Plant volunteers: what’s not to love? (Hint: it’s blue)

catchfly on path

Vivid pink catchfly is the big volunteer in my garden this year. It’s getting a little out of hand, to tell the truth, but it looks so good right now I can’t bear to take it out.

My dear departed Mom didn’t love forget-me-nots, which still volunteer to bloom in my garden every year. “They’re invasive weeds. You’ll be sorry if you don’t rip them out,” she’d advise emphatically whenever she saw them showing their little blue faces among my spring bulbs.

forget me nots 1

It seeds itself prolifically, but the clear blue, cheerful forget-me-not is a great filler int he spring garden.

She had a point. Forget-me nots (Myosotis sylvatica) reseed with abandon, and if don’t follow her advice before they manage to set seed my garden would be overrun the following spring. But I like their clear, true blue colour and the way they fill in the spaces between the clumps of tulips, so I let many of them stay. (Not when Mom was around, I admit. Then I’d make a show of taking them out.) When I heard the late Christopher Lloyd’s assistant, Fergus Garrett, at the Toronto Botanic Garden several years ago say he and his boss did the same thing at Great Dixter, Lloyd’s historic garden in East Sussex, England, I felt vindicated. Unfortunately, my Mom had already left this mortal coil and I couldn’t pass the information along to her. Somehow I think she knows, anyway.

Forget-me-nots aren’t the only volunteer plants that grow in my garden. The next to show up, almost on the heels of the forget-me-nots, is the oxeye daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare), which I confess I transplanted from the wild many years ago: they looked so sprightly and clean growing at the side of that country road I couldn’t resist them. They look sprightly and clean in my beds, too–by the millions, I might add. “Gotta get rid of those,” I say to myself every year, partly because it takes at least a day to pull them out before they set seed and multiply even more for the next year. (Like forget-me-nots, they’re biennials, so they grow a little plant with a pretty rosette of leaves that’s awfully easy to overlook; it blooms the following  year.

rufus + daisies

Our now sadly deceased pussycat Rufus loved to meditate in the garden. Here he sits among the oxeye daisies that seed themselves every year along a garden path, as well as all over the garden.

This plant is considered a wildflower in Ontario but it isn’t native–it was brought to this country in the early 1800s and now grows in almost every state and province in North America. In some it’s considered an invasive weed. But, you know, the oxeye daisy, too, has its value–sometimes it’s the only plant blooming in the garden, in between the late spring stuff and the roses and peonies.

Other pretty annuals I can’t bear to get rid of volunteer in my beds. One, the opium poppy (Papaver somniferum) blew in from my next-door neighbour’s garden in the ’80s; her former house has had two successive owners and a tear-down and rebuild since, but her poppies live on–in my garden. None have survived next door.

The poppy bloom is stunning and can be a real traffic stopper in large numbers, just as it probably is in Afghanistan and other countries where it’s grown for the opium it delivers. At one point it was illegal to grow Papaver somniferum in Canada–somehow I escaped arrest– but in the US you can grow the plant as long as you don’t produce any substances from its sap. Ya think? Frankly, that would be impossible with the yield from a suburban garden.


Papaver somniferum had a significant role in the Wizard of Oz. Remember when Dorothy and the gang fell asleep in a field of pretty flowers on their way to find the Wizard?

But I edit the seedlings severely these days anyway–otherwise the poppies would take over and choke out the perennials, not worth it for 10 days of spectacular flowers followed by ugly brown foliage.

More volunteers have been reproducing for years from the great-great-great-etc-grandchildren of  seed I threw down a decade or two ago; they like it here so much they keep returning. One is the California poppy, the state flower of California, Eschscholzia californica, which is in the family Papaveraceae. Its cheerful orange blooms close up at night or in cloudy, windy weather and, like its cousin somniferum, californica thrives in lean sandy, soil. In the Antelope Valley in Los Angeles county, as well as in Colusa County’s  Bear Valley, the orange blooms blanket thousands of acres in peak flowering season. It grows in its native  southern regions  as a perennial, but in Ontario, where I live, it’s an annual that blooms from early July till frost.

california poppy

Like the catchfly, California poppies reseed themselves in the garden, but they bloom all summer, adding colour to bare spots.

The other volunteer is bright pink Sweet William catchfly (Silene armeria), shown at the top of the page and below, with California poppy. It’s nicknamed Sweet William because of its resemblance to that old-fashioned plant.  It too can get out of hand, but it’s really easy to pull out. Some summers it seed itself more prolifically than others. We came home from a few days away in mid-July this summer to find the back pathway framed in vivid pink, seen in the top picture. What a show! The slender plants grow about a foot tall and cluster together in perfectly designed clumps. It’s my new favourite volunteer. Bees and butterflies love it, too

poppies and catcfly

Sometimes an orange California poppy and a deep pink catchfly voluntarily entwine, making a terrific show along the pathway in the back garden.

I must not forget Knautia macedonica, commonly called Macedonian scabious, although I remember the botanical name better, for some reason.  It’s a tall (three to four feet), airy plant with long see-through stems with  little button flowers on the ends in pinks, purples and reds, and it can be seen growing near our gazebo in the photo below. I bought plants a few years ago, and they’ve reseeded ever since like well-behaved schoolchildren–which means they stay in the section where they were planted in the first place and comport themselves  politely. This may be because of my garden conditions, though– I have read comments from other gardeners that it spreads too easily. The thin flower stems allow you to see through  to the garden beyond, so they work in the front of a bed as well as in the middle. Knautia blooms in early summer and if I’m feeling patient I’ll deadhead the small blossoms and keep it going a along as possible.  If you want to try this plant I suggest you buy some started plants at a nursery–I’ve tried to find seeds and can’t.  Thompson & Morgan sells them in the UK but doesn’t mail them to  North America. IMG_5048 The one volunteer I don’t love is creeping bellflower (Campanula rapunculoides), a vicious, perennial. If I could get rid of it I would. Every spring and summer I dig out the roots and a month later the plant is coming above the surface again. Oh yes, it’s pretty–tallish, too, more than two feet high–but it’s rapacious. Everything in its wake is consumed. If it weren’t so invasive it might be an asset to the garden, with its pretty, bell-shaped periwinkle blue blossoms. But it’s the enemy. I won’t even show you a picture of it here…for that you have to go to last year’s blog on the beast (click on  Plants on the Home page, then on Invasives), and learn more about it.

I’m saving some seed from the poppies and the catchfly, so if you want some and happen to be in my neighbourhood, let me know and I’ll save you an envelope.

2 thoughts on “Plant volunteers: what’s not to love? (Hint: it’s blue)

  1. I don’t get any of those annuals seeding around – because I keep the garden mulched. A mixed blessing perhaps as I’d like to have them. (though the ox eye daisy is a joy in or meadow, which isn’t mulched being meadow..dandelions are great there

    • I wish my mulch worked as well as yours. It helps keeps weeds down, but not totally…I still have to pull out stuff I don’t want every month. And as I said I do let some volunteers–which of course I don’t consider weeds!–stay.
      A friend of mine says if dandelions were hybridized they’d soon be considered valuable plants. They look so pretty growing in masses in fields, but give them an inch in your lawn and soon they literally take a mile. Liz

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