Monday, March 15, 2010


Reginald Farrer famously compares Oncocyclus to mourning Troads, that flash brilliantly and then perish. If that is so, Iris iberica ssp. elegantissima is Hecuba, queen of Troy. I probably took this picture twenty or more years ago: I remember when I first started to grow Oncocyclus. They emerge in winter, and start budding up in early spring, and we invariably get snow after snow and we're traumatized. And they still seem to persist, then bloom and knock your socks off. This vegetative masterpiece inspired Georgia O'Keefe, who painted it. I don't think her painting improves on the real thing, by the way (for a bit of heresy). There's nothing like the real thing.
It is still apparently fairly common near Ararat, blooming in May and June. I have seen pictures of hillsides covered with it, like so many hankies blowing in the wind. It commands good prices and is a mainstay of serious rock garden bulb enthusiasts who struggle with it.
In Colorado it just wants fresh, well drained soil that is kept moistish in spring, but allowed to get very hot and dry in summer.
The real secret of this plant is that it needs frequent division and to be replanted in fresh soil. If you forget, it will perish in a year or two. Bill Adams built up his stock to hundreds of plants which he neglected a bit, and suddenly they were gone.
I have lost it several times. I got a rhizome last fall thanks to John Baumfalk, the gray eminence of Aril irises...and it has come up as several lusty fans this spring: hurrah! This time it shall not slip my net: I will have it coming out my ears in a few years...just wait!
Meanwhile I look at this old picture and sigh...

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Blast from the past...

The new season is quickly advancing and there are lots of things actually in bloom: I've taken lots of pix, but I wait to download them until there's I went to this file of pictures I scanned a few years ago from old transparencies. A depressing number of them are extinct from my garden, including this morsel. This is a miniature, deep blue Dracocephalum: it is probably Dracocephalum paulseni, although it could be the rather similar D. aucheri--I have grown and loved both, and both have departed.

I could go on and on about blue cushion plants, and my love of mints. Instead, let me say that no matter what plant I had dredged up (incognito: the images only show up as numbers when I upload them), likely nine out of ten would be no longer with me, although the slides date from recent decades.

I am often asked at talks (so effective has the lobbying been by the native purity nazis) if I am afraid a plant I introduce will be weedy: how to explain that generally speaking, the plants I grow and the plants I try to grow are actually a bit challenging to grow at all. The great bulk of the plants we obtain year to year for our gardens are but fleeting visitors. We grow them for the frisson of learning something new, of being connected to a distant and mysterious place, for the aesthetic thrill of watching them evolve and develop. If they're weedy, for Heaven's sake you don't keep them (and probably don't even try to grow them in the first place).

To ask a plant explorer if he thinks his plants will be weeds is like asking a doctor if he expects to kill his next patient. Of course, nobody would skewer the doctor because it would be rude. Both things are possibilities (although I suspect more doctors kill patients than horticulturists produce new weeds). But both doctors and plant collectors devoutly strain to avoid the statistically unlikely, but possible unfortunate outcomes of their craft. To grill us about it isn't just bad taste, it's hostile.

But then horticulturists don't have either the salaries or status of doctors: no wonder people are more willing to insult us! Obviously, we need to charge more!

(P.S. consider that weeds are not intrinsically evil, or even just bad, but that the environment that we create that encourages them is the root cause of their weediness. I increasingly think of weeds as Nature's attempt to protect the ravaged body of the earth assaulted by mankind: you fear weeds? Don't look in the mirror.)

Monday, March 8, 2010

Loved and lost

My photo files are filled with plants I have loved and lost. Few rankle quite like this one: I realize white flowers are generally not a nurseryman's faves. Certain people I know have even said "white is not a color: it is the absence of color". Those scientifically inclined might even say it's all colors in one. Whatever! But just look at that little munchkin, tucked alongside the pink granite just right, with that ghostly tint. Oh yes, I guess I should tell you: this is Chamaerhodos mongolica, a rather charming name. "Ground rose" indeed: I noticed that generic in our Colorado flora and conjured a gorgeous, groundcovering rose. Our native species forms a filigree rosette two or three inches across at most, and blooms the second year with a spike of gray green flowers that are truly insignificant. Even so, I was thrilled to find virtually the same plant in Central Asia last summer...but this tiny shrub, with its pristine white blossoms eluded me in the wild. It is one of the most charming miniature plants: I have grown it in several spots and it has lasted two or three years and then folded its tent and returned to Mongolia. As Geoffrey Charlesworth observed, it doesn't really matter if you have grown a plant, unless you have a picture to prove that you have! I have the picture. I pine for the plant!

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Random memento

Didn't have a clue what to blog about so I literally clicked on a random picture in my files and this shot of Kendrick Lake popped up: not surprising since I (and everyone else on the planet it seems) have taken a lot of pictures there. This shot does tell an interesting story, looking at the mix of American, African and Eurasian drylanders mixed up together...Interesting to note that the bright reds and yellows only occupy a fraction of the picture: texture is the real theme...since there is something different blooming every few weeks, this garden achieves greatness by combining bright color with wonderful plant form. A few weeks after this picture was taken a devastating hail really did wreak havoc: the staff there took advantage of that to really tear the place up and add lots of new features. One of the secrets of this garden is just how radically it is constantly made over.
Time to wreak a little havoc in mine as well...if I can get some time to work out there! The first bulbs are out, and hellebores and even a Spanish draba and a Colchicum (kesselringianum)...Yikes! the race has begun....

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