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.

Siri Luckow: The Garden as Wildlife Sanctuary

Siri Luckow’s  garden won first place in the Environmental category in a city-wide garden contest, and on her street in the northern part of Toronto it stands out as a beacon of hope in a desert of lawns.  Look at this, in late spring.  It’s hardly a sacrifice in the name of the environment, is it?

Siri Luckow-Front garden

She proudly proclaims her intention with this beautiful garden right out front, where passersby can be inspired.

Backyard habitat sign-Siri Luckow

I visited Siri’s garden first in 2015 with a group of garden bloggers, and she was a delightful host.

Siri Luckow-Toronto

I then asked to return the following year to absorb a little more of what can be done on a small property, like the drainage made possible by a dry stream bed.

Dry stream-Siri Luckow

In her front yard, Siri mixes lots of natives, like the dwarf chinkapin oak (Quercus prinoides)….

Siri Luckow-Quercus prinoides-dwarf chinkapin oak

….with old-fashioned non-native favourites like tree peony (Paeonia suffruticosa).

Paeonia-Siri Luckow

But it’s not all ‘native this’ and ‘non-native’ that. Siri’s garden contains loads of edibles as well, front and back. In her front garden, she mixes shrubs like gooseberries….


….and blueberries with the ornamentals….

Blueberries-Siri Luckow

…. and she includes leafy crops in her containers, too. Here’s kale with pansies.

Kale & Pansies-Siri Luckow

Moving around to the back, you’re greeted with a lovely flowering dogwood (Cornus florida) underplanted with sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum).

Cornus florida-Flowering dogwood

Nearby in a sunny spot is the vegetable garden.

Vegetables-Siri Luckow

In her shade garden, Siri grows ostrich ferns and white bleeding heart (Lamprocapnos spectabilis ‘Albus’)….

Shady garden-Siri Luckow

…. and spring natives like (Geranium maculatum)….

Geranium maculatum-wild geranium

…. and this uncommon white form of Virginia bluebell (Mertensia virginica f. alba).

Mertensia virginica f. alba-White Virginia bluebells

There are beautiful painted ferns (Athyrium niponicum var. pictum), paired here with the foliage of early-flowering native bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis).

Japanese painted fern & bloodroot

Siri’s garden art tends to be organic and ecological, like this rotting tree section melting into cranesbills (Geranium sp.)….

Geranium & tree trunk-Siri Luckow

…. and this vine sphere…..

Vine sculpture-Siri Luckow

…. and this dead branch cradling a smooth rock.

Stone sculpture-Siri Luckow

There’s a bit of lawn in the sunny part, and behind it a wonderful mini-woodland that acts as ‘edge’ habitat, bringing many birds.

Back garden-Siri Luckow

Chickadees nest in a house Siri set up here…

Chickadee nesting box-Siri Luckow

….and birds are able to secure nesting material in the wool holder or nesting ball that hangs in the garden.

Bird-nesting wool-Siri Luckow

There are always birds feeding here. Here’s a male northern cardinal eating from a simple plastic plant pot feeder,

Cardinal male-flowerpot birdfeeder-Siri Luckow

…and the female eating a sunflower seed, too.

Cardinal female

Hidden away in the trees is a brush pile for birds and other wildlife – the value of which too few gardeners understand.

Brush pile habitat

It’s easy to plant some pussytoes (Antennaria sp.)……

Antennaria flowers

…. and wait for the painted lady butterfly to lay its eggs on the leaves, which then become the larval caterpillar’s diet.

Painted Lady Caterpillar on Antennaria

Siri’s sunny woodland front features native shrubs like Carolina allspice (Calycanthus floridus)…

Calycanthus floridus-Carolina allspice

…. and native trees like the paw paw (Asimina triloba), with its dusky maroon flowers…..

Asimina triloba-Paw paw flower

…. and native perennials like prairie smoke (Geum triflorum).

Geum triflorum-Prairie smoke

But she’s a plant collector, too – so there are a few rarities like Syringa afghanica.

Syringa afghanica-Siri Luckow

During the Garden Bloggers’ Fling in 2015, we were invited to climb the ladder to look at the Luckows’ Green Roof. Here’s Toronto garden designer Sara Katz taking a photo under tulip tree (Liriodendron tulipfera)….

Green roof-Siri Luckow-Sara Katz photographing

… and here’s my photograph of the top of the roof.

Green roof-Siri Luckow

Thank you Siri (belatedly) for opening up your garden to gardeners – and to the rest of the wild creatures you welcome daily.

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.

Autumn in Mount Pleasant Cemetery

I know I promised you the second half of my orange-for-October colour treatment, but I needed a little taste of fall today. I needed a vision of October red, orange and gold before the rain and wind sweep in tomorrow and turn the delicate, tree-borne flags of autumn into sodden layers on the ground. So I did what I’ve done for more than twenty years now:  I drove to Mount Pleasant Cemetery, just ten minutes from my home, and parked my car. The cemetery’s 200 acres make it one of the biggest arboretums in Canada, and its roads criss-cross under a forest of stately trees, many with labels affixed to their trunks providing the botanical and common names. It is quiet, solemn, a place to reflect on life, death, and the seasons. I have spent hundreds of hours photographing these trees in spring, summer, autumn and winter; I know them well. Here are just a few that called out to me today.

Driving down Mount Pleasant, it was easy to pick out the neon-pink of the burning bushes (Euonymus alatus) outside the iron fence.


Just inside the gate was an Ohio buckeye (Aesculus glabra) turning golden-apricot.


There are massive sugar maples (Acer saccharum) near the entrance, and they’d begun their sunset colour transformation,too.


Many species of maples were turning colour. Below is red maple (Acer rubrum) – a variable autumn-colouring species, that can turn yellow, deep red, pale orange or mottled, like this tree.


Silver maple (Acer saccharinum) had become a pretty lemon-yellow.


Freeman maple (Acer x freemanii) is a popular hybrid between red maple and silver maple, and that marriage of pigments often manifests in the colour change, with red and yellow pigments keeping their distance in the leaf.


The elegant fullmoon maple (Acer japonicum) always transfixes me, especially the fringed leaves of the cultivar ‘Aconitifolium’. Today, I stood underneath the tree to soak in the deep russet and scarlet tones.


There are several wonderful, big hickories at Mount Pleasant Cemetery, and this bitternut hickory (Carya cordiformis) stands like a stately sentinel beside the handsome mausoleum.


I was mildly shocked that in all the years I’ve photographed in the cemetery, I somehow missed the seven-sons tree (Heptacodium miconoides). This is its colourful second act, after the September flowers fade and the calyces turn a pretty rose-pink.


The leathery, witch-hazel-like leaves of the parrotia (P. persica) had taken on their mottled red, pink and orange colours, before falling on the small tombstones beneath it.


All the birches had exposed the underlying carotene pigments that turned their elegant leaves bright yellow. This is European silver birch (Betula pendula)….


… and this is North American paper birch (Betula papyrifera).


Serviceberry (Amelanchier sp.) leaves were glowing red and orange, the third season of beauty for this native, following their delicate white May flowers and tasty June fruit.


Tulip poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera) leaves had taken on gold and bronze tones.


The wind was picking up and the air was cold as I headed to my car. I gazed up at one of the magnificent white oaks (Quercus alba) turning crimson and bronze, its massive branches held aloft.  Many of Mount Pleasant’s white oaks were already mature trees when the cemetery opened on November 4, 1876. One hundred and forty years ago this week.



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