Thursday, February 25, 2010

Fleeting friends...

It looks pretty dowdy...
The picture below shows Pulsatilla pratensis in a better light--the backlight making the shining hairs glow, and the tulip cheers things up a tad...
But the second picture doesn't show the nearly black flowers...why write about P. pratensis near the end of February? When the first crocuses are open at my house, and hellebores and Adonis amurensis blooming, not to mention the first gaggle of snowdrops (in their multifarious sizes and splotch shapes). I gotta tell you, this interminable winter has taught me we need to do a lot more to liven up our winter landscapes.
But spring is around the corner: most years at least a few pasqueflowers bloom in March. I remember one year one bloomed in February in the Rock Alpine Garden. There are dozens of species names out there for Pasquies, and there are actually some really different kinds: I can't grow the alpine giants at all thus far (alpina, apiifolia or occidentalis) though I would love to. And it's hard to beat plain old vulgaris for color and panache. And who doesn't have dozens of pictures of our native patens, which I supposedly saw in Mongolia last July (not listed for that flora), although I gotta tell you, Central Asian patens--the type species--is not the same beast as ours...I have grown a dozen or more distinct Pasqueflowers, and yet this one haunts me.
It is likely that of the whole magnificent rabble of pasqueflowers, Pulsatilla pratensis may be the most homely: nodding, black, dusky, shy. And I love it. Many pasqueflowers are hairy, but this one combines black color and ermine hair in such a subtle way. I have grown dozens of plants of this at Denver Botanic Gardens when I was curator of the Rock Alpine Garden. They were clustered here, and clustered there and probably not more than a few dozen visitors ever even noticed them. They grew for two, four...maybe five or six years and passed away. I grew this robust specimen for five or six years at Quince (my current garden) until it too pooped out last summer: one day I noticed the whole clump was limp. Probably five or six years of high living did it in (my xeriscape has deep soil, and lots of compost mixed in: it grew robustly: in a harsher spot it might have lasted longer). Then all that wetness last spring and early summer: poof! That was it.
One of the bittersweet pleasures of being a lifetime gardener (over 50 years this year!) is having plants drift in and out of your life: aside from peonies, epimediums and a few other Methuselahs, most perennials only really live for a half dozen, a dozen years at most. A few regenerate from seed readily, and others spread by roots (like anemones or lily of the valley), but most will disappear eventually (just like us: think about it!).
The only way you're going to keep Pulsatilla pratensis around is to sow seed every five years or so and get young plants, or hope you have found a perfect spot where it will do the regeneration for you. Pulsatilla vulgaris spread so vigorously at the Rock Alpine Garden I was ordered to remove most of them once (one of the few mandates I've ever been given at work!). And so it is I am always trying to find a place where a plant might be so happy it will regenerate itself from seed...or where it is a trifle stressed so it doesn't bloom itself to death.
What about us, though: do we just bloom a few years and die? I'd like to think we strew a bit of fun and beauty along our way too, and maybe if we scatter enough ideas and good thoughts around, our spiritual seed will spread and prosper....if the conditions are just right!
I have failed thus far to find that perfect spot for the dusky, nodding pasqueflower. Thank heavens I take pictures (however mediocre) to remind me of these fleeting friends. Make a mental note to order seed once again and see if I can't find a better spot for this one!

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Prairie sensitivity

Like venus-fly-traps, Mimosa pudica is a classic "wow" plant that teachers love to show children: after all it MOVES when you touch it. Since it's a tropical weed, it is quite sensitive to frost and must be kept moist. Few people realize that Sensitive Plant has an extremely similar looking cousin native to much of the southern Great Plains which thrives on heat and drought and cheerfully survives subzero cold. The genus Schrankia boasts several species which come into Colorado, although I have only seen them growing wild in Texas and New Mexico where they are quite widespread and abundant. They make a trailing groundcover that can cover a meter or more of ground in a summer with their ferny, delicate looking leaves. Like their tropical cousin, these close quickly when you brush against them (the warmer the weather, the quicker they close). The stems are bristly with fine prickles that might make some fussy gardeners nervous. Not me. I absolutely love this plant.

I hope we grow wide swaths of it in the new Children's garden at Denver Botanic Gardens. I only have one sad little specimen in my home garden, but the Gardens has two (the ones in these pictures) thriving in Dryland Mesa where they bloom on and off all summer (abundantly after a good rain). The long, bristly seedpods are quite fun as well. Bluebird nursery sells this, but other than a few mentions in technical floras, this (one of America's most entertaining and useful ornamentals) is otherwise practically unknown.

Let's plant lots of it in the coming years and change that dreadful state of affairs! Heaven only knows, we can use more sensitivity--and not just on the plains!

Monday, February 8, 2010

Passion of my life, naked poetry, mine forever!

A week or so ago Peter (Panayoti!) Podaras came by for a visit on his way to California: Peter is from Connecticut originally, although has spent most recent decades in New York. He is a gardener and hybridizer par excellence. He was startled by our sunny, brash weather. The snow may be blowing this morning, but virtually all of January was sunny and quite warm. Pete couldn't stop talking about our shirtsleeve winter weather.

It's no surprise that plants that evolved in sunny winter climates are evergreen (or perhaps more often ever silver): the Watersmart garden, shown above, is perhaps Denver Botanic Garden's most stunning showcase of the showiest drought adapted plants combined in superb vignettes. This is no surprise, since Lauren Springer Ogden did the initial design and it has been honed and polished by Dan Johnson, two stellar talents.

I have taken photos from this vantage point almost every month of the year (especially in the showy spring, summer and fall months). If asked, I might produce a few. But truth be said, the subtle interweave of neutral tints in winter is perhaps its greatest strength. It takes a real gardener to recognize the naked poetry of a garden in winter, someone like Juan Ramon Jimenez who declared "Oh pasión de mi vida, poesía desnuda, mía para siempre".

Saturday, February 6, 2010


There are not many public gardens in North America that dazzle in the week between Christmas and New Years. Of course, "The Huntington" (which to almost anyone with taste and judgment in America refers to the Huntington Botanical Garden) dazzles any and every day of the year. Ironically, the botanic garden there plays third fiddle to the library (numero uno) and the art gallery (numero dos) which I find very funny. You see: I am a bibliophile who has many thousands of books and prides myself on my bookishness. I love art (and own over a hundred original artworks) and yet after a dozen visits to San Marino, I have never stepped foot in either their hallowed Library, nor their august Art Gallery: why visit simulacra when you've got the Real Thing in the garden? They have a dozen or more of the finest gardens in the America as well. But everyone knows their Desert Garden stands head and shoulders over not just their stunning collections but every other garden in North America. This is almost painful for me to admit, having spent 30 years trying to polish the jewel of Denver (which may give Huntington a run for their money in the long run). Really, if you can quietly discount Arboreta (which are the strong suit in American public horticulture) the only botanic garden that has captivated me as much is Berkeley's Strawberry Canyon: but that's another complicated story...

This last visit gave me a greater appreciation of their extensive Japanese Garden and Bonsai collection: extremely dramatic setting and superlative maintenance.

The new Chinese Garden at Huntingon is raw still and vast. It will take years for the plants to catch up with the elaborate hardscape. It is a stunning tour de force...
I could regale you with hundreds of pictures that I have taken in every season: the Rose Garden in June, the new Conservatory before construction and in its fabulous fulfillment, the Subtropical Garden with all those weird and wonderful trees, the Desert Conservatory (John Trager's masterpiece where even the pots dazzle), the exquisite new Children's Garden which is as fun for adults as kids, the wonderful borders everywhere, and on and on and on. Of course, 95% of my Huntington pix are of the Desert Garden...People may say whatever they wish about Los Angeles: if the Huntington did not exist, it would still have the finest public gardens in America. With the crown jewel of the Huntington, L.A. is the unquestioned treasure trove of American Horticulture in my book and Jim Folsom is the King!

P.S. Thanks to Susan Eubank and Paul Martin for hosting us that marvellous Saturday after Christmas at Huntington and their wonderful home nearby. And Elizabeth (with her accordion): can we have an encore in the Sierra in a few weeks?

Friday, February 5, 2010

I doubt he'll be reading this...

My son. Jesse. Isn't he a handsome dude? I doubt that I spent more than a few minutes (if that) fantasizing about having children or worrying or thinking about them before I got married. It wasn't an option, really. I had no intention of having kids. They came with the turf (or marriage contract: Gwen made having two kids a condition of getting married). My eldest--Eleni--is 22 (I launched the blog when she moved out on her own) and now my younger son will be 18 in about a month.
I suppose there are parents who are detached or resent or hate their kids. Most of us are enthralled and enslaved and abashed and humbled by their mere existence. And there are kids who are truly cursed who take advantage of their parents' doting upon them.
My kids, thank God, have thus far trod lightly upon my heart. They have given me enormous joy and pleasure and their childhood has literally whizzed past me. Their co-existence in my homes would be hard to describe to someone who hasn't had children. They are like exotic animals who are benign and tame at the same time. They are like funhouse mirrors that reflect your fondest aspirations and dreams in a purified, glorious form. They come to ineluctably personify all that you hope for in the world.
There are few things more tedious in the world than doting parents (I am patently one) who find everything their brats say or do to be dazzling and fantastic. So I shall be brief. It's not surprising that I hardly ever watch television when I've had such pretty kids who've kept me so thoroughly entertained: Jesse has mastered magic, juggling, dancing, musical instruments, cooking, joke and story telling--so many things that amuse and beguile. I have never heard him say an unkind thing to anyone. He is the son I would have wanted. It's about time I let the world know, especially since I doubt he'll be reading this...

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

What's wrong with this picture?

As Jan and Jesse and I whizzed into Mancos, the lumbermill caught our attention, but then one of us noticed the sign and the moment had to be preserved. This was the day or two after Thanksgiving when we spent a magical few days on the road to Durango to visit our buddy Jeff Wagner and his estancia (now smothered with unbelievable quantities of snow, we hear), but then it was in early wintry glory. We visited Mesa Verde and Fort Lewis and FINALLY saw Pinus strobiformis (Colorado's rarest and most majestic native tree--more anon) in the wild...very productive coupla days...

Speaking of contradictions, this past Sunday evening the three of us, along with Peter (Panayoti!) Podaras went to see Avatar: the current movie phenom. I may be the only American who has never seen Gone with the Wind, Titanic, the Godfather nor Star Wars, so it was something of a sacrifice to succumb to this bout of popular culture, but as a botanist/horticulturist I was told it was incumbent upon me to check out the extraterrestrial flora.

Of course, the plot line was thin, (so is the acting). It's basically an action flick/cartoon: the 3-dimensionality is really superfluous in my opinion. I admit, under duress, that I was swept along anyway. The trope of having a man in a wheel chair assume an athletic avatar form was clever, and Sigourney Weaver always shines: the special effects (however) are the real stars. The theme (for me) was troubling somehow: pitting the crude mechanicality of the armed forces against primal, throbbing nature was a tad too Manichean. Albeit it matches my own cosmology a bit too comfortably I fear... Watching the American army be decimated by dinosaurs and pterosaur "cowpokes", G.I.'s literally skewered right and left when we are engaged in a war of sorts with cultural dinosaurs in the Mideast struck me as verging on the fringes of treason (albeit the very outer fringes...). The metaphor does not map out in Iraq and Afghanistan (which emphatically do not have rain forests, and nary a single near naked, giant, blue female Taliban). One particularly dramatic moment when the arch-evil Army commander is impaled by arrows might have been greeted by cheers in another context had he not been an agent of the US Army. The silence was deafening. The theatre was sold out. And we are all of us conflicted.

What a strange paradox we are living: everyone thinks he is an environmentalist after some fashion, and yet our civilization as it exists requires those mountains of logs, and all of us are contentedly consuming. Meanwhile we dump metric tons of carbon into the air every few seconds, and the worlds pristine areas are disappearing in a geologic nanosecond. Idiot politicians and the rabid radio rabble pride themselves on denying global warming (I believe Dante would place them in the hottest ring of Hell)...meanwhile we lead our lives of quiet desperation. Or perhaps I should say denial?

Beam me up, Scotty!

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