Milkweed and Mimicry

There are certain issues that need to be talked about, shared, and really drilled into people’s minds.  I, however, am getting tired of addressing this issue.  Not because it’s not important, but because it’s so important that everyone should know, but they don’t.  If everyone knew, I’d be able to spend my time writing blogs about other important topics (of which there are plenty).

But, I digress.  We must broach the topic once again.  So here we go.

Monarchs need milkweed.  This is not new information, nor is it the first time I’ve said it.  And, sadly, it won’t be the last.  I cannot stress enough how important it is to nurture every part of their life cycle: from egg to egg-producing adult.

I thought this time I would make something a little more photogenic that you can share with your friends to really get the word out.

monarch2 (2850x2482)The relationship between monarchs and milkweed is well-known. Many believe, however, that milkweed is the only plant they need.  Adults, when looking for a place to lay eggs, will seek out milkweed but to build up energy for reproduction, they need nectar from other plants.  I give a few of the more popular examples above but most any native plant will do.

The most important thing to remember is that monarchs have several generations in one year resulting in a need for nectar-providing plants all season long.

Why Milkweed?

There is a very good reason why monarch caterpillars need milkweed and it has to do with personal safety.  The “milk” that runs through the milkweed plant tastes awful…to most…  with the exception of a few species (monarchs being one of them).

As the monarch caterpillar digests the leafy goodness that is a milkweed plant, it also takes on those nasty flavours that are well-known in the animal kindgom.  As the caterpillar goes through life it will encounter predators at every stage (mostly birds).  Due to its bright colours, a bird can learn to identify them with a bad taste and they will move along.


The bad taste that the monarch leaves on a bird’s palate is one that other species have evolved to take advantage of.  This is called mimicry and two species come to mind right away: the viceroy and the queen. These two species as adult butterflies look similar to the monarch.  The caterpillar of the queen butterfly looks quite similar to that of the monarch caterpillar as well.

Picture4 (2000x399)

Can you tell which one is which? Insect species will often mimic each other for protection.


Batesian or Müllerian Mimicry?

Before 1991 it was thought that the viceroy was mimicking the monarch for protection because it did not taste bad itself.  This would be Batesian Mimicry: where one harmless species copies another harmful species solely for its own benefit.  In 1991, however, a study was published that refutes this claim.

Viceroy caterpillars get their bad taste from their food as well: willows, populars, and cottonwoods (all in the Salicaceae family).  While monarchs are eating the cardenolides from the milkweed, viceroys are eating salicylic acid.  They would (I assume) taste unpleasant in a similar way that monarchs do. *Full disclosure, I’ve never taste tested this theory*.  The scientists who published this study had a largely more scientific testing method. Similarly, queens taste just as awful.

This type of mimicry is called Müllerian: where two or more species are harmful but work together to mimic each other. The benefit being that the predator only needs to try one of the mimics to learn that they are dangerous or unpalatable.  It is a simple case of strength in numbers.

Back to Monarchs

Swinging this right back around, I’d like to remind you that even though these mimics exist, pesticides do not discriminate.  Nor do the wildflowers. Plant milkweed for the monarchs and, while you’re at it, plant a few other nectar-producing beauties. You’ll attract monarchs, yes, but look closely next time: is it a monarch or a viceroy?

IMG_0329 (1024x768)PS – the above photo shows a monarch, queen, and viceroy.  Did you get it right?


Posted in Wildflowers | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Mr. and Mrs. Wildflower’s Urban Adventure

The Parklane Garden was pilled high with Wild Columbines, Smooth Penstemon, Black-Eyed Susans and Prairie Smoke

Here at Wildflower Farm we’re still contending with a foot of snow. We’d both been invited to speak in Toronto so we braved the highways and journeyed to Toronto, or as we Ontarians call it, “The Big Smoke.”

Paul and I needed a colour fix!!!! We'd been living in the land of eternal snow for far too long. Time to head to Toronto and do some talking!!

Paul and I needed a colour fix!!!! We’d been living in the land of eternal snow for far too long. Time to head to Toronto and do some talking!! Here’s the Vandermeer Nursery’s lush daffodil walkway.

I spoke at Canada Blooms about Taming Wildflowers and Paul spoke about Eco-Lawn, Wildflower Farm’s low maintenance turf grass at Holland Park Garden Centre  in Burlington., Ontario. You mean you haven’t heard about our amazing Eco-Lawn yet? Check it out. If you’d prefer a low-maintenance drought tolerant lawn you mow just once a month or less, you’re in for a treat!

      Now in its 19th year, Canada Blooms offers Canadian gardeners flowers, shrubs and trees in bloom in mid-March. This is no mean feat! It’s extraordinarily expensive and difficult to force plants to bloom in late winter. That being said, I’m sad to see fewer and fewer beautiful plants and gardens and more and more interlocking brick and inanimate structures at the show.  It’s a 10 day show so you still have a chance to see the gardens. You can learn a lot from this stellar lineup of garden speakers.

The Parklane Garden was pilled high with Wild Columbines, Smooth Penstemon, Black-Eyed Susans and Prairie Smoke

The Parklane Garden was pilled high with Wild Columbines, Smooth Penstemon, Black-Eyed Susans and Prairie Smoke

The  Fairy Frolic Garden by Vandermeer Nurseries features some charming fairy garden vignettes

The Fairy Frolic Garden by Vandermeer Nurseries features some charming fairy garden vignettes

Under Horticultural Director, Paul Zammit's direction, the Toronto Botanical Garden's containers never disappoint.

Under Horticultural Director, Paul Zammit’s direction, the Toronto Botanical Garden’s containers never disappoint.

The Adam Bienenstock playground featured a giant greenhouse, ancient repurposed trees to climb over, under and through, but was oddly lacking in plant material.

The Adam Bienenstock playground featured a giant tree house and ancient repurposed trees to climb over, under and through, but was oddly lacking in plant material.

Pic – One of the lush gardens of Shawn Gallagher’s Otium Garden. Shawn specializes is gardens designed to integrate boot camp style exercises that are performed in the landscape to strengthen ones’ health, well-being, and connection to nature.

One of the lush gardens of Shawn Gallagher’s Otium Garden. Shawn specializes is gardens designed to integrate boot camp style exercises that are performed in the landscape to strengthen ones’ health, well-being, and connection to nature.

But garden’s aside I must tell you that the highlight of Canada Blooms for me this year was discovering Steven Bigg’s new book, “Grow Gardeners. Kid-Tested Gardening with Children: a Four Step Approach.

author Stephen Biggs has devoted his life to empower gardeners, large and small with fun, practical No-Guff gardening advice.

Author Stephen Biggs devotes his life to empowering gardeners, large and small with fun, practical No-Guff gardening advice.

     Co-authored with his 9 year old daughter, Emma, this self-published delight hunkers down in the mud and gives parents a plentitude of inspiring ways to instill in children a visceral and profound love for gardening. Emma and Steve celebrate the playful and joyful experiences of childhood and heighten our awareness that these profound connections with self are what bring satisfaction and joy in our adult lives. I can’t recommend this book highly enough! Order it directly from or the book’s website, up and running by April 1, I love that the book’s website is also a collaborate effort of this dynamic Father/Daughter team.

Alert! Last chance to register for my upcoming Wildflower Webinar!

webinar large

This Friday, March 20 at 2:00 EST

 Can’t attend? No worries. Just register and  you will receive the webinar via email.

Posted in Eco-Lawn, Other, Taming Wildflowers, Wildflowers | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

You vs. Mother Nature. Who will win?

IMG_0524 (1280x960)Growing up, I was unbelievably fortunate where gardening was concerned.  I lived in Southern Ontario where the soil is the perfect sandy loam to grow just about anything.  I mean, unless you were trying to grow moss, you could be fairly successful.

This, for me, was a bonus.  I tend to enjoy being rewarded for my efforts (don’t we all?) and I can honestly say that if I had been tasked at such a young age with clay soil gardening, I would have given up.  At least given up until I learned that there are different kinds of soil out there.

With that said, I’ve had my fair share of unpleasant soil to deal with as I spent three years tending gardens in various Ontario cities.  The soil varied as much as the people and I’ve learned that, just as with people, it’s better to work with the soil than against it.  Your life becomes simpler and much more rewarding when set yourself up for success. Trust me when I tell you that it is much more effective to use plants that actually like to grow in the soil that is already there.

And native plants are great for that.  Native plants grow in native soil – who would have guessed? Here are some of my favourites…

…for Sandy Soil

The problem with very sandy soils is the lack of nutrients and structure. While this is a problem for heavy feeders and very large plants (namely trees), there are a number of stunning native flowers that will work in your sandy space.

If you’re looking for something low growing (less 1 foot), try purple poppy mallow. The brilliantly purple/pink flower adds colour to even the driest of sandy and rocky soils.  At Wildflower Farm, they make up a good portion of the scree garden which is essentially a pile of boulders, gravel, and sand.

A veritable ocean of poppy mallow.


For a low-growing flower with a unique look, take a look at prairie smoke.  As this flower goes to seed, it puts out long tassel-like structures that resemble smoke. Growing them in clusters is always a conversation starter.

Prairie Smoke just about to bloom.

For a medium-sized flower, harebell, blue flax, and the classic lanceleaf coreopsis will suit your needs. All three of these species will survive in soils that are, let’s just say, less than fertile.  Again, all three of these species can be found in the farm’s rocky screen garden.

Blue Flax (Linum lewisii)

Blue Flax (Linum lewisii)

Beardtongue, fringed poppy mallow, and Canada tick trefoil are tall sandy soil lovers.  With heights varying from two to six feet, adding these to your sandy garden will certainly make your space something to look at.

The pale purple beardtongue flower.

The pale purple beardtongue flower.

…for Clay Soil

The exact opposite of sandy soil, clay soil is jam-packed with nutrients…if the roots can get to them.  You see, and as some of you already know, clay soil is hard to penetrate. It still amazes me that plant roots are able to push between the tiny clay particles that sit so close together that water has a hard time getting through.  Fortunately, for you lucky clay gardeners, there are a number of plants with the strength to survive here.

We are all familiar with the purple coneflower.  Well, I’d like you to meet its close cousin: the pale purple coneflower.  Tolerant of clay, this 3-5 foot flower will push a strong tap-root into the soil enhancing its ability to soak up the plentiful nutrients.


Pale purple coneflower

Yellow coneflower, part of the Ratibida family (not the Echinacea family) is another clay loving flower.  Growing to 6 feet tall, these are a show stopper when grown in large swaths.

Yellow Coneflower are stunning in the summertime garden!

Yellow coneflower swath at the farm.

And because I’m a huge fan of autumn flowers that feed the last of the insects before winter, I’m also going to suggest stiff goldenrod.  A butterfly and beetle favourite that doesn’t cause allergies, stiff goldenrod is perfect for those areas of the garden that could use a little height (up to 5 feet). The bonus with this flower is the winter interest: puffy seed heads atop strong stems collect snow throughout the snowy season.

Stiff goldenrod in early fall.

All of this is to say that you have choices.  You can buy the finicky loam-loving plants for your sandy soil with little to no success, or you can match your plant choices to your soil type. If you choose the former, remember that Mother Nature doesn’t back down easily.

For more information on sand and clay tolerant species, check out our Seed Selector Tool where you can put in up to seven attributes to help you work with your conditions.

Posted in Wildflowers | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Growing Your Wildflower Family

If you’re a regular visitor to Wildflower Farm’s website, you might be familiar with the many North American native perennials we offer.  Many of you have taken the time to browse through the species and order the seeds that suit your space. And for that I would like to extend a hearty “Thank you” for you are making the world a better place. I’m sure the bees and other pollinators are thanking you as well.


Now, in 2015, Wildflower Farm would like to expand your floral family with the introduction of five new species. Let me introduce you.

Yellow Wild Indigo

You are already familiar with blue, white, and cream false indigo. Now, we are bringing you the brilliant yellow version.  Like the other Baptisia species, Baptisia sphaerocarpa is a slow grower. Don’t let that fool you, though.  This slow growing species is incredibly long-lived and can tolerate the driest of conditions.

A member of the legume family, it will give nitrogen back to the soil as it goes through life, making it a welcome addition to nutrient poor soils. It will also tolerate the frigid Canadian winters and the hot, dry summers experienced in the southern US.  Yellow Wild Indigo is an all around winner where native perennials are concerned.

Baptisia_'Screaming_Yellow'_Flowers (706x1280)

New York Aster

If you’re looking for a fall bloomer, you’ve found it.  The New York aster, like others in the Symphyotrichum family, will provide your garden with early to late fall colour which is something many gardeners forget about.  The fall flowers, however, are some of the most important for native insects as they provide a final dose of sugars before the winter slow down.

Growing to a height of 3-4 feet, the New York aster is a meadow favourite, with many insect species using it for food, shelter, and egg-laying.  Its extensive root system provides ample erosion control with the added bonus of bright purple flower clusters.

NY aster

Narrow-leaf Coneflower

If you’re not familiar with the other members of the Echinacea family, I’m going to ask you start there. Not because they are any better than the narrow-leaf coneflower but because you need to know about them. These flowers are butterfly favourites with the monarch particularly enjoying a purple coneflower feast mid-summer.

The narrow-leaf coneflower is shorter than other Echinacea species but still thrives in full sun. It is distinguished from the purple coneflower by its narrower petals and from the pale purple coneflower from the shear density of the petals. Plant in dry soils where you have trouble growing other species.  You will be pleasantly surprised.

Echinacea_angustifolia (1280x960)

Woodland Sunflower

Another member of the Helianthus family, the woodland sunflower provides the familiar friendly face of yellow that we are used to seeing in this family. You will find that each stem tends to split off two or three ways for a cluster of flowers that stand 3-4 feet tall.

Blooming mid-summer to fall, the seeds will provide food for birds including the Bobwhite, Goldfinch and Tufted Titmouse. The plants themselves are important host plants for many insect species and provide food for so many more: syrphid flies, cuckoo bees, skippers, butterflies, and moths are among the list.

While this plant is an important species to add to your garden, you are forewarned that its rhizomatic root system means it is a bit of a spreader. Not always a bad thing, especially where soil loss is a concern.


Rough Blazingstar

Another member of the Liatris family has been added to the Wildflower family and we couldn’t be happier. A butterfly favourite and an excellent cut flower, rough blazingstar is up there with our favourite plants for good reason.

Rough blazingstar has a bit of a different look than the meadow and prairie blazingstar. For starters, it is typically shorter and the flowers have a slightly more scraggly look to them than the meadow blazingstar. If you grow all three varieties of Liatris offered by Wildflower Farm, you’ll have your seasons covered from mid-summer to fall.


Each of these species is a native North American perennial that will provide you years of enjoyment in the garden. Consider adding them to your already established garden or, if you don’t have much in the way of native plants yet, this is a good place to start.

Posted in Wildflowers | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

That Big Bogus Bag of “Wildflower” Seeds

Confessions of a Wildflower Expert…….

When I first started growing wildflowers some 30 years ago I was clueless and made lots of mistakes. Back then no one talked about pollinators or growing food locally. Monarchs were taken for granted and North American wildflowers …were thought of as weeds.

Legions of North Americans have attempted to reproduce English style, high maintenance meadows, overflowing with red poppies, blue cornflowers and pink Sweet Williams. And over and over again these faux meadows fail because here in North America we most certainly do not have the warm temperatures, rich soil and optimum rain conditions these English wildflowers require.

My Big Fat English Meadow Fantasy -     Red Poppies & Blue Cornflowers do NOT a North American wildflower meadow make!!!

My Big Fat English Meadow Fantasy – Red Poppies & Blue Cornflowers do NOT a North American wildflower meadow make!!!

What grows well here in North America is our own wildflowers, the tough low-maintenance plants that have thrived here for thousands of years with absolutely no help from us.arboretumCurtis

Perhaps you are new to the world of wildflowers. Maybe you have read about the plight of the Monarchs and their need for Milkweed. Or, perhaps you have been assigned by your school, your conservation group or your horticultural society to plant a pollinator patch.IMG_0329 (1024x768)

Maybe you’re a backyard veggie gardener, or perhaps you manage a CSA organic farm or a community garden. Whoever you are – you’re checking out wildflowers.beauteous bouquet!!!

Your research indicates that growing native plants will increase your crop yields and ward off harmful insects and attract native pollinators thus eliminating the need to rent expensive European honey bees to pollinate your crops.Or maybe you’re a home gardener or national parks horticulturalist intrigued with wildflowers’ low maintenance and drought tolerant characteristics.

Every day more and more humans are discovering the vital role wildflowers play in food security and the ecological health of our planet.16270a-horiz

Unfortunately we humans have nearly eradicated the North American wildflowers upon which our pollinators, eco-systems and our food security depend. That’s where you and I come in. What can we do? Grow wildflowers, of course!large seedlingbutterflyweed

Whether you’re seeding an entire meadow or starting a few wildflower seeds in pots, North American wildflowers are easy and fun to grow.  Here’s a little video I made to help you get started.Making Wildflower Babies - – Follow along and learn simple wildflower seeding techniques.

And a few more great resources to help you along!

Growing guides: “Starting Seeds” – Wildflower Farm’s online wildflower seeding instructions.  – – has lots of great winter sowing techniques. My book, Taming Wildflowers

Making Babies - Chapter 5 gives the straight goods on wintering wildflower seeds outside or wintering wildflower in the fridge.

Making Babies – Chapter 5 gives the straight goods on wintering wildflower seeds outside or wintering wildflower in the fridge.

has a chapter on growing North American wildflowers from seed. Chapter 5 “Making Babies” offers step by step easy ways to seed North American wildflowers outdoor or in your refrigerator. .

Happy Seeding!!!





Posted in FAQ, Meadows, Other, Taming Wildflowers, Wildflowers | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Ringing it in, Wild Style

Happy New Year from all of us at Wildflower Farm!

IMG_0649 (1280x960)

Posted in Wildflowers | Tagged , | Leave a comment