Share Your Surplus Plants


Exchange or give away your surplus plants!

Spring is the main season for moving plants around. You plant out summer bulbs and annuals, dig up, move and divide perennials, sow annuals and vegetables… and inevitably, at some point, you find you have too many plants to handle. Maybe you miscalculated and sowed too many zucchinis (what gardener hasn’t done that!), but often it’s that your plants have expanded, so you divide them… and there’s only so much space available for planting those divisions.

Over time, therefore, you end up with a plant surplus. What are you supposed to do with them if not to toss them in the compost?

Well, why not share them instead?

How to Share Surplus Plants

There are many ways to share perennials, bulbs, vegetables, indoor plants, excess seeds and any other plants that you just have too much of.

  1. Offer them to friends and family, especially to someone who’s adding new flowerbeds or increasing the size of older ones;
  2. Give them to your local garden club if they organize a plant sale;
  3. With friends, organize your own plant sale and give the proceeds to a local charity;20170429BEN.jpg
  4. Participate in Plantcatching, a unique sharing platform for gardeners;
  5. Participate in a plant exchange if there is one in your area;
  6. Contact a hospital or hospice with a hortitherapy program to see if they might be interested;
  7. Sell them at a flea market;
  8. And the simplest of all: 20170429DEN.jpg
    Put them on the street in front of your house (but not on garbage day!) with a sign reading “Free plants! Please take one!”

The latter method works like a charm for me. I’ve rarely seen a plant last more than 2 hours if I put it out on a nice spring day.

Good Manners in Plant Sharing

There are things to do and not to do when you give away or exchange plants.

To Do

  1. Always identify the plant to your best knowledge, even if only with a common name. If you do know the name of the cultivar (example Hosta ‘Sum and Substance’), of course, add it. You can simply write the name on the bag or pot or insert a small label in among the roots;
  2. Better yet, prepare a small info sheet and staple it to the bag, pot or label. Include details a gardener would need to know about the plant (whether it needs sun, partial shade or shade, its dimensions, its preferred soil conditions, etc .);
  3. Place the plant in a pot or bag and water enough to thoroughly moisten the soil. Why offer a -plant that’s dying because you dug it up and left its fragile roots exposed to the drying sun?

Not to Do


Garden friends don’t give garden friends goutweed!

  1. Never share or give away diseased, insect-ridden or invasive plants. For example, don’t even think about giving away goutweed (Aegopodium podagraria ‘Variegatum’) or Japanese knotweed (Fallopia japonica), far too invasive for any garden. After all, if you’re trying to get rid of a plant because it causes you problems, it’s not very nice to share the same problem with others.

Giving plants away is actually a lot of fun. You get brownie points for being the grower and sharing advice, which makes you feel appreciated, plus you meet other gardeners with tastes similar to your own and often develop solid friendships. And if it’s an exchange, that’s even better, as you come away with new plants to try.

Why delay? Share a plant today!Échange de plantes/Plant exchange

How to Get Rid of a Stump

20170428A Mike Peel (

So, what to do with a stump? Read on to find out! Photo: Mike Peel (

Well, it’s done. Your old tree, perhaps sick, dying or dead, has finally been cut and there are only memories left… and a huge stump. But how to get rid of the latter?

Here are 5 methods you might consider:

1. Let Mother Nature Do the Work

This is the most laidback method, as any stump will eventually rot and disappear on its own, but it’s also the slowest method: it can take years, sometimes more than a decade, for it to rot away. How fast it disappears depends on stump’s size, the tree species, the state of the trunk before cutting, climatic conditions, etc. As it decomposes, the stump will feed an abundance of microbes in the surrounding soil. Mushrooms may appear on the stump or from buried roots, but no, they will not attack your plants: they are saprophytic fungi, dedicated solely to the decomposition of dead matter. Some of them may well be edible.

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Stump turned into a bench. Photo: Mike Kirby, Wilkimedia Commons

You can hide a decaying stump by covering it with soil (easier to do if you cut it close to the ground) and that in fact helps accelerate decomposition, or place a container or two on top it. Planting shrubs, conifers or perennials around the stump will also help hide it. If the stump is high enough, it can even be used as a bench, a small table or a pedestal for a sculpture while you’re awaiting its disappearance.

2. Dig It Out

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You can pull out most stumps with a rope or cable if you cut the roots over first. Photo: U.S. Air Force

With either a lot of hard work or a good tractor or other pulling device, you can dig the stump out or pull it free. Dig all around it to expose the roots (the larger the stump, the more room you’ll need to maneuver) and cut through them with an ax, a circular saw or a chainsaw. Try levering out the stump with a pick or a crowbar (easier to do with a small stump) or attach a chain or rope around it and pull with a tractor, backhoe, truck… even a horse or mule if you’re the homesteading type.

3. Shred It


You can rent a portable stump grinder from any tool rental shop.

You can use a stump grinder to get rid of it. This is the fastest method, but also the most expensive. You can rent one or hire an arborist or a landscape gardener who owns one to do the job. Use ear plugs—it’s going to be very noisy!—and you’ll need eye protection too. The tool does an amazing job. It just takes a few passes to make the stump disappear to a depth of 6 to 12 inches (15 to 30 cm) below ground and, to be honest, manipulating the machine is actually quite enjoyable. In a few minutes, there are only wood chips left and you can use those as mulch or add them to the compost bin.

4. Hasten Decomposition


Applying commercial stump remover.

You can easily and inexpensively rot a stump away with a commercial stump remover, available in just about any hardware store. Start by drilling holes into the stump at least ¼ inch (1.25 cm) in diameter and about 8 to 12 inches (20 to 30 cm) deep, then fill the holes with the product. They’re generally rich nitrogen and that stimulates natural bacteria to work extra hard and thus rot the stump away.

Most stump destructors these days are just potassium nitrate (KNO3), a highly concentrated synthetic fertilizer. If it were sold in its natural form, the product would be labeled saltpeter, a naturally mined mineral, and you could get away with calling it an organic product, but these days, potassium nitrate is generally made synthetically, so no dice. If you do object to synthetic chemicals, anything rich in nitrogen will do the job. Some people simply use blood meal.

Add water to the holes, following the manufacturer’s instructions, and keep the stump moist afterwards (covering it with a tarpaulin or pail will help). When the wood becomes soft and spongy, which can take 4 to 6 weeks (a year or more for blood meal), you’ll need to work the stump over with an ax or a crowbar, removing it chunk by chunk. Often, people will burn what remains of the stump (see the following point).

5. Burn, Baby, Burn!


Light the stump up and let her burn!

This method will probably not be permitted in a municipality (always check with authorities before proceeding!), but is certainly commonly used elsewhere. Since you don’t want to cause a fire, be sure to remove any organic matter from the vicinity of the stump and avoid doing it during dry weather.

You’ll need to drill holes in the stump as in method 4, then pour kerosene fuel oil (never gasoline) into the holes. Wait a week or two, then drop a lit match in each hole. The stump will then burn very slowly (the pyromaniac in you will undoubtedly be disappointed), over several days. Check regularly and keep children and pets away. Eventually, the fire will die out, leaving you with a gaping hole with blackened edges.

Personally, I prefer Method 1: letting Mother Nature do the job. Long live laidback gardening!20170428A Mike Peel (

French Tarragon and the Russian Impostor

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French tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus sativa) has greener leaves than Russian tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus dracunculoides). Photo: Hajotthu, Wikimedia Commons

It sounds almost like the title of a spy novel, doesn’t it? Well, there is in fact more than a bit of international intrigue involved when you’re shopping for tarragon for your garden. You’ll need to draw on your investigative skills to make sure you buy the right plant.

There are, in fact, two tarragons on the market: French tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus sativa) and Russian tarragon (A. dracunculus dracunculoides, sometimes simply written A. dracunculoides). The two were derived from the same wild plant, but are definitely not equivalent, especially when it comes to cooking.

The Good


Auguste Escoffier’s cookbooks are still widely used.

French tarragon is the aromatic herb made famous by French cuisine. It is one of the four official “fines herbes” recommended by French chef Auguste Escoffier in the early 20th century for use in egg, fish, and chicken dishes, the other three being parsley (Petroselinum crispum), chives (Allium schoenoprasum) and chervil (Anthriscus cerfefolium), a quartet still promoted by chefs of the French persuasion worldwide.

It’s believed that French tarragon was actually selected in Italy some 600 years ago, an extra-flavorful mutation found among wild tarragon, then was spread throughout Europe by monks. It was first mostly used as a medicinal herb before finding a more permanent place as a culinary plant.

French tarragon has a distinctive taste: a very intense mixture of anise and camphor with its own special touch. It’s strong enough that you only need a pinch when cooking. Its lanceolate leaves are medium green and borne on a shrubby-looking plant about 24 to 30 inches (60 to 80 cm) high.

French tarragon rarely blooms and when it does, the flowers are often deformed and any seeds it produces (and there won’t be many) are sterile or nearly sterile. If ever you do get a seed to germinate, the plant won’t have the proper French tarragon taste; it will have reverted to the flavor of wild estragon

That’s why you have to propagate French tarragon vegetatively, by stem cuttings, layering or division.

Over all, it’s a fairly short-lived plant: even under ideal conditions, you need to take cuttings every few years to keep it going. It does best where the winters are mild, yet summers aren’t hot, about hardiness zones 5 to 7, although it may survive in zone 4 if protected. Most people don’t even bother putting efforts into overwintering it: if it’s not alive come spring, they simply buy a new plant.

The Bad

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Russian tarragon (above) is taller, denser and paler green than French tarragon. Plus it blooms heavily. Photo: Cillas.

Russian tarragon is an impostor. It has little taste and is not considered of much use in cooking. It forms a larger plant (up to 5 feet/1.5 m tall) and its foliage is paler green than its cousin’s. It produces an abundance of fertile flowers and sometimes self-sows excessively, just as it may become invasive due to its rhizomes, although quite honestly, it expands quite slowly. It is much hardier than the French tarragon (zone 3, occasionally even zone 2) and will easily survive the winter in most colder climates.


The seed pack may or may not warn you that you’re buying Russian sage.

Even though Russian tarragon has little culinary value, it is commonly offered on the market. You’ll find seed packets of tarragon, for example, but they necessarily contain seeds of Russian tarragon, since French tarragon doesn’t produce viable seed. Nursery shelves are sometimes filled with pots of Russian tarragon, because they can grow it inexpensively from seed, which makes it much more profitable than cutting-grown French tarragon.

Curiously, Richters Herbs, one of the world’s largest supplier of herbs, sells both kinds, but begins its description of Russian tarragon with “Not recommended”. One hopes buyers take notice of the warning!

… And the Ugly

Honestly, all tarragons are fairly ugly, or at least, definitely on the less attractive side of the Artemisia genus, which otherwise gives us so many silvery-leaved, ornamental perennials and subshrubs: silver mound (A. schmidtiana), white sage (A. ludoviciana), etc.

How to Buy the Right Tarragon


Abundant flowers usually indicate Russian tarragon.

You can get true French tarragon from all sorts of mail order sources, such as the aforementioned Richters Herbs. And garden centers do carry it. You have to hope the plants are correctly labeled, though, as the two are pretty similar in their youth, although French tarragon is a darker green compared to the pale green of Russian tarragon (you have to see them side by side to really notice the difference). Of course, if the label only says “tarragon”, you’re probably looking at Russian tarragon.

Personally, if in doubt, I wait until nobody is watching, then pull off two or three small leaves and munch on them. If the taste is intense, in fact, out and out bitter, it’s French tarragon. If they have little to no taste, it’s Russian tarragon.

Growing Tarragon

Grow both types of tarragon the same way, in full sun in very well drained—even dry—soil. The substrate doesn’t even need to be very rich (too much nitrogen weakens the leaves’ taste). And be forewarned: Russian tarragon can become invasive.

Now that you’ve discovered tarragon’s dirty little secret, you’ll be able to confidently choose a tarragon plant for your own herb garden.20170427B Hajotthu, WC

Groundcovers for Sun


Variety of thymes creating a multicolored groundcover.

Looking for a groundcover for a sunny spot? Maybe because the lawn isn’t holding up well or because it’s on a slope or is otherwise hard to mow… or simply because you really don’t want to mow anymore? Here is a list of plants you might find suitable:

  1. ‘Angelina’ Sedum (Sedum rupestre ‘Angelina’), zone 3, FTR: none
  2. Barren strawberry (Waldsteinia spp.), zone 4, FTR: poor
  3. Barrenwort (Epimedium x rubrum), zone 3, FTR: none
  4. Basket-of-gold (Aurinia saxatilis, syn. Alyssum saxtile), zone 3, FTR: none
  5. Bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi), zone 2, FTR: moderate20170426WEN.jpg
  6. Bearberry cotoneaster (Cotoneaster dammeri), zone 5b, FTR: none
  7. Bergenia (Bergenia crassifolia, syn. B. cordifolia), zone 2, FTR: none
  8. Bigroot geranium (Geranium macrorrhizum), zone 3, FTR: none
  9. Bishop’s weed (Aegopodium podagraria ‘Variegatum’), zone 3, FTR: poor
  10. Black mondo grass (Ophiopogon plansicapus ‘Nigrescens’), zone 7, FTR: none

    20170426G J Brew, Flickr.jpg

    Bleeding-heart (Dicentra formosa). Photo: J Brew, Flickr

  11. Bleeding-heart (Dicentra formosa and D. eximia), zone 3, FTR: none
  12. Brass buttons (Leptinella squalida ‘Platt’s Black’), zone 4, FTR: good
  13. Bugleweed (Ajuga reptans), zone 3, FTR: moderate
  14. Cambridge geranium (Geranium x cantabrigiense), zone 3, FTR: none
  15. Caucasian Sedum (Sedum spurium), zone 3, FTR: none
  16. Creeping juniper (Juniperus horizontalis), zone 2, FTR: poor
  17. Creeping speedwell (Veronica repens), zone 2, FTR: moderate
  18. Creeping thyme (Thymus serpyllum), zone 3, FTR: moderate
  19. Crested iris (Iris cristata), zone 3, FTR: none
  20. Crownvetch (Coronilla varia), zone 4, FTR: none
  21. Cutleaf stephanandra (Stephanandra incisa ‘Crispa’), zone 3b, FTR: none
  22. Dwarf knotweed (Persicaria affinis, syn. Polygonum affine), zone 3, FTR: moderate

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    Faassen’s catnip (Nepeta faassenii). Photo: Wouter Hagens, Wikimedia Commons

  23. Faassen’s catnip (Nepeta x faassenii), zone 3, FTR: none
  24. Foamflower (Tiarella cordifolia), zone 3, FTR: none
  25. Goldenstar (Chrysogonum virginianum), zone 4, FTR: poor
  26. Green carpet (Herniaria glabra), zone 4, FTR: good
  27. Hairy greenweed (Genista pilosa), zone 5, FTR: poor
  28. Heuchera (Heuchera cvs), zone 3, FTR: none
  29. Hosta (Hosta cvs), zone 3, FTR: none
  30. Houseleek (Sempervivum spp.), zone 3, FTR: none
  31. Iceplant (Delosperma cooperi), zone 5b, FTR: poor
  32. Ivy (Hedera helix and others), zone varies according to species and cultivar: 4-9, FTR: poor

    20170426E Maja Dumat, WC.jpg

    Kamchatka sedum (Sedum kamtschaticum ‘Weihenstephaner Gold’). Photo Maja Dumas, Wikimedia Commons

  33. Kamchatka sedum (Sedum kamtschaticum), zone 3, FTR: none
  34. Labrador violet (Viola riviniana ‘Purpurea’, syn. V. labradorica), zone 4, FTR: none
  35. Lady’s mantle (Alchemilla mollis), zone 3, FTR: none
  36. Lamb’s-ears (Stachys byzantina ‘Silver Carpet’), zone 3, FTR: none
  37. Lily-of-the-valley (Convallaria majalis), zone 3, FTR: none
  38. Liriope (Liriope muscari), zone 6 ou 7, FTR: none

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    Golden moneywort (Lysimachia nummularia ‘Aurea’). Photo: European Environment Agency

  39. Moneywort (Lysimachia nummularia), zone 3, FTR: moderate
  40. Moss phlox (Phlox subulata), zone 2, FTR: none
  41. New Zealand burr (Acaena microphylla), zone 4b, FTR: poor
  42. Oregano (Origanum vulgare), zone 4, FTR: none
  43. Ornamental strawberry (Fragaria x rosea), zone 3, FTR: moderate
  44. Pachysandra (Pachysandra terminalis), zone 4, FTR: none
  45. Perennial dusty miller (Artemisia stelleriana ‘Boughton Silver’, syn. ‘Silver Brocade’), zone 3, FTR: none
  46. Periwinkle (Vinca minor), zone 2b, FTR: moderate
  47. Rozanne™ geranium (Geranium ‘Gerwat’), zone 4, FTR: none
  48. Scotch moss (Sagina subulata glabrata ‘Aurea’), zone 3, FTR: moderate
  49. Self-heal (Prunella grandiflora), zone 4, FTR: none
  50. Sensitive fern (Onoclea sensibilis), zone 3, FTR: none

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    Siberian cypress (Microbiota decussata) forms a dense, weed-resistant groundcover. Photo: Crusier, Wikimedia Commons

  51. Siberian cypress (Microbiota decussata), zone 3, FTR: none
  52. Snow-in-summer (Cerastium tomentosum), zone 2, FTR: poor
  53. Spotted dead-nettle (Lamium maculatum), zone 2, FTR: none
  54. St. John’s wort (Hypericum calycinum), zone 6, FTR: none
  55. Sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum), zone 3, FTR: none
  56. Sweetfern (Comptonia peregrina), zone 2, FTR: none
  57. White clover (Trifolium repens), zone 3, FTR: moderate
  58. Wintercreeper (Euonymus fortunei), zone 5b, FTR: moderate

    20170426H Ghislain118 (AD),

    Woolly thyme (Thymus pseudolanuginosus) Ghislain118 (AD),

  59. Woolly thyme (Thymus pseudolanuginosus), zone 3, FTR: moderate
  60. Yellow archangel (Lamium galeobdolon), zone 2, FTR: none

Keeping Them Under Control

Most groundcover plants are a bit to very invasive… and that’s normal, considering that we choose groundcovers specifically for their ability to cover ground. It does, however, mean that you should always plan on how you eventually intend to slow them down when they’ve filled up their allotted space and start looking for new territory. You could, for example, contain them with a walkway, paving stones, a short wall, logs, lawn edging or deep shade.

Groundcovers for Shade

If you are looking for suggestions of shade-tolerant groundcovers, see the article Groundcovers for Shade.20170426A

Common Herbs With Weedy Ways




Don’t let weedy herbs run amok in your garden! Illustration: confessionsofacomposter

Who doesn’t enjoy fresh herbs, those aromatic plants that add such punch to our meals? Or treat our sniffles or upset stomaches? And they’re never fresher than when we grow them ourselves. That’s why herbs are presently so popular: everyone wants to try them. And most people find them easy to grow… at first. But many herbs have a major downside: they’re moderately to highly invasive and can quickly switch from being useful plants to becoming out-and-out garden thugs.

Two Categories of Weedy Herbs

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Borage is an easy-to-grow annual herb… perhaps too easy to grow, as it can self-sow so abundantly that it becomes a weed. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

There are two categories of potentially weedy herbs: those that produce creeping rhizomes or stolons (or sprout from broken pieces of root) that head off in all directions, soon producing offsets that surround and overwhelm neighboring plants, and those whose invasive habits are due to self-sowing, giving hordes of babies from the seeds they drop, hordes that can quickly threaten your entire herb garden.

Here is a list of the “main culprits” along with their preferred mode of invasion:

  1. Borage (Borago officinalis): seeds
  2. Caraway (Carum carvi): seeds
  3. Catnip (Nepeta cataria): seeds
  4. Chamomile (Matricaria recutita): seeds
  5. Chervil (Cerefolium anthriscus): seeds
  6. Chives (Allium schoenoprasum): seeds

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    Perilla or shish is a popular Chinese herb, but self-sows like the dickens. Photo: User:SB_Johnny, Wikimedia Commons

  7. Comfrey (Symphytum officinale): seeds and root sections
  8. Coriander or cilantro (Coriandrum sativum): seeds
  9. Costmary (Tanacetum balsamita): seeds
  10. Dill (Anethum graveolens): seeds
  11. Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare): seeds
  12. Feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium): seeds
  13. Garlic chives (Allium tuberosum): seeds
  14. Horseradish (Armoracia rusticana): root sections
  15. Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis): seeds
  16. Mint (Mentha spp.): stolons and creeping stems
  17. Monarde (Monarda didyma): rhizomes
  18. Mustard (Brassica nigra and B. juncea): seeds
  19. Origan (Origanum vulgare): seeds

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    Russian tarragon (Artemisia dracunculoides) can become a garden weed. Photo: Cillas, Wikimedia Commons

  20. Russian tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus): rhizomes and seeds
  21. Shisho or perilla (Perilla frutescens): seeds
  22. Sweet cicely (Myrrhis odorata): seeds
  23. Sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum): rhizomes
  24. Tansy (Tanacetum vulgare): rhizomes and seeds
  25. Thyme (Thymus vulgaris): seeds
  26. Valerian (Valeriana officinalis): seeds

How to Control Weedy Herbs

Weedy or not, several of the herbs presented above are essential to any herb garden. Can you even imagine cooking without thyme, oregano or chives? But fortunately there are ways to grow weedy herbs while limiting their ability to invade. Here are a few:

A. Self-Sowing Herbs

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Harvesting early and often prevents the plant from going to seed. Photo:, Wikimedia Commons.

  • Either remove all their flowers or harvest them before any seeds ripen;
  • Apply 3 to 4 inches (7 to 10 cm) of your choice of organic mulch (shredded leaves, wood chips, forestry mulch, etc.) throughout the herb garden, completely covering the soil. Seeds will not germinate in mulch-covered soil;
  • Hand pull when plants are still small;
  • Grow them beyond their hardiness zone. For example, fennel is hardy from zone 6 to 9 and can be weedy there if you let it go to seed. However, it won’t be invasive in zones 1 to 5.

B. Herbs With Wandering Rhizomes and Stolons

  • Cultivate them in pots on a deck, patio or balcony: that will nip any spread in the bud;


    Peppermint (Mentha piperita) grow inside a barrier made of sunken pots.

  • Plant them inside a barrier sunk into the ground. This could simply be a plastic pot or pail with its bottom removed. The barrier should stick up at least 2 inches (5 cm) above the ground as the rhizomes of some plants, such as mint, right will creep right over a barrier that is level with the ground.


Don’t hesitate to grow herbs: most are great and very productive plants and you’ll be thrilled with the results. But do take note of the invasive ones. After all, forewarned is forearmed!20170425G

A Petunia With Heart


20170424AI must admit that I’m not necessarily a big petunia fan. I dislike pinching off all those sticky dead flowers to stimulate renewed bloom. Of course, most modern petunias bloom all summer and no longer need deadheading, but… I haven’t quite forgiven them for their past sin.


Amore™ Queen of Hearts

Even so, every now and then I see a petunia that makes up sit up and take notice. Such is the case with the new Amore™ series. Look at the flower in the photo to the left. Did you see it? Well, then, look again! Each flower is surrounded by five small red hearts. Now if that isn’t charming, I don’t know what is!


Petunia Amore™ Mio. Photo: Danziger

Amore™ Queen of Hearts, yellow with red hearts, is perhaps the most striking of the series and is the one the hybridizer Danziger Flower Farm seems to be mostly promoting. Apparently they’ll be offering it in special packaging bearing the logo “Share the Love” (smart idea!). Still, all the Amore™ petunias bear the same heartlike imprint. Amore™ Purple is white with purple hearts, Amore™ Fiesta, yellow with dark purple hearts, Amore™ Joy, white with purplish pink hearts and Amore™ Mio, my favorite, white with bright pink hearts.

Queen of Hearts was first offered regionally in 2016 and should be widely available in greenhouses across Europe and North America this spring (2017). The others may only be locally offered in 2017.

Description and Culture

Amore™ Queen of Hearts is a densely blooming, vegetatively propagated petunia with small, weather-resistant blooms, so it holds up better in rain the large-flowered types. The plant will reach about 12 to 15 inches (30 to 40 cm) high and 15 to 18 inches (40 to 45 cm) wide. Semi-trailing, it will drip nicely from hanging baskets or containers or can be grown in a flower bed like any other petunia

The Queen of Hearts Amore™ petunia will flower all summer and requires no deadheading.

For best bloom, grow it in full sun in rich, well-drained soil. It will also bloom, but less enthusiastically, in partial shade. It may need watering during periods of drought.

My suggestion: use it in a heart-shaped planting for a special event, such as a wedding or an anniversary.

I petunia Amore™ Queen of Hearts!20170424C

Coltsfoot: Harbinger of Spring, Medicinal Plant or Aggressive Weed?

20170423A Stefan.lefnaer, WC

Coltsfoot is one of the first flowers of spring. Photo: Stefan.lefnaer, Wikimedia Commons

Coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara) is, in some areas, the very first flower of spring. Its charming yellow flowers emerge very early, often in February in mild climates, yet as late as May in cold ones.

The bright yellow blooms resemble dandelion flowers (Taraxacum officinale). Also, after they finish flowering, they also bear fluffy white seed heads like those of a dandelion. Add to that the fact the two plants belong to the same family, the Asteraceae, and you definitely have the potential for confusion.

In fact, many people do indeed take coltsfoot for a dandelion, at least while it is blooming. However, the two plants are in fact easy to tell apart.

Coltsfoot blooms on leafless stems that seem to arise directly from the soil. Its leaves only appear after the flowers have faded. When a true dandelion blooms, however, there is always a rosette of toothed green leaves at the plant’s base.

This curious habit of blooming well before the foliage appears lead to the Romans calling coltsfoot Filius ante patrem (son before father).

Two Different Plants?


In leaf, coltsfoot looks nothing like a dandelion. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The same people who mistake coltsfoot flowers for dandelion flowers are doubly confused when the leaves do appear: they think that the toothed more-or-less heart-shaped leaves belong to some other plant.

20170423H WC.jpg

Butterbur (Petasites hybrida) has similar leaves to coltsfoot and an equally weedy habit, but has rounder leaves and its blooms appear while the first leaves are forming. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

At this stage, it’s easy to confuse coltsfoot with the butterbur (Petasites hybridus), another common weed/medicinal plant, more common in Europe than North America, because their leaves are similar. For a long time, even taxonomists were confused. They originally called butterbur Tussilago hybrida, believing the two plants to be close relatives. Today, we know that they are only cousins several times removed.

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The underside of the leave is covered with white felt. Photo: Stefan.lefnaer, Wickimedia Commons

The leaves are what give the plant the common name coltsfoot. With a bit of imagination, you can (sort of) see the shape as being that of a horse’s hoof… with teeth. To further distinguish coltsfoot from other pretenders, turn a leaf over and you’ll see they’re felty and white on the underside.

From Useful to Weedy

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Botanical plate showing the various parts of coltsfoot. Illustration: Johan Georg Sturm, Wikimedia Commons

Coltsfoot is of Eurasian origin, but was introduced into North and South America as a medicinal plant over a century ago and has long since escaped culture and become a widespread weed, especially in clay and moist soils.

A pioneer plant, it often appears in disturbed soils, especially around construction sites. With its dense broad leaves, it chokes out native plants and sometimes comes to cover vast surfaces to the exclusion of any other plant. It’s a sun lover, though, and therefore it tends to gradually disappear as trees and shrubs move in and create dense shade.

Medicinal Use


Coltsfoot is popularly used as a medicinal plant.

Coltsfoot has a long history of medicinal use, especially as an antitussive. In fact, the name Tussilago comes from the Latin tussis (cough) and agere (to chase), because it’s said to “chase coughs”.

Even today, the plant remains very popular in herbalism, where both fresh and dried leaves, rhizomes and flowers are used as antitussives, demulcents, expectorants and tonics. The flowers and young leaves are edible and can be harvested as vegetables.

However, all the parts contain alkaloids that are toxic to the liver. The use of coltsfoot is therefore not recommended for people with liver problems or for pregnant or lactating women.

How to Control It

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Coltsfoot is a very dominant plant, spreading to cover vast surfaces.

Coltsfoot generally arrives in gardens either through transported soil contaminated with rhizomes or through the air thanks to the silky hairs that carry the seed far and wide.

Once established, coltsfoot expands via underground rhizomes. As these can dip down to up to 10 feet (3 m) deep, obviously hoeing is not going to control coltsfoot. In fact, hoeing, cultivating or — worse yet! — using a rototiller often worsen the problem, as those tools tend to chop the rhizomes into pieces, yet any piece left in the soil will produce a new plant. Thus, often the more you cultivate, the faster coltsfoot spreads.


Cover coltsfoot with an opaque tarpaulin or piece of carpet to kill unwanted rhizomes.

You’ll have more success to cutting back every leaf you see, repeating again and again. Just snip each one off at the base. That prevents the plant from carrying on photosynthesis, its only source of energy, and the inability to photosynthesize will gradually exhaust the rhizome. Or, more simply, cover the ground with a black tarpaulin or piece of old carpet starting in the spring as the leaves emerge, then leave this opaque cover in place for at least one year (two years may be necessary if the plant is well-established). Again, since it won’t be able to carry out photosynthesis, this will exhaust and kill the rhizomes.

Coltsfoot has the reputation of being difficult to kill with herbicides, but some people less environmentally concerned than myself have reported success by treating the young leaves with glyphosate.

So, is coltsfoot a beautiful harbinger of spring, a useful medicinal plant or a weed to eliminate? It’s all three, of course. How you see it depends on your attitude, your needs and your expectations.20170423A Stefan.lefnaer, WC