Thursday, August 30, 2018

Tough Plants

by Vicki Barney
The north side of my house is a poor spot for a garden, receiving very little sun and used for winter snow storage.   When a number of plants sprouted here, I was surprised.  They must be tough plants.

Utility workers disturbed this inhospitable area a few years back and subsequently, it was graveled. A few weeds sprang up, mainly prostrate knotweed and prickly lettuce, but no worrisome weeds.  In the middle of the gravel, flowering plants appeared: Hollyhocks (Alcea rosea), Common yarrow (Achillea millefolium), and Spreading dogbane (Apocynum androsaemifolium).  These plants grow elsewhere without my help and tend to be aggressive but, since they are thriving and draw pollinators, they are welcome here.

Nothing grew in the least hospitable spot - along the wall – until this last spring.  Graveled and shady most of the time, it receives a little moisture as it is directly under the roof’s dripline.  Surprisingly, this little bit of moisture has created an attractive environment for some really tough plants.
Tough columbine
Beautiful Columbine (Aquilegia spp.) was the first to appear. I inadvertently planted it when seeds I had collected for another project scattered in the wind.  The plant appeared in several spots and produced stunning flowers in light blue and white.  Bloom time varied with the location of each plant; those in colder and shadier locations blooming later than the others, and all later than those planted in garden areas.   The last one to bloom displayed a completely white flower in late July. Liking their roots cool and shaded, these Columbine plants seem to have found a good home and still have green leaves.

The fastest growing plant is a currant, which likely is a Golden Currant (Ribes aureum).  It is about 3 feet tall and has 4 sturdy stems with bright green leaves and must have sprouted from seed from the Golden currant shrub around the corner.  If it survives the poor conditions, it could spread by rhizome and become a pretty hedge with yellow blossoms for early arriving pollinators.  A hedge would be welcome here.
Creeping Oregon grape
Much less noticeable but also welcome is a Creeping Oregon grape (Mahonia repens or Berberis repens). It too must have grown by seed from nearby plants and has produced several holly-shaped spiny leaves.  Either sprawling or compact, it would be an attractive addition with its bright yellow flowers, blue berries, and leaves in colors of red and green.  Hopefully it too will survive here.

Not surprisingly, Serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia) is also growing here.  I imagine Serviceberry roots blanket my yard as the shrub has extensive root systems and sprouts everywhere.  A few small stems with oval leaves are visible and will need to be monitored before their 6 to 10 foot size overtakes the area.  In spite of this, it is welcome since its pretty white blossoms and dark blue berries attract wildlife.
I have one mystery plant that is sprouting elsewhere in my yard.  It is composed of a single stem with compound leaves made up of oval, slightly toothed leaflets that are opposite compound and in opposing pairs. I believe it is some sort of ash tree, seeded from a neighboring tree.  Until identified, it is not welcome.

Seeing these plants emerge and thrive is fascinating and encourages me to experiment with planting in other inhospitable areas.  It will be interesting to see who survives this hot, dry summer and long winter.
Vicky Barney gardens for wildlife and is a member of the Master Gardener Class of 2011.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Indian Paint Brush of the Rocky Mountains

by Ed Powers
   As many of our readers know I travel areas of the Rocky Mountains annually and enjoy the abundant flora at all elevations.  I have really fallen love with the Indian Paint Brush flowers.  The plants are simple but the flowers are amazing and they come in several colors. Originally, I thought the different colors were a result of the altitude and soil condition, but I have come to learn each color is a different species.

   Indian paintbrush flowers are named for the clusters of spiky blooms that resemble paintbrushes dipped in bright red or orange-yellow paint. Growing this wildflower can add interest to the native garden. About the Indian paintbrush, also known as Castilleja, Indian paintbrush wildflowers grow in forest clearings and grasslands across the Western and Southwestern United States. Indian paintbrush is a biennial plant that usually develops rosettes the first year and stalks of blooms in spring or early summer of the second year. The plant is short-lived and dies after it sets seed. However, if conditions are right, Indian paintbrush reseeds itself every autumn. This unpredictable wildflower grows when it is planted in close proximity with other plants, primarily grasses or native plants such as penstemon or blue-eyed grass. This is because Indian paintbrush sends roots out to the other plants, then penetrates the roots and “borrows” nutrients it needs in order to survive. They are hemiparasitic on the roots of grasses and forbs.  Indian paintbrush tolerates cold winters but it doesn’t perform well in the USDA zones 8 and above, which is interesting because I find them above 9,000’ and I can’t seem to grow them in Evergreen, at 7,600’, zones 3 & 4.

   Castilleja, commonly known as Indian paintbrush or prairie-fire, is a genus of about 200 species of annual and perennial herbaceous plants native to the west of the Americas from Alaska south to the Andes, northern Asia, and one species as far west as the Kola Peninsula in northwestern Russia. These plants are classified in the broomrape family. The generic name honors Spanish botanist Domingo Castillejo.

   The flowers of Indian paintbrush are edible, and were consumed in moderation by various Native American tribes as a condiment with other fresh greens. These plants have a tendency to absorb and concentrate selenium in their tissues from the soils in which they grow, and can be potentially very toxic if the roots or green parts of the plant are consumed. Highly alkaline soils increase the selenium levels in the plants. Indian paintbrush has similar health benefits to consuming garlic if only the flowers are eaten in small amounts and in moderation.
The Ojibwe Tribes used a hair wash made from Indian paintbrush to make their hair glossy and full bodied, and as a treatment for rheumatism. The high selenium content of this plant has been cited as the reason for its effectiveness for these purposes. Nevada Indian tribes used the plant to treat sexually transmitted diseases and to enhance the immune system.

   Castilleja linariifolia is the state flower of Wyoming, and will grow well in the Rockies of Colorado.

Reference - CSU Fact sheets and Garden Notes
Grow Native - Missouri Prairie Foundation

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Currant Appeal

by Vicky Barney

The berry shrubs are loaded with fruit this year, most noticeably the serviceberry, whose branches are drooping under the weight.  In the wild and in my yard, I’m looking forward to watching the berries disappear and will be paying particular attention to my currants.

Golden Currant
Currants (Ribes spp.) are deciduous shrubs with 3-5 lobed leaves and edible tart fruit historically used by Native Americans for food and medicinal purposes.   In my yard, two shrubs have the distinctive leaves and berries, and similar looking arching branches.  Their pea sized berries are growing in small clusters, each with a “pigtail” which is the remnant of its flower.  Both shrubs are thorn less, drought tolerant, and, to date, of no interest to deer, moose, or bear.  But the shrubs have some differences that lead me to think they are different varieties of currant. 

On the east side of my yard, a small currant shrub is growing.  About 3 feet in size, it is has pretty bright green 5 lobed leaves and arching branches.  The spring flowers are inconspicuous but the berries are beautiful this time of year: bright red and clustered.  They are also tasteless.  I believe the shrub is a variety of the non-native Red currant (Ribes rubrum).

Red Currant
Red currant is native to Europe and has been widely cultivated, both for fruit production and for landscaping purposes.  It prefers cool soil temperatures with full sun and fertile loamy soil.  My red currant is planted in a partly sunny area and is growing at a pleasant pace. It might produce flavorful berries if the shrub received more sunshine, water, and fertilizer, or it may be an ornamental variety with berries designed for looks rather than taste.

On the west side of my yard, the currant shrub is much larger (over 6 feet tall).  It produced numerous fragrant, trumpet shaped yellow flowers in mid-May, providing early season food for pollinators.  I believe it is Golden currant (Ribes aureum), a native to most of North America.  Once the flowers faded, the shrub blended into the landscape with its bright green 3 lobed leaves.  Inconspicuous berries appeared recently, orange at first and then turning black. The berries are quite tart and are disappearing, likely feeding the birds.

Golden Currant
Golden currant prefers well drained soil in sun to part shade.  My shrub is situated on a slope that receives midday sun and very little water.  For a time, I aggressively pruned the sprawling shrub to allow the sun to shine on other plants.  It responded well to the pruning and became more attractive.  In fact, some currants grow better with regular pruning of older branches.  I also discovered the shrub spreads by rhizomes, sending up shoots in the neighborhood and forcing me to continually evaluate the size of my currant “patch.”

In our area, the Red currant is a more attractive and easier shrub to grow, but it appears to have no wildlife visitors – no pollinators and no one eating the berries.  Conversely, the native Golden currant, with its early flowers and little tart berries, has been humming with activity and loses berries every day.  For that reason, periodic pruning and keeping its spread in check is worth the effort, and watching both shrubs over the next few months to see who comes to visit will be quite interesting.

Vicky Barney gardens for wildlife and is a member of the Master Gardener Class of 2011.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Sharing my garden

by Vicky Barney
There’s something magical about seeing butterflies and hummingbirds feasting on flower nectar, or watching birds foraging for berries.  Observing a bear, moose, or deer browsing on aspen or berries is a real treat.  But when their browsing removes the flowers intended for pollinators or the berries for the birds, or when all the strawberries disappear from the carefully tended patch, the magic is gone. My “gardening for wildlife” strategy needs some work.

Butterfly visiting garden
My yard is surrounded by native shrubs and trees and was an attractive feature when purchasing the house several years ago.  I imagined watching wildlife pass through the yard from one wild space to the next, stopping to nibble aspen volunteers or newly planted native bushes. The plan was to create a place where wildlife would linger, preferably while I was watching.  Red-osier dogwood was planted (deer and elk’s “ice cream bush,” says Karen Vail in Edible & Medicinal Plants of the Southern Rockies), grassy spots were encouraged, and game trail openings were preserved.   Success!  Deer and moose have been observed, sometimes eating and resting for long periods.  Bears have also been observed munching on native berries just beyond the tended yard.

Recently, though, visitors have come through after dark, pruning flowers, pulling up newly planted pansies and devouring my small crop of strawberries covered by bird netting.  They are welcome but I prefer they browse along their path, the one lined with tasty native bushes and flowers.  The wildlife – deer, I presume - have other ideas.

Deer candy
But is it deer in the strawberry patch?  There is no evidence they have browsed there – no prints and no torn leaves.  In fact, the patch looks untouched except for the missing berries.  Early one morning I frightened a flock of birds and realized they are the culprits.  They have learned to pluck the berries out of the netting that deterred them last season, and they have a quick getaway now that the nearby bushes have grown.

The more worrisome browsers in my yard are the deer.  They consume pretty blossoms, leaving behind shorn branches and torn leaves.  To be sure there is enough forage left over for butterflies and birds, I need to make a few changes.

Garden Design - Small modifications in design may discourage undesirable behavior.  For example, cutting back the bushes near the strawberry patch – reducing the birds’ safety zone – may reduce bird activity.  Moving the pansy pots onto the patio may discourage browsing, but some wildlife may to take a liking to the patio.  Another option is to surround pansies and other “deer candy” with less palatable plants.
Sharing the garden
Plant Selection - If hungry enough, wildlife will eat any plant.  There are a number of attractive plants, though, that are rarely browsed.  They include tough xeric plants (black-eyed susans and purple coneflower), fragrant plants (lavender, thyme, and Russian sage), fuzzy plants (lambs ear and lady’s mantle), and spiny or bristly plants (oriental poppies, rugosa roses, and oregon grape).  See CSU Extension Fact Sheet # 6.520 – Preventing Deer Damage for more plant ideas.

Garden management - According to Ruth Rogers Clausen in 50 Beautiful Deer-Resistant Plants, gardeners should cut back on nitrogen fertilizer and water, ingredients for a lush and soft garden that deer prefer.  As the weather becomes dryer, deer also seek out moisture in newly watered plants, so irrigation should be timed such that plants are dry before dawn and dusk, times when most browsing occurs. 

Other ways to deter unwanted wildlife included the use of repellents and netting, but they are effective for only for brief periods of time.  Wind chimes and barking dogs may frighten off deer but will likely annoy the neighbors.  Of course, tall fencing is the best deterrent, but not suitable for my yard. 

With a few small changes in design, plant selection, and management, sharing my garden all season with all of nature may be possible. I hope so.

Vicky Barney gardens for wildlife and is a member of the Master Gardener Class of 2011.

Thursday, August 2, 2018


Verbascum thapus (Common Mullein, noxious!)

by Cherie Luke
The genus Verbascum has some good garden plants and one noxious weed that should never be planted.  Verbascum thapus, also known as common mullein, is a member of the Scrophulariaceae, figwort family. Currently Verbascum thapus is on the “C” list of Noxious Weeds of Colorado.  This means it is already widespread throughout the state, and should at least be suppressed when possible. It is a biennial that reproduces by seed that can live up to 80 years. It is native to Asia but it is thought that it got here by way of Europe.

It has long furry leaves and a tall yellow flower stalk. It is well known among herbalists. Mullein tea is a treatment for respiratory problems such as asthma, bronchitis, and chest colds. Because it is a noxious weed, one can harvest unlimited quantities, but be sure that they have not been sprayed. The roots and seeds of this plant are toxic and should never be used for any reason.

Verbascum bombyciferum ‘Polarsommer’
Because of Verbascum’s  stately presence many people admire this plant. There  are about 300 species of Verbascum and some are considered “well behaved” in the home garden. There are some growing at Denver Botanic Gardens such as Verbascum bombyciferum ‘Polarsommer’, Arctic Summer Mullein.
Verbascum olympicum, Olympic Mullein
There was a Verbascum ‘Southern Charm’ that I found for sale at the May, Denver Botanic Gardens plant sale this year in the “Grown at the Garden” section that is describes as being pastel shades of lavender, buff, cream, and rose. The plant tag says full sun, dry to medium well drained soil, drought tolerant, zone 5-8, so I'm giving it a try. 
Verbascum ‘Southern Charm’ 
With so many beautiful and stately Verbascum’s available, there may be one that is just right for your own garden – except for the noxious weed!