The love of winter – Pipsissewa

Chimaphila  from Greek: cheimon – winter, philein – to love

Pipsissewa from Cree language, meaning ‘it breaks into small pieces’

As we start looking towards the New Year, another thing becomes more obvious for those living in the northern hemisphere: winter has settled in! You absolutely have to love it; or you’ll be miserably dragging over 3+ months of hating it. Choose for yourself… Myself, I can’t wait to start new seeds experiments and to write more about the plants I love. Here’s the first one to put you in the mood of winter love ;)

Chimaphila umbellata (Pipsissewa, Prince’s pine) is another species about which I developed a mild obsession to propagate from seeds. It has showy, leathery, evergreen foliage, equally interesting pink, fragrant flowers and it grows in shady places (it has a taste for a slightly acidic soils). It would look great at the edge of the woodland garden or on the shaded side of a rockery. The dry capsules are also very ornamental and last into the next season; they contain lots of tiny, dust-like seeds (much like the Cypripediums) which are released easily when mature. The best time to try to collect them is in late fall.

The species is morphologically variable across its native range. Five or six subspecies have been recognized in the literature, depending on what source you look at; for example, the one from Ontario would be C. umbellata subsp. cisatlantica – it never gets easy…

Only the difficult propagation made it virtually non-existent in cultivation. According to some sources, Pipsissewa is a partial myco-heterotrophic plant, which means that it obtains a portion of its nutrients from parasitizing fungi that are part of mycorrhizal associations of other plants. It also forms its own mycorrhizal symbiosis with fungi. Kind of complicated…

Reportedly, it can be propagated from cuttings and from rhizome fragments but not very successfully (I presume, otherwise we would have seen it in cultivation). I don’t have the conditions to try rooting cuttings and don’t feel like uprooting plants to take rhizomes, so I’ll stick with seed germination trial-outs. Others have tried with some success stratification of fresh seeds in a mix inoculated with local soil, and the fine size of the seeds suggests that it might be a light sensitive germinator. We’ll see how it goes…

Chimaphila umbellata seeds

Chimaphila umbellata seeds

Interested in medicinal plants? – read more

Pipsissewa was and still is valued for its medicinal properties. Native Americans used it in their traditional medicine mainly for treating rheumatism, as well as for kidney, liver disorders (leaves), and other ailments. Scientific research has confirmed its pharmacological qualities a long time ago, and the modern therapeutic use of C. umbellata reflects the traditional indications. In short, it can be used like Arctostaphyllos uva-ursi, but its active components are more potent.

Today it is utilized in small scale modern herbal medicine, but has become the component of a proprietary formula – Eviprostat® largely used in Japan and Europe for the treatment of benign enlargement of the prostate.

If this is good news, the bad is that Chimaphila has been classified as a slow-growing perennial, sensitive to harvesting pressures, ecological disturbances, and foot traffic; also various reports have emphasized that it regenerates too slowly for regular commercial harvesting.


Where’s the snow?

Not that I’m complaining. Last weekend we went scouting for Hepatica americana with interesting marbled foliage. In the spring the new leaves that start growing are green, but later they get marbled in various delightful brown-reddish shades, depending how much sun they get; but not only. There is clear a genetic component involved in the colouration, which is best seen in early winter.

Hepatica americana
Hepatica americana – winter foliage

For all these snow-depleted periods, I am sure you wish you would have had a few Hepatica around your garden! The timing was such that at the same time I spotted the first germinated seeds and also someone bought all the remaining seeds. Talk about coincidence!

There are many other hardy, perennials that will easily keep your garden evergreen, like: Gaultheria, Mitella, Mitchella, Chimaphila, Waldsteinia, quite a few ferns, Cyclamen hederifolium, Arum, Helleborus….

Mitella diphylla, Cyclamen hederifolium and Hepatica americana
A corner of my remnant garden with: Mitella diphylla (an overlooked native plant easy to grow from seeds), Cyclamen hederifolium and Hepatica americana. The Cyclamen was added to the group by a squirrel ‘designer’, but it wasn’t a bad idea after all.


Vermiculite from Latin ‘vermiculus’ = wormlet

The recently emerged rootlet of bloodroot seed has attached on this vermiculite particle with the same desperation a climber clings onto a rock. A place to grow on, salvation…

Sanguinaria canadensis seedling attached

Sanguinaria canadensis seedling growing attached on a vermiculite particle

For us, it remains just an exfoliated fragment of a hydrated silicate mineral; worm-like shaped, lightweight, incombustible, compressible, sterile, with a high cation-exchange capacity…

Only very few Sanguinaria canadensis seeds have started to germinate in moist storage; this one was particularly well developed – good genes probably… The very young rhizome already shows signs of the future red coloration characteristic to Sanguinaria rhizomes.

Finally a Gentiana!

Gentiana oschtenica (close-up images of seeds provide useful info for species identification & seed coat integrity)

If it would be after my heart desire the seed catalogue would be full of Gentiana species – no discrimination made regarding their origin, colour or reproductive orientation :0

Until then, I am very happy to have had received through seed trade this rare gentian from the Caucasus. Gentiana oschtenica looks and behaves just like Gentiana verna but it has large, yellow-cream coloured flowers (for a while it was named G. verna ssp. oschtenica). Its name remembers the Massif Oshten-Fischt of the Western Caucasus, where it adorns the alpine meadows together with many other alpine treasures.

 I don’t have a real picture of it so we’ll have to content ourselves with this digital artistic rendering I made using a Gentiana verna image

'Digital' Gentiana oschtenica

Artistic-digital representation of Gentiana oschtenica after Gentiana verna

Both are finicky in cultivation but I have dreams in blue and cream (Gentiana verna/G. oschtenica) for my rock containers; arising from between the rock hugging Caucasian Gypsophila imbricata foliage!

What would life be without dreams?

Gentiana verna

Gentiana verna in an alpine meadow from Carpathian Mts.

This also got me thinking of the Carpathians, with which the Western Caucasus Mts. have much in common; so much to write about and show during the winter’s short and cloudy days…


There will be 1-2 seed packets of Gentiana oschtenica left for the seed shop after I’ll do my sowing. While I am in the Holidays giving mood, if someone wants them faster or has something equally interesting to trade – send us mail (also available from the same region, a few choice Saxifrages for the alpine enthusiast: Saxifraga scleropoda, Saxifraga sibirica and Saxifraga kolenatiana – click to see images.

Gentiana oschtenica – image

Gypsophila imbricata – image