Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Favorite weeds

Clematis integrifolia 'Mongolian Bells', Orlaya grandiflora and Alyssum markgraffii
The clematis is definitely NOT a weed for me (although my buddy Keith keeps potting them up from all over his garden: including let's hope a white one). The other two, however, self sow quite a bit. The alyssum isn't quite as welcome to do so, but Orlaya--seed on!

There are weeds I would NEVER want to be without--and some I never will be without so I might as well love 'em....and may I suggest a weed isn't always such a bad thing.

Orlaya grandiflora
I have featured Orlaya several times before on this blog, notably in 2012 about the time I first got it. Unlike the corn poppy--which finally disappeared from my garden, this seems to go from strength to strength and is showing up in more and ore places. The roots and stems are so delicate--and the flowers so large that it's harmless to neighbors, and doubly welcome wherever it shows up. I envision this carpeting my whole garden one day, and I shan't mind too much!

Teucrium botrys
I am mystified that this is the only photograph I seem to have in my files of this remarkable germander: I shall rectify the situation tonight--it's ALL over my garden and going to decorative seed as I type. A biennial with a surprisingly demure first year rosette. It makes a dome of bloom the next year that's not exactly earth shattering in beauty, but not unattractive. And when it goes to seed it's rather fetching. Best of all, it covers GROUND that would be other weeds (and is extremely easy to pull and control). Which is why these desirable weeds are so useful in large gardens: they use up the Lebensraum that would otherwise be REAL weeds! And did I mention it emanates an amazing scent of fresh pineapple in all stages of its growth? Who can resist a pineapple germander?

Iberis taurica
What could be lovelier than this tuft upon a wall? Turn your back, however, and soon your whole garden will be swamped, as you can see from the picture below.

Iberis taurica

I otnly it smelled as pretty as it looks! Unlike so many heavenly scented crucifers, this puts out a blend somewhere between swamp gas and dirty socks. And it insists on growing right next to--nay, UPON your choicest plants: it took a year or two but I managed to get rid of MOST of it...believe it or not the picture below was taken of the same spot, only a few years after eradication....

You will notice a few of them persist...I didn't have the heart to remove EVERY one: I keep trying to get them to grow along the path, but NOOOOOOOOOOOOOO, they want to grow up with the choice stuff. So I battle on........

Papaver dubium
Te uninitiated see this and go "Oh how pretty: can I have some seed?" Those who have allowed this into the garden know better. But once it's in, just TRY and take it out. The roots are so feeble and the stems so delicate I more or less have given up trying to eradicate it...

Papaver dubium

Yes, there are a few flowers in there....but LOOK at those fat seed pods! Each with several million seed, all of which will germinate and be in bloom before you know it will be in seed AGAIN! Stick to the other poppies if you have any sense. There IS a bicolor form of this species growing all over Albuquerque I'm almost tempted to grow (misidentified as P. rhoeas in a blog from there)...but so far sanity prevails.

Verbascum roripifolium
There are a handful of plants I regard my "signatures"--plants I encourage to pop up any and everywhere. I don't think I need to mention Verbascum bombyciferum, which I have perhaps overdone. But THIS verbascum with first year rosette like lacy green doilies scattered here and there erupting into that enormous hairdo of wiry stems with sizeable yellow butterfly flowers produced more or less nonstop all summer.  And did I mention that it shivers and trembles with the slightest breeze?
Verbascum roripifolium
All of these "weeds" scamper and proliferate among my more discrete treasures--and lets not forget the larkspur in several weedy, annual species, the horned poppies and a dozen other plants that return year after year with no effort. A weed is very much in the eye of the beholder!

Friday, July 24, 2020

An overlooked gem: Long Expedition part three

Zinnia grandiflora and Frankenia jamesii in Dryland Mesa, DBG

The zinna (which may have caught your eye) is not the neglected gem (albeit not as popular as it ought to be): the strange frothy white thing behind it, however, could have a case made for it being one of the least appreciated native shrubs of Colorado. Frankenia represents a far-flung monotypic genus in the family Frankeniaceae that are almost all coastal plants from subtropical and tropical regions. Although Frankenia jamesii is found (less conspicuously) in a few states around Colorado, it is best known in the dry Arkansas valley around Pueblo where it is abundant and likely where it was undoubtedly walked upon 200 years ago by its namesake, Edwin James.

The first two frames show Frankenia jamesii in full bloom at the South end of Dryland Mesa where it has grown for decades: it makes a low, twiggy mound that is compact and beautiful through the year, spangled with white five petaled flowers in early summer.

Here it is growing on a calcareous shale not far from Penrose (and likely not far from where James might have seen it too!)

A closeup of the starry flowers: which I grant you are modest. I have grown a Mediterranean species of Frankenia which was prostrate with similar, more pinkish flowers. And researching the genus, it appears most are in the pink to white range, with twiggy growth and heathery leaves. Most grow at lower altitudes and latitudes, often near the sea: I can almost visualize how our endemic evolved to adapt to colder, more continental conditions as it was lifted from sea level by the Laramide orogeny (but I may have a too active imagination). The same phenomenon probably happened with its Eurasian cousins that are stranded in Central Asia, like F. persica. I have a hunch that the ranges of the North Temperate species pretty well outline the shorelines of the ancient sea of Tethys. Not sure what to make of the Southern hemisphere species--perhaps they represent the Gondwanaland shore of Tethys?

I assumed that since the Frankenia was named for James it must have been named from his collection. I have not found a specimen in the images of plants from the Long expedition housed at New York Botanical Garden: I have not yet solved the mystery of its naming, but above you can see the type of Zinnia grandiflora, which was named by Thomas Nuttall, one of my all time heroes, just a few years after his transcontinental walk across America: he discovered so many Asteraceae that he published a paper on new species in the family (mostly his own collections) including a few other species like this one that John Torrey had been sitting upon for nearly two decades: here's Nuttall's paragraphs about our Zinnia in his monograph in that Philadelphia Academy proceedings:

As usual, Nuttall hits the nail on the head "very distinct and splendid species" is a great way of describing our champion Zinnia.

I had such good intentions a few years ago: I fantasized about following Major Long's expedition on foot, and blogging about every day they lingered in Colorado. As it is, I've managed three measly blog postings in the fatidic 200 year anniversary period of when they were here...oh well...

But so many fantastic plants were found (and ultimately named) on this expedition...and we are so fortunate that the actual specimens they collected (and often handwritten notes by "Dr. James"),

I shall end with just this one, the type specimen of Penstemon ambiguus, which must be one of our most "distinct and splendid species" of that genus!

The plants are certainly gems of the Long expedition, but the real overlooked gem is Edwin James--scientist, doctor, conservationist (in the 1820's!), champion of naive American rights, his farm in Iowa was a major station on the Underground railroad. He wrote two seminal classics of American literature (the Account of the Long Expedition and the Narrative of John Tanner).  I believe his place in American intellectual history has not been properly assessed or assigned--he is pretty much the epitome of all I admire the most in our national character.

Sunday, July 19, 2020

Apex again: It was a dark and stormy day...

Eriogonum ovalifolium
 I always wanted to start a post with that cliche! It WAS dark and stormy--hence the moody shots I took: and not too many because the sky did open up and rain. I have gone on and on about this garden in other blogs (just type Prairiebreak and APEX and they'll pop up--you can use Google as well as I can). It took Kenton Seth and Paul Spriggs a few weeks to knock this garden together with a handful of staff and volunteers, and Kenton's come back a handful of times over the last decade and probably spent a few hours each visit...or less. And the dang garden coasts on with benign neglect! Oh yes--this is one of a half dozen subspecies of E. ovalifolium: the others had shed their seed and this was still blooming in early July! They go from strength to strength here, and in other gardens melt away. Like mine!

Midsummer medley
 Eriogonum umbellatum var. porteri in foreground--already shed seed. The reddish spot in the middle is Jovibarba heuffellii (Also classed as a Semperivivum): much tougher and more drought tolerant than other hens and chicks. The silvery mat above it is Sphaeromeria capitata, common throughout the Wyoming steppe and barely sneaking into Colorado And we'll revisit the powderpuffs on the left shortly...and don't miss the paintbrush on the right--more on that too soon.

Teucrium subspinosum
 I first obtained this from Siskiyou Rare Plant Nursery (the only place that sold it) decades ago and we had some pretty good clumps in the Rock Alpine Garden. They'd often freeze back--it is from the Balearic islands after all, has to be tender don't you know!? It dies the first winter in most of our gardens. Kenton planted quite a few all over Apex and they just get better each year--and none have died: it obviously needs a crevice garden with sand to thrive on our harsh steppe.

Teucrium subspinosum
 The flowers are not showstoppers--but pleasant. And it blooms for months. It is attractive to cats--which fortunately don't seem to come to Apex: the spiny tips of the stems must give and S&M tinge to their catnip fix.

Scabiosa graminfolium
 A superb form of the grass-leaf Scabious. Blooms non stop for months and the seedheads are lovely.

Eriogonum wrightii v subscaposum
 Lots of this dotted around--each one looks a little different, and some definitely more E. kennedyi than this.
Castilleja integra
The paintbrush are self sowing! And they are living for quite a few years (we grow this one, but in ordinary rock gardens it disappears after a year or two.

Castilleja integra
 Look at this monster--blooming since April!

Acantholimon cf acerosum
 And there are quite a few spikethrifts in the garden, several waiting to bloom till now.

Acantholimon spp.
 The acantnolimons in this garden love it! And are self sowing as well...

Heuchera pulchella (left( and Arenaria alfacarensis (right)
 There are many plants of the Heuchera, all thriving and all different sizes. The Arenaria is a darlng, don't you agree?
Pterocephalus depressus
 There are numerous mats of this all over the garden, all covered with seedheads and bloom.

Midsummer is usually a slow time in the garden, but not at APEX!

Thursday, July 16, 2020

An Astonishment of Alpines: Long Expedition part two

Telesonix jamesii at Denver Botanic Gardens
I am two days late, alas: Edwin James and his associates actually climbed James Peak Pikes Peak on July 14, 1820: so I've missed the fatidic anniversary of the discovery of this, one of the most spectacular endemic plants of Colorado.

Here it is in nature, much as James must have seen it himself 200 years ago this past Tuesday
Original herbarium specimen of Telesonix
What extraordinary times we live in! This specimen that traveled for months on pack animals through rain and all manner of vicissitudes, and has spent the better part of two centuries, first at Columbia University and now New York Botanical gardens, where it was scanned for us to enjoy!

I could go on and on...but how much better it is to see the glory of Pikes Peak tundra through the eyes of the first scientist to climb above tree line in Colorado:

This above is the entry describing the first glimpse above tree line on Pikes Peak. I think it is perhaps the most beautiful prose poem ever composed about the Rocky Mountains. James wasn't given to fits of excessive emotion--the repetition of "astonish" twice in such a short space is telling. 

In a world where we are so often ruled by the hum drum, it's good to welcome astonishment such as this.

Aquilegia saximontana

Also growing on Pikes Peak, and one of many plants collected by James, the Colorado alpine columbine was not named from this, the first specimen ever collected, but only named decades later by another collector. John Torrey was manifestly overwhelmed by so many novelties, quite a few, like this, were overlooked.

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Unholy wisdom: the flea-bitten past comes back again.

Haghia Sophia, July 3, 2015

 I know,  I know--Prairiebreak is about flowers, posies and suchlike thingamabobs--and I announce prominently. But it just so happens that I'm not as monomaniacally focused on the Plant Kingdom as you might suspect. I have a few other hobby horses, one of which is Byzantine art and history. Constantinople (and yes, Istanbul) are near and dear to my heart. I've only visited three times---almost a quarter century apart (1970, 1995 and 2015) and all three times a visit to Hagia Sophia (or the Ayasofya Mosque as we should now call it) was a highlight. All three times I was distressed at the shoddy touristy trappings inflicted on the awesome edifice.

Today, there was an Islamic call to prayer there for the first time since 1934, when another Turkish headman (Mustafa Kemal Atatürk) was persuaded to turn the Orthodox Cathedral of 900 years turned mosque for well over 400 years into a Museum. I confess to be a tepid Christian at best, and a lapsed Orthodox at worst, it might shock you to know that having the space as a Museum is perhaps more odious to me than for it to be a place of worship. Yes, even Islamic, since there is a rather long precedent for it after all...

Yes, I said it: better a mosque than a souvenir shop and tourist trap. But there's more to all this than that.

Gift shoppe in one of the loggia of Haghia Sophia
It seems to me that Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's is dedicated to unraveling as much of Atatürk's legacy as the drumpster is out to undo Obama's achievements. Even more effectively than Brazil's Bolsanaro, and far better than our own home grown would be tyrant,  Erdogan has achieved a sort of apotheosis as a strong man girded by Islam and his implacable will. These petty tyrants feed on publicity and stunts. And no doubt they are driven by profound personal psychoses that are fun to try and plumb.

Mosaic of Justinian from the church of San Vitale in Ravenna

Anatolia has many a precedent: Nearly two millennia of sultans and emperors who pulled great stunts, none more so than Justinian, who is generally considered the greatest of over a millennium of emperors of the later Roman empire (lasting from Constantine's moving Rome to the Bosphorus and the final conquest by Mehmet in 1453). The Byzantine empire achieved its apogee under his autocratic and effective rule. His greatest stunt (aside from a certain church) was codifying law (the Justinianic code  which hovers in the background even of our contemporary legal system.) There was a fly in the soup---or shall we say a flea? As the Later Roman empire approached the size and grandeur of its Western Roman antecedent, the bubonic plague reached Constantinople and things changed rather quickly. It is interesting to note that that pandemic had a lot of unexpected consquences...as we shall see.

To get the full flavor of this era, I recommend the book featured above--available in many editions and sources. A terrific read. It reveals a number of intriguing wrinkles reflecting not just on Byzantium, but perhaps on our current stream of events....

Mosaic of Theodora from the church of San Vitale in Ravenna
Justinian's wife Theodora (c. 500 – 28 June 548) has been credited with being his closest confidante and collaborator: some intriguing parallels between her and other contemporary spouses could be drawn, although it is acknowledtged by most scholars that Theodora was far more than just an employee of a professional escort service prior to her hooking up with Justinian. She performed in what was apparently a sort of pornographic circus and she had likely been an out and out hooker. Ironic that the crown jewel of their reign was the Hagia Sophia--

She was also a devout Monophysite (a major challenge to the predominant Chalcedonian branch of the Orthodox religion) and she protected the adherents to that sect while she lived--most of whom were Christians in the Near East (Palestine, Syria, Jordabn) and northern Africa.

Shortly after her death, The Chalcedonian Justin II began a fierce campaign of suppressing Monophysitism as a heresy, alienating the Christians of the near East and Africa from the Byzantine government and setting the stage for something big.

Enter stage right: Mohammad c. (570 CE – 8 June 632 CE): yes, he who founded the Islamic faith.  In the blink of a historic eye, Islam was to encompass much of the middle latitudes of Africa and Eurasia from Morocco in the far West to Indonesia in the far East--all in a few centuries.  Once Mohammad consolidated the Arabian Peninsula, he turned to the Eastern Mediterranean Littoral where the cities were filled with disaffected Christians angry at Constantinople. The rapid absorption of the Monophysite elements of Byzantium (which had the richest commerce of the first Millennium) effectively catapulted Islam across half the planet in short order.

Mohammad had the added advantage that fleas (i.e. carriers of the bubonic plangue) wouldn't survive in the 100* degree heat of much of the Near East.

Would this have happened if Justinian had predeceased Theodora? And the weakened Contantinople not been ravaged by the pandemic?

The success of Islam is only one of the many consequences of that pandemic: Iconoclasm burgeoned in the dark seventh, eighth and ninth centuries AD: countless images were shattered and mosaics scraped off walls and frescoes were plastered over throughout what remained of Orthodoxy (just as a different brand of iconoclasm is emerging around the world today: the antidote to autocracy?)

But the obvious consequence of the Black Plague pandemic was darkest hours of the Dark Ages throughout the Mediterranean and Europe: commerce effectively ground to a halt in Western Europe for two centuries, and the glow of civilization in Byzantium was dimmed.

Let's hope COVID-19 will not follow in the footsteps of the Justinianic pandemic. And somehow Haghia Sophia has not only weathered these political storms, but still glowers in the eye of the historic hurricane.

Blue mosque viewed from a window of Haghia Sophia
P.S. As an aside, jingoistic Turcophiles love to point out how much more "beautiful" the shimmering caerulean interior of the Blue Mosque is than the dim dark gold of Haghia Sophia. Of course, the Turkish Government has cluttered the interior of the Haghia Sophia with scaffolding, and since it is the #1 tourist attraction of the entire country, it is continuously and constantly thronged with massive gawking crowds, who hardly improve the scene. I am horrified what the millions of visitors over the decades have done to the gorgeous inlaid marble flooring: I hope that as a mosque the floor will be protected with carpets.

Greek jingoists could smugly counter that the Blue Mosque's senior architect Koca Mi'mâr Sinân Âğâ (generally considered the greatest Ottoman architect) was born to Orthodox Christian parents, and was likely an ethnic Greek or possibly Armenian.

I would be curious if Ancestry.com exists in Turkey: I doubt that it would be very popular since the notion of Ethnic Turk: a largely mythic concept promulgated by Ataturk who was born in Thessalonika, and Erdogan who is known to be in large part ethnic Laz (a Turkish minority related to the Georgians). His family came originally from Rize province near Georgia (Rize derives from the Greek "riza" meaning "root"-- interesting, no?) and the area was populated largely with Pontic Greeks until the Lausanne treaty population exchanges nearly 100 years ago. Many believe Erdogan likely has Greek antecedents as well as Laz. I suspect the vast majority of present day Turks have more Greek ethnic ancestry than Turkmen. I was shocked to see the distinctive Turkic physiognomies of the Kazakhs looked nothing like the populace I've observed in Turkey. Turks look like Greeks and vice versa. Because they are--which is the paradox underlying all the hostilities and much of the present day histrionics.

Of course we "Greeks" are every bit as mixed as the Turks (and likely have plenty of Turkic "blood" infused as well). I did Ancestry.com and was amused to discover that I'm 55% "Italian" (whatever THAT is). I don't have my chart handy, but I believe I do have a dash of "Greek" in there too!

The Russians have an expression: "scratch a Russian, find a Tatar". Both Italians and Greeks have the motto "same face, same race".

If and when the "me too" movement and "Minority Lives Matter" ever penetrate the hard ceramic shell of post Ottoman Turkishness, it will be interesting to see what psychological statues tumble.  Erdogan notwithstanding, I suspect that artificially polarized but actually ethnically homogenized Anatolia may atone before America comes to terms with the odious burden of historic racism and white supremacy.

Saturday, July 11, 2020

200 years ago today....(Stephen Long Expedition part one)

Aquilegia coerulea
Two hundred years ago today Edwin James along with unspecified companions came upon this columbine (not this VERY one, which I photographed exactly a week ago--although I saw it today again) and he described it in his characteristic way (see extract below)

I Googled Aquilegia coerulea and got this: "About 119,000 results (0.44 seconds)"
Then I Googled Aquilegia caerulea and I got this "About 267,000 results (0.63 seconds)"

I typed that Latin names in a "coerulean" tint--It illustrates the irony of how an incorrect correction propagated and has twice the currency of the correct spelling of the Scientific name: I hope you henceforward will remember the correct spelling.
But I also hope you may take note and celebrate in whatever is your fashion the 200th Anniversary of the first Scientific Expedition sent into the Southern Rocky Mountains by the United States Government.

The Expedition was led by Major Stephen Long (for whom Longs Peak was named, towering over the northern Front Range). The expedition was memorialized in a remarkable and hefty tome, which has been continuously in print since it was published in America and England in 1823.

The picture below depicts Longs Peak and the  area where Denver now sprawls, painted by Seymour, the artist designated to paint scenery (other scientists on the expedition painted animals and plant portraits, many of which were lost along with their manuscripts when several members of the expedition abandoned the party on the return trip). Fortunately, Edwin James notes and journals were NOT lost (as you will see).

Let's savor for a moment this image: a long line of Native Americans, and a similar line of bison, and a lonely tree where millions of people now live. Pretty awesome, no?

They spent roughly the fourth of July until the 10th along the Platte in the vicinity of Denver, camping near where the Platte Canyon debouches to the Plains--very near Denver Botanic Gardens' Chatfield Farm. I had intended to begin this blog posting a week ago--on the Fourth of July, when they approached what is now the Metro Denver area. The quotation below expresses a phenomenon all Western travelers noted including Pike: the enormous distance from the time the Rockies were first viewed until they were reached.

Edwin James
This is apparently the only known authentic portrait of Edwin James, chief scientist of this expedition, and the one who ultimately composed the monumental book about it. He has always been a hero of mine, and as I've researched this expedition in recent years, I've come to realize that he and his role have been unjustly overlooked by history books: he was a conservationist before Conservation existed as a concept (he calls for legislation to preserve the bison in the Account). He became a champion of Native Americans and their rights, and during the Civil War, his farm was a destination on the Underground Railway for escaped slaves. Long before Muir or Thoreau, he embodies the fiery spirit of American love of liberty, love of nature and justice.

I can imagine his delight and awe as he bent down and admired our famous State flower 200 years ago today.

Here is the actual specimen that he pressed that day, sent to John Torrey at Columbia College in New York City and now residing at New York Botanical Gardens' magnificent herbarium.

Sobering to think this specimen, collected 200 years ago today, was packed and carried with pack animals for months before the Expedition finally returned to "civilization" and has then resided in two Herbaria in New York City for the better part of  two centuries!

And here is another picture I took of the species in September almost 18 years ago in the Indian Peaks wilderness:

Thursday, July 9, 2020

Delphinium californicum: a case study

Geoffrey Charlesworth once wrote that it doesn't matter if you've actually GROWN a plant, it only matters if you've photographed it to prove that you've grown it! That is not an exact quote--but a pretty good paraphrase I reckon. I wish I knew* if either he or Norman Singer (two of the most wonderful plantsmen I've ever known) had grown this. I can only imagine their delight. It bloomed for several weeks--a real champion! And during that time I must have taken several dozen horrible pictures until there was a peculiar conjunction of the stars, and I seem to have finally captured it.


We plant nerds go through a sort of serial love affair with certain genera or plants. Delphiniums have always delighted me--and I have grown Delphinium nudicaule, which is also red (but from Northern California). I remember seeing plants of this at a local greenhouse years ago, and for some reason I didn't buy them. But the day that California instituted "Stay at Home" and closed businesses in early March I went to Annie's Annuals in Richmond, which had somehow gotten a variance and was open. This was one of dozens of trophies I bought and brought back.

America--and especially California have a superabundance of wonderful red plants: think Zauschneria, Lobelia cardinalis, Monardella macrantha, penstemons galore. There's quite a long list of them. Come to think of it, I grow these and many more: I seem to be as fond of them as the hummingbirds. And the first time I grew any of them, I know I experienced the sort of fascinated delight that this gave me this year. I would go out again and yet again and take more horrible pictures.

Looking at its range, the chances of its coming back next year may be slim...but there does seem to be some life at the bottom of the stem still...

 It's something of a miracle that it survived at all this spring--we had repeated cold snaps after I brought it back, and it commuted (in  its pot) back and forth into our cool corner room before I planted it out. Apparently in a good spot!

Needless to say, I'll be cherishing the few seedpods it is setting, and seek out more seed of it to grow next winter. One isn't enough. We plant nerds want multi-multiples of every plant we love to surround us for as long as we live and garden!

But even if I fail, I have these pictures to prove I did it once at least.

*I not only wish I knew if Geoffrey or Norman grew this, I wish I knew which of Alan Turing's colleagues depicted in "the Imitation Game"  portrayed Geoffrey. And what he would have thought of the movie. I can hear him say in my mind "it wasn't really like that at ALL"....

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