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The wild flowers and other plants that live around us aren’t pests—they have their important niches in nature, and many work in our gardens, too

by Jodi DeLong

Do you remember the first wildflowers you noticed as a child? If that’s too difficult to remember, think about those cheerful blooms that greet you in the spring—which ones are they? When you think of wildflowers, do you consider dandelions and buttercups, or more showy, ornamental types like lupins? Did you know that many will flourish in your garden, too? That can be what’s helping certain species populations to flourish and to avoid extinction.

Most of us have never seen Hepatica in the wild, as its lovely blue flowers and liver-shaped leaves that give it both botanical and common name (liverwort) are rarely seen in the wild today. I was lucky enough to see a clump of it in situ as a student of botany back in the day, but now I rely on carefully nurtured plants in my garden to give me that frisson of joy in early spring.

In my world, gardening isn’t just about the plants we add to our borders and beds, veggie plots and containers. It’s also about wandering the meadows and woodlands and seashores of our region—especially in spring—watching the natural world wake up and the spring wildflowers burst into bloom. Some of them are delicate, shy and retiring, like spring beauties and bluets and starflower; others are show stoppers like ladyslippers and trillium and lupins. Some bloom and then disappear for another year—these are the beloved spring ephemerals like bloodroot and dogtooth violet, which will do the same thing in our gardens.

Then there are the plants that some consider to be weeds because they have the temerity to show up in lawns and gardens. The first of those is coltsfoot, which appears along roadsides as swatches of cheery yellow, dandelion-like flowers, which are followed by thick maple-leaf-like foliage. I have a dear friend who refers to coltsfoot as “he who shall not be named” because she finds it challenging to dig out in the garden. We shan’t tell her that I rejoice in seeing coltsfoot in the spring, because it provides early nutrition for pollinators, and it’s a promise that we’ve truly broken the back of winter, and warmer days are coming. I love dandelions too—just not in among the tomato plants! Watching the bees frolic in the dandelions, hawkweeds and clovers in the grassy part of the yard makes my heart happy.

Some of our wildflowers are meant to be enjoyed where they are, captured with photographs, and then bid farewell to until the following spring. Others take well to a garden habitat, providing we give them the right growing conditions. Woodland plants prefer at least partial shade and humus-rich, moist soil. Sun-lovers rejoice in a sunny, warm spot. A few have very specific growing requirements—yellow ladyslippers like a soil that is a little alkaline and calcium-rich, for example—and of course, some of them do go dormant after flowering, so you’ll want to mark where you planted them, lest you dig them up inadvertently. Been there, done that!

Leave the wild plants be

Before you take to the woods with a shovel and bucket in hand, think again. As noted above, some wildflowers have very specific needs for growing in the wild, and these conditions are not necessarily what we have in our gardens. Others are endangered or threatened due to habitat loss but can still be acquired via greenhouse propagators. The reason I have hepatica in my garden is because it’s available from a few reputable nurseries who have either bought seed or seedlings from other reputable plant businesses and grown it on themselves.

There was a time when I dug up a significant number of wildflowers—they were red trillium, sometimes called wake-robin, growing in an area about to be clear-cut. We rescued some clumps and transplanted them carefully into the garden at my former home, and they prospered…whereas the area that was clear-cut no longer has any red trillium growing there.

If you happen to find a clump of something growing near an abandoned farm or homestead, it’s probably okay to dig up a little of it. You’ll often find Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum) growing around the foundation of an old house. Take care, however—there might be something less pleasant growing there too. I once discovered an abandoned home with a particular type of (domesticated) true lily growing around it—in among goutweed. Where I live now, I have no goutweed, and I intend to keep it that way. I took photos of the lilies and carried on.

Native or naturalized?

There is often quite a bit of debate over whether or not wildflowers are native to an area or have been naturalized there. Take the humble, pollinator friendly but oft-cursed dandelion—you might think it is native here but in fact it came over with settlers from Europe some centuries ago, and took to the land here with great enthusiasm. They are thus naturalized, having settled in and proliferated everywhere, but to the minds of some, they’ve been here for so long that they could be considered native.

When discussing native plants with others, I tend to go with the most excellent plant expert Allan Armitage, who has authored such valuable volumes as Native Plants for North American Gardens. If Armitage calls it native to North America, that’s good enough for me. Thus, my native garden includes Virginia bluebells (Mertensia), which may not grow in the wild here in Nova Scotia but do just fine and are a joy to have blooming in spring. I have no strict rules about what I plant, so long as it’s not invasive.

Although they don’t flower, ferns make a dramatic addition to any garden.

Don’t forget the ferns

Yes, I know ferns are not wildflowers. They are actually relatively primitive on the evolutionary scale, having no flowers, and spores rather than seeds, among other unique morphological traits. That said, they are some of the most beautiful plants out there, whether in the woods or in your garden, or bringing cool comfort to your home.

Did you know that all ferns begin their spring growing as fiddleheads? They are not all edible, however—the term fiddlehead refers to the tightly-curled frond, which to some resembles the head of a fiddle. The one we most commonly eat is the ostrich fern (Matteucia struthiopteris), which grows abundantly through our region. Its plants grow in crowns, from which the fronds unfurl, and it spreads into colonies. The young fiddleheads have a brown, papery covering over them that needs to be cleaned off before the fronds are cooked and eaten hot or cold—but never raw. Other species of ferns are supposedly edible in their fiddlehead stage, but I can’t attest to this. And whether you eat them or not, ferns are just glorious wherever they are growing. There’s something soothing and tranquil about them, maybe because of their great evolutionary age. 

Some choices for your garden

Many of our trees and shrubs produce wonderful flowers, and make great additions to our gardens, too. If you’re lucky enough to have maples and lindens in your yard, you’ll be blessed with happy bees and other pollinators in the spring during blooming periods. My personal favourite native tree is the serviceberry or chuckly-pear (Amelanchier), which has bronze-green foliage in the spring and pristine white flowers which turn to juicy, edible fruit—if you can get to them before the birds do!

If you’re in or near the Annapolis Valley, there is a native plant sale at the Harriet Irving Botanical Gardens at Acadia University in Wolfville on the first Saturday in May. You’ll find a number of otherwise hard-to-find native flowering plants at this sale, along with a host of fellow enthusiasts.

Dogtoothed violets (Erythronium) are a spring ephemeral, also known as trout lilies because of their mottled foliage. The native ones produce yellow flowers that look like miniature lilies; you can also purchase other forms, including a pink one, from reputable growers.

Canada columbine (Aquilegia) is a personal favourite, right up there with Hepatica. Its nodding, red and yellow flowers attract hummingbirds and other nectar-seeking creatures. They tend to bloom for a long time and will self-seed—not obnoxiously—when happy.

Clump-forming Trillium come in a number of species and can be red, yellow or white. They prefer a shaded setting but will also grow in sun—often going dormant in summer heat.

The first thing to say about ladyslippers (Cypripedium) is please do not pick them in the wild. It takes years for a ladyslipper plant to reach flowering maturity, and they are slow to spread in the wild. A few local nurseries carry these plants, which have been propagated out west and sent to growers here, but bear in mind—they are very pricy plants and not something to just stick in the garden. I grow the yellow one which gives me almost as much joy as do my Hepatica.

Virginia bluebells (Mertensia) are related to other beloved garden plants including Comfrey, Pulmonaria and Brunnera. They have that much-beloved true-blue flower colour that gardeners crave. They will spread slowly in the garden—in fact my complaint is that they’re not spreading quickly enough.

As their name suggests, marsh marigolds (Caltha) like a wet spot—they grow quite happily in ditches and boggy areas—and they are a most obliging species. The plant covers itself with golden flowers like giant buttercups for weeks in spring. A double flowered form is equally beautiful.   

Intro Caption: Canada columbine is beloved by hummingbirds and other pollinators.
Header Caption: Dogtooth violets, also known as trout lily, in a garden setting.

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