Directions from Nature

When early pioneers were rolling their way across the tall grass prairies of North America, sometimes, in mid summer, they would come across a towering plant with huge basal leaves that often were oriented on a north-south axis.  They called it a Compass Plant.  In later years scientists speculated the leaves point that way to protect themselves from the burning sun.  The plant would be labelled Silphium laciniatum – the same genus as the Cup Plant (Silphium perfoliatum) that I wrote about earlier.

It’s easy to see why – they’re both really tall (the Compass Plant can grow to 12 feet high) and both has relatively small (2″ – 4″) sunflower-like flowers.  Carious types of bees love to feed in the flowers and their stalks, if left up all winter, can provide over-wintering refuge for beneficial insects as well.  They differ in that the Cup Plant likes moist meadows and tolerate flooding in spring while the Compass Plant, being native to the prairie, likes it dry and can tolerate drought.  (After next to no rain during last year’s spring and summer drought, they’ve back in my dry back field more vigorous than ever.)

This is likely because Compass Plants have a really long taproot (up to 16′ deep in the prairies!)  that seeks out moisture, even in the rocky, decidedly non-prairie like soil of the County.  This root can, unfortunately, make it really challenging to transplant – best to start seeds and plant them where they can stay for many years.  They can self-seed but it’s not a fast process – my 15 year old patch has produced only three offspring that I know of, two in the gravelly rocky area where the ‘parents’ live and one in a meadow, about 30 feet away.  One plant with a single flowering stalk can, however, become one plant with multiple flowering stalks.

If you can find Compass Plant for sale (perhaps at a local native plant nursery)  and you have room, buy it; or, if you find seeds somewhere (Seedy Saturdays in Picton or Trenton possibly) , try starting them yourself.  (Read up on how to prepare them for sowing first.)

Tale of Two Echinaceas

I have to confess I don’t have just one favourite plant – I have dozens.  And the list changes every year depending on things as mundane as the weather (too dry to produce many flowers, or, so dry the whole plant just dies) or as esoteric as did I grow it from seed (or it was given by a friend or relative).

Bug on purple echinacea (2)

Echinacea purpurea

In mid July there are quite a few favourites – one of them is Echinacea purpurea – Purple Coneflower. It has lively purple or white (the alba variety) large daisy-like flowers, self seeds readily and transplants easily.  Best of all, bees and other bugs love its pollen and nectar.  If it’s happy in its location it can get quite tall so needs to be either near the back of a border or in the midst of other tallish things.

bugs on white echinacea
Echinacea purpurea alba

 

 

 

 

 

My newest heartthrob though is Echinacea pallida – Pale Purple Coneflower.    I started these indoors from seed two winters ago; last year I planted them out – kinda spindly looking things with short narrow leaves.

IMG_2433_edited-1

Echinacea pallida the first yeat – longish narrow leaves very different from E. purpurea

No sign of a flower at all.  They survived the drought though, with minimal watering, so that made me happy.

Echinacea pallida July 2 2017

Echinacea pallida July 2 2017

This year they exploded – almost literally – sending up first much larger leaves and then enormous stalks topped with a beautiful and delicate flower.  Much like the Purple Coneflower, except it differs by having narrower petals that droop down instead of pointing out like a daisy.

 

Also, the flower stalk itself is many inches long, making it perfect for cutting.

Ti top it off, as the Missouri Botanical Garden plant page says, this native plant can: “tolerate Deer, Drought, Clay Soil, Dry Soil, Shallow-Rocky Soil.”

In other words, this perennial is perfect for my garden and also for many other gardens in the County!

Let me know if you’re interested in growing these yourself – I’ll try to harvest and save you some seeds.

Echinacea pallida July 8 2017

Echinacea pallida July 8, 2017

Perennials from seed

I was once afraid to start perennials from seed – so many doubts, so many questions – so many chances for failure.  Why take a chance (money, time, emotional commitment) on a perennial when you know you can get a Marigold to germinate and grow just by dropping a seed in a cup of soil?

Here’s the thing:  when you have a large garden, filling it with perennials is expensive!  Even if you buy the smallest pot size available and don’t mind waiting a year or two for thing to grow into its space, the cost can add up quickly!

Here’s the other thing: if you’re in a garden centre buying perennials, especially the smallest size possible, it’s way too tempting to get one or two of a lot of different plants, instead of two dozen of one plant.  Because really, in your imaginary garden, you have these magical drifts of blooms, created by massing dozens or hundreds of the same plant.  Sure, you may be after the cottage garden look, with all sorts of shapes, sizes and colours vying for attention; but even then it helps a lot to use the same plant here and there, in clumps big or small, to add cohesion to the whole.

Enter seeds.

I started a few years ago by collecting my own seeds – from big yellow and red daylilies (Hemerocallis ssp)  – I’ll get into the details on a future post, but the results were fabulous.

Two years ago I went to my first Seedy Saturdays – in Picton and in Trenton.  There, I purchased seeds for Cup Plant (Silphium perfoliatum) and Pale Purple Coneflower (Echinacea pallida) and was able to plant them out last spring.  These are both perennials that can’t be found in most garden centres – another benefit of starting your own seeds!  With much hand watering (remember last year’s drought??) they survived the summer and winter, growing ever large leaves and this year they are set to bloom.  Pictures coming soon!Digitalis purpurea June 24 2017

Another plant I started from seed last winter was Foxglove  (Digitalis purpurea).  I thought it would be neat to have a ton of them just in front of the tree/brush line on the Island bed.  The ‘magical drift’ I mentioned above!  The challenge with Foxglove is the seed size:  they’re VERY TINY!!!  I wound up with a flat of seedlings all jammed in together and had to carefully split them apart when planting out last spring.  The foliage stayed green all winter and this year they sent up dozens of beauful flower stalks.