Tuesday, December 22, 2009

There are plants that taunt

and plants that haunt, and other flaunt their finery....and then there are those that just hang in there and delight year in year out. Such a one is this delightful shrublet. I realize that to the untrained eye, this spiny shrub from Morocco and Spain may just look like a Lobularia on steroids...and it is in fact a cousin to our fragrant annual alyssum. Like it's modest ground hugging cousin, the spiny alyssum of the high Atlas and Sierra Nevada comes in purply pink and white shades. In nature it's usually a less than stunning white, but occasionally there are populations where the pink predominates, and someone, some time took cuttings and rooted them of what goes by 'Purpureum' among other cultivar names. I might have suggested 'Arnold Schwarzenegger', in honor of is muscularity... no wonder my cultivar names are shot down at Plant Select meetings...

Ptilotrichum spinosum 'Purpureum' is technically (and in every other way, I guess) a shrub, but since it only gets up to a foot or so high at the most and half again as wide, we're not talking massive. Just the perfect size to grace a rock garden. For a month or more in high spring it performs its cloudy magic, and settles down the rest of the year to being a silvery, mounding presence that suppresses weeds (unfortunately, didn't quite suppress that damned lettuce front and right of it yet!)...and forms a great addition to the mounds and tuffets of rock work. It loves sun, drainage and lime--so needless to say it loves Colorado. I find it generally lasts around a decade (then time to take more cuttings!)...It is undeservedly absent from most gardens I know.

I recall finding it in profusion at that heavenly belt on the Sierra Nevada--the "spinosum" belt it should be called: Vella spinosa, Ptilotrichum spinosum, Bupleurum spinosum and the odd one out Echinacea pungens, all forming perfect billowing mounds of acanthamnoid tumulosity in various shades of chartreuse, silver and dark green. I took pictures (slides, alas--you can't see them). One day, perhaps, I will return there in late May when most are blooming and I will check off another box on that life's list of phenomenal phenological* phantasies--my secret botanical life that feeds my soul (and helps justify my paycheck come to think of it!)...

The picture was taken at my old Eudora garden a dozen years ago: the plants are no longer there, but their cousins are coming along at Quince, and Mike Kintgen has planted them here and there around the Rock Alpine Garden, some from his own collections in Morocco (lucky so and so!)...

What pleasant thoughts to distract me from Holiday Cheer (not) and packing for a trip as the thermometer plunges yet again towards Zero F tonight.

*Why phenological? Alliteration, you silly!

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Yucca yucca yucca!

There is something funny about 'em all right! Especially a cluster of miniatures that are found here and there in the Intermountain region: above is classic Yucca harrimaniae, from the Uncompaghre plateau of Colorado (in my old Eudora garden): it has a much narrower inflorescence than Yucca glauca on the eastern slope. It has whiter flowers produced several weeks earlier, and of course it tends to have leaves about half the size as glauca. It blooms reliably each year, and is tough as nails: I am amazed it's not more often grown.

This much dwarfer and wider leaved variant grows in the Uinta Basin of Utah: I've seen it growing for miles along one road near Roosevelt: it was named Yucca sterilis by Stanley Welsh since he's not ever seen it with seed. I have a hunch Pronubia moths might be scarce in the Uinta Basin! Although I've never had seed at home come to think of it either (probably for the same reason!)... I find it amazing that a desert plant like this adapts so well to an alpine bed (lots of Daphne cneorum cvs. nearby in my Eudora back yard).

The last picture shows Sean Hogan worshiping a tiny colony of the smallest form that has been segregated as Y. nana. You should be able to pick out four green rosettes around the silvery Opuntia erinacea (another fabulous plant...). The picture (by the way) was taken near Paradox, Colorado (an oxymoron if I ever heard one!) For a while Mountain States offered gallon pots of the miniature yucca from seed collected around Moab for $10.00. I bought a few and they have thrived, but are a tad bigger than in nature (the one below is in my Quince west ridge garden). Whatever we call these tiny treasures, I would think there's a spot in almost every garden where they would look just perfect. And that's no joke

Friday, December 18, 2009

Pagodas of Lu Shan

I remember overhearing Bernice (Pete) Peterson admonish T. Paul Maslin (both my mentors, both long gone) at DBG's plant sale: "So you'll visit Lu Shan! You must bring back Sedum chanettii". She explained that Praeger goes on about this sedum in his monograph (which I must read some day!). Paul returned to that not quite sacred Chinese mountain (it should have been #6) where he grew up and was enthralled by Nature. He found a sedum and brought it back the next Plant Sale (what transpired on Lu Shan over the man's lifetime would fill encyclopaedias): Sedum sarmentosum...I still remember Pete's tremolo and profound disappointment ("Oh Paul, yes thank you....). Chanetii is to sarmentosa as Catherine Deneuve is to Paris Hilton, you see...All this transpired, by the way, almost 40 years ago. In the perfect afterlife, my mentors gardens would be closer to one another than they were on Earth: Pete lived in Littleton and Paul over 30 miles away in Boulder, and they would converse once a year at the plant sale...at least until we started the rock garden chapter.

It remained for me to bring the Sedum (I prefer Orostachys) from Kew in May of 1980, and it has prospered here and there all over my various gardens and at Denver Botanic Garden. It is probably the loveliest orostachys for many reasons: the precise rosettes are incredibly delicate and intricately sculpted and bright alabaster and granitic in their coloration. They bloom in late spring rather than late autumn, and the flowers are a lovely shade of creamy chartreuse.

I have seen orostachys everywhere in the Altai of Kazakhstan and Mongolia, and on the roof tiles of Suzhou. I hope one day I can climb the crags of Lushan and find this succulent morsel blooming there.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Remembrance of summers past...

Let's not beat around the bush: that's larchleaf penstemon (Penstemon laricifolius) growing in a trough at Quince St. (where I live). I've had that blasted plant forever--in that trough and in other troughs where each year it produces some wan pink flowers and doesn't exactly ring anyone's bells....until that crazy spring three years ago--the spring of 2007. Tons of late snow and cool and then rain and then more coolness. Never have I seen bulbs bloom so prolifically. And for the first time the larchleaf penstemon bloomed as it does all over Wyoming--with that luminescent, almost nacreous pink that really can't be photographed.

The plant may sneak over here and there into Montana (the white subspecies barely makes it into Colorado) but across Wyoming you can find it in a good year coloring the steppe with their lavender/rose/purple flowers in June. What fun to have had the bloody thing decide to bloom densely and darkly rather than the pallid flowers it gives us in a typical year when the temps get hotter earlier than they do in Wyoming. So I guess I'll grow and plant a few more and hope for another perfect spring!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Monumental plants

Wouldn't you know, right after I'd posted the picture below, I found a much better one above: I put them both in...paralax. Sure miss that plant! Continue below...

I suppose there are plants that are monumental in size, like redwoods. I'm talking more about those plants that loom in one's life. This modest looking morsel in the picture is Daphne jasminea, a very local, and probably endangered daphne that comes from Mt. Parnassos in Greece and perhaps a few other spots introduced to cultivation by Brian Matthew (then of Kew) a few decades ago. At first it was viewed as very challenging to grow--in their monograph Matthew and Brickell suggest that alpine house culture is necessary--so when I first obtained a rooted cutting I suffered and anguished because our alpine house was no great shakes at Denver Botanic Gardens. We propagated that first plant and had enough to experiment with so I planted a tiny rooted piece at my new home on Eudora street. That plant proceeded to prosper and live over 20 years, providing hundreds if not thousands of cuttings to local nurseries and delighting me almost every day for years with its huddled silver charms.

Only a rock gardener would be charmed: it's a twiggy little thing, and its flowers are tiny and white, for goodness sake (albeit stained on the reverse with purplish tones). Despite the name, it is scentless, although I have heard debates about people who claim to have smelled it at some point or another. Maybe the clone Brian introduced is a fluke and there are heavenly smelling forms on the cliffs above Delphi.

What the picture does not show is that this plant has a trunk almost two inches across, bright cinnamon and smooth as a birch, and that this is a gnarly bonsai that blooms from spring to fall and that its leaves, albeit small and silvery, are evergreen and that it is an utter delight and a perfect foil to all the other greener daphnes or anything else growing nearby for that matter.

For years I would take visiting cognoscenti out to see this plant, and I would delight to watch them gawk and visibly yearn to possess it. Today, gardens across this region have their own specimens, many approaching the size of this original plant, which alas, perished a few years ago once we sold the house (the new owners let it dry out one too many times).

But in my new Quince garden I have not one but several progeny that are quickly attaining the same venerability. Sometimes I think the greatest monuments in my life are these little plants that carry with them so many associations and connect us and our gardens to the wide world. And the stories they bring with them comprise the little monuments that gradually transform our gardening lives into something far grander than anyone suspects. Let them have their Wii's and Blueteeth and gadgetry: I'll bask in the reflected glory of Parnassos with Apollo, admiring my little daphne!

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Trumpets blaring

When people ask me "why a rock garden" I can think of no better answer than to say "it's the best way to grow trumpet gentians (Gentiana acaulis)". There are a cluster of gentians that are found from the Pyrenees in the west to the Balkans in the east that resemble one another closely, and are often subsumed by the single epithet: these variations (G. angustifolia, G. alpina, G. dinarica to name a few) do vary significantly in their geographical distribution, ecology and detailed morphology--but in bloom they are very similar to one another. I had large clumps of a half dozen subspecies growing in my Boulder Garden thirty years ago. I had these divided into hundreds of pieces and established in pots, and set most of these into the Rock Alpine Garden where almost all of them perished over the next two years (I planted them in too hungry and lean of soils: they like rich loam. A lesson I learned expensively.) There is a sort of intermediate beast that has been cultivated for at least 100 years and is generally easier and more floriferous than the wild forms in the garden. That is what we now have growing mostly in Denver: it is extremely easily grown in good loam, and very accommodating.

One enchanted afternoon in late June, 1986 I got on the ski lift in Pontresina, Switzerland with Ed Connors (who was chairman of the board of Denver Botanic Gardens about that time): we wafted above countless acres of Alpine tundra studded with countless millions of this dazzling gentian in full bloom amid mats of alpine azalea (Loiseleuria procumbens) and a hundred other alpine treasures. It was one of those golden afternoons one never forgets: when we got to the top of the mountain, Ed and I opted to walk back down through the throngs of sapphire trumpets: I was drunk with color and happiness that day. Each year as my colonies of trumpet gentians blossom, it seems the magic of the Alps returns in miniature to my own garden: each year there seem to be a few more of them, and they can bloom from mid-April almost to June with random flowers appearing in summer and autumn.

That blue of blues may be a challenge to photograph, but digital cameras seem to capture it pretty well. It's hard to believe in a brief four months I will be leaning over it once again and drinking in its royal blue.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Unseasonable greetings...

The thermometer is plunging again below zero F, so you can hardly blame me for delving once again in to my archives: I stumbled on this image as I was preparing a talk for tomorrow's Turf Conference...I suppose by the time spring arrives, I will be reminiscing about the quiet, simple elegance of winter's intaglio landscapes....not!

This picture was taken in mid May: high point for rock gardens. It's mostly Helianthemum numullarium (lower right), bright pink Phlox in the center (creeping and clumping and lilac in the upper right) and the vibrant blue is Turkish veronica. A shrubby penstemon is dangling on the far left...dontcha just want to take a stroll up that gravel path? There are lots of goodies where it's headed, I assure you!

I have to savor the images of spring this time of year because when spring does come I am so busy touring people, weeding, potting, giving talks, visiting other gardens, taking quick field trips to nature and just generally hyperventilating that I guarantee you this Blog will grind to a very slow pace.

God invented winter so gardeners can kind of catch up, I'm convinced! And post lots of pretty images on their blogs of course...

Is there a person on the planet who couldn't guess where these pictures were taken? It's -11F outside right now, and the memories of April in the Netherlands are positively tropical by contrast. The irony, of course, is that tulips and most bulbs come from vicious steppe climates and only grow superbly in Holland by being cosseted and pampered. I wonder if it has ever been this cold in the Netherlands? The sun is nearly 2 hours up in the sky, and everything is that deathly still and quiet that it gets when it's beastly cold....brrrrrr.....time for me to load my stuff and be grateful that my car is in a garage!

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Juno: Queen of the Gods

I have only met one person who told me he didn't like Juno iris. I don't think he really knows Juno iris. Most people who've seen or grown a few are usually smitten with their grace and variable beauty. This giant section of the genus (over 50 species) grows from the Mediterranean in the far West all the way to Central Asia in the east, with the largest number concentrated between the Caucasus and Tien Shan mountains: friendly territory like Iran, Afghanistan and suchlike.

There are a number of species that are very tiny high alpines, and a few giants of the steppe, but most come in that handy size between 6" and a foot. Unlike other irises, that often are fussy and need to be divided and sited perfectly, junos in Colorado grow almost anywhere provided they are not overwatered or too shady. They come in virtually all the colors that iris have perfected: especially blues and yellows, although some approach deep violet purple and there are lots of whites, near orange species and many that combine different colors in a single blossom.

This picture captures the intricate dance of a mature plant: I believe it's Iris vicaria, collected as a bulb in Central Asia by Josef Halda and given to me almost 20 years ago: it thrived in this spot for fifteen or more years until I sold the house where it grew: I divided it into several dozen pieces (I think there may have been over fifty chunks) and moved them to my new house where each and every one seems to have prospered and should be putting on a brave show in 3-4 months. A few kinds are out as early as February some years. Tony Hall, long time curator of the Alpine House at Kew has been working on a monograph of this section in his retirement: when it comes out, it is sure to generate even greater interest in the group: now's the time to stock up on species!

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

It's freezing out there!

In the teens and near zero temperatures (Farenheit of course) predicted for the next few days. I have to admit, the dusting of powdery snow is gorgeous. But as I sift through my digital images preparing some talks for the coming weeks, I bask in the high summer glory of my Quince garden, and especially the wide swaths of perennials that thrive in the unwatered gardens. I treasure the woodlanders (that can be a challenge to grow well here), and dote on high alpine treasures in the rock garden, but the xeriscapes with their accommodating mats and mounds and stunning display rate higher and higher in my estimation. This distant cousin to the perennial border is really a novel form of garden art practically invented in the Denver area: the use of plants from steppe climates in naturalistic drifts has been imitated elsewhere (the Gravel Garden, by Beth Chatto for instance): but in wet climates, trees and shrubs would invade eventually. The steppe climate is really meant for us. And hovering in the back of my mind is the notion that perhaps one can assemble the perfect assortment of plants so that a garden like this could really become low maintenance, and almost an ecological equilibrium--needing no supplemental water and little care from me over time.

I better come clean and say that this is definitely an illusion: this garden takes LOTS of time and attention right now...but the day will come, just wait and see!

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