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Treasures of the Woodlands


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Tulips come from Turkey, but woodland wildflowers come from Chicagoland. Why not have some of both in your springtime garden?

I knew it would be a goner as soon as it was proffered. “I don’t have the right conditions for it,” I said. “Yes, I have shade in my backyard, but the soil is clay and besides, there’s no water.” But my hostess insisted, and so I went home with a marsh marigold (Caltha palustris), even though I had no marsh.

The plant died within a year, my sighs of regret tempered by some inner I-told-you-so satisfaction.

That day I had been visiting a group of plant rescuers in Michigan, men and woman who go to native plant sites that have been slated for development. With the owner’s permission, they dig up wildflowers, then pot them up for a plant sale that benefits Cranbrook Academy outside of Detroit. It was April, and we worked in woods thick with fallen oak leaves where Mayapples grew in giant amoeba-like clusters and a colony of dogtooth violets cozied up to a tree trunk nearby. It was sad to think how this thriving ecosystem would soon be extinguished. Later, we drove past a site where marsh marigolds were thriving in a lovely flowing stream, and we stopped so I could take a photo.

That day was a tutorial in lesson number one for growing our native woodland wildflowers: learn where each plant grows in nature, and if you can’t provide the right conditions, that plant is wrong for you. While this is true of all plants, woodland wildflowers are a bit more persnickety than most. Just because a plant is native doesn’t mean that it will grow anywhere. Remember location, location, location. Don’t even think about growing a marsh marigold if you can’t give it wet feet. For most of the others, a moist shady situation is what they prefer. They may look delicate, but they’re also determined little critters. If they don’t get what they like, they’ll have a snit.

Lesson number two? Even if my ill-fated marsh marigold had survived, growing just one wildflower isn’t very satisfying. Many of these plants are small, with some of them – such as bluet (Houstonia), hepatica and twinleaf (Jeffersonia diphylla) – only about 6 inches tall. You need a colony to make an impact, which doesn’t happen overnight. If you can only afford one of each plant you want, learn to develop patience; it’s good for the soul.

Another point: Many of these plants are ephemerals, which means they dry up and disappear after they’ve finished blooming. So a little foresight and planning are in order. Give your wildflowers the opportunity to mingle with plants that break dormancy a little later so you don’t end up with bare patches of ground for the rest of the year. Low-growing ferns or sedges (Carex spp.) make good partners.

One fern, the native Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides) is actually evergreen. Assuming you’re not a purist, the gray-green fronds of Japanese painted fern (Athyrium niponicum var. pictum) would make lovely filler plants as well.

And here’s something that’s very, very important: Consider the source. Before you buy any wildflower, inquire where it came from and scrutinize labels. There’s a difference between “nursery-grown” and “nursery-propagated,” so while the former label might make it appear that the grower is on the moral high road, that is misleading. A “nursery grown” plant could have been dug up in the woods, placed in a pot and then “grown” in the nursery for a few months before going on to the sales bench. “Nursery propagated” means that the grower collected seeds or grew the plant from cuttings, hopefully from his own stock.

Should one then dig up plants in the wild? Absolutely not. First of all, digging from the woods is illegal in forest preserves and national parks and other public areas. It reduces the biodiversity of the native site, and it’s likely to backfire on you in any case. For example, some woodland plants, such as the rare pink lady slipper orchid (Cypripedium reginae) grow in a symbiotic relationship with microrrhizal fungi in their soil. Dig up the plant and put it in your garden, which most likely won’t have these same fungi, and the plant will end up dying anyway. (The exception is when the site is slated to be developed, and the plants are already doomed. Yet you still can’t just wander onto someone else’s land and start digging. Get permission.) The Plants

Woodland wildflowers are a delicate-looking lot that generally come in shades of yellow, blue, pink or white. No blaring reds, oranges or purple here. This is not high noon on the prairie. The Yellows

Yellow is spring’s ultimate cheer-me-up color. If you live near a woods, you may go trekking in very early spring and discover some blooming skunk cabbage, infamous for its telltale smell and remarkable for the way it generates enough heat to melt snow. A wonder of nature, but not really for your garden.

While you already know the score when it comes to marsh marigold, which writer Debra Terrill reports grows in the eastern marsh areas of Kankakee and Iroquois counties, a more forgiving, adaptable plant has the happy name of merrybells (Uvularia grandiflora). Somewhat unusual-looking, it grows a foot high and produces pendulous bell-shaped yellow flowers. If you don’t have room for a cluster, try growing the occasional single specimen through a matrix of common ground covers such as wintercreeper (Euonymous coloratus) or English ivy (Hedera helix).

But that won’t work for the yellow-flowering dogtooth violet (Erythronium americanum). It’s small, so just one plant won’t be noticed by anybody, including you. This is a case where you either need to spend some money or cultivate a gift for patience. The Blues

Who doesn’t love Virginia bluebells (not to be confused with Spanish bluebells and English bluebells, which grow from bulbs)? Senior editor Cathy Maloney says it’s her favorite plant. Very understandable since they grow well here. I know a front yard on the south side of Chicago that’s full of them every spring – and then they disappear since they are indeed ephemeral, but for a few weeks that yard is a floating cloud of sky blue.

Any passerby can enjoy those Virginia bluebells, but for hepatica (either Hepatica acutiloba or H. americana), bluets (Houstonia caerula) and woodland phlox (Phlox divaricata), you need to get down on your knees to scrutinize them in all their glory. The center of hepatica is especially delightful for its circle of radiating stamens, sort of a little sparkly crown.

Deb Terrill reports that hepatica is abundant in the Kankakee State Park but is very hard to establish in the garden. “It requires the fungal associations with the woodland matrix,” she reports. (My own plant overwintered for a year or two, then disappeared.) The Pinks

For evidence that when one plant is nice, hundreds are better, the Darien garden of Ron Ulman featured in our March/April 2008 issue is Exhibit A. On this property the spring beauty (Claytonia virginica) has been left alone under the trees for decades and the result is simply glorious. Reflect for a moment on how the woods would have been full of similar sights at the time of settlement and shed a tear for what has been lost.

The pink-flowering beauty on our cover is shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia), a uniquely shaped flower that gets its name from the fact that its petals are reflexed, bending back to suggest the trailing rays of its namesake. It’s pollinated by bumblebees that vibrate their bodies against the tip of the blossom to get the pollen out. Flower colors range through pink to lavender and white.

Bleeding heart (Dicentra spectabilis) is widely sold and looks like a giant compared to its peers. Its pink heart-shaped pendants drape from elegant arching stems and can be the centerpiece of any woodland planting. Be prepared for it to dry up and disappear like the other ephemerals, but sometimes it self sows. I now have a little colony in what is otherwise inauspicious clay soil. The Whites

When it comes to white, there are many choices. Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) sprouts early, blooming before the leaves unfurl, and if the weather turns hot and windy, the flowers will come and go in a flash. Well named, it has a red root that was used for face paint by Native Americans. It is a rampant self-sower, so it doesn’t take long to get a colony and it’s easy to transplant. The flowers are single, daisy-shaped, but there’s a beautiful double version (S. canadensis ‘Multiplex’) that blooms a little later and is worth seeking out.

More daisy flowers are produced by twinleaf (Jeffersonia diphylla), which gets its common name from a pair of identical facing leaves and its botanical name from Thomas Jefferson, who grew it at Monticello. Rue anemone (Thalictrum thalictroides, a.k.a. Anemonella thalictroides) and false rue anemone (Enemion biternatum) also sprout tiny daisies in early spring. Rue anemone flowers can be white, light pink or lavender.

Something truly different is Dutchman’s breeches (Dicentra cucullaria), which really does bring to mind pantaloons flapping on a clothesline. Blooming a couple weeks later is the similar-looking squirrel corn (Dicentra canadensis). Both have attractive ferny foliage.

Then there’s the uniquely shaped Trillium grandiflorum, considered by many as the wildflower queen for its trio of three large white petals atop 18-inch stems. While it takes a long time to flower from seed, in forests it tends to grow in large patches. Naturalist Don Kurz, author of Illinois Wildflowers, cautions that plants offered for sale are probably root dug from the wild and should be avoided. There are dark red trilliums with mottled leaves (T. recurvatum and T. sessile) that are easier to grow and less problematic when it comes to provenance.

Finally, there’s Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum), a large plant when compared to its woodland brethren. From a distance it may appear flowerless, but that’s only because its pretty 2-inch flowers are always hiding beneath foot-long umbrella-like leaves. The plant is a vigorous grower that readily forms colonies from rhizomes.

Spring may be a long time coming in Chicagoland, but it does eventually arrive. While we can’t predict the future, we do know that our woodland wildflowers are plants that have evolved here over thousands of years and can therefore withstand the rigors of our climate. They may look fragile, but don’t you believe it. They have strategies for survival and know what they’re doing. Better than we do, perhaps.

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