Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Underappreciated gems: a wayward Campanula (or Trachelium rumelianum)

Trachelium (Campanula) rumelianum

Everyone has a plant that loves them--perhaps even a bit too much! Almost 20 years ago we planted a few seedlings of this campanulad on the back slope of the Alpine (now Succulent) House at Denver Botanic Gardens. Over the next few years, it made itself at home...maybe too much so!

Trachelium (Campanula) rumelianum run amok!

 The slope is a showcase for bulbs in the spring: especially Corydalis in many species. There was a time when it was the 

Here is the same spot a few months earlier!
Lewisia cotyledon run amok!

Believe it or not, this is the very same garden a few weeks (and years!) before the Trachelium took over: the evolution of gardens is more than a little interesting for some of us! I am continuously amazed how a plant can thrive and even spread fantastically for a while, and eventually be supplanted. And then you might even have a devil of a time re-establishing it where it was almost a weed! It's happened to me in my long gardening life many times! Therein almost lies a book.

Closeup with honeybee
The flower almost reminds me more of a globe thistle or a Globularia than a campanula--but DNA and botanists have now lumped this in the giant genus with which you can sometimes find it growing in nature. Honeybees like it in any case...

A pale form growing in my home garden

As luck would have it, I've grown several plants, and they all have had much paler flowers than most we've grown at DBG. 
Trachelium (Campanula) rumelianum on Mt. Olympus

And finally here it is in nature. We found just a few plants on one cliff at relatively low elevations on Mt. Olympus and I took a perfunctory (and somewhat out of focus picture): I knew it was supposed to grow here and supposed it would be common. We never saw it again the next few days when we circumambulated and climbed the mountains for miles and miles. I know it grows elsewhere in the Balkans, but was glad to find it even once...

This post was inspired when I searched for images of Trachelium on Prairiebreak and I found only one, but a lovely one. I thought it deserved a re-visit!

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Penstemania (shhhhhhhhh: there's a conspiracy afoot!)

Penstemon utahensis

Coloradoans have a bit of a thing about Utah: that state has gone and hogged the lion's share of canyon country (we do have a pretty hefty sliver, I grant you--but Utah? Egad--they have canyons up the wazoo!)...and all those Mormons! How many of us (especially our Q-Anon brethren) are convinced the Beehive State has employed a whole village or two of polygamists in one of those prim little SEEMING towns down by Kanab who are busy hybridizing new species of penstemons which they plant out cleverly and botanists are hoodwinked into naming them: Noel and Pat Holmgren are by far the most gullible of their victims! Those "botanists" have gone and named dozens of species all over Utah the last half century. It's bad enough Utah picked the most glaringly coral red penstemon to name after itself (my picture above, taken on April 28, 2008 near Moab: dontcha love metadata!?). Hang in there...the plot thickens in this posting--and ends with a BANG!

Penstemon ambiguus

I first saw this enchanting penstemon on the Samalayuca sand dunes of Chihuahua growing over 4' tall in peak bloom in October of 1978 en route to find the yellow Phlox (another story altogether)...since then I've admired it in June growing thickly on Cactus Hill between Santa Fe and Las Vegas (NM, not NV) and growing very compactly (often quite pink) in vast throngs not far from Calhan, Colorado and all over the plains east of Lamar (CO). I have not been to Coral Sand Dunes and the other Utah localities where this abounds in bloom time: we grew this superbly for a while at Denver Botanic Gardens where I photographed it on June 28, 2007 (I do love metadata!)

Penstemon barbatus
Here's the grand scarlet bugler that launches the red penstemon season, often in May: abundant in much of southern and Western Colorado--it marches right past the polygamists in Kanab all the way to California.
Penstemon  mucronatus

Here's one of those likely hybrids the Kanabians planted out to trick the Holmgrens: there are a bevy of husky plants in this section of the genus that were distinguished as Noel and Pat (and a few other gullible folk mostly at New York Botanical Gardens) compiled and published their monumental Intermountain Flora. I have it from reliable Q-Anon informants that that shelf-full of "botany" is mostly fake news! Those folks should know: their Colorado co-horts got Lauren Opal Boebert elected to congress from Colorado's Third Congressional district! That pistol-packin' mama will be in Congress next term to shoot holes in all that hokey science stuff they try and foist on the honest, gun-loving folk of our great country! That is, if Grand Junction doesn't nab her first for evading court proceedings. Or the eighty people she food-poisoned with her good ol' country cookin'!

Penstemon cleburnei

As you might be guessing, I'm showing pictures of penstemons that are known to grow in Utah, although many were photographed in my garden or that of others: I spent many summers combing the fantastic back roads of Utah seeking these out--mostly in seed--when my ex-wife and I ran Rocky Mountain Rare Plants--which was the first American seed company (if we ignore the incomparable Sally Walker who specialized in Mexico and the Southwest, and the owners of Upton and Rockmount in Colorado that stuck close to home in the first half of the 20th Century) that sought to distribute unusual seed from the Rockies, Intermountain region and Great Plains: we were so successful that we spawned a mess of imitators who even used our very verbiage in their catalogues (that were mocked up in slavish imitation of ours)....not that I'm bitter or anything.... We also were probably the first to sell seed of most Utah penstemons featured in a book I'll talk about....anon (but not Q-anon for sure).

Penstemon caespitosus

THIS, I photographed in Colorado: my birthplace is pretty much smack dab in the middle of this little sprites range. I just realized I don't have it in my garden any more: I must remedy that--one of America's most abundant and beautiful rock garden plants. And yes, it sneaks into Utah (barely)...

Penstemon cyananthus

I bow down to the Beehive state when it comes to this gem, rather constrictingly called "Wasatch Penstemon"--although it grows in a dozen or more other ranges as well over much of central Utah and up into Wyoming where I photographed this (on the Bighorns). It certainly rates as one of the bluest and most gorgeous penstemonsl

Penstemon deustus

Dusty deusty, as we were wont to call this, has an enormous range in the upper West. The flowers rarely look so good: the plant is covered with glandular hairs that gather the brown dust so that the flowers are usually a strange shade of pale brown. If you can keep it undusted, however, it can be a charming plant in a xeriscape.

Penstemon eatonii

As Penstemon barbatus fades in June, P. eatonii takes over to keep the hummingbirds fed.  This one photographed at Denver Botanic Gardens' outstanding Children's Garden--which is definitely not just for kids.

Penstemon eriantherus

Thankfully this (just barely) makes it into Colorado, although this was photographed on the Beartooth Highway almost precisely on the Montana-Wyoming border. And it grows in Utah as well...

Penstemon rostriflorus

Just as P. eatonii fades, this fantastic plant takes over--surely one of the most gardenworthy penstemons: we have 30 year old plants on Dryland Mesa at Denver Botanic Gardens thriving with no supplemental water. This magnificent specimen was photographed at Laporte Rare Plant Nursery--one of Colorado's best nurseries. I believe this can be in full bloom for at least three months starting late July: it was championed by Plant Select so it is pretty widely commercially available in the USA at least...

Penstemon whippleanus

My ex-wife used to call this the "pouting Penstemon" (she used to do a rather ribald lecture where she illustrated Penstemon taxonomy and morphology with lurid props and exaggerated facial and body movements: If it had been videotaped I think it would be a Youtube classic. I can still see her pouty face as she did this astonishingly variable plant that comes in a rainbow of colors from near black to navy blue, maroon, dingy gray and near white and almost yellow on Mt. Evans! Here it is above tree line on Horseshoe Mountain, Colorado. The Utah forms are more lavender blue than the lurid forms from further east and south.

Penstemon yampaensis

I was surprised to discover this species grew a short distance into Utah: I thought it was only ours in Colorado (named for the river near which I was born). it is! the real object of this rather discursive and strange blog post: if you have made it this far I think you will be even more annoyed when I tell you that you have to buy this book.

Why? For one thing--it will be a good investment. I predict the first edition will go out of print and that it will sell for hundreds of dollars in a few years: if you have any fiscal sense at all you'll buy several, as my buddy Scotty Smith informed me he did yesterday (and as I plan to do! Much better investment than the Stock Market--just wait and see!)...

It comprises 394 FOLIO sized pages chockablock full of gorgeous photographs (scenery/portrait/closeup) of all 76 species of penstemons purported to grow in Utah (although I suspect there are dozens more being planted out as I type by the Kanab polygamists, who must not hardly even sleep at night with all their propagating).

The front matter of the book is charming with copious historical notes and geographical/botanical/human interest all packed together. The subsection on "Penstemon diversity and classification" with closeup photographs of the staminodes and blossom shapes of ALL THE SPECIES and most of their subspecies is simply astounding in its usefulness: a graduate course in taxonomy boiled down for dummies. Bravo.Then there is an exhaustive and exhausting dichotomous key to all the species.

Then each species has a few pages beautifully laid out with artistic background to the text and copious historical, geographical, you name it data clearly laid out in readable print and prose.

Then there is a twenty seven page "Notable Contributors to the Study of Utah Penstemons". Which is essentially a "Who's Who" of Western American botany, also illustrated with gorgeous inset cameos of more penstemons!

There is a 26 page bibliography that they strangely term "References" that is actually laid out (with artistic background and inset vignettes of even more gorgeous cameo pix of penstemons!) so that you'll actually read the dang thing!

The twelve page Glossary (mysteriously superscripted with "180,331") is illustrated with thumbnail photographs to delineate the important and sometimes hard to understand Latin terminology: one of the few glossaries I've seen that's actually useful.

The index is truly exhaustive. And useful.

Most annoyingly, after having perused this book for quite a while, I've found not a single typo, solecism or mistake--except that this gorgeous, indispensable book incredibly does not have a dust jacket (which it would certainly need if you took it into the field, which surely you must take at least one of your copies). 

In fact, I can't think of another genus of North American plants of any kind (trees as well as herbaceous) that has ever had such a compendious and gorgeous treatment--especially on a state level. Colorado obviously needs to lure a few families of Kanabian propagators to move a state Eastward.

Needless to say, I approve of this book (missing dust-cover notwithstanding). I have spent a large part of my long lifetime exploring the stunning backroads of Utah, and I thought I was pretty clever having seen (and even grown) 59 of the 74 species in this book (albeit I didn't see them all in Utah necessarily). Needless to say, I plan to seek out the 15 species I somehow missed in the coming years, with one of my copies of this book in tow no doubt. Before those damn Kanabites plant out too many more anyway!

Penstemania rules!

PS: Just Google The Heart of Penstemon Country: there are numerous mail order sources that sell the book at significant discount: you can get it like I did in a few days. You'd be a fool not to!

Monday, November 16, 2020

The steppe! The wild and windy steppe! (Invitation to a voyage...)


 Steppe landscapes strike most as barren and austere. But what if I told you that landscapes such as this is where YOUR species (Homo sapiens) first evolved and spent millions of years (how many nights and days are those?) seeking out prey, being preyed upon. Consider that this is the stage setting that created and nurtured who you are, even perhaps your very character and psychology. Let me distract you for a moment here in Mongolia where we nearly caught up with a rainbow.


 Let's return to character: you're a steppe wanderer with your herd of sheep and horses: little does it matter that you wend here or there--steppe regions were still relatively sparsely populated (as they were over the aeons), and a thousand hooves are nothing to these prairie grasses. The sunbelt steppe is now burgeoning. In just the last few decades you acquire trucks that tear the turf: above you'll see a typical road you find everywhere in Mongolia. Essentially not that different from the spaghetti knots of freeways in big cities, which have just paved the ruts with asphalt and cement: we're oblivious to our environment because we don't see it, much as fish cannot see the water.

Thymus roseus in far Western Mongolia

There is an unspeakable magic that can be found in the world's vast, semiarid continental regions--which we refer to as "steppe"--the Russian word first used to describe the grasslands of Westernmost Asia, but now applied to the sister regions across the world, I have been privileged to find untrammeled bits of steppe in glorious bloom on four continents. My research and that of my colleagues was distilled in a weighty tome I'm rather proud of that's still in print--I'll show it at the end...but we continue to depict, champion and try to point out the terrible irony that this biome that created humanity has barely entered the consciousness of most: and it perhaps contains a key to a terrible secret that might help unlock our future as a species.

This is the steppe dilemma--the behemoth of "progress" and technology is outpacing us as we plunge forward on our uncertain path--both drivers oblivious to the landscape around us. Most trans-continental drivers in America dread the vast prairies of Nebraska, Saskatchewan or the sagebrush emptiness of Wyoming, Utah or you name it in the West. So desolate. So lonely. (Only the richest repository of biodiversity in our countries, by the way). So much for progress.

Once the scales have shed, we realize that the lion's share of America's national parks are in and surrounded by steppe landscapes. Some part of us acknowledges our ancestral landscape where we evolved: evolved into steppe creatures who invented "civilization" in the last few millennia and believe that fiction is reality! Give me a break!

Penstemon utahensis

The graceful denizens of steppe don't care much for our civilization. They are oblivious to our tendency to project fantasies dreamed up by our ancestors on other landscapes other worlds and think they are true. A few of the habits we evolved with as somnolent steppe dwellers may kill us one day: I'll get around to that anon...definitely not Q-Anon, although that's an excellent example of our turpitude.

This is a steppe meadow not far from Denver a few Augusts ago: unbelievably floriferous--for weeks and months as a matter of fact. Despite that six million people live nearby, I doubt more than a handful noticed the flowers: this part of the Great Plains is not "famous" for flowers after all. We only go and do what others tell us--another steppish trait.

I could go on and on: in fact I have! I invite you to listen to a short but I think rather well done clip I did on Thomas Christopher's radio program preserved (click here) in this podcast.

And please mark your calendar for January 6 when I shall be doing a Zoom Master Class on Steppe for Noel Kingsbury and Annie Guilfoyle's International (click here:) Garden Masterclass programs.

Check back on the Masterclass program link in a month or so on details of where and when for that session! In the meanwhile, you can study up a bit on Steppe with our "weighty tome"--which is widely available on any web bookstore...It has enough matter to keep you occupied for a long time...a lifetime in my case!

Saturday, November 14, 2020

Kew #5: the grand finale!

In these COVIDious days, the weeks stretch into months, and years trickle by at a different pace: I dropped my five part retrospective of Kew on her 250th anniversary many weeks ago: if you click back you will see dozens--perhaps more than a hundred images I took 11 years go. When will we have the privilege of travel once again? It does make one nostalgic and sad to think of it... Oh yes,l the Victoria waterlily in its very appropriate domicile!

The label reads "Dierama pictum" from Swaziland and "Transvaal"-- a bit of a historical kickback!

A strange pale blue Amsonia (see the next frame) whose label I stupidly forgot to photograph.

Rubus illecebrosus

One of the strangest raspberries I've ever seen! Of course, they'll have it at Kew....

I love the fringe of Mexican hybrid penstemon along the base of the greenhouse--and the romping toddler.

An amazing grafted tree trunk!

Pterocarya (Wingnut)

Our first encounter with this strange relative of the walnut: I stupidly didn't photograph the label--but checking the "Monumental trees of England", they only list P. stenoptera as growing near the Waterlily house (the Web is amazing) and I have a hunch that this is it.

I'm not sure who was more amazed with this specimen--Mike or myself! Look at that trunk! I regret I didn't ask about the genus when I was in the Caucasus--taxa from there are more apt to be hardy in Colorado.

A glimpse of the Lavender field outside the grand Conservatory.

Is there a better measure of the commitment of an institution than that they've maintained a plant in a pot continuously for two and a half centuries: I was humbled to photograph it (see below)

Encephalartos alstensteinii

Another glimpse of the same--with others in front of us (it's popular)...

I have a fondness for lavender...

More unusual bedding plants.

The Orangerie--not too many oranges in it nowadays!

A fuzzy photo (sorry) of a caged  Wollemia nobilis...poor thing!

A very Kewian explanation. Sometimes the British reveal their Germanic ancestry: I loved the exhaustive signage in German botanic gardens. In America, signs are aimed at gum chewers.

Robinia pseudoacacia

I was shocked at the size of the Black locust! You never see monsters like this here in borer country.

Araucaria araucana

There are lots of monkey puzzles in Britain--but not many showcased like THIS!

You don't want to be bonked by this strobilis: I have read that people can be badly wounded by seed-bearing cones weighing many pounds falling on their heads.

Not everything at Kew is plants plants plants--sometimes it's architecture and plants.

Hebe sp.

Or this amazing shrub along the walkway.

The massed shrub and tree borders create wonderful vistas...

More palms and simple design as we return to the Princess of Wales conservatory

Wouldn't you like to have a grove of tree ferns near YOUR conservatory?

I chuckled to see Mexican feather grass--which I'm exiling from MY garden...snicker.

Oh yes, a long border of pitcher plants. Just the thing.

I wish I'd thought of this!

Alstroemeria aurea

In our Pacific states this is considered a noxious weed: I have grown it, but it has not been weedy here (alas)

Alstroemeria aurea

I've admired this in Argentina, fringing woodlands in Patagonia.

Alstroemeria aurea

Common and even weedy it may be--but I love it as you can see.

Echium sp.

I also forgot to photograph the label of this gorgeous borage...I'd love to grow it!

"Haplopappus reidesii"

 I too have received this Erigeron under this peculiar name: there are currently no Haplopappus recognized from North America, and those that were are all yellow/orange flowered. As for the specific name: there is no Asteraceous taxon in North America whose specific name begins with "rei" or "rie" or any other permutation. Even Homer nods. (I think this is a form of Erigeron glaucus)

Iris wilsonii

I am more apt to believe THIS labeled plant: this is one of the two rarely seen yellow Siberian iris, albeit this comes from China and not Siberia. I was thrilled to see this rarely encountered iris.

Pelargonium sidoides

Not a very impressive picture--but one of my favorite plants: the black pelargonium of the Drakensberg--heavily harvested for herbal medicine, alas, in nature.

As at Wisley, you must go through the gift shop, chockablock full of irresistible things--especially books in my case! Harrumph.

When I took this, orchids were not as commonplace as they've become at Trader Joes etc.

This gentleman seems to be resisting the displays...

We've escaped the enclosure of Kew--but the neighborhood around it is almost as densely planted with beautiful and unusual flowers, like this dark pink Lavatera.

And a very striking, very double rose (without the Kew label alas)

And a fine planting of tree ferns as we walk to the "Underground"

It would appear to my eyes that this purple Cordyline australis is not an annual....

 And so we end...even the neighborhood around Kew in Richmond is a botanical treasure trove! Let's hope not too many years go by before we all can visit once again!

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