Skip to content

Lowly, lovely cinquefoil

2012 April 5

By Ken Moore
Flora columnist

It is so interesting to watch the unfolding of the new landscape slowly emerging around the N.C. Botanical Garden’s new building complex. While I’ve heard comments that the new gardens are taking too long to create, I commend the Garden staff for being so thoughtful and not rushing into what will be a most engaging and instructional future garden.

Meanwhile, the old gardens surrounding the Totten Center are mature and absolutely exploding with horticultural beauty and botanical interest. The sweeps of golden ragwort and blue phlox in the shade garden are breathtaking, and watching children discovering the emerging flowers and leaves in the carnivorous plant beds is a joy to behold.

Bright-yellow flowers add sparkle to the five parted leaves of cinquefoil in spring and later in the summer. Photo by Ken Moore

It is noteworthy that specimens showing up in the new gardens represent the diversity of plants that occur naturally all around us in the Carolina Piedmont.

Most of those plants result from the Garden’s active propagation program. Planning ahead, keen staff members carefully collected seed of dozens of local Piedmont species, and now there are lots of plants for display and testing. Some of them will become choice garden plants, some may become a future Wildflower of the Year and some few may become select cultivars. We all love those fancy-named cultivars like goldenrod, Solidago rugosa, “Fireworks,” and wild indigo, Baptisia, “Carolina Moonlight,” both special selections from the Garden.

One of my favorites is a plant rescued years ago from a residential construction site. It has proven to be a dependable, low groundcover that thrives in heat, drought, sun and shade. Common cinquefoil (meaning five fingers, referring to the five leaf segments), Potentilla simplex, serves as a well-behaved living green mulch supporting other perennials in the garden.

Trailing cinquefoil forms a living green mulch protecting other perennials in the garden. Photo by Ken Moore

In The Secrets of Wildflowers by Jack Sanders, longtime Connecticut resident and newspaper editor, the author seems as enthusiastic as I am about cinquefoils. He describes cinquefoils as “a rose by another name.”

I wholeheartedly agree with him that “Cinquefoils are lowly but lovely flowers. … These dry-earth cinquefoils are nature’s way of covering, even decorating, the more barren parts of our landscape. Like cacti, they spring from harsh, barren soils. As we allow more of the good topsoil to be eroded or scraped away, the cinquefoils are bound to become even more common. They are among those opportunistic creatures of nature that thrive on our inability to handle our environment carefully.”

Enough said – go search out the several areas in the new gardens where keen curators, particularly Chris Liloia and Sally Heiney, are encouraging and planting this lowly, lovely native groundcover.

Jack Sanders is also a poet, and I have to share his poem about cinquefoils:
The lowly cinquefoil is a rose.
A fact that any botanist knows.
Though it seems to me a mystery
How such a lowly plant can be
Sibling to a flower that grows
As glorious as a garden rose.
The bigger question does remain:
How you pronounce that funny name?
Does it ‘sink’ or does it ‘sank’
As it wanders up the bank?
And as it creeps across the soil
What, pray tell, does it foil?

How I wish I had composed that!

Email Ken Moore at Find previous Ken Moore Citizen columns at The Annotated Flora.

Comments are closed.