I got a message this week asking if I would comment on “that horrific weed with the blue flowers that seems to be showing up in southwestern Alberta.” This note was slightly condescending, as the comment that followed was “although you probably like it.” In fact, I DO like it but more on that in a minute. I feel like I have to defend this group of plants a little bit first.

The weed in question is the very boringly named “blue weed”, which I know as viper’s bugloss. That’s a much darker and more interesting label, don’t you think? The Latin name is Echium, and is pronounced eck-ee-um and not “ee-chee-um” as an irritating former co-worker of mine used to say.

Plants in the borage family are often interesting, often beautiful, and frequently have blue flowers. The echiums are magnificent and check all the right boxes for me. They are indeed interesting, very beautiful, and they feed multitudes of pollinators. Some of them can literally produce thousands of blooms at a single time. Many of them are also monocarpic, meaning they die after flowering and setting seed.

There are about 40 species of Echium, and they can be annuals, perennials, biennials, or shrubs. Some of them are quite hardy but most are not. The Mediterranean seems to be the hot bed of echium activity and most species hail from that general region. They are well adapted to hot, sunny locations, often dry or even arid landscapes, and they want sharply drained, not too fertile soil. Most of the shrubby species are evergreen and can only handle a light frost. Pollination is primarily accomplished by bees, but moths and butterflies also do some of the work and in North America, they have been discovered by hummingbirds. Echium honey is highly prized. Propagation is by seed (usually pretty easy) or cuttings (more challenging but still pretty easy.) Leaves are almost always very bristly- verging on prickly, in fact. I would recommend wearing gloves when handling these plants, especially if you have sensitive skin.

Plants that evolve in isolated, closed ecosystems (and are thus not found anywhere else) are especially vulnerable to habitat destruction and extinction. The Canary Islands in the Atlantic Ocean are a territory of Spain but are actually much closer geographically to northern Africa. The Canaries are a world unto themselves in terms of botany, with a huge number of species endemic to these islands. This includes a number of shrubby echiums, many of which are both stunning and now very rare in the wild. Thankfully, to some degree they have been saved by horticulture. Beauty is an evolutionary weapon that plants have used to make themselves desirable; if you are gorgeous, humanity will yearn to possess you and thus will keep your species alive in gardens if nothing else.
Let me introduce you to a few of these Canary Island wonders.

Pride of Madeira (Echium fastuosum) is an evergreen shrub that reaches a height of about 6 ft. and produces very rough, long leaves up to 10” with dense clusters of rich blue to blue-purple flowers over a long period. The leaves are covered with white hairs which give the plant a silvery glow, and the blooms are like luminous violet candles. It is sometimes seen in coastal gardens and I have seen it in California and New Zealand. I also grew it from seed once and attempted to winter them indoors. I wasn’t successful, let’s just say that.

Giant echium (Echium pininana) is rare in the wild now but is sometimes cultivated in gardens in suitable climates. Monocarpic and usually biennial, in its first year it forms a bristly rosette that you won’t take too much notice of. The second (or sometimes third) year, it suddenly begins to rise and sends up an enormous flower spike from the center of the rosette. 10-13 ft. tall is common but sometimes it becomes as much as 18-20 ft.! Thousands of small purple, blue-violet or occasionally white flowers appear in the spike and it is something special to behold. Not surprisingly, it has received the RHS award of merit. It has escaped from gardens in suitable climates and has freely naturalized itself in parts of Wales, Ireland, and California. The first time I saw it was in New Zealand when I was 19. It took my breath away. I didn’t know what it was at the time, I only knew that I wanted to build a small hut near it and camp out underneath its radiant amethyst beauty for the rest of my life. This is one of those plants that from a distance appears merely curious, but the closer you get, the more beautiful it becomes. There’s a lesson in there somewhere.

The aptly named tower of jewels (Echium wildprettii) is another monocarpic species and usually grows 6-10 ft. tall. The blooms are in densely packed columns and range from coral pink to rosy red in colour. Even the rosettes are gorgeous; silver-hued pinwheels of long, bristly foliage. Remember the scene at the end of ‘The Grinch Who Stole Christmas’ when all the Whos down in Whoville join hands and sing while circling around the Christmas tree? That’s how tower of jewels makes me feel. I really want all my gardening friends to join me and we’ll just circle it singing until it finishes blooming. It would be disrespectful to look away for even a moment. I have only seen it in real life once but it haunts me still. My friends Frank and Michaela used to live in the Canary Islands and have in their living room framed, very large photos of it. The first time I visited their home I took one look at it and went “HOLY SHIT ECHIUM WILDPRETTII!!!” and Frank said “you know this plant!?!?” (This was followed by much horticultural nerding out.)

Anyway, I could write about non-hardy echiums all day but why don’t I actually address the one that I was asked to write about in the first place. That would be Echium vulgare, though I don’t really find it vulgar. The name viper’s bugloss is a reference to the fact that it has been used medicinally for centuries, particularly to treat snake bite. Blueweed is the name given to it by people in the Crowsnest Pass, who thought calling it “that really pretty and bristly thing with the blue flowers” was too time consuming so they shortened it to blueweed. It has definitely made itself problematic out that way and is also showing up in the Castle wilderness area and in Waterton Lakes National Park. However, since this area does not represent a huge part of Alberta as a whole, it’s still considered “sparse” in our province.

First introduced to North America as forage for honeybees, this species is both very bristly and mildly poisonous, making it unpalatable to browsing animals. It has a hard time competing with thick vegetation, instead preferring disturbed ground such as roadsides and ditches or places that have recently been burned. Given the enormous quantity of seeds that the plant produces, and the fact that they can stay viable for at least a decade, blueweed does have the potential to become a serious weed in our area. On the other hand, it is growing in places that few other things wish to grow and it is offering free meals for local pollinators, especially in August when they need the extra help. Given how much we have devastated North America’s wildflower populations, I find it interesting how quick people are to condemn this plant. By all means control it in places like pastures and agricultural land, but in ditches that are going to be mowed anyway? Or when it grows in the cracks along the edge of the highway? Who is it really harming?

It is also a very beautiful plant, and although blue is the normal colour it can also be purple, pink, or white. Back in the day, a few garden cultivars were introduced that were smaller, more compact, and began flowering sooner. I used to order the seed from Thompson and Morgan and we grew them out on our farm. They did self sow, but never to the point of nuisance and the bees and hummingbirds sure loved them.

Patterson’s curse (Echium plantagineum) is a closely related species that has become one of the most significant weeds in Australian agriculture. If you get on the internet and search for it, you’ll see entire fields of it in Western Australia. I think we should acknowledge that weeds can be beautiful, and that you can recognize a plant as being problematic while still being impressed by its tenacity and beauty ability to adapt and survive.

One final one that I will mention is Echium russicum, which is found throughout many countries in Europe and Asia. Growing 1-3 ft. tall, it is usually a biennial or short-lived perennial. Flowers appear in dense, long spikes in early to mid-summer and range from rich ruby-red to a pinkish rose. Pollinators love it, and it prefers sharply drained, rather infertile soil. Easy from seed, it will self sow without being a nuisance and is slowly starting to appear more often in garden centers. A cultivar of it called ‘Red Feathers’, with darker blooms and a more compact growth habit, is sometimes available. The rosettes are boring and uninteresting until the flowers begin to appear, and once they do they lend an unusual and beautiful touch to the xeriscape garden. In shape and habit, they remind me a little bit of blazing star (Liatris spicata), though they definitely like dryer soil. Echiums do not like disturbance so use care when transplanting and don’t give them too rich of soil. This species is hardy to at least zone 2 provided that drainage is good- otherwise it is prone to rot in the spring.

It would be inappropriate to dismiss an entire genus because of a single species that is weedy or has the potential to be weedy. It would be like someone being dismissive of you because you have a sibling who is incarcerated or a parent with a criminal record. The echiums are splendid and unusual, and maybe you’ll join me singing around a tower of jewels someday.

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While foraging about inside my computer this afternoon I actually found a blog post that I wrote some time ago but never actually posted! So while I’m here on the internet, I might as well get this up where it might do some good for someone.

I get asked a lot in recent years for perennials that are good for attracting pollinators, and one that I often recommend is bee balm. It’s as good as it sounds. There are lots of wonderful, beautiful plants in the mint family (easily recognized by their square stems and usually fragrant foliage) that provide a banquet for bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds.

Bee balm goes by many names. The Latin name is Monarda, and it is named for the French botanist Nicholas Monardes. He lived in the 1500’s and wrote a book about plants from North America and was apparently quite distinguished, or must have been to have had such a beautiful genus named after him. Other common names include bergamot, Oswego tea, and horse mint. All of the bee balms are strongly fragrant when rubbed or crushed; to me they smell strongly of oregano. They were much used by indigenous peoples for medicine but also for flavoring meat, especially grouse and partridge. The flowers produce copious amounts of nectar and can be added to salads or used to decorate cupcakes or added to desserts. (I added a handful of blooms to a cookie recipe once and rather liked the results.)

There is a common misconception that bee balm is what flavors Earl Grey tea. It is actually bergamot that gives Earl Grey its distinctive flavor. Bergamot is a type of bitter orange much used in perfumery and for flavoring and the scent of bee balm was said to be very similar, hence these two very different plants sharing a common name. I always assumed the orange was named for Bergamo, Italy (where bitter citrus is grown) but the internet has heavily contested this.

There are about 20 or 25 species of Monarda (all North American) with around 50 different cultivars. Most named varieties have Monarda didyma in their parentage but we’ll get to that species in a moment. They are easy to grow in the garden. They want full sun, reasonably fertile soil, and moisture. Bee balm is not a good plant for the drought resistant garden. The leaves will wilt and hang limply especially if they are in a hot location. Plant them some place that they will not be wanting for water. They begin to flower in mid summer and bloom for weeks and weeks at a time. Clumps are easily divided once established and this should be done regularly to maintain vigor. They make superb, long-lasting cutflowers and will draw every pollinator you can think of. They come in lots of colours (white, scarlet, purple, pink, rose) and in quite a number of sizes. Most are about 2-3 ft. tall but some grow as much as 4-5 ft. I much prefer the taller ones. Their pale brown, button-like seedheads provide wonderful winter interest and they are rarely troubled by pests. Even deer and rabbits seldom browse them.

The main problem with bee balms, that I find, is they are extremely prone to powdery mildew. Some of the old cultivars such as ‘Croftway Pink’ or ‘Cambridge Scarlet’ especially so. They’re going along just fine in your garden and you notice one day a few whitish looking leaves. So you remove those and go about your business and a week later it looks like someone dumped a bag of flour on the whole plant. It then begins gradually defoliating itself from the base. Even the most mildew resistant cultivars tend to succumb to mildew after a while, especially if fluctuating moisture levels are an issue. I have a client who has a large clump of ‘Jacob Kline’ bee balm in the front yard. Said to be one of the most mildew resistant varieties, it flowered profusely last summer and made a big show. It fed hummingbirds and bees and by the September long weekend the whole plant-though still blooming- looked shabby and sickly. So much so that I have decided to remove it and replace it with something else this year.

Many gardeners will agree with me about the mildew problem I’m sure, but I still recommend these as garden plants. They are so beautiful and they establish so quickly that even if you opt to remove them after a season or two, they can be worth having for that one season at least. I love fireworks and I always think bee balm flowers look like fireworks.

If you’re thinking about planting some bee balm this year, let me offer you a few recommendations. We’ll start with a few of the different species. Monarda didyma is the most famous red (scarlet is a better word) flowered species and comes from the far eastern half of North America. It likes moisture and generally grows 2-3 ft. tall. It has been extensively used for hybridization.

Here on the prairies, we have our own native species and that is Monarda fistulosa. It is much smaller (1-2 ft. tall) and the flowers are smaller and in tighter clusters. They are usually light purple in colour but can also be lavender, violet, or very rarely white. (*I’ve never seen the white flowered form but my friend Melodey has and took some great photos of it.) It can handle a lot dryer soil than its eastern cousin but is also very short-lived. Two or three seasons in the garden is about all you can expect and I find it doesn’t self sow very willingly. In the wild, these plants often grow in huge numbers where conditions suit them and in a meadow they are stunning. I also rarely see mildew on plants in the wild but in a garden setting, I find they are mildew magnets. I keep trying them in various garden settings with various types of soil. Semi-dry, average soil with prairie grasses (for a bit of competition) seems to help keep them a little more robust.

The lemon mint (Monarda citriodora) comes from the central and southern United States as well as Mexico. It can be an annual or a short-lived perennial and grows about 3 ft. tall, producing whorls of stacked pink or rose flowers over a long season. The foliage has a distinctly lemony fragrance and the flowers are very beautiful. I’m planning to grow quite a lot of this species this year (it germinates easily and grows quickly) and I’m going to put some in my friend Kelly’s planters this year in place of Verbena bonariensis, which may have gotten a little out of control at her house last year. (Ha ha.)

Spotted bee balm (Monarda punctata) is a weirdo again from the eastern half of the continent. It likes a bit dryer conditions than other bee balms and produces peculiar yellow, spotted flowers that emerge from prominent, pale pink bracts. It’s quite different (I like it) but nowhere near as hardy or as showy as most of its relatives.

If you’re going to plant a red bee balm, I think ‘Jacob Kline’ is going to be your best bet. It’s fast growing, very hardy, and gorgeous. Mildew be damned!

The white bee balms are almost never planted (I don’t think they are good sellers at garden centers) but ‘Snow White’ is a beauty that reaches nearly 4 ft. The flowers are very pure white and it’s lovely. I grew it out on the farm years ago and I wish it weren’t so difficult to find these days.

How about something purple? I’d have to go with ‘Violet Queen’. It’s a big monster to 4 ft. but a profuse bloomer and pretty good mildew resistance. ‘Blue Stocking’ is almost identical but a magnet for mildew. Forget it. ‘Prairie Night’ is even worse. It’s a nice dark purple but somewhere between purchasing it and getting it home, it seems to just turn into an absolute cloud of mildew. Forget this one.

There’s always this push to make perennials “smaller, more compact, more tidy.” Ball shaped. This means ball shaped. If you want your perennials to be shapeless, amorphous blobs the plant breeders are totally behind you on this. Since bee balms tend to be naturally tall, there is a strong urge to make them rounder, wider, and shorter for some reason. I find this irritating. ‘Grand Mum’ (pink) and ‘Grand Parade’ (purple) are two bee balms that have very good mildew resistance and are quite beautiful and widely available. They are, however, way too compact for my taste. They lack any kind of natural form or grace. Both max out around 2 ft. There’s also the ‘Petite’ series- notably ‘Petite Delight’ (pink) and ‘Petite Wonder’ (light purple). Both reach only 12-14” tall. I don’t know why you would want a bee balm this little. I have not found either of these introductions to be especially hardy, though I admit I have bought them at Home Depot or Canadian Tire occasionally (in 1 gal. pots in full bloom) to use in containers and that’s been fine.

Why not plant a big, robust bee balm like ‘Marshall’s Delight’? In terms of resisting mildew, this is the best bee balm I’ve ever grown. I’ve seen it go years without even a trace of mildew on its stems or leaves. The flower clusters are smaller than I would like, and the colour is a soft reddish pink. It’s nice…but if I’m being honest it does leave a little bit to be desired. It grows about 4 ft. tall and is a very vigorous plant. It’s also worth noting that it’s a Canadian introduction named for Dr. Henry Marshall. He was a researcher with Agriculture Canada in Morden, Manitoba and the work he did with roses in the 1960’s was literally ground breaking. It led to the development of the ‘Parkland’ series, which includes some of the best hardy roses in the world. He was also interested in perennials and this bee balm is one of his introductions. Introduced in the late 1980’s, it has proven to be a very good cultivar over time. There is a statue of Dr. Marshall in Morden, Manitoba that commemorates his contributions to our country and by all accounts he was a lovely person.

Two others that I’ll mention before I conclude. ‘Coral Reef’ was the most beautiful pink bee balm I had ever seen (a vivid, clear deep rose) and I planted a big honking 2 gal. specimen in my friend Alice’s garden in Calgary. It grew fine for the summer but did not survive the winter. I thought that was odd until I got feedback from many customers that it just wasn’t very hardy. Ain’t that always the way!

‘Raspberry Wine’ is a pinkish red form that gets a lot of attention and it’s both beautiful and mildew resistant, as well as hardy. My problem with it? It’s not a profuse bloomer.

If there’s a cultivar or a species that I haven’t mentioned that you’ve had good success with or been really happy with, why not let me know about it? I’m always looking for bee balms I haven’t grown before. (*A friend told me recently about a pale pink one called ‘Pink Frosting’ that looks kind of delicious…maybe with something silver or deep blue…)

I promise I will not make a habit of writing every day but I got a message this morning from a reader in the Carolinas who wanted to know just how long it would actually be until we see the first flowers up here. (They have stuff in bloom already. Lots of stuff. A suspicious amount of stuff, in fact.)

My first instinct was to say that this is the winter that will never die; that we’ve moved back into some sort of glacial period and it’s only a matter of weeks before woolly mammoths come tromping down out of the north to begin a new age of terror and frost. Last year March and April was basically just a 60 day period of wind and snow and it was awful and then spring arrived very abruptly in May.

The beautiful hepaticas are probably the first garden flowers we see up here; they usually show up in mid to late April, sometimes early May in a cold year, and sometimes in late March in a warm year. Native plants, however, are usually the first signals that spring might actually make an appearance.

Usually it starts with the willows. They generally flower in April and I love watching their fuzzy little grey catkins push forth and then puffing up with yellow pollen. The first bumblebees and honeybees are generally pretty excited about these.

Silver buffaloberry can flower as early as mid March but this is rare- May is more usual. In 2016 the buffaloberries were in full flower here on the 11th of March- the honeybees were going absolutely bonkers and were very busy foraging. That seems highly improbable this year but you never know. The tiny native phlox, the little blue violets, and the shooting stars are other early indications that winter’s power has been broken. The Siberian squills, striped squills, and glory of the snow (Chionodoxa) are also very early- I planted a shitload of them in fall just because they are so welcome and beautiful and necessary.

My favorite sign that spring is officially here, however, is the glacier lilies. That’s what I’m going to write about today, and then I’ll probably be silent for a while because otherwise you’ll all get tired of hearing me endlessly prattle on.

I didn’t grow up with glacier lilies because I grew up in Saskatchewan. Glacier lilies (Erythronium) are not true species of lilies, but they are in the lily family. There are about 20 or 30 different kinds and their very closest relatives are actually the tulips. Glacier Lilies have also been called fawn lily, trout lily, dog’s tooth violet, adder’s tongue, avalanche lily, and several other names. These plants often have attractively spotted or speckled foliage, beautiful pendant flowers, and a habit of blooming quite early in the year. A number of hybrids exist, and they are all of varying degrees of hardiness. Some are extremely easy in the garden, others quite challenging. Their seeds are fairly easy to germinate, and if things go well, they will bloom in five to ten years. (*Assuming squirrels do not dig up and eat the bulbs, which they are fond of doing, and that the seedlings adapt to your garden.) Depending on the species, the blossoms can be white, ivory, cream, yellow, gold, violet, mauve, lavender, rose, or pink. Most of them are quite short while in bloom, with the stems lengthening and getting quite tall as the seed pods develop. They are pollinated primarily by bees.

The species that grows wild here in southern Alberta is probably better known to hikers than it is to gardeners. Erythronium grandiflorum likes high elevations and can be found in all of our Rocky Mountain national parks. It blooms as soon as the snow melts, with beautiful down-facing yellow flowers and favoring moist locations with sharp drainage. It often grows with shooting star, creating an incredible effect. The flowers do not last long and they go dormant quite quickly when they have finished with seed production. Their edible bulbs are a major food source for grizzly bears in late summer or fall.

Glacier lilies frequently grow in large colonies in the wild, but just because their seeds sprout easily enough doesn’t mean they are easy in the garden. Goodness, no. They rarely perform well as garden plants. Their preference for the cool temperatures of the high alpine and their tendency to go dormant after flowering does not lend itself well to cultivation, to say nothing of the lengthy amount of time it takes to get from seed to bloom.
I have tried and tried to get glacier lilies to grow for me. I have collected seeds many times. They are generous with the amount of seeds that they produce. I have gotten the seeds to germinate and I am filled with excitement…and then they die. For no obvious reason, they just start to turn yellow and crisp and turn brown and languish and die. They want to be somewhere up high, I know. They are pining for their natural habitat, which is something I cannot offer them. Yearning almost always causes death in perennials. If they want to be somewhere else, they will surely falter and pass away. Glacier lilies come into this world and long for somewhere that cold winds blow across snowdrifts and bears and elk and bighorn sheep are grazing. They want to be watered with the cold, cold water of melting snow and they want the blazing intensity of high altitude sun.

If I had the choice between being in a garden in Lethbridge or on a slope high up in the mountains, I know what I would choose. I have learned to meet the glacier lilies on their own terms. I have to go to them. It’s my job to ensure that the places they grow are preserved for future generations, and it’s my job to go and visit them every spring because they make me feel like the world is still miraculous and it’s good to be here.

Last spring, the weather was bad and I had things going on and I knew I needed to get to the mountains but I didn’t have time. I didn’t have extra gas money. I needed new hiking shoes. I made excuses. The glacier lilies were calling me, I could feel their soft petals at night scrambling against the far reaches of my heart. Finally I said to myself one morning “Lyndon, they only bloom for a short time and you spent most of your life living in an area where you never got to see a single one so you should go see them RIGHT NOW while you have the opportunity.” So I did. I went on a still, snowy Tuesday morning in late April and found great, happy companies of them around Beauvais Lake. They like the open, sunnier sites but they can be found to a lesser degree in the woods too. Some were growing in the company of western white pines (Pinus monticola), a tree so rare in Alberta that many refuse to acknowledge it as a native species here. It barely- just barely– squeaks over the border into our province. The sound of the wind in the pines while glacier lilies danced and frolicked beneath them was worth the drive. I can hardly wait for the glacier lilies to be blooming again.If you live in this part of the world and have never seen the glacier lilies before, put it in your spring “to do” list. I promise you will not be sorry.