Wild rose extravaganza.

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!





Sunshine and 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.

Crocus pocus.

“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?).





Clamouring for clematis.

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 (to all but me, it seems), 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, the Okanagan-Colville Indians created a poultice from the leaves of Clematis occidentalis that was used to treat sweaty feet – they also made a rich tea out of the leaves and stems that apparently “rinsed” the grey out of hair.  (Chew on that, Clairol!).  The Navajo made a foot soak to combat swollen feet and ankles, and the Thompson Indians concocted a paste 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 native tribes employed it in small amounts to treat migraines and other nervous disorders.