Sunday, August 30, 2009

All seasons in one...

In Denver our state flower is usually in peak bloom in May, fully in seed by June. The picture above was taken this past week just below Lake Isabel in the Indian Peaks Wilderness where my son and I climbed Pawnee pass. There was a meadow filled with marsh marigolds in full bloom--which usually bloom in June at this elevation (in Denver they would bloom in April at the latest if we could get them to grow at all!). All this of course is due to a cool summer, and the vast snowbanks on the slopes where these plants grew, essentially putting them into refrigeration.

I was a perfect day: Jesse is 17--about the age I might have been when I first climbed this pass. It seemed interminable then and it seems pretty big even now. The trail sign said 4 miles from the trailhead to the pass. It felt more like six or seven to me...huff huff.

I last hiked this pass over 35 years ago. If someone had told me then I wouldn't be up here again until I had a son thinking about college and fulfilling all the dreams I've ever might have had for a son. He is even interested in plants (trees mostly). It felt like paradise up there: and we had a wonderful lunch up on the tundra gazing at much of Boulder County below.

So there were spring flowers and summer flowers and of course the flowers of autumn. I end with a shot of the arctic gentian in the reddish surround of Geum rossii, which colored much of the tundra deep red already. Winter is not far behind...

Monday, August 24, 2009

Amen to Amanus

Not too far from Alexandretta (now Iskenderun, Turkey), where my beloved aunt Eleni Papantonakis was born and grew up, loom the Amanus Mountains of Turkey, on the border with Syria. Strange to think that this region, not far from Antioch, was once teeming with Greeks and heartland of Hellenism, and that I have such a dear personal link to the magnificent flora thereabouts in the person of my remarkable great aunt (one of the sweetest relatives crowding my coddled childhood), who's been gone for several decades now. I have been fortunate to explore so many mountains in my crazy life, but there are still so many to visit. High on my dream list are the Amanus.

I imagine they are not terribly imposing. Yet they harbor no end of fabulous plants. Cyclamen pseudibericum ranks high on my list of this fantastic genus--it is largely restricted to this mountain range. And Helleborus vesicarius is probably the strangest and most fascinating (and most difficult to obtain) in its genus. The magnificent groundcover Partridge Feather (given that perfect common name by Homer Hill--a man who could compete with my Aunt Eleni in the heartstrings department of my soul): Tanacetum densum ssp. amani is really the queen of its genus as well. Next year we've finally got it into Plant Select (q.v.). Google image these and you will see three of the finest landscape plants for the Rocky Mountain region, emanating from Amanus. Who'd a thunk?

The ultimate treasure thence, and the unquestioned queen of its genus is the plant pictured at the head of my blog entry. The showiest by far (in flower at any rate) of the Oreganos, Origanum amanum. First introduced over a half century ago by the indefatigable Peter Davis, it malingered in cultivation a few decades before fresh germplasm esconced it firmly in English alpine houses and ultimately in America.

I grew this magnificently at Denver Botanic Gardens in the 1980's from cuttings I brought back from Kew. At one point I had a plant over a foot across with literally thousands of flower heads. I remember digging it up and giving the whole thing to a friend, who thought it was intended for his private garden. I intended it to be busted up into a thousand pieces and distributed far and wide. A year or so later I dropped by to visit him, and there it was--bigger and better and unbusted. Thereby hangs a tale: when you want a plant propagated, make sure you stipulate as much! He's moved from that house long ago, and I sometimes fantasize the Origanum is now the size of a Volksvagen....of course, life being life, it's undoubtedly dead.

But I grew here and there and prospered and delighted me and some years I would harvest hundreds of seeds I'd send to exchanges. And the way of all flesh (and chlorophyll) is such that one day the Oregano was suddenly gone. I've obtained it again: the plant above was photographed in 2008 at Denver Botanic Gardens. There is a Canadian nursery that sells it many years (including pure white forms): that's where I got the plant above.

This should be a plant in every rock garden in America--definitely in every Colorado rock garden. It blooms profusely all summer and is every bit as stunning close up as it is a ways a way. It has produced the spectacular hybrid Origanum x suendermanii which I can glimpse from where I'm sitting right now typing this (you can check that one out in the following blog post I did for Denver Botanic Gardens a few weeks ago:

But do I have this gem in my garden? Put on your best Belushi voice and repeat after me:


I have a little list of treasures I am on the prowl for, that life is somehow incomplete or otherwise flawed unless one has them in a trough or in one's garden somewhere (preferably everywhere). Some day I will blog about this list, perhaps. Right now, I must tell you that this adorable Oregano (which I saw garlanding the alpine houses at both Kew and Wisley a few months ago...) is near the top of that list...

My aunt Helen had a beautiful voice. I remember her singing snatches of Italian Opera, and bellowing sweetly Cretan folks songs. ( can bellow sweetly). Her English was unaccented and she once spoke French well, and she was infinitely refined and thoughtful and spent most of her life on the windy steppe of central Wyoming. I treasure the memories of her paintings: an oil painting of Cyclamen she painted on top of Xalepa, overlooking Xania (both these "x'es" pronounced like a hard "h" here, not ex). I remember staring transfixed at her extraordinary oil painting of that lovely city she painted from the same spot--a golden arc of bay, the mellow Venetian and Turkish villas (long since cluttered with Euro-trash apartments), and far in the distance, the Dictyan peninsula where my Grandfather and Zeus gamboled in their youth. I kid you not. I conjure her, as she was painting, to her back a few hundred miles, further East, the Amanus mountains and her intangible past hovered, irretrievable. The Antiochan Greeks are long long since transplanted. I can only savor the thought one day I shall climb those lavender hills and hear the oregano blowing its preposterous trumpets in the Levantine breeze.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Tempus fugit

It's been several days since my last blog and life slips by. Highlights of the last few days include seeing "Julie and Julia" (or is it the other way around) where the plot is driven by a blog by the younger heroine on this same Blogspot! Is that coincidence or what? Went to the movie with Jan and my son, both of whom are foodies so needless to say a good time was had by all.

Thursday night I went to DBG's Bonfils Stanton Lecture Series. John Greenlee talked on meadows. I've heard several iterations of this talk over the years (I've known John for a quarter century), and it is inspiring. The message reverberates, first of all, that we pour so many chemicals and treated water on lawns unnecessarily, and that there are so many creative alternatives. My favorite picture is of Neil Diboll levitating in a misty sea of highly symmetrical and very rosy, cloudy pink Erianthus (love grass). But all his pix are good. He's coming up with a new book "Meadows by Design" (actually a different title--that was his original land brilliant title). My schedule is so mad that I didn't have time to hang out with John, but with the Peaces and Ogdens as his cicerones, he was in good hands.

I got a call early in the week from Stan Metsker telling me Maxine (his wife) had just died. I met Stan thirty years ago, and our lives weave together repeatedly over the years. I came to know, love and respect Maxine enormously. She was a very powerful personality, with strong likes and dislikes who grew up on Indian reservations in the Southwest, and had absorbed some of the sandstone magnificence of that region into her temperament. You wonder what that means? Ever run into a rock? Navajo land appears austere, and yet nothing glows sweeter than Chinle sandstone absorbing a sunset in late winter. She was a CPA professionally and did our taxes for years. She had a fierce devotion to Stan, to her daughters and their families, to her friends and to her ideals. She and Stan were perhaps the most sweetly happy married couple I've ever known: they celebrated their 50th wedding vows two years ago: huge party and super celebration. Maxine will be missed by many, chiefly by her extraordinary husband who is one of my heros and an inspiration to all who know him. My sympathies, Stan!

A lavender and peach dawn is painting gouache to the East. This evening I'm taking a gaggle of relatives to Los Lobos and Lonely boys' concert at DBG. Yesterday, Jan, Jesse and I drove through South Park, Boreas Pass, Breckenridge for the day, hiking on Kenosha Pass and above Boreas for a few hours each. Spectacular late summer weather--deliciously cool up there, with only a few fleecy clouds and a smattering of raindrops as we drove down through Georgetown in the late afternoon. I feel as though I'm living life in double time.

My trip to Central Asia derailed me in many good ways. It's been an effort to get back into my groove, with the added value of all I have learned in Kazakhstan and Mongolia piled on so much I am already juggling: I've corrected the proofs of the first article on this trip, and have to hasten to crank out a bunch is so infinitely complicated, rewarding and yet nettling too (so many details and a few nagging ones I must get to)...

The lavender is leaching into caerulean and the coffee pot beckons..

Adieu, adieu. Parting is such sweet sorrow....

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Cute as a button!

Escobaria echinus

There are those who don't like cacti. Even those people make an exception for these little golfballs with outlandish, unbelievably beautiful blossoms. If you are one of those who actually likes cacti, the miniature gems scattered liberally across much of Western America are the very quintessence of our marvellous flora. They are tough. They are often rare and obscure. They have a fascinating stem and spine structure interesting in their own right, and evident all year long. And when their flowers open, time stands still for a while and nearby angels can be heard strumming--not harps, of course--but perhaps a bluegrass or country melody. Nothing says "America" like cactus (in fact, it's down right unAmerican to dislike them I think!). You can hardly be out of sight of one prickly pear or another throughout the American West at lower altitudes. Sophisticated gardens in the Denver area are sporting more and more and more cacti of all kinds in their rock gardens and xeriscapes.

There was a time when collecting plants was not just tolerated by expected. Of course, that was the time when there were more plants than gardeners in the West. Cactus fanciers were perhaps especially guilty of overcollection, but in the last two decades a much more responsible ethic has kicked in. There are now dozens of specialty nurseries cranking out tens of thousands of cactus seedlings ongoingly: many of the rarest American cacti are now available in tremendous quantities, wholesale. There is no excuse to collect these in the wild any longer especially since nursery grown plants are invariably much cleaner and more easily established.

Escobaria echinus is not as rare as most: in fact it can be quite abundant in much of the western Texas--especially in rough limestone country in the Big Bend area. I have found thick colonies hundreds of miles further east near Abilene (and area where they are hitherto not recorded). Considering its range of many hundreds of square miles, the taxon seems to be pretty uniform, generally growing to about handball size, covered with dense white spines--sometimes forming clumps with dozens of heads. The comparatively huge flowers usually last a single day. They are invariably a clear yellow, often with a reddish throat. This one bloomed for me on August 15--my Saint's day!

Pat Hayward, CEO of Plant Select, once said nurseries should rate plants on a "cuteness quotient": this ball cactus is off the charts by that measure.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Inspiring spires...

There are people who claim they don't like the color orange, and others who find pokey and stick-em-up plants a little, well, offensive perhaps or just plain....phallic. Freud being long dead, I think that as Groucho said (I think it was my favorite Marxist) "Sometimes a red hot poker is just a red hot poker"). OK, it wasn't Groucho...It's me who says it.

For most of the benighted 20th Century, the only Kniphofias sold in Denver (or much of the United States for that matter) were "Kniphofia uvaria" (in double quotes because I doubt that species is even in cultivation widely here even now). That serviceable and rather dowdy Kniphofia strain is still sold occasionally, only now more and far more glamorous pokers are showing up at garden centers, and a wealth of species and cultivars can be found mail order.

Kniphofia caulescens

Two of my faves are starting to bloom in gardens hereabouts. For those of us lucky enough to visit the Drakensberg in January or February, the vast fields of Kniphofia caulescens at higher elevations are one of the world's great floral spectacles. A single plant brings all that majesty into your garden: can't you see it from the picture above to to the left? Alas, that plant is no more (it was in the old cutting garden that is in transit at Denver Botanic Gardens to a new site, and this plant was lost in the translation)...but never fear! There are many more examples growing in South African Plaza. In the next few weeks they will provide a great splash of color in that special place.

The cool tangerine one in the picture below is Kniphofia triangularis (still often sold as K. galpinii). I would rate both of these as among the finest pokers, and indeed the finest late summer perennials imaginable. The fine, grassy foliage of the second and its edible flower color (and tremendous hardiness) make itessential to the core. More and more and more nurseries are stocking both plants since the first is available (as 'Bressingham Comet') through Blooms of Bressingham and the second will be marketed by Plant Select next year.

Kniphofia triangularis

O Hail!

(I've copied the following from a post I did for the Colorado Gardening forum...I think it said what I needed to say about whether or not to visit Kendrick Lake soon after their disastrous Hail)

Kendrick Lake was extremely hard hit three weeks ago by the hailstorm: about as hard hit as much of the West side of town in the Kipling-Wadsworth zone from southernmost metro to Arvada. I went a week after the hail and saw Molly and Greg and their crew essentially cutting everything that was damaged severely to the nubbins. It was heartbreaking.

Everyone who has experienced hail of this order knows the feeling: helplessness, depression, sadness. I as sure most people on the list have read Lauren's magnificent chapter on hail in the Undaunted Garden. I also recommend the opening chapters of The Thunder Tree by America's foremost nature writer (and our native son too) Robert Michael Pyle. Hail sucks.

But suck it up, we live in a Hail zone. I was STUNNED to see that every manzanita at Kendrick Lake seemed unfazed by the hail: they are obviously used to it! And quite a few other plants were barely touched. it occurred to me that designing "hail proof" gardens might be a worthwhile endeavor, especially in areas prone to the phenomenon.

So visiting Kendrick now would be instructive to put it mildly. I think it was two years ago Kendrick was hit again in early July, I think, by a really bad hail. They did the cleanup thing and I recall going by a month later and my jaw dropped: it was spectacular. I have no doubt that will happen again (although the garden is a bit older, and the soils perhaps not quite so rich and the plants not quite so juvenile and quick as they were then--and the storm came a week or so later than the previous time). I predict by early September Kendrick will look perfect!

My last words of hard won wisdom: I have experienced a number of hail events over the years. They are profoundly humbling...and those were the years I sort of gave up gardening and had a bit of a life! If you are hail hit, don't despair--just take up another hobby for a short while.

Miraculously, the garden bounces back faster than you ever dream possible, and next year you will enjoy and appreciate and love it all the more realizing how utterly frail and evanescent our efforts be. Gardens are not monuments, but mercurial moments of precarious balance that we must celebrate and treasure, even as they are ravaged by weather, weeds and their inevitable demise.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

August doldrums

Gentiana paradoxa x septemfida

Gentiana paradoxa

I fiercely resented August as a child: after the vast ocean of June and the endless undulations of July, August stretched out with depressing interminability: my best friends, you see, were off to the beach or visiting grandparents, and I was stuck in Boulder--which back in the fifties was a sleepy little town with few students in the summer and no hippies, yuppies or tourists to throng our real downtown. Which was not a mall.

I would go fishing with my dad: always fun (although if my mom knew what he did with me she would ring his neck and never let me accompany him again). He was old school, which meant kids were tolerated but not necessarily cosseted. Fishing trips were his fun time and I was frankly a bit of baggage ("so you want to go fishing again? take the kid this time") and once we parked the jeep at whatever trailhead, he would park me by a stream or reservoir and tell me to stay put and spend the rest of the day on his own in the high country.

I shall never forget those magical days (although I hated being left alone at first): that's what inspired me to start walking out in the woods and spend time admiring the Lady's tresses (which I knew was an orchid at least) with her wonderfully blossoms twisting around her body, often growing near the piercing blue of gentians. They were fringed gentians up there (Gentianopsis thermalis) which I have managed from time to time to grow in my garden at home or work. It acts like an annual.

Now that I am older and wiser, I yearn for August to stretch on forever, and as for June and July, they shoot by like bullets. The gentians loom much larger in my life: I grow dozens of species and seek them out wherever I travel. I even grow Lady's Tresses--the Eastern form (Spiranthes cernua 'Chadd's Ford') although they do not bloom for me until October at the earliest. I have gentians blooming then, so my August idyll of the mountains is delayed...

Right now, the summer gentians (G. septemfida and G. paradoxa and their hybrids) are at their peak: come by and check them out!

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Thought process

Prairie is pretty self explanatory. I considered "steppe" (a tad too exotic). Plains are just too plane. So prairie it is! Break is a little more complicated. Let's quietly tiptoe past the various sharp shards of connotation to the good stuff: everyone needs and wants a break from routine, from strain, from the hum drum. What you resist persists, so let's revisit the negative connotation ( let's grasp, however painfully, the thistle): every day represents a broken word, a broken promise, the shattering of a tiny illusion or of a grand delusion. More prosaically, every moment represents the anastomosis of eternity. Let's face it, nothing is made without breaking. Each moment pits or splits or splinters from the diminishing block of our imaginary futures bright hard tiny fragments of the past. 

More literally--and perhaps more practically--I was also thinking of those magical places on the prairie where the levelness ends: the Breaks! Cedar Breaks, the Missouri Breaks. These magical transitions, these ecotones are life's highlights and vantage points. As we break, vistas emerge and dense mounding cushion plants encrust the jagged sandstone, limestone bedrock. Kick your heels (as they dangle) over the edge and feel the cool breeze blowing upward into your sun kissed face.

As unlikely as it may seem, I happen to live on a prairie break.  Welcome!

Today Eleni Ann Kelaidis, my daughter, boarded an airplane for New York City to start a new life at twenty two. She is a beautiful young woman, with many talents and great charm. She has friends and a few relatives there, and has shown her independence and responsibility and growing maturity for several years now. Young people need to spread their wings and fly? Why, then, are my eyes full of tears?

I remember when she boarded the bus to go to school the first time. My GOD, she was only threeish at the time (whatever possessed us to start her in Montessori?), let alone at a school near Five Points when resonated back then with danger and layers of racist fear for whiteys like me. OK OK, I know I'm kinda brownish--but technically I'm as Caucasian as you. She was unusually brave for a child that size, and I shall never forget the way her leg reached up--really a stretch--to board the yellow bus, lunge up and fly away forever it felt like then and feels like now. I blubbered ridiculously then with pangs of separation (we'd be apart a full four hours or so, if you can imagine). And now, what are the chances I'll see her this year again? slim.

"To everything I say the word that cheats the lips and leaves them parted" says Nabokov, as he quietly bids his native tongue adieu as his literary vehicle. For those of us who are protective, who distrust the world a bit, to say Praschai to your children is one of the purest sources of poignancy. I've bid farewell to opportunities galore, to things I was tired of and things that were broken. I've separated from lovers and from a wife. To say good bye to children is for me a foretaste of death.

Dearest daughter. I wish you success and happiness and secretly hope some day your glorious future will magically bring you in proximity to me again, to listen to your lilting voice (not on a phone) and watch you move gracefully, my little gazelle, from room to room, from chamber to chamber of my grateful heart.

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