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Most open fields in this area and many other parts of the United States look as if touched by Midas as goldenrod blooms in late summer-early autumn. Numerous species of goldenrod are found in Michigan, and even more in North America. Perhaps because of this local abundance, many gardeners don’t consider this plant garden worthy. It is true that most species are lanky and rampant, and invade places readily.

In Europe, there are not as many species, and when first imported into England from the Middle East, it was an expensive medicinal herb. Its Latin name of Solidago means to make whole, or heal. Solidago was believed to cure kidney ailments, and a compress relieved the pain of fresh wounds and insect stings. Early herbals list a long litany of ailments goldenrod could cure, including calming the nerves. It also had a sweet taste used to hide more unpalatable medicines. Today, medical research has not proved goldenrod capable of curing anything except maybe blah spirits when someone looks at its cheery plumes of tiny yellow flowers.

Goldenrod still has some uses. Weavers use the flower heads for a natural dye. It provides varying tones of yellow depending on how the dye is made. Its dried flower heads provide winter bouquets, keeping their yellow color in a much softer tone. The only other notable use of goldenrod was in 1948, when Texas tried to develop it as an agricultural crop for an ingredient in goldenrod gum and candies. They didn’t succeed.

For many years goldenrod suffered an undeserved reputation for causing hay fever. Insects pollinate goldenrod, so its pollen is large and sticky to make it easier to coat the insect body for pollinating the next flower. This makes the pollen heavy and more likely to drop to the ground than become air-borne.

European gardeners think of goldenrod as an important garden plant and have developed many cultivars and hybrids. These have been exported back to the United States and are now commonly available in nurseries. The hybrids have been dwarfed, and the coarse stems and foliage somewhat refined to produce better garden plants. ‘Golden Thumb,’ also known as ‘Tom Thumb,’ is about twelve inches tall. Other cultivars that grow about twenty-four inches are ‘Baby Gold,’ ‘Golden Baby,’ and ‘Golden Gates.’

I still like mine best in the surrounding fields.
field of goldenrod

M. fistulosa

Mondarda fistulosa

Bee-balm, horsemint, or botanically speaking, Monarda, is an exclusively North American plant containing about sixteen species. As part of the Laminaceae (mint) family, the plants bear both the square stems and the heavily scented leaves common among mints. I’ve tried growing the colorful species M. didyma whose cultivars are sold as garden plants, yet they don’t do well in my often too dry garden. However, if you have a moist area in your garden that is shaded during the hottest part of the day, this plant might grow very well for you. It is amazing to me that I can’t grow Mondarda without regular watering, but M. fistulosa, better known as wild mint, grows in my field along with M. punctata, or horsemint, which seems to grow in nearly inhabitable dry locations. If you look at different species of Mondarda you will see there are two distinctive stem styles. One has a stem that terminates in a single blossom as in M. didyma and fistulosa. The other type’s stem pierces through several blossoms before ending in a terminal bloom as in M. punctata.

Native Americans and colonists used Monarda as a medicinal plant, for example using M. punctata to cure colic.

Mondarda punctata

They also made Oswego tea from the M. fistulosa’s leaves and flowers. I’ve tried it and conclude it is either an acquired taste or the bitter pill for what ails you — while not horrible, certainly an unusual fragrance and taste. According to Edwin Rollin Spencer’s All About Weeds (Dover Publications, 1968, page 218) the Monarda name was given in 1574 by Nicolas Monardes, who never visited the New World, but as a doctor in France, worked on the medicinal properties of these plants. You can search the Internet to find how Mondarda was, and is still, used as a cure for many respiratory complaints. Recipes for tea are available.

I do enjoy all the wildflowers that inhabit my property. They create color interest in the wild areas and offer me the challenge of discovering information about them. Of the many problem of a country garden, one of the most difficult is how to successful move from the cultivated landscape into the wild without a sharp distinction. Another problem is researching what is a wildflower from an invasive species, and to encourage the right one. The Internet has made this process increasingly easy. State DNR offices and environmental groups offer other assets. At a recent garden club meeting I received a copy of A Field Identification Guide to Invasive Plants in Michigan’s Natural Communities. I thought I knew a lot, but I was certainly deluding myself. One invasive plant is Centaurea stoebe or spotted knapweed, which could easily be confused with M. fistulosa.


That said, wildflowers help make that transition from garden to wild, and in summer and fall Monarda and Solidago (goldenrod) can do a spectacular job at this. In this endeavor I am also introducing other native wildflowers like coneflowers and black-eyed susans into my surrounding field. Since these already grown in my garden, it should help blend garden and wild.


Purple Coneflower

In 1980 I traveled down Highway 54 in Missouri. Wild purple coneflowers lined the roadside in waves of pink flowers that resembled shooting stars headed for the heavens. The long pink petals fell back from the orange seed head in wavy rays. The beautiful flowers seemed to float above the tall roadside grass. At the time I wondered why it was call purple rather than pink coneflower, but that’s just one of its mysteries.

Ten years later they were gone. The coneflower, or Echinacea, had become a ‘cure’ for weak immune systems and AIDS had become a prevalent disease. Coneflowers roots became a valuable commodity. A friend told me it took one year to empty the roadside of coneflowers. Diggers waited until the plants bloomed, then dug them wherever they spotted the flowers, filling trucks with plants taken from public property. At that time Missouri had no law against digging roadside wildflowers.

Coneflowers are vestige plants of the prairies that once stretched across America. They have a long history as medical plants. Native Americans used the roots of this wildflower for everything from snakebite to cleansing rites for ceremonial rituals. European settlers soon used the coneflower as a blood purifier to cure a wide variety of ailments such as unidentified infections and ailments.

As garden plants, the mid-to-late summer flowers of Purple Coneflower punctuate the border with large, vivid blossoms on three-foot stems. The orange cones contrast with the pink petals in an unusual color harmony among flowers. As prairie plants, coneflowers thrive where many plants fail. Coneflowers grow from zone 4 to zone 8 with equal ease. They withstand drought, love hot sunny sites, and don’t need regular applications of fertilizer.

They are easily grown from seed, but the plants take two years to reach flowering size. Most garden centers carry pot-grown plants, usually already in flower. Transplanting doesn’t seem to bother them anymore than the type of soil in which they are planted. Known as ‘clay busters,’ coneflowers grow in clay as well as sandy soils like mine.

Hybridizers produced a cultivar ‘Magnus’ with petals that extended nearly straight out from the cone rather than drooping, making the flower appear more daisy-like. Since ‘Magus,’ the hybridizers have gone wild with new cultivars in amazing colors like the orange petals of ‘Tiki Torch,’ the green, stubby petals of ‘Green Envy,’ and the yellow petals of ‘Sunrise,’ plus they have produced some blossom configurations that look like a mum flower on top of the regular coneflower like the cerise red ‘Razzmatazz,’ and the green ‘Coconut Lime.’

The foliage has never been as attractive as the flowers. The large leaves have serrated edges and are coated with fine hairs. They look coarse and can be attacked by mildew making them even more unattractive. If mildew is a problem in your area, try growing some of the mildew resistant cultivars available.

This is a great plant for any garden and although blooms throughout the summer sparkles especially in late summer and fall.

As soon as the weather turns good I start walking the road along my property–a one and a half mile round trip. During these treks I like to keep track of the wildflowers along the way. After ten years of regular walks, I still find new flowers. This week I noticed Cardamine diphylla, also known as Dentaria diphylla, or by the common names of toothwort, pepperroot or crinkleroot. That’s a lot of naming, but the four petaled flower does look a little like baby teeth, doesn’t it? Or perhaps for the tooth-edged leaves?

Actually, I discovered the roots were chewed to relieve toothache, and teas made out of the roots were supposed to help flu and colds, therefore, toothwort. Pepperwort because the rhizome roots are sharp, pungent or peppery in taste. Herbalists are still promoting the plant’s medicinal value on the web. Others suggest it as a good addition to salads, or sauces. I’m guessing the European colonists learned about toothwort from Native Americans who seemed to also have used it as a food crop. Since Cardamine diphylla is from the mustard family, known for its pungency as wells as its four-petaled flowers, that might be very true. Edible Wild Plants has more information about toothwort and even for its inclusion in horseradish sauce.

Whether for a medicinal or culinary use, many roots must need to be harvested to whip up even a little quantity for any recipe. The plant is small, only growing about eight inches. You might guess from my comments that I didn’t dig the plant up to taste. I’d rather see them grow along my roadside and just purchase pepper or horseradish, or whatever I need from the grocery store. I suppose it is called crinkleroot because the roots are crinkled?

These plants grow in the early spring in damp, wooded areas before the trees leaf out. They bloom and spread seeds, and then disappear for the rest of the summer. The genus name Dentaria, which refers to teeth, is often included in the Cardamine genus; the diphylla means two leaves. Although their broad leaves looks like more because they are three-lobed, the flower stalk bears only two leaves.

There is another native toothwort, which I have not discovered along my road, the cutleaf toothwort, Dentaria lacinata, which blooms after the trees have leafed out. Its leaves are deeply cut so look much thinner. If you live east of the Mississippi River, you might see either of these wildflowers on walks in your woodlands.

if you haven’t already, now is the time to walk through the weeds. All types of seed pods are showing their stuff. Yes, they are usually dark brown, tan and otherwise unappealing, but look at their interesting shapes and forms. You can work them into a floral design as is, or spray paint them to the color you desire.

I cut these seed pods from my Asclepias tuberosa, or common butterfly weed. While stripping the withered leaves off the stems, I scattered the seeds in my field, so that some might eventually take seed there. Don’t the pods look like little bunny ears? Hmmm… flower show next July with Peter Rabbit theme… perhaps these are just the ‘flowers’ needed.


Seed pods from Asclepias tuberosa.

Asclepias tuberosa are one of my favorite perennials. While not much to look at during the spring and early summer, they come into their own in July or August with brilliant orange or chrome yellow umbels, and then these wonderful seed pods appear in October and November. They are a native plant, drought tolerant and hardy in my zone 4 garden. A relative of milkweed, they have the same milky sap that identifies the genus. My plants were grown from seed, but they are available from certain nurseries, but don’t try to collect them from the wild. They are tap root plants and seldom survive transplantation.


Butterfly Weed in the wild



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