Friday, May 28, 2010


Eavesdropping strangers have been known to gasp and be horrified as rock gardeners start to rhapsodize about one another's buns. It does verge a bit on the mildly salacious when you hear some people moan and coo over someone's irresistible bun in their garden. Surely no buns are harder, more rhapsodical and amazing than the endless clan of sandworts. Sometimes classed as Arenaria, they are often split into Minuartia: under both these names you will find dozens of serviceable and often very handsome alpine plants that are an undervalued asset to our gardens. Numerous books have been written about primulas, saxifrages, gentians and dianthus. But sandworts languish a tad, barely meriting a few measley articles. I protest this sad state of affairs!

It is time we acknowledged the enormous contributions sandworts make to the high alpine screes and ridges. Let's begin by praising Arenaria alfacarensis, surely one of the most adaptable, showy and spectacular of tight cushion plants. This is one manifestation of a half dozen or more species of high alpine sandworts that are restricted to the summits of Spanish peaks. For years many of us have tresured Arenaria tetraquetra, also from Spain. Then along campe A. tetraquetra var. nevadensis, which was a vastly congested version of the last. Shrink this last species to a fraction of the size and you have one of the most delightful and adaptable high alpine cushion plants. Here you can see a fabulous specimen on the north crevice garden in the Rock Alpine Garden at Denver Botanic Gardens.

You can get quite large plants of this from Timberline Gardens or Laporte...come to think of it, I may need another one for a trough...

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

I take it back!

THIS is my favorite Allium of the moment. Of course it helps that Allium platycaule is going over...this is the onion whose Latin name one must pronounce very carefully: Allium akaka...

It is distributed in Western Asia, and unfortunately it's not widely available commercially. It also does not seem to split its bulb as most alliums do. I have had two bulbs I grew from seed ten or more years ago quietly sitting in the same trough for all that time, just getting bigger and better but not more plentiful....drats! The second one is not as brightly colored, but still charming... Must remember to sow seed!
I know, I looks an awful lot like the Black Mountain onion (Allium karataviense) from mountains a bit further East in Iran and the stans...which is widely available commercially in the Dutch Bulb trade. I suppose it it were the rare one and akaka the common one my opinions woudl flip flop. Truth be said...I love them all!

Allium karataviense

Sunday, May 23, 2010

A stunning native onion

Onions are problem children in the garden. Either they become nearly ineradicable pests, or else they sulk like problem children, needing something (more attention? a good drubbing? a fresh start elsewhere?). And of course, most of the ornamental onions sold by Dutch bulb firms are Eurasian. Denver Botanic Gardens ought to be renamed Christoph Botanic Gardens this time of year: Allium christophii has naturalized so enthusiastically in so many gardens there that it's verging on becoming a cliche--a majestic, magnificent and enviable cliche to be sure.

Allium aflatuenense appears to be gradually making similar inroads in my own garden: each year a new colony pops up here or there, and the older colonies get thicker. Their luminous, deep purple orbs are so stunning, who cares?

And then there are the rabble of Western American onions. They are really fabulous: dozens of species, some growing only in steppe, others in desert, others at moderate elevations and some of the most stunning above treeline. Most are graceful, colorful and worthy of the garden. Few are found in gardens. Most are tiny or at least compact, and I one day would like to grow many of them. They are not hard from seed and Ron Ratko and Alan Bradshaw both offer lots of them? So what's the schtick? Too little time, one never seems to get around to it...but somehow I have managed to obtain several clumps of Allium platycaule. They have prospered everywhere I planted them, and one clump must have had fifty flowers. The color is slightly different on each clump--from bright rose pink to lilac pink. And the foliage is lovely in all forms, flat and wavy. And it is completely drought tolerant (my biggest clump is in an unirrigated part of the garden). It has become my current favorite among the onions. And that's saying a lot!

I suppose I shall have to find out more about it now...since all I know is that it's a great garden plant and very pretty...

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

"White is not a color"

is what one of my former wives used to say to me....okay. I confess. I only have one former wife, but I can pretend, can't I? And she did used to say it (to my annoyance: I happen to like white flowers). Alas, John Q. Public and his equally opinionated spouses (former and present) tend to agree with Gwen and selling a snow white shrub that blooms not long after the snows have receded in Colorado is an uphill climb. Or just plain futile. And of course it blooms just as the crabapples and redbuds are doing their amazing rose and magenta fireworks. And yet every year I come and worship at the spectacle of Exochorda wilsonii, one of the most reliable, spectacular and really just plain wonderful flowers of spring. I googled and found two or three nurseries that supposedly sell it. My friend, Jim Knopf, has E. giraldii, and you can occasionally find the much more slender and delicate hybrid 'The Bride'. But maybe THIS is the year I can persuade that Celtic magician Mike Bone to root this (or perhaps I will remember to look for seed: surely it will set lots and lots of seed for me?)...then I too can have my own private snowstorm with puffy white clouds scudding across my own azure sky.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Queen of penstemons

As if the state of Utah weren't blessed enough (with so many gorgeous National Parks and endemic treasures), but the state is lucky enough to have the queen of penstemons named after it: Penstemon utahensis. This gorgeous morsel sneaks a short ways into Colorado, and probably makes it into Arizona I suspect, but it's main homeland is its namesake state throughout the slickrock country of the Colorado Plateau, the San Rafael Swell right up to the Tavaputs Plateau: a large portion of Utah. It starts blooming in April and you can occasionally find it at its highest extremities in June. Right now, I can't imagine how many millions must be blooming throughout the magnificent canyon country: it always seems to find a perfect spot to perch with a cliff behind (I've got a sheaf of pictures like this from all over Utah and its Colorado outpost). That color is rare in temperate plants. Somewhere between coral and cerise--eye blasting. You notice this out of the corner of your eye hundreds of yards away, even speeding by in a car. Slam on the breaks! Haul out the camera...this time maybe you'll get the definitive shot!

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Slim pickins...

My one tiny claim to Narcissus fame is that this tiniest of daffodils, Narcissus scaberulus, loves me. Mind you, the flower is less than an inch across. And you won't find it sold by bulb merchants. I simultaneously was given bulbs of this several decades ago by the spouse of a colleague at work (who collected them, shamed to say) and from an obscure English bulb merchant. I'm not sure which of these formed the base of my stock, but it prospered at the Gardens for years, but at my old house it set fat seedpods and produced dozens of progeny. When we sold the house, I made sure to transplant lots of these onto a similar north facing rock garden slope at Quince St., and shared the rest widely. So you can now tell who my best friends are locally because they too have thrifty stands of this obscure Iberian miniature.
While tulips, crocuses and iris thrive in Colorado, my luck with daffodils is mixed. I simply don't keep things wet enough many places for the standard sorts to thrive, and they often devolve into flowerless clumps of leafage. I know there are some toughies: Narcissus asturiensis has ramped all through Sandy Snyder's buffalograss lawn, and there are old clumps of pseudonarcissus, the wild sort, in the Rock Alpine Garden. But when I recall the literally millions of N. bulbocodium sorts I wandered through in Wordsworthian fashion in April of 1981 at Savill Gardens in Windsor Great Park, glowing golden in the late afternoon light, with Magnolia campbellii shimmering pink overhead and Lysichiton (white and yellow) along the streamside, I realize there is much more to do in the way of daffodils! And my little colonies of Narcissus scaberulus are pretty pitiful by contrast.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Burning bushes et al.

The third fabulous spring in a row. Don't know what's up with this crazy state of mine: we have had Magnolias opening their first flowers in early March, and there are still flowers in shady sites on them today nearly six weeks later. The Crabs and Plums and Cherries have been blooming for weeks. Nearly a month! The burning bushes (my new name for floweringquince, which is a silly name since all quince flower) have been surreal.

I drove by the park near us on the way West to Colorado Boulevard: several color forms of Crabapple from deep rose red and paler, flowsy pink ones and pure white...

What bliss...

If only it weren't an irrepressible weed, what a terrific alpine plant this would be: gorgeous contrast of flower and foliage. Wonderful deep purple foliage...aaah! the irony of it all. Oxalis corniculata thriving in a crack at a church where I spoke recently. I remember plucking leaves of this on the way to grade school and savoring the sour tang of oxalic acid (which I believe is toxic in larger quantities). Few weeds are more annoying to try and eliminate in greenhouse collections, and I have a patch that still resurrects itself in parts of my rock garden no matter how vigilant I try to be to get rid of it all. Yes. Beauty is relative indeed!

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