Chasing the 'wow!' factor

As the growing season draws to a close, it’s worth contemplating the moments of sheer joy the garden has offered over the year, times when it was impossible to do anything but step back and revel in the glory and give thanks for the privilege of being in this world.

First, the plants for sun.

Right now, I’m still enjoying the various species of Ironweed (Vernonia) I've planted around the place, this tall beauty being my latest passion, even though the deep purple florets are beginning to go brown and turn to seed. One Ironweed clump grows in front of the house by the Trumpet Honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens). I wouldn’t have thought to combine the bright orange and red flowers of the Honeysuckle with the Ironweed purple, but the vibrant colours play off each other and require contemplation whenever the eye chances that way.

A plant that started being arresting in August is Spotted, or Dotted Beebalm or Horsemint (Monarda punctata). The dots are purple, on creamy whorls of small orchid-like flowers that surround the reddish-purple stem. Showtime comes with the development of lavender-pink bracts under the flowers - bracts are modified leaves, which on the pointsettia for instance are red. These Beebalm bracts, now fading to a pale green, seem to catch the light and make the plant an absolute stand-out.

Of our local Milkweeds, I find Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa) ranks highest in the 'wow' factor stakes - though the two tones of light and dark pink in Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) are lovely, and the dusky-pink spheres of Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) delight with their fragrance. But the deep orange of Butterfly Weed is dramatic. Not so tall as the other two, it is more suited to be a garden plant. It needs hot dry conditions to perform to its best - and as the trees I have planted over the years begin to make a woodland around my home, it no longer does well in my main flowerbed. The same is true of Wild Lupine - a complete stunner on a beach with no hint of shade, but not so happy any more with me.

Red is the most colourful colour, the one I think we are instinctively most attracted to in nature, no matter our preference in clothing (for me, black) or interior decoration (soft green). And there’s no red redder than that of the Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis), a denizen of northern lakeshores that has become rare in some areas because of overpicking. This is a self-seeding short-lived perennial that grows where it chooses. Plant it here and, oh dear, it didn’t come back, but surprise! there it is, over there, and next year, it will pop up somewhere else. Unless, of course, it decides not to. Keeping the root area damp with extra mulch will help it stay happy.

Second, the plants for water.

Pickerelweed (Pontederia cordata) will emerge from the waters of pond or marsh, growing up to four feet. The lines of dark green on the pale green background of the waxy leaves appear to have been applied by brush with consummate artistry. Gorgeous spikes of violet-blue flowers that appear in July and August warrant a closer look: there’s a yellow dot on the uppermost lobe of each one, doubtless there as a helpful guide for nectaring visitors. Visit Tiny Marsh in summer, with luck you will see Sandhill Cranes striding through aquatic fields of blue.

Some might think Grass-of-Parnassus to be a humble plant as it grows only to 40 cm but to look closely into the face of this flower is to marvel at a jewel of design - the tracery of green translucent veins on the white petals and the intricate stamen structure which all convey an important message to pollinators. This is a plant that grows on wet sandy areas along the shores of Lake Huron. I collected the seed a few years ago on Wasaga Beach in an area that is now being colonized by phragmites - I hope the cottagers there will step up to the challenge of controlling this invasive and keeping the space open for Grass-of-Parnassus and other delights.

And now for shade.

One plant that has called out for attention since spring is Red Baneberry (Actaea rubra). It flowered in May and the creamy flowers with prominent feathery stamens were very attractive. Then in July its berries turned an eye-popping red, prompting comment from all who passed. And the berries stayed that way - I have now harvested most of them for seed, but there are still a couple of clusters of bright shiny red berries, lighting up the shade under the Red Mulberry tree. Until it came along I was in love with the White Baneberry (Actaea pachypoda), also known as Doll’s Eyes for the black-dotted white berries, which has the added benefit of an elegant blue cast to the deeply dissected foliage that is similar on both plants. But the Red Baneberry wins on the showy fruit front and has been crowned the star of the shade bed. (The berries are poisonous, they say).

Still, a couple of challengers have now come forward to claim stardom in the undergrowth. One is the Black Cohosh (Cimicifuga racemosa), which has plumes of white star-shaped flowers on arching stems and is magically fragrant. It’s in flower now and will not be ignored. Not yet fully open chez moi, but just about to step up to the plate, is White Snakeroot (Ageratina altissima), which has flat-topped clusters of pure white flowers that are wonderfully effective in low-light conditions. Cultivars of both plants with chocolate-coloured foliage that contrasts well with the white flowers are widely available in garden centres.

Well, I could go on, because there’s no ‘wow’ louder than the ‘wow!’ of the spring beauties that emerge after the ground unfreezes - and then there’s June, our loudest ‘wow’ month. But singing the praises of the plants that flower earlier in the year will be for another time.

Tomorrow (Saturday September 28) will be the last day of regular opening hours for Return of the Native. I’m spending a couple of weeks in Europe next month. But I will be around some of the time and there will also be staff here from time to time, so if you know what you want, email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. and an appointment can be arranged.

In November, I will post a plant list of what will be available next year, to assist those who will be planning what to plant. There will be additions in spring and summer 2020 as we discover which new species have come through the winter.

Enjoy the fall!
edna weddell
- 29 September 2019 at 08:17pm

hi there....just loved your post and would like to know when you plant the red baneberry and the white baneberry? both of these plants I would like to have in my shade area for sure....
- 30 September 2019 at 01:12pm

Hi Edna and thanks - now is a good time to plant perennials. I do have some white baneberry for sale here, but not the red.
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