbeckia hirta closeup

When Carl Linnaeus named the genus of North American plants that include the ones we call blackeyed susan as Rudbeckia, he was honouring someone very cherished in his life, his Uppsala University mentor and fellow botanist Olof Rudbeck the Younger (1660-1740).  In 1730 Linnaeus moved into Rudbeck’s house where he became tutor for his three youngest children (of 24 in total by three wives!). It was Rudbeck who recommended Linnaeus as lecturer to replace him and as the botanical garden demonstrator, even though he was only in his second year of studies.

In Wilfrid Blunt’s 1971 biography, Linnaeus, The Compleat Naturalist, the author quotes Linnaeus: “So long as the earth shall survive and as each spring shall see it covered with flowers, theRudbeckia will preserve your glorious name. I have chosen a noble plant in order to recall your merits and the services you have rendered, a tall one to give an idea of your stature, and I wanted it to be one which branched and which flowered and fruited freely, to show that you cultivated not only the sciences but also the humanities. Its rayed flowers will bear witness that you shone among savants like the sun among the stars; its perennial roots will remind us that each year sees you live again through new works. Pride of our gardens, the Rudbeckia will be cultivated throughout Europe and in distant lands where your revered name must long have been known. Accept this plant, not for what it is but for what it will become when it bears your name”.

The painting of Rudbeck, below, hangs at Uppsala University.

Olof RudbeckYounger















I am a great fan of biennial blackeyed susans (Rudbeckia hirta). They have been an integral part of my little meadows here on Lake Muskoka since we built our home in 2002. In fact, they were the plants I sowed initially, along with red fescue grass (Festuca rubra), to retain the sandy soil we placed on the property once construction was finished.  And it’s a bit of an understatement to say that they grew well, given they had no competion yet from other tough customers.  They grew extraordinarily well here.

Rudbeckia hirta-Lake Muskoka

When I think back to the summer of 2003, it’s of having these amazing ‘lawns’ of blackeyed susans, which later evolved (with a lot of research and work on my part) into more complex meadow-prairies.

Rudbeckia hirta-Blackeyed Susan Meadow

I spent summer 2003 photographing them, and had a little photo show the next summer – long before I switched to digital.

Janet Davis-Rudbeckia hirta

I even wrote about them for Cottage Life magazine, given that they seemed like the ‘way back’ for our property from construction site to buzzing, fluttering habitat (and, ultimately, a much more bio-diverse place than our little shore had ever been).

Cottage Life-Blackeyed SusansThey became part of the pollinator landscape here, attracting all types of bees and butterflies.

Rudbeckia hirta - leafcutter bee

Over the years, I’ve chronicled the lovely plant pairings that pop up – because I never know where this little biennial will be next. Unlike its more refined, floriferous, multi-stemmed, perennial cousin Rudbeckia fulgida ‘Goldsturm’, which I’ll talk about later in this blog, common blackeyed susan is a single-stemmed will-o-the-wisp, its seeds spread by birds, its short 2-year lifespan all there is (leafy rosette the first season, flowers the next). Occasionally, depending on the length of the flowering season, it might emerge and flower in the same year, or it might even hang around to flower a second year, but that is rare. However, individual plants can begin flowering from June well into September, so its plant partners can be highly varied – as varied as the ones in this cottage bouquet I made years ago.

Rudbeckia hirta-in bouquet

Hot Dates for Susan

1)  In my own garden at the cottage, wild beebalm (Monarda fistulosa) is a hardy perennial that I adore for its attractiveness to bees and hummingbirds. In fact, I have two small meadows that I call my “monarda meadows”.  And this is how it looked growing alongside Rudbeckia hirta at Niagara Botanical Garden’s Legacy Prairie

Rudbeckia hirta & Monarda fistulosa-Niagara-Legacy Prairie

Here’s a closer look at this duo in another garden. Note the dark streaks on this blackeyed susan; it’s one of many selected strains that come under the heading “gloriosa daisy”. Genetically, they’re no different from common Rudbeckia hirta wildlings, but have traits that make them worth growing as separate seed mixes, in this case ‘Denver Daisy’.

Rudbeckia hirta & Monarda fistulosa

2) Here is blackeyed susan at the Legacy Prairie with swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata). Note that it will tolerate very dry, sandy conditions and remain quite compact, but if grown in the kind of moisture-retentive soil that swamp milkweed prefers, it will grow much taller.

Rudbeckia hirta2 & Asclepias incarnata

3) In contrast, this is how it looks growing in sandy soil with the more drought-tolerant butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) here at Lake Muskoka.

Rudbeckia hirta & Asclepias tuberosa

4) Similarly, in dry soil blackeyed susan will be happy with hoary vervain (Verbena stricta), one of the toughest customers in my meadows….

Rudbeckia hirta & Verbena stricta

5) ….. while more moisture-retentive soil creates conditions for blue vervain (Verbena hastata) – and taller blackeyed susans.

Rudbeckia hirta & Verbena hastata-Niagara-Legacy Prairie

6) There is simply no better bee plant than mountain mint (Pynanthemum sp) (unless it’s calamint).  Here is Virginia mountain mint (P. virginianum) at Niagara’s Legacy Prairie growing with blackeyed susans.

Rudbeckia hirta & Pycnanthemum virginianum - Legacy Prairie - Niagara Botanical Garden

7) I grow the smaller veronica Veronica spicata ‘Darwin’s Blue’ in my meadows. Surprisingly drought-tolerant, it is lovely with blackeyed susans.

Rudbeckia hirta & Veronica 'Darwin's Blue'

8) Another blueish-purple plant that makes a good sidekick to blackeyed susan is English lavender (Lavandula angustifolia), shown below along with Anthemis tinctoria. A surprisingly hardy subshrub, its main requirement is dry feet in winter; it will languish and die if the soil stays moist.

Rudbeckia hirta & Lavandula angustifolia

9) There aren’t many glamorous plants in my meadows, but a brief flirtation with perfumed Orienpet lilies (half Oriental-half Trumpet) several years ago added a touch of the exotic. And I simply love the juxtaposition of a sophisticated lily like ‘Conca d’Or’ with the humble blackeyed susans.

Rudbeckia hirta & Lilium

10) Annual mealycup sage (Salvia farinacea ‘Victoria’) is beautiful with fancy gloriosa daisies (Rudbeckia hirta cv.)

Rudbeckia hirta & Salvia farinacea

11) I adored this colour-echo combination of golden Swiss chard (Beta vulgaris ‘Golden Sunrise’) with dwarf ‘Toto’ gloriosa daisies (R. hirta cv) at Montreal Botanical Garden.

Rudbeckia hirta 'Toto' & Swiss chard & carex

12) An ebullient assortment of gloriosa daisy cultivars mixed with blue cornflowers (Centaurea cyanus) was used in this mini-meadow at Montreal Botanical Garden a few years ago.

Rudbeckia hirta - gloriosa daisies - & Centaurea cyanus

Here’s a closer look at that pairing; the gloriosa daisy cultivar is Rudbeckia hirta ‘Irish Eyes’.

Rudbeckia hirta 'Irish Eyes' & Centaurea cyanus-closeup

The other blackeyed susan I grow is Rudbeckia fulgida var. sullivantii ‘Goldsturm’.  After being named Perennial of the Year in 1999, this bushy plant soared in popularity throughout the world. In the “new American landscape” made popular by Wolfgang Oehme and James Van Sweden, it was deployed alongside ornamental grasses in massive sweeps of gold. It continues to be one of the most popular summer perennials, and spreads very easily (too easily, perhaps, for some).

13) In my city garden, I grow a host of pollinator plants in my front garden, and Rudbeckia ‘Goldsturm’ is the perfect, long-flowering companion to purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea). Since I enjoy it so much, I suppose it’s not a surprise that the neighbourhood rabbit seems to like the blossoms, too – as I discovered last summer, finding a large clump deflowered.

Rudbeckia 'Goldsturm' & Echinacea

14)  My friend Marnie Wright (whose garden I have blogged about previously) uses ‘Goldsturm’ throughout her Bracebridge garden. I especially like it with summer phlox (Phlox paniculata), and…

Rudbeckia 'Goldsturm' & Phlox

15) ….with agapanthus (Agapanthus africanus), and…. 

Agapanthus & Rudbeckia 'Goldturm'

16) ….with Marnie’s gorgeous daylilies (Hemerocallis ‘Jade Star’).

Rudbeckia 'Goldsturm' & Hemerocallis

At the Toronto Botanical Garden, Rudbeckia ‘Goldsturm’ is used in a few gardens.

17) Here it is with balloon flower (Platycodon grandiflorus), and ….

Rudbeckia 'Goldsturm' & Platycodon grandiflorus

18) …with ‘Diabolo’ ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius) that has been coppiced to keep it compact, and….

Rudbeckia 'Goldsturm' & Physocarpus 'Diabolo'

19) .. with the prairie grass little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), and…..

Rudbeckia 'Goldsturm' & little bluestem

20) …with great blue lobelia (Lobelia sophilitica).

Rudbeckia 'Goldsturm' & Lobelia siphilitica

At Toronto’s Spadina House gardens, Rudbeckia ‘Goldsturm’ provides huge colour from mid-to-late summer…..

Rudbeckia 'Goldsturm'-Spadina House

21) …. when it celebrates the beginning of autumn with a brilliant splash of gold from (appropriately) goldenrod (Solidago sp.) 

Rudbeckia 'Goldsturm' & Solidago

My work as a matchmaker is done. I hope you found a dance partner or two for your own blackeyed susans!

A Love Letter to Northern Catalpa

Though June is my designated purple month (according to my 2016 New Year’s resolution to blog one colour per month), I do feel compelled to add a little white delight for this last week of June before the lazy days of summer ensue.  And why is that? Because the spectacularly beautiful Northern catalpa tree (Catalpa speciosa) is in flower in Toronto, and I decided it needed a little love.  Though it’s often found in residential settings, its sheer size at maturity makes it a better choice for a park or cemetery – and that’s where I love to photograph this North American native:  Mount Pleasant Cemetery. Today it was a little sunny, when I drove through, but the trees looked resplendent.

Catalpa speciosa-Mount Pleasant Cemetery2

Northern catalpa trees can mature at heights between 40-70 feet (12-21 metres) with a spread of 20-50 feet (6-15 metres).  Though they grow naturally in moist bottomland from southern Illinois and Indiana south to Tennessee and Arkansas, the species is fully hardy in Toronto. Interestingly, some trees are columnar, and others have a rounded crown.   Catalpa canopies are so full…..

Catalpa speciosa-canopy

…..one has to remind oneself to peer closely to savour the beauty of each orchid-like flower in the big panicles.  Though I couldn’t find any bumble bees today, I know they were enjoying the fragrant blossoms – appropriately marked with purple nectar guides – up high in the canopies. This is one of those rare species that has both diurnal and nocturnal pollinators, with moths working the flowers at night.

Catalpa speciosa-Northern catalpa-flowers

Interestingly, some specimens had already flowered when I was at the cemetery today, pointing to their variability. The tree below, for example, is one I photographed two weeks earlier in 2010; today it was fully green, all the flowers spent.

Catalpa speciosa-Mount Pleasant Cemetery1

Catalpa speciosa was named by John Aston Warder (1812-1883), founder of the American Forestry Association.


Look how beautiful the flowers look backlit against the blue June sky. I can imagine each of those as a prom corsage.

Catalpa speciosa flowers-backlit

The big, heart-shaped leaves are arrayed to maximize sunshine and photosynthesis.

Catalpa speciosa-leaf array

The long, slender seed pods give the genus two of its common names: Indian bean and cigar tree.

Catalpa speciosa-seedpods

Here, sit under the canopy for a few minutes and enjoy the shade it casts from the warm June sun.

Catalpa speciosa-branching


Finding Purple in the Blue Ridge Mountains

My second June blog on the colour purple (see my first blog here) takes the shape of a travel journal. Not the one below, but one based on the fabulous natural landscapes described in the pages of this book.

Blue Ridge-Travel Guide

Did I know, when I left home in Toronto, that what I would find atop a mountain in North Carolina would fit into my June reflection of purple? Not at all. Did I know that my journey would be a celebration of a hue that some might argue rests more comfortably in the land of “magenta”?  No. But in looking back at the highlights of my few days last week in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains, it is “rosy-purple” that colours my memories.

From the beginning, then.

I am fortunate to have someone with whom I can share not just a love of the natural world, not just a passion for photography, but an enduring and easy friendship. And despite the miles between us, my friend Virginia Weiler (Ginny) of Winston-Salem, North Carolina and I have found several occasions to meet in diverse landscapes that celebrate our enjoyment of gardens and nature, like California’s Santa Ynez Valley mountain meadows and the Mojave Desert in 2004….

Ginny & Janet-2004-California

…. and New York’s fabulous High Line in 2012.

Ginny & Janet-2012-High Line

Our last time together had been on a little lake in Montebello, Quebec where Ginny and her long-time partner Claudine were married in September 2014. But there was no time for botanizing on that joyous occasion!

Wedding montage

This time, we decided to meet at the airport in Charlotte, NC on June 13th and drive north to the city of Asheville in the Blue Ridge Mountains, a sub-range of the Appalachian Mountain Range.  As a honey bee photographer, I had a particular desire to visit the Blue Ridge in early summer, in order to see the sourwood tree (Oxydendrum arboreum) in bloom.

Oxydendrum arboreum-Sourwood tree

Alas, though we saw lots of sourwoods and they were quite advanced in North Carolina’s June heat wave (90-95F), only the first nodding flowers had opened and the honey bees would not be in them for a while. (But check out the leafcutter bee holes in the leaves below).

Sourwood flowers opening-Oxydrendum arboreum

My request for sourwood gave Ginny the magical clue for our accommodation: a beautiful spot she knew well, having stayed there with Claudine before. The Sourwood Inn would be our home base for the next few days.

Sourwood Inn-Asheville North Carolina

At 3200-foot elevation on the richly-forested slope of Elk Mountain overlooking the Reems Creek Valley, the inn nestles on 100 acres. it is a family-owned bed-and-breakfast with 12 rooms. Ours was Room #5, a lovely, spacious aerie on the corner of the third floor with lots of windows for cross-ventilation. We loved our little balcony in the treetops….

Sourwood Inn-Balcony-Room5

….overlooking red maples, hickories (Carya cordiformis & C. glabra) and chestnut oaks (Quercus prinus), seen below.

Chestnut oak-Quercus prinus-Sourwood Inn

What a beautiful sound through the screen door as rain fell one night, stopping conveniently by daybreak. And the balcony was the perfect perch from which to hear songbirds early in the morning. Have a listen….

There is a lovely, Arts & Crafts furnished lobby….

Sourwood-Lobby sitting area

….and a big verandah with comfy rocking chairs. We ate our picnic dinner from town here one evening.

Sourwood Inn-Veranda

There are a few hiking trails skirting the slopes on the Sourwood property….


….and it’s fun to pick out the native shrubs & perennials I’m more accustomed to seeing as cultivated ornamentals, such as smooth hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens) and goatsbeard (Aruncus dioicus), below, among many others.

Aruncus dioicus-Goatsbeard-Blue Ridge Mountains

Breakfast at the inn was served either in the dining room or on a lovely stone terrace outside. This is where Ginny perused the maps of the area before we started out in the morning.

Map reading-Sourwood Inn

Typical of the Sourwood Inn was this delicious breakfast: cheesy grits casserole with scrambled eggs & fruit. Yum! I could be a southern girl, y’all!

Sourwood Inn-Grits Casserole Breakfast

After a morning at the Asheville Botanical Garden, below, the heat and humidity made us reconsider our initial plan to visit more Asheville sites.

Asheville Botanical Garden

Instead, we picked up a picnic lunch and set out up the Blue Ridge Parkway, Ginny at the wheel.   She decided we would visit Craggy Gardens (a natural mountain ‘garden’) in the Pisgah National Forest of western North Carolina.

Driving the Blue Ridge Parkway

On each of our forays on the Blue Ridge Parkway, it wasn’t unusual for us to pull over to the grassy shoulder…..

Blue Ridge Parkway-photo stop

…. so we could snap breathtaking views like this one, further up the parkway, where the “Black Mountains” (for their dark conifers) begin….

Black Mountains-view-Blue Ridge Parkway

… or mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia) growing right out of the rock….

Kalmia on rock-Blue Ridge Parkwayl

…. or capture wildflowers along the way, like the brilliant fire pink (Silene virginica)…

Silene virginica-fire pink

…and common golden groundsel (Packera aurea).

Packera aurea-golden groundsel

Driving the Blue Ridge Parkway in this area means going through a series of tunnels carved through the mountains.  These engineering marvels were dug mostly by hand by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s, as part of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal.

Blue Ridge Parkway-Tunnel

After taking the turn at Milepost 367.5 on the Blue Ridge Parkway, we drove a mile or so into the Craggy Gardens Picnic Area, where we ate our lunch. (Note, this is about 3 miles before the Craggy Gardens Visitor Centre at Milepost 364.6 further up the highway from Asheville).

Craggy Gardens-Picnic Area

Wild turkeys wandered about near the parking area here. They are plentiful in the Blue Ridge.

Wild turkey-Blue Ridge Mountains

Then we began the hike upwards through deciduous forest on this segment of North Carolina’s Mountains to Sea Trail (MST).  I wished I had done a little more training for climbing uphill at 5000+ feet elevation.  Breathe in, breathe out and keep those creaky knees bending.This was new ecological territory for me, with sun-dappled beech gaps (Fagus grandifolia) – a unique niche in these mountains.

Beech Gap-Craggy Gardens

There were beautiful wildflowers in the grasses, like the thyme-leaved mountain bluet (Houstonia serpyllifolia) here with the emerging leaves of filmy angelica (Angelica triquinata), a native of rocky slopes and balds which bears green umbel flowers in August and September (and whose nectar intoxicates the bees!)

Angelica triquinata & Houstonia

As we neared the summit, we rose above intriguing plant communities cloaking the slopes, like the one below: yellow buckeye (Aesculus flava), mountain ash (Sorbus americana), Canada blackberry (Rubus canadensis), foreground and – the star of Craggy Gardens and the mountaintops around here – the beguilingly beautiful Catawba rhododendron (Rhododendron catawbiense).

Native forest-Craggy Gardens

There was mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia) beside the trail here, too.

Kalmia latifolia-Mountain laurel

Then, suddenly, the woodland lightened, giving way to grassy meadows studded with Catawba rhododendrons. Without knowing it in advance, we had reached North Carolina’s spectacular version of ‘purple’ at just the perfect moment!

Craggy Gardens-Mountains to Sea-path

Also known as mountain rosebay, R. catawbiense is at home here on these mountains, where the air is cool and often foggy, and condensation from clouds provides ample moisture when the rains don’t come. It is a parent of the popular garden hybrid rhododendron ‘Roseum Elegans’,

Rhododendron catawbiense-Craggy Gardens

I watched Eastern tiger swallowtail butterflies (Papilio glaucus) and this spicebush swallowtail (Papilio troilus) nectaring on the blossoms.

Papilio troilus-Spicebush Swallowtail-Rhododendron catawbiense-Craggy Gardens

Though the trail seemed to end at this sturdy trail shelter, also built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s, other hikers advised us to take the spur path to our right for the best rhododendron show.

Shelter-Craggy Gardens

I didn’t know it until I got home and did some research on Craggy Gardens, that the spur path took us onto the “bald”. That’s a fairly clear word that means what it suggests… a “bald” surface on a mountaintop that some sources call an ecological mystery. There are grass balds and heath balds, the latter featuring ericaceous plants like rhododendron, kalmia and blueberry and other Vaccinium species. The Craggy Gardens bald is a combination of both grasses and heaths.

Path-Craggy Gardens Bald

The rhodos here are old, their branches crusted with lichens.

Lichen on Rhododendron catawbiense

And the view of the Blue Ridges through those purple blossoms is simply breathtaking.

Craggy Gardens-Heath Grass Bald

I had to have my photo taken with that great background!

Janet Davis-Craggy Gardens-Blue Ridge Mountains

There were deciduous flame azaleas (Rhododendron calendulaceum) on the bald as well.


And the occasional gnarled red oak (Quercus rubra) was up here, too. The red oaks have been the subject of a study on this bald and others, their ‘encroachment’ considered to be the result of the cessation of historical sheep-pasturing on the tops of some of the Blue Ridge Mountains many years ago. When animal grazing was stopped with the creation of the park, the encroachment of the red oak was considered to be harmful to these special environments.

Quercus rubra-Red oak-Craggy Gardens

In fact, Ginny liked that old oak so much, she encroached herself into its generous branches.

Ginny in the red oak

Whether or not natural succession/reforestation of the balds might be considered more ‘natural’ in these mountains is debatable; nonetheless, there is park management to keep out woody invaders and retain the heath/grass nature of the bald.

The rhododendrons were alive with bumble bees doing their noisy ‘buzz pollination’. Hummingbirds are said to be fond of the flowers too.

Bombus impatiens-Rhododendron catawbiense-Craggy Gardens

And the bald was popular with hikers, kite-fliers and dog-walkers too. Ginny struck up a conversation with two of them.

Craggy Gardens-Heath Bald-Virginia Weiler

After a short walk to an overlook, we enjoyed one more long gaze around this beautiful place – and thanked our stars that we’d hit peak rhododendron bloom (for the record, this was June 14th, 2016) without even knowing that’s what everyone who visits Craggy Gardens hopes to enjoy. Lucky us!

Oh, and on a purple note, these are the colours that the internet attributes to the Catawba rhododendron: “lilac-purple to magenta”, “deep pinkish-purple”, “rosy-lilac”, “lavender-pink”, “pink-purple”, “violet-pink” and “purplish-pink”. Remember what I said about “purple” being a muddy minefield of a hue? Well, turns out that was a “bald” exaggeration. It’s just open to creative interpretation!

June Purple at Spadina House

There’s no better place to celebrate ‘purple’ – my featured colour for the month of June – than the lush, lupine-spangled, late-spring gardens in the ornamental potager behind Toronto’s historic Spadina House.

1-Spadina House gardens-early June

Now a city-owned museum, Spadina House was built in 1866 by Toronto’s James Austin (founder of Dominion Bank, later merged to become Toronto-Dominion Bank, then TD Bank). The property, at the time a 200-acre concession, had been settled originally in 1818 by Dr. William Baldwin, an Irish-born lawyer, doctor, schoolmaster and eventual two-term assemblyman in the town of York (later called Toronto) on land inherited by his wife Phoebe Willcocks and her sister Maria, from their father Joseph.  Sitting at the crest of the hill that leads from midtown to downtown – in historical geologic terms, it’s the escarpment overlooking the sloping shoreline of Lake Ontario’s ice-age predecessor, Lake Iroquois – Dr. Baldwin mentioned the name for his new rural home in a letter to his family in Ireland. “I have a very commodious house in the country.  I have called the place Spadina – the Indian word for Hill or Mont.”  Baldwin’s name came from his hearing of the Ojibway word ishapadenah, which meant “hill” or “rise of land” (and its correct pronunciation for the house is Spa-DEE-na, not Spa-DYE-na).   Using a width of two chains (132 feet), Dr. Baldwin also laid out Spadina Avenue itself from Queen Street north to Davenport, at the bottom of his hill.  In 1837, Lieutenant-Governor Bond Head ordered the extension of the road further south, almost to the lake

0-Spadina House

 What is Purple?

Before we head to the back garden at Spadina House, let’s look for a moment at colour . Purple is not a spectral hue, like short-wavelength indigo and violet – the “I” and “V” in our old mnemonic ROYGBIV for the red-orange-yellow-green-blue-indigo-violet of the visible spectrum we see in a rainbow.

Visible spectrum

Rather “purple” is a word that people today use to describe various combinations of red and blue; it’s also sometimes used to describe colours that are really indigo or violet. It’s a muddy minefield of a colour word, its use open to broad interpretation and its misuse widespread (especially in plant catalogue descriptions!) But purple has an actual history, its etymological origins in the Greek word πορφύρα (porphura), the name given to an ancient pigment from the inky glandular secretions of a few species of spiny murex sea snails that have been harvested from the eastern Mediterranean, perhaps as early as 1500 B.C.  In her fascinating book Color: A Natural History of the Palette, Victoria Finlay recounts how she visited the Lebanese city of Tyre, stayed in the Murex Hotel, and sneaked past guards to get to the ancient dye baths that gave rise to the colour Tyrian purple.  When she finally found samples of cloth dyed with the colour in the National Museum in Beirut, Finley was surprised and delighted. “Because it wasn’t purple at all: it was a lovely shade of fuchsia.”  More like the hue Pliny wrote about in the first century A.D. “Next came the Tyrian dye, which could not be purchased for a thousand denarii a pound”, and “most appreciated when it is the color of clotted blood, dark by reflected and brilliant by transmitted light.” A colour, perhaps, like this web version of Tyrian purple, below, which looks like Finley’s deep fuchsia-pink.

4-Tyrian purple

The august figure in the centre of my Tyrian purple sample is the Byzantine Emperor Justinian 1 (482-565). Note the “clotted blood” colour of his garments.  Justinian was responsible for building the magnificent Hagia Sophia in Constantinople (now Istanbul) in 537, and there is a purple connection to that ancient structure. When I visited it a few years ago, I was struck by the crimson-red pillars; they are made of the mineral porphyry, a word which also traces its roots to the Greek word for purple.

5- Porphyry-Hagia Sophia

If you were of high enough rank in the Byzantine Empire to warrant Tyrian purple robes, you were considered “born in the purple” and your honorific name very possibly reflected that fact, as with young Porphyrogenetos, below, (Latin, Porphyrogenitus, Greek Πορφυρογέννητο), son of the emperor.

4-Patriarch Nicholas Mystikos baptizes Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos

But much earlier – 500 years earlier – Roman emperors had worn Tyrian purple, including the most famous of all, Julius Caesar (100-44 B.C.).  In fact, unless you had the power and wealth to wear Tyrian purple robes, you were prohibited from wearing the colour, and could be executed for daring to do so. When Caesar visited Cleopatra in 49 B.C., her sofa coverlets were recorded as having been “long steeped in Tyrian dye”.  And in the painting below by French artist Lionel Royer, “Vercingetorix throws down his arms at the feet of Julius Caesar” (1898), we see Caesar adorned in Tyrian purple robes.

Julius Caesar-Tyrian purple

Over the eons, I think it’s clear that  we’ve come to view “purple” as less reddish (as in clotted blood) and more blue, a kind of deep, rich violet. So let’s head to the flowery back garden at Spadina House and see if we can visually puzzle out some other “purplish” hues.

Back to Spadina House

In the large ornamental potager behind Toronto’s historic Spadina House, the “cottage garden look” is very much in evidence. Within a formal structure of four even quadrants and intersecting cinder paths are rows of vegetables, strawberries and herbs surrounded by a billowing perimeter of herbaceous perennials, including plants like Virginia bluebell, lupine, peony, iris, anthemis, Shasta daisy, veronica, tradescantia, catmint, Japanese anemones and asters, among many others. Old-fashioned annuals grown in cold frames beside Spadina’s greenhouse are planted in the borders each spring.  Behind a hedge to the north is an orchard of heritage fruit trees, and south of the house are lawns with old shade trees overlooking downtown Toronto and Spadina Road. And next door is famous (but much younger) Casa Loma.

2-Vegetable garden-Spadina House

But in early June, it’s all about lupines, irises, sweet rocket, baptisia and peonies, and there’s a decidedly PURPLE tinge to the garden.


Leaving aside Tyrian purple from ancient history, to my eye this is what purple should look like.


To see a contemporary emblem incorporating the colour purple, look no further than a U.S. military Purple Heart.

7-Miliary Purple Heart

















At Spadina House, purple is at its best in the deepest-colored flowers of the gorgeous Russell hybrid lupines. Purple lupines grow with lilac-purple chives (Allium schoeneprasum) ….

8-lupine & chives-Spadina House

…..and with mauve and white sweet rocket or dame’s rocket (Hesperis matronalis) and luscious violet-purple bearded irises….


Sometimes those purple lupine flowers have Tyrian purple markings (or what we might nowadays call fuchsia-pink) and attract the attention of bumble bees who are strong enough to force open the petals.

10-Bombus bimaculatus on lupine

Some of Spadina’s beautiful Siberian irises (Iris sibirica) are also purple.

11-Siberian iris & Hesperis matronalis

Now I’m going to move on to another ‘purplish’ colour, one that takes its name from the visible spectrum, but also gives its name to a large class of flowers, i.e. violets. In this case, I’ve added a little VIOLET poster girl to the colour swatch, our own native common blue violet Viola sororia. Notice that qualifier “blue”….. ?


Though colour terminology in flowers is very arbitrary, “violet” is also seen as purple by many, but it does have more blue than my purple swatch above. It is seen in many of Spadina’s lovely old bearded irises.  Note the difference in hue from the lupines.


Bearded irises come in a rainbow of colours, but the duo below is the classic complementary contrast of yellow-violet from the artist’s colour wheel.

14-Violet & Gold irises

Valerian (Valeriana officinalis), below,  is a pretty June companion for violet-purple bearded iris.

15-Violet Bearded iris & valerian

Columbines (Aquilegia vulgaris) are charming June bloomers and their colour can be violet-purple, as well as pink, white, yellow, red and much more.

17-Aquilegia vulgaris

Here with see violet columbines with a single orange poppy (Papaver rupifragum).

18-Aquilegia vulgaris & Papaver rupifragum

And here is columbine consorting nicely with yellow flag iris (Iris pseudacorus) in front of Spadina’s greenhouse.

19-Aquilegia vulgaris & Iris pseudacorus

There is an intense colour of violet with much more blue (yet still not completely in the blue camp) that can be described as BLUE-VIOLET, below.

20-Blue Violet

At Spadina House, some of the Siberian irises have much more blue pigment in their petals and can be described as blue-violet.

21-Blue Violet-Iris sibirica

Another purplish colour that borrows its name from the world of flora is LAVENDER. Although there are a number of plants we can call ‘lavender’, the one I think of as having flowers of this colour is English lavender, Lavandula angustifolia. That is the plant I’ve put in my lavender-purple swatch below. Less intense, more blue, but a sort of greyed blue.


At Spadina House, I do see English lavender in June, looking quite lovely with the miniature pink rose ‘The Fairy’.

Rosa 'The Fairy' & Lavandula angustifolia

And it’s also in the flowers of the herbaceous clematis, C. integrifolia, seen here with sweet rocket.

23-Lavender-Clematis integrifolia & Hesperis matronalis

Blue false indigo (Baptisia australis) is a wonderful native northeast perennial, and though it doesn’t sit perfectly in my lavender-purple camp, being a little more intensely blue, it is quite close.  And certainly not a true blue.

24-Baptisia australis-Spadina House

Here it is with the classic white peony ‘Festiva Maxima’. Isn’t this beautiful?

25-Baptisia australia & Peony 'Festiva Maxima'

Now we move to yet another variation on blued purple that takes its name from flowers. I’m talking about LILAC. In my view, this one should look as much as possible like the flowers of common lilac (Syringa vulgaris), so that’s what you’ll find in my lilac colour swatch, below.  In art terms, this one might be described as a tint, i.e. paler in intensity.


At Spadina, some of the columbines are soft lilac.

27-Aquilegia vulgaris

And some of the bearded irises, too, like the luscious heritage iris ‘Mme. Cherault’.

28-Iris 'Mme. Cherault'

The next variation on purple moves further into the red family. Meet MAUVE, below. This color has its etymological roots in the French language, for the French word for the European wildflower common mallow (M. sylvestris) is la mauve. However, its language roots aren’t buried in ancient Greece, but in east end London in Victorian times. For it was here, in 1856, that Royal College of Chemistry student William Henry Perkin, while using coal tar in a quest to discover a synthetic alternative to malaria-curing quinine, came up with a solution with “a strangely beautiful color”. At first, according to Victoria Finley in her book, he called it Tyrian purple, but changed the name to a French flower (la mauve) “to attract buyers of high fashion”.  It was a great hit. “By 1858 every lady in London, Paris and New York who could afford it was wearing ‘mauve’, and Perkin, who had opened a dye factory with his father and brother, was set to be a rich man before he reached his twenty-first birthday.”


Mauve’s affinity to red means that people will often say “mauve-pink”, rather than mauve-purple, but there are good reasons for including it in my discussion of purples, if only to differentiate it visually from the more blue hues.  At Spadina House, we see mauve in many of the sweet rocket flowers (Hesperis matronalis).


It’s quite clear, when I contrast sweet rocket with some of the irises, that our lexicon for colour proves to be difficult and often ambiguous. Colour vision is a relationship, not an absolute, that depends on our own eyes and of course colour rendition in the medium for viewing, if not in ‘real life’, i.e. a phone or computer screen. What I see is a mauve sweet rocket flower beside a bearded iris with light violet standards and true purple splotches on the falls. But this is a tough one!

29-Bearded Iris & Hesperis matronalis

Finally, here is mauve sweet rocket with more of Spadina’s beautiful lupines.  And what colour do you think those lupines are? I will leave that one with you to ponder.

32-Hesperis matronaiis & Purple Lupines

Later in the month, I promise another look at purple — this time without quite so much colour terminology.  Happy June!

Woman to Woman at the Toronto Botanical Garden

Every spring, the Toronto Botanical Garden rolls out the carpet (literally) for a bevy of beautiful women and a growing gaggle of gorgeous gentlemen for their annual fundraiser Woman to Woman Lunch in the Garden.  It’s a chance for us all to dress up in our flowery finery…..

Three hats-TBG Woman to Woman

… while supporting the initiatives of the most beautiful little 4-acre garden in North America, surrounded by spectacular blossoms…..

Alliums-TBG Woman to Woman Luncheon

… as we sip white wine and pink champagne….

Pink Champagne-TBG Woman to Woman

….and sample the most amazing tiny plates of savoury delights from the TBG’s approved Toronto catering vendors. (You can designate any of these great caterers for a wedding, party or other event at the TBG!) And there are delish little desserts served in the most creative ways….

Hats & Dessert-TBG Woman to Woman

…. such as these gorgeous spoonfuls mounted on a funhouse mirror from Eatertainment Catering. And may I just say that their petite Bananas Foster is like a mini-trip to savour the original at the famous Brennan’s in New Orleans!  And I’ve been to Brennan’s!

Dessert Spoons

But let’s not stop there. What about these darling floral cupcakes and rainbow-hued French macarons from Daniel et Daniel Catering?

Desserts-Daniel et Daniel-TBG Woman to Woman

Or these beautiful little shot-glass mousses from A La Carte Kitchen Inc.?

Desserts-A La Carte-TBG Woman to Woman

I sampled these sweet treats from A La Carte. Yum. Hungry yet?

Dessert-A La Carte-TBG Woman to Woman

But for most of us, Woman to Woman is all about the hats, which are judged very seriously with awards to the winners. (I was a judge one year – such fun!) Hats like this bird-friendly design….

Birdhouse hat-TBG Woman to Woman

….and this elegant homage to monarch butterflies…..

Monarch butterfly-TBG Woman to Woman

…and this luscious English country garden!

Blue & Pink-TBG Woman to Woman

Toronto Star gardening columnist Sonia Day was there wearing a vegetable garden with allium seedheads (her specialty out in the country).

Sonia Day1-TBG Woman to Woman

It came complete with seed packages!

Sonia Day2-TBG Woman to Woman

And urban planner and former TBG Fundraising Chair Lindsay Dale-Harris was rightfully proud of her custom design! Love the pussy willow touch.

Lindsey Dale-Harris-TBG Woman to Woman

And as I wrote in my last blog, I came decked out in perfumed lily-of-the-valley.



It was a great opportunity for old friends to catch up in a gorgeous setting on a couldn’t-be-more-perfect last day of May.

Friends-TBG Woman to Woman

Later, the woman in the middle, above, demonstrated her hat’s built-in lighting. How cool is that?

Twinkle-lit-hat-TBG Woman to Woman

Meanwhile, in one of the two tents set up in the garden, friends at sponsored tables enjoyed chatting and dining together…..

Tables-TBG Woman to Woman

….while listening to TBG Executive Director Harry Jongerden talk about the plans for the garden’s big expansion. And the city is now moving forward with consultant plants on this exciting prospect! Go Harry!

Harry Jongerden-TBG Woman to Woman

Canada Blooms doyenne Kathy Dembroski was there looking cool as vanilla ice cream on a hot May day. She and her husband were the generous lead donors of the beautiful LEED-certified George and Kathy Dembroski Centre for Horticulture that is the flagship building of the ‘new’ (2005) Toronto Botanical Garden.

Kathy Dembroski-TBG Woman to Woman

Oh! Would you like to see that gorgeous building? Here’s a leafy view from the side…..

TBG-George & Kathy Dembroski Centre for Horticulture (1)

…and one from the back showing the green roof and the lovely Westview Terrace. (And look at those little kids climbing the Spiral Garden!)

TBG-George & Kathy Dembroski Centre for Horticulture (2)

And I love how it looks at night, too. Thank you, Kathy & George Dembroski!

TBG-George & Kathy Dembroski Centre for Horticulture (3)

Back to our Woman to Woman lunch. Society photographer Aline Sandler was there snapping her shutter and dressed to the nines with a whimsical fascinator and trademark fingernails bearing little flowers!

Aline Sandler-TBG Woman to Woman

And behind Aline was fabulous floral designer Nicholas Smith of Opening Night Flowers. His luscious designs could be seen at the courtyard of lead luncheon sponsor Tiffany & Co.

Tiffany & Co. Sponsor-© Janet Davis – All Rights Reserved

Incidentally, the highest silent auction bid of the day was for “breakfast at Tiffany’s” for a lucky bidder and her friends — even Holly Golightly would have opened her chequebook for that one! And here, have a “little blue box” – they’re delicious!

Tiffany cookies-TBG Woman to Woman

Another of Nicholas’s elegant creations for Tiffany.

Tiffany Bouquet-Opening Night Flowers-TBG Woman to Woman

It was fun to see women enjoying each other’s company all over the gardens, like these lovely bluebirds…

Blue & White-TBG Woman to Woman

…and this stylish pair…

Guests1-TBG Woman to Woman

There were comfy tables set up for dining on the Westview Terrace.

Pink hat-TBG Woman to Woman

And leather sofas to relax on under the marquee in the perennial garden.

Guests2-TBG Woman to Woman

It was fun to meet Carol Rhodenizer, below, the mother of the TBG’s hardworking communications director Jenny Rhodenizer!

Carol Rhodenizer-TBG Woman to Woman

I absolutely loved this little vintage cloche…

Vintage hat-TBG Woman to Woman

…and this was pure classical elegance with the perfect, upswept coiffure.

Peach classic-TBG-Woman-to-Woman

I was very impressed that this guest matched her lipstick to her fascinator orchids!

Purple Orchids-TBG Woman to Woman

And though the hat creations were mostly the stuff of fantasy, I couldn’t help thinking this one might have been inspired by love-in-a-mist (Nigella damascena).

Blue Flower-TBG Woman to Woman

All in all, a wonderful afternoon with happy, fun people supporting a fabulous little garden .that should be just the intimate heart of a much bigger botanical garden for our fair city, the 4th largest in North America. As in 1) Mexico City (8.85 million), 2) New York (8.55 million), 3) Los Angeles (3.97 million), 4) Toronto (2.82 million), 5) Chicago (2.72 million). Something that might look a little like the sketch below. What an exciting time for us, as plans move forward.

Concept sketch-Toronto Botanical Garden

Here are a few of my June images of the garden from past years. Peonies, lilac, meadow sage, catmint & amsonias in the Piet Oudolf-designed entry border.


More peonies with alliums, Phlomis tuberosa ‘Amazone’ & the white form of Geranium phaeum along the driveway.


Billowy Bowman’s root (Porteranthus trifoliatus) in front of the Garden Hall courtyard.


Paul Zammit’s fabulous windowboxes and pots at the base of the Spiral Garden. (And if you like this, have a peek at the blog I wrote on Paul’s container wizardry!)


And one of Paul’s brilliant urns in the Perennial Garden.


The Westview Terrace looking stunning, with Indigofera kirilowii in full bloom.


And the Beryl Ivey Knot Garden with its formal parterres, as seen from the top of the Spiral Garden. Beyond is the hot, sunny Terraced Garden and the Perennial Garden, upper right.


And that’s just a very small taste. Onward and upward, our lovely TBG!