I am working in Waterton this week, and I’ve been looking forward to this for quite a while. There’s a wildlife festival held here every year, usually around the third week of September, and I’m one of the guides. I get to talk about which critters are doing what and how it relates to the plants in the park and why this complicated web matters so much. Waterton is my favourite place, September is my favourite month, and I get to see some of my favourite people. I love the cooler weather and the riot of blazing autumn colour and the migrating birds and perhaps most of all, I love the bugling of the elk.

I have written before about the primal, ancient calls of the elk in these valleys and how it resonates with me and rattles around inside my soul. Some forgotten ancestral memory in me thrills to that peculiar, prehistoric sound and makes me feel humble and connected and at home and peaceful and dazzled all at once. I absolutely adore elk. They are so majestic and regal and exquisite. They are so superbly adapted to these mountain environments and I love their dark, watchful eyes and their alertness and the resplendent crowns of antlers worn by the bulls. My friend James is a geologist and he is also working in the park this week, and I don’t usually get to spend lots of time with him. We have been friends for 14 years. I knew all along that I was going to have a good week here in the park. I had no idea just how good it was going to be.

It started out with taking James to a friend’s cabin in the reasonably nearby Castle Wilderness. Just a quick little visit to do some seed collecting. We saw a couple of wild turkeys and I don’t see them very often and James had never seen them at all. That was a good start. I was pretty happy about that. It went on from there.

In between the guide work that the two of us have to do, James and I have been out hiking, exploring, and just generally having an incredibly terrific time enjoying the park and the animals that live here. Both of us are total nerds. James tells me stuff about rocks and how the mountains and rivers have come together. I tell him stuff about plants. We learn so much from each other. It is a very mutually beneficial relationship. When I get excited about a bird or insect sighting or some other phenomenon in the natural world, James celebrates this sighting with me and thinks it’s as cool as I do. When James finds significant rocks in the park and tells me about it and I learn about glaciers and silt deposits and basalt and other cool stuff, it makes my day WAY better. It’s really good to be friends with people who like what you like and can teach you stuff you don’t know.

On the first trail we went down, we saw a belted kingfisher. These are birds I love and don’t see every day. This was exciting. Then we found the most fabulous little ruffed grouse wandering through the woods eating berries and just generally being a delight. Ruffed grouse (grouse of any kind, really) always make my day. I have an indigenous friend who told me that among the Cree, the ruffed grouse is beloved because he is a little drummer. He welcomes in the spring. Drumming circles are so important to our First Nations people and this sweet little chicken-like bird has the deep respect of our Aboriginal peoples, which makes me like both the people and the bird even more. We also saw a loon, a bald eagle, several ravens, some trumpeter swans, a mountain bluebird, quite a number of great blue herons, a red-naped sapsucker and a white crowned sparrow. I felt tremendous about this, and of course the elk have been making grand appearances and bugling every night and morning and James and I have been close enough to hear those rugged bulls bellowing and challenging each other and the crash of their antlers when a call is answered. It has been incredible. We also found a tiny little red-lined garter snake about the thickness and size of a pencil and he was so adorable and I took some great photos of him. We also found two frogs, two different species of solitary native bee, an unusual apricot coloured hunting wasp that I did not recognize, and the usual assortment of chipmunks and little red squirrels trying to get seeds together for winter. I would have been more than 100% satisfied with this, but then it got even better.

James and I went looking for interesting rocks this afternoon and I found some gentians and late fireweed in bloom and I was pretty happy about that. There’s also a few asters still blooming and the fall colour on so many of the trees and shrubs is outstanding. I found a chokecherry with brilliant red (rather than the more common deep purple-black) fruit and lots of seedheads from the native Fritillaria, which indicates the presence of bumblebees which made me super happy.

There have also been a LOT of bears. I think we’ve seen a dozen bears or more since we got here on Wednesday. This includes a gorgeous plump brown mama out with her cub, some younger bears, and at least one very large old male who was determined to take every single fruit off the elderberry he was raiding. We saw one young bear while out with a group yesterday, and he was digging madly out in a meadow with the dirt flying up behind him. He was a joy to watch. Then we saw another one crossing the road. Today we were down on the lake shore with absolutely no people around and a very large adult black bear just emerged from the woods a short distance from where we had just been walking a moment earlier. He was unhurried, calm, and gorgeous. We enjoyed his company very much and then he went back in the woods, as they tend to do. It has been eerily calm and cloudy and foggy in Waterton, which has added wonderfully to the mystique and magic of all these marvelous sightings. In the late afternoon, James and I were lucky enough to see two wolves cross the road in front of us while I was driving. Wolves are fairly common in the park but rarely seen, and even after years and years of working in Waterton, a wolf sighting is still very exciting! James had never seen wolves in the wild before at all and he was ecstatic! I was equally thrilled, and that would have been enough for me, but there was still one more surprise in store.

James and I saw cougar tonight around 930. Some know it as mountain lion, others as puma or panther, but to me they have always been cougars. I have always, always wanted to see one in the wild! For literally YEARS I have wondered when I would see one, and where, and what it would be like. I certainly didn’t want to see one in a tree about to jump on me, and not in some dangerous situation like that, but I have longed to see this great cat in his natural habitat and actually experience him instead of just knowing he is out there. I’ve said to friends for years if one could just cross the road in front of me while I’m driving, that would be great…

It almost happened like that. James and I decided to go up the # 6 highway a little ways and see if we could get close enough to the elk to hear them, which we did. It is a pitch black, very calm night here in the park and just a little ways up the road from where I took my tour group today, James’s headlights picked up the reflection of green eyes in the dark. I said to James “there is something in the ditch there, let’s see what that is…” We got a bit closer and the large green eyes were clearly not a deer or a bear. The beam of James’s lights were right on the animal and he was driving quite slowly and then it was illuminated perfectly. Crouched by the side of the road looking right at us was an adult cougar, waiting, no doubt, to cross the road and get to the other side where the elk were. “HOLY SHIT” said James and I think I said something but I don’t know what and then we both said at the same time “that’s a cougar.” My heart rate sped up until it sounded like little kids running up and down stairs. At that moment, this stunningly beautiful animal turned away from the road, revealing his long muscular body and long tail and leapt back into the woods in a single graceful bound.

James and I spent the next 30 minutes laughing and high fiving and freaking out and analyzing every single detail of this experience. To say we were ecstatic would not be adequate. When we finally calmed down, we went to listen to the elk and there were also wolves howling nearby, which almost caused me to have heart palpatations. I decided I couldn’t handle any more bliss. I can’t handle any more wonder or excitement. I can’t take a single thrill more, I thought. That’s when the great horned owls started calling to each other. If we see a sasquatch tomorrow I’ll probably need to be hospitalized.


The warmth has returned. It is so warm, in fact, that I have been watering all morning in client’s gardens. There are several bumblebees feeding in the flowers that I am sure are newly emerged queens. They are twice the size of the other bees, it is the right time of year for new queens to be emerging, and they appeared very suddenly. They are also not gathering pollen- they are merely feeding, which suggests to me they are queens who will overwinter and start next year’s bumblebee colonies. I suppose they could also be males who are waiting for queens to mate with but what do I know? I will simply extend my love to them and make every garden I work in as hospitable for them as possible.

I hope we have a long, beautiful, warm autumn. I love sweaters and crisp days and the crystal etchings of frost on the glass as we roll into October. The bees that I love will die and only their queens will survive, sleeping somewhere under the snow and the ice. I think of them often in the winter months. How miraculous the way that nature has engineered them; to sleep for months only to emerge in the spring and the cycle begins anew.

The bugbanes have begun to flower and their curious fragrance reaches me as I gather my mail from my mailbox. They don’t flower every year here, but this September the conditions seem to be to their liking. They are often only in bud when the frosts come, depriving of us of their wand-like blooms and unusual scent. Friends on the coast often speak of the bugbanes in October and even early November as being “in full flower” but rarely do they do that here.

Bugbane is not a pretty name, which is unfortunate, because it is a very pretty plant. The Latin name, Cimicifuga, means to repel or to discourage insects, a property this plant was once thought to possess. The word fumigate is derived from the same source. Actually, the Latin name has been changed recently. All the beautiful bugbanes have now been renamed as Actaea and have been thrown in with the baneberries- a decision I most certainly do not approve of. Despite some similarities, they are quite distinct from each other and I feel they should remain so. It is only their molecular DNA that says they are relatives, and that is not a practical way to organize plants as far as I’m concerned.

There are about a dozen species of bugbanes, and they are in the buttercup family. These are slow growing, long lived perennials that are usually late blooming and quite tall. They require a very compost enriched, fertile soil with excellent moisture and drainage. A site sheltered from the wind is preferable, and they want neither full sun nor full shade. They have extremely handsome, lacy foliage and do best in a dappled or a filtered light, or a sunny spot with shade in the hottest parts of the afternoon. They have no pest or disease issues (including deer) and they are poisonous if eaten. Be patient when you plant them; they often take three to five years to begin performing well and they are resentful of disturbance. The tall wands of bottlebrush-like flowers in late summer and early autumn are loved by bees and butterflies, and they are also excellent for cutting. The scent of the blossoms is interesting. I’m not sure how to describe it. Some have said vanilla (I disagree), some have said baby powder (definitely disagree) and some have described it as a uniquely sweet fragrance, which I would have to agree with. Some people love it and some people don’t but it’s never overpowering so grow it and make your own decision. For my part I like their scent.

Cimicifuga racemosa is the most commonly encountered species. It can be found throughout the eastern half of North America, usually growing in sheltered, partly shady places on the edges of woods, where both moisture and fertility are not in short supply. It was extensively used for medicine by First Nations people and is also known as black cohosh and snakeroot, in reference to it once being used to treat snakebites. It will grow anywhere from 5-7 ft. tall and depending on the location, it usually begins to flower in late August or early September, continuing well into October or even November. It is very showy and will get better every year.

A number of cultivars have been introduced and these often have purple or burgundy colored foliage. It is important to note that if you are growing a purple leaf variety, it must get at least half a day of sun for best color- otherwise they will revert to green. ‘Brunette’ is an old cultivar that emerges from the ground deep purple in the spring and slowly ages to dark green. It is a vigorous grower and has received the RHS award of merit. ‘Black Negligee’ is also a very vigorous grower with gorgeous dark purple foliage and nearly black stems. The flowers are white through pale pink and highly fragrant- it is regarded as being the most scented of all of them. It reaches a height of 4 ft. ‘Hillside Black Beauty’ has purple-black foliage and grows 6 ft. tall- it definitely needs protection from the wind! The flowers are ivory or light pink and appear in great profusion. It is extremely garden worthy and looks especially stunning if grown in mass. This is the one growing in my garden. It is still a young plant, but I have taken good care of it and it is definitely flourishing. As days shorten and the light softens, its nodding, waving stems become increasingly welcome and beautiful. One should always have something wonderful happening in their garden.

It was a cool (cold, even) day here and it seemed to be making some half-hearted attempts at rain. A few big wet drops hit my face as I was walking home. I was out seed collecting. A few blocks over from me, someone has a nice little sandcherry in their front yard and I decided that I should gather a dozen or so of those fruits and germinate them. What on earth would I do with a dozen sandcherries? Well, I suppose I will grow them in containers for a while until they are a reasonable size and then maybe I will use them in a client’s garden, or perhaps I will plant some in my backyard. That would be nice. Sandcherries aren’t used very often and I like to do something a bit unusual. I also like that they bloom early and feed multitudes of bees.

The western sandcherry (Prunus besseyi) is native to the western United States and rarely exceeds 4 ft. tall. We usually think of cherries as being trees, but this one is a shrub. It is occasionally cultivated as it is an excellent cross-pollination source for more desirable fruiting cherries and plums. The flowers are white and not showy, and these give way to smallish, yellow to dark red or black fruits with a pleasant, astringent flavor. Fall colour is often scarlet. The sandcherry is humble and not flashy, but I rather like it. ‘Manor’ is a very much improved form which many botanists believe is actually a hybrid. This species has been invaluable in the breeding of many desirable cherry/plum hybrids, including well known cultivars such as ‘Opata’, ‘Sapa’, ‘Dura’ and ‘Sapalta’.

The eastern sandcherry (Prunus pumila) is an intriguing little species from the northeastern United States and the southern parts of the Canadian prairie provinces. It rarely exceeds 2 ft. in height, and produces pretty white flowers in the spring followed by edible, astringent red-purple fruit. The grey-green leaves are attractive and will usually turn yellow in the fall. It most commonly grows in dryish, sandy areas often along slopes, creeks, and hillsides. It is common in the Dakotas and occasionally cultivated. Bank cherry (so named because it frequently grows along dry river banks) is usually regarded as a naturally occurring variety of the eastern sandcherry, and is usually listed as Prunus pumila var. depressus. However, many botanists feel that it is different enough to warrant being listed as its own species, and in some literature it is treated as such, usually as Prunus depressa. It grows 8-10” tall and will spread almost indefinitely. It suckers profusely and is excellent for erosion control or dry, sandy places in the garden where a large groundcover is required. It makes superb cover for songbirds, and although the flowers and fruit are not terribly showy, the light yellow fall colour is quite nice. It is occasionally found in garden centers but it can be invasive and caution is advised. My friend Claudette used to grow this species and was the first person to introduce me to it. She had it along her front sidewalk and I know she eventually removed it; I suspect keeping it under control proved to be more work than she was willing to do. She gave me a shoot from it and it flourished out on our farm for a long time. I don’t think it’s still there- the next time I’m back in Sk. I should really investigate and see what became of it. It’s possibly still out there but who knows?

The cistena sandcherry (Prunus x cistena) is a shrub that most prairie gardeners are familiar with. Developed in South Dakota and introduced to cultivation in 1910, this medium to large shrub is now grown in cold countries all over the world. In very cold climates (like ours) it is often treated more as a perennial than as a woody plant, under good circumstances, it will grow 6-8 ft. tall and just as wide. On the harshest part of the prairies, it will usually kill to the snow line. This is just fine as the best colour is on the newest growth anyway and it grows very rapidly. The foliage is a brilliant reddish purple, and the bright pink spring flowers sometimes appear before the leaves, sometimes together. It is sometimes grown as a pollen source for other cherries and plums. On occasion, it may even produce tiny inedible fruits. This is an excellent, low maintenance shrub that adapts to most sites and soils, although it is intolerant of shade. It can propagated quite easily from cuttings but care should be taken not to crowd these plants, as they can be prone to powdery mildew.

I’ve been walking in the coulees lately because we have now escaped from the intense heat of August and in fact, I’m trying to get more exercise. Things are mostly dry and crunchy right now but the chokecherries are looking superb. Underrated and underappreciated, they are starting to develop their fall colour and they are all decked out with their abundant clusters of shining, black jewel-like fruits. They are extremely beautiful.

The chokecherry (Prunus virginiana) is an extremely successful species that is native all across North America. It is an extremely rapid growing, thicket forming small tree or large shrub with attractive, white blooms in spring that are fragrant and feed many bumblebees. These are followed by beautiful, drooping clusters of highly astringent small fruits. Fall colour on these trees is often orange to red with shades of purple and usually very showy. The earliest known evidence of chokecherries dates back to approximately 43 million years ago; beautiful fossilized branches clearly showing both leaves and fruits have been found near Princeton, BC. This puts them about 20 million years after the dinosaurs, and among some of the first known flowering trees. The ancient deciduous forests of temperate North America were comprised largely of birch, alder, chokecherry, and elm. I love knowing as I walk through our wild places that the chokecherries were here for millions of years before I was. They are survivors and strategists, these slender and lovely small trees, and I would miss them if they weren’t here.

As is to be expected with a species that has such a large natural distribution, there are a number of naturally occurring variations of the chokecherry, with melanocarpa being the most common. This means “dark fruited”. Indeed, the color of the fruit is highly variable and ranges from nearly black through purple to a deep, garnet red. Xanthocarpa is far less common but is otherwise alike in every way- it produces slightly sweeter, very pretty bright yellow fruits. Chokecherries produce huge crops of fruit and are a major food source for at least a dozen species of birds and many animals. Bears, foxes, badgers, skunks, squirrels, chipmunks, mice, deer, moose, rabbits, coyotes, bison and people have all been known to eat the fruit. Many First Nations tribes depended upon them and harvested following a frost (which sweetens the fruit) and then cooked them. (They were almost never eaten raw.) Chokecherries generally ripen in late August or early September and are actually very showy when hung with fruit. They make excellent jams, jellies, and syrups and although some people like them for wine, I would like to say from experience that chokecherry wine is one of the worst things I have ever tasted. Due to their heavy suckering tendencies, chokecherries are not much used in gardens except on farms and acreages as shelterbelts. A few cultivars have emerged over the years, but chokecherries are prone to Black Knot (a disfiguring fungal disease) and this frequently discourages people from planting them.

Easily the most cultivated of all the chokecherries is an introduction from Bismarck, North Dakota called ‘Shubert’. (Also sometimes spelled ‘Schubert’.) This cultivar was selected from a wild population for its deep burgundy colored foliage- indeed this mutation does show up in the wild occasionally. Rapidly growing to a height of 25 or 30 ft., this tree does as the mayday does and provides an ongoing barrage of suckers and watersprouts. The foliage emerges green and ages to a dark purple, usually turning red in the fall. It is drastically overplanted and I am not fond of it, but we won’t get into that here.

If you are going to grow chokecherries for fruit production or food/shelter for wildlife and you have the space for them, they can be extremely attractive and reliable. If you are looking for a yellow chokecherry, ‘Spearfish’ is a 1924 introduction from South Dakota that has done well on the prairies. ‘Boughen’s Yellow’ was a 1930 introduction from Boughen Nurseries in Valley River, Manitoba. The fruit is large, showy, and produced abundantly. For black fruited chokecherries, ‘Garrington’ is an introduction from here in Alberta that produces huge quantities of fruit. ‘Pickup’s Pride’ was introduced by the PFRA of Indian Head, Saskatchewan. Originally discovered on the farm of John and Myrna Pickup of Broadview, Saskatchewan this cultivar produces very large fruits with comparatively small stones and it is extremely productive.

It is also important to note that chokecherry should not be confused with chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa), which is a really lovely shrub in the rose family that hails from the eastern half of North America. It has modest white blooms followed by black fruits that birds love, and usually outstanding scarlet fall colour. There is also a very curious intergeneric hybrid called x sorbaronia, which is a cross between mountain ash (Sorbus) and chokeberry (Aronia). I think sorbaronia sounds like a very fancy kind of Italian pasta.

Ah, September! It is my favourite month of the year. I love the cooler temperatures, I love the trees and shrubs changing colour, I love planting bulbs and celebrating all that I have accomplished in the garden in the preceding months. September should not be seen as the end of summer but rather the continuation of it. It is the last call for the summer border. This is not a bad thing. Late summer is very different than early summer. Autumn is a riot of colours and textures and harvests and seed collecting. Yesterday I was delighted to find a hand-written card in my mailbox from a client, saying how she used to hate this time of year but thanks to me and some inspired plant choices, she really enjoys it now. This was a great lift to my spirit (there has been some unpleasant drama this week that I’ll not get into) and I’m glad that somewhere out there in the wider world, another gardener is learning to embrace rather than protest this time of year and I had something to do with that. It’s a nice feeling.

I planted some more bulbs this week just for me. I hadn’t planned on putting any daffodils in, not because I dislike them (I love them, actually) but because I felt that their intense yellows and golds were not sympathetic with the feelings I am trying to create here. On the other hand, their early blooms are so welcome and cheery and they feed so many early pollinators so perhaps a few, I thought. I am mad for white daffodils (my favourite is a cultivar called ‘Mount Hood’) but there are others as well. I thought a few white ones might be just the thing. I planted ‘Actaea’, ‘Barrett Browning’, and ‘Las Vegas’. The first is simple and elegant, almost bird-like in the way the slightly pendant flowers hover and move. The second is an old favorite that is white with a brilliant orange cup, and the third is white with a yellow cup. They also flower at slightly different times so that lets me extend my daffodil season. I am sure in the spring I will have no regrets about planting them. I may also try some hyacinths, as I like pushing the envelope with hardiness zones and they occasionally do well in Alberta.

I have lots of gardening work in the coming weeks and I will also have friends visiting from overseas and some work in Waterton. I’m looking forward to it. I have a peony I need to move this week (early September is the best time to move a peony) and I have some annuals I need to pull so that I can have space to plant more bulbs. I want some Siberian squills and Fritillaria in my woodland garden and those bulbs should be arriving soon. I will also have some martagon lilies arriving from Manitoba.

It has been an excellent year for globe thistles (Echinops) here in Lethbridge. So excellent, in fact, that I’m sorry I haven’t planted or used them more. They are really coming into their own at this time of year and the pollinators love them. Bumblebees, butterflies, hummingbirds, honeybees, and little tiny native bees are very busy in them. The only thistles to be commonly found in gardens, globe thistles are so named because of their perfectly spherical flower clusters. The botanical name is a reference to hedgehogs, which is appropriate. There are many species and quite a number of hybrids and selections. Not all are created equal. They want full sun, good drainage, and average soil. They are tidy, clumping plants that often take up a fair bit of room and some of them can self seed (to the point of nuisance) if allowed to. They flower for weeks and make terrific material for cutting and drying. They also provide winter interest. Flowers range from blue through purple or whitish. Back in the day, when I lived on the farm, I had a collection of at least half a dozen species. (My farming family did not embrace the idea that I was both growing and had paid money for thistles.) Some of the globe thistles I’ve grown (and that you might also enjoy) include the following:

Echinops bannaticus– Native to Romania, this is the least hardy of all the globe thistles. It grows 3-5 ft. tall and has bright blue flowers in mid to late summer over spiny, grey-green leaves. The very beautiful hybrid ‘Blue Glow’ claims this as one of its parents but is much hardier.

Echinops commutatus– A popular garden plant in Europe but rarely cultivated in North America. It is very tall with prickly, silvery foliage and huge heads of white flowers with contrasting black pollen. I like this one very much.

Echinops ritro (Previously E. exaltatus)- Growing 3-4 ft. tall with golf ball sized, steel blue flowers in late summer. It can be weedy if not deadheaded. Drought resistant and reliable, this is a good choice for a xeriscape garden although it is sometimes short lived. ‘Veitch’s Blue’ is a sturdy cultivar with purple-blue flowers and silvery stems.

Echinops ruthenicus– Very straight, silver stems are showy and crowned with very beautiful purple-blue flowers. Leaves are sharp and have a silver gleam, especially on the undersides. It reaches about 3 ft. tall. ‘Taplow Blue’ is a hybrid between this and the previous species and is one of the best garden thistles ever. The flowers are very long lasting and it is compact and attractive. It also does not self sow.

Echinops sphaerocephalus– A 6 ft. tall monster that tends to become weedy. It has grey stems, prickly greyish foliage, and off-white to ivory or cream blooms. ‘Arctic Glow’ is a very compact strain of it only reaching 3 ft. Stems have a reddish tint but the seedheads lack the grace and dignity of other globe thistles. I am not a fan of this one. There are better globe thistles out there.

Echinops tienshanicum– From Tibet and China, this is a very hardy species growing 4-6 ft. tall with enormous (the size of tennis balls!) flowers of an unusual shade of steely blue. It is hard to find but easy from seed and will flower the second year. I grew it when I lived in Calgary and I loved it.

The joepye weeds are also really starting to flower madly, and they provide some drama and some joy at this time of the year. There are different versions of how this plant got its name, but it’s not a name that really encourages popularity. It’s not weedy, and “joepye” doesn’t exactly conjure up images of great beauty. Some of the tales say that Joe Pye was a well known indigenous medicine man who used this plant to treat tuberculosis. Others say that eastern tribes called typhoid jopi, and the plant jopi weed. However it got its name, these are big, dramatic plants that can be a wonderful addition to a moist location in the garden. They have a lovely, gentle fragrance and draw huge crowds of bees and butterflies.

Eupatorium purpureum is the best known species and hails from the eastern half of North America. It favors moist places on the edges of woods, and sometimes grows near creeks and streams. It is a great big, dramatic plant reaching anywhere from 4-9 ft., with huge heads of violet flowers in late summer. If you walk into a garden center and ask for joepye weed, this is the species they are going to sell you. It also hybridizes easily with other species, so a number of cultivars claim this as one of the parents. It is very showy, and the stems are often red or purple, which adds to the beauty of it. There are many species in this genus, mostly North American, and they have recently been reclassified as Eutrochium. (Which I am totally ignoring.) Joepye weed needs a sheltered spot and abundant water but other than that, it demands little. It has no pest or disease issues and is long lived and very showy. When well grown, it is extremely impressive. Joepye weed is always one of the last plants to break dormancy in the spring; if it’s still not up when all your other perennials are sprouting and growing…be patient. It’s usually about two weeks later to emerge than everything else.

The spotted joepye weed (Eupatorium maculatum) blooms in August and is one of the most widespread species, found throughout much of the continent. It can grow anywhere from 2-6 ft., with large heads of variable flowers that range from mauve through light purple to pinkish. The stems are usually purple and spotted and it favors moist to wet areas. It likes marshes, ditches, and swamps but dislikes a shady location. It is easy from seed and sometimes grown in gardens, looking best when grown in mass. I have seen it in northern Saskatchewan as well as Riding Mountain National Park in Manitoba and it appears at just the right time of year when many other wildflowers are long done flowering. This is a very showy plant for a wet or poorly drained site, and it will self seed if not deadheaded. It is not, however, weedy.

September offers a special kind of grace, and has a very different feeling about it than May or June. September offers you an invitation; a chance to pause and be reflective and enjoy the softening and the diminishing of the light. Try not to resist.

So, here’s a few more raspberry species that I think gardeners and hikers should familiarize themselves with.

Thimbleberry (Rubus parviflorus)- This is an important understory shrub in the mountains of Alberta, British Columbia, Idaho, and Montana. Thimbleberry is abundant in the wild but very uncommon in gardens. This is likely due to its profusely suckering habit and its preference for high elevations and cooler temperatures. (It seems to do fairly well in the Calgary area but not perform satisfactorily in my Mom’s garden in Saskatoon or in the Patterson Garden Arboretum.) Growing anywhere from 3-5 ft. tall (and sometimes taller), this species produces very pretty, large white flowers in late spring or early summer that feed myriads of pollinators. These are followed by small, squishy red berries that are edible but best left for the birds. Bears are also very fond of these fruits.

Like its eastern relative the flowering raspberry, thimbleberry has very large, maple-like leaves that I think look rather tropical. These often turn a glowing shade of yellow in the fall and a September hike when the thimbleberries are in full, radiant colour is rather delightful. Although not fussy about soil, thimbleberry has a preference for moist places. Some of my favourite thimbleberry thickets in Waterton were destroyed by last year’s fire but I am hoping that at least some of them will regenerate.

Trailing Raspberry (Rubus pedatus)- This is the other species of raspberry that I’ve placed in my woodland, and I anticipate that it may be aggressive but that’s okay. I am going to keep a close eye on it and perhaps it will surprise me and be well behaved. One of the few herbaceous raspberries, this species grows only a few inches tall but can form thick mats over 3 ft. wide. White flowers are followed by fruits that range from scarlet to dark red and are quite tasty. In the wild it is always found in very moist locations sheltered from the wind.

Creeping Raspberry (Rubus pentalobus)- Native to Taiwan, this is a very pretty raspberry that rarely exceeds 4” in height and spreads to form a thick, luxurious groundcover. The leaves have three to five lobes and are deeply wrinkled, giving it a very distinctive look. It is evergreen and has small white flowers followed by insignificant (though edible) red fruits. Often listed as only hardy to zones 4 or 5, it has done well in colder places (such as my previous garden in Calgary) with only a bit of extra winter protection. It roots easily from cuttings and can be put to good use in containers and large barrels or perhaps spilling over a wall. ‘Emerald Carpet’ is a particularly vigorous cultivar that is widely available in the nursery trade.

Dewberry (Rubus pubescens)- Another beautiful species, the dewberry has large white or soft pink flowers and a trailing growth habit with stems that can spread up to 3 ft. in every direction. The blooms appear only briefly and give way to brilliant red, showy fruits that are unfortunately quite seedy and not very tasty. This is very much a woodland plant and I think it could be a terrific choice as a groundcover for a moist shady area, but it is seldom seen in cultivation. It grows in the Cypress Hills in dense forest and can be found elsewhere throughout North America as well. Moist places along the edges of shady streams and glades are good places to look for it.

Salmonberry (Rubus spectabilis)- Found along nearly the entire length of North America’s west coast, the salmonberry is a very beautiful deciduous species that grows up to 6 ft. tall. It produces rather lovely pinkish to purple blooms in the spring and feeds many pollinators. The fruits that follow feed bears, humans, and songbirds. Although it can be invasive in a garden setting, it is often cultivated and a number of named forms have been introduced. This includes a double flowered form and ‘Golden Ruby’, with shining chartreuse or lime green foliage and red fruits. Long a major food source for indigenous peoples, salmonberries can be eaten fresh or made into delicious jams, jellies, and syrups. If it has a flaw, really it’s just limited hardiness. Many, many years ago I grew it from seed and found that salmonberries did not readily take to a prairie climate- not one seedling survived the winter.

Tibetan Raspberry (Rubus thibetanus)- From western China and Tibet (as the name would imply), this is a very prickly deciduous species that grows 6-8 ft. tall and wide. It has highly ornamental, deeply cut foliage and pretty rose-purple flowers followed by small black fruits. I expect it would be hardy enough to try here but I’ve never seen it offered for sale. It has been on my “want list” for a number of years.

Rubus x ‘Benenden’- I think the prettiest of the hybrid ornamental raspberries, this cultivar was developed in England in the 1950’s by crossing two American species. This is a large, tender shrub with enormous, pure white flowers that resemble wild roses.

Rubus @Benenden@ – Tridel berry @Benenden@

It is a profuse bloomer and attracts many bees.

If you’re growing a species of raspberry that I didn’t mention here that you think is worth knowing about, please let me know! I would be very interested to know about it!

I casually mentioned the flowering raspberry in my previous post and I’ve received no less than six messages about it. What is a flowering raspberry? Where can I get one? Is it pretty? Is the fruit edible? I thought the answers to these questions might be worth a new post, and it ended up turning into an entire hymn singing the virtues of all things raspberry. July is indeed the season for berries so this seems an appropriate thing to write about for this time of year.

All true raspberries belong in the genus Rubus, which is in the rose family (Roseaceae). As with many plant families, a lot of shuffling, re-classifying, and name changing is going on. That means that some botanists will tell you that there are as little as 250 species found here, some will say as many as 700. Even that first number is astounding to most gardeners- most people would never imagine there could be 250 kinds of raspberry in the world, never mind 700. Out of that great diversity, at least 25 species are native to Canada. As a group of plants, they are woefully under-utilized in gardens. Some are very ornamental, and many produce delicious fruits. They can be evergreen or deciduous, prickly or smooth. Most are large shrubs but a few grow as perennial groundcovers. Some have showy flowers, others are cherished for their fall or winter colour. Many are loved for their ability to attract birds.

Raspberries have adapted to nearly every kind of ecosystem except for very dry, arid regions. Nearly all of them want fertile, moist soil with good drainage and they can be found in forests, along coastlines, on mountains, and in clearings or ditches. They hybridize very readily (both in the wild and in cultivation) and some are hardier than others. Propagation is by seed, cuttings, layering, or suckers. A few of them can be invasive. Most are widely available in the nursery trade. While the vast majority prefer a sunny site, some of them are good choices for shady gardens.

The raspberries that we grow in our gardens and find at the grocery store are generally hybrids developed from Rubus idaeus and Rubus strigosus. Indigenous peoples in North America, Europe, and the northern parts of Asia treasured these plants for their delicious fruit but also used them medicinally. The leaves were often brewed into a tea to treat various ailments. From these hybrids have come a multitude of other hybrids, including the loganberry (a cross between a raspberry and a blackberry), the boysenberry (a cross between a raspberry and a raspberry/blackberry hybrid), and the tayberry (a blackberry/raspberry hybrid.) Blackberries are similar, in that most of what we grow is of hybrid origin and there are both Asian and North American species. They have produced many children together, and I have no idea how to sort them out. I was in my twenties the first time I tasted a ripe blackberry (they don’t grow in Saskatchewan, let me tell you…) and I was astounded at how delicious they are. I couldn’t tell you which ones are native to North America and which ones are not (the west coast is wreathed in great, heaving piles of blackberry brambles) and frankly, it doesn’t really matter to me. All I can tell you is that they are delicious, plentiful, and very sharp if you back into them.

The species raspberries, however, are little known by gardeners yet often recognized by hikers and wild plant enthusiasts. These are actually very old plants, with fossils from the Czech Republic putting raspberries in the Miocene period- somewhere between about 5 and 20 million years ago. They are pollinated almost entirely by bees and the seeds are dispersed both by birds and small animals. (Sometimes larger animals too, such as people and bears.)

Arctic Raspberry, Stemless Raspberry (Rubus acaulis)- I don’t know if this species is found in the northern parts of Europe or not, but it can certainly be found throughout all the northern regions of Canada and the United States. It grows up to 12” tall, and looks much like a small garden raspberry but it isn’t prickly. It grows from rhizomes and can form large colonies, producing very pretty pink blooms followed by delicious red fruits. It likes moist areas in woods and meadows and sometimes grows in large numbers where conditions are suitable. When I have found it, it is usually growing with moss.

Cloudberry (Rubus chamaemorus)- Unlike most species of raspberry, the cloudberry produces male and female flowers on separate plants, so both must be present in order for fruit to develop. Found throughout the northern hemisphere, this species grows 4-10” tall and produces amber or golden coloured fruit that is considered highly delicious by many people. In Newfoundland and Labrador (where it is especially abundant) it is often used for pies, jams, and jellies and is frequently called “bakeapple”. Bogs, marshes, and wet meadows are the preferred habitat and it likes cooler temperatures and acidic soil. This makes it difficult to grow in gardens, but it is so loved in Scandinavia that they have even developed a number of named cultivars. Here in Canada, it has long been a highly regarded food of indigenous people in the north and continues to be so into the present day.

Cockburn’s Raspberry (Rubus cockburnianus)- This is a really unfortunate name for this plant, as “cockburn” sounds like a sexually transmitted disease. Adding “anus” to the scientific name did not help matters in terms of marketing, either. Native to China and growing up to 10 ft. tall, this species is not especially ornamental or delicious but is prized for the glowing, blue-white colour of its winter stems. Few shrubs can produce the ethereal, splendid January colouring on their twigs and branches that this one can and it has even led to the (much better) common name of ghost bramble, which is especially appropriate. A spreading (and potentially invasive) shrub, this plant is occasionally used to form impenetrable thickets and for erosion control. There are some excellent examples of it at the VanDusen Botanical Garden in Vancouver and it’s worth seeing them in the winter months. (*Not hardy enough to grow on the prairies, I’m afraid. You’ll have to travel to see it.)

Boulder Raspberry (Rubus deliciosus)- From the American Rockies, this is a very pretty deciduous species with large, showy white flowers. These give way to particularly delicious purple-black fruits. It’s probably hardier than previously realized; if I were to find it available for sale somewhere I would be tempted to try it. It produces no prickles and can reach up to 10 ft. tall.

Flowering Raspberry (Rubus odoratus)- The flippant mention of this shrub was what inspired this particular post in the first place, so it deserves some high praise indeed. Native to much of the eastern half of North America, flowering raspberry grows up to 8 ft. tall and produces non-prickly stems and large, maple-like leaves that are very handsome. The flowers appear in great profusion in early summer and can be any shade of purple through pink or magenta and are highly attractive to bees. There is also a white flowered form. Normally growing on the edges of woods and forests, flowering raspberry likes humusy, well drained soil and a site protected from the wind. It can bloom for several weeks and very small, bright red fruits follow the blooms. These are edible but really too tiny to bother with if you are a human and just the perfect size if you happen to be a songbird.

I first read about this plant in the mid 1990’s when famous prairie gardener Lois Hole dedicated an entry to it in her best selling tree and shrub book. I was astounded! Here was a gorgeous, hardy flowering shrub that she was saying flourished in shade!?!? I had to have it! When the nursery I worked for brought some in, I immediately bought one. They were in two gallon pots and I think they were around 30 dollars, which was very expensive for that time period. I planted it out on the farm in a location that was west facing but heavily shaded by both the house and a large tree. It survived for about two seasons and that was really all it did. No amount of water or compost could convince it to stick around. It died shortly thereafter, never to be seen or heard from again. The feedback from customers was much the same and it certainly isn’t a shrub that you see a lot of (if any) while driving through prairie neighbourhoods.

Fast forward a few years and I know of one location in Saskatoon where it was quite extensively planted in a reasonably sheltered area. I’ve been keeping an eye on it for a number of seasons now and though it took a while to get going, it seems to have adjusted and seems really happy. It has multiplied quite a bit! The suckers this plant sends out are abundant and not easily deterred so that may be an undesirable trait but I’m happy to see how it does here in southern Alberta.

Further to that, it doesn’t really like shade, either. Partial shade or protection from the hot afternoon sun is great- deep or total shade is not. The Latin name is a reference to the supposed lovely fragrance of the blooms, but that is something I’ve never noticed. At least not yet. I’ll keep you informed as it progresses! (*I’ll also add a few more raspberries up here tomorrow when I have time to write a little more!)