Sunday, April 25, 2010

Taste is relative

Now if I wore yellow pants and a pink shirt, you would notice and would probably not be impressed. But when Tulipa bakeri (or is it T. saxatilis?) dons these same tints, we say "ooh" and "aah" in a good way. I have grown this little gem on many occasions, and it blooms in a desultory fashion and will often live ten or more years. Until Dan Johnson planted these in the Watersmart garden, I would have never thought this awesome Cretan tulip had it in it to be such a good garden plant in Colorado. Now to figure out what it is about this spot that is so perfect, but year after year, and every year, this patch of this breathtaking tulip dazzles. I guess I'll have to order another dozen and try over again at home!
Not only the elegant flower combination (pink and yellow, who'd a thunk?) but the elegant carriage, everything about this plant is delightful. And it grows wild only on that craggy Mediterranean island where my parents were both born, and where I spent enchanted summers as a child and young man. Where's that Brent and Becky's catalogue, anyway?

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Daffodowndillies and lost love

We don't really "do" daffodils in Colorado they way we should: people water enough so that the sort of display you find throughout our Lilac Garden (always wonderful but positively stunning since Ann Montague came aboard: she's one of Denver Botanic Gardens supreme secret weapons). There are huge spreads of dozens of cultivars, all perfectly labeled. Drop by and check them out some time in the next week or so: they are in peak form. We should have even more masses like this, since most people water more than enough to grow them like they do in England or the US coasts where some public gardens are chockablock full of daffies: a good thing!
A closeup of a luminous hybrid taken at Waring House where there's a fine stand: I forgot to photograph the label. Sorry! Brent Heath would know what this was immediately, as would John Morris in St. Louis. I shall in my next life. But I'm a species man!

And man oh man, this is the species: the typical wild form of Narcissus pseudonarcissus, the Tenby Daffodil, so called. This is the ancestor of most hybrids, and just as lovely, still found wild here and there in England although I suspect a lot of the wild locations represent sites of ancient cultivation. This is the plant through which William Wordsworth wandered cloudily. I can't imagine a literary gardener not wanting a planting of this (I put these in the Rock Alpine Garden nearly 30 years ago! They've obliged yearly ever since, clumping up nicely. Most years Corydalis bulbosa joins them, but this year they're taking separate vacations. Bad sign, that.

This is my one claim to fame narcissistically, so to speak. I got some bulbs of this (Narcissus scaberulus) collected in Portugal in the mid 1980's and planted them at the Gardens and in my home garden. They eventually petered out at DBG, but prospered at my Eudora garden where they made quite a large colony. When we sold that house I tried to collect as many as I could which I shared around, and fortunately, it's taken to my new home well, and I have quite a few dotting my rock work. Mind you, this plant is practically non-existent in commerce. The flower is barely an inch across: you could not have too much of this good thing, and thank Heavens it likes my Quince place! BTW, the new owners of Eudora have actually kept the place up: I went by the other day...there were hundreds of Corydalis malkensis blooming and everything was trim. Very cool! I hope some of the scaberulus stayed put for them!

And finally my current fave, Narcissus bulbocodium var. graelsii. This is the first time this taxon has bloomed for me, and it's spurred me on to try more of this wonderful section of daffodils. One of the most enchanting experiences of my life was wandering cloudily through vale after vale of miniature hoop petticoat daffodils naturalized by the million (really!) one luminous late afternoon in April 29 years ago exactly at Savill Garden. Giant Magnolia campbellii were sporting their immense pink salvers overhead, and Lysichiton americanum and L. camtschaticum both were proliferating along the freshets in absolute perfection of yellow and white respectively....and did I mention the sweeps of primroses? And every vale had its own subspecies of N. bulbocodium in perfect perfection in the amber twilight, and just me and my girlfriend (my childhood love). Not all is lost: I have some fabulous transparencies of Savill, and she's still alive and seemingly happy, and heck! We're Facebook Friends...

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

D'j you know these irises?

Iris nicolae

This remarkable morsel leads off the parade of Junos, a section of the genus Iris that Rodionenko (the leading Russian authority on the family) believes deserves generic rank, so that in Russian floras you will find the above listed as Juno nicolae. Whatever their ultimate designation, this highly distinctive group of irises loves Colorado, and over the decades we've managed to gather a number of them and grow them pretty well. I blogged earlier about Iris vicaria, and a few more species are budding up to bloom, but these have been the highlights of my Juno year so far. I. nicolae was actually blooming in March at Centennial Garden, and the following spectacle was photographed there a week ago. It looks as happy there as it must be high in the alpine meadows of Central Asia whence it originated.

Iris zinaidae

I have a bulb or two of this gem in my home garden, but they are not quite to blooming stage: the clumps at Centennial are growing in a groundcover of Zinnia grandiflora and get little irrigation. It's amazing how well they've done there. Obviously, plants with "z" in their name belong together (perhaps I should try it in a mat of Zauschneria?) That does give me an idea...I am quite sure this is another central Asian.

Iris parvula
This cool gem is a new one for me: I purchased this in 2008 from Beaver Creek Greenhouses (the only source in America for the rarer Junos) and it is the first of a bevy of seedlings from them to bloom. I can't wait to see the others, although most may not perform until next year...
Iris bucharica
This is the commonest Juno in cultivation. These are divisions from the numerous plants at Centennial (which are still thriving there, although that garden is sadly neglected) that populate large areas of the Rock Alpine Garden and the Lilac Garden at Denver Botanic Gardens. My first blooms just opened at home. Thanks to DBG staff, this will likely become quite common throughout Denver in the coming years: Maria Bumgarner (who is responsible for the fabulous junos at Centennial) divided hundreds of these and sold them at our fall plant sale. Looks like they're ready for thinning again! This truly brings a bit of the glory of Buchara (you can almost see the golden domes of the grand mosques glinting in the distance) to our windy steppe.

Iris aucheri

Somehow, Mike Kintgen managed to resurrect this poor plant which was smothered by perennials in the Rock Alpine Garden. I probably planted this two and a half decades ago: there were once five or six huge clumps of this iris on this hill that should have been divided and pampered, but instead I allowed various plants to cover them (a sure way to lose Junos). There is an almost black form of this iris collected no doubt in the same Turkish meadow that is thriving at Centennial, but my picture didn't do it justice. Maybe next year I can tantalize you with that.
I find Junos to be the ultimate aristocrats of early spring (much as Oncocyclus iris are the queens of late spring). I hope one day to visit RBG Kew when Tony Hall's spectacular display of junos is at its peak--usually in early March: he's been writing a monograph on this section for some time now: hurry up Tony! I have seen pictures of junos dotting the Asian landscape for miles: unlike daffodils (which need irrigation to thrive) these are extremely drought tolerant, and along with crocus and tulips the perfect bulbs for American xeriscapes. Bring them on!

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Thirty years and ticking...

Brian (my boss) told me that Thursday was my 30th anniversary working at Denver Botanic Gardens... He congratulated me and gave me a carved walking stick which I shall certainly employ on future hikes and think of him and the institution with genuine tenderness: not many people spend 30 years working in a paradise of flowers. There have (of course) been times of professional frustration and I have "burnt out" on occasion: a workplace no matter how beautiful and exciting is, after all, not a panacea for one's personal dramas. It is perhaps a tribute to my particular workplace that my foibles and faults have not ruined it for me. On the contrary each year, it becomes more and more the garden of my dreams...
I could have picked no end of rare plants: there must be twenty or thirty Corydalis alone blooming at Denver Botanic Gardens (my original plantings have sometimes proliferated, but Mike's are still choice and modest). There are Juno iris, and lots of saxifrages and drabas up the wazoo (not a technical term...don't look it up). But I have picked Pulsatilla vulgaris as my anniversary flower. There is something emblematic about the first picture: one of a hundred or so robust pulsatillas (there have been thousands: one of my former bosses made me take out most of them!) front of Agave neomexicana. Classic European alpine and mythic American xerophyte cohabitating, as it were. Henry James seemed to say in his books that the chasm between corrupt, sophisticated Europe and naive, pure-hearted America was too vast to bridge. I'd like to think my horticulture (like my hero Vladimir Nabokov's writing) somehow ties the world together, showing that human culture expresses itself through plants as much as words. One thing's for certain: I shan't be spending another thirty years at DBG.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Three cheers for Helen!

Two vignettes from Helen Nelson's magical garden in South Metro: the big blue mat center and bottom is none other than Veronica thymoides var. pseudocinerea. It was collected in Turkey by Jim and Jenny Archibald nearly a quarter century ago, and we've grown it several places at Denver Botanic Gardens and at my homes since then. But I have never seen it bloom as prolifically as it does for Helen. In fact, everything in her garden seems just a little brighter, looks just a little fresher. She's one of these natural talents who seems to know just how to grow and show off a plant.
She has volunteered at Denver Botanic Gardens since the 1990's and is treasured by all the staff who works with her for her uncanny knack at gardening. Her magnificent garden will be featured in this year's Garden Conservancy tours on May 22: you can find out more about these tours at: Garden Conservancy Open days. Come to think of it, my garden will be showcased as well: I better go out and weed a bit more!

Wondeful albino form of Omphalodes verna, a gorgeous borage from Europe at Helen's garden.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Fight Love Liberty

I have visited Filoli quite a few times, almost from the time that it first went "public" a few decades ago. This truly grand estate could well be described as the West Coast bookend, holding up the tradition of grand European garden design and estate gardening in much the same way that Longwood, that other bulwark that shores the tradition up on the East Coast. Much of the year, this sort of garden is lovely enough, elegant and serene and (well) just a tad dullish to my plantsman eyes. But I hadn't bargained on springtime. Jan and I visited Filoli about a week ago, the last day in March and it was almost too much. I start my disquisition with the modest groundcovering of Cyclamen repandum, the lovely spring bloomer from Southern France that I have also seen covering whole slopes of the Taygetos mountains in Greece. This, I believe, is the true French form, and wonderful. In fact, there are naturalistic touches everywhere at Filoli that counterbalance the grandiose vistas and parterres. I especially love the ancient Camperdown elms covered with moss, and the pollarded Plane Trees that remind me of Paris. There are myriad details like this, and masses of magnolias, cherries, espaliered apples galore, huge banks of Camellias in the woods, azaleas and rhododendrons, all in full bloom.

\Here we have dueling Wisteria: white on one wall, lavender on the other. And their fragrance was heady.

I'm sure the tulips and forget-me-nots will be removed in a few weeks and some summer bedding installed.

This section of pareterre consisted of three colors of wallflowers: purple-lavender, orange and bright yellow making a wonderful and probably very long blooming picture.

The herb garden contained an undulating knot garden that I really liked. Of course they've had months of torrential rain and no severe cold snaps, so everything was lush and very happy looking.

Far and away my favorite parterre was filled with Baby blue eyes (Nemophila menziesii) which one never sees in gardens in Colorado. What an innocent and pure color!
Most of the huge English yews had been heavily pruned: almost savagely pruned. I will not show those because they were rather frightening to look at. I'm sure they will recover in a few months and look full again. But otherwise I have seen so few gardens in such impeccable condition, so lovingly maintained and I don't think even England has many gardens with such concentration of good design and lavish plantings.
I must grudgingly put Filoli in the front ranks of American gardens. Why grudgingly? The lush English style is really the enemy in Colorado where we are trying to encourage xeric and native planting as much as possible. You bring any fledgling gardener to Filoli and they will tell you "This is what I want!".
I smile wanly and think, yes, I too like it. Too.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Sierra dreamin'

From Bryce we wended through Zion (which has many charms as well) and through the Mojave to the foothills of the Sierra Nevada where we stayed as guests at Susan Eubank and Paul Martin's wonderful mountain homes (yes homes, they have two side by side: one for them and their adorable daughter Elizabeth and one they usually rent out: since it was unrented, we could have a house all to ourselves!). Sierra spring is incredibly beautiful. The above is the view from their back door: the orange in front is a wonderful borage in the genus Amsickia that colored meadows for acres. In the distance you can glimpse California redbuds (Cercis occidentalis) and rock faces stained with the early bloom of annuals. We saw dozens of wonderful plants, but I was particularly thrilled to see a widespread manzanita, Arctostaphylos viscida, in prime form: these even formed small trees and was everywhere in the foothills from the valley up to the deep snow accumulation areas.
Of the hundreds of wondeful wildflowers we glimpsed along the roadsides or on our too brief of hikes, the one I shall single out is the ubiquitous succulent of the Sierras (and also the coast range). I have seen Dudleya cymosa many places along the foothills of the Sierras, sometimes growing to almost 6000', as in the Yuba river canyon where I collected seed almost twenty years ago. I have grown this for many years in my various gardens, although I notice I don't have it right now: time to get some fresh seed! The ghostly grey rosettes are worth growing in their own right, but the brilliant yellow, orange or even red flowers are wonderfully translucent and make a wonderful show in the wild or the garden...I could be happily reincarnated as a Sierra pollinator....

Monday, April 5, 2010


I know, I was crazy to do it. But my son managed to turn 18 a month ago, and I'd never shown him Sequiodendrons in California, not to mention redwoods and incense cedars (and all the other Californian dendrophantasmagoria) and now that he's something of a tree nerd, that's tantamount to child abuse. So 11 days, almost 3000 miles....the fantastic tableaux of Western America spun by our windows. Bryce on ice....or perhaps better phrased, ice on Bryce was the hardly the first aha! We drove through hundreds of miles of postcard views by then, but Bryce stops you in your tracks. At nearly 8000', there wasn't a lot in bloom up here (there was more and more as the coast approached).

I am a plant nerd first and foremost. But Bryce never ceases to dazzle and even make the likes of me forget chlorphyll for the nonce. I can't imagine anyone who could climb out to Bryce point on a balmy March day like we did and not be humbled by the sheer extravagance, the noble baroque excess Nature can perform when she feels like it. Rococo is not enough. Frankly it can only to be summed up with one word: Churrigueresco. Come to think of it, that's a pretty good word to describe Jesse's hair that day!

To paraphrase Ogden Nash, Bryce is nice, but ice on Bryce is paradise.

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