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 The Plant Store

The plant store is now closed for the season.
I'll be winter sowing through the fall and early winter and potting up seedlings again come spring for the 2023 sale.

Oenothera fruticosa

Oenothera fruticosa 

Narrow-Leaved Evening-Primrose /Common Sundrops

  • Full sun to part shade
  • Average garden soil
  • 36" tall, 18" wide
  • Garden, meadow and woodland settings

This particular species came to my garden though a case of mistaken identity.

Sundrops are a common garden species in the communities that I’ve lived in over the years. I knew them as a perennial that spread very quickly but that had such showy blooms that they retained a space in many gardens despite their disinclination to stay in one place. They would appear as little burgundy rosettes of foliage as soon as the snow melted, sending up green leaved stems topped with reddish buds that opened into brilliant yellow flowers in June. Their fast self-propagation made them a species that was as commonly found at plant swaps as orange daylilies and the (usually slug munched) Hosta albomarginata. I’ve seen them in more than one country yard, growing up out of a half buried, painted tractor tire (pretty much the only way to keep them in one place), blooming their golden heads off.

So, when I decided to dig and gift some of the non-native species from my urban garden in the fall of 2020 and refill the space with native species that shared a similarly exuberant nature (i.e. the fast spreaders) I included Sundrops in my plant order. I figured that they would happily hold their own alongside Obedient Plant, a couple of different Monardas a few Goldenrod species and Heart Leaved Asters (these last don’t spread all that quickly in my garden, they are just very good at holding their space).

The plants that arrived weren’t quite what I was expecting. These pointy green leaves were Sundrops? The native one? Where were the rounded, burgundy leaves that I was expecting? There was plenty of gardening to do so I went ahead and tucked them in and didn’t really think about it again until spring, when pictures of rosettes of burgundy leaves began popping up in garden groups where they were, more often than not, misidentified as Ajuga and almost never identified as Sundrops.

I went digging for an image. Searches for Oenothera fruticosa, the species that I had thought was the native Sundrops, weren’t resulting in any photos of burgundy rosettes of leaves.

The mystery was bugging me. All the nurseries sold fruticosa, labeled as native but, despite how closely the flowers matched, this clearly wasn’t the species I’ve been seeing gardens for years. Who was this mysterious, yet incredibly common, plant? Off to VASCAN again, to the List Builder tool this time. A search for all of the Oenothera of Ontario, then back and forth between that (surprisingly long) list and Google images.

Some cool surprises (who knew Butterlfy Gaura was not only native to Ontario but has actually been reclassified as a member of the Oenothera family?) and, finally, an answer to the mystery. Happily, they weren’t one of the 7 introduced species of Oenothera growing outside of cultivation in the province. The plant that was in everyone’s gardens? Oenothera pilosella, Meadow Evening-Primrose. Mystery solved and another species to add to the garden at some point.

So, what about those Oenothera fruticosa? Well first of all, they didn’t even show up on that VASCAN list of Oenothera in Ontario. A name search got me an answer. They once grew in Ontario, outside of cultivation, but are now considered to be extirpated. Since there range extended here prior to what I would guess is loss of range due to land use change, I’m going to go ahead and include them in this native plant series.

For their first year in the garden, they put on an amazing show, growing so many flowers that they knocked themselves over they were so top-heavy. As the garden matures over the next couple of years, they’ll be able to rely on their neighbours for a bit more support but I’d expect them to be a reclining species in a garden with too much open space. I think that they are likely to grow to a couple of feet tall and spread to form a patch, albeit a bit more slowly than O. pilosella would in the same situation. They seemed to be perfectly happy with part shade and weren’t too bothered by dry spells in the summer. The seed heads developed into very hard, lumpy bunches that I gathered but haven’t yet gotten around to breaking open (I may actually need pliers, they are really hard pods) since they will be one of the species I sow in the spring, rather than the winter.