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.

Butterfly Milkweed: PPA’s 2017 Plant of the Year!

You know that feeling of pride you get when a friend receives a well-deserved award? I feel exactly that way about an outstanding prairie wildflower that I’ve been growing here in my meadows on Lake Muskoka for many years. So, when I heard that The Perennial Plant Association chose my very favourite perennial – butterfly milkweed, Asclepias tuberosa — to be their 2017 Plant of the Year, I decided to honour it with my own blog.

Asclepias tuberosa-Apis mellifera1

The PPA award is not the first laurel to be bestowed on this lovely wildling. In 2014, it was awarded the Freeman Medal by the Garden Clubs of America, as a native deserving of wider garden planting. And the GCA president asked me if I would donate my photo of a monarch butterfly on the flowers, below, which I was happy to do (see down this page).

Asclepias tuberosa-Monarch butterfly

Despite the plaudits, butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) is not the easiest perennial to grow, unless you happen to garden on a sand prairie. It has a deep tap root that makes it rather difficult to transplant. And seeds are often notoriously slow to germinate and grow, sometimes taking 5 years to grow enough to set flower buds.  But give it a little rich, free-draining, gravelly soil and lots of sunshine, and watch the pollinating insects pile on. Foremost, of course, is the beautiful monarch butterfly, which uses it – as it does all milkweed species – as food for its caterpillars. If you’re lucky, you might see the female monarch ovipositing on its leaves or flowers.

Asclepias tuberosa-Monarch ovipositing

Come back and you’ll see the little egg on a leaf….

Asclepias tuberosa-Monarch egg on leaf

… or perhaps right in the flowers.

Asclepias tuberosa-Monarch egg on flower

Follow along over the next few weeks and you’ll see the various instars of the developing caterpillar munching away on the leaves….

Asclepias tuberosa-Monarch caterpillar

…. and the flower buds.

Asclepias tuberosa-Monarch larva

But monarchs aren’t the only butterflies fond of butterfly milkweed. Many others love the nectar-rich flowers, including the great spangled fritillary…

Asclepias tuberosa-Great Spangled Fritillary

…. hairstreaks, below, and many others.

Asclepias tuberosa- hairstreak

Bees love it too. On my property, I often see the orange-belted bumble bee (Bombus ternarius) nectaring….

Asclepias tuberosa-Bombus ternarius

….and the brown-belted bumble bee (Bombus griseocollis), too.

Asclepias tuberosa-Bombus griseocollis

Here’s a little video I made of the brown-belted bumble bee foraging on my butterfly milkweed. In the background, you can hear a red squirrel scolding and a lovely Swainson’s thrush singing its flute-like song.

Naturally, many native bees seek nectar from butterfly milkweed.  I’ve seen long-horned (Melissodes) bees….

Asclepias tuberosa-Megachile

…. and tiny, green sweat bees (Auguchlora pura), all enjoying the flowers.

Asclepias tuberosa-Augochlora pura

Honey bees are avid foragers, too.

Asclepias tuberosa-Apis mellifera3

Okay, you get the picture. This is one superb pollinator plant!  But how should one grow it, and with what companions?  I have grown it in both reasonably rich, sandy soil, and very dry, lean, sandy soil, and I can attest that it prefers more moisture than other prairie plants, such as gaillardia and coreopsis. This is what it looked like near my septic system this July. I managed to keep it watered by running two hoses up the hill behind my cottage, but it was a struggle until a few rains came.

Drought-Milkweed

However, if summer rains are abundant, it’s happy with those more drought-tolerant natives.  Here it is growing very wild in dry soil with Coreopsis lanceolata.

Asclepias tuberosa-wild planting

And it does well in fairly dry conditions with Anthemis tinctoria.

Asclepias tuberosa & Anthemis tinctoria

On the other hand, it does well in reasonably rich soil with my Crocosmia ‘Lucifer’, where I can run the hose if rains don’t come (like this summer)…..

Asclepias tuberosa & Crocosmia 'Lucifer'

…. and peeking up through my grassy monarda meadow, near a lush pink lily.

Asclepias tuberosa & Lily & Monarda

I’ve grown it with Penstemon barbatus ‘Coccineus’….

Penstemon barbatus & Asclepias tuberosa

…and with blackeyed susans (Rudbeckia hirta).

Rudbeckia & Asclepias 2

And I’ve seen it looking pretty with daylilies and catmint in a friend’s garden, too.

Asclepias tuberosa & Hemerocallis-Nepeta

Butterfly milkweed’s blooming season is so long, it counts numerous July and August plants as companions. Here is a bouquet I photographed on July 17th, 2010 with blackeyed susans (Rudbeckia hirta), false oxeye (Heliopsis helianthoides), veronica (Veronica spicata ‘Darwin’s Blue’) and blue vervain (Verbena hastata).

Asclepias tuberosa & bouquet companions

… and a collection of little bouquets I made on August 16th, 2013.

Asclepias tuberosa-August 16-Bouquets

If you want to know absolutely everything that might flower at the same time, here’s a montage I made one year on July 7th, 2014. Yes, that’s butterfly milkweed near the lower right corner. See if you can guess the rest!

Asclepias tuberosa & plant companions-July 7-2013

I have planted dozens of young butterfly milkweed plants here at Lake Muskoka over the years, like these ones offered by the Canadian Wildlife Federation (along with suitable nectar plants), as an encouragement to ‘bring back the monarch butterfly’. Most took, provided I irrigated them for the first summer; a few didn’t.

Canadian Wildlife Federation-Milkweed

But I have also managed to grow many from seed, which is harvested from the typical milkweed fruit capsule.  The ones that were most successful were those I guerilla-sowed, using the toe of my boot to kick them in along the edge of a gritty, community pathway midway down the hillside on a neighbour’s property. Under that granitic gravel, below, there was actually rich sandy soil and adequate moisture, given that the path sits mid-slope on the hill. But this tough environment best replicates the natural ‘sand prairie’ that butterfly milkweed likes.

Asclepias tuberosa-growing in gravel

You can also buy a seed mix in multiple colours:  ‘Gay Butterflies Mix’, below.

Asclepias tuberosa 'Gay Butterflies Mix'

Want to try your hand sowing butterfly milkweed? Follow these seeding instructions in a propagation guide in the Minnesota newsletter of Wild Ones:  “Collect when pods are cracked open. Remove down; cold stratify in fridge in damp sand for 90 days. Broadcast on soil surface in spring when soil is warm.

Best of luck growing this worthy award winner!  You and the pollinators – including the lovely monarch butterfly – are worth the effort.

My Cups Runneth Over (With Bees)….

(Hmmm. I just re-read my title and almost changed it, but decided not to. Snicker away – I’m going with “cups”.)

My second yellow-gold blog for July (the first was on companion plants for blackeyed susans) honours another composite prairie perennial that has pride of place in my meadows at Lake Muskoka.  Cup plant or Indian cup (Silphium perfoliatum) gets both its common name and Latin specific epithet from the way the leaves encircle the stem, thus making the stem appear to pierce the foliage – i.e. a ‘perfoliate’ habit.

Silphium perfofliatum-cottage

This clasping leaf arrangement creates a kind of ‘cup’ in which water can collect after rains, supposedly providing drinking water for birds and insects. Alas, insects are often found floating in the water, with some experts suggesting that it may actually act as a deterrent against insect pests that might climb up the stem.

Perfoliate leaves-Silphium perfoliatum

While it is a fabulous native, indigenous to moist woods and prairies in much of mid and east North America, including my province Ontario, its tendency to colonize makes it problematic. In fact, though it is classified as “threatened and endangered”in Michigan, it is “potentially invasive” and banned for sale in Connecticut. I received my fleshy roots from the compost bins of Toronto’s beautiful Spadina House gardens, and the gardeners gave me fair warning that it was invasive, and hard to dig up to control its spread. So I don’t; I merely enjoy it and give thanks for it when the bumble bees are nectaring on the big yellow flowers.

Bombus impatiens on Silphium perfoliatum

Here are bumble bees in action, along with a surprise visitor for whom those itty-bitty leaf pools are no deterrent, when tasty cup plant seedheads are the rewards for ascending that thick stem.

Honey bees love cup plant as well. There are no apiaries near my cottage on Lake Muskoka, but I photographed this one in the meadows at Miriam Goldberger’s Wildflower Farm an hour so south.

Honey Bee on Silphium perfoliatum

Butterflies like the monarch enjoy cup plant, too.

Monarch on Silphium perfoliatum (1)

I grow cup plants near my stairs so I can photograph the pollinators at eye level.

Silphium perfoliatum

But they’re in my meadows as well. Though they prefer adqequate moisture in the soil, they are surprisingly drought-tolerant (as they’ve had to be this hot, dry summer), but will develop yellow leaves and stunted flowers in time. Here’s a colony below my bedroom window amidst sweet blackeyed susans (Rudbeckia subtomentosa) still to come into flower.

Silphium perfoliatum in meadow

They make good companions to gray-headed coneflowers (Ratibida pinnata), which bloom at the same time.

Silphium perfoliatum & Ratibida pinnata

They are easily the tallest perennials I grow. Last summer (a season of good rains), I lay down the loftiest stems so I could do a measurement. Yes, 9 feet.

Silphium - 9 feet

I leave you with a little narrated tour…..

….and a cottage bouquet showing cup plant flowers in the bottom tier, surrounded by summer flowers like ratibida, perovskia, liatris and goldenrod.  Yellow/gold for July 2016, over and out.

Bouquet-Cup Plant & friends

A Beverly Hills Garden Party

Before heading to California in late March, we contacted a Los Angeles friend to arrange to have dinner together on our only night in LA, before driving north to Santa Barbara.

“By the way,” she said. “A neighbour is having a garden party Sunday afternoon. Would you like to be our guests?  She grows beautiful tulips.”

Uh… Beverly Hills? Tulips? Garden party?  Yes, thank you!

So it was that I wandered off the plane, into the washroom at LAX where I changed into garden party-ish attire, into the rental car, and just 6 hours after leaving wintery, ice-shrouded Toronto, onto a flower-filled patio a few blocks from Wilshire Boulevard.  The bartender (a handsome, ponytailed dancer who’d done some hip-hop in Toronto), poured me a glass of white wine and I wandered out onto the patio, where I was relieved to note that the beautiful California people all wore sensible walking shoes and looked like us.  Garden Party Patio

The flowers were lovely – spring bulbs and early perennials filling myriad terracotta pots on the patio, and purple and mauve cineraria in the raised beds that surrounded it. Cineraria

The hostess apologized, mentioning the 90-degree heat wave the previous week that caused the tulips to open too quickly.  I didn’t mind – it felt lovely just being outdoors in the sunshine after four months of the hardest winter in decades. And I could smell the sweet perfume of the daffodils sitting on a side table.  Daffodils

I walked into a trellis-enclosed outdoor dining room with a mirrored wall that reflected the afternoon sunshine and the flowers.  Mirrored Garden Room

Our hostess was an enthusiastic, long-time gardener, and this event was an annual fundraiser that raised money for a family cause near and dear to her heart.  On the dining room table around a tureen filled with flowers, she had arranged several delicious, homemade cakes.  I had three kinds.  It was lunchtime in California, after all.Garden Party Bouquet

I wandered amongst the chatting guests in the house and past a vignette in the hallway that recalled a visit I’d made to California in November 2008.  It was the very night that Obama became president, and I fell asleep in my San Francisco hotel room to the sound of young people walking below my window chanting “O-BA-MA, O-BA-MA!”  It seemed like such a long time ago. Memories of 08

Back out on the patio I found my first honey bees of the year nectaring in the purple    Canterbury bells.  What a thrill it was to watch them buzzing contentedly – I hadn’t seen honey bees since October when they visited my autumn monkshoods.Bee on Campanula medium

As I was following the bees from flower to flower snapping photos, a man came up beside me and we began chatting.  I learned that he was the hostess’s garden designer, Jon Shepodd, Seattle-based, but with a Los Angeles client list. In the small world department we compared notes and found we knew some of the same garden industry people.Jon Shephodd

Soon it was time to leave; I’d been awake since before dawn and the hotel beckoned for an afternoon nap. But the best part?  I’d spent my first afternoon in California in an actual garden, tended lovingly by an actual gardener.  It was going to be a great garden-touring trip, I could feel it.