Hiking Under Aoraki Mount Cook

Of the three January 2018 weeks we spent touring New Zealand on the American Horticultural Society’s “Gardens, Wine & Wilderness” tour, without a doubt my two favourite outings were our overnight voyage on Doubtful Sound in Fiordland and the day we hiked the Hooker Valley Track under the country’s tallest mountain, Aoraki Mount Cook.  That’s not to say I don’t love gardens, but for me there is simply no garden that compares with the one that nature conjures in places that we have not disturbed. So it was with great excitement, a few hours after lunching at Ann & Jim Jerram’s lovely Ostler Wine vineyard in the Waitaki Valley that we found ourselves standing beside Highway 80 on the shores of Lake Pukaki, staring in awe at the majestic mountain in the distance.  Every camera and cellphone came out.

You can see why the Māori of the South Island called their sacred mountain Aoraki, or “cloud piercer”.  (I’ll tell you more of their founding legend later.)

We continued driving Highway 80 (aka Mount Cook Road) along the shore of Lake Pukaki on our way into Aoraki Mount Cook National Park. As at Queenstown, we saw invasive “wilding conifers” along the shore – in this case, lodgepole pines (Pinus contorta), left, from western North America. Introduced into New Zealand in 1880, the trees were intended to “beautify” the lakeshore but have invaded throughout the Mackenzie Basin.

Like Lake Louise in Canada’s Banff National Park, Lake Pukaki appears turquoise because its waters consist of glacial melt from the mountains we’ll see over the next 36 hours. In the meltwater is superfine “rock flour” or “glacial milk” consisting of rock that has been pulverized into fine powder by the grinding action of ice as the glaciers melt and retreat.

Though I wouldn’t really understand the hydrology here until I came home and studied maps, we then drove over a small stream wending its way out into Lake Pukaki’s northern shore.  This, I would learn, is a channel of the Tasman River, which empties both the Hooker glacier and massive Tasman glaciers in adjacent mountain valleys in the park. Now at the height of New Zealand summer, it was not a big flow, but I imagine these braided channels roar in springtime when the gravel floodplain accepts the snowmelt.

Moments later, we arrived at the 164-room Hermitage Aoraki Mount Cook Hotel that would be our home for the next two nights. Built in 1958 and extended several times, this is the third incarnation of the mountainside hotel.  The original, built in 1884 by surveyor and Mount Cook ranger Frank Huddlestone, was sited further into the valley near the Mueller Glacier. It was taken over by the New Zealand government in 1895. As visitors started pouring into the region, the hotel could not keep up with the demand for rooms, and was also subject to seasonal flooding, which ultimately destroyed it. In 1914, a second hotel was erected; it would host four decades of guests, including a young Edmund Hillary and his climbing mates who bunked here during their 1948 ascent of Mount Cook. Five years later, he and Sherpa Tenzing Norguay would be the first to summit Mount Everest. After a 1957 fire destroyed the second Hermitage, the current one was built by the New Zealand government, under the aegis of its Tourist Hotel Corporation (THC) which also owned other tourist properties. In 1990 the THC was sold to a private corporation.  Our room was on the 5th floor of the rear wing and had a floor-to-ceiling view of Aoraki Mount Cook.

It had been a long Day 12 of our tour, starting in Dunedin with a morning stop in Oamaru before our wine lunch in the Waitaki. After a delicious dinner (appetizer below), shared with hundreds of other mountain tourists, we hit the sack. Tomorrow there would be a valley hike – and plants!

My Hooker Valley Track Hiking Journal

10:00 – The next morning, we left The Hermitage (roughly the red square), cheating a little by getting a lift in our tour bus (which cuts off the first few miles and at least a half-hour walk) to the campground, shown at the first yellow arrow, below. Our destination, Hooker Lake – the second yellow arrow – didn’t seem far on the map, but it’s a good hike, as you’ll see.

10:17 –  Armed with a lunch we’d scrounged from our breakfast buffet, off we went in the fine, mid-January summer weather on the Hooker Valley Track (Kiwi for “trail”).

10: 21 – Soon we were passing through matagouri shrubland. Dark and prickly, the other name for this riparian native is wild Irishman (Discaria toumatou).

10:26 – Through the thorny matagouri branches, the massive southeast flank of Mount Sefton appeared. Called Maukatua by the Māori, it’s the 13th tallest mountain in the Southern Alps at 3,151 metres (10,338 feet).

10:28 –  Look at all these amazing golden Spaniards! What? You don’t see any Spanish tourists? No, golden Spaniard or spear grass (Aciphylla aurea) is the name for the sharp-leaved plants stretching across this meadow. Now we could clearly see Mount Sefton and its neighbour to the right, The Footstool (2,764 metres – 9,068 feet).

10:30 – The meadows were spangled with snow totara (Podocarpus nivalis), also called mountain totara. A much-hybridized evergreen, its progeny appears in  temperate gardens throughout the world.

10: 32 – The track features three suspension bridges, two of which were rebuilt in 2015 to divert them from areas prone to flooding or avalanches. This was the first bridge. From here, you could just spot……

10:34 –  …..Mueller Lake as it spilled its own meltwater from the Mueller Glacier just beyond into Hooker River below the bridge.

I walked (bounced?) across the bridge behind my husband who was holding onto his Tilley hat in the fierce valley wind. I was very proud of him. He is not a gardener, and a 3-week garden-wilderness tour of New Zealand might not have been the first item on his bucket list when we contemplated this trip in 2017, but he was enjoying it very much – provided the wine flowed at dinnertime!

10:39 – Here was Griselinia littoralis, aka kapuka or New Zealand broadleaf, an evergreen that normally grows as a tree. Though its Latin name indicates a preference for the seashore (littoral), we are really not far from the Tasman Sea in this mountain valley. (And here I must offer my thanks to New Zealand plant wizard Steve Newall, who helped me identify many of these endemic treasures. Have a read about Steve in this piece by my Facebook friend Kate Bryant).

10:41 – That long berm at left, below, is the moraine wall of Mueller Glacier.

10:44 – We passed a few invasive plants in the first meadows, like foxglove (Digitalis purpurea), below.

10:50 – I passed my phone to my husband and asked for a portrait….of my best side. Like some 70,000 other New Zealand tourists, I wanted to have a record that I actually made this hike.

It was much warmer than I thought it would be, and I adopted my customary “I thought this was a glacier hike?” clothing modification, the same strategy used a few years ago in Greenland to hike the boardwalk through the alpine meadows to the UNESCO   Ilulissat Icefjord site.

11:01 – Okay, back to New Zealand. Forty minutes after we began our hike, we crossed the second suspension bridge, known as the Hooker Bluff bridge. The scenery here can only be described as spectacular.

11:02 – Now we saw the Hooker River spilling into Mueller Lake.

11:05 – After crossing the bridge, the river was on our right side. Though small, it was powerful, its crashing cascades seeming to echo off the nearby mountain walls.

11:06 – I was so transfixed, I stopped for a few minutes to make a recording.

11:07 – Along the path, one of the golden Spaniards (Aciphylla aurea) had toppled over under its own weight. You can see the umbellifer flowers and strange leaves against the stem

11:08 – A moment later, I saw one pointing towards Mount Sefton’s lofty glaciers.  

11:11 – And three minutes after that, I stopped to mourn that I had not been here a month earlier to see the flowering of the iconic Mount Cook lily, Ranunculus lyallii, the world’s largest buttercup, below. It was collected by and named for Scottish botanist David Lyall (1817-1895) who had travelled as ship surgeon around New Zealand and the Antarctic from 1839-41 on HMS Terror. (Terror was later lost with all hands, along with HMS Erebus, in Canada’s Arctic during Captain John Franklin’s ill-fated 1845 expedition to find a shortcut from Europe to Asia.  After years of searching, both shipwrecks were found in 2014 and 2016.)  In assembling Flora Antarctica containing Lyall’s plant collections, his friend, English botanist Joseph Hooker (1817-1911), noted that the New Zealand shepherds called it the ‘water-lily’, an appropriate name since it is the only known ranunculus with peltate leaves.  (It was Joseph Hooker’s father, William Hooker, for whom this valley and glacier were named by Julius von Haast in his geological survey of the Southern Alps in 1863.)

But the Māori of the South Island – the ancient Waitaha, then the Ngāti Māmoe, then the present-day Ngāi Tahu – had known the flower for hundreds of years before David Lyall arrived to botanize. They called it “kōpukupuku”. It has even been featured on postage stamps.

11:13 – A few minutes later, I felt somewhat mollified to come upon a few pristine specimens of Gentianella divisa.

11-17 – Unlike a Canadian alpine meadow in, say, Alberta, there is little bright colour in these tussock meadows under Aoraki Mount Cook.  Many of the herbaceous plants tend to have white flowers, like Lobelia angulata, below.

11:19 – You can barely see the tiny white flowers of inaka (Dracophyllum longifolium), one of the common native shrubs in the Hooker Valley.

11:24 – So far, we’d been walking on crushed gravel. But now we set off across the meadow on a beautiful boardwalk. As it began, it pointed us at Mount Sefton and The Footstool, but a few minutes later, it….

11:26 –  …… veered to the right and gave us the full valley view of Aoraki Mount Cook.

11:30 – The shimmering meadow here was mostly mid-ribbed snow tussock (Chionochloa pallens).

11:32 – I was happy that I was able to identify mountain cottonwood (Ozothamnus vauvilliersii), which I had also seen in flower on Ben Lomond in Queenstown.

11:36 – Steve Newall helped me identify this lovely little community: the silver leaves of mountain daisy (Celmisia semicordata), its flowers already past, sitting in a bed of Gaultheria crassa to the left, with creeping wire vine (Muehlenbeckia axillaris)  up against the rock. The tussock grass is mid-ribbed snow tussock (Chionochloa pallens).

11:37 – A minute later, we were crossing the third bridge, called the Upper Hooker Suspension Bridge. This one seemed to catch the wind and the vibrations, especially near the river banks, were very strong!

11:43 – I stopped on the path for a few minutes to absorb the sight of these wonderful meadows and shoot a short video. Here’s how they looked:

11:54 – As we approached the end of the track, I found a stand of creeping wire vine (Muehlenbackia axillaris) in flower…..

11:54 – and Raoulia glabra with its little pompom flowers.

11:55 – When I looked up from the tiny alpine plants nestled in these rocks, I couldn’t help but notice the massive boulders lying in the meadow. The one below looked like it had sheared clean off the mountain and tumbled down the scree slope. But of course it might have happened dozens or hundreds of years ago. Unless one was actually there…….

11:56 – A minute later, we arrived at our destination. Hooker Lake lay before us – a body of water that hadn’t been there at all before the late 1970s, when Hooker Glacier began its retreat. In geological terms, it’s referred to as a “proglacial” lake.   It had taken us an hour and 39 minutes. We celebrated by walking along the path to a little picnic area and eating our lunch.

12:12 – With our picnic finished, I headed down to join the tourists posing for photos on the lake’s shore.

12:19 – My arthritic knee was not going to keep me from kneeling on the glacial till to capture a souvenir image of this little iceberg – aka “bergy bit” – washed up on shore.  As I looked up from this little lake – melted from a glacier named for an English botanist by a German geologist – at a towering mountain – named for an English sea captain by another English sea captain – I was unaware of the sacred nature of this park.

Long before Captain John Lort Stokes decided in 1851, while surveying New Zealand, to honour his predecessor, Captain James Cook, by naming the country’s highest peak after him, the Māori of the South Island knew it as Aoraki, or “cloud piercer”. The Ngāi Tahu do not see the mountain merely as the result of millions of years of tectonic uplift as the Pacific and Indo-Australian Plates collide far beneath the surface along the island’s western coast  For them it is the core of their creation myth: the mountain possesses sacred mauri. They say that long before there was an island called Aotearoa (New Zealand), there was no sign of land in the great ocean. When the sky father Raki wed the earth mother Papa-tui-nuku, Raki’s four celestial sons came down to greet their father’s new wife. They were Ao-raki (Cloud in the Sky), Raki-ora (Long Raki), Raki-rua (Raki the Second) and Raraki-roa (Long Unbroken Line). They arrived in their waka (canoe) and sailed the sea, but could not find land. When they attempted to return to the heavens, their song of incantation failed and their waka fell into the sea and turned to stone as it listed, forming the south island. The brothers climbed onto the high side of their waka and were also turned to stone. They exist today as the four tallest peaks in the area: Aoraki is the highest (Mount Cook); the other brothers are Rakiora (Mount Dampier), Rakirua (Mount Teichelmann) and Rarakiroa (Mount Tasman).

When title to the park was vested to the Ngāi Tahu in 1998, the mountain’s name was formally changed to recognize Aoraki, and all management decisions are made in concert with them to respect the environment as their sacred place. This remarkable carving by the late Cliff Whiting hangs in the park’s Visitor Centre. It depicts a fierce Aoraki and the four brothers/mountains.

Moments after kneeling at the shore of Hooker Lake, I gazed up at the sky and saw a cloud. People who study clouds call this an orographic cloud – its shape distorted by air currents that must lift in response to tall mountain peaks. But when I looked later at the photo I’d made, all I could see was the face of a fierce ancient god gazing across the sky.

12:20 – Okay, back to earth now. I didn’t bring my ultra-zoom camera with me on the hike or I could have captured the front wall of Hooker Glacier.  As it is, I enlarged one of my images to show the glacier and its calving wall.  If you’re looking to see sparkly-white, gleaming glaciers, you’re in for a shock here. As my friend Andy Fyon, retired head of the Ontario Geological Survey, says: “Active alpine glaciers can be a bit like a child. They revel in the rough and tumble life and in getting dirty! That is not the same for continental glaciers, which enjoy staying clean.”

12:30 – Looking at the upper part of Aoraki Mount Cook, below, you can see the summit partly obscured by a cloud.  I’ve also drawn in the south ridge that was recently renamed the Hillary Ridge. The closest of the mountain’s three peaks, Low Peak (3599 metre – 11,808 ft) was first summited in 1948 via the southern ridge by a foursome that included Edmund Hillary, Mick Sullivan and Ruth Adams and their guide Harry Ayres, Three years later, Hillary, along with Tenzing Norgay, would become the first person to summit Mount Everest. But that 1948 ascent of Mount Cook came with attendant drama, for when the foursome went on to attempt the nearby peak La Perouse (out of my photo to the left or west), Ruth Adams’s rope broke and her 50-foot slide down the slope left her unconscious with several fractures.  Hillary would contribute the first chapter to the gripping account of that rescue.

In fact, some 248 climbers have died attempting to climb Aoraki Mount Cook. Summiting is a considerable achievement in the world of couloirs and cirques and belays. I enclose the following video to demonstrate the skill needed. I estimate that I screamed “Oh, my god” or words  to that effect a dozen times and averted my eyes at least 20 times. Put on your crampons and fasten your carabiner…..

12:38 – Heading back to the hotel now, we took a little side detour up to a few small tarns, which is alpine for glacial pond.

12:46 – The Upper Hooker Suspension Bridge was just as bouncy and windy on the return trip.

12:55 – We walked at the base of Mount Wakefield, which separates Hooker Valley from the Tasman Valley to the east.

12:59 – A small footbridge at the Stocking Stream Shelter took us over the Hooker River with its milky rock flour.

1:20 – Looking down a little later, I saw a drift of Parahebe lyallii.

1:35 – And creeping over a rock was one of the “bidibids”, Acaena saccaticupula.

1:53 – I saw my only Hooker Valley butterfly, the common copper, foraging on New Zealand harebell (Wahlenbergia albomarginata).

2:12 – Coming towards the end of the hike, I made a critical mistake. Weary now and gazing across the meadows at what looked to be a direct route back to the Hermitage, I said, “Why don’t we get off this winding path and go straight back across the meadow?”  My husband, trusting soul that he is, reluctantly agreed.  Neither of us knew that the only people who ventured this way were mountain bikers.  With our tired legs, the spongy soil and long grass of the meadows made the last stretch seem never-ending.

2:14 – In the meadows in front of the hotel were a few lupines. Despite now being on the noxious aliens list, these invaders are quite famous for their massive spring show in the park.

2:19 – Parts of the meadow turned into dried-up gravel stream beds that are clearly part of the seasonal drainage patterns of the rivers here.

2:21 – I found another famous New Zealand mat plant, scabweed (Raoulia australis), growing here.

2:37 – And finally, 4 hours and 20 minutes after we began our hike, we arrived back at the sign-post near the hotel.

3:00 – As we kicked off our hiking shoes and collapsed  onto our beds in the 5th floor room with the great view of the mountains, we cracked open a bottle of the Gëwurztraminer we’d bought at Ostler Vineyard the previous day. A glass of chilled wine never tasted so good.

9:30 – And later, after dinner, as the light dimmed in the sky, I looked out on Aoraki Mount Cook with something akin to affection. Like the Māori, I sensed its spirit infusing this spectacular landscape.

9:43 – And as the sun shed its last rays on its snowy peak, I gave thanks for the pilgrimage we had made to be close to it.


Muskoka Wild – Gardening in Cottage Country

Gardening in cottage country.  Ah, the whispering white pines, the towering red oaks and sugar maples, the lacy hemlocks, the shimmering trilliums… and the pee-gee hydrangeas?

It is a strange paradox that when people head to their summer retreats in Muskoka, Georgian Bay or the Kawartha Lakes (or any other wilderness area), they often feel the need to recreate the type of manicured city landscape they left behind – one that fails to capture the unique sense of place inherent in the spectacular, rugged terrain of cottage country.   After all, don’t we seek escape to a granite island or forested shoreline in order to appreciate nature in the wild, not to subdue it with our own sense of urban decorum?

Natural shoreline-Lake Muskoka-kayak

But when that decorum includes a Kentucky bluegrass lawn sweeping down to the lake’s edge, one that needs fertilizing to stay green and mowing and edging to stay neat, it seems to me that we have not only turned our backs on the notion of wildness, but threatened it as well.  We should all be aware by now that fertilizer runoff has a harmful effect on water quality, increasing the phosphorus levels, encouraging the growth of algae and adversely affecting the shoreline habitat for fish.  But apart from the environmental effect of a lakeside lawn, the idea of having to replicate the humdrum chores of an urban back yard at a place where you should be snoozing in a hammock,  reading the latest bestseller, and kicking off your summer sandals just seems wrong.

Book and hammock at Lake Muskoka

Of course, the ideal cottage landscape is the one that’s been altered the least, the one that retains the native low-bush blueberries, blackberry, black chokeberry, wild raspberry, bearberry and myrtleberry, below .

Myrtleberry-Gaylussacia baccata-Lake Muskoka

It’s the landscape that respects the bush honeysuckle, the creeping dogbane, white meadowsweet and common juniper, while rejoicing in the mayflower, wild strawberry, violet, Solomon’s seal, trout lily, trilliums and red columbine.

Aquilegia canadensis-eastern columbine

It appreciates the bracken and marginal shield ferns in the dry places, the cinnamon and royal ferns in the damp spots and the sensitive fern and lady fern in the shady forest.  It’s the one where children and grandchildren run down paths carpeted with pine needles; where the shore is edged with white turtlehead, blue flag iris and swamp milkweed, below.

Swamp Milkweed-Asclepias incarnata-Lake Muskoka

The place where wild goldenrod and an assortment of asters offer up an easy bouquet for the Thanksgiving table.  And it does all this under trees that grow in familiar communities – red maple, white pine, beech, red oak, paper birch, hemlock, moose maple, staghorn sumac and trembling aspen – while giving shelter to songbirds, chattering jays, chickadees, barred owls and woodpeckers.Woodpecker-staghorn sumac-Lake Muskoka

Gardening Between a Rock and a Hard Place

But what if leaving the cottage landscape au naturel is not an option?  Construction doesn’t always leave the land in pristine condition, and sometimes a cottage property has been “tamed” by the people who owned it before you came on the scene. What then? For me, it was necessary to come up with a fast landscape plan after we built our Lake Muskoka home in 2001-02, a construction project that left the sloping bedrock exposed and barren of vegetation. But perhaps I should back up a little here.

Davis Cottage-Lake Muskoka-Slope-2001

Our south-facing property was the driest, hottest patch of land on a little peninsula jutting out into a small bay on the southeast part of Lake Muskoka.  Except for a row of towering, white pines at the shore – survivors of a fire that razed parts of the peninsula ridge decades earlier – and some red oaks here and there, the vegetation was scrubby, its growth constrained by shallow, acidic, sandy soil formed from the granite and grey gneiss rock underlying much of the region.  Sloping on a moderate angle to the lake, it was a challenging site for construction of a four-season house big enough to accommodate children, friends and far-flung relatives for family reunions.  With no road access, all supplies arrived by barge, including the concrete truck that poured the foundation, massive steel beams, roof trusses, lumber, appliances and furniture.

Equipment on barge-Lake Muskoka

When all was finished, we were delighted with the cottage (that’s the rustic euphemism we assign to homes of any size on Lake Muskoka); the views were spectacular from all sides and a screened porch extended the hours we could be outdoors dining and reading.  But our ecological footprint had not been light.  Much of the bedrock on either side of the site had been scraped bare of vegetation by tractors and line-trenchers.  Worse, the front of the cottage dropped away sharply onto sloping granite, making exiting the doors on the lower level to reach the lake a treacherous exercise.

Lake Muskoka Cottage-before terracing-2002

My objective in landscaping was not simply to re-green the site, but to re-shape the contour of the land, adding a front plateau to let us safely access the hillside.  It would feature a new woodchip path to replace the path that meandered across the property long before we built there.  We would also need stairs leading to the lake and dock, and I played with various concepts, below, as we worked on the house.

Cottage-Lake Muskoka-Concept Sketch for stairs

But beyond the structural changes, I wanted to return our land to a richer, more complex diversity than it possessed before we began to build.  I knew that the pines and oaks would eventually re-colonize the property, along with blueberries, junipers and sumacs.  In the meantime, there would be years of vibrant sunshine to nourish whatever I chose for my palette.  And even as I transplanted tiny pine saplings, I began to dream about those wild, flower-spangled meadows I had grown up with as a child in Victoria,

White Pine Seedling-Lake Muskoka

It wasn’t just a desire to naturalize an already natural site that appealed to me.  I was also pushing back against the way I’d been gardening in the city, rebelling against the need for constraint and order that comes with beds and borders and neatly-mown lawns.  It made no sense to think that way about a cottage landscape; not only would it be out-of-step with the natural environment, it would be out-of-synch with how I had changed, physically and philosophically, as a gardener.  More and more, I wanted a landscape that was not just for me and my kind, but one that would appeal to other species:  the bees, katydids, butterflies, birds and chipmunks that would soon call the meadows home.  I also wanted that sense of aesthetic pleasure that comes from observing a truly changing canvas with a roster of plants to provide a shifting tapestry from April to October.  Most of all, I wanted my meadows to be low-maintenance.  

Katydid on Rudbeckia hirta-blackeyed susan

After the last of the construction equipment was removed from the site, a barge arrived loaded with a tractor and different kinds of soil.  For the most conventional garden beds – the spaces between the four doors on the lower level – rich triple-mix consisting of equal parts of loam, peat and manure was chosen.  For the open meadows on either side of the cottage and the sunny hillsides in front of them, we settled for a local, low-grade, sandy soil, emulating the environment found in natural sand prairies.  On the steep bank dropping from the newly-shaped path under the old white pines in front of the cottage, we elected to spread a locally-sourced forest soil called “trimmings” that contained the roots and seeds of whatever might be found naturally growing in similar conditions nearby. 

Lake Muskoka-Cottage Landscaping-2002

My objective that first summer was to prevent the new soil from washing down the slope in rainstorms.  As a fast-germinating cover crop, I seeded the meadows and hillsides with a combination of creeping red fescue grass (Festuca rubra) and black-eyed susans (Rudbeckia hirta), mixing about 100 grams (3.5 ounces) of the wildflowers into 4.5 kilos (10 pounds) of grass seed.  A few weeks and many hours of hand-watering later…..

Lake Muskoka Cottage-watering seeds-Summer-2002

….the first blades of grass emerged, followed closely by the first tiny leaves of countless blackeyed susans.

Lake Muskoka Cottage-Blackeyed Susans-2003

A biennial, it makes a rosette of foliage in its first season and sends up flower stems the following summer, before setting seed and dying.  I still laugh at the photos taken of me in year two standing amidst thousands of cheerful black-eyed susans.


Into the rich soil of the doorway garden beds went big golden yarrow (Achillea filipendulina ‘Gold Plate’), Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia) and switch grass (Panicum virgatum).  This is how the path and a doorway bed looked a few years later.

Lake Muskoka-Cottage Path & Bed-2007

At the base of the richest meadow, I planted an assortment of prairie grasses, including big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium),Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) and switch grass (Panicum virgatum), below.  And over the next few years, I did an autumn sowing of seeds of a roster of tallgrass prairie perennials that would become the flowery backbone of the meadows: foxglove penstemon, heliopsis, monarda, gaillardia, sweet blackeyed susan, gray-headed coneflower, asters and showy goldenrod to add to goldenrods already on the property.  That plants were native was not as important to me as their drought-tolerance, a vital attribute for a landscape that would rely on rainwater — while acknowledging that dry summers would take their toll on plants growing in shallow soil.

Panicum virgatum-switch grass-Lake Muskoka

The Meadows Mature

Now, fifteen years later, my meadows and garden beds provide a bounty of flowers (and beautiful bouquets). There is something in bloom from the first daffodils of April…..

Daffodils-Cottage-Lake Muskoka

….  to the last goldenrod and asters of autumn. This is showy goldenrod (Solidago speciosa), down by the lake in late September.

Solidago speciosa-showy goldenrod-Lake Muskoka

Monarch butterflies lay eggs on the butterfly milkweed….

Monarch ovipositing on Asclepias tuberosa-butterfly milkweed

….producing beautiful caterpillars and a new generation of the iconic butterfly…..

Monarch caterpillar on butterfly milkweed-Asclepias tuberosa

….which, when it prepares to fly south to Mexico in early September, sometimes stops on our dock to soak up a little salt from the feet of sunbathers.

Monarch butterfly eating salt on toe-Lake Muskoka

Myriad pollinating insects and hummingbirds visit the flowers, like this ruby-throated female on my crocosmia flowers (which, amazingly, have overwintered for years)….

Ruby-throated hummingbird on crocosmia-Lake Muskoka

…while goldfinches enjoy the monarda seeds….

Goldfinch eating monarda seed-Lake Muskoka

…..and ruffed grouse are regularly spotted in late summer wandering through my meadows.

Ruffed grouse-Lake Muskoka

Though there are a few deer on our peninsula, they seem to prefer the young sumac shoots to my perennials….

Deer-Lake Muskoka

….. but groundhogs enjoy purple coneflower and coreopsis from time to time.

Groundhog-eating coreopsis-Lake Muskoka

In truth, the meadows are so profuse that I am happy to share a few plants.  Yes, there are exotics some might call “weeds”, e.g. oxeye daisies, buttercups. birdsfoot trefoil, musk mallow, cow vetch, hawkweed and quackgrass, but they are kept in check by the vigorous prairie plants.

Weedy wildflowers-Lake Muskoka

The only work required is to use a trimmer twice each season to keep the path across the property clear.

Path-cutting-meadow-Lake Muskoka

In November, I need to cut down the meadow grasses to reduce the thatch that builds up and to keep things neat for the daffodils that emerge each April.   And, of course, to prevent the meadow from transitioning naturally to bush, it’s necessary to keep out any blackberries and sumacs that might want to jump the path from the steep slope to the lake.

Autumn cleanup-Lake Muskoka-meadow grasses

My cottage neighbours know where to find a bouquet of fragrant daffodils in springtime.

Daffodils-Lake MuskokaThe bumble bees know where to find beebalm with sweet nectar.


And I know where to find photographic inspiration and beauty all season long, like this single day, July 7, 2013, when I collected all these flowers at the cottage.

July flowers at the cottage-Lake Muskoka

Let’s take a little tour of the property.

A Tour of My Muskoka Garden Today

Coming down the stairs from the cottage, we see the little patch of wildness I call the “east meadow”. The soil here is shallow and the plants — tall cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum) at the bottom of the stairs and beebalm (Monarda fistulosa) and false oxeye (Heliopsis helianthoides) in the meadows — tend to suffer in a dry summer.  On this side of the stairs is a large stand of Helianthus ‘Lemon Queen’ and other plants.

Janet Davis cottage-Lake Muskoka-East Meadow-2017

Here’s the view of the cottage through the beebalm and heliopsis in the east meadow.


Here’s the stairway to the lake, below, with a little viewing deck part-way down. The slope, composed of soil called ‘trimmings’, features plants native to Muskoka, including sumac (Rhus typhina), meadowsweet (Spiraea latifolia), common juniper (Juniperus communis) and wild blackberry (Rubus allegheniensis). Oaks and maples sprout on the slope as well; some are encouraged but it’s necessary to thin the forest a little here.

Slope to Lake Muskoka-Janet Davis cottage

In early summer, that little section below the bench is a lovely confection of foxglove penstemon (P. digitalis) and lanceleaf coreopsis (C. lanceolata). Both of these native perennials share a love of dry, gravelly soil.

Pentemon digitalis & Coreopsis lanceolata

Here’s a short video of foxglove penstemon at the lake shore.

On a grassy part of the slope to the lake, I combine butterfly milkweed with blackeyed susans.

Rudbeckia hirta & Asclepias tuberosa-Lake Muskoka

Looking west down the path past the scented ‘Conca d’Or’ lily (one of the strongest Orienpet or Oriental x Trumpet hybrids), it’s amazing to me that this flat terrace was created from a once steep and treacherous slope.

Llium 'Conca d'Or'-Path

Moving along the path, the bed (using the word ‘bed’ very loosely) at the eastern end of the cottage is filled with more fragrant Orienpet lilies.  Over the years, I’ve discovered that certain perennials exhibit good drought-tolerance, like Veronica spicata ‘Darwin’s Blue’, just finishing below. This bed also contains English lavender (Lavandula angustifolia), ‘Walker’s Low’ catmint (Nepeta racemosa) and ‘May Night’ meadow sage (Salvia nemorosa).

East garden bed-Lake Muskoka

The most satisfying garden section at the cottage has been the small, sloping west meadow, aka the ‘monarda meadow’ for its predominant wild beebalm, Monarda fistulosa. This is how it looks today,as the large prairie grasses at right are just beginning to fountain.

East Meadow-path-Lake Muskoka

In early August the west meadow features some good perennial partners with the monarda, including ‘Gold Plate’ yarrow (Achillea filipendulina)….

Monarda fistulosa & 'Gold Plate' Yarrow-Lake Muskoka

…. gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata)….

Monarda fisulosa & Ratibida pinnata

…. and false oxyeye (Heliopsis helianthoides)…..

Monarda fistulosa & Heliopsis helianthoides

In June, the monarda meadow features the odd wild lupine (Lupinus perennis), now less populous than they were a few years ago, when their blue candles glowed in the grasses.

West Meadow-Lupinus perennis1

I made a little time capsule video to remember my meadows this week, in a summer when rain was plentiful (to say the least) and the flowers all reached for the sky.

Bouquets from the Meadows

The cottage beds and meadows have yielded lovely bouquets for the table, whether in June with the lupines, false indigo (Baptisia australis), oxyeye daisies (Leucanthemum vulgare) and large-flowered penstemon (P. grandiflorus)…

Bouquet-Lupines-June-Lake Muskoka

….or later in summer, with cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum), gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata), blue Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia), purple blazing star (Liatris spicata) and the many goldenrods (Solidago sp.) that flower at the cottage.

Bouquet2-Midsummer (2)

Sometimes I add stems of Allegheny blackberry (Rubus allegeniensis) and nannyberry (Viburnum lentago) to the summer wildflowers, like the little nosegays below.

August meadow flowers

20 Great Cottage Perennials for Bees & Butterflies

Except for the fragrant lilies, which are just for me, my criterion for including plants to the cottage beds and meadows is that they must be useful to foraging insects and birds. Here are twenty of the best:

1. Blue false indigo (Baptisia australis) – Ironclad, low-maintenance native perennial attracts bumble bees at a critical time in late spring when bumble bees are provisioning their nests.


2, Wild lupine (Lupinus perennis) – Bumble bees are the pollinators for this native perennial, which flowers in June.

Bombus on Lupine perennis-Lake Muskoka

3. Blackeyed susanRudbeckia hirta – Lots of small native bees and butterflies enjoy foraging on biennial blackeyed susans.


4. Blanket flowerGaillardia x grandiflora – Provided it’s regularly deadheaded, blanket flower will bloom until autumn, attracting myriad bees.

Bombus griseocollis on Gaillardia x grandiflora

5. CatmintNepeta racemosa ‘Walker’s Low’ – Long-flowering and a bee magnet, catmint has aromatic foliage that discourages deer.

Bombus on Nepeta racemosa 'Walker's Low'

6. Lanceleaf coreopsis (C. lanceolata) – One of the easiest, most drought-tolerant perennials for early summer, this coreopsis attracts lots of bees and its seeds attract hungry goldfinches.

Bombus on Coreopsis lanceolata-Lake Muskoka

7. Foxglove penstemon (P. digitalis) – Another easy, adaptable native perennial, this penstemon flowers at the same time as coreopsis, above, and enjoys the same rugged conditions – dry, gravelly soil.  Bumble bees forage on it extensively.

Bombus on Penstemon digitalis

8. Hoary vervain (Verbena stricta) – This vervain epitomizes “hardy and drought-tolerant” and is the most foolproof perennial in my dry meadows. Guaranteed to bloom and attract bumble bees.

Bombus on Verbena stricta-Lake Muskoka

9. False oxeye (Heliopsis helianthoides) – In the ‘be careful what you wish for’ category, this one is easy from seed and likes to take over the meadow. A negative is its attraction to rosy-apple (red) aphids, but lots of native pollinators enjoy the flowers, including the wasp below.

Wasp on Heliopsis helianthoides-Lake Muskoka

10. Wild beebalm (Monarda fistulosa) – Easily the most valuable perennial in my meadows, attracting bumble bees, hummingbirds and the lovely clearwing hummingbird moth, below.

Hummingbird clearwing moth on Monarda fistulosa-Lake Muskoka

Bumble bees are plentiful in my meadows during the blooming period of the wild beebalm. This is my west meadow today, August 7, 2017.

11. Butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) – I have blogged at length about this plant, named the Perennial Plant Association’s 2017 Plant of the Year. It attracts many types of pollinators, including the monarch butterfly, which lays its eggs on the plant to be foraged by the developing caterpillar.


Butterfly milkweed is also very popular with bumble bees of all kinds. Here’s a video I made of a bumble bee nectaring while a red squirrel scolds and a Swainson’s thrush sings in the background.

12. Gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata) – With its willowy stems, this perennial is the most graceful in my meadows, and attracts small native bees.

Native bees on Ratibida pinnata

13. Cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum) – The tallest of my meadow perennials, this one is a colonizer, but so popular with bumble bees that it can be forgiven for laying claim to as much territory as it can.

Bombus on Silphium perfoliatum-Lake Muskoka

I was surprised one year to see which animal was snacking on the 8-foot tall seedheads of my cup plant. Not a deer, but a…….

14. Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia) – Hardy with aromatic leaves that repel deer, this sub-shrub is an excellent companion for big golden yarrow. Bumble bees and honey bees adore the tiny, lavender-purple flowers.

Bee on Perovskia atriplicifolia

15. Blazing Star or Gayfeather (Liatris – many species, esp. L. ligulistylis, below, and L. spicata) – I adore all the blazing stars, and so do the butterflies. Rocky Mountain blazing star, below, is particularly popular with monarch butterflies and with the great spangled fritillary shown.

Great Spangled Fritillary-on Liatris ligulistylis-Lake Muskoka

16. Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum) – Preferring more moisture than many of the prairie natives, this tall perennial (the one below is the cultivar ‘Fascination’) is a magnet for bees and butterflies.

Painted Lady on Veronicastrum virginicum 'Fascination'-Lake Muskoka

17. New York ironweed (Vernonia noveboracensis) – Wherever there’s an extra bit of moisture, this tall ironweed thrives in late summer. It attracts bees and many types of butterfly, including the painted lady, below.

Painted Lady on Vernonia noveboracensis-Lake Muskoka

18. Sweet blackeyed susan (Rudbeckia subtomentosa) – A tall, easy-going perennial – and my favourite of the rudbeckia clan, this late-summer beauty attracts its share of native bees and wasps.

Native wasp on Rudbeckia subtomentosa

19. Goldenrod (Solidago sp.) – There are at least a half-dozen species of goldenrod that thrive on our property. Some are invasive enough to be nuisances, like Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis). Others are rare enough to be prized, like Solidago nemoralis. But my favourite is one I seeded myself, showy goldenrod, Solidago speciosa, below.  One of the latest-blooming perennials, it is often in flower well into October, nourishing the last of the bumble bees before our long Muskoka winter.

Bombus on Solidago speciosa-showy goldenrod

20. New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) – At the very end of the season, around Thanksgiving time in Canada, the various asters provide a late, vital source of nectar for all the bees.

Agapostemon virescens on Symphyorichum novae-angliae-Lake Muskoka


Adapted from a story that appeared originally in Trellis, the magazine of the Toronto Botanical Garden