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.

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