Landscape archaeology

Renovating an existing landscape around a new home can be an interesting exercise, seeing what was planted by a property’s previous owner and learning something about their design sense (or lack thereof) and interest level in plants.  Sometimes homeowners unexpectedly end up with an excellent collection of ornamental plants that just need some TLC to thrive.  Most gardeners have no clue about what, exactly they inherit.  Often, if landscapes have been neglected, it can be difficult to know what is a weed and what is an ornamental when renovating beds.  Undoubtedly, many attractive ornamental perennial species get removed from yards by new homeowners unknowingly.

I’ve had a chance to explore  some good friends’ new property in northwest Michigan (zone 6b and very close to lake Michigan) in multiple seasons this year.  The property includes a 110 year old schoolhouse moved to the property (and put on a very nice cinder block basement, no half height, soil floor “Michigan basement” here, thankfully).  The house had been mostly abandoned the last few years and was quite neglected.

There is a large pasture mostly made up of quackgrass (Elymus repens, formerly Agropyron repens) and spotted knapweed (Centaurea maculosa) aka “star thistle”, which is the marketing name that beekeepers in the area use to label the excellent honey made from the plant.

Entomology orbit:  Star thistle honey is an estimated 40 million dollar industry in Michigan, and there has been pushback from the beekeeping industry against biological control efforts against spotted knapweed for this reason.  The Permaculturist in me really appreciates making a “noxious weed” into a useful plant.  Sadly, in this season’s drought,  the spotted knapweed did not produce much nectar, and honey production was very low.  Hoary alyssum (Berteroa incana), a common weed in the area, got lots of bee foraging this season.

There are also large patches of yellow hawkweed (Hieracium pratense) in a few places.  A related species, orange hawkweed (Hieracium aurantiacum) is one of my mom’s favorite weeds as it’s quite attractive in bloom.  She always called it “Indian paintbrush”.

Based on the extensive gardens, young orchard, and gardens around the house, the previous owner had a passion for plants, both ornamentals and vegetables.  In addition to the surviving plants, there was what I dubbed the “tag graveyard” of flags and plant ID labels, grave markers for plants now gone.  There were hundreds of them.

Of the “graveyard” tags, iris and rose (particularly red-flowered varieties) predominated.  I hope there were some fragrant rose varieties included in the collection, as non-scented roses always disappoint me when I try to smell their flowers…  Only a few roses survived.

There are several large iris plantings to investigate, all planted in short, straight rows.  Several areas with daffodil (Narcissus species) of various colors were planted in similar fashion.  Such straight lines are not ideal in garden design, particularly when space constraints are not an issue.

None of the iris flowered this season, likely due to the drought and competition from weeds that have invaded the plantings.  I expect there will be several dozen different colors in the collection.  There must have been hundreds when the garden was in its prime.

I was quite impressed with some of the plant material remaining in the gardens.  A nice contorted hazel (Corylus avellana ‘Contorta’) is extremely attractive and draws visitors’ attention.  Its stems have an interesting “corkscrew” spiral growth pattern, providing particular interest in fall and winter after leaves have dropped.

There are several patches of Hellebore (Helleborus species), including a nice pink-flowered variety.  This is a wonderful genus of hardy, evergreen ground covers that really should be used more.  I don’t think the extremely sandy soil is much to its liking, but the plants are hanging in there, and I can’t wait to see what happens when they get some care.


Autumn crocus (Colchicum autumnale) was another surprise, and there are several plantings around the property.  This fall bloomer isn’t common enough in American gardens, in my opinion, as it’s a great, hardy species.

Plants produces leaves in the spring, but leaves die back fully before plants flower in fall.

Note that this species is poisonous, due to its colchicine content.  (True plant geeks will know that this alkaloid has been used in plant breeding to induce polyploidy.)

Impressed as I was with the Autumn Crocus, when the double autumn crocus (Colchicum autumnale var. plenum) bloomed among the single flowered forms, I was really impressed, as I had not encountered the double form previously.

A nice feature of the double form is that the flowering display of the plantings was extended, as the double form flowered when the single pants were almost finished blooming.  In full bloom, the double flowers are a real eye catcher. I will definitely be using this plant more in the future.

Other herbaceous perennial finds included:  anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum), lance leaved coreopsis (Coreopsis lanceolata), day lily (Hemerocallis), catmint (Nepeta), lavender (Lavandula angustifolia), oriental poppy (Papaver orientale), and black-eyed-susan (Rudbeckia hirta).  On the woody front, ornamentals included:  smokebush (Cotinus coggygria), redbud (Cercis canadensis), flowering magnolia (Magnolia), and many lilacs (Syringia).  There are also a host of woody trees and shrubs probably planted for wildlife habitat, including standard hazlenut (Corylus), ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius), shrubby dogwoods (Cornus species), and highbush cranberry (Viburnum trilobum).  And numerous others I’ve yet to ID, as I’m still a bit weak with woody plant ID (though that is being remedied.)

Interestingly, there was also a group of thorn-apple (Datura inoxia, formerly Datura meteloides) growing under the front porch.

One of the owners had asked me to purchase seed of this species, as it is naturalized in Sikkim, India, where they have lived previously (and where I initially met them.) And it was quite happily growing right in front of the schoolhouse.

It’s usually considered an annual, but can be a tender perennial, so I suspect plants may have survived the very mild winter Michigan had in 2011, as well as reseeding.  Plants have beautiful white flowers and interesting, spiny seedpods.  Do note that this is a poisonous species, as it contains a host of toxic tropane alkaloids, including scopolamine, hyoscyamine, and atropine.

I missed most of the spring ephemeral wildflowers on the property this season (the back part of the property is wooded), and look forward to prowling the woods, camera in hand, early next spring.