Considering the restrictions around getting out and visiting public gardens, we thought it might be useful to highlight a few common plants that people are likely to encounter in their own neighbourhoods.
We’ll be updating this feature as different plants come into bloom, for as long as access to public gardens is restricted and social-distancing recommendations continue.
Updated April 30, 2020.
Yellow Magnolias are all the rage these days. They are popping up in all kinds of places, from municipal street plantings to commercial strip malls to residential features. The yellow magnolias of commerce are primarily the result of crossing the eastern North American, late-flowering M. acuminata (cucumber tree), with the early-flowering, Chinese M. denudata (Yulan magnolia). The Yulan magnolia has sublimely beautiful, ivory-coloured, 15-cm (6″), goblet-shaped blooms borne on naked branches, while those of the cucumber tree are no more than half that size, yellow-green and often barely visible among the sizeable foliage. In the wild, M. acuminata is better-known for its hanging fruits (they are green at first and about the size of a pickling cucumber). Both species are ultimately huge trees. Interestingly, the yellow pigment in the flowers of M. acuminata, which is frequently masked by chlorophyll (the flowers thus appearing green), often expresses itself to a high degree in hybrids.
The yellow hybrids are, for the most part, coarse-leaved trees that produce their flowers as the leaves emerge. Like most cultivated yellows in Vancouver, the flowers of all of the available cultivars are often overshadowed by yellow-green expanding leaves. Two cultivars are commonly planted. Magnolia ‘Butterflies’ (M. acuminata x M. denudata) is a wide-spreading, sparsely branched tree. The flowers have seven to nine narrow, pale yellow tepals (there is no differentiation between sepals and petals in magnolia, hence, tepals). But don’t trust Internet images of Butterfly, which usually show the flowers as a vibrant deep yellow. They are not. Magnolia ‘Yellow Bird’ is a second generation hybrid cross. Its parents are M. x brooklynensis ‘Evamaria’ (M. liliiflora x M. acuminata) and M. acuminata. According to most authorities, ‘Yellow Bird’ is an improvement on ‘Butterflies’. It has a more compact form and later-emerging, bright canary yellow flowers with wider tepals. The deeper colour presumably derives from the double dose of cucumber tree genes.
Viburnum davidii (Pere David’s viburnum) is an extremely commonly cultivated evergreen shrub in Vancouver that was first introduced to Western gardens from China in 1904. It forms a wide-spreading mound that eventually becomes a thicket of interlacing stems. Plants can grow to 1.5 m (5′) tall (or occasionally taller) by nearly double that across. The leathery leaves are about 10 to 18 cm (4-7″) long, dark, shining green and oval to egg-shaped with a pointed tip, borne on short, purple-red leaf stalks. There are three prominent veins that run the length of the leaf, and this makes V. davidii instantly recognizable in the landscape. Small clusters of creamy white flowers are appearing right about now. Bright turquoise-blue, egg-shaped berries are showy in the autumn, but are only produced when multiple seedlings are grown. This is because viburnums generally require cross pollination (pollen from a different individual of the same species) to make fruit.
Armand (Pere) David (1826-1900), for whom the species was named, was a French missionary. Among other important discoveries, he was the first Westerner to describe the giant panda.
Prunus ‘Shiro-fugen’ is the latest-flowering of the common Sato-zakura (village cherries). It normally starts flowering in late April or early May. In Japan, the same cultivar is known as ‘Fugenzo’. Both names commemorate the Bodhisattva Fugen (a bodhisattva is a Buddhist teacher on the path to attain Buddhahood) who is often depicted riding atop a white elephant (shiro = white + fugen = Fugen and zo = white). Nestled in the centre of the flower, one can usually find a pair of long-nosed leafy appendages that are reminiscent of elephant trunks.
The flowering progression of ‘Shiro-fugen’ is remarkable. When the flowers first open, the deep pink buds burst against a background of coppery red, emerging foliage. The flowers are tightly packed with up to 40 petals, and they expand slowly into ruffled, inch-wide tutus that gradually become mostly white, intensifying the contrast with the bronzing foliage. In warm weather, the individual flower stems elongate to what can only be described as an elegant length, while at the same time the leaves are making a gradual transition to deep green. This alters the picture sufficiently to persuade observers that the tree they thought they’d seen a week or two before (compact clusters of pink and white flowers with bronze foliage), had been inexplicably switched to a different cultivar (loose white flowers with green leaves). But ‘Shiro-fugen’ isn’t finished. Many of the flowers hang intact for more than a month, gradually developing a rouge-red blush, and they give a completely new effect juxtaposed with the fully expanded leaves.
Collingwood Ingram (the doyen of ornamental cherries in Western horticulture), writing in 1948, reported that in Japan, ‘Shiro-fugen’ (he called it ‘Fugenzo’) was said to have been in cultivation for a thousand years. It is definitely an ancient cultivar, reliably recorded as present in Japan since at least the 15th century. If you’re interested in flowering cherries and want to learn more, visit the Vancouver Cherry Blossom Festival website.
Viola x wittrockiana
Viola x wittrockiana (pansy) are often associated with winter bedding or winter window boxes, as they tend to flower when it’s cool (they are often called winter pansies). The flowers usually smell sweet (like their close relations, the violets) and are easily cultivated in both large and small spaces.
Pansies are easily recognized by their distinctive, flat-faced flowers, composed of a pair of large upper petals, two smaller “wing” petals to the sides, and a wide lower petal. In most modern pansies, the petals all have a similar base colour and the three lowest petals are marked by symmetrical blotches or lines in a contrasting colour. If you examine the back of the flower, you can see five sepals, and a small nectar spur, which is an outgrowth of the lower petal. At the front in the centre of the flower is a yellow spot, below which is a small opening through which a bumblebee can only partially push through to reach the nectary. Of course, this means that when the bumblebee’s tongue reaches the nectary, its body may be in contact with pollen, which the bumblebee inadvertently collects on its bristly hairs when the pollen is shed or is deposited on a waiting pollen-receptive stigma.
While this is a specialized pollination mechanism, the pansy has to first attract the bumblebee to the correct part of the flower, and this relies on the bee’s ability to see in the ultraviolet. The outer parts of the petals reflect UV light, which bumblebees can see, but the lines and petal bases absorb UV light, and these parts of the petal the bumblebee cannot see. Thus, the bumblebee is directed to a black target at the centre of bright petals. Nectar guides are not restricted to the flowers of pansies, but they are certainly well elaborated in these plants. Most pansies also produce a different kind of flower usually later in the season (although it looks the same as the earlier ones), and these don’t require pollination at all. This may sound crazy, given that the plant invests so much in attracting bumblebees, but it’s interpreted by botanists as a kind of an insurance policy. In the event that bumblebees are not around, the pansy can still produce seeds.
Rhododendron ‘Hino Crimson’
Rhododendron ‘Hino Crimson’ is one of the most popular of the dwarf, small-leaved evergreen azaleas in the Kurume (kur-oom-me) azalea group. The evergreen azaleas are a highly variable group of hybrids grown for their relatively small size, garden adaptability and brightly coloured, spring-borne flowers. The hybrids are mostly derived from a number of closely related azaleas, including R. kiusianum (Kyushu azalea), R. indicum (satsuki azalea), R. yedoense (Korean azalea) and R. kaempferi (Kaempfer azalea)—all species native to Japan. In general, they are low evergreen shrubs with small, sparsely hairy leaves, and copiously-produced, funnel-shaped flowers in shades of pink, magenta, light purple, red, rose, vermilion or white.
Until the latter part of the 20th century, the Kurume hybrids were probably the most common evergreen azaleas planted in the Vancouver area. They were mostly brought here by Japanese immigrants and then re-propagated in local nurseries and distributed widely. Their small leaves and overall small size were highly valued in Japanese gardens, but they caught on western gardens, too. The Kurume azaleas generally bear masses of single-colour, small flowers on layered branches. ‘Hino-crimson’ grows to about 60 cm (2′) tall, with profuse crimson flowers about 1 cm (⅓”) across, which is about double the size of the leaves. When in bloom, the flowers will almost completely obscure the foliage. Although usually assumed to be Japanese in origin, ‘Hino-crimson’ is a modern Dutch cultivar similar to and confused with the Japanese cultivar, ‘Hinodegiri’ (whose flowers are a lighter, more vibrant red). ‘Hino-crimson’ was very popular locally in decades past and was widely planted but is now mostly superseded by modern cultivars with larger blooms. Thus, it is common in older gardens and rare in new ones.
Updated April 23, 2020.
Magnolia x soulangeana
Magnolia x soulangeana (saucer magnolia). Fifty years ago, saucer magnolias were all the rage. Flowering on bare branches with sumptuous, pink and white goblets on a cool spring day, daffodils fading away in the background… Well, what’s not to like?
Saucer magnolias are valued not only for their sublime beauty, but also for their small stature—relative to the tree magnolias—as well as their overall garden adaptability. The hybrid was first made at the French estate of Étienne Soulange-Bodin in 1820, using pollen from the shrubby, purple-flowered lily magnolia (M. liliiflora ‘Nigra’) on the flowers of the tree-sized, white-flowered Yulan magnolia (M. denudata). The same cross has been made many times since then. The typical form of the resultant seedlings is intermediate between the parents; that is, shrubby, but becoming tree-like with a rounded, sprawling crown and growing to 5 to 8 m (15-25′) or so after many years. The flowers start out more or less goblet-shaped, but gradually open to become flattened and saucer-like (hence the common name), often to more than 25 cm (10″) across. In general, flower colour ranges from pure white and pink to rosy purple. In general, the tepals (there is no distinction between sepals and petals in magnolias, hence tepals) are coloured on the outside surface and white on the inside surface.
Saucer magnolias are common in older neighbourhoods around Vancouver. Newer housing (townhouses, condominiums and infill houses), with its smaller footprints, generally demands smaller trees and shrubs. In these places, we often see smaller-growing magnolia hybrids, such as the Kosar-de Vos hybrids (M. liliiflora ‘Nigra’ x M. stellata ‘Rosea’), better known under the informal group name the “Little Girls” (they have names like, ‘Ricki’, Randy’, ‘Jane’ and ‘Susan’). These are early-flowering, floriferous, upright-spreading shrubs, with narrow, lopsided goblets composed of rose-purple tepals that are white on the inside.
Prunus ‘Kanzan’ is the most commonly planted of all flowering cherries outside of Japan. It is fast-growing with a large, upright, spreading crown up to 15 m (48′) tall, and with huge, long-lasting, double pink flowers that are produced in April or May. The leaves emerge bronze-green at the same time as the flower buds open. A Sato-zakura (village cherry) in cultivation in Japan since at least the 17th century, its name translates as “bordering mountain cherry.” It is one of the healthiest and most robust of all cultivars, even where it is planted in what appears to be little or no soil, such as in the classic “hell-strip” on commercial streets. ‘Kanzan’ is definitely one of the most popular ornamental cherries in Vancouver, but is normally too large for most residential settings, and its size makes it vulnerable in street plantings (there are always a few branches that have been “truck-pruned” in these situations).
Given room, however, older trees are magnificent when blooming. You may note also that the trunks of older trees are invariably riddled with bread-loaf-sized cankers (swellings), which indicate that the trees are infected with a systemic bacterial disease. While most other cherries are weakened and eventually worn down by this disease, ‘Kanzan’ just keeps on going. It’s a testament to the strength and vitality of this ancient cultivar that random pruning, bacterial canker and less-than-ideal siting barely affect its performance.
Epimedium (barrenwort, fairy wings, bishop’s hat). Unlike the aforementioned saucer magnolia, one would be hard-pressed to see many Epimedium species in local gardens of fifty years past. Nowadays, these herbaceous, mostly ground-covering plants are common. And right about now, they are raising their delicate flowers on curving, wire-like stems. The flowers have an open, cup-shaped, or more closed, bell-shaped centre and four tubular outgrowths that curve away from the centre. The flowers look like tiny, brightly coloured jester’s hats (frankly, less like a bishop’s hat). The name “fairy-wings” is also appropriate, given the diaphanous nature of the floral tissues in many species.
Though perhaps extraordinary looking to us, the flowers are really just supremely adapted to attracting bees, as the tubular outgrowths are specialized spurs filled with nectar. Pollen-heavy anthers are located in the flower’s centre, hanging downward. Bees have to work hard to reach the nectar and in doing so, plaster themselves with pollen before they’re off to the next flower, where some of it may rub off on a pollen receptive stigma, effecting pollination. The flowers come in a range of colours (but no green or blue) and in some species are wildly ornamented, with long arching spurs sporting a contrasting colour; others are relatively plain with short or even no spurs, but they are all fascinating when viewed close up.
Epimediums come in two basic types: evergreen and deciduous. Many of the evergreens are barely that, the winter-damaged leaves inconveniently breaking down just as the flowers start to emerge. Clearing away the spent leaves at this time is perilous: one is just as likely to cut off a flower stem as leaf stem. Experienced gardeners know to cut away the leaves just before dormancy is broken in early spring. However, other epimediums have sturdy foliage that looks perfectly clean for years. The deciduous types (the barrenworts) are also vulnerable, their brittle stems arising from subsurface crowns naked and unprotected. In all cases, epimediums have distinctive, ternately-compound (Latin: ternate = in threes) leaves. Each stem that arises from a crown bears individual leaflets, in almost all cases, in multiples of three (i.e., three, nine or twenty-seven leaflets).
Anemone nemorosa (wood anemone). Anemones are herbaceous plants related to the buttercups, but that typically have wind-blown seeds (technically, the “seed” is actually a tiny fruit that contains a single seed). They are known as wind-flowers because of the feathery tips of the seed that bend in the wind before detaching. The name is said to come from the Greek anemo, “the wind.” The sea anemone was named for its resemblance to the plume-like tips of Anemone seeds.
Wood anemone is a European species that grows from fleshy underground stems (rhizomes), spreading slowly into 30-cm (12″) -wide clumps of ferny foliage. The flowers have six white or pale pink petal-like tepals (there is no distinction between sepals and petals in anemones, hence tepals) that open flat, to about 2.5 cm (1″) wide, looking like little yellow-centred stars floating above the grass-green leaves. The wood anemone is usually found in well-watered and shaded gardens (nemorosa means “of the woods”). Anemone nemorosa can even sometimes be found at wetland margins in local woodlands where people dump garden waste (shame on them). The blue-flowered Anemone blanda (Grecian windflower), which starts flowering about two weeks after the wood anemone, is a tuberous-rooted species, better adapted to sunshine and drier conditions. The 2.5- to 3.5-cm (1-1¾”) flowers have nine to fifteen narrow, strap-shaped tepals that radiate around a yellow centre. The overall effect is like little blue daisies. Like A. nemorosa, the flowers are borne at the tip of a slender leafy stem. The name blanda means “charming.”
Camellia japonica (common camellia). There are about two hundred species of Camellia, all of them native to Southeast Asia. They are generally recognized by their shrubby to occasionally tree-like habit, glossy evergreen leaves and red, white, pink or rarely yellow flowers. Camellia flowers are interesting from a variety of perspectives, not least that they are usually large and often exceptionally showy. Close examination reveals that each camellia flower bears an intergrading series of greenish-brown bud scales, thinner, pale, petal-like sepals, and fully-coloured petals (this is most easily seen before the flowers are fully open).
There are usually between five and twelve petals in most camellia flowers, and even more in the fancier types. The stamens (the pollen-bearing structures) are arranged in two to six series, the stalks of the outermost whorl partially fused to the petals and forming a tube. Japanese camellias are a familiar sight in shaded gardens around the warm-temperate world, with their characteristic glossy, dark green, 5 to 10 cm (2-4″) long leaves, dense, mounding habit, neat, football-shaped flower buds and spectacular spring flowers. Flowers are borne singly or in pairs near the tips of the branches and are usually 6 to 10 cm (2½-4″) across. Fancy-flowered cultivars have been cultivated and bred for centuries, first in southeastern China, Japan and Korea, but considerable breeding work now takes place in southern Europe and the United States, particularly in California.
Flower buds of the common camellia are “set” in the summer for the following year’s bloom, and the best conditions for flower-bud production is when early summer nighttime temperatures exceed 15 C (60 F). Thus, when we have cool nighttime temperatures in July, we don’t generally have a good flower display the following year. Like 2019, 2020 seems to be a banner year for camellias. We could call this one small consolation for a warming climate.
Updated April 16, 2020.
Magnolia stellata (star magnolia). Magnolia stellata is a deciduous shrub or small tree from southern Japan. Plants are very twiggy and typically grow to about 2 m (6′) tall after 10 years, but 3 to 6 m (10-20′) tall after a few decades. The flowers of this magnolia are star-like (stellata means “star shaped”), delightfully fragrant and about 10 cm (4″) across. They explode out of grey furry buds, unfurling usually six to nine creamy-white to pale pink, strap-shaped tepals, each about 5 cm long (note that there is no differentiation between sepals and petals in Magnolia, hence tepals). Modern star magnolia hybrids, which are common in gardens, frequently have flowers with thirty or more tepals. In all cases, plants produce large numbers of flowers along the congested, naked branches in April. The leaves emerge much later, usually after the flowers have completely dropped. While some selections of M. stellata are relatively compact and shrubby, others are more open, robust and tree-like.
Prunus laurocerasus (cherry-laurel). The cherry laurels are some of the most common broad-leaved evergreens in your neighbourhood. They have shiny, tough, dark green leaves, and right now, expanding flower buds. Each inflorescence (flower stalk) produces attractive small white flowers on stiffly upright, candle-like stalks near the ends of branches. The stalks are typically between 10 and 15 cm (4-6″) long and the individual flowers 10 mm (⅜”) across. ‘Otto Luyken’ is probably the most commonly cultivated selection locally. It bears stiffly upright ranks of dark green, 10- to 15-cm (4-6″) narrow, pointed leaves on angular branches that ascend at about 45 degrees. Unpruned, ‘Otto Luyken’ can grow to about 4 m (13′) tall and wide, but plants are easily clipped to any geometric shape and size, and in most commercial landscapes, are generally treated this way. ‘Rotundifolia’ is the common cherry laurel used for hedging in Vancouver. It has grass green, broadly heavily textured, glossy leaves that are 15 to 20 cm (6-8″) long by 6 to 10 cm (3-4″) wide. Stems are strongly upright. Left to its devices, a plant will easily form an imposing wall with multiple ascending branches to 10 m (30′) in height by almost as much across. The dark leaves are a perfect foil for the white flowers which are freely produced. Flowers are not always seen, however, as the late summer “haircut,” which removes the flower buds, is the usual routine. Cut or bruised stems and leaves release a bitter almond fragrance. This derives from the presence of poisonous hydrogen cyanide, which is found in all tissues.
Iberis sempervirens (perennial candytuft) is native to stony, calcareous (calcium-rich) soils in the mountains of southern Europe where it forms large spreading mats. Leaves are evergreen (semper = forever + virens = green). The stems and leaves are a dark, dull green, brightened significantly by the flowers, which are borne in 3- to 4-cm-wide clusters this month and next. Individual flowers are about 8 mm (⅓”) long, white or sometimes pink before expanding. The four petals are ribbon-like and form a narrowed “X,” the inner-facing petals shorter and smaller, and the outer-facing petals larger and hanging more loosely. The individual flowers are packed together in a series of concentric rings, with the youngest, unopened flowers toward the centre of the cluster. Plants are short-lived and typically do not flower in heavy shade but are surprisingly tolerant of drought. In Vancouver, the best-looking plants are usually growing in full sun near to deteriorating concrete or masonry (where extra calcium is available to roots). When not in flower, the plants tend to fade into the background, but when flowering heavily, few low shrubs are as bright and clean looking.
Ribes sanguineum (winter-flowering currant). This western North American native is a handsome deciduous shrub that can grow to 4 m tall, though usually less in cultivation. The youngest growth produces a resinous aroma much like that of the edible cultivated black currant. This aroma is sometimes referred to as “foxy.” Having never smelled a fox, I couldn’t say, but they do smell pretty distinctive in a resinous sort of way. Flowers are produced in very showy, compact, drooping, five- to thirty-flowered clusters, and the nectar-rich flowers are produced in various shades of pink to near red (sanguineum = red) or rarely, pure white. They generally appear in April at the same time as leaf emergence and coincide locally with the return of rufous hummingbirds from their southern migration. Ribes sanguineum is well known in horticulture, having been introduced to Europe by the Scottish botanist and explorer, David Douglas in the 1820s. Winter-flowering currant is common in the local landscape. The cultivar most frequently grown by local gardeners, with dark pink (nearly red) flowers, is ‘King Edward VII’. ‘Pulborough Scarlet’ has flowers that are magenta-pink to scarlet. The white-flowered ‘Ubric’ (marketed as White Icicle) is easily the earliest cultivar (by at least a week) and the broadest-growing by far. A UBC Botanical Garden introduction, White Icicle was selected for its large and abundantly produced inflorescences of pure white flowers.
Euphorbia characias (Mediterranean spurge). Although rarely planted in Vancouver in decades past, E. characias is now a common evergreen subshrub locally, especially in hot, sunny locations where water drains away quickly. The growth form of this species is unusual, if not unique with respect to other landscape plants. Multiple leafy shoots emerge in late spring, the short strap-like, softly hairy leaves radiating densely all around the upper part of the stem. These stems typically overwinter and continue growing to about 60 cm (2′) tall. They then produce tiny, unseen flower buds in the summer. The following spring, the now-mature stems begin flowering, with spectacular club-like heads of weird yellow flowers. Note that there are often a few stems without flowers—these are next year’s flowering stems. Each tiny flower is situated in a small, leafy, yellow cup, and a close examination shows that the individual flowers are without petals. Instead, the important reproductive structures are surrounded by tiny nectar-producing yellow to purple-brown glands. This is pretty weird, but it gets stranger. As the flower finishes growing, a pair of new flowers emerges beside the expiring one, each new flower with its own stalk and cup, exactly like the first one. Note that that all sorts of different bees and small flying insects are attracted to the flowers. They are, of course, moving the pollen from the male parts to the female parts in the flowers. If fertilized, the female flower produces a tiny three-lobed fruit, and when it dries out (in a month or so) it releases its seeds explosively, firing them up to a metre away. This is less dangerous than it sounds, but it’s still a good idea to give Mediterranean spurge a wide berth. The milky white sap of nearly all euphorbias is often both caustic and toxic and should not be handled without gloves.
For a little light reading on this subject, I recommend Wikipedia’s Euphorbia entry, not least for its overview of this fascinating, cosmopolitan group of plants. It’s one of the largest groups of flowering plants, for example, with some two thousand species. It includes hardy perennials, leafy poinsettias (yes, that’s a euphorbia), tiny annual weeds and tropical, spiny trees with succulent branches. Particularly interesting is the section on etymology: the common name ‘spurge’ comes from Middle English/Old French espurge (to purge), in reference to the use of euphorbia sap as a purgative (don’t try this at home!). But the origin of the scientific name Euphorbia, as outlined in the article, is even more interesting, especially for botanical history geeks.
Updated April 9, 2020.
Pieris (andromeda shrub). These evergreen shrubs should be familiar to nearly everyone who lives in the Vancouver area because of their handsome leaves and flowers. They are frequently known as andromeda shrub, lily-of-the-valley bush, fetterbush, or simply, and most commonly, pieris. The leaves of cultivated Pieris are often brightly coloured when expanding in the spring. Preceding leaf emergence, small, white to pink, honey-scented, urn-shaped flowers are borne in pendulous strings, the dark overwintering flower buds often rather showy against the shining foliage from mid-winter onward. In local gardens, the most commonly cultivated Pieris are hybrids of the mostly shrubby P. japonica and the Himalayan, often tree-like P. formosa subsp. forrestii. The hybrids are typically grown for their outlandishly colourful new foliage, which, along with strong upright growth, is contributed by the Himalayan parent.
Pieris gets its name from Pieres, Macedonia, the birthplace of the Muses in Greek mythology. The common names andromeda shrub and fetterbush also refer to Greek mythology: Andromeda was bound to a rock by the sea as a sacrifice to the Cetus (a giant sea monster). Cetus is known as the Kraken in modern movies, such as the 2010 sword-and-sandals epic, Clash of the Titans, but the Kraken is technically a giant cephalopod (octopus)-like sea monster peculiar to Scandinavian folklore. So much for cultural continuity. Anyway, Andromeda was saved by the hero Perseus, who broke her chains (fetters). And the long, flowering stems of Pieris are reminiscent of Andromeda’s chains. In spite of the Greek reference, Pieris species are native to east Asia, with one species in eastern North America.
Erica carnea (winter heather, heath). Winter heathers are popular broad-leaved evergreen shrubs in cooler temperate regions. Erica carnea is native to the mountains of Europe, including Britain, and North Africa (Morocco), growing at the margins of coniferous forests and on stony slopes, often fed by snow melt, where the plants form broad mats, the stems rooting where they touch the ground. Two species are common. Erica carnea grows to only 22 cm (9″). The larger but nearly identical E. erigena (Irish heath, but also more commonly known locally as winter heather) can grow to 75 cm (30″). An artificial hybrid between them, the popular E. x darleyensis, is intermediate in height. While we call the ericas broad-leaved, they are hardly that. The evergreen leaves are more needle like, usually only 4 to 6 mm (⅕-¼”) long, and they radiate all around the wire-like stems. Tiny though they are, they are in perfect scale with the urn-shaped flowers borne at the tips of the stems. When open, the flowers are pink, white or rose-purple.
The pinched mouth of each flower hardly seems large enough to admit a bee, but the bee tongue is perfectly adapted to lap up the nectar from the base of the flower—and in so doing, transfer pollen from one flower to the next. In the wild, leaves are generally grass green and the flowers fleshy pink (carnea means “flesh coloured”). But darker-leaved forms, which are usually also associated with darker flowers—the reddish anthocyanin pigments more abundant in all tissues (in both E. carnea and E. x darleyensis)—have been propagated widely. Like purple-leaved plums, Japanese maples and European beeches, darker leaved selections are more common in cultivation than are found proportionally in the wild. The same goes for white-flowered and yellow-leaved plants. Although most people would recognize winter heather by its mat-like or low-mounding stature, tiny evergreen leaves and late-winter borne flowers, purists will tell you that “heather” (Calluna vulgaris) is a spikier-looking, summer-flowering shrub, and that the plants that are in flower now are properly known as “heaths.” Regardless, most local folks call them heathers. And that’s the thing with common names. Once a name is in common usage, it tends to stick.
Berberis (Mahonia) aquifolium
Berberis (Mahonia) aquifolium (tall mahonia, tall Oregon grape). Tall mahonia is native to western North America, including to drier, especially rain-shadow areas around Vancouver. However, unless your neighbourhood includes natural rocky outcrops, chances are that B. aquifolium is a planted landscape shrub. Tall mahonia is stiffly upright with sparsely-branched stems that can grow 3 to 4.5 m (10-15′) tall, although it is typically kept much lower by (often severe) pruning. Fortunately, the species is incredibly resilient, and usually bounces back with new branches from near ground level. The leaves are attached by a wire-like stalk and each leaf has five to nine glossy, dark green, usually leathery and stiff leaflets. The leaflets have spine-tipped marginal teeth (aquili = an eagle’s talon + folia = leaf), and the flowers, which are in bloom right now, are a startlingly bright yellow, borne in irregular clusters near the tips of the shoots.
Blue-bloomed black berries follow on drooping stalks, and when ripe in early summer, are tasty, though they are somewhat astringent (i.e., they can suck most of the moisture out of the mouth). Birds are usually faster off the draw than people, though, and we seldom get a chance to sample these beautiful berries. The name Oregon grape is usually used for a related species B. nervosa, a lower-growing species with longer leaves and later-opening flowers. That species is also native, but it is a shade-tolerant understorey species common in our local forests.
Muscari (grape hyacinth). Right about now, grape hyacinths are coming up. They appear in both well-tended and neglected gardens, and on lawns and boulevards. They are especially robust near older sidewalks or deteriorating mortared walls, or indeed, where a gardener has applied lime to soil—available calcium being the component common to all three situations, and the element that benefits the growth of many plants, including Muscari. Calcium is otherwise often in short supply in our soils. Among the easiest and most prolific of spring bulbs, nearly every one of the forty or so species of Muscari is a small plant that has tight clusters of blue-purple flowers in early spring. They are Eurasian plants hailing from often steep rocky places, the bulbs allowing the plants to survive adverse conditions until warming temperatures trigger growth in the spring.
The most commonly cultivated species include (in order of increasing numbers of flowers on the stalk) M. neglectum (a weedy species), M. botryoides and M. armeniacum. In general, flowers are borne at the tips of 7.5- to 15-cm (3-6″) stalks that emerge together with a loose mass of long, narrow, floppy leaves, seemingly overnight. A close look at the flowers shows that they are most tightly clustered toward the stem tip, while away from the tip, they tend to be more loosely spaced. The individual flowers are barrel- or urn-shaped, each with a set of six miniscule, usually light-coloured teeth surrounding a pinched mouth. The flowers of the most common species are primarily grape coloured, while some of the fancier ones have a contrasting crown of lighter coloured, unopened flowers at the tip, grading into the purple-blue of the maturing flowers below. There are even pink muscaris and albino (white) ones, too, but these are rare. Grape hyacinths are not the same as hyacinths. The true hyacinth (Hyacinthus orientalis) is a more substantial plant, with a larger bulb and with larger more widely spaced and flaring flowers that come in a variety of colours (though only one colour per stalk). Hyacinths have a very strong, sweet fragrance, while muscaris have a subtly sweet smell or a slightly musky, grape juice smell (name Muscari is a reference to musky flowers). When temperatures remain cool, there are fewer bee visits to muscari flowers, and the flowers last longer.
Prunus ‘Shirotae’ (Mt. Fuji cherry). Some of us are lucky enough to have ‘Shirotae’ cherries in our neighbourhoods. The Mount Fuji cherry is usually instantly recognizable, even without its opulent display of white flowers, because of its incredibly wide-spreading, usually flat-topped crown. ‘Shirotae’ belongs to a group of cherries grown not for their fruit, but for their flowers. They are known as “sato-zakura” or village cherries, so named because their origins are obscured by long cultivation in Japanese villages (sato = village + zakura = cherry tree). The sato-zakura are probably the most familiar cherries to Vancouver-area residents. They are a diverse, highly ornamental group derived from a number of different Prunus species native to Japan. Note that the Japanese name for cherry trees is pronounced somewhere between sakura and zakura, hence the use of both spellings in English (though typically, “sakura” is more common). ‘Shirotae’ means white.
When flowering in early April (as ‘Shirotae’ is doing this year) the flowers will emerge just prior to the leaves. It’s equally common, however, for the tree to bloom in late April when the fresh green leaves are almost fully developed and the contrast between the bright green leaves and stark white flowers lends a particular clean, crispness to the combination. No matter—the flowers are magnificent all by themselves. Borne on long, hanging stalks, the large-petaled flowers are fragrant (smelling faintly of almonds to most people), and fully double, at least once trees are mature. Note that the leaves have serrated margins, but a closer look reveals delicate hair-like extensions at the tips of each of the teeth. ‘Shirotae’ has been a popular tree since about 1850 in Japan. It’s not known why it has the common name Mt. Fuji, other than perhaps that it’s an evocative name invented by clever Western marketers.
Photinia x fraseri
Photinia x fraseri (photinia or red-tip). This ubiquitous evergreen shrub is often used for hedging, but it is most commonly seen as a filler shrub in larger residential developments (a favourite of townhouse complexes). In my neighbourhood (which is going on twenty-five years old_ it’s a frequent yard shrub, even on smaller lots, despite the fact that photinia can quickly grow to 8 m or so. But then, people love to clip, and photinia is an ideal plant in this regard—tolerating any sort of arbitrary pruning and responding at almost any but the coldest time of the year with throngs of brilliant red new growth.
The plant is a hybrid of two Photinia species, one Chinese and the other Japanese. It was discovered in 1940 by Ollie Fraser in his nursery in Birmingham, Alabama. The full name of the plant is Photinia x fraseri ‘Birmingham’, but most people just call it photinia. The name Photinia is from the Greek, photos, which means light, referring to the shining young foliage of most species. Given sufficient room (like on the highway embankments near my neighbourhood), photinias can really get going. In the absence of pruning, plants more than 5 m tall and wide are not unusual. Unpruned photinias in the open typically produce big, rounded clusters of small flowers on a few branch tips in the early summer, and these are sometimes followed by small red berries.
Forsythia x intermedia
Forsythia x intermedia (border forsythia). The forsythias are exceptionally common deciduous shrubs with bright yellow, spring-borne flowers. They were named for William Forsyth, a Scottish botanist who was active in the British horticultural community in the 18th century. Border forsythia is a hybrid of two Chinese species, one with stiff, upright stems, the other with more pendent branches. The hybrid is intermediate between the parents and makes a broad haystack of a bush to 3 m tall and wide (or wider) after about a decade of growth, unless pruned, which is often the case. Unfortunately, the pruning of forsythia is often done badly, with no consideration for its natural form or the removal of flower buds.
The shrub is easy to recognize, even without its surprisingly copiously-produced, brash yellow flowers. The arching stems, which multiply at ground level, are golden brown and covered in tiny warts (they’re not actually warts, but lenticels—breathing pores). In leaf, without flowers, forsythia is seldom given a second look, appearing much like horticultural wallpaper. In autumn, however, forsythia can shine again, with leaves that turn an intense plum purple. Some people— particularly those who hail from the prairies—are as nostalgic about forsythia as they are for lilacs (they are both famously cold-tolerant shrubs), but the size and vigour of forsythias generally means that they’ll have to be pruned to keep them from overtaking valuable garden real estate. It’s worth mentioning that forsythia was the false “miracle cure” for the virus infection in the scary pandemic movie Contagion. Don’t try this at home.
Narcissus hybrids (daffodils). Who doesn’t like daffodils? And who doesn’t recognize the distinctive trumpet-tube (known as a corona) and radiating petaloid foil (the tepals) of these fragrant, friendly, spring blooms? In Greek mythology, Narcissus was a self-loving youth who became enamoured of his own reflection in a pool of water and was turned into the flower of that name. Narcissus are bulbous plants, favouring grassy banks near ponds or streams. The Narcissus of the Greeks were modest species, but nowadays, daffodils come is a huge range of sizes and colour combinations from centuries of breeding work.
Common garden cultivars include: ‘Ice Follies’, a big flower with a pale yellow, short, frilly corona and cool white tepals, and ‘Tete-a-tete’, a cute yellow miniature with one or two flowers per stem. ‘Fortissimo’ has tall, slender stems and flowers with buttery yellow tepals and a shallow, cup-shaped orange corona, while ‘February Gold’ is a medium-sized daffodil with a perfectly balanced long-tubed, yellow corona and yellow tepals. My favourite bicoloured daffodil is ‘Jetfire’ which is medium sized with a straight-tubed, orange corona and yellow tepals that jut slightly backwards, as if they were always facing into a strong wind.
As common and familiar as these flowers are, daffodils are poisonous. The viscous clear sap that exudes from cut stems contains alkaloids that are toxic to animals (including us), and in arrangements, poison the water for other kinds of cut flowers.
Conspicuously absent from the above list of daffodils is the most common one: the classic, large-flaring-trumpet, yellow-on-yellow, King Alfred-type. It’s the daffodil we most often see on roadsides and in the supermarket. Before the 1960s, nearly all daffodils sold were ‘King Alfred’—an English hybrid that was bred and became a sensation at the end of the 19th century. Since that time, daffodil breeders introduced many new and improved, similar-looking daffodils (e.g., Carlton, Golden Harvest and others). These newbies now account for the majority of large-yellow-daffodil sales. But the name King Alfred has better marketing mojo than any of the others, and so, you may be buying a Carlton masquerading as a King Alfred. Who was King Alfred? He was King of Wessex and King of the Anglo-Saxons in the 9th century AD. He was also known as Alfred the Great, and was famous for his military exploits and legal reforms, but also for his advocacy for education. No one knows if he liked daffodils.
Prunus cerasifera (cherry plum, myrobalan). By far the most common plum in Vancouver, the cherry plum is a species of several guises. Most would recognize the purple-leaf plum cultivars ‘Nigra’ (white flowers), ‘Krauter Vesuvius’ (pale pink flowers) and ‘Thundercloud’ (bright pink flowers). These all start to flower around the Ides of March (the middle of March), and continue to flourish until they’re overshadowed by the flowering cherries, for which Vancouver is more famous.
Purple-leaf plums are often confused with cherries—that is, until they leaf out—but they are actually pretty easily distinguished at any time. For one, while the cherry tree typically has a spreading scaffold of branches, purple-leaf plums almost all resemble an eight-year-old’s idea of a tree: a straight stem and a densely branched rounded head, like a lollipop. The bark on the two trees is markedly different: dull and dark on the plum, and brown with lighter lines of lenticels (breathing pores) on the cherry. Plum trees also produce their flowers singly or in pairs, whereas cherries produce flowers in clusters of usually three or more, and they almost never produce a rounded head. When plums leaf out, their leaves unroll; cherries unfold their leaves. The fruits of Prunus cerasifera—the plums—are small and purple-red (like big, round cherries—the name cerasifera means “bearing cherries”) but they often go unseen, hidden in the leafy crowns of purple-leaf plums. They are delicious. Birds appear to think so too, and there are plenty of seedlings from bird-dropped seed around Vancouver. But these trees look nothing like their purple-leaved parents. In fact, a seedling in bloom looks more like a cherry than a purple-leaf plum—though a close look at the arrangement of flowers puts paid to that idea. Seedlings have arching, wildly spreading, occasionally thorny branches, green leaves and white or pale pink flowers. This may seem odd, but it more accurately describes this species as it exists in the wild. Purple leaves and well-behaved branching are rare traits in wild trees, but clearly, that’s what people want, and so here they are.
Prunus x yedoensis ‘Akebono’
Prunus xyedoensis ‘Akebono’(daybreak cherry). In the first days of spring, daybreak cherries begin to flower. It always starts tentatively—like popping corn—two or three individual blossoms on a twig. Then with increasing speed other isolated flowers, whole twigs, and entire branches explode into enthusiastic bloom. By the time a tree is fully out, usually in the first week of April, the ground below will be dotted with the petals of the earliest flowers; another week later and the ground will be thick with tidal drifts of spent blooms. Despite its Japanese name, it is a North American invention—a seedling of the Yoshino cherry (Prunus x yedoensis ‘Somei-yoshino’), selected and named in the 1920s by a nursery in California. Daybreak cherry is exceedingly common here and among the most popular flowering cherries in commercial, street and park plantings. This is not surprising, as it is reliable in flower (even in the rain and wind) and never grows overly large. It is an instantly recognizable cherry with its masses of pink flowers and low, spreading crown (like a broad, inverted cone). In the autumn, its smallish light green leaves turn clear yellow or orange as they fall, exposing fine twigs and pointed buds.
Yoshino cherry is the cherry tree celebrated in Japan at hanami (cherry-viewing) festivals. It is ubiquitous from one end of Japan to the other, and blooms at different times depending on latitude and elevation. Flowering starts first in the south and moves in a wave toward the cooler areas to the north. Yoshino cherry is often confused with ‘Akebono’ and has many of the same qualities, except that it has only “single” five-petaled flowers (the daybreak’s are inflated by occasional extra petals). There are significant numbers of Yoshino cherry in Stanley and Queen Elizabeth Parks, on the Cambie Heritage Boulevard between 39th and 49th Avenues, and on the UBC campus, which is one of the few places where they still outnumber daybreak cherries.
Submitted by: Douglas Justice, Associate Director, Horticulture and Collections