Mysteries of May in the Garden

  • Post published:05/14/2017
  • Post comments:8 Comments

With the turning of the calendar page I am out in the garden investigating the mysteries of May. Young shoots are everywhere. Surely they have names. I stand looking at the swath of a bright green, crispy ribbed ground cover that has taken its assignment to cover the ground very seriously. I have no idea what it is called. I vaguely remember looking at it last fall as I removed autumn leaves and wondered if some of the these still green leaves were weeds. It was possibly a weed, but also possible that it was a really good groundcover.

Mystery groundcover, now producing tiny blue flowers
Mystery groundcover, now producing tiny blue flowers

You may wonder why I don’t have a plant list, writing about every new plant I buy. Well, I do. Sort of. I routinely start these lists and sometimes I try to back them up by sticking receipts for the new plants in an envelope. I even have labeled photos of many of my plants on my blog which is sometimes helpful. Just today I was strolling through my blog posts looking for an image of the ground cover photo mentioned above. I didn’t find the groundcover’s name but I did find the name of another clump of green that I couldn’t identify. I was happy to solve that mystery and add the name tricyrtis or toad lily plants with all their purple polka dots on my incomplete list.

Tricyrtis or toad lily blooms in the fall. This photo was taken October 18 last year.

Tricyrtis is identifiable instantly – when it is in bloom. When it is just a clump of nice looking leaves it could be almost anything. And that is one of the problems. Many of us buy potted perennials at a nursery when the plants are more advanced than they will be the following May. We often don’t know what the first shoots of a flower look like.

I try to keep plant lists, but they inevitability remain incomplete however. I look through my lists and can find no likely name for the groundcover, and no name for three large patches of a low growing dark green sedum tinged with deep red along the tiny leaf edges. I think sedums are in a class of their own. Surely many people forget the names of their low-growing sedums. In fact, I think I bought that sedum several years ago at the Bridge of Flowers plant sale. Usually sedums at that sale are merely labeled Sedum with no further name.

Geum triflorum
Mystery plant now identified as Prairie Smoke – Geum triflorum

I wander through the garden and there is a plant I moved from the South Border to the Birch Bed. It is doing beautifully and has a couple of 8 inch flower stalks with small pink buds rising from the center of lush gray-green ferny leaves. I kept the label tucked into the soil next to the plant last year because I kept forgetting its name, but it must have gotten lost in the move last fall. Maybe I’ll see another plant just like it when I visit nurseries this spring. I might get an ID that way.

Two tiny clumps of green are planted next to the viburnam in  thewinterberry bed. One still has its general saxifrage label, but the other small plant is only marked with a metal stake. I seem to remember that when I planted it late last summer it was so small that I feared I would think it a weed in the spring and rip it out. The metal stake was protection and a reminder. But the reminder only went so far.

Across from those two bits of green was a good sized clump of a low green plant with scalloped leaves and very small bright flowers on dancing stems. I love the orange flowers with their nearly gold centers, and I was delighted with last year’s very long season of bloom, but no name clutters my memory.

Yesterday I bought a pot of Lobelia cardinalis which will send up a spike of bright red flowers that attract hummingbirds and butterflies. I already had a L. cardinalis plant but I couldn’t remember where I moved it. Fortunately, I could compare and match the foliage. Thus I located the old lobelia and now I have a little clump of this striking plant. It is supposed to self seed if it is in a congenial climate and site. I have hopes.

There are many such May mysteries in my garden, but I can surprise myself by remembering, too. There was a single clump of foliage at the end of my herb bed where I had planted a few odds and ends from last year’s Bridge of Flowers plant sale. I cleaned out the annuals in the fall, but apparently left this plant to bloom again. And it did bloom. It looks like a yellow daisy. I looked at its sudden bloom and said to myself, doronicum! And then I asked myself where that certainty came from? Not trusting myself, I looked up doronicum and found a picture of a yellow daisy just like mine. The name given was Leopard’s bane and Doronicum. Sometimes remembering the name of a plant is the May mystery.

Doronicum or Leopard's band
Doronicum or Leopard’s bane

I  wonder how many May mysteries are in other gardens. I’d be interested to know if this is a problem for anyone else. You can send your comments to me at

Between the Rows  May 6, 2017

I identified Prairie Smoke when I was browsing through a new book Gardens of the High Line with hundreds of beautiful photographs by Rick Darke – and there was a photo of my plant with its name. Hooray. It is an interesting plant that will develop its ‘smoke’ in June. Photos will follow.

This Post Has 8 Comments

  1. Laurie

    Oh my word – so glad im not alone – there are so many things coming up and i have no idea what is what. I always think i’ll remember but… now trick is to catch andcremove weeds before they set seed

    And i like you love volunteers wherever they pop up!

    Thanks for the post – makes me feel normal!

  2. Lisa Greenbow

    I tended to giggle while reading this. It brings to mind my attempts to keep plant lists, planting places and of course the names of all of those plants that live here. Gee. I guess there are people out there that do this with some ease and regularity but I find my best attempts at keeping plantings in order and identified impossible. I just try not to get all worked up about it. The only time I do is when someone asks me the name of a plant.

  3. Kylee Baumle

    Pat, I’m going to guess that your groundcover (the first photo) is one of the Veronica groundcovers. I used to be meticulous about keeping plants labeled in the garden, but in the last couple of years, I’ve been horrible about it. I tend to have the same experience now as Lisa does.

  4. Pat

    Laurie – I was glad to know that I was ‘normal’ too – because so many people said they also had May mysteries in their gardens. We are all in the same boat – such good company.
    Lisa – I try not to get too worked up too. Sometimes the ID comes when you least expect it.
    Kylee – I don’t know why but I too started wondering about veronicas, although I have no idea where this plant came from – possibly the Bridge of Flowers plant sale. Thank you very much for for the ID.

  5. Denise Hammond

    I label plants and critters pull them out, or they get trampled, or they get heaved by frost. Then there are plants that appear that I never planted. I am sure there are folks who desire wild orchid, but I am not one if them.

  6. Martha

    I’m wondering of that plant in the first photo is birds eye speedwell. I planted a little of it years ago and although pretty, it has become an invasive nightmare, spreading like wild fire and taking over my flower beds.

  7. Pat

    Martha – thank you for responding. I did learn that it was a veronica, and it has spread very nicely which made me happy because it is covering ground and keeps down weeds. My garden is so new there is plenty of ground to cover so I will let things ride for a while, but I very much appreciate the warning and I will watch it carefully.

  8. Jean

    I love looking at all those moisture-loving plants that I can’t grow in my sandy soil. Thanks for providing me with the vicarious enjoyment.

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