On the first of this month, an Australian friend sent me a gorgeous photo of a feather flower. There are about 100 species of feather flower, all of which are indigenous to Australia. They are members of the extravagant and beautiful myrtle family, and I have to say I was totally unfamiliar with them. They can have white, red, yellow, pink, rose, or lavender coloured flowers nearly always framed and decorated with lavish, silky collars that do indeed carry the appearance of feathers.

I have taught an entire class about the myrtle family and I also used to live in Australia; I thought it very curious indeed that I had never heard of these plants. Some investigating revealed that they are little cultivated in gardens and tend to grow in places that are not highly accessible to humans; thus they have never become very well known. That being said, they have caused a great stir in botanical circles whenever they appear. They are almost excessive in their beauty; no one who has studied them or documented them for science has failed to comment about how lovely they are. This includes myself; I was so struck by the photo that I immediately went on line to find out what I could about these plants. The Latin name that was given to them is Verticordia; it’s not the prettiest sounding name but it does have a wonderful meaning. Translated literally, it means “turner of hearts.” I have thought about this again and again over the last little while. A turner of hearts…what a good name for a group of spectacularly gorgeous flowers. I have pondered what it is that turns my own heart, and what precious thing or things holds my own attention. I have barely left my home for two months. Saturated in solitude, what have I been giving my time and attention to? It’s a good question to ask myself.

I suppose at this time of year, my heart is turned to the changing of the seasons. Winter is showing herself to the door, and Spring is here with her coat of green and her suitcase full of promises and surprises. I have a busy schedule for the next little while (which I am definitely not complaining about) but I am hoping to squeak in at least one little trip to the mountains soon to seek out the shooting stars and glacier lilies; two shining little beacons that announce to the world that Winter has once more been banished and that Summer is approaching.

I’m also hoping to find some spring beauty, another beautifully named little plant that shows up usually in the first days of the new season. Related to Portulaca, spring beauty has fleshy leaves and small flowers that don’t exactly scream for attention. There are 27 species of spring beauty (Claytonia), all native to the northern hemisphere. The species I know is Claytonia lanceolata, which occasionally grows in the Cypress Hills but can also be found up near Cameron Lake and in parts of Kananaskis. Reaching perhaps 2” tall, spring beauty is easily ignored (or stepped on) unless it grows in large numbers, which sometimes it does. On first glance, they are merely tiny little white flowers. Look closely. When examined carefully, you will see their beautiful pink pollen, delicate veining, and apple-green throat. It’s a remarkably pretty little flower, but so small I usually pass it by en route to a shining clump of glacier lilies. I sometimes need to remind myself to slow down, go cautiously, and be more aware of things. I need to pay close attention and be alert to the things that could be turning my heart.


Since I’m writing about tobacco this afternoon, today’s post should perhaps come with a surgeon general’s warning. I got a nice e-mail today from someone asking if it was too late to start Nicotiana from seed. The short answer is no. You can seed nicotiana pretty much anytime between mid March and mid April and it germinates very easily and grows quickly. I wouldn’t bother, though. For my part, I would rather buy nicotiana from a local garden center. We only have so much space in our home to start seeds; why give that space to something that you could literally buy anywhere? Don’t get me wrong. I love nicotiana. It’s just that I could buy a whole flat of it from any garden center (or big box store) and save myself some time and space and effort. The exception to this would be if I were to start some FANCY nicotiana.

If you’re not familiar with Nicotiana, it’s the scientific name for tobacco. Most people pronounce it wrong. I usually hear “Nicotina”. The correct way to say it is “Ni-co-she-ann-ah”. The genus is named for Jean Nicot, the French ambassador to the Portuguese court. There are 67 species found here (mostly South American) and they are members of the nightshade family. This makes them close relatives of peppers, potatoes, eggplants, petunias, and tomatoes. The most widely grown nicotiana cultivars are hybrids between Nicotiana affinis and Nicotiana alata. They have star-shaped, tubular flowers in a great many colours and come in many different sizes. Most of them are deliciously scented at night, making them good choices for planting around patios or decks where you like to sit. They bloom all summer with a minimum of care and are also attractive to hummingbirds. I have loved nicotiana since I was a child (even though the leaves and stems are often a bit sticky) and I definitely recommend them.

Nicotiana tobacum is the tobacco grown commercially for the production of cigarettes and it is big, beefy plant with attractive pink flowers. Nicotiana sylvestris is one of my most favourite annual flowers, with huge leaves and long, tubular white blooms in great profusion. It grows about 5 ft. tall and makes a bold statement in the garden. It needs a lot of room but it’s worth having.

Woodland Tobacco 820216 Nicotiana sylvestris

I always like plants with green flowers and there are a number of nicotianas that offer this. Nicotiana rustica is grown commercially, but not for smoking. It is the chief source of Nicotine sulfate, which is used in the manufacturing of a lot of insecticides. The flowers are odd. Instead of the normal, more trumpet-shaped blooms, this one produces stubby little blobs of lime green with open, flared petals. I approve of this. The leaves are sticky and hairy. It’s not especially showy, but it is rather fun.

The tree tobacco (Nicotiana glauca) is native to Argentina. A huge and appropriately named species, in its homeland it can reach 10-20 ft. tall. I was told that it would “never grow” here. The only possible response to that is “challenge accepted!” and I was really successful with it, which I feel smug about. I got the seeds (this was many years ago) from a small seed company near Toronto that I *think* was called ‘Seeds of Distinction’ or something like that. They had a very fancy, high gloss catalogue and it was mostly like seven dollars for a packet of 10 seeds of anything. Needless to say, they aren’t in business anymore. (At least as far as I am aware.) The tree tobacco germinated without trouble (sown indoors in mid March) and produced 6 ft. of growth over the course of the summer. The foliage is extremely smooth, distinctly blue-green in colour, and a has texture not unlike damp leather. The flowers are brilliant yellow and appeared from mid summer through autumn. Mine flowered beautifully till the frosts got it. I tried bringing it in for winter but it soon developed issues with spider mites so I respectfully escorted it to the compost heap and that was the end of it. I have read that it has escaped cultivation in some of the southern states.

From Brazil, Nicotiana langsdorfii is a slow growing perennial cultivated in northern climates as an annual. It has pendant, small flowers of bright lime green and it isn’t showy in the garden but it’s a wonderful cutflower. If you examine the flowers closely, you will see that the pollen is blue, which I find quite fascinating. It can grow 4 ft. tall and there is also a variegated form, but I don’t like it.

Finally, Nicotiana mutabilis is one that I would like to try growing again. I have only grown it once. The Latin name means “changeable” and this is most appropriate. Growing 3-5 ft. tall, this species produces rather small flowers but makes up for this by producing hundreds of them. Through some trick of genetics that I don’t understand, the flowers open dark pink, age to soft pink, and then become white. This creates a plant with all three of these colours at once and it is airy and gorgeous and something to behold. The scent is not as pronounced as other species, but who cares? Terrific for use as cutflower material, this is a vigorous and easy grower. ‘Marshmallow’ is a bit more compact than the species. I grew this more than a decade ago when I was still living in Saskatchewan. I had a whole row of it in front of my cute little house on Broadway Avenue and it got a lot of attention. One day I was out weeding and an old lady stopped me and asked what it was. I told her it was a kind of nicotiana. “No it’s not!” she said matter of factly. She told me she had been gardening for a long time and she knew what nicotiana looked like. I said “well, there’s more than one kind, you know.” She said “no there isn’t!” and went on her way. It’s funny to me that people who are the most confident about things are usually the people who know the least.

I’m struggling with insomnia again. I’ve been lying in bed for two hours and I’m terribly, desperately alert. There is a delicious and frosty looking late winter fog enveloping the street lights outside my window. My street has a ghostly, crystalline quality that I am thinking about exploring. The great bare canopies of the naked elm trees are spread wide like a Japanese fan. I suppose I could put on my coat and slip out and wander these empty streets in the darkness for a while.

Alternatively, I could pour all these words out of my head and onto the page for all of you nice people to read. I’ve thought about nothing except bees tonight. This was meant to be a mental exercise that would relax and thus lull me to sleep. I thought about as many different kinds of bees as I know. Honeybees and bumblebees and mason bees and sweat bees and long-horned bees and every kind of bee I’m familiar with. Ironically, instead of putting me to sleep, I found this so stimulating and engaging that I am now sitting at my computer and writing about them. There are thousands of species of bees in the world. Most are tiny and solitary, quietly going about their work and minding their own business and bothering no one. I had a client last year tell me she had “grave concerns” about the large bumblebees visiting the flowers I planted in her yard. “They are too close to the patio”, she insisted. “Someone is going to get stung.” This was after she had been to a presentation I did where I extolled the virtues of bees in all their various forms. I was a bit confused by her attitude, and later discovered she couldn’t even tell the difference between a bee and a wasp. Here we are months later and this is still irritating to me for some reason.

Bees, like men, can be either furry or smooth. Some are slender and lean-bodied and others are robust and chubby. (Also like men.) Some are aggressive and others are peaceful but also sort of bad-ass in the sense that everyone knows they aren’t to be messed with but they don’t go around looking for trouble. I madly, passionately, obsessively love bees. A few summers ago I had the pleasure of reading Lori Weidenhammer’s book ‘Victory Gardens for Bees’. If you don’t own a copy of this book, you should run (not walk) to your local book store immediately and purchase it. It is one of the finest books about bees ever written, and the author (who I have chatted with a few times) is lovely and interesting and articulate.

It was in Lori’s book that I first learned about the ambitious and practical carpenter bees, of which there are a few hundred species and they range from small to very large indeed. The females have large mandibles with which they dig out tunnels in aged wood (old barns, fences, or dead trees will do nicely) in order to start their families. Males tend to be rather territorial but they do not have stingers. We do not have carpenter bees here in Alberta, but I really enjoyed learning about them because some of them are extraordinarily beautiful, and a lot of them also have remarkable and very large eyes. A lot of them are also both fluffy and chubby, which for some reason makes me like them even more. Like, if they were larger, you would want to cuddle them so hard. There are small carpenter bees too, but these belong in a different category scientifically.

Somewhere in the back of my mind a file entitled “carpenter bees” was created and it remained there waiting to be opened at the opportune time. Some species of carpenter bees are densely furred and others have shining, hairless bodies that appear to have been made with burnished metal. When I was in France last year, my friend Carol and I walked around the botanical garden in Bordeaux. In a clump of sage in a park not far from there, an enormous bee was collecting lunch. I thought it was a bumblebee of some kind. It was very large, very focused on the task of gathering nectar, and marvellously beautiful. It was also entirely, completely jet black in colour. I had never seen a bee like it. It was like someone had forged a bee from the finest obsidian. I pointed it out to Carol and we both thought it was very fabulous. As we journeyed across Spain, I saw the large black bee a number of times. I mentioned it to my friend Preston when I got home; Preston is a bee-keeper and bee enthusiast and he was not aware of any all black species of bumblebee. I tucked this memory away somewhere, in the same way that one puts away Christmas decorations when the season has passed.
More than once, I thought of this shining black sovereign and the kingdom she ruled on the other side of the world. I did not know her name, or any details about her life. I tried to find her once or twice in the textbooks, but my efforts were not focused and did not amount to anything. Then one day something occurred to me; just out of the blue. I was actually on a bus in Vancouver when it happened. The large black bee had a body as smooth and metallic as any sports car. She could not be a bumblebee because bumblebees are always dressed in elegant fur. She would have to be…a carpenter bee. I found her in an online journal a few days later- the European carpenter bee is solidly black and sometimes mistaken for a bumblebee. So now I knew who she was. I felt good about this. I felt like this bee and I were friends.

I sent a picture of the black carpenter bee to a British friend and asked if they got them in the UK. “Yes”, he said enthusiastically, “and we also get-only very rarely- the violet winged carpenter bee.” I looked up this exotic creature on line. You never saw anything so beautiful. Her body is the colour of coal and her iridescent blue-purple wings carry her from one flower to the next. As far as bees go, she is rather breath-taking. I could have lived my whole life content in the knowledge that somewhere on the other side of the pond, large bees with radiant violet wings were going about their lives but then something really remarkable happened.

I was gushing to a friend about the transcendent beauty of these carpenter bees and she smiled a funny smile and said “do you know about the blue ones?” “Good God in Heaven!” I thought. “Can there really be something so magical and improbable as a bee with BLUE fur? The answer is yes. The blue carpenter bee is blue and black instead of yellow and black. The first time I saw a picture of one, I thought it had been photoshopped. It hadn’t been. From southeast Asia, India, and southern China this rather large bee is dressed in the finest shawl of turquoise coloured silk and is both non-aggressive and even reasonably common. Imagine visiting a nation where there are bees in cerulean coats happily making their homes in long abandoned wooden buildings. It’s no wonder I can’t sleep at night.

It is a quiet, peaceful Sunday morning here in Lethbridge. Normally, as I sit here at my computer, there would be a cup of hot coffee beside me but as luck would have it, I used up the last of my coffee yesterday. The coffee/grocery wagon will not be pulling up to my place until I receive a cheque that I’m waiting for and that could be at least a week yet so it’s possible I might have to go out with mug in hand to beg and borrow coffee from the neighbours.

It has been a long, difficult winter for me. It has been exhausting and stressful. When I got back to Canada in November, I had a manuscript to work on. I put my head down and devoted myself wholly and entirely to meeting my deadline. (Which I did.) At the same time, my sister was expecting baby number three and she wasn’t well during this time period so I spent a lot of time with my nephews. I also had to have a fair bit of work done on my truck, which meant I had to spend 800 of the 1000 dollars I had hidden away in my savings account. That was pretty awful, but thank God I had the presence of mind to actually have a savings account. Then, to make things even more complicated, while I was away my grandmother was diagnosed with colorectal cancer and had to begin radiation treatments at the beginning of December.

This meant I spent most of December helping her and Grandpa and looking after them, getting Grandma to her appointments, trying to spend time with my nephews, and of course, eating everything I could find. Back in the day (when I was a teenager and in my early twenties) I used to eat when I was stressed out. I somehow regressed into doing this again. I lost 15 lbs to do the Camino and nearly 10 lbs while I was on it and I gained pretty much all of that back within a month because I was face down in every pan of squares and brownies that came out of the kitchen. I made (and devoured) three different cakes, endless cookies, and even one adventurous Saturday an assortment of apricot scones. I didn’t realize how much my grandmother’s illness would upset me, and I didn’t cope with it very well. I’m trying to eat better (like a grown-up) again, but the temptation to just eat my feelings is still pretty strong. Fortunately, I can’t afford extra groceries at the moment so these two things are sort of balancing each other out. (The one nice thing about living in poverty is that it’s slimming. No need to go to the gym.)

January was a gong show in every way. I would like to purchase a one way bus ticket for January and tell it to hit the road! If we could just remove January (and February) from the calendar and go right from new year’s eve to March 1st that would be terrific. I went to Vancouver for a month to house/dog-sit for a friend. I’ve done this before. I wanted to escape the worst of the cold prairie winter and I have lots of friends on the coast so this seemed like a good idea. It wasn’t. Unexpected things happened and I fell into a terrible depression the likes of which was totally uncharted territory for me. Instead of just feeling unspeakably sad and weary of living (which is pretty normal for depression) I felt lethargic and unmotivated and everything was exhausting. I actually didn’t even realize it was depression until very recently. I thought maybe it was a vitamin deficiency or a virus or something like that. I would get up in the morning and take the dog out for an hour and instead of feeling refreshed and invigorated from my walk in the woods, I would come back feeling like I had just spent hours climbing the most challenging of mountain peaks. I would grab a book and lay on the couch but couldn’t focus on reading. I would spend hours at a time literally just lying on the floor and staring at the ceiling. One afternoon my phone rang but it was on the table and the thought of having to get up off the floor and walk the 6 ft. over there to answer it was just unbearable.

Everything was a ridiculous, incredible effort. Everything felt overwhelming and like it was too much. There was one afternoon where I felt like I was drowning, but very slowly. My anxiety was skyrocketing. Conversations with friends felt clouded and unfocused. I thought I was managing okay and keeping this pretty well hidden and then the insomnia began. I went nine days without sleeping more than two hours per night. What should have been a wonderful, restorative time away was not. This is not to say that I didn’t do anything fun or that every day was misery (it wasn’t; thank God for west coast friends) but overall it was not the experience that I had hoped for. My grandmother had major surgery for her cancer on February 9th; I flew back to Saskatoon on the 11th.

I spent the last three weeks of February staying with my grandparents and helping them and cooking and cleaning and making sure that they were looked after and that they were doing all right. I am tremendously lucky that I have the sort of job and career where I can spend three weeks with my grandparents and it was nice to be doing something useful and productive. It was nice to be in a position where I could be of service and doing something important and worthwhile instead of just visiting. The last weekend of February I went up north to Meadow Lake Provincial Park to host another gardener’s retreat weekend and I have to tell you…it was the best thing I did all winter. To everyone who came out to that event, and to Shelly for making it happen, my sincere thanks and appreciation. I needed that so badly.

I got possession of my new place in Lethbridge on March 1st. When I drove from Saskatoon to Lethbridge that morning, it was sunny and the highways were dry and all along the highway there were great exaltations of horned larks. Horned larks are among my most loved of all birds and they were so welcome and wanted and sacred that it made my heart leap. They are the first of the songbirds to return to the prairies and I love their dashing little horns and black mustaches and their lilting, musical little song that reminds me of the tinkling of bells. The appearance of the larks, more than anything else, told me that winter was over and things could start getting good again.

I absolutely love my new place in Lethbridge. I love it. It’s considerably more expensive than my previous place so I am going to have to work harder this year and take on more work. I was actually supposed to have three weeks worth of work for the city of Lethbridge when I got back but for reasons I will not get into, that is no longer happening. Losing three weeks of work is among the more brutal things that can happen to a self employed person. I am very pleased with myself that I budgeted so well last year and stashed away money hither and yon “just in case”. Well, I’m very nearly to the end of that particular pile so I’m hoping the cheque I mentioned earlier shows up here pretty quickly. (Lack of coffee makes me grumpy!)

I’m hoping the rest of 2018 is positive and lovely. I’m excited for classes I will be teaching this year as well as things I will be growing. I had a meeting in Waterton on Friday regarding the wildflower festival and I am curious to see how the park regenerates after the fires. I’ll be doing a significant amount of work this year for the Nikka Yuko Japanese garden in Lethbridge. I have to deal with my income tax very soon so I’m busy organizing receipts and expenses into tidy little piles for my accountant. I’m sleeping better these days and I’m feeling very cautiously optimistic about the rest of the year.

Things I’m excited about growing this year include eastern horned poppy (Dicranostigma), a particularly beautiful white flowered runner bean, and I finally got some seeds for sea kale (Crambe). I’ve also got some gorgeous, purple-leaf forms of Japanese mustard greens that I’m told are mild and delicious but I just want to grow them because I think those big, ruffled, reddish purple leaves are absolutely gorgeous. What are you excited to grow this year?

Amethyst is the official birthstone of February. If you’re not familiar with it, it is a particularly gorgeous semi-precious stone in shades of violet through purple. My friend Jaime was the first person I knew who was really into amethyst. She loves all shades of purple, and she likes cool rocks, so it was sort of a natural connection. She once gave me a large piece of this lovely gem which I have kept in my room for years. The name amethyst is derived from Greek and means “without intoxication”, as wearing amethyst was believed to protect one from the effects of drinking too much. Siberia, Sri Lanka, and Brazil produce some of the world’s finest amethyst but in fact it can be found all over the globe. Some people believe that amethyst has healing powers and aids in recovery from emotional and physical ailments, including insomnia. I can tell you that despite having a chunk of this pretty rock near my bed, my (semi-frequent) insomnia persists.

The colour purple has historically been associated with royalty and thus this was once a stone for kings and queens and nobility. The number of purple plants that have been given ‘Amethyst’ as their cultivar name is extraordinary. Quite a number of them are favourites of mine. I thought maybe today, just for something different, I would write about some of them.

The first one I should mention is Amethystea caerulea. This is an annual in the mint family and the only species in its genus. It is found all over the northern parts of Asia and grows 12-24” tall. The tiny mauve-blue flowers are not especially interesting but the entire plant has a very unusual blue-green sheen to it. The tiny flowers give way to sprays of long lasting seedheads and it is a beautiful plant for cutting and drying. It is not common in gardens as it needs to be direct sown but it is easy in any sunny, well drained site. I have grown it only once. I was in my early twenties and I got a packet of seeds from a nursery out west somewhere. I found it strange and marvelous and I’d like to try growing it again.

For pots and containers, cascading plants are always a good choice. A lovely ornamental oregano with a trailing habit has been given the name ‘Amethyst Falls’. It has unusual, violet bracts in great profusion. It flowers for most of the summer and attracts bees and butterflies.

I also like to use coral bells (Heuchera) in containers. ‘Amethyst Mist’ is a very hardy and reliable cultivar with brilliant violet-purple foliage shaded in silver. The flowers are very pale pink; nearly white.

Amethyst Mist

A plethora of Centaurea species are available to the gardener, with some being perennials and others annuals. I was over the moon a few years ago when a selection of Centaurea montana called ‘Amethyst in Snow’ was released. The flowers are white with deep purple centers. I fell all over myself to order this one. I soon discovered that the flowers are smaller than I would prefer, it is not a profuse bloomer, and it is extremely prone to powdery mildew. ‘Amethyst in Snow’ was quickly renamed (by me) ‘Shabby and in the Trash’ and replaced with something better.

I’ve had a mad passion for irises for years. A particularly gorgeous violet form called ‘Amethyst Flame’ is available, and it clumps up quickly and flowers profusely.

I am fond of Phlox paniculata and there is a nice looking form called ‘Amethyst’ that grows very tall. (Around 4 ft.) It has exquisitely coloured, lilac-purple blooms that are quite fragrant. It is perfectly hardy and widely available but I have (unfortunately) not found it to be a very profuse bloomer.

If you picked up some hyacinth bulbs in fall to use for forcing indoors this winter you might have come across a delightful cultivar called ‘Amethyst’. This one ranges from violet to light purple in colour with a delicious scent. Flower clusters are also large.

There are even some vegetables that have had amethyst added to their name, perhaps most notably in the case of the ‘Amethyst’ radish. Why grow boring, ordinary radishes of red or white when instead you can grow this marvel with deep, reddish-purple roots and snow-white interiors? Not only is it delicious and quick to mature, it is such a good performer that it has received the RHS award of merit!

Finally, I’ll end by cheating a little and introducing you to the enigmatic and beautiful amethyst mushroom (Laccaria amethystina) which is of course, not a plant. Found throughout the northern hemisphere, this is an incredibly beautiful mushroom that emerges from the soil in the most radiant shade of soft violet to blue-purple. The colour quickly fades and changes, giving it the other common name of “amethyst deceiver” as a result. Although this mushroom is considered edible, it has very little flavour and is also capable of absorbing large quantities of arsenic from the soil (if arsenic is to be found there). You can find the amethyst mushroom in both deciduous and coniferous forests but it is not very big and easily missed. Many mushrooms can be as beautiful as flowers, and they are often more mysterious.

If you know someone who has a birthday this month, maybe you’d like to acquaint them with some of these wonderful plants.

I received an e-mail recently where someone asked if I would be designing a lot of “Spanish themed” gardens in 2018 what with my recent trek across Spain and all, and what that would look like. While I saw no shortage of paths, trails, and roads in Spain and plenty of countryside, we weren’t exactly strolling through people’s gardens every day. The Spanish grow extensive and well designed vegetable gardens, and flowering plants were abundant even in tiny little villages, but I’m not sure I would recognize a “Spanish” themed garden. I had it in mind this year that I was going to include a smallish clump of red carnations somewhere and that would be my little nod to Spain and my journey.

The red carnation is the national flower of Spain (and also Monaco), as well as being the state flower of Ohio. Although they are far more often cultivated in greenhouses for cutflower use than they are as garden plants, I actually rather like carnations. I’m surprised at the number of people who dismiss them as “cheap and ugly.” I’ve heard more than one person declare that they hate carnations. Like many plants, they have a long history of use and they come in literally every colour. Many of them are deliciously fragrant. Some are good in containers, others are good in the border. A clump of red carnations might be exactly the touch of “Spanish fire” my garden design (or designs) might need this year.

Carnations (Dianthus caryophyllus) are believed to be native to the Mediterranean region (including Spain), but as they have been cultivated for well over 2000 years no one is really entirely sure about this. In the wild, the blooms are highly variable and range from pink through purple or occasionally white. They can be single or double and are sweetly scented. They hybridize easily and modern forms of carnations can also be red, yellow, peach, or bi-colored. William Shakespeare mentioned them in more than one of his works (it was called the “gilly flower”) and in the Victorian language of flowers, it could have any number of meanings. (The Victorians often called it the clove pink, for its spicy scent.)

Columbia is the world’s leading grower of carnations for the florist industry. Carnations were also among the first plants to be genetically modified. The label “GMO” strikes an immediate reaction with many people, mostly emotional and rarely scientific. The fact that we live in a world where we can take genes from one thing and put them into something else is, well, astonishing. What an incredible time to be alive! As with any technology, I think this kind of power needs to be deeply respected and used wisely, so it’s understandable of course that we immediately used this newfound power to alter the colour of carnations. That’s right. We did that. Apparently it was important to humanity that we use the most profound scientific understanding at our disposal to create carnations of a new colour. First, genes for blue (to me they are purple, but whatever) were removed from petunias. These genes were then inserted into carnations because the gene for blue does not exist in any species of Dianthus. ‘Moondust’ was the first, introduced in 1996. Many others followed. Is the world really served by this? I ask honestly. There are so many areas where genetic modification I think could be used to the good of all society and (at great expense) we decided instead to expand the colour range of one of our most common cutflowers. I think humans could do with getting their priorities in order a little better.

As common as they are from your local florist, carnations are not often seen in prairie gardens. Perhaps owing to their Mediterranean origins, carnations do not usually perform especially well here. There are both perennial and annual forms of carnation, and I usually recommend the annual ones. The perennial forms seldom survive satisfactorily here. That being said, sometimes you find a good spot for them with good snowcover and they do all right for a season or two. They tend to be short-lived anyway. The very popular ‘Grenadin’ series is probably the hardiest and available in white, yellow, red, and pink. They are also generally inexpensive, so why not give them a go and just see what happens?

‘King of the Blacks’ is a perennial carnation with flowers of such deep scarlet as to be nearly black in some lighting. I have had this one overwinter for me more than once and it’s lovely. ‘Bookham Perfume’, a brilliant scarlet, is the most fragrant carnation I have ever grown. It overwintered for me for several years before departing. I have also twice tried ‘Raspberry Ripple’, a beautiful striped and marbled bicolor, but it did not overwinter. The green carnation is a symbol of Oscar Wilde and no luck with that one either.

Annual carnations are much more compact and reliable and do well in beds, borders, and containers. You can often buy them in the bedding plant section and it’s also fairly easy to raise your own from seed. ‘Chabaud’ is very compact, highly fragrant, and comes in a range of colors. ‘Enfant de Nice’ has longer stems and is better for cutting but the blooms are not as scented. ‘Sonata’ is a good blend of reds and pinks and is both scented and good for cutting.

If you’re doing well with carnations in a prairie garden or have found an innovative way of using the annual ones, I’d love to hear about it or see some photos.

I got an e-mail a few days before Christmas asking me to write more about the “flowers of the Camino”. Seeing as how we did this hike in the autumn, it wasn’t exactly the prime season for flowers. This is not to say there wasn’t anything in bloom-there certainly was- but if it be flowers you want, spring is definitely the more opportune time to go.

I finally identified a mysterious plant whose name I did not know. While those I walked with were probably having thoughts of God and spirituality and architecture and art and the flavours of a different culture, I thought often about a plant with invisible foliage whose blooms pushed out of the bare, stony ground.

The first time I saw this plant was in a windy meadow in the Pyrenees. At first I was sure it was a crocus, but it nagged at me. It wasn’t a crocus, but it was certainly crocus-like. I puzzled over this. I dismissed this thought. On a “spiritual journey”, does the name of a tiny purple flower in a meadow actually matter? I decided it does matter. I should perhaps preface this information with how I concluded what it was not.

When I mention crocus, many people assume that I am speaking of the prairie crocus. We also know this plant as pasque flower, and it is the official flower of Manitoba. This plant (Pulsatilla) is not a true crocus at all, but rather a member of the buttercup family. It is closer to Clematis than it is to Crocus. The true crocuses are members of the iris family. We also tend to think of crocuses as spring bloomers; indeed many of them flower as soon as the snow melts. In more moderate climates, there are a great many autumn blooming crocuses as well. They produce foliage in the spring or summer, and the foliage feeds the bulb. When the bulbs are sufficiently plump, the leaves die away and the plant is invisible until the fall, when sumptuous, chalice-like blooms emerge from the bare ground. To further add to the confusion, there are two totally unrelated groups of plants that are both called fall crocus. True fall blooming crocus are one thing, but then there is the genus Colchicum. Once placed in the same family as lilies, these are also called autumn crocus. They have now been moved to their own, separate family and not only are they beautiful and unexpected when their violet or white flowers appear, they are also sensationally poisonous.

When Carol and I crossed the Pyrenees mountains from France into Spain at the beginning of the Camino, I wasn’t thinking about any of this. I was thinking about how green and lovely the Pyrenees were, and how quaint and medieval the little town of St. Jean-Pied-de-Port was, and what the rest of the trail might have to offer. Amidst the tinkling bells of cattle and the great pure white billowing clouds, I wasn’t having a lot of thoughts about what grew here. Where there are cattle and sheep, there are greatly reduced populations of wildflowers. Imagine my surprise when I first encountered the lovely burgundy cups of fall crocus in the grass beside the road. Further along, and once we approached the monastery in Roncesvalle on the Spanish side, I saw more congregations of small purple flowers. “Ah, more of the fall crocus!” I said to myself. I even said to Carol something along the lines of “aren’t these little purple crocus just delightful?” and I think she smiled and said something that indicated approval. I looked at them more closely. Yes, some of them were true crocus…but some of them weren’t. This bothered me. What were they? Obviously I would have to find out. Perhaps a Colchicum that the hand of the breeder hadn’t tampered with? Perhaps a tiny lily with which I was unfamiliar? No, certainly not a lily. No lily did anything like this. I put this unidentified little plant out of my head, but I found it again several times. Sometimes thrusting out of clods of dirt along the road, sometimes in circles beneath oaks and on the edges of pastures. Crocus…and not a crocus. A camino mystery! I made a note about them in my journal that night and tried to forget about them.

The little flower, however, was not about to be forgotten. It entered my thoughts when I least expected it. When I smugly identified an obscure species of holly as we entered another little farm town, the little purple flower appeared at the periphery of my thoughts, reminding me that in fact, I did not know as much as I would like to. I wanted to know the name of that little flower, and where it fit into the great scheme of Linnaen organization, and I needed to know why I hadn’t seen it before. All through the files of my memory I searched. I ruled out Crocus. I ruled out Colchicum. Could I narrow it down to family? Lilaceae? No. Well, perhaps. Possibly iris family. Possibly. Perhaps it was a crocus, just one I didn’t know. I didn’t think so though. Still, it wasn’t impossible. Many cathedrals and churches and fountains and statues later, and I still could not name the small purple flower. She never taunted me, this flower, she merely implored. She stood, like the Virgin Mary, upright and steadfast in the back of my head and said “who am I?” Who was the little blossom that asked so incessantly for my attention?

When I got home I checked all my reference books. I spent a fair bit of time on the internet. The last location that I saw the purple flower was a meadow just before entering Zubiri. It did not want to stray too far from the mountains, and I knew that was a clue. No amount of searching could ID the little pink-purple flower with no visible stems or leaves. I finally had to “let it go”, as Carol wisely counselled me from time to time. One night, about two weeks after getting home, I was having a bout of insomnia and I could not get the purple flower out of my mind. I got out my computer and got on Wikipedia. I systematically went through every genus in the iris family and ruled out every single genera. (There are 66 genera.) None of them fit. Then I did the same thing with Colchicaceae (much smaller) and found there were a few I did not know. I began intensively looking all of these up on Google. Somewhere around 4 in the morning, I nailed it. Like an apparition of St. James himself, the ghostly purple image of the little flower suddenly glowed there on my computer screen. I felt like homicide detectives must feel when they solve a long forgotten cold case. I had a name for my Jane Doe, and now both of us could rest. Her name was Merendera montana.

Native to the Pyrenees, Portugal, and a few other regions of Spain, this demure and elegant little plant is a mere 2-2.5” tall when in flower. The blooms are usually light purple, but they can also be pink or white. Leaves come after the blooms to feed the corm, and depending on the weather, the blooms last anywhere from 10-14 days. They feed the last bees of the season, and often grow in large groups where conditions suit them. Merendera is occasionally cultivated by ambitious rock gardeners, but it is a tender plant and prone to being damaged by slugs and snails.

One could write about flashier or bolder plants of Spain, such as the magnificent Spanish chestnut trees or the intriguing walking stick cabbages. It is an old country full of old plants. Many things that are weeds in North America are native species in Europe. I also saw roses in many gardens, and four o clocks and asters were abundant. I suppose what makes a plant memorable or forgettable has a lot to do with whether or not you’ve seen it before. Merendera montana was not a plant I knew, but it’s now a plant I can’t forget. When people ask me about the Camino, they usually want to know about the people I met and the food we ate and the things we saw. They rarely have any interest in a small, obscure plant that they are unlikely to ever encounter. For what it’s worth, I thought it was exquisite.