Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Aloe madness...

I am back in Southern California (again) for the Holidays, although the picture above was taken exactly a year ago at the Huntington, right now almost every other house in Palos Verdes estates where I am staying has a massive Aloe in bloom (if not a Poinsettia tree, or Bougainvillea or some other brash explosion of bright color): with heavy rains on and off for weeks, the landscape is unbelievably lush and green, and when the sun comes out the L.A. basin is crystalline, with the dark blue ocean on the left and the San Gabriels and San Bernadinos snowy white to the East..... it really is a paradise (albeit a populous one)!

That's Kelly Griffin, photographing one of his amazing hybrids at Rancho Soledad, one of America's premier nurseries for succulents, palms, cycads, tree ferns: you name it when it comes to the exotic and wonderful. Kelly is renowned for his amazing aloe hybrids, many of which he sells at this site. (Click on site to connect to the URL).

Of course, what makes these new aloes so fantastic is not just for their showy winter bloom, but the amazing colors of the rosettes. I have a hunch I will be back down here again next year: winter in Southern California is pretty habit forming (the person who took all the pictures in this post, my girl friend Jan Fahs, has never NOT spent Christmas and New Years in Southern Cal.)
Oh oh...time to put on my clogs and stroll along the Strand to watch the surfers come in and sip mojitos while the Aloe colored sun sets...
[Truth in advertising: it's raining cats and dogs outside my window: hence my blog entry...]

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Summer snow

Clematis hexapetala

Since it has apparently forgotten how to snow in Denver, I thought a bit of whiteness this time of year might be in order...This is a picture of an astonishing Mongolian clematis that was blooming a few years ago at Denver Botanic Gardens. I was so delighted and impressed with this I hightailed it out to Bluebird Nursery in Clarkson, Nebraska, expressly to obtain a few specimens, which did bloom for me last year at my home garden, although not nearly so lavishly. Surely this has to be the most amazing white flowered novelty to have come around in many a year. We now have this several more spots around the Gardens, and I know a few others have obtained it hereabouts, so we can judge its merits more accurately. My suspicion is that this will become a garden staple in Denver in the next decade and a classic beyond over time as well...
How many more gems will that genus keep producing? I know Dale Lindgren has crossed this with various purple gems and produced some very striking hybrids. But can you really beat a species of such glorious purity and crispness of flower? Just thought you should know about it. (Let's hope Bluebird still has a few in their larder...)

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Blobs, fillers, space holders, gems

This last week I've been carrying on heated email conversations with Arrowhead Alpines' Bob Stewart: I've been rueing the demise of Mt. Tahoma Nursery as a mail order source (although I intend to make pilgrimages there as soon as this February!), which was my main source of daphnes in the past. Well Bob has amassed an incredible collection of daphnes and I am lining up my order for this coming spring with him. Puhlease don't click on that URL until I'm finished placing my order...

Now you went and did it! You are going to probably not come back to this edifying post on the un-Daphnes. Daphnes are sexpots. You know: Sophia Loren, Raquel, no, I have it wrong. Those ladies are more like Hydrangeas and Azaleas, perhaps. Daphnes are a tad more demure and complex: Audrey Hepburn or even Katherine Hepburn. Or maybe even Audrey Meadows or Catherine Deneuve: daphnes are not just pinups, they have personality and depth and allure and a sense of humor (often at your expense).
But this post is not about daphnes. Really. It's about Plain Jane plants. Fillers. Junipers. Euonymus fortunei. And the ultimate Plain Jane: squawbush, threeleaf sumac, lemonade berry. Rhus trilobata. Truth be said, I suspect not more than one in a hundred Coloradoans would know this plant in the wild or the garden. It is not exactly a thriller.
Somewhere I have a picture I took of one at the magnificent Colorado Springs Xeriscape Demonstration Garden a few years ago: it was blood red in the fall (if someone clamours enough I may have to go find it). But I took these pix a few weeks ago in the Ponderosa Panorama at Denver Botanic Gardens where a rather typical specimen is doing its thing: filling in, being its wonderful blobby self. Dan included several of these in the garden (sited perfectly, as you would expect from him) since it is representative, abundant and universal in the foothills and in fact over much of America (the Eastern Rhus aromatica is essentially the same thing). This is a rather hum drum plant, but in the fall it usually takes on good color and it lasts for a long time. (Plain Janes often surprise us when they doll up!)
You probably won't want to plant daphnes on a median strip in Denver, nor would you necessarily want to have an alluring actress fill every role in your day to day life. One does not need Angelina Jolie working at the checkstand (although, God only knows, she shows up there enough on the magazine racks!), nor do you want Paris Hilton as your baby sitter to drive the point home. We need our Marge Simpsons and lots and lots of everyday plants for everyday places. One of these days I will rhapsodize about carpeting junipers, so watch out!
The world needs a lot more Rhus trilobata. Some day I will remember to remind my friends in the Springs to flag that scarlet one to see if it strikes easily from cuttings (if so, move aside Euonymus alata!). There is a place for one or another of the wonderful new cultivars of threeleaf sumac in many industrial and large scale landscapes, especially in parks and for gardeners who yearn for the "Low Maintenance Garden" (gag me with a spoon!). I've even got one in my big, dryland shrub border. Unlike the various blobby plants landscapers often use (spiraeas, Vickery privet, shrubby potentilla) squawbush is completely drought adapted: it sailed through our great drought of 2000-2003 unscathed in various unwatered gardens I've been observing. And since we've only had an inch or less of rain in the last seven months, this could be the start of another period of "Water Provider Incapacity to Supply Demand" cycle (drought doesn't really occur in nature, there are wetter years and drier years. Nature doesn't care). So pretty soon everybody will be in a state of hysterical idiocy over lack of water once again...ho hum.
Or we could just plant more native and adapted dryland plants like this one. There are even some that qualify as sexpots...but that's another blog...

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Fulfillment and desire

Paraquilegia microphylla, on a high granitic ridge above Almaty in the Tien Shan of Kazakhstan in early July of 2009. For years I dreamed about this plant. Way back in the 1970's Boyd Kline collected seed of its cousin, Paraquilegia grandiflora in Kashmir: I will never forget the pictures he showed of the high crags where it grew and the cushions like this one on the cliffs, and I thought would I ever see it? Would I ever grow it?

Boyd gave me seed, and I did grow it and bloomed it several years in a row in the Rock Alpine Garden in the early 1980's: it was pure white and every bit as condensed as this form. This past September I saw the third of the three closely related species, Paraquilegia caespitosa in the Western Tian Shan on Ulken Kaindy Pass in the Djabagly nature reserve. Should I now not be replete? Fulfilled? Why is there still a burning desire to seek more of these gems out in more places. After all, I have not yet seen Paraquilegia grandiflora in the wild, nor have I seen P. caespitosa in bloom. It's true they are sometimes all lumped into one all this may be moot in some ways...I say Pshaw to lumpers! I do not doubt that new forms--perchance even species--are clinging to high cliffs, waiting to be found.

What does it mean "to yearn?" To lust for something and then suddenly it's drifting irrevocably into the past. The past is really just as inaccessible as the future, you know. How few people have the privilege I have enjoyed to go not once, but twice to the Tien Shan. Shouldn't I just rest on my laurels, and be content to bask in the glow of these images that I, myself, once took?
Like Don Juan in Hell (my favorite of Shaw's fine dramas) hell is contentment and complacency. Hell is fulfillment, an easy chair and violins. Heaven is to strive, to yearn to desire. And never to give up.
I hope one day to grow all the paraquilegias in my garden, in troughs in pots. I want them supersized (as they say in commercials) and in excess. I want to seek them out in the Pamir, in the Hindu Kush, in the West of China. I want to visit them in their secret hiding places in Mongolia and across all the stans. Of course, the little rascals only choose to grow in the highest, most inaccessible and inhospitable cliffs on planet earth: who cares? I shall not be content until I have seen every last Paraquilegia across their range of thousands of miles (both latitude and longitude incidentally) in the fastness of Asia, until I have sniffed and nuzzled and adored every last bud and blossom of Paraquilegia on planet earth. Then, and only then, will I be truly fulfilled.
(We humans are hopeless, really. Don't you agree?)

Monday, December 6, 2010

Sotol (like: Soooo Tall!)

Sotol, or Desert Spoon is not for everyone. For one thing the leaves have spines pointing in both directions, so you are sure to get lacerated if you try and get too intimate. (Not a good idea). And frankly, it's not the toughest of Southwestern upland plants: the several species we have grown at Denver Botanic Gardens sustain winter damage most years. And I've noticed they are horribly attractive to aphids (not a good thing). This is the hardiest one: Dasylirion texanum, available very widely and cheaply nowadays thanks to Mountain States Nursery. Dasylirion wheeleri grows much further north into New Mexico. I remember seeing this the first time over 30 years ago on one of my early field trips with Paul Maslin: it grew in the Malpais near Carrizozo, one of America's most outrageous, surrealistic landscapes. This area gets quite cold (Corona, not far to the north, is downright frigid in winter) and I always assumed it would be tough. We have grown it repeatedly from this area, and it will survive in a perfect microclimate in Denver, but only just.
A few years ago I drove to Del Rio in Texas with my daughter so she could get a taste of Mexico. The highway northward from Del Rio to San Angelo is enchanting in midwinter: and there are countless spires of this hardiest of sotols rising on all sides of the road for seemingly hundreds of miles (if you know know this is not much of an exaggeration).
One or another of the plants of this remarkable native semi-succulent bloom here or there around Denver Botanic Gardens every year now. It would take a hard heart (or perhaps someone very sensitive) to spurn this plant, despite its many drawbacks. I find these spire-like flower stalks inspiring, and the vicious foliage is perfect for crowd control issues: may trespassers bleed! (Braww haa haaah!)

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

My American idol: Robert Michael Pyle

No, that's NOT a slenderized Santa Claus checking who's good or bad: it's America's masterful nature writer and one of my heros, Bob Pyle. Bob has written a dozen or more books, and probably a dozen butterfly field guides of various descriptions. He is one of America's premier lepidopterologists, and a prose stylist second to none.

I have been re-re-reading The Thunder Tree, which is still available as a first edition, hard cover on Amazon for peanuts. This gem of a book is going to be reissued this coming spring and I hope it will get renewed attention in reviews and bookstores as a consequence. I don't think a better book has ever come out of Colorado. I believe it is a classic. The blend of Bob's personal history with the natural history of our region, and the cultural history of the Highline canal is as contrapuntal and pleasing as a Bach cantata. If you haven't read it, I urge you to do so (buy one of those cheapo first editions, Puhlease! Let's get those suckers out of circulation: just click on the hyperlink at the start of this paragraph!) This book is really a must for any serious reader. It is the Walden Pond of our time, only the pond is attenuated and human in its origins. The theme: that children need untramelled space and time for their imaginations to soar and a rugged private piece of nature or near nature to bond with the cosmos. This book is said to have inspired Richard Louv's Last Child in the Woods, and indeed, Louv is writing the foreword to the next edition.
I have resisted reading the book he is signing in the picture (that's my copy!): Mariposa Road. I know if I start it will gobble up several days (you can't speed read Pyle: his writing is so musical and rich that it would be like downing a milk shake in one gulp. You would get a brain freeze for sure!)...I'm saving it for my vacation time in California in a few weeks.
There are probably a hundred writers I admire enormously. Most are deceased. Quite a few are living (Coetzee, Roth, Gordimer, Rushdie, Pamuk, Snyder to name a few)...but Pyle is the only one whom I have actually befriended. I never cease to be delighted with his enormous goodwill and gentility. He is as fine a person as he is a writer, and that's saying a great deal.
Do get one of his many books and get acquainted. He'll be touring around the country this coming Spring, when The Thunder Tree is reissued. I'll remind you about that once the dates are set in concrete!

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