easy-to-propagate wildflowers, plus ‘celandine’ confusion, with carol gracie

4 easy to divide wildflowersWHAT SPRING WILDFLOWERS can you multiply easily yourself (like now!)? How long will a young trillium take to flower–and can you really count the little ridges on its rhizome and tell the plant’s age, like rings in a tree? Why do three very different gold-flowered early bloomers—one a tenacious invasive—share the common name of “celandine?” I asked acclaimed naturalist Carol Gracie, author of “Spring Wildflowers of the Northeast: A Natural History” and the guest lecturer at my 2014 June garden Open Day, in a timely native-plant Q&A.

Carol, who was a longtime educator at the New York Botanical Garden and also worked for the Nature Conservancy, has looked beyond the obvious beauty of native plants and studied their life histories, lore, and even cultural uses. I knew she’d be able to answer my questions:

our spring-wildflower q&a

dividing  trilliumQ. I have easily and fairly quickly propagated a good number of wakerobin or Trillium erectum asexually (by division, as in the photo above) from three lonely refugees I found under my front porch 25-plus years ago. Some of the plants self-sowing, too now, Carol. How does the reproductive life cycle of a Trillium work?

A. Trilliums are a favorite of many wildflower fanciers, so much so that in Europe, where there are no native trilliums, they are sometimes stolen from botanical-garden displays. Of course, wildflowers should never be dug from gardens or in the wild, but trilliums can be rather pricey to purchase at a wildflower nursery. The reason for this is that the plants take anywhere from six to 15 years to grow from seed to mature flowering plant, depending on the species.

trillium erectumHowever, once you have trilliums established in your garden, they will increase vegetatively by underground rhizomes—and sometimes by seed dispersal as well. Those that develop from the rhizomes may flower the very next year. You may assist their proliferation by digging the plants after they flower, dividing the rhizomes, and planting them in other suitable places in the garden (in dappled shade).

Trillium_erectum_05_rhizomeThis process is interesting because it allows you to inspect the rhizome and get an idea of how old the plant is. Just count the number of constrictions on the rhizomes, each of which represents one year’s growth.

The ends of older rhizomes often rot away, so this is just an estimate (trilliums are known to live up to 70 years). The one in the photo at left is gauged to be 12 years old.

Like many other woodland spring wildflowers, the seeds of trillium are dispersed by ants—and sometimes wasps—that relish the lipid-rich seed appendages known as elaiosomes and discard the seeds at some distance from the parent plant.

[How Margaret divides trillium in the garden, step-by-step.]

Q. I know that even today, with laboratory breakthroughs in propagation for certain plants and so on, some sources still sell wild-collected wildflowers. How can we know what is ethical to purchase?

A. Other than locating a nursery with a reputable reputation for propagating its own native plant material from seed, or by division of nursery-propagated material, there is no sure way to be certain that the plants being sold are not wild-dug.

It’s important to seek out a grower that you trust—word of mouth is helpful here. Internet searches will bring up sites for individual states that list nurseries certified to follow good conservation practices. But, in fact, there are no propagation police to enforce the rules. Remember: “nursery-grown” plants may have been illegally poached in the wild and then grown to marketable size in the nursery, so the key is to seek out nursery-propagated ones. This is especially true of plants that take a long period to reach flowering stage (e.g., trilliums and lady-slipper orchids).

Virginia bluebells, Mertensia virginicaQ. It can be expensive to get started with spring natives. In terms of making them at home in our gardens, and having success “making more plants” by division or otherwise to eventually get a good show, are there some you’d suggest we start with, and any tips for success?

A. That’s one of the many things that friends are for. A garden full of cuttings, divisions, and extras from friends is not only beautiful, but reminds you of those friends each time one of them comes into bloom. Once your plants are established, you can do the same in a never-ending cycle.

However, some plants just can’t be resisted when visiting nurseries and plant sales. Look for those known to self-sow or vegetatively spread by rhizomes (but not too aggressively, like golden ragwort and Canada anemone, which are pretty but must be kept within bounds or they take over). Good examples are Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica) [photo above in Margaret’s garden] and the aforementioned celandine poppy [photo below]–a pairing that I like because they flower at the same time with nicely contrasting blue and yellow flowers.

Creeping phlox is another favorite of mine that does creep to fill shady parts of the garden. Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) increases easily by rhizomes (again, dig some in the fall, cut the rhizomes into pieces, and move to other parts of the garden). Ants will also aid in dispersing the seeds, providing surprises when plants appear is subsequent years. Although the flowers of wild ginger (Asarum canadense) must be looked for under the leaves, the plants spread easily, making an attractive ground cover in shaded areas.

And mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum) is great for growing as an understory plant in areas where there is enough room for it to spread, mostly by vegetative means. However, last year I had one plant appear 30 feet uphill from my mayapple patch. This year it has multiplied to nine! Since the fruits are eaten by box turtles, I must assume that a turtle planted the digested seed for me.

stylophorum-diphyllum-clumpQ. One of the most common questions I am asked at my May and often June Open Day events is about the swaths of buttercup-gold flowers everywhere. At first quick glance, many people look shocked (as in why did I let that weed take hold?)—and then they look again and realize it’s not the plant they thought. But when I say it’s “Celandine poppy,” that doesn’t quiet their worries—and just further confuses things. Can we talk about “celandine,” good, bad and otherwise?

A. Celandine is a great example of the utility of scientific names. There is just one accepted scientific name for a plant, and it remains the same unless there is a valid taxonomic reason for changing it. However, one species may be known by several different common names—or in the case of celandine, a common name may apply to more than one species, both the good and the evil.

There are three common, yellow-flowered spring species in the Northeast that incorporate celandine into their common names: celandine poppy (Stylophorum diphyllum) [photo above, and in top-right spot in collage below], a lovely native plant in the poppy family with showy flowers; it is a gardening favorite. Celandine poppy is not technically native to New York State, where we both live, but rather to neighboring states south and west of New York.

3 "celandines" from Carol GracieGreater celandine (Chelidonium majus) [above left] is also a member of the poppy family, with smaller, less-showy yellow flowers. Greater celandine is an introduced Eurasian weed commonly seen along roadsides.

There is also the pernicious invasive lesser celandine (Ranunculus ficaria) [bottom right of collage above], in the buttercup family, which carpets wetland areas in early spring. It is often admired by those who are not knowledgeable about the negative aspects of this European weed. Once lesser celandine gets a foothold [example in photo below], it spreads aggressively—at the expense of all else that has evolved to thrive in the sensitive wetland habitat. Granted, lesser celandine may appear pretty for the brief period that it is in bloom, but it should be removed at first sighting before it takes over.

LC02_Ranunculus_ficaria_mass_NYBTo confuse matters even further, many people mistake lesser celandine for our native marsh marigold (Caltha palustris), also a wetland buttercup family member with bright yellow flowers. Careful examination of the flowers (usually eight yellow petals and three small green sepals in those of lesser celandine vs. commonly six showy yellow sepals in flowers of marsh marigold) will make differentiating the two species easy. Marsh marigold grows in clumps rather than vast carpets.

(Photos of 12-year-old trillium rhizome, of bloodroot flower with bee, and of confusing “celandines” other than Stylophorum by Carol Gracie.)

  1. Tammy Putney says:

    Trilliums have been a long time favorite of mine, although I’ve never had the luxury of growing them myself. I also enjoy other natives like, Marsh Marigolds, Sweet William and wild phlox, among others.

  2. tropaeolum says:

    Erythronium are adorable and so often overlooked. I love watching the fiddleheads of Ostrich ferns pop up and unfurl in the spring. For late spring, the native Aquilegia is indispensable.

  3. Mark says:

    Great, timely interview. I would add Dutchman’s Breeches to the list of native wildflowers whose delicate appearance belies their toughness and ease of propagation/naturalizing.

  4. Stephanie says:

    I just bought a few wildflowers for the garden (bloodroot, trillium) and I’d really like to learn more about them. Please count me in for the drawing.

  5. Kaela says:

    I’m just beginning my garden in upstate new york in the catskill mountains, and I discovered this spring that the old owner of the farm had transplanted some Purple Trillium from the hillside woodlands into his shaded woodland garden right beside the house. They are not flowering as of this year but many little one leaved babies have emerged and I’m hoping that in the next few years they will do so!
    I’ve also got Bloodroot seeds on the way and I have a feeling that in a few years when they begin to flower they will be my favorite springtime ephemeral.

  6. Judith says:

    I enjoyed the article and seeing some of my favorite spring flowers. Also the warning about confusion between Ranunculus ficaria and Caltha plaustris. Years ago I ordered Marsh Marigolds from a reputable mail order nursery, but the plants I received were Ranunculus not Caltha. By the time I figured this out several years later the Ranunculus had spread over a large area. (I’m a bit slow sometimes).
    There are smaller less invasive named forms, Ranunculus ficaria ‘Brazen Hussy’ is a bronzed foliaged type, but even this can revert and get a bit out of hand. Use caution with these plants.

  7. Susan Greenstein says:

    We have been growing native plants in our garden (first in Westchester, now in Woodstock) since we fell in love with them visiting Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve outside of New Hope, PA., back in the early 80s. We’ve bought many natives there, over the years at their annual plant sales. However, our very first purchase of natives was probably at a small native plant nursery near Chatham, NY (no longer in business), which was owned by Juliet Hubbard, a former horticulturist at NYBG. There we purchased several bloodroot and one double bloodroot. Over the years these have multiplied and we’ve even been able to share with friends. When we moved up to Woodstock, we gave the bloodroot to Ruth Clausen to baby sit for us. We then retrieved them 2 years later and they had done fine. Now they are thriving in our garden, growing alongside various Trillium, shooting stars, native ginger, twinleaf, and more. For us, nothing says spring like these native ephemerals.

  8. Deborah Banks says:

    In my garden I have the native red trillium, bloodroot, twin leaf, Actaea rubra (red baneberry), shooting star, Virginia bluebells, Solomon seal and foam flower. I bought Caulophyllum thalicroides (blue cohosh) plants 5 years ago, and then just discovered a big colony of them growing wild on our land at the top of the mountain. Some wildflowers that appeared on their own in my shade garden when I cleared the overgrowth include anemones, Aquilegia Canadensis, aster divaricatus (wood aster), trout lily and Uvularia (merry bells).

  9. Carole Linkiewicz says:

    I love the native columbine and have also had success with growing and propagating the celadine poppy which is a gorgeous yellow and really brightens up the garden. I have some (sadly) struggling bloodroot and more prolific Solomon’s seal which I think is lovely. I’ve been successful with trout lily s well. I long to acquire trillium.

  10. Amy says:

    Fascinating article about the Trillium. I just returned from a short visit in Ottawa, CA to see the tulip festival. The trilliums were blooming along the roads from NY all the way to Canada. There were white, pink and red and it over whelmed me how many there were and how beautiful they looked. Our drive went by so quickly because I kept looking for them. There was also lots of dried teasel pods along the roads. My little PA garden contains a few trillium, but they don’t seem to multiply. I have bluebells, bee balm, cone flowers, black-eyed Susans (don’t know if they’re all the native variety). Love the native columbine which I keep trying to get to come back. Think my garden is simply too wet. Always enjoy receiving your Newsletter. Thanks!

  11. Susan Fiehl says:

    My trillium have gotten choked out by the invasive sundrops that a friend lovingly gave me many years ago. This is the second year they have failed to appear. Do you think the rhyzomes are underneath all that if I go a-hunting?

  12. Kathy O. says:

    Loved this article. It’s full of useful info, especially the material on Celandine.
    I’m just getting started with wildflowers and have some yellow Trillium (want to get some red) and Solomon’s Seal. Saw the comment about Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve and hope to get there this spring.
    I always enjoy your newsletter and I’d love to win the two tickets to hear Carol. I’m looking forward to visiting your garden on the 7th It would be great if the hellebores held up till then.

  13. Judy Hines says:

    Ramps, Wild Leeks — amazing and so illusive because they are found only in moist forests for 3 – 4 weeks in Spring. And so very delicious! When dug, they will not return from that space so be careful. They are such a delicacy and make an amazing pesto. We live in Central Illinois but I know they are available in NYC at green grocers and along the East Coast.

  14. Linda smith says:

    I live in a very wooded area so Trillium, Jack in the Pulpit, ferns and columbine are always popping up around my other plants. My favorite are the blood roots and mayapple that
    I see when i go for walks. Feel blessed to have all these growing free from nature.
    Count me in for the tickets.

  15. Lorie says:

    I’ve had, forever, the most glorious stand of celadine poppies and variegated Solomon Seal outside my low kitchen windows. They gave me such joy each spring. After the incredibly harsh dry winter…I lost every yew and many of the deciduous shrubs…the poppies have disappeared off the face of the earth…it’s like they gave up. But their brothers and sisters, the Solomon Seal, just said “to heck with the winter…we need to put on a show.”

  16. Abby says:

    Aquilegia, Solomon’s Seal & ferns, just to name a few. The spring-time flowers are always a cheery reminder that winter doesn’t last forever (even though it sometimes feels like it does!)

  17. Patricia Normand says:

    Trillium, bloodroot, and mayflower have always been perennial favorites and present at our old house. Just now we are graced with jack-in-the-pulpit.it is a treat!

  18. benjia morgenstern says:

    A friend in Vermont gave me a geranium ground cover that blooms pink in May. It has taken over an area on the west side of my driveway and looks lovely. Today after Trade Secrets ( a Garden Event in CT.), I dug up clumps to give to a friend who lives near Albany..and so it goes..

  19. Cathy says:

    the only one I have is the bloodroot which is slowly increasing. – wish I could find a double one. – also win the tickets to the talk..

  20. masongreene says:

    I am enjoying Carol’s book with the blooming of my Columbine, Dutchman’s Breeches, Bloodroot, Ginger, and soon Jack-in-the-Pulpit. I would love to hear her talk and maybe see slides that are not included in her treasure of a book.

  21. Diane says:

    I have so enjoyed reading your blog since I found it this winter! This article was to perfect to read so I could identify the wildflowers growing in my wooded yard! I live in Indiana but much of the information you share works here. Thanks for writing, I look so forward to reading everything you send!

  22. Heather says:

    May apples and jack in the pulpits…would love to have some pink lady slippers. They grow nearby in the reservoir protected areas.

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