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 pipevine swallowtail (Battus philenor philenor) nectaring on the blossoms.

Battus philenor philenor-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!

How to be a Lily-of-the-Valley Mad Hatter!

Do you love the perfume of lily-of-the-valley? Do you wish you could wear it? Well, you can! I just made a lily-of-the-valley hat to wear to the Woman to Woman garden party at the Toronto Botanical Garden. It was easy and fun and I didn’t need to wear perfume, believe me!  My hat and I just wafted around in the late May sunshine.


In case you’re so inclined,  this is how I did it:

Step 1 – Have a garden in which hordes of lily-of-the-valley (Convallaria majalis) have run roughshod over all their neighbours. (Don’t worry – in the spring-season fresh-floral hat business, this is a very good thing, not a dastardly invasion by a… well, never mind. It’s called “inventory”).

01-My garden1

My front garden used to have patches of bare soil between the emerging perennials. Now it’s gorgeous and green by the time the late cottage tulips bloom. That’s the good news. The bad news is I cannot possibly get rid of this invader, since each little lily-of-the-valley ‘pip’ missed in a cleanup sends up shoots and begins merrily again.

02-My garden-invasive lily of the valley

Despite trying to be artful with this little European invader….there will always be millions left over.

03-Lily of the Valley art shot

And DO keep in mind that lily-of-the-valley is highly poisonous, so keep it away from any animals or kids for whom it might look like salad.

02-Poison-Lily of the Valley

Step 2 – Go into your garden just as the lily-of-the-valley (LOTV from now on) has reached its peak, i.e. when flowers are still pure white. Do this in early morning before the day heats up to keep the flowers fresher.

04-Lily of the valley & my feet

Pick as many stems (they pull out easily) as you can manage, placing them with some of the leaves into cold water in a small vase or large jam jar.

Step 3 – Place the jam jars in the fridge. We have an old beer fridge in the basement (which was actually old when we moved in 33 years ago) and I found room for the jars beside the beer. Now leave your LOTV to stay cool and hydrate until you wish to make your hat or flowery crown (in the floral design world, this is called conditioning). Mine were refrigerated for about one week, but I’ve kept them as long as 2 weeks budded up for a wedding that was happening after their normal flowering time. In that case, I removed them from the fridge to open at room temperature two days before the wedding.

05-Flowers in fridge

Step 4 – If making a hat rather than a crown, find a likely candidate. Mine was an Ecuadorian-made straw hat in a good colour, creamy-white (from my closet hatboxes of barely-worn straw hats from past decades).  You will also need a circular form for making the garland. I cut a flexible but strong whip from one of the many ash seedlings that remain as devil spawn reminders of the white ash we lost to emerald ash borer a few years ago. After removing the small shoots and leaves, I shaped the branch into a circle that fit loosely over the hat crown, wiring it together at the ends when I’d determined the right circumference length.  I could have fastened the flowers to the ash branch as it was, but I decided to cover it with tape to make sure it stayed firm. Since I had no green florist’s tape, I used white fabric tape that was left over from some kid’s fracture dressing. The point is: it worked.

07-Lily-of-the-valley hat components

Step 5 – Remove the LOTV from the jars — you should have a very big bouquet….


….and shake them a little to dry them off. Then place them on a work surface on top of newspaper or paper towel. Separate the flowers from the leaves.

08-Lily of the valley-Floral stems

Step 6 – Make little bouquets using mostly flowers and a few leaves for greenery. I needed 8 to circle my form. Holding them tightly, cut the stems to about 6 inches (15 cm). Then wrap your tape around the stems fairly close to where the flowers start, before trimming the stems off below the tape.


Step 7 – Now it’s time to fasten the bouquets to the form, using the tape.  Arrange them so they overlap and the taped stems are not visible. Don’t worry if some show, because you’re going to be covering them with ribboning later.


Step 8 - Wind a length of gauzy ribbon (or any kind of wide ribbon, e.g. grosgrain) through the little bouquets on the garland, covering up the taped ends as best you can. Tie a bow at the end or tuck under the bouquets.


Step 9 – Place your garland on your hat! Isn’t that gorgeous?  And oh so fragrant!


Step 10 – The weight of the garland will probably be enough to keep it down, but I used one hat pin to secure it in place.


Step 11 – Shower, dress, add pearls and head out to your garden party. And when people say, “Oh…. are those real?”, just bend your head and ask them to sniff.

La Vie en Rose(s)

La Vie en Rose…. I am not a chanteuse, but I love Edith Piaf. And I am not a rosarian, but I do love roses. That doesn’t mean I’ve actually grown many roses – other than a very constrained ‘New Dawn’ (see below) and a 5-year fling with the yellow-flowered Father Hugo’s rose (Rosa xanthina) which ultimately died in the border, leaving in its wake its progenitor, the pale-pink rootstock dog rose (Rosa canina). Before I pulled it out, I popped a sprig in a vase and photographed it. Amen. Rest in peace.

Rosa canina-Dog rose


But despite steering clear of roses and their fickle needs, I’ve seen many hundreds of them in the 25 years I’ve been photographing plants, and every June I indulge a little fantasy in which I have a garden spilling with their fragrant blossoms.  It’s easy to feel that rose fever, when you find yourself wandering the paths of, say, the Peggy Rockefeller Rose Garden at the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx, as I’ve done for their annual June Rose Festival.

Peggy Rockefeller Rose Garden2-NYBG

It’s a hugely popular crowd event in early June, with food vendors at the entrance.

Peggy Rockefeller Rose Garden1-NYBG

It’s in gardens like Peggy Rockefeller that you can see storied roses at the height of their beauty, like ‘New Dawn’ (Wichuraiana, 1930), below, one of the classic, low-maintenance pink climbing roses. I grow this climber myself in a 4 foot-square garden (why did I plant it there? who knows?) against the brick support of my front porch, forgetting to prune it until June, hacking it back when it threatens to trail over the cars in the driveway and generally ignoring it in its spot behind an overly-large boxwood. It has never been sprayed or fertilized, is rarely watered, and gives me sprays of cupped, light-scented, tea-type blooms over the veranda railing in early summer. When happy, it’s a massive thing, growing 10 feet (3 m) tall and 15 feet (5 m) wide – enough to cover a garage wall (And yes, since this is my second PINK blog for the month of May, I’m going to be focusing entirely on pink roses!)

Rosa 'New Dawn'-Peggy Rockefeller Rose Garden

Below is another beauty from Peggy Rockefeller, ‘Climbing Pinkie’ (Cl. Polyantha, 1952) with masses of small pink flowers on almost thornless canes that can reach 10 x 10 feet (3 metres). It’s considered fairly disease-resistant and is an excellent re-bloomer. Because of its growing habit, many gardeners like to train this rose along the top of a fence and let the flowers cascade.

Rosa 'Climbing Pinkie'-Peggy Rockefeller Rose Garden

Paul’s Himalayan Musk (Hybrid Musk, c. 1899) is another giant that finds ample room to show off at Peggy Rockefeller Rose garden. A Royal Horticultural Society award-winner, this rambler festooned with masses of drooping clusters of small, double, pale-pink blossoms can reach a stunning 40 feet (13 m) in height in favourable conditions.  Shade-tolerant and slightly fragrant, it flowers only once, but with such abundance it can be forgiven for taking a rest for the balance of summer.

Rosa 'Paul's Himalayan Musk'-Peggy Rockefeller Rose Garden

If you like landscape roses (I find them a little boring, frankly, as I don’t expect the ‘queen of flowers’ to be “landscape” anything), there are now lots of really good pink ones from which to choose, including the Drift Series from Star Roses. They had several Drifts at Peggy Rockefeller, often interplanted with giant mauve Allium cristophii. Below is ‘Pink Drift’.

Rosa 'Pink Drift'


One of my very favourite roses in the Rockefeller garden, not least for its Canadian heritage, ‘John Davis’ is a gorgeous, ultra-hardy, modern shrub rose, bred in 1977 as part of the Explorer series by the late Canadian rose-breeder extraordinare Felicitas Svejda. Her breeding program to develop shrub roses that rivalled old French roses for beauty while managing to withstand the harshness of Canadian prairie winters (many to -40F-40C) produced some 25 roses from the mid-70s, all with the names of early explorers. ‘John Davis’ is on many rose-lovers’ “favourite” list, with its masses of fragrant, clear-pink blossoms in early summer on a 7 foot (2.1 metre) tall shrub that can be trained as a climber.

Rosa 'John Davis'-Explorer Shrub Rose

Now let’s head across the border to the Royal Botanical Garden in Burlington, Ontario, where we find another wonderful Explorer rose.  At 10 feet (3 metres) tall and wide, ‘William Baffin’ (Explorer shrub rose, 1983) is the biggest of Felicitas Svejda’s ultra-hardy introductions (she bred it in 1974 but it was released 9 years later). Gardeners who’ve tried to corral its thorny canes aren’t in a hurry to repeat the experience but the masses of cerise-pink flowers borne in clusters in early summer are truly a magnificent sight.

Rosa 'William Baffin'-Explorer Shrub Rose

And bees, like the bumble bee below, love the exposed stamens of single or semi-double roses like ‘William Baffin’. Though roses don’t offer nectar, their pollen is an excellent source of protein for bees.

Bombus impatiens on Rosa 'William Baffin'


When I want to sniff the incredible perfume of the old garden roses, I make my way to the collection beds at the Royal Botanical Garden. There I can find most of the classics – if I’m lucky, even before they’ve been hit hard by black spot, which tends to be a common problem with many of them.   Here are a dozen of my favourites in montage form.

Old Rose Array

In case you can’t read the caption, they include:

1st row, left to right: ‘Belle de Crecy’ (Gallica, 1829), ‘Ispahan’ (Damask, 1832), ‘Henri Martin’ (Moss, 1863); ‘Variegata di Bologna’ (Bourbon, 1909).

2nd row, left to right: ‘Fantin Latour’ (Centifolia, 1900), ‘Cardinal Richelieu’ (Gallica, pre-1847), Rosa muscosa (Common Moss Rose), ‘Petite Lisette’ (1817-Alba/Damask).

3rd row, left to right: ‘Mme Isaac Pereire’ (Bourbon, 1881), Rosa gallica ‘Versicolor’ (Rosa Mundi), ‘Charles de Mills’ (Gallica, year unknown), ‘Tuscany Superb’ (Gallica, 1837)

Its beautifully-shaped, neon-pink blossoms made  ‘Zéphirine Drouhin’ (Bourbon, 1868) a favourite of accomplished gardeners like Vita Sackville-West, and it continues to enjoy popularity today, especially since its branches are thornless.  (Those canes tend to flop around, so it should be trellised.) Like all the Bourbons, it is intensely-perfumed and the flowers look like those of the most exquisite hybrid tea. I only wish Wave Hill Gardens in the Bronx, New York, where I photographed Zéphirine, below, could find a more felicitous background for those blossoms than orange brick.  Design hint: pink roses look best against olive green and charcoal grey.

Rosa 'Zepherine Drouhin'-Wave Hill

With its deep cerise-magenta flowers, the Apothecary rose, Rosa gallica var. officinalis, is another old rose with a very long history. About 4 feet (1.3 metres) tall and wide, extremely fragrant, reasonably disease-resistant and free-flowering in early summer, it is known historically from around 1400 when it was used by ‘officinals’ or apothecaries for medicinal use.  I often find this lovely rose in medicinal herb gardens.

Rosa gallica 'Officinalis'-Apothecary rose


Speaking of strong colour statements, ‘Dr. Huey’ (Hybrid Wichuraiana, 1914) is an interesting rose.  Seen below at  Chanticleer Garden (have you read my two-part blog on my favourite public garden?) outside Philadelphia intertwined fetchingly with a light-purple clematis, it was commonly used in the U.S. as a rootstock under budded roses, including hybrid teas and many of the David Austin English roses (in contrast to “own-root” roses).  As such, it often emerges as suckering growth – either alongside the purchased rose (quite comical, when it soars high above a yellow hybrid tea) or in its place. But that vigor below-ground does not translate to disease-resistance above-ground, since ‘Dr. Huey’ is known to suffer considerably from black spot and other diseases. Still, those dark, wine-pink flowers on long, outspread canes are a very romantic look, and if you can keep it healthy, cheeky interloper or not, it’s a beauty.

Rosa 'Dr. Huey'-Chanticleer Garden


Perhaps no rose was as popular in the 1990s in my neck of the woods than Bonica, below  In fact, it was named “the world’s favourite rose” in 1997 (but who ran the contest? hmmmm….). Bonica is what I call it, but like many plants these days, that’s just a trade name and its actual cultivar name is ‘MEIdomonac’. Bred by French rose giant Meilland, it’s a lovely thing . Because of its compact 3-4 foot (1-1.3 metre) size can be incorporated into a perennial border of pinks, blues and purples, grown on its own as a specimen, or used as a low hedge. It’s very serviceable, with lovely flowers that look like ‘old roses’.  Unlike most old roses, however, it will re-bloom throughout summer when deadheaded.

Rosa 'Bonica'-Modern Shrub Rose

At the Toronto Botanical Garden, there’s a prominent bed where two modern shrub roses grow in a pretty, all-pink confection  The David Austin English Rose Mary Rose (‘AUSmary’) is at the rear, growing to about 4 feet x 4 feet (1.3 m x 1.3 m) while the front features the sweet rose ‘The Fairy’ (Polyantha, 1932).

Rosa 'Mary Rose' & 'The Fairy'-Toronto Botanical Garden

‘The Fairy’ makes a great companion to English lavender, shown below at Toronto’s Spadina House.

Rosa 'The Fairy' & Lavandula angustifolia

It is disease-resistant and an exceptionally long bloomer, often gathering frost on its last little buds in late autumn. Aren’t those blossoms sweet?

Rosa 'The Fairy'

Speaking of Spadina House, I do love the bountiful rose display at the front of the historic home, including the old rambler ‘Dorothy Perkins’ (Wichuriaiana, 1901), below. It was the first rose released by American rose giant Jackson & Perkins, and named by breeder Alvin Miller for Charles Perkins’ granddaughter. Its brash pink might not be for everyone, but it is a party when it’s in flower in early summer, but sadly often plagued with mildew and diseases.

Rosa 'Dorothy Perkins'-Spadina House

And while I have you at Spadina House, let me show you another charming companion for early-season roses. Look at these enchanting columbines (Aquilegia vulgaris) below, cozying up to the beautiful, scented, hardy rugosa hybrid rose ‘Thérèse Bugnet’.

Columbines & roses-Spadina House

Many of English rose breeder David Austin’s introductions have the look and perfume of old French roses; some even bear evocative French names. Redouté (‘AUSpale’), below, is a light-pink sport of Mary Rose (mentioned above), and the same height, with ‘fruity old rose’ fragrance.  Named for the renowned 19th century painter of old roses, Pierre-Joseph Redouté, it is meltingly beautiful and would have made a prized still life subject for the artist.

Rosa 'Redoute'

Back to Toronto Botanical Garden for another little landscape rose, this time from German rose breeder Kordes. This is cherry-pink Sweet Vigorosa (KORdatura), which looks right at home with June perennials like Veronica longifolia ‘Eveline’, left, Achillea tomentosa, right, and coreopsis in the rear.

Rosa 'Sweet Vigorosa'-Toronto Botanical Garden


Growing roses with clematis is a long tradition, especially in European gardens.  It’s best to choose a clematis that can be cut back to buds near the ground in spring, i.e. one that flowers on new growth.  For the tallest pink roses, a purple Viticella like ‘Etoile Violette’ or ‘Polish Spirit’ would be a good match. In the photo below from Deep Cove Chalet Restaurant (one of my favourite spots to dine) outside Victoria, B.C., we see mauve-pink Clematis ‘Hagley Hybrid’ intertwined with a tallish shrub rose or low climbing rose.  I love that look.

Clematis 'Hagley Hybrid' with pink rose

Since we’re talking pink clematis, I’ll mention one of my favourites:  ‘Comtesse de Bouchaud’ (NOT Bouchard, as it’s often written). This bubblegum-pink vine would be perfect clambering through a pale-pink shrub rose – like one of the David Austins, e.g. Redouté or Queen of Sweden.

Clematis 'Comtesse de Bouchaud'

Clematis ‘Alionushka’ is a non-twining clematis (the herbaceous C. integrifolia is one parent) that needs something to support it, so it’s a very good candidate for training up into a shrub rose of about the same height.

Clematis 'Alionushka'


Since I’m a prairie girl originally (Saskatoon, Saskatchewan until the age of 6 weeks, when I left for the balmy west coast city of Victoria, B.C., dragging my parents behind me), I’m going to end my homage to pink roses with one that many gardeners consider to be vastly underused. ‘Prairie Joy’ is a product of Canada’s Morden Research Station in Manitoba, a vase-shaped, upright rose to 5-6 feet (2 metres) with   a flush of the most gorgeous pink blossoms in early summer, followed by generous repeat flowering throughout summer. Since the very thorny canes tend to swoop down, it is recommended that ‘Prairie Joy’ be trellised or tied loosely to an obelisk.

Rosa 'Prairie Joy'

And on that very pink note, we bid adieu to May and welcome in rose season.  But don’t forget to join me in early June, when we’ll be taking a promenade through PURPLE in a gorgeous Toronto garden!