Monkshood & Snakeroot for a Fall Finale

What a luscious October afternoon! I looked out my back window and was drawn, as I always am this time in autumn, to the furthest corner of the garden, where a little fall scene unfolds that I treasure more because it’s a secret. Want to see it?  Let’s take a little stroll past the messy pots on the deck with their various sedums and swishing sideoats grama (Bouteloua curtipendula) out into the garden past the table and chairs that haven’t been used since… when? August?

Janet Davis-garden-autumn

Keep going to where the lovely chartreuse Tiger Eyes sumac (Rhus typhina ‘Bailtiger’) is currently doing its Hollywood star thing in brilliant apricot…..

Tiger Eye Sumac-Rhus typhina 'Bailtiger'-fall color

But what’s this scene, just behind it?

Tiger Eye Sumac-snakeroot-monkshood-Janet Davis

Yes, two stalwarts of the autumn garden – and I mean autumn, fall, October!  Autumn monkshood (Aconitum carmichaelii ‘Arendsii’) and autumn snakeroot (Actaea simplex), aka fall bugbane. Each year, they flower at the same time, and enjoy identical conditions in my garden, i.e. the most moisture-retentive soil (lowest corner of the garden by a few inches), with reasonable midday sunshine but dappled shade a good portion of the day. The fragrance of the snakeroot is fabulous, something a little soft and incense-like, or reminiscent of talcum powder (in the nicest way).  Colour-wise, I love blue and white, from the earliest anemones-with-scilla in April to this shimmering, assertive finale.

Janet Davis-Actaea simplex & Aconitum carmichaelii 'Arendsii'

And did I mention pollinators? As in bumble bees of different species, honey bees……

Pollinators-autumn garden-fall snakeroot & monkshood-

(WHO has the beehives near my house? I’d love to know)…..

Honey bees-Apis mellifera-Actaea simplex-fall snaekroot

……hover flies…..

Hover-fly on fall snakeroot-Actaea simplex

….and paper wasps, below, as well as ants and cucumber beetles.

Paper wasp on fall snakeroot-Actaea simplex

Monkshood is deadly poisonous, but its pollen seems to be an attraction for bumble bees and honey bees once the asters have finished up.

Bombus-Fall Monkshood-Aconitum carmichaelii 'Arendsii'

Finally, do note that the snakeroot is not any of those fancy-schmancy dark-leaved cultivars like ‘Brunette’, but the straight species with plain-Jane-green-foliage,. And that it used to be called Cimicifuga, but the gene sequencers have now moved it into Actaea.  It is a lovely plant and should be used much, much more.

June Whites

I was reminded today, as I drove through Mount Pleasant Cemetery, then home again, that this particular time in June is resplendently white in blossom.  Seriously, there are white flowers everywhere!  Let’s start in the cemetery with this rather rare shrub, Oriental photinia (P. villosa). A member of the Rosaceae family, it has lovely yellow leaves in autumn.

Photinia villosa-Oriental photinia

The fountain-like Van Houtte spireas (Spiraea x vanhouttei) were almost finished, but I managed to find one little branch that hadn’t yet browned.

Spiraea x vanhouttei

Kousa dogwoods (Cornus kousa) were looking paricurly lovely with their creamy-white bracts.

Cornus kousa-dogwood

Japanese snowball (Viburnum plicatum) was beautiful, too.

Viburnum plicatum-Japanese snowball

There were peonies in my favourite memorial garden at the cemetery, including this lovely single white.

Paeonia-white peony

Deutzias grace the cemetery, and I was interested that although there were matching Lemoine deutzias (D. x lemoinei) on either side of a grand tombstone, just one of the pair was attracting bees, lots of them. Only the bees know why the other shrub wasn’t attractive.

Deutzia x lemoinei with bee

The lovely dwarf Deutzia gracilis cascaded over a granite stone.

Deutzia gracilis

And the black locusts (Robinia pseudoacacia) were dangling their pendant flowers from the tall branches like tree-borne wisteria. Tonight, those flowers will perfume the air around them with their honey fragrance.

Robinia pseudoacacia-black locust-flower

When I pulled into my driveway at home, I was greeted by a little regiment of tall, double-white camassias (C. leichtlinii ‘Semi Plena’). I don’t normally plant double flowers, preferring to nurture the bees with single blossoms, but they were in a mislabelled package a few years back, and I do enjoy that they come into flower after the single blue Leichtlin’s camassia.

Camassia leichtlinii 'Semi Plena'

And as I looked out my kitchen window to the far corner of the garden, I admired one of my very favourite spring shrubs, the big pagoda or alternate-leafed dogwood (Cornus alternifolia) wtih its layered branches. It was doing a lovely pas de deux with my neighbour Claudette’s pale-pink beauty bush (Kolkwitzia amabilis).

Cornus alternifolia-Pagoda dogwood-with Kolkwitzia-Janet Davis garden

Here’s a closer look at those abundant flower clusters.  I do love this native shrub.

Cornus alternifolia-Alternate-leaf dogwood

And those are my June whites for today. Now all we need is a bride!


I’ve blogged before about Mount Pleasant Cemetery. Here’s one with an autumnal flavour, and another about the magnificent trees in winter.

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

… 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


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.

Garden Design Using White Flowers

I promised you WHITE for January, so on the heels of my White Flowers for Sweet Perfume post, here are some rather random, eclectic and highly subjective observations on effective use of white flowers in garden design.

White Flowers-ThePaintboxGarden

Personally, I’m not a big fan of monochrome gardens. All-white schemes, in particular, I find a little too sedate. But there is a place for them in a garden that 1) will be enjoyed in the evening, where the white flowers will pop out of the darkness; or 2) is a shady, mostly green area that will be enlivened by white flowers; or 3) features a large colour palette, but might benefit from a little corner of tranquility.

When white flowers are used almost exclusively, there should be a balancing framework of green foliage. And for green-and-white, no garden that I’ve seen does that crisp combination more beautifully than the elegant Beryl Ivey Knot Garden at the Toronto Botanical Garden. From spring through fall, the curving boxwood and yew parterres are filled with an assortment of white flowers. In spring, there’s a lovely mix of Anemone sylvestris ‘Snowdrop’, narcissus ‘Thalia’, and tall white tulips, including lily-flowered tulip ‘White Elegance’.

TBG-Beryl Ivey Knot Garden-Spring

Here’s a closeup of that combination.

TBG-Beryl Ivey Knot Garden-Anemone sylvestris & Tulipa 'White Elegance'

By June, the scene has changed and the main feature is the re-blooming white bearded iris ‘Immortality’.

TBG-Beryl Ivey Knot Garden-Irises

Early summer features gorgeous white sages, including white meadow sage (Salvia nemorosa ‘Snow Hill’), one year mixed with biennial white clary sage (Salvia sclarea var. turkestanica ‘Alba’).

TBG-Beryl Ivey Knot Garden-White Sages

Later still come the coneflowers, usually a mix of Echinacea ‘White Swan’ with the regular purple coneflowers, and combined with white perennials like obedient plant (Physostegia virginiana ‘Alba’).

TBG-Beryl Ivey-Physostegia & Echinacea-white flowers

One summer, the knot garden featured fragrant flowering tobacco (Nicotiana alata) combined with tall white gaura. Here is how it looked as I strolled through it.

Apart from the Beryl Ivey Knot Garden, the TBG has many other beautiful display gardens featuring white flowers. Here’s another spring bulb ensemble I loved, this one starring the shimmering lily tulip ‘White Triumphator’ paired with dark ‘Queen of Night’ and peachy ‘Menton’.

TBG-Spring Bulbs-Tulipa 'White Triumphator'

What about this little white TBG vignette, against a protected inner wall in the Westview Terrace? Fragrant Daphne x burkwoodii ‘Carol Mackie’ with Viburnum rhytidophyllum.

TBG-Viburnum & Daphne

And a little later in the season, this airy cloud of Bowman’s root (Porteranthus trifoliatus, formerly Gillenia trifoliata) is simply exquisite. What a great native plant!

TBG-Porteranthus trifoliata-Bowman's Root

I’m not fond of big blobs of white in a border – say, drifts of white phlox next to blobs of a contrasting-coloured perennial. I think it’s jarring. But I do love a subtle tracery of white etched along a border, so the eye is carried by its luminance right into the distance. The TBG’s Piet Oudolf-designed entry border features a clever repeat of white foxglove beardtongue (Penstemon digitalis), one of my very favourite penstemons. In this image, the brilliance is enhanced by the pale flowers of ‘Blue Angel’ hosta in the foreground, acting as an anchor. And isn’t it great with the zingy, wine-red knautias?

TBG-Penstemon digitalis in Oudolf border

Here’s a closer look at this bee-friendly penstemon and its companions.

TBG-Penstemon digitalis-Oudolf border

I love it so much (and it’s so easy), I’ve seeded it at my own cottage on Lake Muskoka, where it hangs out with yellow Coreopsis lanceolata and white (yes I know they’re exotic invasive) oxeye daisies (Leuchanthemum vulgare).

JD-Penstemon digitalis & Oxeye daisies

Back to the TBG now. Another great plant used in several places is the prairie native rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium). With its spiky, spherical, cream-white flowers, it adds a very interesting effect to a border. I love it with with Rudbeckia subtomentosa ‘Henry Eilers’ in the perennial border…..

TBG-Eryngium yuccifolium & Rudbeckia subtomentosa 'Henry Eilers'

….and with Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia) and Astilbe tacquetii  ‘Purpurlanz’ in the Oudolf border.

TBG-Eryngium yuccifolum & Perovskia

Isn’t that blue-and-white combo gorgeous? In fact, I collect photos of that seersucker-like pairing whenever I see it done well. Here’s Russian sage with fabulous white calamint (Calamintha nepeta ssp. nepeta), also at the TBG. (Just wait for the bees to descend on this duo!)

TBG-Perovskia-&-Calamintha nepeta

By the by, calamint is a fabulous addition to a border and enhances almost anything it’s placed beside, including ornamental grasses, silvery cardoon leaves, and a strong vertical plant like blazing star (Liatris spicata), below.

TBG-Liatris spicata & Calamintha nepeta

And any number of lovely blue-and-white spring combinations can be dreamed up with forget-me-nots (Myosotis sylvatica), but no one does that better than Victoria’s Butchart Gardens, here topping it with a lovely creamy-white lily-flowered tulip.

Butcharts-Tulips & Forget-me-nots

There are myriad ways to marry blue and white, in fact. Below are twelve of them!

Blue and white flower combinations

Top row, left to right: white Anemone blanda with blue scilla (S. siberica); narcissus ‘Thalia’ with grape hyacinths (Muscari armeniacum); star-of-Bethlehem (Ornithogalum umbellatum) with forget-me-nots (Myosotis sylvatica); and bleeding heart (Dicentra spectabilis ‘Alba’) with forget-me-nots.

Middle row: white ‘Festiva Maxima’ peony with false blue indigo (Baptisia australis); white blackeyed Susan vine (Thunbergia alata ‘Suzy White Black Eye’) with blue Convolvulus and white Nemesia; white spider flower (Cleome hassleriana ‘Sparkler White’ with blue mealycup sage (Salvia farinacea); and blue catmint (Nepeta racemosa) with white meadowsweet (Filipendula vulgaris).

Bottom row: Liatris spicata ‘Floristan White’ with Russian sage; white swamp hibiscus (Hibiscus moscheutos ‘Blue River II’ with a gorgeous blue shed door; white guara (Oenothera lindheimeri) dancing with Russian sage; and white autumn snakeroot (Actaea simplex) with ‘Arendsii’ autumn monkshood (Aconitum carmichaelii).

Another really versatile white-flowered perennial at the Toronto Botanical Garden is white Japanese burnet (Sanguisorba tenuifolia ‘Alba’). It’s difficult to explain how superb this tall perennial is at adding an interesting shape and texture to other late-season plants. The best way is to show you. Here it is with ‘Gateway” Joe Pye weed (Eupatorium maculatum) in the Oudolf border….

TBG-Sanguisorba tenuifolia 'Alba' & Eupatorium 'Gateway'

….and with equally quixotic (and long-blooming) Knautia macedonica

TBG-Sanguisorba tenuifolia 'Alba' & Knautia

…and finally, even as it loses its whiteness, it adds a lacy scrim to a brilliant fall ensemble of sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale) and goldenrod.

TBG-Sanguisorba tenuifolia 'Alba' & Helenium

Three more quick combos from the TBG that feature white flowers. Here’s a panicle hydrangea (H. paniculata ‘Little Lamb’), below, that can look a bit top-heavy, given its short stature and those big flowers. But put a chorus line of annual Brazilian verbenas (V. bonariensis) in front of them, and they look brilliant.

TBG-Hydrangea 'Little Lamb' & Verbena bonariensis

Even though I said I didn’t like “blobs” of white in the border, you can’t get more va-voom than the big white swamp hibiscus (H. moscheutos) ‘Blue River II’. I love this pairing with goldenrod – I think I’d even love 10 of each!

TBG-Hibiscus moscheutos & Solidago

Finally, a nice way to use a white astilbe such as A. ‘Diamond’, below, is to partner it with a good variegated hosta.

TBG-Astilbe 'Diamond' with variegated hosta

Speaking of variegated leaves, that’s the easiest way to add an elegant touch of white to the garden. Here is my own little deck garden in early June, a mass of the plain, old Hosta ‘Undulata’ with Azalea ‘White Cascade’.

JD-Azalea 'WhiteCascade' & Hosta 'Undulata'

A week or so later, the hostas switch partners (!!!) and cozy up to my rambling herbaceous Clematis recta ‘Purpurea’. I love this time in the garden, before the slugs get the hostas).

JD-Clematis recta & Hosta 'Undulata'

Toronto’s Spadina House Museum & Garden uses variegated hostas in an elegant pairing with white columbines (Aquilegia vulgaris) that I like very much.

Spadina-Hosta & white columbine

And while I’m on the beautiful gardens of Spadina House, here’s an attractive early summer duo: white meadow rue (Thalictrum aquilegifolium ‘Album’) with white snakeroot (Actaea racemosa).

Spadina-Actaea racemosa & Thalictrum

New York Botanical Garden’s Seasonal Border, another Piet Oudolf design, does a lovely repeat with white foxgloves (Digitalis purpurea ‘Alba’) in late spring.

New York Botanical-Four Seasons Border-Foxgloves

I liked this quiet NYBG combination of white violets (V. cornuta) with ‘Jack Frost’ variegated Siberian bugloss (Brunnera macrophylla).

NYBG-Brunnera Jack Frost & Violets

Further into the season, this is a classic white annual combination at NYBG: white Nicotiana sylvestris with white spider flower (Cleome hassleriana).

New York Botanical-Nicotiana sylvestris & Cleome

And I was completely wowed by this soft underplanting of native foamflower (Tiarella cordifolia) beneath magenta azaleas in NYBG’s fabulous Azalea Garden.

New York Botanical-Tiarella & Rhododendron

My favourite American public garden, Chanticleer,  has a sweet way of working white into its schemes. Here’s a mass planting of white astilbe lighting up the shady Bell’s Wood.

Chanticleer-Astilbe-Bell's Wood

And how wonderful is this, on Chanticleer’s Rocky Ledge? A rollicking carpet of annual white Orlaya grandiflora with red corn poppies (Papaver rhoeas) and ‘Caradonna’ meadow sage (Salvia nemorosa).

Chanticleer-Orlaya grandiflora-Gravel Garden

Walk down the hill from that rocky ledge and you’re in the most gorgeous series of water gardens, but if you love being “led”, this is what will catch your eye,  Once again, my favourite foxglove penstemon, P. digitalis, all along the left side of the path.

Chanticleer-Penstemon-Gravel Garden

My final combination using white flowers comes from the sensational perennial garden of Montreal Botanical Garden, better known in the city as the Jardin Botanique. Here, white Echinacea ‘Prima Donna‘ acts as a petticoat for tall orange Lilium henryi.

Montreal Botanical-Echinacea 'Primadonna White' & Lilium henryi

So that’s white for January, from me to you!  Stay tuned for February! RED, baby!