Potential of Potentilla
The Potentilla shrub is a plant we are all familiar with even if we do not know it by name. As soon as I show it to a customer the recognition is sparked. “Oh yes! My grandmother has these planted around her house.”
I was surprised one day just how well it blends into our Manitoba landscape. I was visiting a friend in Sundown, a little town south of Steinbach. We were walking through an untamed portion of his property when I saw some familiar little yellow flowers. Sure enough, native potentilla were growing in the woods. No wonder they are so easy to work with!
Perhaps the greatest strength of the potentilla is that once they begin blooming in June they will continue to flower until the frost comes in fall. While yellow is the classic colour of the potentilla they also come in white, pink and orange. While they are equally cold tolerant, it is the yellows and oranges that have the most vigour in their growth. There are even some red and blue varieties being tested for cold tolerance.
Potentilla grow best in a full sun area, and balanced moisture. I have seen them grow wild and in some terribly challenging locations. I saw some growing surrounded by thick green grass with tall weeds poking out of it. It had managed to grow to its full height of 3 feet and was flowering nicely. I also saw some growing wild in my friend’s horse pasture. They had been mowed to the ground by the horses but were still blooming. It could very well be that the horses eating it actually pushed the plant to flower harder. Potentilla respond very well to pruning. The spring time is a moment of shame for potentillas. To be honest, they look quite shabby to begin the year. Bare and brown, exfoliating bark, and dried seed pods where flowers had been. Do not hesitate to cut off at least 2 inches from the tips. It will not take long after that for the leaves to fill in and the flowers after that. It is important to note that if potentillas are not pruned this way they will rapidly deteriorate. Branches will grow large and woody and break off with time. The foliage will become thin and even their prolific flowers will become more sparse.
I had a group of three potentillas planted at our nursery that had been neglected for close to 10 years. They were in shambles. I took it upon myself to try and repair them. I brought my pruners but was able to remove most of the larger branches with my bare hands. But, after the beating and cutting it went through those plants bounced back and thrived within a month! In one word: resilient.
Overall the potentillas are a timeless classic in Manitoba. The trusty fall back. And I don’t think they should be counted out of our gardens just yet.