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Tuesday, June 21, 2016


The gardening world calls plants that show up spontaneously where we want them “volunteers,” in contradistinction to their evil cousins, weeds, which show up where we don’t want them. There’s no bright line between the two categories—weediness is in the eye of the beholder.

    This week I’m admiring the volunteer efforts of some plants that pop up around the garden and open lovely flowers in new spots. One of my favorites is columbine (Aquilegia spp.): 

     Over the years I’ve planted several members of this genus. I’ve learned that although they seem to keep coming back every year, what I’m seeing is a series of short-lived plants that leave behind offspring to bloom in their places.

    Columbines are known for crossing promiscuously. I can’t predict which flower colors I’ll see the next spring. I’ve planted varieties with blooms ranging from deep plum to blue to pink. One persistent flower color that emerged from the genetic mix is a pink so pale pink that it’s almost white. Many of this year’s columbine flowers were gorgeous blues.

    I like the fact that I don’t have to buy new columbines at this point, thus avoiding the environmental cost of shipping young plants from perennial farms in Latin America. When seed pods form, I let them ripen and just bend the stems back to drop their seeds on the surrounding soil. I can count on a crop of new columbines the next year.

Columbine seeds forming

    Some seeds must hitchhike in compost, because young columbines often sprout in the vegetable bed. When they do, I transplant them to an area where they’re needed or pot them to pass on to a friend.

This young columbine emerged next to a strawberry plant

    I’ve been trying to encourage some purple coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea) to volunteer in a new spot. 

Prominent central discs give coneflowers their name

Back when my trees were young, I planted a bed of these deep pink flowers with some ornamental grasses and sedums. Successive generations of coneflowers gradually migrated to the very edge of the lawn, following the disappearing sunlight as the trees around the bed got wider and taller.

    Last year I gave up on growing those poor coneflowers in deepening shade. When seeds formed in the central discs, I cut the flowers and spread them around the front of a nearby bed that gets afternoon sun. My hope was that the seeds would start a new colony.

    This May a few seedlings appeared, and this week they’re burgeoning. I foresee blooms later this summer. You could say I sowed the seeds, although the work on my part was minimal. So maybe these plants are draftees rather than volunteers.

Coneflower seedling

     Like many daisy-shaped composite flowers, coneflowers are popular with birds and beneficial insects. I expect to find butterflies, native flies and bees, and possibly hummingbirds and goldfinches visiting the plants’ first flowers.

1 comment:

  1. I am usually happy with volunteers - especially columbine, a plant I love. On the other hand, I have a new garden and did LOTS of planting last summer. Needless to say my record keeping or memory are not good enough to be able to know every plant that has come up this spring. Which brings me to a plant that came up near a small stake I put in the garden to mark a planting spot. A nice looking plant has come up but I have no idea what it is. Now I am waiting because I have this plant coming up in a few other spots. Volunteer? Weed? Intentional? I hope I know before the leaves fall. I look forward to meeting you in Minneapolis.