Monday, February 28, 2011

Sempiternal rosularity

That's Agave havardiana growing in the Watersmart Garden at Denver Botanic Gardens. Thank Heavens it was chilly and snowy in Seattle last week: typically the weather would be balmy there and chilly here on the Plains, but somehow returning to much warmer temps on our blasted heath made the transition somewhat less painful: March is a telling month for me. You see, Colorado is perhaps its least fetching right now. Things are in tatters, sear and raw. There is an austere poetry, I know, to the crisp horizon, the fringed and bleached grasses. It was, however, going to California in March repeatedly as a child that inspired me to dedicate my life to gardens. Surely things could be better!

Thank Heavens for woody lilies. Agaves (when they're not too crisped: and this year they've sailed through -22F relatively unharmed) are the queens of succulence and rosularity (don't bother looking it up: I think I coined it: sempiternal, however, is basically just another way of saying eternal). None are queenier than this Texas beauty: one bloomed a few years ago in my neighborhood (see below) and I made a point of driving by it every day to glory in its lavish display. The orgasmal flower display notwithstanding, it is these giant rosettes in the winter landscape, fresh as they are in summer or fall or spring, that makes them so irresistible and welcome.

The Chinese revere pine, bamboo and mume plum as the three friends of winter. In Colorado I daresay we would have to replace Mume with agave and probably our tattered bamboo with Mahonia or yucca to tell the honest truth!

Friday, February 25, 2011

The best American primrose

What I mean, of course, is the best American primrose to grow in your garden. There isn't really a best when it comes to nature: nothing could be better than the tundra on Pikes Peak studded with Primula angustifolia or freshets ringed with giant Primula parryi almost anywhere above 11,000' in Colorado. But who would have thought that a narrow endemic that grows only in tight limestone crevices on the summit of the Sandia mountains of New Mexico would settle down happily and bloom year in year out in a shady rock garden and in troughs in Denver, Colorado? Ellis' primrose (Primula ellisiae) has been lumped into Primula rusbyi by botanists, and it is clearly allied to the more southerly plant which is much commoner, growing on various mountain ranges of New Mexico, Arizona all the way to nearly central Mexico. I have only grown the northernmost form well, so I'll stick to the old name.
There are nearly a dozen species (depending on the botanist of course) clustered in the Parry section of the genus Primula. Aside from the two Colorado near-endemics I mentioned at the very top (they grow beyond our state borders, but so sparsely compared to their amazing abundance all over Colorado we can practically claim them!), the Great Basin is filled with micro-species clearly allied to one another, but which I think deserve recognition because they each occupy a narrow ecological niche and have strange little morphological quirks that defy lumping in my opinion. I have only seen a few of these, although I have trod high up on Thomas Canyon in the Rubies looking for Primula capillaris (at the wrong time of year: it was undoubtedly dormant), and I stopped several times in Logan Canyon hoping to glimpse Primula maguirei. I have great affection and respect for Tass Kelso and Noel Holmgren who would gather many of these little Great Basin waifs under the umbrella of Primula cusickiana. But geography and habitat are so distinct, and some of us cling to habit and tradition. I have been lucky enough to tread through acres of the microform of Primula cusickiana that grows in amazing profusion here and there on the White Cloud Peaks. And I have seen where its lowland cousin grows around Boise. Perhaps I shall even go there in a few weeks to finally see it in the chlorophyll, as it were.
I only wish I could grow some of these Great Basin blues: I have heard one or two of them can be tamed, so one day perhaps I can post a blog with an icy blue primrose depicted. Meanwhile, you can enjoy (as I will in a month or so) this rosy wonder from New Mexico! You can even buy yourself one if you wish (as Primula rusbyi) from Laporte Avenue Nursery.

Sunday, February 20, 2011


Today would be my sister Mary Callas Taylor's 78th Birthday. This was her high school graduation photograph (taken about the time I was born). I think it conveys quite a bit about her. No words, no matter how eloquent, how labored can begin to convey the sadness, nostalgia and yearning one still feels decades after losing a loved one. The only compensation in her case is that I can see bright glimmerings of her style, of her looks, of her character in her three wonderful daughters.

Candid comments

I wish I could say these clumps of Sternbergia candida were taken in my garden. The plant is indeed blooming today in my garden, but with only one flower per clump...but my clumps do look happy! The picture above was taken by Bill Adams of his Methusalah. My picture of the same plant a few days earlier is below (where it belongs!). I have no doubt the plants look just about the same this year, and I am publishing these for several reasons: first of all because I am going to copy this posting to Bill to remind him to divide the rascal this summer. When plants get this big and congested, they are apt to rot. And more importantly, I have a pretty good hunch that Bill has a goodly proportion of all the Sternbergia candida in cultivation in his clumps! It would be good to spread the bounty around (particularly since he is a nurseryman!)...I know people who would cheerfully spend $20 for a good bulb of that plant, in which case he's sitting on a small fortune... [ did the trick: he sent me the picture above and a note saying he promised to propagate this summer!]. Read on, however!

Yet another picture of Bill's marvellous Amaryllid. In case you are not aware, this is a plant that has quite an interesting history in cultivation: it was only discovered and described a few decades ago (restricted to a rather small area near Fethiye in Southwesternmost Turkey). Not long after it was found, a large proportion (it was feared that all) of the wild plants were mysteriously transported to Holland. Not soon thereafter draconian measures were enacted worldwide to stem to trade in wild bulbs (the despoliation of this plant likely being one of the reasons)...incidentally wild bulbs are still dug on a fairly large scale for commercial purposes in many countries. And lelt me underscore: that's not always a bad thing. Although what was done to this bulb was unquestionably criminal in my opinion.

I once wrote a dramatic account of how I was given several boxes of "Sternbergia lutea" at season's end by the late Gordon Koon of Englewood Garden Center (that operation has been defunct for decades, so we are talking the 1980's)...Over the following years those sternbergias mostly morphed into Sternbergia candida, although quite a few S. clusiana turned up in the mix as well. I know that in the Denver area alone, hundreds of sternbergia continue to be dumped at season's end every year by garden centers who never sell that many of this plant that's so poorly known to gardeners locally. I suspect this scenario plays out in hundreds of cities and towns across America, and who knows how many other countries: it takes a strange sort of intelligence to mourn the loss of plants like this: my own peculiar genius I guess...

I would like to know how many Sternbergia candida were simply trashed back in the 1980's when the big Dutch firms decided they'd pass off their collected sternbergias as "S. lutea" since a plant as rare as this white gem would never pass muster as a commercial item in the short term. At least that's the scenario I surmise...I could be wrong! Maybe those who collect Sternbergia lutea in Turkey just mistook the foliage of the white one for the commoner species as they collected for the export market? Very possibly. I doubt we shall ever know for sure.

I have read that more colonies of S. candida have been found in the wild unbeknownst to collectors, and perhaps the original colonies have regenerated from seed by now. That some day I may discover. And the novelty of this gem is somewhat faded. More importantly, at least one gardener in Pueblo is growing it superbly. (And most importantly, it seems to like my garden too!).

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Overlooked gems

Every serious gardener knows the cobweb houseleek (Sempervivum arachnoideum), or I suppose I should say every serious ROCK gardener. Which the plant pictured above is not, by the way. As I was skimming over my pictures from last year I noticed it and thought: why is it that I have never seen this grown in very many gardens? This is Sempervivum ciliosum var borisii, from the Balkans. It does not have cobwebbing, but fine cilia, or hairs around the margins of the leaves. It makes every bit as lovely of mats and mounds as its stunning cobwebby cousin, but the flowers are a soft yellow rather than the chalky pink of its better known congener.
There is another form of this species, a cultivar named 'Mali Hat' for the Balkan mountain where it was collected. I grow it too: similar only the rosettes are stained reddish.
Succulents are staging a major come back in gardens and especially in container gardens. Here is one that is incredibly cold hardy, beautiful all times of year with lovely flowers to boot. Why is it not in your garden? I, for one, would not be without it!

Monday, February 14, 2011

Be my valentine, O! Hedeoma ciliolata!

I am always surprised florists don't do more on Valentine's day to sell flowers. I suppose they have enough trouble just fulfilling the demand that day, but I have always thought there would be a market for diminutive plants, like this wonderful Mexican treasure. You will find an even more startling image of this gem on the web taken on the gympsum barrens near Galeana where this is restricted to a very small area. Wouldn't this look imply stunning in a little pot? Wouldn't it be charming if we gave our loved ones endangered plants like this, with a label telling them about where they grow. Then, perhaps, they can even plant them out a few months later and they will continue to prosper...
Come to think of it, it would be good to see even a few more generic Cyclamen out there (with its heart shaped leaves, a natural for this holiday).
But this post is an excuse to show off this tiny mint...and let you know how nervous I am about it. I have planted it several places on my rock garden. The rock is granite, not gypsum. This winter has been quite cold: down to -20F just a few weeks ago (a lot colder than its lofty home in Nuevo Leon)....why would this little morsel be hardy and not Agave victoria-reginae that grows not far from it on the mountain nearby? Good questions, these. I will answer them in a few weeks or months. If it is not hardy this winter, you will have had a glimpse of it...if it turns out to be hardy, perhaps in a few years I can post a big hunker like the one Carlos photographed...Now THAT would be a kick!
Meanwhile, Happy Valentine's day!

Friday, February 11, 2011

Winter blaaahs....

Nothing wintry about George here...I post this as a reminder that in barely a month I expect that we will have Draba hispanica and the first Corydalis in full bloom. This week the temps have dropped below zero repeatedly and daytime highs have been in the lowest double digits (Farenheit to be clear!) and icy snowpack is everywhere. Everyone is starting to get the gardening itch, and the local industry trade show was hopping.

I first created this acetic combination at Eudora--a garden that is gradually decaying as I type. We redupicated and amplified the combo in the new rock garden at my Quince house, where both the draba and the corydalis are expanding. I noted the Spanish Draba's Latin epithet above, but Corydalis solida 'George Baker' is now my focus. There are dozens, if not hundreds of named selections of what used to be called Corydalis transylvanica: coupled with Corydalis solida, you can find the entire spectrum of pinks, magentas, pure quite, appleblossom and quite a few varying reds. But good old 'George' is still the brightest to my eyes. I added another red clone at Eudora and they began to hybridize and proliferate from seed, but we have kept this one pretty pure and seemingly childless. It is dead easy to divide, however (I like to do so while they are still in full bloom). Dig up the clump, pull each piece apart and replant promptly, water in, and next year you will have a husky stem or two or three each with their hot red flowers. You may or may not want to repeat the red and yellow combo (it's not patented). It does work!

I am including several pictures of 'George' from different angles and in different lights to demonstrate several things: most of all, how much plants differ in the brightness of their colors depending on ambient light, and also to show the charm of a rock garden planting. As you move around the rock garden, a single cluster of plants changes perspective and loots utterly different. Just as a kaleidoscopoe shifts dramatically with each turn of the cylinder, every few steps around a rock garden reveals new vistas and vignettes. Even now, blanketed in snow, a rock garden has the pleasing contours and smooth curves I admired much of this past year at work with the monumental Henry Moore sculptures...although my rock garden cost a lot less!

Aaaah Spring...will it ever come?

Friday, February 4, 2011

Witch Hazel in January!

Okay...I confess. It was January in Portland...more precisely on Sauvie Island at Sean Hogan's phantasmagoria called Cistus Design Nursery. There were a dozen or more things blooming in the area: Iris 'Katherine Hodgkin' and Iris unguicularis in full force, Camellia japonica and C. forrestii, Daphne bohlua and D. odora, and time and again I would catch the bewitching fragrance of Sarcococca....But there is something about witch hazels that really captured my imagination.
That's Linda Buley, a grower in the Portland area who produces standards on witch hazels (many selections) as well as other unique plants. She's hawking her wares at Cistus: I wish I had the cash and that she had some wares in Denver: it would be wonderful to have a small, treeform witch hazel in my back yard. As it is, my 'Arnold Promise' is still in tight bud (and hope it got through the -20F of the other night OK)...
So if you live near Portland, shimmy on down to Cistus and pick one of those treasures up!

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Son of sage...

Last August I did a tribute to my mother, Artemisia Kelaidi on the centenary of her the time I did not have a picture of her scanned. My nephew-in-law (John Sooklaris) has conveniently scanned one of the loveliest images of my mom when she was about the age I am right now: she was a beauty! And come to think of it, her silver hair did justify her generic honorific (sagebrush [Artemisia], to cut through some of my baroque prose).
Although she passed away a decade ago, I probably think of her more frequently now than I did when she was of the compensations of aging, actually. Some of us realize, as we age, that we are treading on familiar footsteps.
We think we are so original, so different. As I grow older I realize that much of what is best in me is the result of my parents' aspirations and deliberate molding. Most of my neuroses are a consequence of what I have resisted and still avoid. They say, "may I be the man my dog thinks I am", I might coin another truism, may I grow up to be the man my mother hoped I might become.

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