Meet a Plant: Chokeberry

Glossy Black Chokeberry flower buds and emerging leaves in May 2022.

It’s Monday and you know what that means!

We’re getting to that point in the season where garden centers and nurseries are starting to build up their woody plant stock, and many of you are trying to decide which shrubs to buy.

I’ll get right to the point: Do Not Buy a Burning Bush! While they have lovely fall color, they are increasingly invasive. So what should you do instead if you want that striking red fall color in a medium sized shrub?

Meet Aronia melanocarpa and Aronia arbutifolia, the Chokeberries (black and red, respectively)! These deciduous shrubs are some of my absolute favorites, not least of all because they have amazing fall color. They have pretty white flowers that are lightly fragrant in spring, and dark purple-black or red berries in summer. Birds do snack on these a bit, and the berries are edible – though I’d recommend them as a jelly or wine rather than just eating them as they’re quite astringent.

The plant is native to wet areas (the glossy black chokeberry is native to Wisconsin bogs), but it can do well in many soil and light conditions. I have it as a centerpiece of a small rain garden where it is thriving and helps provide some upright structure to other tall herbaceous plants that might otherwise flop over.

Glossy Black Chokeberry starting to turn color (center) in a rain garden planting. Fall 2020.

One of the best things about Aronia is that through breeding and selection, there is a form of this plant that will work in almost any situation! If you are looking for a medium to large shrub for screening, try Brilliant Red Chokeberry, Glossy Black Chokeberry, or Appleleaf Chokeberry. For a lower, more spreading form (3’h x 5’w), try ‘Iroquois Beauty’ and for a hedge there’s Low-Scape Hedger (3-5′ high). There are even small spirea-sized versions (Low Scape Mound – 2’x2′) and a groundcover option (Ground Hug – 12′ high and spreading).

Lowscape Mound Black Chokeberry, Fall 2021.

?I love this plant because it’s so versatile in terms of form & function and isn’t fussy about conditions. The ecological benefits and edible berries don’t hurt either. And did I mention the fall color? Deer & rabbits don’t seem to bother it, and there are no disease issues.

?It can be confusing to know which plant you’re looking at because there are so many forms. Be sure to read labels and sizing carefully.

Meet a Plant: Pulmonaria

Pulmonia in bloom, April 2022

?It’s Monday! Let’s meet a plant, shall we???

This week’s plant was inspired by a visit to my partner’s mother’s garden. (For those of you that know Ilze, you know that she has a lovely yard full of botanical treasures!) Her Pulmonaria is already blooming profusely, so that’s the plant we’re meeting today.

Pulmonaria (also known as Lungwort or Bethlehem Sage) is an early bloomer with small flowers that range from pink to purple-blue to white, with every shade and tint represented from super-saturated to pastel. Not to be outdone, the foliage is equally interesting, with silvery white spotting that can rival Hostas for interest.

Pulmonaria in bloom, spring 2021.

Site these in a shade or woodland garden, or at least somewhere that’s protected from the hottest summer sun. Once established, they are somewhat drought-tolerant, although they prefer consistently moist soils. Expect plants to grow 6-12″ high and 18″ wide.

There are numerous cultivars available, such as ‘Raspberry Splash’ (bright pink/purple with spotted leaves), ‘Trevi Fountain’ (blue-purple with spotted leaves) and ‘Moonshine’ (more pastel with almost silver leaves). All varieties are native to Europe or Asia.

Pulmonaria ‘Mrs. Moon’ Foliage
Photo by By Андрей Корзун – CC BY-SA 3.0,

?I like this plant because of its early bright color and attractive foliage. It’s also animal-resistant and makes a lovely groundcover or low edging plant.

?Things to watch out for include leaf scorch in full sun and powdery mildew in excessively shady conditions. Newer cultivars are much more disease-resistant, and you can treat plants with neem oil if needed. They can be short-lived, but dividing and transplanting every 3 years or allowing them to set seed will help keep them going.

Meet a Plant: Clethra

Clethra alnifolia ‘Hummingbird’
Photo credit: KENPEI, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

It’s Meet the Plants Monday!

This week I had a number of different ideas for the plant you’d meet, but a particular plant kept coming up in conversation so much that I had to assume the universe was letting me know that was the one to talk about.

So, I’d like to introduce you to Clethra alnifolia, which goes by the name Summersweet, or just the genus name, Clethra. It’s native to wet areas along the east coast and southeast US, where it might also be called Sweet Pepperbush.

Clethra alnifolia ‘Ruby Spice’
Photo Credit: Photo by and (c)2007 Derek Ramsey (Ram-Man), GFDL 1.2 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Clethra is a small to medium-sized flowering shrub that blooms in mid to late summer with fragrant spikes of white or pink flowers. It does well in sun or part shade, but does appreciate more acidic soil if possible. Because it’s native to wetter sites, it makes a good rain garden or water’s edge plant and attracts many pollinators. It has yellow fall color.

This shrub is generally low maintenance and disease resistant if sited correctly. It can be pruned in later winter if needed and will need the old flower spikes trimmed off in spring, much like a panicle hydrangea.

Clethra ‘Hummingbird’ in April 2022.
Spent blooms can be cut off during spring clean-up.

There are a few different popular cultivars of Clethra, but the ones you’ll likely see are ‘Hummingbird’ (smaller with white flowers) and ‘Ruby Spice’ (larger, with pink flowers). Ruby Spice is more desiring of acidic soils, whereas Hummingbird is more adaptable.

?I like this shrub because it provides flowers and fragrance in shadier conditions and because it works well in small spaces. It’s also a pollinator magnet – always a plus in my book!

?Clethra can really struggle to look its best if not sited correctly. It can’t tolerate excessively dry conditions and should be kept watered and well-mulched in full sun. The pink-flowered versions may look chlorotic (yellowing leaves) if the soil pH is too high, which is common in our area. I’ve also noticed that rabbits like to nibble on them a bit, so winter protection could be helpful if that’s an issue.

Meet a Plant: Canadian Columbine

Canadian Columbine in bloom, May 2021.

?Welcome back to Meet the Plants Monday!?

This week’s plant is one of my favorites for late spring to early summer interest: meet Aquilegia canadensis, whose common name is Canadian Columbine. This is a short-lived perennial that’s happy to self-seed and is happiest in an area where you’ll let it pick and choose where it wants to grow. This is a Wisconsin native!

Like other Columbines, this one has ruffled basal foliage, and then red nodding flowers appear on long stems in May and June. Plan on these reaching about 24″ tall on average and spreading about 1 foot. They are perfect for a shade or part-shade garden but can also tolerate full sun as long as the soil is kept moist.

You can deadhead these as they bloom to keep the plant producing more flowers, but be sure to leave some of the dried seed pods so it can self-seed. Cut them back in fall or spring – they are commonly one of the earliest perennials I see with new growth in March/April.

Canadian Columbine foliage emerging, April 2022.

Keep in mind that these will tend to die down by the height of summer, so pick companion plantings that will pick up where they leave off to keep the seasonal interest going. They pair well with Solomon’s Seal, Astilbe, Lady’s Mantle, Hosta, etc. I have used them both in a woodland-type planting as well as in another bed where they are paired with Penstemon and are succeeded by late-blooming Grapeleaf Anemones.

?I love this plant because the flowers are kind of whimsical, while the color brightens up shadier areas. They are also hugely beneficial to wildlife, including hummingbirds, butterflies, bees, and hawk moths. Deer, rabbits, and pests (such as Columbine leaf miner) tend to leave these alone as well.

?Can I say there are no downsides to this plant? Small drawbacks include leaf scorch if conditions are too sunny, and the need for a tolerance for self-seeding plants for best results.

Meet a Plant: Bergenia

?It’s Meet the Plants Monday!?

For this week’s plant, I’ve picked an early-blooming perennial: meet Bergenia cordifolia, also known as Heartleaf Bergenia or Pig-squeak. (The second name supposedly comes from the sound made from rubbing the leaves together – try it and let me know what you think!) It’s native to Siberia and can grow well up to zone 3 – for reference, we in Milwaukee are in zone 5B.

This plant has two attractions: dark pink flowers as early as April, and thick large-textured foliage that is green with tinges of bronze and maroon. Bergenia is somewhat evergreen, meaning it provides interest year-round and does not need cutting back in fall. Simply remove any dead or ragged-looking leaves in spring.

Bergenia in early spring, 2022.

It works well as a groundcover, edging, or woodland garden plant, providing a function similar to a hosta in terms of foliage. Expect these to expand to around 18″ wide with a height of 12-18 inches. Site where the plant gets plenty of spring sunshine, but receives some shade in the height of summer.

?I like Bergenia for its early color, large leaves, and because it can adapt to a number of light conditions, including shady spots. It’s also deer and rabbit resistant.

?Bergenia cannot tolerate hot dry conditions, and the leaves can scorch in direct summer sun.

Meet a Plant: Eastern Hemlock

Eastern Hemlock at Riverside Park, March 2022

?We’re back again for Meet the Plants Monday!?

For this week’s plant, we’re going big. Like, tree-sized. Meet Tsuga canadensis, otherwise known as the Eastern or Canadian Hemlock! This is a large evergreen conifer that prefers shaded cool areas with moist soil – it’s actually the most shade-tolerant tree in North America – and it’s a WI native. Its needles are soft and short (no worries about getting stabbed by this one) and the color is a deep shiny green.

Eastern Hemlock Needles, March 2022

You’ll need a good amount of space for these, as they can get up to 70′ tall and 35′ wide in their native forest habitat (though more commonly 25-45′ tall in a landscape) and they make a great screening plant. It’s also a favorite of birds and other wildlife for both food and cover.

If you don’t have space for a full-size evergreen tree, there are also several interesting cultivars available: ‘Gentsch White’ is a shrub-like form (8’x6′), ‘Pendula’ has a wide weeping form (10’x25′), and there are a couple golden-needled varieties such as Golden Duke (up to 10’x4′) and Golden Duchess (4’x5′). Regardless of cultivar, all hemlocks need cool, mulched soil and part shade to shaded conditions. They may also need protection from strong winter winds.

Looking into the canopy, March 2022

?I like this plant for it’s shade tolerance, ecological function, interesting brown-red bark, and it’s beautiful open form. It’s a tree with a lot of character and can make a great specimen, too!

?Do watch out for deer with this one -it will need protection especially when young. One other potential concern is Hemlock Wooly Adelgid. This insect pest has not been found in Wisconsin but it has devastated hemlock populations in the eastern US.

Small hemlocks need protection from deer, March 2022

Meet a Plant: Red Twig Dogwood

‘Arctic Fire’ Dwarf Red Twig Dogwood – March 2022

?It’s Meet the Plants Monday again!!?

This week’s plant is a shrub that you’ve likely seen, especially in winter – Cornus sericea, AKA Red Twig or Red Osier Dogwood. Known best for its bright red canes that are great for winter interest, this Dogwood also has small white flowers in spring, interesting (non-edible) whitish-blue berries in summer for the birds, and pretty maroon to purple fall color. This plant is also a Wisconsin native – look for it near prairies and along woodland edges.

Red Twig Dogwood can be sited in a variety of conditions and is very adaptable. The twigs are most red when placed in a full-sun area, but it will do just fine in part shade and even shady conditions – though you may have more issues with cosmetic diseases like leaf spot in that case. It’s not too fussy about soil, but actually prefers wetter conditions and can be a great solution for a soggy area or rain garden. Keep it well-mulched, regardless.

Red Twig Dogwood at Chiwaukee Prairie Natural Area, September 2020

This shrub can quickly get quite large, approximately 8’x8′ and will sucker and spread if given the space, which works well in a more naturalized planting. The size is also desirable for use as a screening plant or as part of a large shrub border. If you’re working with a smaller space, however, it’s easy to prune back. You can even cut it down to about 6-8″ or so every few years to rejuvenate it. Otherwise, maintenance simply requires removing the oldest 1/3 of the canes each year.

?I recommend Red Twig Dogwood because of its year-round interest, ecological value, and adaptability. There are also many cultivars and varieties of this plant available – including those with yellow stems and those bred for smaller size or increased disease resistance. In particular, the ‘Arctic Fire’ cultivar is a good bet for a small landscape, getting just 3-4′ tall.

?One similar plant that I do not recommend is Ivory Halo Dogwood (Cornus alba ‘Bailhalo’). This variegated version with white and green leaves is not the same species, and I have rarely seen one looking great in late summer due to the amount of leaf disease they seem to get.

Meet a Plant: Winter Wolfsbane

Winter Wolfsbane/Winter Aconite blooming on 3/10/21

?Welcome to Meet the Plants Monday, a weekly feature to learn a little more about the plants in our yards and natural spaces.?

Meet our first plant of the year – Eranthis cilicica! The common name is Winter Aconite or Winter Wolfsbane.

This is a very early spring bloomer with small bright yellow flowers that look adorable under small trees or large shrubs. I have them planted in rings underneath my Pagoda Dogwood and Witchhazel and saw them as early as 3/10 last year. Like many other of the earliest flowers, such as crocuses and snowdrops, these are bulbs (actually tubers) that must be planted in the fall.

Site them in a spot where they get part-shade or dappled light and the soil doesn’t completely dry out – they are perfect for a woodland garden and can eventually self-seed and spread (naturalize) if they are happy.

In later spring, the flower disappears and the foliage expands. I plant it among a Sweet Woodruff groundcover and they blend nicely since the leaves look similar. By summer, expect these to die back until the following spring.

Winter Wolfsbane in early May 2021

I like these because they’re animal-resistant, cheerful-looking, and a little different than the norm. The bulbs are available online or at nicer garden centers – you likely won’t find these at a big box store.

☠️One note of caution – these are related to Monkshood and Wolfsbane, plants in the Aconitum genus whose roots and tubers especially are quite poisonous if ingested, so be careful with placement if you have dogs that tend to dig or small curious children.