Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) is at its best in autumn when the slanting autumn light burnishes its warm coppery colour and catches the small but fluffy white awns on the seeds. This clump of little bluestem is growing in a perennial bed with clumps of evergreen foliage of alumroot (Heuchera spp.) and prairie smoke (Geum triflorum) and the deep scarlet basal leaves of foxglove beardtongue (Penstemon digitalis).
Some of the plants of boreal Jacob’s ladder in the rock garden, which were cut back hard earlier in the summer when they were going to seed, have rebloomed. Not as showy as their first flush of flowers but still welcome colour in the rock garden, which is primarily a spring garden.
I cannot recommend showy tick-trefoil for borders or small gardens: it is too lanky and in bloom for too short a period to justify it, and its sticky seed pods are a nuisance if you or a pet comes too close. However, it is a lovely component of meadows and naturalization projects. It is a favoured host plant for the caterpillars of Eastern Tailed Blue butterflies.
The first yellow daisies of late summer – sneezeweed and grey-headed coneflower – have been joined by cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum), a robust and quick-to-flower giant which can easily reach to the eaves of a single storey house. The seeds of cup plant are nutritious and sought out by goldfinches and other seed-eating birds over the winter, so the natural impulse is to let the plant go to seed. However, be warned. Cup plant seeds itself generously in gardens and, unless the seedling cup plants are recognized and removed, a natural garden can be replaced by a cup plant plantation. Cup plant’s close relatives from the tall grass prairie, prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum) and compass plant (S. laciniatum) are both so slow to get going they need to be coddled by the gardener for their first couple of years.
Butterfly milkweed is finally in bloom. It has been very late to develop this year. Its bloom is overlapping with the first of the swamp asters, which is just weird.
Our oldest plant of Culver’s root flowered in July and has now gone to seed. Two-year old plants of this slow-to-mature prairie species are flowering for their first time and are in bloom now. They are shorter than they will be when fully mature; their elegant white candelabra are tucked in among their neighbours. When happily settled in, the tips of the long spires of this lovely plant can reach six feet high or even more.
Cardinal flower. What else can I say. Except they are hard to get a good photo of. Intense reds and oranges are not handled well by my digital camera – the intense orange of Mexican sunflower also comes out as a fluorescent blob of colour.
Cardinal flower’s close relative, great blue lobelia, is also in bloom right now.
I don’t fuss with annuals too much but I like my Mexican sunflowers and I also sowed some seeds of love-in-a-mist. (Nigella). They are an amazing true blue and their seed pods are silly – a combination of striped balloon and jester’s hat.).
The Allegheny fringe is still extending its delicate tendril and blooming. It has reached the eaves of the studio, climbing some jute twine I provided for it, and has now started to drape downwards rather elegantly. I do love this native biennial.
The brightest star of our late summer garden is Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis). Intensely red, elegantly spired, and abuzz with happy hummingbirds, cardinal flower is the most visually arresting wildflower imaginable. With at least fifty plants in bloom or coming into bloom, the hummingbirds and I are in agreement that we finally have an adequate number of cardinal flower plants. I am going to plant more, though, many more, as we extend the planting along the shore of the pond, and (perhaps next year) along the seasonal stream that flows into the pond.
The locations I have just mentioned give you a clue why cardinal flower is not in every garden – it is unlikely to be perennial unless it is planted in a situation that is moist and even soggy in the spring. Urban and suburban gardens are short on soggy spots unless an effort has been made to construct a pond with a planted edge, or a rain garden, or something similar.
The other fussy thing about cardinal flower is its absolute refusal to winter over in a pot. Actually, these two restrictions both stem from the manner in which cardinal flower renews itself every spring. Last year’s centre dies, and the plant regrows in the spring on offshoots, which need that spring wet to get going. An established colony of cardinal flower, growing, for example, at the edge of a pond with high water in the spring, is perfectly hardy and perennial.
The seeds of cardinal flower are like dust: very, very tiny. And so it follows that the seedlings are tiny too. They are quite robust and tough growers, but they have to get to the third set of leaves before they are even as large as the head of a quilting pin. Sown in the spring, they just are not going to be a marketable size in time for spring planting. When I have year-old plants available in the spring, I have had to plant them out in a wetland in early fall and then dig up the new rosettes when they are ready in mid spring.. They are still small, but with all that digging in and digging up and repotting, they have to be more expensive than other plants.
If you want cardinal flowers at a good price, buy young plants now to flower next August. I have a special on cardinal flowers this month: they are planted in 5 oz. paper cups to remind you to get them into the ground quickly. If you have a spot that is damp in the spring, perhaps because it collects snowmelt, try growing the hummingbirds’ favourite flower, and spice up your garden with a vivid and elegant wildflower.
I have been away from my computer for over a week – first I had a power cord issue, then our service provider wasn’t – so I have been unable to post pictures of some very nice flowers blooming in our garden. I will make up for it by posting a whole bunch of Plants of the Week at once.
Starting with a sundrop trailing over the rock wall:
Sunset anise-hyssop (Agastache rupestris) isn’t native to eastern North American, but it has proven to be hardy in western Quebec through at least one vicious winter. I put a mass of seedlings in front of a few plants of wild lupin to hide them from a foraging groundhog with a taste for my best plants. I thought the strong odour of the Agastache would mask the lupins and it seems to be working. I have come to appreciate the massed planting of the Agastache for their strong summer colour and tolerance for very dry soil.
The pale buds of Virginia mountain mint are present for a long time before the flowers open. Perhaps because of the mass of unopened buds, I always think of these flowers as white. Looking more closely, I can see that the opened flowers are actually covered with small purple spots. This is quite an aggressive spreader and I can already see where I will have to intervene where I have placed Virginia mountain mint too close to mid-sized neighbours. The minty smell is lovely where the plant has been placed next to rough country lawn – makes mowing a pleasure.
The crescendo of tall late-summer yellow daisies is building with the jaunty flowers of sneezeweed. I have put rather too many sneezeweeds into the swale garden – just rammed a bunch of left-overs in late last year and they all survived. I plan to transplant several of them to locations uphill as I develop the swale garden. I like sneezeweed (it doesn’t deserve its dreadful common name) but there are more tall yellow daisies to come in that part of the garden and I do not want it to be all yellow.
No monarch caterpillars on our swamp milkweeds yet this year. Two of the many plants of swamp milkweed which I planted last year have white flowers. They are not a cultivar, as I sowed all the plants from wild-collected seeds. White flowers just happen from time to time in many species where the flowers are usually coloured. Seems unusual to get two white-flowered plants in one batch, but randomness is random. Both pink and white swamp milkweeds have been attracting great spangled fritillaries.
A vibrantly coloured clustered poppy mallow (Callirhoe triangulata) was very slow to get going but worth the wait. We lost all the winecups, the trailing species, Callirhoe involucrata, that were growing on top of the rock wall. They didn’t survive last winter. I suspect they aren’t a long-lived plant. Plants which flower non-stop all summer are seldom long-lived. I am hoping this shier, more upright cousin will bloom for many summers. It is growing up beside, and being supported by, a clump of little bluestem grass.
The great star of the summer in the swale garden is cardinal flower. It deserves a post of its own….