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Tips for the Compleat Gardener: Dame’s rocket in the edges


This time of year people always ask the identity of the tall plant blooming along the roads in pink, white and purple shades, it looks like Phlox paniculata but it is Hesperis matronalis [HES-per-is may-tron-AY-lis], brought here from its native Europe by colonists in the 1600s and now it is considered invasive all over North America.

The plant is also known as dame’s rocket, a member of the mustard family, so when the blooms fade a stalk of pointed seed pods is left.

The problem is that the plant is uninviting to herbivores with its rough, bristly leaves and it spreads quickly, pushing out natives. As it turns out it is edible for us – young leaves can be added to salads for a tangy taste and the flowers can be sprinkled on for flair. The seeds give forth an essential oil that is used to make perfumes.

Dame’s Rocket is high in vitamin C and the flowers apparently are the main food of the orange-tip butterfly.

Also known as sweet hesperis, the flowers become more fragrant as evening falls. They are named with the Greek word for evening, hesperos, feeding moths while scenting the air. It will not grow in acidic soil but is otherwise quite adaptable, sun/shade, dry/moist. The gardener generally does not buy Dame’s Rocket, she arrives and truth is she looks so nice with the iris and peonies it is hard to make myself remove her. We can at least cut off the stems of seed before ripening.

There are some really nice natives that will give your gardenscape the same look as hesperis in the same conditions, such as Carolina phlox in spring and Sidalcea malviflora which looks like a delicate, pink hollyhock and is known to self-seed.

There are always native alternatives and this is a great time of year to walk through Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve on Route 32 to see all that is possible with the dual purpose of feeding local pollinators while achieving graceful co-existence with other denizens of the land.

The reason we as gardeners do our best to plant with plants that feed the environment as larval hosts is that each kind of butterfly, moth, some bees, has its own special food source and place to lay eggs and survive metamorphosis. It is a delicate balance and when we have invasives, they tend to feed no one while overwhelming the safe havens and food banks found in natives. I do believe on some level nature adapts in ways – woodpeckers have decided to eat emerald ash borers and there is a fungus that traps and digests the spotted lantern fly. Halleluiah!

We must step away from the products that kill, the Compleat Gardener does and there are alternatives such as learning to love whatever plant likes what you are offering, if one makes a space nature moves in. An invasive takes work to remove but early awareness can give the gardener the chance to weed out from the beginning.

Plants move around in my own yard and I just take note of what does well where. Get a good reference book like “Weeds of the Northeast” at the BHWP bookshop.

Spring is ripening, enjoy the moment.

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