Wildflowers of the Canadian Rockies

Grasses at Lake Louise. Janna Schreier

Wildflowers, grasses and glaciers at Lake Louise

Canadian summers are pretty short. Charlotte, a keen gardener from Edmonton, described to me the snow cover from November to March and the frost free growing season of June to September.

Colour at Butchart Gardens. Janna Schreier

Typical summer colour on Vancouver Island

The gardening trend across the west of Canada seems to be to really go for it during those four, short months. It was annuals, annuals and more annuals. It was heartening to see so much pride and effort put into people’s gardens.

Floral bins at Butchart Gardens. Janna Schreier

I wasn’t so keen on much of the colour intensity at the Butchart gardens, but I did love the planted up bins

Gardens were certainly bright, although at times, perhaps a little too so for me; but you could understand the desire for colour as the snow melts away.

Mix of wildflowers at Lake Louise. Janna Schreier

Reds, oranges, blues, purples, whites, yellows, pinks….every colour of wildflower at Lake Louise

The blessing, however, of short growing seasons, is that wildflowers go wild all at once. There are no beginnings in late winter, with more coming in and out until the start of summer; others deciding that autumn was more their thing.

Mixed wildflowers at Lake Agnes. Janna Schreier

Mixed wildflowers at Lake Agnes

No. Wham, blam, mid July it is. A very definite peak.

Wildflowers at Sunwapta Lake. Janna Schreier

Wildflowers at Sunwapta Lake

And so being in the Rockies from 12-17 July really wasn’t at all bad (if somewhat unresearched and fortuitous) timing.

Wild Aquilegia at Lake Louise. Janna Schreier

We stumbled across this on a hike; you couldn’t produce a better rockery if you tried

We’d just be casually strolling along a path, only to see indigenous Gaillardia, Achillea and Aquilegia. I was squealing with delight! I was even amazed when I saw the groundcover dogwood, Cornus canadensis, which, given that I was Canada, just goes to show how little I engage my brain!

Gaillardia and Elks at Jasper. Janna Schreier

Yellow Gaillardia in front of a meadow of grazing, lazing elks (as you do)

We saw wild roses and buttercups, Potentilla and wood asters, harebells and clover.  And a couple of completely new ones on me; Chamerion, or fireweed, named due to its tendency to be the first to germinate after forest fires (info thanks to Paulette, a lovely horticulturist I bumped into in Revelstoke), and Castilleja, or Indian paintbrushes, in almost all the colours of the rainbow.

Fireweed at Lake Louise. Janna Schreier

Banks of fireweed at Lake Louise

Sadly, photos don’t do the flowers justice. In person, the mountain sides were a wash of colour; in photos, they were green with the odd pinprick of flower. Their impact, standing amongst them, was jaw droppingly gorgeous; it was so hard to believe they were all growing naturally, having synchronised their arrival to perfection. And corner after corner, you’d turn and see another picture perfect, very different array of colour.

Wildflowers on the train embankment near Banff. Janna Schreier

Wild wood asters and introduced ox-eye daisies just outside Banff

It wasn’t all about the wildflowers though. Just the rough green vegetation at the side of the highway somehow took my breath away. The architectural, symmetrical form of the conifers standing tall and confident, with lower shrubs in perfectly complementary greens, shimmering in the breeze.

Indian paintbrush harebells at Lake Louise. Janna Schreier

Red Castilleja and harebells at Lake Louise

I noticed that almost all the native vegetation had small leaves and wondered how the effect was so captivating, despite the lack of contrast or variation in leaf size. It was a great lesson for me to think outside the box more; there are infinite ways to create beauty and interest and the more broadly we think, the more innovative we can be. We shouldn’t stick to the tried and tested ‘tricks’, but always keep looking for new ideas and inspiration.

Clover and daisy wildflowers near Banff. Janna Schreier

Even clover looks stunning when it’s flowering like this

We drove about 2,500 kilometres across Canada and not once did I get bored of looking out at the natural vegetation. I know I like plants, but I also have a habit of getting bored pretty quickly; these layerings of plant combinations were something very special, they had such enormous depth.

Yellow and white wildflower meadow near Lake Louise. Janna Schreier

Yellow and white wildflower meadow near Lake Louise. Interesting how nature colour themes its borders too!

Paul would have been a rich man if he had a dollar for every time I said ‘oh, it’s so nice here’. It reminded me how you really can’t beat nature and made me think extremely hard about how I can take some of that magic and inject it into the garden.

Wildflower meadows at Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise. Janna Schreier

Yellow, white and blue wildflower meadows at Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise

Clearly, using indigenous, or at least native, plants helps to recreate the feeling of nature in a garden. But we do need it to be a little tidier and a little more densely focussed compared to your average piece of wilderness.

Fireweed at Lake Louise. Janna Schreier

Fireweed and the magical colour of Lake Louise

The hardest trick is scaling it back for very small gardens, but I think with a green backdrop and clever layering, just as I saw at the side of the road, something similar can be developed. I keep thinking back to Dan Pearson’s 2015 Chelsea garden and the techniques he used to so accurately capture the essence of nature within the garden.

Aquilegia at Lake Louise

My first (very excited) sighting of wild Aquilegia

I’m still thinking and pondering…I love the challenge and stimulation that travel brings. It’s a forever journey, the journey of gardening and of design and I’m very glad of that. More will become clear to me with time; ideas will pop into my consciousness when I least expect them.

Wildflowers at Lake Louise. Janna Schreier

Wildflowers at the edge of Lake Louise

And in case you are wondering…did we see a bear in the wild? Well, yes, just outside Banff, there was a black bear happily munching the weeds on the railway line. With my zoom lens I got quite a nice shot of him, as he looked across in my direction, before continuing his weeding with complete disinterest in his spectators.

Bears, conifers and wildflowers near Banff. Janna Schreier

Wildflowers growing at the side of the railway line

Brown bear in the Canadian Rockies. Janna Schreier

The happy, weeding bear of Banff!

Bear crossing over the motorway. Janna Schreier

A bear-crossing over the motorway: forested bridges specifically built to improve wildlife corridors

What a wonderful country Canada is. Just incredible scenery and areas of wilderness. I do hope to be back again before too long.

Surrounded by fireweed! Janna Schreier

A big smile on my face, surrounded by fireweed!

23 thoughts on “Wildflowers of the Canadian Rockies

  1. Adriana says:

    You look so happy Janna! These natural gardens are so inspiring. The natural colour combinations are sometimes designery and sometimes naive. I am almost as excited as you Janna at what we will see you do, what you have absorbed (seems more like the process of osmosis) in the future. Perhaps you can come and design my next (much smaller) garden – with naturalistic style elements.

    • jannaschreier says:

      Hold on a moment! Remember, who is the expert gardener of the two of us?! It is so nice to share the excitement with others who are energised by the same things, though. It makes it all so much more enjoyable and interesting. I do love your use of the word ‘naive’, too. I might ‘borrow’ that one…

      • Adriana says:

        Feel free Janna (to use ‘naive’) and no I am not kidding – I think that sometimes you need another person to look at things from a different perspective. I may be expert at horticulture and understand garden design but I am not as talented as you in the design. You have innate understanding of it or you would not be able to analyse gardens like you do. And I agree with Barbara too! However after watching all 13 episodes of ‘Chelsea’ recently I found out that the average bigger gardens on the main avenue cost around $500,000 in our money to do! You would need a serious sponsor and a year of your life to do it.

  2. Barbara says:

    What a wonderful trip for you both in the sense of garden design and scenery. As for transferring nature to garden design, a little bit of “Dutch Wave” with Australian plants would be so very welcome.. so I am looking forward to your new ideas and hopefully we will see you at some great garden event showing off your project. I am referring to Catherine’s post on Garden Drum of lack of women designers at those events.

    • jannaschreier says:

      Thank you, Barbara. I very much like the idea of an Australian Dutch Wave. I so want to get out there and start creating a very Australian garden, but I’m just not disciplined enough to rip out all the established, exotic trees and shrubs that were here in my garden when we bought the house. I can just visualise it though; drifts of kangaroo paws offset by lush, green tufts of Lomandra and soft, silvery, woolly Adenanthos. Bliss…

  3. Deirdre says:

    Sounds wonderful, Janna. More than ever, I want to visit Canada! This time of year sounds perfect with those fab wildflowers. Everywhere a gardener goes, I think we get ideas and inspiration: makes travel just so more exciting!

    • jannaschreier says:

      You must go! Apparently July is usually very wet; we’d naively thought ‘summer’ and not looked into it any further, so were quite lucky to have very little rain. Travelling as a gardener is so much more exciting, as you say, although at times I need to contain my enthusiasm as poor Paul is wanting to go for a good, solid hike and I am stopping every five minutes to examine and photograph each and every plant. He is very long suffering!

    • Patterson Webster says:

      It’s fascinating to read Janna’s post and the responses from other Australians. I live in Quebec and visit my son and his family in Perth fairly often, so I appreciate the enormous differences that any Australian visiting Canada will see in the landscape, wildflowers and gardens. As in Australia, though, there is a huge difference in climate and natural features from one part of Canada to another. British Columbia is much more temperate than Alberta, the Quebec landscape is soft and rolling in some places, grander and more mountainous in others. As many differences as there are between our two countries, there are many similarities based on (at least in part) a common history. And within the gardening world, I think there is as much love for what we do in both.

      • jannaschreier says:

        I definitely have a lot more exploring of Canada (and it’s landscapes, wildflowers and gardens; oh and bears) to do. Thanks so much for the recommendations you gave me…I may be after some more for my next trip!

      • Charlotte says:

        Yes, although Canada shares its northern climate across the provinces, there is tremendous variation – even within small regions with provinces – and especially south to north, continental inland to coast and great lakes. Sometimes I despair looking at gardening books to see these gorgeous shrubs and perennials, that cannot grow in Alberta, only to travel to Quebec or British Columbia and enjoy them thriving there!

        • jannaschreier says:

          And yet despite it being such a challenge where you are, Charlotte, you have the loveliest garden. Very rarely do I come across such a healthy and varied fruit and vegetable garden and your balance of ornamental evergreens and summer colour was exceptionally tasteful. For anyone travelling to Edmonton, I can highly recommend Charlotte’s delightful bed and breakfast, ‘University Suite B&B’; she also makes the best pumpkin muffins I’ve ever tasted! Thank you for your warm hospitality.

  4. Louise Dutton says:

    I felt excitement while reading and viewing these pictures on your blog of Canada…….!!! Nature is so awe inspiring……simply stunning! Oh, how many places/gardens I need to visit? I really want my garden to grow faster…….now! Of course it will be nothing like what nature can produce but I am looking forward to seeing how it evolves.

    • jannaschreier says:

      I’m excited that you’re excited, Louise! It’s so lovely to know that little green things promote the same, happy, positive emotions in others, too. It makes me feel a little less weird, and it’s nice to have that connection with others. Keep piling on the mulch and I bet your garden will significantly fill out by December. Anticipation is half the fun though!

  5. Judy Brown says:

    My best friend lives in Canada and I visited her last month. She lives in a house and she has amazing garden. Her husband grow vegetables and fruit and the other part of the garden is full of incredible flowers! She lives in a real heaven and I hope that soon I will be able to make my own garden too.

  6. hoehoegrow says:

    What fantastic scenery! It is so dramatic! A short season certainly influences the way you have to garden, and what you can grow. In the uk, even we are a small island, there is quite a big difference between the length of the growing season in the North, to that of the south.

    • jannaschreier says:

      It really was spectacular, Jane. Much more so than I ever imagined and I still don’t think photos really show the scale of it all. As I look out at my Sydney garden in winter I feel so impatient for things to kick off again (although some have started), but I should be thankful that it is such a short few months where things die down. I gardened in the south east of England for many years so I really should be especially appreciative!

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