In 2012, Dr. James Allan Coutts gifted his property just east of the town of Nanton to the University of Lethbridge. The Coutts Centre (as it is now known) has become a popular destination for weddings, family reunions, weekend retreats, etc. I’ve been hearing about it for several years from various gardening friends but until now I hadn’t made the trip out there myself.

I decided to go today and asked David if he might like to join me. Since David has no interest in gardening whatsoever, I fully expected him to say no. He didn’t! We met up in Nanton early this morning and headed off on an adventure together. We were greeted at the centre by a cheery, smiling young woman who told us a bit about the history of the Coutts Centre and invited us to stroll about, take our time, and really enjoy ourselves. That’s exactly what we did!

I have to say up front that I have visited a lot of public gardens in my time. There is a trick to success if you are going to be a public garden and though it is simple in concept, it not necessarily easy to do. The trick is that you have to be appealing to gardeners and plant nerds who are looking for inspiration, but you also have to be beautiful and inviting enough that the general public that does not have an interest in gardening will also have a good time. If I go to a public garden and love it, and my friend who knows nothing about plants also loves it, that garden has succeeded. If only one of us (or neither of us) loves it, the garden has failed. I frequently visit public spaces and public gardens and to be honest, I’m not impressed very often.

Recently I attended an event at a well known heritage property and I was actually embarrassed for them. Their trees showed obvious signs of pests and decline. The person who had dead-headed the irises had done a terrible job of it (bare stems piercing the air like spears with the spent blooms very noticeably lopped off at the top), there were weeds of all different sizes everywhere, newly planted shrubs still had the nursery tags attached (which is totally unacceptable) and their tubs and containers were dry. There was also not a single plant on the property that was interesting or memorable. Even gas stations and fast food chains plant marigolds and petunias so what’s special about that? This venue charges a fortune and while their buildings were suitably high caliber, their grounds were not. On a recent visit to Calgary, we visited a very auspicious and respected institution that also hosts a lot of weddings and events. Their grounds were abysmal, and this was made worse by the fact that 10 years ago, the grounds alone were worth the price of admission.

So I have to be honest and say that based on recent experiences, I admit I didn’t have high expectations for the Coutts Centre. I thought it would be just another bland, boring greenspace with no originality and perhaps one or two insipid tubs of pink geraniums. Imagine how delighted and thrilled I was to find out that I was wrong! The Coutts Centre is a top notch gardener’s destination and could also be enjoyed by the general public! David and I strolled around for more than an hour on tidy, well maintained paths amidst gloriously weed-free plantings. This is not to say I did not see a single weed- of course I did- but for a property this large that likely does not have an overabundance of staff, I was extremely impressed!

A long avenue of elm trees has been almost entirely underplanted with native asters. This means a return visit in late summer will be an absolute necessity! The various buildings and structures on the property were well maintained, charming, and inviting. They feel both modern and old-fashioned at the same time. An archway no doubt meant to serve as an opportunity for wedding photos has been planted with one of our native species of clematis and I was very impressed by this! It so rarely happens! Further to that, native plants were abundant throughout the property! Pink bee plant (Cleome), native columbine, asters, buffalo beans, and even wild roses have not only been integrated into the main designs, they have been used well. Not just a case of having native plants for the sake of having them, but a case of where would this plant look best, and with which companions? I was incredibly impressed! I so rarely get to see this!

Many common, simple perennials were used but they have been used with intent. This is critical in garden design. Meadow sage (Salvia x ‘May Night’) and lupines are pretty ordinary, but here they have been used where both their colour and form were at best advantage. Yellow flowered allium was daringly paired with silver artemesia (fabulous) and native colombines were used to brighten darker spaces shaded by shrubs. While I was enthralled with this, David was quite taken with spectacular views of the Rockies to the west and the secluded, inviting feel to the garden.

Wooden benches paired with more old fashioned plants (peonies and catmint) in hidden corners creates the sense of more spaces to explore. The whole property has an intimate and yet uncrowded feel to it. I loved it! David and I sat on the benches where we observed six Nevada bumblebees (the largest bee in our country) busily having lunch. David remarked they were practically the size of birds!

Perhaps my favorite thing of all was the incredible central bed of poppies. In full flower, this crimson ocean burned and smoldered and immediately caught the eye but more intriguing was the sound! Like standing beneath an immense fluorescent light, the poppies verily hummed with sound. Thousands and thousands of honeybees were busy gathering nectar and pollen and you can close your eyes and feel the vibrations of thousands of pairs of tiny wings beating the air around you. It was so sublime I had to slow right down to take it in.

David, with an expression somewhere between incredulity and apprehension, said “I’ve never heard a sound like this before. I’ve never heard sounds in nature that are like this.” He was a little afraid to walk amongst so many bees but I promised they would not harm him. The sound, the light, the vivid colour, and the way the poppies moved in the prairie wind was transcendent. I told David “we live here now” and he laughed. I could gladly have spent all day in the company of those ruby-red flags waving in the breeze. I thought of Flanders Field, and all the Canadian soldiers who lay resting beneath that glorious scarlet blanket. I realized that David had grown very quiet, and I suspect he may have been thinking the same thing but I didn’t ask him.

A wooden fence made of caragana logs completed our visit. So many elderly hedges of caragana that are either cut down or bulldozed, and so many fences that are either ugly or impractical or both. This fence was both functional and beautiful, a seemingly rare combination in design these days.

A good garden is always a memorable garden, and I can’t wait to go back to the Coutts Centre to see the asters in bloom! For more information, visit their website at http://www.couttscentre.ca

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This afternoon while casually weeding I managed to slash my finger open when I ran afoul of a barberry. Attractive and useful though these shrubs are, those spines are razor sharp! I have to say though that I actually like plants with sharp spines and thorns and prickles.

The barberries (Berberis) are commonly found in gardens here and prized for their form, their flowers, their decorative fruits, and their very useful ability to work as barrier plants. Many of them also have very attractive foliage. Much less commonly encountered in our climate are their close relatives in the genus Mahonia.
Most of the Mahonia species are both evergreen and winter blooming, making them totally unsuitable for the Canadian prairies. They are so closely related to barberries that there is even an intergeneric hybrid between the two of them (x Mahoberberis) and some botanists want most of the 70 or so species found here reclassified as Berberis. (Irritating, this.)

Most species of Mahonia have golden flowers, spiny foliage, and attractive, berry-like fruits. Oregon grape (Mahonia aquafolium) is probably the best known species. It is a common evergreen shrub of the west coast that ranges as far east as the Kootenays and is also called grape holly or holly grape. It is the state flower of Oregon and sometimes grown in gardens. It usually grows about 3-6 ft. tall and up to 5 ft. wide. It suckers and forms small thickets, and it is sometimes gathered and used as greens for the cutflower industry. The foliage is evergreen, spiky, and definitely bears a resemblance to holly. The flowers are brilliant yellow and give way to very grape-like, bright blue fruits. These are edible (although bitter) and are great for attracting birds to the garden. Although beautiful, it’s not quite hardy enough to be used in gardens where I live.

Imagine how delighted I was when I first discovered its much hardier close relative; the creeping Oregon grape (Mahonia repens). It can be found throughout western North America and throughout the Rockies, including Idaho, Montana, and southwestern Alberta. There is also a well known inland population of it from the Black Hills of the Dakotas. It usually behaves as a ground hugging shrub just a few inches tall but occasionally grows larger. It will grow in sun to considerable shade, and can handle poor soil, drought, competition, and wind. It also has no pest or disease issues and even browsing deer prefer to leave it alone. The bright yellow flowers are very showy but do not last very long; the same is true of the bright blue fruits that follow. Occasionally the foliage develops quite beautiful bronzy purple or reddish fall colour.

It can be propagated from cuttings or by layering, and seeds germinate very easily. From seed to bloom is about four years. I often find it on dry, sunny slopes and the edges of woods. The flowers feed many pollinators and the fruits feed songbirds, bears, and many other small animals. It can be slow to establish in a garden but never the less makes a splendid groundcover if given enough time. I have never been able to understand why creeping Oregon grape is practically non-existent in the nursery trade here. Maybe it’s a case of gardeners saying “oh, Oregon grape isn’t hardy here…” not realizing that there is in fact, a hardy species. Maybe it’s because it grows slowly or needs good snowcover. (You don’t want those evergreen leaves to burn.) Whatever the reason, I started propagating it a few years ago and have been using it in the gardens of several clients to great effect. (Donna, if you’re reading this I have an extra seedling for you if you’d like one. You’ll have to baby it a little bit until it gets going though.)

The whole barberry family is interesting to me and while we usually think of these plants as being shrubs, there are some incredible perennials to be found here too. Barrenworts (Epimedium) are getting to be well known in the nursery trade, but many of their lesser known relatives are exquisite. Blue cohosh (Caulophyllum), Jeffersonia, and the magnificent Ranzania japonica are all woodlands plants to be highly coveted and cherished. I need a bigger woodland and more money for plants.

The season for colombines (Aquilegia) is upon us. I love colombines. They grow quickly, require little, and offer a great deal of beauty. Pollinators adore them, they come in multitudes of colours, and although they are usually short-lived they will self sow very freely if allowed to do so. They hybridize easily-both in cultivation and in the wild- and if you have a couple of different kinds in the garden you just never know what sort of unusual and wonderful offspring they might produce.

In literally every garden that I work in, colombines are now putting on a show and the bees are absolutely besotted with them. So am I, if I am being honest. One thing I have noticed is that all of these colombines are hybrids and garden cultivars. There’s not a thing wrong with these and indeed many are better garden plants than some of the species, but I find it curious that the only person I know who is growing species colombines is me. My friend Claudette grew a great many of them, but over the years they cross-bred in her garden and ultimately their progeny- while beautiful- had become far removed from the parents.

If grown in isolation, the species can be relied upon to produce after their own kind as they say but they tend to die out after a few seasons. In many parts of the prairies, they also get eaten by the columbine worm and because they look so shabby after flowering, I think most gardeners remove the seedheads before they have a chance to replace themselves.

I thought today I might just mention some of our native Canadian species that are virtuous and beautiful and that you might wish to try growing in your garden. Most are available from native plant suppliers and sometimes even from your local garden centers.

The appropriately named small-flowered columbine (Aquilegia brevistyla) can easily be found in moist, deciduous woods throughout North America. It grows 10-20” tall and has very small blue to purple flowers. These are lovely when examined closely but it is not a profuse bloomer and I don’t find it even the least bit showy. In cultivation it usually flowers better but tends to lose the blue-purple colouring and instead offers pale, sickly white blooms. My friend Peggy used to grow it in her woodland and had a great deal of affection for it. She loved its delicacy and grace but I was not convinced.

The Canada columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) comes from eastern North America and grows up to 3 ft. tall. It is absolutely stunning and the parent to many cultivars. The vivid scarlet flowers glow like lanterns and the whole plant is a study in elegance and beauty. Quite a number of named selections of it exist in the nursery trade and most are lovely; the dwarf forms of it are not.

The western counterpart to this species is Aquilegia formosa; formosa means beautiful in Latin and I am inclined to agree. At first glance, these species greatly resemble each other and in cultivation they will hybridize with one another. The flowers range from pinkish red to coral or scarlet and are actually a bit larger than A. canadensis. It also favors more open territory and prefers more sun than its eastern relative. A profuse bloomer, this species is very common on the western slopes of the Rockies but rather rare on the east side. I know of only one site in Alberta where it grows (up near Sundre) but if you are lucky enough to find it, it often grows in large numbers where conditions are suitable. Both species are highly attractive to hummingbirds.

Yellow columbine (Aquilegia flavescens) reaches about 2 ft. tall and is very common throughout the Rockies. The first time I saw it was in the ditches in Banff National Park when I first moved to Alberta. “Stop the car!!” I yelled to my friend who was driving- I had never seen the yellow columbine in real life; only in field guides! I thought it was extremely beautiful with its lemon yellow blooms, and it often grows near streams and waterfalls. With a strong preference for cool temperatures and high elevation, the yellow columbine does not always flourish in gardens. The seeds are fairly easy to germinate and I once grew it just to see how they would do. Mine were all right (not amazing) and I gave some to my Mom to try in her Saskatoon garden. While mine were yellow (I was living in Calgary at the time; high elevation and cold nights) my Mom’s had a decidedly pink glow to them and were rather short lived. Since that time, I have noticed that where yellow columbine does naturally occur at lower elevations, it’s not unusual for the blooms to have a pinkish or salmon glow to them. Up in the high country, they are always a luminous yellow.

Finally I should mention the Jones’s columbine (Aquilegia jonesii). Although fairly common in Montana, Colorado, and Wyoming, the Jones’s columbine has only been documented in one location in Canada. Waterton Lakes National Park is the only place in our country where you might find it and there only in three sites. Two of those sites were licked by the Kenow fire in 2017 so I have no idea if those columbine populations are still up there. This species produces the largest flowers relative to plant size of any of the colombines. It grows only 3” tall but 2” of that is blossom! It likes limy soil, sharp drainage, cool temperatures, and a short growing season. Exceedingly difficult under garden conditions, even the Denver Botanic Garden has had difficulty keeping it alive. The flowers range from purple through blue and are quite beautiful. When it grows with the yellow columbine, the two will hybridize and produce offspring that clearly share traits from both parents.

I’m off to work at the wildflower festival in Waterton this week and I’m looking forward to seeing all of you AND the native colombines!

Gardeners in cold climates like ours are always looking for hardy vines and climbers. Bittersweet is a good choice but lots of gardeners don’t know about it and it isn’t always available. The question then also becomes…which bittersweet? There are two totally unrelated vines that share this common name and this has led to a great deal of understandable confusion.

The first bittersweet I’ll mention belongs (not surprisingly) in the bittersweet family (Celastraceae) and is a close relative to the burning bush and spindle trees (Euonymus). Celastrus is a genus of about 30 species found all over the northern hemisphere. Nearly all of them are woody, deciduous vines with simple, ovoid leaves and inconspicuous flowers. Male and female blooms are produced on separate plants, and female plants produce stunning, brilliantly coloured berries in the fall that are usually red, yellow, or gold. These berries are long-lasting and while largely inedible to mammals they are eagerly devoured by birds.

Most species are not cultivated, but there are a few exceptions. Celastrus scandens is native to North America and can climb 25 ft. or more. It is a heavy, woody vine that needs a strong support and produces an explosion of red and gold berries in the fall. These are eagerly taken by many kinds of birds (including grouse, quail, and pheasants) and small creatures such as squirrels and mice. It is hardy to zone 2 (it can sometimes be found in the wild in southern Saskatchewan and Alberta) but isn’t often cultivated. It tends to be slow to establish but long lived, and should be pruned hard after fruiting. Since only females produce fruit, both a male and a female selection are usually sold in the same container. (These two cultivars are usually ‘Diane’ and ‘Hercules’.) Indigenous peoples once used the root bark to make a tea for treating urination, liver, and skin problems. It was also used to induce sweating and vomiting.

Climbing as much as 40 ft., the oriental bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus) is native to northeastern Asia and has become a serious weed in certain parts of North America and is known for smothering trees. It can climb as high as 40 ft. and it too, produces crops of lovely looking (but somewhat poisonous) berries.

Bittersweet can be easily propagated by seed, layering, or cuttings so it’s curious that it’s so rarely encountered here. The vines do get very heavy with time and need a very strong, sturdy support. It’s also not ever going to be the best seller that honeysuckle or clematis or climbing roses are- after all, we want flowering vines, don’t we? Plants whose chief beauty is in the fruit or stems or foliage are often relegated to a lower status, it seems. I don’t know of lots of bittersweet vines here but we did have one on the farm where I grew up. It was planted next to a trellis my Grandpa built, and it went up the trellis and then into the arms of the elm tree above it. It was happy for years and years and years and we always wondered why it never produced fruit. I am confident now it was because it needed a partner for pollination and didn’t have one. I’m also aware of a wall at Olds College that is covered in these plants and while I’ve not been there at the right time of year to see it, I’m told it’s pretty stunning in October all covered in berries.

This brings us to the second plant called bittersweet, and it’s one of the few completely hardy plants in the nightshade family (Solanaceae). Also called climbing nightshade, Solanum dulcamara is native to Europe and Asia and the northern parts of Africa but as plants do, it has traveled. It is naturalized throughout North America and I have seen it growing in various parts of Alberta. Favoring moist, fertile soil and partial shade, this bittersweet is a very fast growing, hardy perennial or sub-shrub with very elegant, small purple flowers that resemble the blooms of a potato plant. These are highly attractive to bumblebees and was one of the first reasons I began growing it. The flowers are followed by vividly scarlet berries that are poisonous to mammals but loved by birds. These berries are long lasting and highly decorative. I’ve also read that there is a variegated form but I’ve never seen it.

Easy from seed and very beautiful, I imagine the toxicity and its propensity to spread are the chief strikes against it. Birds eat the fruit and then deposit the seeds in their droppings so it comes up everywhere. I actually don’t mind, because the plant itself is not aggressive and unwanted seedlings are easily pulled out where they are unwanted. Last year, I started some from seed in the middle of March. When I planted them out in May, they were the size of matchsticks and quickly grew and even produced a few flowers in their first year. As I look out my window, they are covering the three trellises I put in place for them and all are now well over 6 ft. tall. The first flowers opened yesterday and I am delighted at how covered in flower buds they are- the bumblebees will soon be feasting! It’s an elegant and very pretty plant and I also enjoy knowing that it’s poisonous- most things in the nightshade (tobacco) family are!

In ‘Wildflowers Across the Prairies’ by F. R. Vance, J. R. Jowsey, and J.S. McLean there is actually a mistake. This has been by far my most used wildflower reference since elementary school and Solanum dulcamara is included on page 242. There are two photos. One shows the blossoms, and the other shows the berries. The mistake? The berries being shown are those of Celastrus. Two plants that share a common name but are not remotely alike. I was confused by this error for years until I finally figured out what happened here. I wonder how many other people have been perplexed by this over the years.

Imagine that it is the 1300’s. Imagine that you are a monk in this time period. One fine morning, you go walking in the woods seeking solitude and the glory of the Lord’s work, and as you go on your way, in a dappled glade you happen upon a thick clump of lilies in bloom. The blooms are dusky lavender in colour, held on tall stems, with leaves elegantly arranged in whorls. You are impressed by the beauty and sophistication of this lily, and you are reminded of Jesus’s words about considering the lilies of the field. So smitten are you with this flower and its biblical significance that some time later, you return and dig up some of the bulbs to grow at the monastery. The bulbs flourish, and as they multiply, you share some of these bulbs with monks visiting from other monasteries. After a century or so, this beautiful lily is growing in pretty much every monastery in Europe and the gardens of many nations besides.

That lily was the martagon (Lilium martagon), perhaps the best known and most widely grown of all the species lilies, but now also extensively hybridized as well. Christian monks are often credited with bringing it into cultivation, an act for which I am very thankful. It has been so windy today that I went to give my seed trays some extra water thinking they would need it (I was right), and there to my surprise and delight I have discovered that the martagon lily seeds I sowed last year are now germinating.

Do you know the martagon lily? If not, it is worth making its acquaintance, especially if you garden in dappled or filtered shade. Native all across western Europe and into the northern parts of Mongolia and Siberia, this species is also naturalized in the UK. Blooms are small, waxy, recurved, frequently spotted, and with incredible substance. Colour is highly variable, and can be white, purple, pink, reddish or anywhere in between. Hybrid forms have extended the colour range to include yellow, lilac, and burgundy. These are large lilies that can grow 4-7 ft. tall but 3-5 ft. is about average. They are very much woodland plants and superbly adapted to growing in the broken light that filters through deciduous trees.

Blooms appear in mid summer and while 20-30 flowers per stem is normal, sometimes it can be as many as 60-70 blooms. Stems with up to 200 flowers have been documented. They are slow to multiply and resentful of disturbance. From seed to bloom is usually about three or four years (sometimes five) but they are easy from seed. Division must be done carefully. Bulbs often sulk after being moved and may take a season or two to produce any top growth. This slow growth and pouting stage means they aren’t always available for sale, and they can be quite expensive. They are not as prone to disease as some species lilies and they are beautiful as cut flowers but the somewhat off-putting, faintly mildewy scent of the blooms is much more noticeable indoors.

The seeds that are now germinating came from a garden I love in Calgary. I saw ripe seedpods in October and made no attempt to resist the urge to gather them. I have no idea what colour they will be. I also have two clumps in my woodland garden. One is a deep pink cultivar called ‘Raspberry Queen’ that I ordered from Manitoba at 25 dollars per bulb. They are flourishing and producing buds. The other clump cost me nothing, and came from a kind stranger that I did some garden work for last year. In the midst of an enormous backyard border was an unimaginably lush clump of martagons. They were a soft buff-yellow in colour, with a peachy glow most noticeable from a distance. My heart immediately yearned to possess this lily. (*Picture me running in slow motion across a beach into this lily’s arms. Such was the attraction.) I asked the lady I was working for if she would part with some bulbs later in the season. I offered to pay her handsomely. I would have gladly done so, but she insisted that I “just help myself; they need dividing anyway!” Those beautiful lilies are growing gorgeously and are also now producing buds. I imagine they will look sensational against the backdrop of the dark, weathered fence I planted them in front of.

If you’re looking for martagon lilies, the Lily Nook in Manitoba (www.lilynook.mb.ca) is a superb mail order source that I would highly recommend. Their catalogue is delicious and best enjoyed slowly with coffee and cheesecake.
The martagon lily is a chameleon with many selections available but let me recommend the following for you:

‘Dalhansonii’- 4 ft. Blooms are an unusual sort of chestnut brown with a few gold spots and a noticeable, slightly unpleasant smell. Matures and clumps up fairly quickly. Great for both beginners and experts.

‘Mrs. R.O. Backhouse’- 4 ft. An old classic available for many years. Blooms are soft yellow with brownish spots. Vigorous and strong growing. Robert and Sarah Backhouse were a horticulturalist couple in Herefordshire in England in the early 1900’s. They did marvelous work with lilies and a great many other plants and quite a number of their introductions are still available, including this one. By 1921, this cultivar had already received the RHS award of merit. This one establishes and multiplies quite quickly for a martagon. I always thought it a bit odd that it wasn’t just named ‘Sarah Backhouse’- why call it Mrs? An English friend told me that it would have been unheard of in this time period to address a woman by her first name- the title the lily holds honours her in what would have been “the most respectful way possible.”

‘Rosalinda’- Soft purple. Very pretty. ‘Brocade’ is similar but a lovely light pink. In a garden in Calgary, I planted this one with ‘Jack Frost’ Brunnera and lady ferns and they were incredibly smashing together- oh, what a combination that was…until the damned lily beetle ate every fricken one of them.

‘Alba’- The incredible milky white form of the species. It veritably glows in a shady location. I used it in a client’s garden with ‘Hillside Black Beauty’ Cimicifuga and since that was also in Calgary, I’m now wondering if the lily beetle claimed these too. I hope not.

‘Orange Marmalade’- An old variety with striking, copper to brownish red flowers. Can be hard to find but worth looking for. I saw it at (I think) the Forestry Farm Zoo Gardens in Saskatoon and thought it would be an unusual colour for the woodland garden. I feel like I will have to grow this one at some point.

‘Claude Shride’- Vigorous grower with strong stems and unusual grey-purple to smoky maroon flowers marked with a few yellow-brown spots. Quite different and very pretty.

Do you have a favorite martagon variety that you’d like to tell me about? I’d love to know if they set your heart aflutter the way they do mine.