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Canada Mayflower, Look Closer

One of my goals during the frozen days of winter is to update my website Shop. The 90 species and kits we started with last spring were a lot to enter into a website, and some of the plant descriptions ended up being a little "just-the-facts-ma'am" bare and boring. I would much rather have plant descriptions that explain why each of these plants is worth welcoming into your space. What makes them beautiful? What is their role in the ecosystem? Where do they thrive? Eventually, my website will help answer those questions, although the winter is flying fast and I doubt I will update all 90 descriptions, plus add this year's new species, before the spring planting rush washes over our family like a wave. (More on the new species in a future post!)

A small plant with glossy green leaves and spray of white flowers
Small but mighty Canada Mayflower

While the snow holds, I'll start my plant description makeover with Canada Mayflower, Maianthemum canadense. The blurb on my website was uninspiring for a plant that is a comfortable childhood favorite of mine. Even way back before I knew the difference between native and introduced species, much less why I should care, I was fond of Canada Mayflower. I called it Wild Lily of the Valley back then. In contrast to the invasive Lily of the Valley, which we had in massive clumps, the Canada Mayflower/Wild Lily of the Valley was a well-mannered, subtle plant. No one planted it here; it just grew. It grew along all the north edges of the buildings, under the 100-year-old trees, and along the driveway sheltered by the old stone wall, trying, a bit desperately, to stay ahead of the invasive Lily of the Valley looking to take over all available habitat. A tiny unobtrusive plant, it was always surprising to suddenly find one morning that the north edge of the garage was trimmed with a few little white sprays of flowers, courtesy of Canada Mayflower.

Like I said, this little plant has been happily adding diversity and beauty to the shady bits of our lawn for 100 years or so. Surely I have a picture of it growing next to the garage? One from last year when I was making a concerted effort to photograph every native plant I encountered?

Nope. Not one picture of the Canada Mayflower in our yard. At least, not a deliberate picture.

Canada Mayflower is there if you look

As I was searching for photos, it turns out that Canada Mayflower is everywhere. I found dozens of pictures of Canada Mayflower, but almost all were pictures of something else, with Canada Mayflower quietly present in the background. It is easy to overlook. It spends most of its time as a single, glossy, heart-shaped leaf sticking out of the ground. Only some of the plants in a colony put up another one or two leaves in the spring, followed by a tiny spray of frothy flowers. The flowers are followed by speckled green berries that turn red and are munched by birds and mammals.

Fortunately, I thought to take the above picture highlighting Canada Mayflower during a hike to the Pictured Rocks area last May. But even though my other photos don't feature Canada Mayflower, they serve to highlight it's usefulness in the ecosystem - Canada Mayflower takes up space.

That sounds pretty pointless from a conventional gardening perspective, but it is incredibly important in native plant gardening. Canada Mayflower occupies the ground in between the showy or tall plants. It keeps invaders at bay. It knits soil together with a system of rhizomes and creates attractive colonies. It tolerates being mowed and adds much needed diversity to lawns and ground covers. It grows in shady spots were other things fail to thrive. And it is everywhere. I have found it in the parched shady bits of stabilized sand dunes on the edge of Lake Michigan, dry jack pine forests, barren red pine forests, moist deciduous forests, lush spring valleys, the patches of dirt caught on rocky knolls, and the sandy loam of our lawn. It does best in shady spots with a bit of moisture, but I have seen it in nearly full sun at the top of glacier-polished peaks (in spots that trap moisture), and the very dry environments of dunes and pine forests (in spots with shade). Here are some of my other pictures of Canada Mayflower, steadfastly making up the background in all sorts of Upper Peninsula environments.

New thinking in garden design

I have recently been hearing more about matrix planting as a way to design native plant gardens. Maybe I don't have the terms quite right, but the basic idea is planting in clumps and layers that mimic natural systems. Drifts of featured plants are punctuated by structural plants that fill a purpose other than being colorful - adding texture, height, shade, or support. And the whole thing is knit together by a matrix layer - small plants that take up space. Sound familiar? These matrix plants exclude weeds, control erosion, retain moisture, and best of all, create habitat. The main thing I find intriguing about matrix planting is that it turns what would, in conventional landscaping, be a barren desert of mulch and weed-cloth in between feature plants into habitat offering:

  • Native plants that are the hosts for native insects, which also in turn feed native birds.

  • Extra real-estate below the feature plants that benefits pollinators, including early bloomers like Canada Mayflower that provide sustenance for early-rising native bees.

  • Water and carbon absorption and retention.

  • Food and shelter for a vibrant ecosystem instead of sterility and dye-infused mulch.

I hope to be incorporating these design ideas into our garden kits - right after I finish polishing up the web site! In the meantime, when you are planning your spring planting, consider adding matrix plants that take up space. Canada Mayflower would be perfect in your shady spot, shade garden, rock garden, or even your lawn. Speaking of planning for spring, remember that we are offering Gift Certificates for all your special occasions. Finally, keep an eye out for the single glossy green leaf, or perhaps even the flower stalk, of Canada Mayflower when the snow melts and you are out and about in our wild world.

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Jan 23, 2022

Nicely done article! I learned a new plant name, and playing "where's Mayflower?" with the pics, was actually fun, with the added challenge of identifying it among other plants. Happy updating! If you have time, can you explain how best to identify invasive lily and how best to eradicate it from an area? If you have time.....


Fly, You Fools
Fly, You Fools
Jan 19, 2022

Yay! I found my filler plant without even trying. I bought a LOT of plants from you late last season and planned that when I see how everything is filling in at the end of summer ‘22 i‘ll try to figure what I need to get to take up space that is left. Haha now I know.

So neat to read about this matrix gardening because that’s what I did in my little yard with my new native plants.

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