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Native Alberta Plants
Gardening can sometimes be defined as cultivating species of Flowers, vegetables or trees that do not commonly occur in your back yard. The challenge is often to find plants that will survive our Canadian winters and the rigors of our back yard environments including drought or shade.
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When you use plants native to your area you can eliminate many of the hazards of gardening, because you can be sure the plants will be cold tolerant and definitely hardy in your conditions. The only challenge with growing native plants, then, would be to choose the varieties and species that best suited your needs for colour, fragrance, shade or growth habit.
It is often the case that native plants grown under the more generous and fertile conditions of the home garden will produce longer stems, larger and more numerous Flowers and be much more beautiful than they were in their original locations.
True native plant enthusiasts can be very particular about the “provenance” of a species. This is the geographic area that a species occupies in the wild. If you could compare the genetics of a yarrow plant from the Edmonton area and a yarrow plant from Nelson BC, you would see that there are significant differences in their genetic codes.
For the purists, bringing that yarrow plant from BC to plant in an Edmonton garden would be polluting the gene pool of the Edmonton yarrow plants. The Edmonton yarrow has provenance over it’s geographic location in a circle about 100 km wide.
For many gardeners, the idea of provenance is too restricting and they choose plants from far away locations on purpose. It is still valid to grow a Brown Eyed Susan from southern Alberta in your Edmonton garden, but you’re not really following the rules of true native plant gardening. Despite the purists, however, there are thousands of species of plants growing wild in many different ecosystems across Alberta that will thrive in the home garden and bring you many years of pleasure. If at all possible, try to use plants and seeds from local sources. This is especially important in large plantings and for restoration or reclamation projects.
If you want to start your own native plant garden or use some native plants in your existing landscape, you can find source materials in your nearby forest or roadside. There is an environmental problem with collecting seeds or plants from the wild, however, so be sure to follow the rules.
- You should never dig up a plant from the wild to transplant to your garden. The only exception to this would be if the area was slated to be bulldozed for a road or dam site or other non environmentally friendly activity. Often, these transplanted plants don’t survive the move anyway, as they are not acclimated to your garden conditions. You are much better off to start your own plants from seeds so that they are well conditioned to your garden and your style of gardening.
- Collecting seeds for propagation is much more environmentally friendly than digging up plants. Never collect more than 1/10 of any stand of seeds. The remainder of the seeds are for the perpetuation of the species in the wild, and for the animals and insects to consume.
Deciding which species or families of plants to look for can be the hard part, as well as the most entertaining part! Your best resource will be a good field guide on native plants of Alberta. Choose one with clear photographs or line drawings and descriptions of a broad range of plants so you can become familiar with the wide variety of plants you will no doubt encounter on your search.
Often you can narrow the selection criteria by defining an ecosystem you wish to copy or create in your back yard. A dryland rock garden could include native Opuntia cactus (Opuntia polyacantha), Dotted Blazing Star (Liatris punctata), and maybe some Creeping Juniper (Juniperus horizontalis). A boreal forest habitat could include the beautiful blue lungwort (Mertensia), Shining Arnica (Arnica fulgens), and Giant Anise Hyssop (Agastache foeniculum). Of course you can always just add native plants to your existing landscape design, without trying to recreate a whole ecosystem. Keep in mind where the plants grow naturally to guide you on the best placement of these beauties in your yard.
Here’s a list of native Alberta wildflowers that would be easy to find and easy to cultivate in the garden.
Brown Eyed Susan. Rudbeckia hirta
Bright yellow petals surrounding a dark brown or black centre on 30 cm stems. Easy from seed and will self sow. Can even get invasive in a small garden. This species is very good for acreage wild Flower gardens where you want to establish wildflowers over a large area. Flowers in mid summer.
Great Flowered Gaillardia. Gaillardia aristata
Similar to brown eyed susans, but the petals are yellow with bright red or orange marks in the centre. Easy from seed.
Fireweed. Epilobium angustifolia
Tall, to 1 m, spikes of purple Flowers in mid to late summer. Very attractive to bees and butterflies. Fireweed has some medicinal properties as well. This is another invasive plant and will spread rapidly from year to year under the right conditions. It does best in partial shade, and will produce shorter stems in full sun.
Start perennials from seed any time from April to October. You can also start them indoors in March, but this seems like more trouble than necessary when they are so easy to start outdoors. Many native plants, both annuals and perennials do best when seeded in the fall. This gives them a cold treatment over the winter and they germinate very well the following spring. Just be careful to keep them in trays or pots, or in a clearly marked spot in the garden so you will find them again in the spring.
This is a large family with many interesting members. Anemone patens is the well known purple prairie crocus that blooms early in the spring and Anemone canadensis the Canada anemone is a very pretty white Flower on 20 cm stems, very good for full or partial shade.
Again, this is a big family with many interesting Flowers, mostly Flowering late in the summer and fall. The common blue aster (Aster laevis), has purple petals around a yellow centre, on tall 30 – 35 cm stems. Aster pansus has a multitude of white Flowers with yellow centres on 20 – 25 cm stems.
Thermopsis rhombifolia. This is a low growing (10 – 15 cm) legume producing bright yellow pea like Flowers in early summer. This is a good candidate for naturalizing in a lawn or grassy wild area.
Clematis ligusticifolia (White) and Clematis columbiana (Purple) are very attractive vines that are very hardy and fast growing. Try them along a fence, up a tree, or trailing down a stone wall. They can be grown from cuttings, but usually seeds are easier.
Fleabane. Erigeron spp
There are many members of this family also. They produce daisy like Flowers, similar to the aster, but they come in a wider range of colours including pinks and yellows. Usually shorter stems to 25 cm. Easy from seed.
Giant Anise Hyssop. Agastache foeniculum
This is a spectacular plant in the landscape, producing spikes of blue Flowers on tall 50 – 60 cm stems. The blooms stay coloured for months and are particularly attractive to bees and butterflies. It is said to produce very good honey. The licorice flavoured leaves can be used in desserts and teas. Very easy from seed, cuttings or root divisions, this plant will develop into a large clump within a few years. It prefers partial shade but does very well in full sun too. A striking addition for the back of the perennial border or at the edge of the trees.
Goldenrod. Solidago canadensis
For some people Goldenrod is too much like a weed to be able to enjoy it in the garden. For large gardens or acreage wild Flower fields, it makes an excellent late summer bloomer with bright yellow plumes that last for weeks. Easy from seed. It is persistent and will form large clumps over time. Goldenrod is often found growing alongside Aster laevis. They Flower at the same time and they look very attractive together, the purple aster contrasting well with the yellow goldenrod.
Lemon Mint. Monarda fistulosa
This is a very attractive plant, fragrant, colourful and easy to grow. It will grow to 40 cm in the shade, and only 10 cm in full sun. A member of the mint family, it spreads slowly from root stolons and may also self seed. It is very attractive to bees and butterflies and can even attract hummingbirds to the larger plants. The herb is used for a pleasant lemon flavoured tea. Easy from seed.
Indian Paintbrush. Castilleja spp
There are several species of paintbrush, ranging from yellow, red and even pink tops. The colour comes from the leafy structures at the top of the stem while the actual Flowers are very tiny and buried inside the leaves. The seed is also very small and difficult to germinate. There has been some thought that the plants require a host/symbiont relationship with another plant species, perhaps a tree or grass species growing in close proximity so that their roots inter twine. This has not been proven, however, and some growers have successfully produced paintbrush in containers. The tiny seed is a problem, however, and this species is not recommended for novice gardeners. Best results are from sprinkling the seed on very fine moist peat, cover with plastic and hold at 15 – 20 C until germination.
Prickly Pear Cactus. Opuntia polyacantha
This is one of Alberta’s native cactus, commonly found near Drumheller and south to the Cypress Hills. It has flat, broad “stems” covered with spikes (leaves) and will produce bright yellow Flowers in early spring. Moderately easy from seed and very persistent once started. Keep in a sunny, dry location.
Western Wood Lily. Lilium philadelphicum
This is the common tiger lily. Easy from seed. Do not collect plants from the wild!! It can even be bad to collect seed from the wild unless you find an especially large stand of this. The plant is in serious decline because of it’s popularity with gardeners and wild Flower “pickers”. Once started, however, it will bloom prolifically and last for many years. It prefers slightly shaded locations but will grow in full sun. Do not cut the Flowers as this removes much of the carbohydrate energy supply to the bulb and reduces the vigor of the bulb to a point where it often does not recover.
Yarrow. Achillea millefolium (Many Flowered Yarrow) the common variety.
Achillea ptarmic (Bridal Veil, Pearl Yarrow)
Larger Flowers, dark green leaves. Achillea sibirica similar to A. millefolium, but with larger Flower heads. All of the Yarrows are very easy to grow from seed. Fall planting is best as a cold period helps germination. They will self sow and can be invasive, although this characteristic makes them very good in large wildflower plantings.
Is by far the most attractive, with large white Flowers. A. millefolium can be purchased as a garden plant in various pastel shades from pink, peach, mauve and red, however, the native yarrow is almost always white, although occasionally you may find a slightly pink one.
TREES AND SHRUBS
There are many beautiful and varied native woody plants for your home landscape as well. Again, these plants wood be more hardy, cold and drought tolerant, and more resistant to pests and diseases than their imported relatives. The range includes prostrate, ground huggers, shrubs, trees and even vines. Many have Flowers or fruit too.
Saskatoon Berry Amelanchier alnifolia
This is the well known prairie staple, great for pies, jams and almost everything else. Get a small plant to start, Saskatoon bushes will creep underground so give them a wide area to fill or be prepared to keep them pruned to contain them.
Dwarf Birch Betula glandulosa
This is a very nice, tall shrub with dark, glossy green leaves and an attractive upright habit. Good in shade or wet areas.
Paper Birch Betula papyrifera
This well known birch is valuable for it’s beautiful white stems which will look great in contrast with green evergreens or red dogwood. Easy to grow, likes extra watering in the heat of summer and going into fall.
Dogwood. Cornus stolonifera
The red twigs of dogwood make it an especially attractive part of the winter landscape. Plant it next to green evergreens or a white painted wall. Try growing this from cuttings taken from thin, young hardwood.
Silver Berry Eleagnus commutata
This is a very attractive silver bush with silver leaves and even silver berries which will create interesting contrast in the landscape. It can be invasive as it spreads by creeping roots. This character makes it especially useful for filling large areas. Grows to about 2m.
Twining Honeysuckle. Lonicera dioica
This is a very nice climber with bright orange fragrant Flowers in early summer. Can be grown from cuttings or seeds. Highly recommended.
Willows. Try Pacific Willow Salix lucida, or Sandbar Willow Salix exigua
For a something interesting in the shrub border or wind break. Pacific Willow has very nice form with fine lance shaped leaves. The Sandbar Willow has an extremely upright growth habit and interesting nut brown bark on the new growth shading to a soft pink/grey on the old wood.
Gardening with native plants can be very enjoyable. It may be possible, that the right sorts of trees and shrubs will attract the native wildlife more successfully than imported varieties, so there may be other benefits to using native plants in your garden. Don’t be afraid to try some new plants, you may be surprised at how wonderfully well they fit into your landscape plans.
NATIVE AND WILD PLANTS
Many plants that grow wild around Alberta can be harvested for ornamental uses, for their seeds, and herbal qualities. Some of these are truly native Alberta plants, some are escaped garden plants, like Baby’s Breath, and Tansy, and some are escaped crop plants like Reed Canary Grass. We really don’t care how they got there, only that they grow in abundance, and that our collecting them will not harm the ecosystem, or endanger the environment in any way.
For truly native Flowers, the rule is to pick only l/10 of any stand, leaving the remainder for seed production and for animals. DO NOT DIG UP ANY PLANTS. Be very careful how you pick these, which ones you pick, and what else you damage while you’re picking. See the Alberta Native Plant Council’s Guide for Collectors.
In general we don’t want anything rare, we only want the types that grow in large numbers so we can get a large volume of product. The exception is for seeds. Seed of native Flowers can be very valuable, especially for relatively rare types. Again, collect only l/l0 of the total stand.
Be careful of other people’s property. Do not cross fences. Usually you can find more than enough to pick on unfenced open areas and along roadsides. Ask permission to collect on someone’s property, usually there is not a problem.
NATIVE PLANTS, WEEDS AND FLOWERS
Anise Hyssop. Agastache foeniculum
Blue Flower spikes that dry well. Grows in semi shade. Licorice scented leaves. Not usually enough volume to collect Flowers, but seeds can be plentiful. Collect some seeds and grow these in your garden to assure a large harvest in the future. This is a multi-purpose plant: fresh leaves for herb, dried leaves for tea, plant divisions, fresh or dried Flower heads and seeds.
Aspen Poplar. Populus tremuloides
Very nice green leaves if picked early in the season before the insects eat holes in the leaves, but late enough so that leaves are stiff, with enough cellulose to dry well. Bundle in handfuls of about 4 or 5 stems, 2 – 3 feet long, and hang to dry. Very good in leafy, green wreaths, and swags.
Baby’s Breath. Gypsophila paniculata
Escaped from gardens. Same variety as cultivated, but tends to have heavier, coarser stems. Very robust. Pick only the best quality, whitest Flowers. Go back to the same spot every 2 – 3 days to continue picking as the Flowers are ready. Put five large stems in a bundle, or more smaller ones. You can compress fresh bundles by rolling them in newspaper, but you must open up the bundles and shake them out before hanging to dry. Worth looking for stands of this in the country. Quality will deteriorate if the bundles are left tied up small for too long, fungus can develop and produce brown spots on the Flowers.
Cattails. Typha latifolia
Must be picked while the head is still mostly green. The top half of the head contains a huge amount of pollen. You should either strip this off or cut it right away when picking. Strip off some, but not all leaves.
Grasses. Many types of grasses
Choose types that grow plentifully, so your time is well spent. Sloughs are good for large clumps of grasses. In general pick when green. Mature, golden heads will shatter too easily. Pick into handfuls and tie with a rubber band. Hang to dry. Try Reed Canary Grass, Timothy, Brome. Some native grasses will be worth collecting seed, but good species identification is important.
Fresh green branches of fir, spruce, pine and other evergreens for Christmas greens.
Horsemint. Monarda fistulosa
Mint family, square stems and tubular purple Flowers. Common in foothills and northern Alberta. Relatively easy to collect seed if you mark the plants so you can find them later in the season. In very large stands it may be possible to collect Flowering stalks in sufficient volume. You will get taller and more floriferous plants from cultivated, garden stock, so it’s better to collect seed and grow this in your garden.
Moss. Green Sphagnum Moss
White Lichens and other types of moss are a staple in the ornamental plant industry. Most of the moss is brought in from BC, at relatively high shipping costs. Alberta moss is comparable in quality and value, and fairly easy to find and collect in some parts of Alberta.
Pearl Yarrow. Achillea ptarmica
Also known as Bridal Veil. Perennial. Can be propagated from stem cuttings, divisions, or seed. Very good white Flowers, used like large Baby’s Breath. Rare. Better to collect seed and cultivate these in your garden for a larger supply.
Reed Canary Grass. Phalaris arundinaceae
Grows around sloughs in large clumps. Pick when green or green with slight purple blush. Fully mature seed heads shatter too much, don’t pick these. Grab a large armful, twist slightly and cut off no longer than 30″ long. Shake out bottom leaves and comb roughly with fingers to remove some more leaves. Tie with a rubber band and hang to dry. Reed Canary dyes very well.
Rose. Wild Alberta Rose. Rosa woodsii
Use these petals, flowers, buds and rose hips in Prairie Rose Potpourri. These are pesky to collect, but for potpourri uses, they need not be really clean, and could have leaves mixed in. Rose hips on a 2 foot stem are good at Christmas time, but hard to handle.
Many types, most silver, grey, green and fragrant. Pick as tall as possible. Clary sage can be identified by its unpleasant odor and yellow Flowers. Don’t pick this one. Most other types are good. Pick before Flower buds open about the end of June. Leafy stems with no Flower buds are also good. Once the Flowers have opened and dried, the stems are less attractive. Try Wormwood Sage and Pasture sage.
Seeds of native plants can be very valuable. Look for unusual species, Flowers of any kind, fancy grasses. Collect seed all through the summer from June to September. Store in a cool, dry place. Be sure to label well. If you’re not sure of the identity of the plant, save a stem with seed pod, leaf, etc. to help identify later. Make a note of where you collected the seed, and the date. Use Budd’s Flora of Alberta, or any other good resource. There are some efficiencies in methods for cleaning seeds. Don’t waste time doing this the wrong way. Use a collection of sieves, flat pans, and blowers for best results. Collect only l/10 of any stand. Avens, Lupines, Clematis, Sunflowers, Gaillardia, Brown Eyed Susan, Anise Hyssop, Campanula, Veronica, Coneflower, Blue Flax, and so on.
Tansy. Tanacetum vulgare
Tansy is an escaped garden plant, brought to Canada from Europe by the early settlers in the days before hybrid petunias and snapdragons were available. It is on the noxious weed list because of its pernicious growth habit. It can cause abortions in cattle so farmers don’t want it on their pastures. DO NOT CULTIVATE THIS PLANT. It is very common on roadsides all over central and northern Alberta so there’s no need to grow your own. Pick bright yellow Flowers only, with no brown showing yet. If picked too early, the Flowers will shrink and dimple when drying. Picked too late, the Flowers will show brown edges when dry. Align Flower heads into umbrella shape, approx. 12 – 14″ across at the top, 20 – 25 stems. This is a very high volume product. Tansy is now imported from Holland for the craft trade.
Bare, woody branches without leaves on them are available from leaf fall around October to leaf bud in April. Almost any type is useful. Try Birch, Alder, Willow, Dogwood. Stay away from Balsam Poplar because of the sticky stems. Fresh twigs can be made into wreaths, swags, baskets, corners, and just bundles. Collect 2 – 3 foot tall twigs with good shape and color. Taller stems can have fewer branches in a bundle. Branches should have clean, new growth bark, not damaged or rough looking. The twigs can be either straight, un-branched stems, 25 to a bundle, or branched stems with good shape, 15 to a bundle. Make into tidy bundles of all one type, size and color, and fasten securely with a rubber band.
Yarrow. Achillea millefolium
White Flowers. Very common. Cultivated plants will have bigger Flower heads. 25 – 35 stems. Align Flower heads at top into an umbrella shape. Hang to dry. Pesky to pick from the wild. This is better cultivated so you get larger Flowers and it’s easier to make a bundle up. Seed is more valuable than the Flowers.
Yarrow. Achillea sibirica
White Flowers. Similar to common yarrow and same handling. Save Seed rather than Flowers.
Good for pussy willows, bare twigs for weaving, colored twigs, willow furniture, etc. See Pussy Willow Picker’s Guide.