Monday, September 27, 2010

The steppes of Central Asia


I wish I had saved that old Far Side cartoon showing the chubby guy on an endless plane in front of a sort of naked stoop with a couple steps, the cartoon labeled "the Steps of Central Asia"--this being more or less what most people think of hearing that phrase. I did mean plane in that first sentence btw.

After two really stunning trips last June and July and this August-September (thank you once again Plant Select!) my associations with Central Asia (entirely Kazkhstan and a the westernmost corner of Mongolia) are rich indeed. I deeply regret that I put off coming here so late in my life. I guess Africa and the American West (and Mexico, the Andes, Spain, Turkey etc. etc.) are a sort of compensation...but for those living in Colorado, the steppes of Central Asia are our true correlative. The landscape is so similar and the plants so perfectly suited to us that I marvel that so much of what I saw was novel and new to me (and I suspect to horticulture generally)

A case in point is the plant pictured above: Dipsacus azureus. I realize teasel might well terrify the soul of the timid, but something tells me this one is no fullonum. It appears to be perennial, and was scattered on just certain meadows in a way that suggested a reasonable perennial rather than horrendous weed to me. Only time (and a lot of cautious testing) will tell for sure: but I know no garden perennial quite like this: six or seven feet tall, with such a clear azure head of bloom, almost always sporting butterflies.

We saw this several places widely separated on the Tian Shan from Djabagly to near Merket--a stretch of hundreds of kilometers: it is not rare in nature. But why should such a showy, dramatic plant seem not to exist in the horticultural literature? There is one measly picture of it on Google images...
I think it's because the steppes of Central Asia are (except for a few bulbs and woodies) largely unknown to gardens in the "West". Considering that horticulture first arose in the steppe country somewhere around the highlands of Iraq-Iran-Turkey, the irony is rich.
How exciting it is to be one of the first American horticulturists to take a systematic look at this glorious region where so much of humanity traces its origins and the art of gardening (which is to say civilization) traces its start!


Saturday, September 25, 2010

Pilgrimage to Jelitto seeds


For anyone suffering seedaholism (a little known disease you can probably diagnose) a visit to Jelitto's is very much like a devout Moslem's Hadj to Mecca, or an Elvis Presley fan at Graceland: this place is it. Mind you I spent several years in Fort Collins working on the GRIN project (Germplasm Resources Information Network) which computerized the National Seed Storage Laboratory (which I frequently toured during those years--it was a stone's throw from my office). They've renamed the Lab the National Institute for Seed something...and it remains one of the largest seed repositories on earth. Jelitto is not quite that ambitious, but the size is comparable and Jelitto's was even more interesting for me because it has several commodious rooms for seed cleaning as well as room after room for seed testing, storage, an immense walk in cooler, and a dozen other spaces that spoke to the scope and thoroughness of the greatest seed house on earth.

Of course, there are much larger seed companies that do just vegetable seed or annuals (and I honor these short lived and delightful crops)...but hey, man, perennials, alpines and grasses are my thing, and nobody can hold a candle to Jelitto's in that department.

This is Georg Uebelhart, principal owner and guru of Jelitto. I have been fortunate to know Georg for many years, and must take this opportunity to thank him for one of the most gracious visits I have ever had anywhere: he treated me and Mike Bone royally. Showing us all around Jelitto's, wining and dining us nearby, showing us his home garden and meeting his wonderful family: we spent three simply luminous days with him and I savored every moment. After an intense and sometimes edgy three weeks in Kazakhstan (where creature comforts are not always first priority, if you know what I mean), the charm and famous efficiency (and just plain luxury) that are all hallmarks of Germany were a jarring and utterly welcome contrast. Both Mike and I agreed we couldn't wait to get back to Schwarmstedt. Georg! I salute you and your coworkers! Long may you flourish!

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Altai dreaming

What this picture doesn't show is one of the few disappointments of an otherwise stellar trip (so to speak...pun not intended as you will see): it was taken in the foothills of the Altai, near the farm Maymir where I stayed in June, 2009 and just this past August for several luminous days. From Maymir one day last June we wandered up the valley (glimpsed between the tiny, yellow aconites in the picture) maybe a mile or so: lots of roses and giant aconites in blue and purple, not to mention Dictamnus angustifolius and Paeonia anomala in glorious bloom alongside a hundred or so other gorgeous things (Lilium martagon)...but I digress....

Within a few paces of these Aconites the hill was bristling last June with hundreds of Stelleropsis altaica, an unspeakably lovely daphnoid far from its other known occurences further northward. Late August is probably at least a month late to find a single berry on the little daphnoid, but this picture (and lots of other things too) was compensation of a sort. Perhaps some day I might return in July? Probably not. But visiting this magical valley twice in a lifetime is pretty damn good: something I wouldn't have dreamed of a decade or two ago. Thank you Plant Select!

What exactly is this tiny yellow Aconite? I am not sure. I can assure you, however, that it is amazingly common everywhere in the Altai and that I did get a pretty good pinch of its seed...considering it grows on a very dry, hot slope it bodes well for Colorado rock gardens.

I have left little pieces of my heart here and there on the steppe of Kazakhstan, on the feathery vale of Maymir, on the Larch-clad slopes above Markakol lake (with its endemic salmon I never had the chance to try)...on the fabulous ridge on Berkhat pass where we could see so clearly Mt. Belukha (highest peak in Siberia and the Altai) with its resident cloud some forty miles away. The picture below of Aquilegia glandulosa is a memento from that pass (and that was all just in the first few days of my momentous visit to Central Asia): turn up the Borodin, please! And waft along with me on a trip of a lifetime...
P.S. Why did not post a single blog post in Kazakhstan? Get real, buddy: Maymir and Berkhat pass have many things, but internet access is not one of them. And when you are hiking and seeing things like this, who has time to post? Can't believe that luminous month slipped by so quickly...