Flowery blurbs, volume 12.

I’ve been gardening “by the minute” lately…that is, cramming five or ten minutes’ worth of work in before the next bout of rainy, windy, or otherwise highly changeable weather.  Ah, glorious Spring!  Yesterday I managed to get one flowerbed edged and weeded before the thunder and lightning started (thankfully, the storm lasted about five minutes, total, and no hail came out of it).  If you’re having to do the same thing with your gardening work, here are a few little Flowery Blurbs to chow down on while you’re waiting for the sun to come out again….

When I was working in a garden centre, some of the most frequently-asked questions concerned tomatoes.  Actually, it was ONE gigantic question:  how do you grow tomatoes in Calgary?  It really is trickier than most other places – if you’re from here you know what I’m talking about.  We have a short growing season, really cool summer nighttime temperatures, and we’re always looking over the horizon for snow, so a vine-ripened tomato that was grown in a Calgary garden is like a shiny nugget of pure gold.  (Okay, so I exaggerate.  But only slightly).  While I should have posted this article up a few months ago when gardeners were starting their tomato seedlings indoors, the information about hardening off and recommended hardy selections is still very useable, and you can always hang onto these excellent tips for next year.  Check out Stacey McDougall’s post about Growing Resilient Tomatoes from Seed on Big Sky Permaculture’s website.

Are you growing fruit trees or shrubs in your garden?  Do you know how to prune them in order to maximize fruit production?  This article from Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development is a short primer on the reasons why pruning fruiting plants properly will give them that extra oomph! factor.

I love the article, From the Shrubbery, by Noel Kingsbury in Gardening Gone Wild – not only does it have a great title (I’m a Monty Python fan and the word “shrubbery” always gets me giggling, what can I say?), but the premise is fascinating.  Kingsbury argues that shrubs more than deserve a status update, and should no longer languish behind perennials for garden dominance.  Of course, he insists, proper management is key – shrubs only work if you culture them properly.  Do you agree with what he suggests?

If you’ve been following my blog, you know I’m interested in vermicomposting, even if I don’t find the worms themselves very appealing.  (By the way, my red wigglers are doing spectacularly; I harvested enough castings to nearly fill a 4 litre ice cream pail about a month ago and worked them into my perennial beds during spring prep).  Although vermiponics has absolutely nothing to do with composting, it does involve worms.  Check out this article that takes the science of aquaponics to a new wriggly level, and removes the fish from the equation.  (Perfect for someone who wants an aquaponics system but can’t keep it up year-round due to the cold weather!).   What do you think of vermiponics – or aquaponics, for that matter?  Would you attempt these systems? 

Finally, from the files of They’re Seriously Serious (I Think):  if the sight of a lawn full of dandelions doesn’t make you hurl curses or gnash your teeth, and you actually have feelings of love and kinship for the sunny yellow flowers, then check out Dandetown‘s Facebook page.  If you’re a creative soul, they’ve got a call for submissions of “your favourite dandelion stories, photos, song lyrics, and recipes.”

On that note, I’m heading out to check on those plants I bought on Sunday and still haven’t put in the ground….  🙂

Related articles

Spring stirrings (a miscellany).

Ah, spring!  Have I mentioned how much I love this time of year?  There are so many reasons to celebrate!

Glories of the snow  


Pea shoots on my windowsill 

African violet 

Unblanched popcorn shoots 

Another African violet 

Larch flowers 

Prairie crocuses

What plants are you enjoying most this spring?

Happy crocus day.

What a difference a year makes!  Last year,  I was posting about my first crocus sighting of the year on May 12th, and here we sit, in mid-April, and my favourite Prairie haunt, Nose Hill, is covered in the purple beauties.  Feast your eyes on SPRING!

The horticultural crocuses in my flowerbeds have been blooming for nearly three weeks now.  These are a variety called ‘Easter Egg,’ and I’ve had them for so long that the junipers have clamboured over and around them.  Time to lift the corms this year and move them.   I also have a handful of dark purple snow crocuses, but either the hares or a really bored and troubled garden gnome did them in before I had a chance to get any good photographs of them in bloom.

Are you growing crocuses in your garden this year? 

Floral notes: early February 2012.


No show-snow (Photo credit – Rob Normandeau)

Last night, I had what should have been a lovely dream:  I went outside into my flowerbeds and all of my spring-flowering bulbs were up and growing like crazy.  That would be super – in April or May.  But it’s the first week of February, and I’m actually very fearful that it’s going to happen – high winds and unseasonably warm temperatures have completely eliminated what little snowcover we had, and the beds have been exposed for most of the winter.  I swear when I walked outside yesterday afternoon I could smell the earthy scent of spring thaw – even though our local version of a “groundhog,” a Richardson’s ground squirrel named Balzac Billy,  declared that we were up for another 6 weeks of winter.  (You can see Balzac Billy in all of his…um…ground squirrelly splendour here).  Oh well, I shouldn’t complain, really.  We’ll get our “winter” in March, guaranteed, with a ton of snow and cold, and then everyone can laugh at me and say “I told you so.”

In the meantime, while I fret about my plants, you can peruse some Flowery Blurbs:

This is gonna be one popular poplar

Watch for a new poplar to be the “it” tree in a nursery near you (well, if you live in Canada, that is):  the hybrid AC Sundancer is the recent creation of the Agroforestry Development Centre (part of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada), and it comes with big promises!  AC Sundancer is everything traditional poplars aren’t:  relatively slow-growing (so it doesn’t shoot up and then die in a few decades), compact in size, disease resistant, lacking seeds, and – this is the best part – possessing a controlled root system.  No more cracked foundations and split sewer lines, no more poplar stigma!  Check out the bulletin here.

And the winner is….

For the past few years, the Calgary Horticultural Society has taken to declaring its own “Perennial Plant of the Year.”  I like the idea of selecting a zone 3 hardy plant because quite often the Perennial Plant of the Year chosen by the Perennial Plant Association isn’t appropriate for our particular climate.  (See my previous post, Flowery Blurbs, Volume One, for information about the 2012 PPA PPOTY.  It’s actually a zone 3 plant this year!).  The CHS has announced that this year’s chosen one is Helenium autumnale ‘Mardi Gras’ (sneezeweed or Helen’s flower), a cheerful and hardy member of the Asteraceae family.  See a photo of the summer beauty here.

Vertical farming viewpoint

Although this article was written in 2010, I just happened across it the other day, and I thought it offered another interesting perspective on the viability of vertical farms.  See the write-up in The Economist here.

Streaming plant ID

Finally, if you want to spend an hour and a half on a basic botany lesson, you may want to check out Olds College instructor Annelise Doolaege’s talk on UStream.  She also discusses plant keys and how to use them in the field, and gives a brief photo tour of wildflowers found in central and southern Alberta, including the Rocky Mountains.  Doolaege’s talk is the first in a series to be offered over the next few months, as a teaser for the college’s annual Hort Week festivities.   Find the link to the lecture here.

Wild roses in Alberta.

The sight and fragrance of hundreds of wild roses were a true delight during hikes along Calgary’s Douglas Fir Trail this weekend.  Nothing beats their heavenly scent, nor the joy of watching bees gathering pollen from the open flowers.  There’s just something so simply elegant about these tough beauties, some sort of expressive vitality that the hybridized roses don’t have (but don’t get me wrong, I’m crazy for the hybrids, too).

Alberta’s provincial flower (chosen in 1930) is the prickly (syn. wild or Arctic) rose, Rosa acicularis.  It’s a thorny, rambling shrub that can grow up to 2 metres tall and wide, producing single, five-petalled deep pink flowers between May and August.   In the autumn, plants produce bright red hips, chockful of vitamin C and highly suitable for delicious preserves and tea.

Rosa woodsii, or the common (syn. mountain or woods) rose, is also found in Alberta, in the same habitat as the prickly rose.  At a glance, it’s difficult to tell the two apart, and indeed, they will often hybridize.  Rosa woodsii is usually a denser, bushier specimen, and it usually grows up to 1.5 metres tall, with a similar spread.  Often, you’ll find Rosa woodsii available for sale in garden centres (certain places will also sell Rosa acicularis) – please purchase them if you want them in your garden, don’t take cuttings from the wild!  Be aware that wild roses don’t have any proper manners – they’re unruly, and spread quite aggressively via underground rhizomes.  (There’s a reason most gardeners grow the well-behaved hybridized rose breeds).   Massive amounts of time and labour are required to prune wild roses and keep them under control in a formalized setting.  Given sufficient space in a naturalized or woodland garden, however, wild roses can be a beautiful addition.  They’re also often used to control erosion on dry slopes, as they’re not picky about soil type or fertility and are extremely drought tolerant.   As well, they grow quickly and can live up to twenty years.

Stop and smell the (wild) roses!





Buffalo beans.

A cold, wet, windy May has departed, leaving a cold, wet, windy June in its wake (to be fair, we’re only on Day 2), but we welcomed a brief respite this past Tuesday, with the appearance of sunshine and balmy warmth.  (Okay, okay, it was  only plus 15 C, but it felt like the tropics!).  So my husband and I went fishing, and while the trout were playing hard to get (who would blame them?), I amused myself by watching gigantic bumblebees rumble around in amongst the buffalo beans growing alongside the shoreline.

Thermopsis rhombifolia (buffalo beans, syn. golden peas, buffalo flowers, golden banner) are everywhere in southern Alberta right now!   These sunny yellow flowers on distinctive “legume”-like stems (think peas, but much shorter, only about 30 cm tall) also dot the slopes of Calgary’s Nose Hill, as I discovered recently.  They’re radiant and cheerful…and stand out like bolts of light against our moody grey skyline.  Apparently the Blackfoot Indians once used dye made from their flowers to colour textiles, and they called the plant “buffalo beans” because the flowers appeared around the same time that the buffalo returned to their grazing grounds each year.  Not sure if buffalo have the stomachs to eat the plants, however – there is some dispute as to just how poisonous buffalo beans are, and the general consensus is to leave the plants well enough alone.   There are reports that both cattle and humans have died from eating the plant.  A close relative of buffalo beans, Thermopsis montana (known as poison-bean – no monkeying around with that moniker, is there?) is definitely poisonous and should be avoided at all costs.  Isn’t it funny how some of the prettiest plants are also the most dangerous?

Buffalo beans also produce distinctive seed pods as befitting a member of the bean family (Fabaceae) and it will be interesting to uncover those later in the season.

Enjoy the sunshine, however you may receive it!


Mucuna pruriens, commonly known as velvet bean or cowitch, is a plant native to tropical Africa, India and the Caribbean – and it also goes by the nickname “buffalo beans.”   (I’m assuming they’re referring to water buffalo and not our bison).  A pretty plant with purple flowers and hairy orange seed pods, apparently it will also give you the most severe case of contact dermatitis you’ll ever encounter.

Prairie crocus (2011).

“Better late than never” is the old adage, and it’s never been truer than this spring.  After a particularly brutish and long winter, full of biting cold temperatures and more snowfall than usual, those of us living in the Wild Rose province have only just now gotten our well-deserved reprieve.  It’s been warm and sunny for over a week now, and the plants have responded to this new burst of heat and light with sudden, effusive growth.   My neighbour’s forsythia has turned on its bright yellow blooms, and it will only be a short time now before the flowering almonds and the crabapples and the lilacs display their substantial (if hayfever-inducing) charms.

I thought I would be too late to spot the wild prairie crocuses blooming up on Nose Hill, but this past week I took a walk up to the park and to my delight, found hundreds of them poking up through the dry, dormant prairie grasses.  Nose Hill is an amazing place, a huge, untouched grassland smack dab in the middle of a city of over one million residents.  When you’re wandering around up there, especially early in the morning, you can sort of imagine what it would have been like hundreds of years ago before the urban encroachment began.   The crocuses are really late this year, but they didn’t really have a chance to shine under all of the snow cover of just a few weeks ago.

Prairie crocuses (also called prairie anemones or windflowers) aren’t the same as the ones you grow in the garden:  wild crocuses (Anemone patens, syn. Pulsatilla ludoviciana, Pulsatilla patens) are members of the buttercup family, Ranunculaceae.  The horticultural crocuses are actually part of the iris family and are related to the ones that saffron threads come from.  The wild ones, as you can see, are seriously hirsute (which is one of the best words in the English language, hands down!), with bright yellow stamens and gorgeous pale-to-dark purple sepals.  The flowers only open during the day, and they usually last only a couple of weeks, so I was lucky to get up there to see them during the brief window of bloom-time.  Prairie crocuses only grow in undisturbed soil, which explains why they are becoming increasingly difficult to find.  Crocuses often thrive in pasturelands, where grazing cattle and sheep help keep the prairie grasses trimmed back, exposing the flowers to sunlight.  (Well, that, and crocuses are highly poisonous and cows and sheep will avoid them.  For some reason, the poison doesn’t bother animals like deer, elk, or Richardson’s ground squirrels, who munch freely).  Because they don’t like being disturbed, it is not wise to dig wild prairie crocuses up and try to plant them in your garden:  not only is this highly damaging to already-diminishing local populations, but it’s likely they won’t even last the summer in your flowerbeds.  Go for a walk in the sunshine, like I did, and enjoy them where they grow.

(Oh, and on a side note:  Prairie crocuses are NOT pasqueflowers, although you’ll often hear them referred to as such.  Pasqueflowers (Anemone pulsatilla) are very similar in appearance, but are usually larger and deeper in colour, and they will perform brilliantly in the garden, given the appropriate hardiness zone.  And the so-called “autumn crocuses,” or colichicums, are not related to either the wild crocuses or the spring horticultural crocuses – they’re actually members of the order Liliceae.  Confused yet?).





Wild clematis in Alberta.

The wild roses aren’t blooming yet in south-central Alberta; with the unpredictable and unusually cold spring we’ve had, our provincial flower is a little late in blossoming.   But, while on a camping trip last week in the bush north of Calgary, we found wild clematis in full bloom:  Clematis occidentalis, to be exact, which is apparently a more common plant in Alberta than I first thought.  I certainly have never seen it before, despite the fact that its range is province-wide, and can be found everywhere from Kananaskis Country to the Weaselhead in Calgary, to Red Deer and as far north as Spirit River.  So, as I’m wont to do, I did a little digging (of facts, not the plant!).

Clematis occidentalis (also known as Clematis verticellaris or Clematis columbiana, with the rather quaint and seriously outdated common name of Western Blue Virgin’s Bower) is native to Alberta and the western Prairie provinces.  Although common here in Alberta, Clematis occidentalis is actually listed as either endangered or as a species of special concern across the border, in states such as Illinois, Maine, Maryland and Ohio.   Clematis occidentalis and all of its kin – both wild and cultivated –  belong to the family Ranunculacea, the buttercup family, although the family resemblance is rather difficult to detect.  Like the cultivated members of its genus, Clematis occidentalis is a strong-stemmed vine that grows as a ground cover in wooded areas, reaching a length of up to 2 metres – and if given the opportunity to climb on other plants or some sort of structure, it will do so.  Delicate crepe-paper blue blooms appear in June and July – but the flowers do not have petals, instead sporting four defined sepals.  Apparently in days gone by, several different Indigenous nations used the plant in various ways: some created a poultice from the leaves of Clematis occidentalis that was used to treat sweaty feet. A rich tea was also made out of the leaves and stems that apparently “rinsed” the grey out of hair.  (Chew on that, Clairol!).  Others concocted a foot soak to combat swollen feet and ankles, and there was also a paste used to treat eczema and poorly-healing scabbed wounds.

Clematis occidentalis isn’t the only wild clematis in Alberta:  the Western White Clematis (also found in Montana) or Clematis lingusticifolia is another lesser known species.  Fuzzy seed heads have lent it the common moniker Old Man’s Beard, but it is also interestingly known as pepper vine.  Apparently pioneers in the western States, craving pepper, added Clematis lingusticifolia to their diets, as the essential oils in the leaves give off a sharp sensation in the mouth that mimics the feel and taste of proper pepper (Capsicum).  Unfortunately, this pepper substitute is highly toxic (as are all clematis’) and can actually cause internal bleeding in the stomach.  While the intestinal tracts of early North American settlers may have suffered from doses of the pepper vine, certain Indigenous peoples employed it in small amounts to treat migraines and other nervous disorders.