Alpine Golden Nuggets from Wrightman Alpines

The Plant Gold Rush continues with the most precious of finds: the alpine golden nuggets. We found them at Wrightman Alpines during their open house last Sunday. It had been a while since I was lucky to admire their Saxifrages in flower, so we made another trip that turned out into a photography extravaganza.  Many ‘golden nuggets’ were either in flower or at their best foliage; we took advantage of our most kind hosts, Irene and Harvey Wrightman, and poked around every corner of their wonderful rockery garden and nursery. Even for a plant connoisseur the richness of plant species they have can be a bit overwhelming to digest, so I’ll take it slow and there’ll be more to come…

Paeonia suffruticosa ssp. rockii

Paeonia suffruticosa ssp. rockii

At this time of the year, after admiring the most impressive clumps of Paeonia suffruticosa spp. rockii, the best would be to explore the rock gardens around the house before heading into the hoop houses (although being very detailed people we did the other way around).

 Enjoy a few images from Wrightman Alpines Nursery rock  gardens

Rock crevices with lots of  'plant golden nuggets'

Rock crevices with lots of ‘plant golden nuggets’

Rock crevice garden with an incorporated trough

Rock crevice garden with an incorporated trough

Chaenorrhinum glareosum

Chaenorrhinum glareosum – Nevada dwarf snapdragon (from Sierra Nevada, Spain)

A glorious Asperula suberosa

A glorious Asperula suberosa

Polygala major and Jurinella moschus var. moschus

Polygala major and right – Jurinella moschus var. moschus

Penstemon fruticosus var. serratus 'Holly'

Penstemon fruticosus var. serratus ‘Holly’

A small crevice dweller - Androsace globifera

A small crevice dweller – Androsace globifera

Asyneuma limonifolium ssp. limonifolium

Asyneuma limonifolium ssp. limonifolium

Irene was very happy about this cactuses growing in the alvar type rock

Irene was very happy about these cacti growing in the alvar type rock

Aquilegia scopulorum x A. coerulea

Aquilegia scopulorum x A. coerulea

Rarely seen Oncocyclus susiana (syn. Iris susiana)

Rarely seen Oncocyclus susiana (syn. Iris susiana)

Of course, we came home very grateful and with a few gifted golden nuggets; to show off just one of them:

Scutellaria orientalis ssp. pinnatifida

Scutellaria orientalis ssp. pinnatifida – a very floriferous and bright Scutellaria (from Turkey at 2500 m)

The wonderful day spent among the plethora of alpine species (native and non-natives) brought to my mind a few places we traveled to and I wrote about – see the Botanical Trailblazers page. Gold mines full of ‘golden nuggets’ await to be discovered almost everywhere – start exploring!

Magical Witch Hazels

Hamamelis spp. – Witch hazel (Fam. Hamamelidaceae)

This year, with the cold weather we had, I got lucky and catch the Witch hazels flowering in the polyhouse at Lost Horizons – Surprise! They usually flower in very early spring, which in Ontario means from late February to March, depending on the year. The bare branches become covered in clusters of ribbon-like, fragrant flowers at a time when nothing else dares to flower (except the Hellebores). The savvy linguists are saying that their name comes from the Old English word ‘wyche’ meaning ‘pliant’, because the twigs bend easily, and hazel, because although not related, they resemble the hazel shrub (Corylus – Fam. Betulaceae).

Hamamelis x intermedia 'Diane'

Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Diane’

But there must be something ‘witchy’ about them and actually it seems that the ritual of locating underground water using a hazel branch (dowsing), used extensively during the Middle Ages in Europe, was adapted by North American settlers using a witch hazel twig instead of hazel. The ritual was also known as water witching and the twig used was named ‘witching rod’. Maybe this explains better why we call them witch hazels. Last year we had almost started the divination around the nursery, but in the end just having them was magical enough and there was no need to look for the underground water after all. So, although botanically speaking they have nothing in common with the hazels (Corylus) it seems that based on their magical properties we can place them  all in the extensive family of: Magic Shrubs & Trees.

Hamamelis x intermedia 'Primavera'

Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Primavera’, almost done flowering but what a beautiful contrast between the wine-red calyx and the yellow petals

Although there are also very good garden varieties of Hamamelis vernalis, Hamamelis mollis and Hamamelis japonica, most new introductions are from a group of hybrids between H. japonica x H. mollis, named Hamamelis x intermedia, with intermediate characters between the parents. They have so many qualities that I don’t even know where to start – first, maybe the size, perfectly suited for small spaces, with an architectural branching; second, the time of blooming – very early in the spring; third, the perfect display of the colorful flower clusters on the branches, the fragrance, and least but not last, the fall color: brilliant red, orange, yellow or a combination of all, depending on the variety. Almost never bothered by pests and insects…. Did we almost found the ‘perfect’ small tree ?

Hamamelis x intermedia 'Diane'

Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Diane’

Among all the witch hazels, the North American native Hamamelis virginiana, has a peculiar flowering – in late October-November, so if hiking around you find a small tree with small, spidery yellow flowers in November – you can play botanist and ID it on the spot, ‘cause there is nothing else flowering at that time of year.

Image – as soon as I find the images with H. virginiana from this fall

Note: Witch hazel has been used for centuries to treat skin ailments because the leaves, bark and twigs are high in tannins. It is still a common ingredient in soaps, face washes and shampoos and some medicinal preparations.

The Easter bunny flower

For those of you celebrating – Happy Easter! For everyone else – enjoy ‘cause you got a long weekend anyway, and a pretext to eat more chocolate (eggs) is always good – then, you can go outside and do some gardening!

The snow has begun to recede even in my shaded part of the garden and what we should call maybe ‘the bunny-flower’ showed its fluffy stems through the soil. Pulsatilla vulgaris, native from central Europe, is commonly known as the pasque flower because it usually flowers around Easter time, sometimes in April or early May. It shows up with the lovely, silky, hairy foliage, followed shortly by large bell-shaped flowers, in shades of purple, white, red or even rose, depending on the variety. The plume-like fruit heads are also ornamental and last a long time.

Pulsatilla vulgaris - first leaf

Pulsatilla vulgaris – first leaf

Although a resilient and a long-lived garden plant, it is not seen in gardens as much as one would like. It is not very easy to propagate because it does not like to be disturbed (divided), so this is usually done by seeds, which need to be sown as soon as ripen and require light for germination. 

 And a few other flowering treasures from my Easter garden!

Eranthis hiemalis

Eranthis hyemalis (winter aconite), was the first to flower in my garden

Eranthis hiemalis with dwarf irises

Eranthis hyemalis with dwarf irises

Helleborus 'Cherry Blossom'

Helleborus ‘Cherry Blossom’ – saying ‘No more snow, please!’

Hepatica transsilvanica 'Buis'

Hepatica transsilvanica ‘Buis’ – a blue dream (Lost Horizons)

Primula x 'Stradbrook Dream'

and a purple one – Primula x ‘Stradbrook Dream’  (Wrightman Alpines)


And then there were the Saxifrages…

The Latin word saxifraga means literally “stone-breaker”, from Latin saxum (“rock” or “stone”) + frangere (“to break”). Pliny the Elder thought the plant was named like this because at the time it was given to dissolve gallstones (another example of the Doctrine of Signatures). Even so, Saxifraga is a very good name for a plant growing in rock crevices.

Saxifraga 'Redpoll'

Saxifraga ‘Redpoll’

Some of my regular readers might have noticed my penchant for mountains, and of course, everything that grows on them. The seed collections from the Carpathian Mts. we did last summer, my limited garden space (at some point there is no other way to expand but UP), and the fact that every year I plan to do it and it never happens, all combined together and I finally made it to the only nursery specialized in alpine plants from Ontario: Wrightman Alpines .

Alpine house with Saxifraga

Alpine house with Saxifraga and many other species

It is a small size operation (mail-order) but growing a vast array of alpine plants from all over the world. On their website, besides perusing the catalogue, with some species in very short supply, you can watch a few interesting videos about building clay crevice gardens, planting tufa and much more. Alas, this cold month of March made it that many species were behind their usual growth, but to put things into balance, the Saxifrages were in flower. Skilfully grown in small tufa pieces by Harvey Wrightman, they were looking like miniatural rock gardens in themselves.

Saxifraga 'Athena'

Saxifraga ‘Athena’

Saxifraga cohlearis 'Minor'

Saxifraga cochlearis ‘Minor’

Saxifraga oppositifolia 'Florissa'

Saxifraga oppositifolia ‘Florissa’

The genus Saxifraga is quite large, comprising a wide range of mostly perennial plants, many of which are alpines. According to the Saxifraga Society there are some 480 known species and countless garden hybrids. The sections that are of garden interest are: the ‘mossies’ (section Saxifraga), the ‘silvers (section Ligulatae) and the Kabschia and Engleria subsections (of section Porphyrion).

Saxifraga 'Allendale Charm'

Saxifraga ‘Allendale Charm’

Saxifraga oppositifolia 'Theodor'

Saxifraga oppositifolia ‘Theodor’

Saxifraga 'Premsyl Orac'

Saxifraga ‘Premsyl Orac’

Now, if I made you think I know what I’m talking about, you are wrong (in this case). When I’ll be done with the many other genera I’m working on, I’ll get to the Saxifraga too, but that might be a long time from now. Unless you really need a botanical challenge in your life, I suggest that you do like me: try to have fun growing a few of them in your rock garden.

Saxifraga 'Penelope'

Saxifraga ‘Penelope’

Saxifraga ex. Porteous # 2

Saxifraga ex. Porteous

Saxifraga 'Jana'

Saxifraga ‘Jana’

Saxifraga 'Dana'

Saxifraga ‘Dana’

And of course, I came home with my ‘Romeo’ (and a carload of tufa stones), hope our romance will last a bit longer…

Saxifraga 'Romeo'

Saxifraga ‘Romeo’

For the connoisseurs, I cannot end without showing a real alpine gem: Dionysia tapetoides – a cliff-dweller, native from Afghanistan, hard to grow and equally hard to find.

Dyonisia tapetoides

Dionysia tapetoides flowering at Wrightman Alpine Nursery

Season of Ten Thousand Flowers

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn,
a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter.
If your mind isn’t clouded by unnecessary things,
this is the best season of your life.  – Wumen

It is official: in the Northern Hemisphere, the astronomical Spring has begun! – don’t shake your head in disbelieve. Wikipedia got it right: “The specific definition of the exact timing of “spring” varies according to local climate, cultures and customs. At the spring equinox, days are close to 12 hours long, with day length increasing as the season progresses. Spring and “springtime” refer to the season, and also to the ideas of rebirth, rejuvenation, renewal, resurrection, and re-growth.”

For me this is the Season of Ten Thousand Flowers, but like any awakening from a long sleep, it starts slow. If not observant, you can miss its sweetest moments: the first leaves peeking through the ground, the first flower to unfold, the first bumblebee. I took a few pictures on my miniature sunny rockery last Sunday and we have a race going on: which one is going to be the first to flower? My favourite in the race it is Hepatica of course…

The first sign of Spring can be usually noticed in our area in February or even early March, and is given by the Skunk cabbage: Symplocarpus foetidus (fam. Araceae). It grows along streams, and it is mostly known because of the flowers that give off heat, melting the snow around. A somehow bizarre apparition (if you don’t know what it is), it has an enormous importance in the woodland habitat, providing food and shelter for the early insects; the gigantic leaves that follow provide shelter for small mammals and food for some insects and slugs. Also the seeds are eaten by the wood ducks and Northern Bobwhites. We didn’t have time to visit our Skunk cabbage location yet; the images are from last year:

Get ready for the Season of Ten Thousand Flowers: gloves, rubber boots, camera, and all the other stuff…!!!

Epimediums: Barrenworts or Horny-Goat Weeds? – part 2

China: From the goats herd to the street market

The popular name of horny goat weeds came in use in China (if we go with the saying) after a shepherd observed that his goats become excessively ‘sexual’ after eating Epimedium leaves.

Epimedium sagittatum was the first Epimedium mentioned in the classical Shen Pen Ts’ao Ching pharmacopeia (Han dynasty) and in many other Chinese herbals, including the famous Pen Ts’ao Kang Mu of Li Shih-Chen (Ming dynasty) under the name ‘yin yang huo’. Herba Epimedii was used in the form of cut and dried leaves, mainly against impotence, but also anti-rheumatism, usually in combination with other herbs. Scientific studies have confirmed its aphrodisiac effect, due to a class of substances (flavonoids) found in the leaves and rhizomes, particularly icariin.  

In time, this traditional use has been replaced though by uprooting and selling of dry rhizomes from the wild. The famous plant hunter Dan Hinkley and others travellers to China described how large quantities of dry rhizomes are sold on the margin of roads and markets. Considering that some species are known only from certain limited geographical areas, these over-harvesting practices forecast a pessimistic future on their survival and conservation. Prof. W. T. Stearn, in an article published in Kew Bulletin, suggested that the introduction into cultivation of the faster growing species such as E. alpinum and E. pinnatum subsp. colchicum, may satisfy the need of Epimedium for hundreds of Chinese drug companies, and thus save from extinction the Chinese species. Hopefully someone will listen to his idea.

It is good to know that icariin (considered a sort of natural Viagra), the substance responsible for its fame, was also proved to stimulate osteoblast activity in bone tissue, and thus products based on Epimedium extract could be potentially used for the treatment of osteoporosis as well. In recent years, besides icariin, other new flavonoids isolated from different Epimedium species are proven to have phytoestrogenic and antioxidant properties.

 A few of the Horny-Goat Weeds

Like with many other ‘newly discovered’ medicinal plants, especially coming from China, advertised as all-cures remedies, Epimedium extracts are sold today as dietary supplements mainly for enhancing the erectile function. In fact the exact dosage of icariin (as active substance in dry powdered rhizomes or leaves) necessary to achieve ‘high performances’ has not been proven yet, not to mention that probably many of the companies selling such products (especially on-line) may not even know how an Epimedium looks like! Beware!!!

Personally, I prefer to look at E. sagittatum and its evergreen counterparts like: E. franchetii, E. myrianthum, E. acuminatum, E. davidii, E. wushanense, E. brevicornu, to mention just a few, as wonderful plants for the shade garden. 

Epimediums: Barrenworts or Horny-Goat Weeds? – part 1

How come Epimedium species got to have these contradictory popular names?

Europe: From the aphotecary to the garden

Who would have thought around the year 1600 that one plant from a physic garden, grown to supply the adjacent apothecary would end up famous centuries later for its real medicinal ‘virtues’?

Epimedium alpinum was the first Epimedium to be recorded by the Italian botanist and herbalist Luigi Anguillaria in 1561 from a woodland near Vicenza. Because at that time the genus Epimedium had not been described yet, based on its appearance, he thought it was a medicinal plant described by Dioscorides in De Materia Medica under the name Epimedion, which had presumably contraceptive properties.

 Cultivated as such into a few European gardens during the following years, it was named Epimedium alpinum by Carl Linnaeus in 1753, and thus it became the type of the genus Epimedium. Because at that time plants were cultivated mostly for their (presumed) medicinal properties in physic gardens, it was referred to as ‘Barren Woort’, which became ‘Barrenwort’, a popular name still in use today for this group of Epimediums, although there is no scientific evidence of them having any contraceptive property. We know today that Dioscorides was talking about a different plant, possibly……

Therefore by confusion with another plant, Epimedium was named and used historically in Europe as a contraceptive, which is exactly the opposite of its real medicinal properties that have made it so famous in modern times. As for its ornamental qualities look what they were thinking at that time:

 “The little dingy Epimedium alpinum, known only in the gardens of Botanists, gave no promise of its representing a line of beautiful herbaceous plants, and for a long time it was supposed to be the only one of its race” – from Edward’s Botanical Register (1849).

A few Epimediums from E. alpinum ‘family’:

How wrong they were in 1849! The little Epimedium from the gardens of botanists, contributed to a few hybrids with high ornamental value, still in cultivation today. The best known today, E. x rubrum, resulted from a cross between E. alpinum and E. grandiflorum, and was mentioned first as E. alpinum var. rubrum in Belgique Horticole in 1854.

Epimedium x warleyense (E. pinnatum subsp. colchicum x alpinum), appeared in the garden of Ellen Willmott, who had an Epimedium collection at Warley Place in UK. It has two noteworthy cv. with orange flowers ‘Ellen Willmott’ and ‘Orange Koenigen’.

E. x cantabrigiense is a cross of E. alpinum x E. pubigerum, with the cv. ‘Black Sea’ maybe the best known. ‘Little Shrimp’ is considered by some a var. of alpinum, although by its look, I would go with Darell Probst and say it’s a E.x cantabrigiense hybrid.

To be continued with the horny-goat weeds…


Latin terms meaning :  1. snow, covered with snow and  2. white

This is a short rambling on the epithets of plant names or cultivars alluding to snow and winter inspired from the combination of the first flurries we have had here in Waterloo and me working through the plant pictures of the season. Besides ‘niveum’ or ‘nivea’ which can be found both as specific epithet or cultivars name – like in Epimedium x youngianum ‘Niveum’, other term used is: ‘alba’ or ‘album’, both referring to the flowers or leaves colour or other botanical characteristic, like in Abies alba – from the 2 white bands of stomata on the underside of the needles (more epithets bringing on the winter and ice are frigidus/frigida; glacialis and gelidus).

For the cultivar names, the list would be very long from: ‘Snow Queen’ (Hydrangea quercifolia) to ‘Snow Flurries’ (Aster ericoides) and ‘Late Snow’ (Primula sieboldii).  Anyway, enjoy a few white images; Gentiana angustifolia ‘Iceberg’ (I think), took me by surprise a couple of weeks ago, both by the time of flowering and its identity!

Don’t you love (good) surprises?


Open letter to Arums

 Dear Lords and Ladies,

I am writing to you to express my admiration towards your wonderful foliage, which starts to grow late September and remains so beautiful throughout the winter.

I know that because your particular life cycle, many people are overlooking you, but personally I think you make a great foliage plant for shade, and not only. The flowers, which appear in June, followed by the corn-popsicle-like colourful fruits, are great compliments.

Your variegated varieties, like ‘Gold Rush’, ‘Winter White’ and ‘Chameleon’ are particularly delightful and embellish the Display Garden at Lost Horizons every year, also drawing lots of attention from everyone visiting late fall.

 Please remain assured of my sincere admiration.

Yours truly,

diversifolius and



How enviable –
Turning beautiful then falling
maple leaves.

                                                            Kagami Shiko