Monday, August 23, 2010

Apropos of Gentians...

I really do have much better pictures--probably slides--of fringed gentians. I know I took some on a trip a few years ago with Kelly Grummons and Sean Hogan somewhere in the Arkansas Valley. These are probably taken in South Park where I have managed to go just about every year for four or more decades to enjoy the spectacle in mid August. Not this year. Somehow I've gotten so bogged down with other commitments (weekend parties, and this past weekend it's been catch up in the garden) that I have not been to the hills in a month. Of course, I am about to go to Kazakhstan and spend almost a month in the Altai and Tian Shan (words that once seemed so distant and alluring, and now are familiar and almost homey to me now Since I have been there once, and spent countless hours filing images and researching plants I saw there).
So for the sake of distant hills I've neglected my back yard--the Rockies--this year. I am not proud of it. So what if I've spent over a half century exploring corners of my native mountain range. The Southern Rockies are less than half the height of Mt. Everest. They are not nearly as glaciated and rugged as the Alps or the Northern Rockies. They do not have Douglasia montana, Aquilegia jonesii and Kelseya uniflora (three gems I covet from the Middle Rockies). They are not as species diverse as the Mediterranean mountains, nor do they have forests like the Sierra Nevada.
But they are mine. From the first townsendias of March, the mountain ball cacti and Pasqueflowers of April, the foothills penstemon and American plum blossom in May, the refulgent Colorado columbines and Mariposa lilies in June, the paintbrush and mertensia of the summits in July and the gentians of August, and finally the blaze of autumn aspen, asters and chrysothamnus of fall...these are the floral canvas that my life has played against.
Gentians summon all sorts of emotions: in Europe they are associated more with the brilliant spring gentians in their dazzling cobalts.
But in the Rockies gentians are late summer and a blue blaze of of summer's last blast before the season slides into the frosty season. They bring a tinge of regret as well as pleasure at their blue velvet carress.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Change and the garden

As I was sorting my pictures from this year into manageably sized files, I couldn't help but notice how radically certain areas of the garden change. I am including four pictures taken of essentially the same garden at four different times: I've misplaced (or lost) my camera so I can't show you the current manifestation, which is frankly pretty crispy. It's been a long hot, dry summer in Denver!

The ridges are two slightly ridged berms with a path between that comprise much of the Western half of my garden. The soil is pretty much pure sand 80 feet deep. We composted copious amounts of leaves for five or six years (which added almost a foot of compost) which was tilled in when the berms were contoured. The East Ridge is supposed to contain only plants of the eastern hemisphere, and West Ridge only plants of the western hemisphere, but plants keep jumping back and forth. Very annoying!

I delight in these gardens throughout the gardening year: they are really full of treasures (especially bulbs) and I derive great joy knowing there's never been anything like them. Certain plants like Tulipa humilis, Collomia grandiflora, Glaucium acutidentatum self sow wildly. It is my principal repository of Eriogonum, Opuntia, Penstemon, Fritillaria and Juno and Aril iris. I view it as a prototype of what we may one day have to do in median strips, industrial sites and many large home gardens when water is no longer so cheap.

'Tisn't so bad, really!

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Prospecting in catalogs

I remember running across Tradescantia tharpii in a flora once decades ago, and wondering if I would have to trudge out to the Ozarks personally to collect the little bugger since I'd never seen it offered in a catalog. Years went by, and I saw it at the Dyck Arboretum outside Hesston and a year or two later found it in a Bluebird Nursery catalog.
I eventually got several plants from Harlan, and here are the two that I've grown for years in my home garden. I need more. They have put up with a great deal of abuse (I've sprayed the grass growing with them with weedkiller for instance) and carried on: unlike other dayflowers, these will not spread all over your garden and become a menace. They are demure and comely, covered with silken hair when they emerge, and blooming for weeks on end in early summer. Who could ask for anything more? (Far more deserving of the GCA Freeman medal than the recently awarded Spigelia marilandica, which is a fussy woodlander for humid, mild microclimates).
I shouldn't be telling you about this, since I have decided come hell or high water I'm going to order a whole flat of them next spring (they are incredibly inexpensive) and plant them everywhere in my garden. Bluebird has been selling these for years, but I have yet to see them in a garden center, or in another garden (aside from Dyck and a few not too happy tufts I planted at DBG) for that matter. Bet you don't have it!
It is truly strange to me that this, one of America's most glorious native wildflowers, can languish (as it were) while the unwashed masses positively gush over all manner of technological devices, media nonsense, SPORTS (for Heaven's sake) and the usual glut of consumer crap that clutters the airwaves and mucks up our otherwise meaningful lives. I betcha Brangelina has significantly more Google hits than tharpii. Helllooooow? Perhaps that's why we are so cheerfully going to hell in a handbasket?

Thursday, August 12, 2010


Harland Hand, an artist and gardener of genius, spoke of the path, the lookout and the shelter as the three touchstones that a garden must provide. Here is a glimpse of Jan Sachs and Marty Schafer's garden in Carlile, Massachusetts, one of the great gardens. I took the picture two years ago. I could go on and on about that place, but focus instead on the white eruption center left in the picture above.

Here it is closer up: that's an Artemisia whose specific name has been lost in translation, as it were. It's similar to but a better garden plant than the famous A. lactiflora 'Guizhou' (pronounced, incidentally, "Gway, Joe" and Not "Gooey, dzoouee" or the hundred other silly ways I've heard it called)...the Schafer/Sachs got seed from NARGS (donated by me) a long time ago. It has long since vanished from Denver Botanic Gardens, but flourishes still in Massachusetts. I must get it back!
I pick this plant to commemorate my mother, Artemisia Kornaraki Kelaidi, who was born a hundred years ago tomorrow. I was a mommy's boy (although I love and honor my father as well, who celebrates a very different centenary this year I will honor as well in due time). I shall see if I can scan an appropriate image of her: the Artemisia above should stand in pretty nicely until I do. My mother was uncommonly beautiful in a dozen different ways.
Incidentally as I type this, it's raining buckets outside my window, although the mountains 20 miles away are clearly visible and there is sunlight shining in my eyes, which I confess are streaming tears.
I am quite sure that when Shakespeare imagined Viola or Beatrix, or maybe Portia he had someone who looked the way my mother would have looked at the appropriate age in mind. Right up to when she was ninety and passed away, her head and face were exquisitely formed, elegant, and her eyes were a piercing silvery blue color, just like Athena's must have been. She was as complicated and compelling as a whole cast of Shakespearean protaganists. I never ceased to be delighted and intrigued and amused and entertained by her riveting conversation and her intelligent mind. I worshiped her, although at times I was exasperated by her trivial lapses, and my perception of her faults. In retrospect, I bemoan the grief I gave her and (although I know she knew) I wish i could have told her then what I know now: that she was the kindest, wisest , most beautiful, and most perfect mother a man could ever hope to have. And she was mine.
How ironic that this Greek goddess, this Venetian beauty, that my remarkable mother would share the Scientific name for sagebrush. Wormwood for God's sake. Her physical beauty would be worthy of an orchid or some glorious flowering tree like a Jacaranda or Spathacea, or some spectacular wild Iris, like I. cycloglossa.
I'm over it: I guess I am content to be the son of sage. Most Artemisia, after all, are incredibly lacy, and my mother loved lace. And they can form gnarled bonsai of enormous elegance and beauty. And I love the smell of almost any Artemisia, and there are few more richly aromatic and evocative things on earth than the sagebrush steppe after a heavy rainstorm.
I have been gathering various species of Artemisia over the years, partly as homage to my mother, on one hand. And also as an acknowlegement of their own intrinsic beauty. I find that I think of my mother, who died ten years ago, almost every day as I get older. This year I think of her more than ever. There's justice to things when I realize that no matter where I travel, Artemisia comprises a large proportion of the landscape, on the steppes of Asia where I'm headed soon, or the steppes of the American West.
Mother, I rejoice in your ubiquity, skirting my paths, providing shelter to my thoughts and a deathless lookout for my soul gazing out to eternity.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Requiescat in pace

Several correspondents emailed me today to tell me that Jim Archibald died yesterday. I know and admire many people, but none more than I admired Jim. I respected and loved Jim with a sort of unalloyed quality hard to describe. Jim could be harsh (especially in the famous forwards to his catalog): and I loved it. He could be many things. I somehow approved and enjoyed everything he did. The three weeks we spent together in Africa are a highlight of my life. I treasure our too few visits in America and Britain. I think he was the greatest plant explorer ever, and the greatest plantsman in the world.

I am despondent that I will never again have the opportunity to hear that nasal Edinburgh twang, nor watch that pipe point demonstratively. I will miss the zingers and the thoughtful circumlocutions and the always wise observations and the zest for people and plants. Oh Jim! I will miss you.

Thank God my garden is full of treasures Jim and Jenny brought back from around the world. Like Campanula trogerae (above) and dozens of other Turkish, Greek and Spanish treasures.

O Captain, my captain. You've left us much too soon.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

And the skies are not cloudy all day...

Don't those swirling, dark clouds impend doom and gloom? (And no doubt some farmer out near Limon may have gotten hailed out later that afternoon). But the Moore bronze sculpture ("Oval with Points") in the Schlessman Plaza at Denver Botanic Gardens is unfazed, as were the blazing Kniphofias last June when I took this picture.

This picture captures so much for me: where else are so many rainy, cloudy days interspersed with so much glorious sun? It reminds me that sky is a perpetual and endless artistic element of our every day lives in Continental climates....OK OK, I know those who live in coastal regions do have skies as well. But they are so often gray or leaden, whereas we in the middle of continents are positively blase about our giant cumuloninbi, our ethereal stratus, our cirrus and alto cirrus, and pileus...and every imaginable permutation thereof....I am a sky worshiper and wonder that no one is out there with me gawking, glorying and agog (instead they are indoors watching "Days of our lives" or something similarly edifying: SHEEEESH! America! Get a LIFE!!!).
That said, I exempt from my exasperation the extraordinarily generous, wonderful people of the Rocky Mountain region (who pony up more money through mil levy, bond and sales tax per capita to support museums and scientific endeavors like Denver Botanic Gardens than any other place on Planet Earth) have turned out in droves. Our visitation is up astronomically from previous years. Our brand new parking structure routinely fills and visitors park at Congress park next door and who knows where else in order to visit. Denver: have I told you before how much I love you?

The dance of monumental sculpture, sky and garden is the great draw of the Henry Moore exhibit this year... undoubtedly a large part of our increase in visitorship. We are almost a month past the midway point of the exhibit, and I am finally getting off my high horse and confess that although abstract sculpture emphatically is not my thing, I really enjoy this exhibit. There! I said it...Even a diehard plant nerd such as your's truly (for whom botanic gardens are about plants, plants, and more plants) has to wisen up and sniff the sculptures, so to speak.
Of course, it does help if the sculptor is someone of the caliber of Mr. Moore. And it helps immeasurably that the curatorial staff of his foundation were inspired (along with our exhibits staff) to find and site the spot where these behemoths would show to maximum advantage...and that they coordinated with our horticultural staff to minimize damage to plants.
And it helps as well that each garden has its own genius, some are wild and naturalistic, others far more formal in design so that as you walk through the gardens each sculpture (so distinct from the next), often in a different color and medium is playing against the ultimate in superlative garden design and horticultural execution. And that it changes from day to day, and from the soft, lemon morning light to the brash technicolor of mid day, and finally the mellow Italianate ochres and russets of dusk.
And even those of us lucky enough to work in an edenic setting like this (despite the diurnal routine and the way one can become inured to anything--no matter how dismal or dazzling) are slapped it seems almost daily with the Zen koan of art sky garden. Amen.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Gifts and the Garden

If you had asked me about Ebracteola wilmaniae a year ago I would have said "huh?" and yet nowadays, every time I stroll through my rock garden I admire the rather lush clump of this and think many thoughts: how many more outlandish South African ice plants are going to grace my garden over the years? And I think of David Salman, who has this penchant of bringing by some amazing treasure every time he visits my garden...I have an ancient specimen of Echinomastus intertextus in a trough he must have given me fifteen years ago and not one but two wonderful Bulbinellas from the Drakensberg he dropped off this spring that have been blooming their heads off ever since: my garden is peppered with plants from David's visit and his astonishing nursery. Needless to say, if David's good company weren't more than enough, I look forward to his visits to see what other treasures might not be lurking down there in New Mexico, just waiting to be tested in my gardens!

As for this ice plant, it's from the West Cape and doesn't seem to have much justification for proving so hardy when you see the range it grows in. But last winter it produced fresh flowers in December and January: a winning trait in a plant. These pictures were taken five months later when it was still in bloom: those flowers are almost 2" across: no slouch!

Gardens are a gift each day as I stroll around and enjoy the vistas and vignettes, and often as not I think of the friends that plants came from, and soon the garden is entwined with an intangible web of memories and associations every bit as rich as its flowers and foliage, as evocative as a gust of daphne fragrance borne on the gentle morning breeze.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

In praise of weeds

Ever notice how weeds keep morphing? At one point in my life the bugabear was Malva neglecta, at another point Convolvulus arvensis (which come to think of it is still with me) and there are always thistles. This year crabgrass is everywhere in my garden: in the grass, of course, but in garden beds, in pots: everywhere. As soon as you get a handle on one weed, another appears. By the time you get geared up to deal with it, suddenly they've started to go to seed and you are behind the 8 ball again next year.

Mike McLaughlin calls it the morass: the icky place where we slog and suffer day to day. I don't care if you are Doris Day or Polyanna of the most irritating ilk, you spend much if not most of your time there. Trust me. It can be a black depression, or boredom, or irritation or despair. But the quiet desperation is not just for the mass of men, Henry, it slogs and bogs and jogs the life of Pencil factory owners as well.

Perhaps that explains my love of marginal weeds, those I can more or less manage. Isn't it better to have Atriplex hortensis in its furious red manifestation, or red amaranth or Clary sage rampaging on the fringes of your garden. or Verbascums of the bombyciferum persuasion. These suck up space, and self sow, but you can eliminate them. And they give the crabgrasses a run for their money.

I consider myself fortunate that my morass is a sort of tepid despair that doesn't bog me down entirely: I have trained myself to do Sudoku, weed and write furiously when I'm in that negative space. When the times get tough, I get productive. Although I suspect that if I applied the time I wasted on crossword puzzles and Horticultural list-servers to gardening or writing, I'd be done with weeds once and for all and have a horticultural War and Peace or two on the shelf.

But then, a half acre given over to nothing but gems and jewels without the fringy near weeds and a bit of empty space would be almost as depressing as being married to Martha Stewart, say or being in a state of perpetual orgasm or just plain dreary cheerfulness. Don't you just hate pathologically cheerful people?

Here's to the weeds! Without them life would be too easy.

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