Canada celebrates its national day every July 1st, since the country was officially constituted on that day in 1867. Canada has no national flower, but in honor of this special day, why not take a look at the floral emblems of its provinces and territories … with a special emphasis on how to grow them in your own garden if you so choose.
Harvesting Plants From the Wild
Many of Canada’s floral emblems are available through commercial sources, either locally or by mail order, but if you feel the need to collect them from the wild, make sure you do so in a sustainable manner. First, you must have permission from the landowner. Secondly, only harvest from areas where the plant is at least locally abundant and take only a small portion of the population. Harvesting seeds has the least impact on native populations, followed by taking cuttings. Digging up plants is the most damaging. Also, some floral emblems do not transplant well from the wild (this will be mentioned in its description) and should never be dug up. Before you harvest any of these plants for any reason, make sure you have the conditions necessary for them to succeed in your garden when you bring them home.
Prickly Rose (Rosa acicularis)
A tough shrub rose with fragrant pink to rose flowers in mid to late summer. The numerous straight thorns on its stem are the “prickles” of the common and botanical names (acicularis means “like a needle”). The flowers are followed by bright red hips that attract birds, are edible and often remain on the plant much of the winter. Prickly rose adapts to most garden conditions, but it does require a lot of sun to bloom well. Dimensions: 4 to 6 feet x 4 to 15 feet (1–2 m x 1–5 m). Zone 2.
Pacific Dogwood (Cornus nuttallii)
A large shrub or tree bearing spectacular large inflorescences made up of a cluster of greenish flowers surrounded by 4 to 8 white bracts. The flowers appear in mid-spring and sometimes again during the summer. They are followed by red fruit. Pacific dogwood does not usually adapt well to conditions beyond its natural range and, in Canada, can rarely be grown elsewhere than in coastal BC, though it can be grown in the Pacific states of the US. It’s very hard to transplant successfully from the wild and it’s therefore best to purchase nursery stock. Although it can attain 80 feet (25 m) in height in the wild, it will almost certainly not do so in culture. Most people keep it pruned so it will form a large shrub 6 to 15 feet (2 to 5 m) high and about as wide. Zone 7.
Prairie Crocus (Anemone patens or Pulsatilla patens)
A charming very early spring bloomer, but certainly not a true crocus (genus Crocus), this prairie flower will thrive in most temperate climate gardens. Interesting in borders and rock gardens, it often blooms while there’s still snow all around it! The pale purple buds open into cup-shaped flowers with a mass of yellow stamens in the center. After it blooms, the deeply cut silvery foliage expands, turning mid-green at maturity and forming a low mound. The fuzzy seed heads add another note of interest during the summer. A slow-growing, but tough-as-nails and long-lived plant, prairie crocus prefers full sun or very light shade and very well-drained soil. It will tolerate alkaline soils. Best moved or divided in the fall. Do not harvest this near-threatened plant from the wild. Dimensions: 6 in x 6 in (15 cm x 15 cm). Zone 2.
Marsh Blue Violet (Viola cucullata)
This violet is a common plant throughout much of Eastern North America. It can be distinguished from other violet species (and there are many!) by its heart-shaped leaves, stemless habit (both leaves and flowers arise directly from the soil) and odorless purple flowers borne above the foliage. It will bloom from spring through summer in the right conditions. It forms clumps and spreads via underground rhizomes. It will grow in most conditions, but seems to do best in moist soils in partial shade to shade, although it may do well in full sun and drier soils. A prolific self-seeder in some conditions, it may require some hand weeding to keep it under control. Dimensions: 5–10 in x 10 in (12–25 cm x 25 cm). Zone 2.
Newfoundland and Labrador
Purple Pitcher Plant (Sarracenia purpurea)
A fascinating plant, the pitcher plant is carnivorous, consuming insects and arthropods. These fall into its pitcher-shaped leaves and drown in the water they contain, unable to scale the slippery sides. The leaves can be green, green with purple veins or distinctly purple. There are also leaves that have a “normal” shape and don’t produce traps: the poorer the soil, the more traps there will be! The very odd nodding purple to red flowers look like nothing so much as flying saucers!
This plant is native to peat bogs and other marshy soils nearly devoid of minerals and will not grow well in most garden soils: they are far too rich and too dry for its taste! It’s best grown in a peat bog or on the edge of a water garden, in sphagnum moss rather than soil. Never fertilize it and use only rainwater or distilled water in case of drought. Dimensions: 14–15 in x 18–24 in (35–40 cm x 45–60 cm). Zone 2.
Mountain Avens (Dryas integrifolia)
This low-growing creeping plant is a shrub, botanically speaking, but you’ll want to treat is as a perennial. It’s ideally suited to rock gardens where it will slowly create a ground-hugging carpet of shiny evergreen leaves topped by daisylike white flowers with contrasting gold centers in late spring to early summer. These are followed by fuzzy white seed heads. It’s easy enough to grow in cooler summer areas—just plant it in full sun in very well drained or even rocky soil—but it will need shade from the afternoon sun in hotter climates. Due to a long taproot, it’s very difficult to harvest this plant from the wild and even cuttings and seed are challenging. It’s best to buy plants from alpine plant specialists. Dimensions: 2–6 in x 12–24 in (5–15 cm x 30–60 cm). Zone 2.
Mayflower (Epigaea reptans)
This early bloomer is actually a creeping shrub, but most gardeners think of it as a perennial. The stems slowly creep in all directions and well-spaced plants could make a good groundcover. The leathery evergreen oval leaves can be shiny or hairy, depending on the plant’s origin. Small clusters of highly scented white to pink flowers are borne in spring … although not always in May, in spite of the common name. This is a slow-growing plant that resents disturbance: do not try and harvest wild plants. Instead, either obtain plants from wildflower specialists or grow it from seed. It prefers shade to partial shade and acid, well-drained soils. Dimensions: 2 in x 24–40 in (5 cm x 30–100 cm). Zone 2.
Purple Saxifrage (Saxifraga oppositifolia)
This delightful mounded plant will stand out in the rock garden. The tiny leaves are rounded and scale-like, clustered densely together on somewhat woody branches and giving the whole plant a mosslike appearance. The purple flowers (more rarely lilac or pink) are abundant and much larger than the leaves, often covering the plant. Purple saxifrage grows naturally in both the high Arctic and in alpine areas and adapts well to most cool temperate climates, preferring full sun in cool areas, but afternoon shade where summers are hot. The soil should be well drained or even gravely. It’s easily multiplied by cuttings. Extremely hardy, it’s considered one of the most northerly flowering plants in the world, reaching 83˚ N in Greenland. Dimensions: 2 in x 6–12 in (5 cm x 15–30 cm). Zone 1.
White Trillium (Trillium grandiflorum)
A woodland full of white trilliums is a spectacular sight indeed, but it will take decades for this slow-growing plant to spread enough to fill a forest! It grows from a small tuberlike rhizome deep underground, each producing a single stem. The name Trillium means thrice and indeed, everything comes in threes: 3 petals, 3 bracts, 3 leaves. The flowers are pure white at first, fading to pink. It’s easy to establish from commercially raised plants, but transplanting from the wild is not always so successful, so let the wild trilliums be. It does best in the shade to partial shade of a deciduous forest in well-drained soil. Dimensions: 8–18 in x 8–12 in (20–45 cm x 20–30 cm). Zone 3.
Prince Edward Island
Pink Lady’s-Slipper (Cypripedium acaule)
Certainly one of Canada’s most beautiful wildflowers, the pink lady’s-slipper is found in moister areas throughout Central and Eastern Canada, mostly in coniferous forests. Its flower, with a large pink “pouch” (labellum) and purple to brown tepals, is remarkable. It can readily be told from other species of lady’s-slipper by the leafless flower stalk, plus the plant bears only basal leaves, usually two. The pink lady’s-slipper is highly variable in size: in one area flowering plants will be over 18 in (45 cm) tall, in another, only 6 in (15 cm)! Not an easy plant to grow, it needs acid soil (a pH of 4 to 5) and does best in partial shade. Never transplant this delicate plant from the wild: it will certainly die. Instead it’s now available from tissue-cultured plants and these have been found to be much more widely adaptable than wild-harvested ones. Dimensions: 6–18 in x 6–12 in (15–45 cm x 15–30 cm). Zone 3.
Blue Flag Iris (Iris versicolor)
This is the common iris found throughout Eastern North America, growing in bogs and along rivers and lakes. It produces grasslike leaves and has typical iris flowers with narrow upright standards (petals) and downward arching falls (sepals) in various shades of blue, violet and purple with white and yellow markings. Although it only grows in humid to wet soils in the wild, in the garden it does fine under regular garden conditions. Full sun is best, but partial shade is acceptable. It’s easy to grow and easy to multiple by division in the fall. Dimensions: 24–60 in x 24 in (60–120 cm x 60 cm). Zone 3.
Western Red Lily (Lilium philadelphicum andinum)
The red lily is easy enough to recognize: no other native North American lily has upright flowers! The summer flowers are orange red with a yellow throat bearing dark speckles. Young plants typically bear one flower per stem; more mature plants, two or three. Theoretically the leaves of the western version (L. p. andinum) are borne singly while those of the eastern form (L. p. philadelphicum) are grouped in whorls, but this is variable. This is an easy to grow lily, best started from bulbs planted in late summer or fall. It does fine in most well-drained garden soils in a sunny or lightly shaded spot. Multiply it by division or seed and it quickly produces new plants from bulb scales placed in moist but well-drained soil. In Saskatchewan, it’s protected under the Provincial Emblems and Honors Act, meaning it cannot be picked, uprooted or destroyed. Dimensions: 12–36 in x 12–14 in (30–90 cm x 30–40 cm). Zone 3.
Fireweed (Chamerion angustifolium, formerly Epilobium angustifolium)
The common name is well chosen: fireweed is one of the first plants to come back after a forest fire and, indeed, disappears as the forest regenerates and the conditions become shadier. It’s a tall perennial with a reddish stem and narrow willowlike leaves. They turn red shades in the fall. The stem is topped with a spike of magenta-pink flowers that certainly draw the eye. The tufted white seeds are carried far and wide by the wind. It tends to form huge colonies, painting entire landscapes brilliant pink and, furthermore, blooms over much of the summer. Native not only to Canada, but throughout the temperate Northern Hemisphere, fireweed is simple to grow, but highly invasive due to its creeping rhizomes and is best restricted to wildflower gardens or naturalized plantings. Any type of soil will do, but full sun is needed for good bloom. Dimensions: 1–3m x 30 cm-10 m. Zone 1.
And there you go: 13 striking and mostly little known plants. Canadians can grow their own province’s floral emblem or even try to create a TransCanada garden by planting as many of the other provinces’ and territories’ emblems as they can. And you don’t have to be a Canadian to enjoy growing these beautiful and often quite unusual plants!