Friday, November 25, 2011

Little lilies...the glacier and trout lilies

I've just been sorting images, and this picture I took last July between Aspen and Crested Butte on a wonderful trip I took with the Ratzeputz gang probably is about the best I did this year: I doubt if there has ever been a better summer for our mountains...although the show only really kicked in at higher elevations (in the northern half of the state to be sure) in mid July! It was an anno mirabili for sure! I realized gazing on this how emblematic plants are: no wonder they are the logo and symbol of so many things (e.g., War of the Roses, the Fleur de lis, the Colorado Columbine). I have touched on the Columbine elsewhere...but glacier lilies are every bit as redolent and resonant for me.

Throughout perhaps half the high mountains of Colorado (mostly the Western slope) glacier lilies grow in unbelievable profusion. I recall marvelling at them from my earliest childhood: I have spent goodly amounts of time through my life simply sitting among them and revelling in their amazing grace and beauty. I have sniffed them like a bee and I have examined them carefully and with great joy. I have been horrified when as a child I heard my brother in law Allan Taylor, tell me that in Blackfeet language, they are called little shits, because their slender, graceful corms reminded the Blackfeet of shit, apparently. And I remember being almost as shocked a few years ago when my best buddy, Bill Adams, announced to me that "the one plant that leaves me cold is the Lily: I just don't like it" although he redeemed himself a tad when he went on to say that he did like the Erythroniums considerably more than true Lilium. I adore Lilium, you see: and Erythroniums are the early spring harbinger of their summer sexpot sisters. Lolitas, as it were, to the summer Audrey Hepburns, Sophia Lorens and Dolly Partons of the woodlands! But when Erythroniums are out, just call me Humbert Humbert!

I've grown a bevy of Erythronium in my day, although the gorgeous West Coasters are not as fabulous here as they are for the British and Western Europeans. It is almost annoying to see how they grow in Scotland. I am astonished that some Briton has not cranked out a Kew monograph on Erythronium: It takes an Englishman (or perhaps a German) to really appreciate our native wildflowers!

And I wish I could take them all up to Rabbit Ear's Pass in late June, or Kebler Pass a few weeks later and watch them gasp at the miles and miles of yellow magnificence. It is astonishing to me that we pay such ridiculous sums to Sports and Acting luminaries in America. I love my computer, but I cannot fathom the worship of I-Phones and the endless addiction of young people to texting. But they perhaps, would be chagrined if they knew my secret addiction to these nymphets of the spring!

That second picture, by the way, is Erythronium albidum--one of the wonderful and underappreciated Eastern species which has thrived for decades at Denver Botanic Gardens, spreading around here and there modestly, and blooming predictably every April and May. At least two of the easterners are widely spreading by underground runners: not a problem, incidentally! You see, Erythronium grandiflorum will grow poorly for us, withour the vigor or abandon that the Eastern American species. The only one that self sows for me is the European Erythronium dens-canis which shall merit its own blog in due time....

I realize this is a wordy blog: it is all about emotion and reminiscence, and the nuance of flowers--which all take time. For those of us with chlorophyll in our veins, the endless permutation of flowers in our lives, their comings and goings, their performance one year after the next: well, this is really the stuff of our life. They become the touchstones that lend a sort of meaning to things. I sniff glacier lilies, ergo my life is worthwhile!

Glacier Lilies on Rabbit Ears Pass (Mid 1960's)

As soon as highway 40 rose a bit
Above the sagebrush suddenly I'd see
A yellow gauze of bubbly flowers flit
Outside the rushing window and I'd plead

To my dad: "Stop!" and he'd say "wait
A few minutes till we get to Walton Creek
There'll be plenty there, and you can sate
Yourself with flowers", (all of this in Greek

Of course) and as usual he was right
We were there "fishing", but I was lily
Rapt, lily struck: morning to night
Treading on them, everywhere: willy nilly

Glacier lilies: utterly verklempt!
I'd count up to seven blossoms on a stem,
and sniff them. I have never dreamt
As sweet a dream as Walton Creek was then.

The mornings were still frosty, but by noon
The freshets would swell up and there, below
Their glassy, rushing waters I'd discern
A throng of throbbing lilies in the flow

Beneath the water as their brethren jerked
Wafted and bobbed in windy gusts above.
Meanwhile my slightly worried father smirked
At his flower besotten son, absurdly in love

With lilies, casting my rod with less than manly
Elan, shall we say? Distracted by Erythronium
The only man in all my extended family
Who fished so bad. Lost in the Pandemonium

Of lilies. I could care less about brook trout,
Till lunch. that is, when we would clean and gut
And powder them with flour and fry them up
A better lunch I've never had. I doubt

Those halcyon days of lilies and my father
When seconds slowed to minutes, then to hours
Will ever end. I wish I hadn't bothered
Him so much. Another twinge: More flowers!

If we could really go back and relive any day
In our lives, I would opt for those trips with my dad
On Rabbit Ears pass, clouds scudding away
And the glacier lilies driving both of us mad!

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

A very hoary Ironweed: Vernonia larseni

The ironweeds may be one of the largest genera of plants in North America: although the USA only has a dozen or two species (many of which look rather similar to one another) there are nearly 1000 species scattered across Eurasia, Africa and South America. Rather like Senecio and Aster, Botanists one day will likely try to hack this genus into smaller bits. There is something gratifying about seeing how a genus adapts over such a vast area. I was enchanted with several species of Vernonia I found on my late summer visits to South Africa, some of which rather closely resembled this one from the Big Bend: Vernonia larsenii has a rather restricted distribution in West Texas (and something tells me it isn't that common there even)...

Mike Kintgen must have put this in several years ago: this year it has produced a stunning sheaf of blooms that were very striking in late summer and fall, and continue to provide terrific color even now in late November. I have a hunch the show will go on through winter...I imagine it would make a top notch dried flower for arrangements. Alas, the seed doesn't look very viable on these plants (maybe our early frosts got them?). I suspect it will come easily enough from cuttings. I am anxious to try one out at my home, which will be a greater hardiness test. We grow a large number of Zone 6 and even 7 plants well at the Gardens which homeowners who live a bit further from the Urban Heat Island sometimes find difficult: Caesalpinia gilliesii, Arizona Rosewood; Chilopsis and suchlike that seem to thrive everywhere at DBG but are a tad fussier in real Zone 5 gardens. I suspect that most of Big Bend is a solid Zone 8, although this past winter was likely a test for them as well! And winters like that are probably the reason this Vernonia has made it for us. Why "hoary"? Throughout the summer the narrow leaves are wonderfully silvery gray. That's why! Plus it does catch people's attention...

Sunday, November 20, 2011

November sonnet...

Sacred Earth

I confess I am quite particular
About my trees above all, and yes, books.
This season when brooding lenticular
Clouds loom above and the frenetic looks

Of shoppers tell me that winter solstice
Is nigh and the sun hides mostly from our gaze
I yearn for a Southern Hemispheric poultice
Exulting upside down in summer days.

The last few colchicums are spiting frost.
The first few snowdrops are pretending spring
Is not so far away, but I am lost
In winter’s chill embrace. Oh! hear her sing!

Shear clouds, sere fields, sad heart (for what it’s worth)
A clarity of light on sacred earth.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Huggable cacti

I attended my first meeting of the Colorado Cactus and Succulent Society nearly a half century ago...believe me, I find that a lot scarier than you do. I hasten to assure you that I was very young. My brother-in-law, Allan Taylor took me along (he has just built his extensive cactus garden--another story, another blog)...

Over the years I would drop in from time to time when CCSS had speakers like John Trager of the Huntington, or Gordon Rowley, or Bruce Bayer. I grew hardy stuff, and Cactus clubs are really about tender things like Astrophytum myriostigma, Ariocarpus fissuratus and of course Mammillaria plumosa, featured above. [those first two are hyperlinks, if you missed it!]Somehow, I've gotten more and more "stuck on" cacti and other succulents (obligatory pun) that my windows are suddenly crowded with these tender (and paradoxically tough) little minions in winter and I find myself performing that potentially painful dance all succulent fanciers know only too well, schlepping plants in and out in spring and fall. I have gradually come to realize that the three taxa I just listed (and which have graced my blog this year) are darlings of all cactus collectors for many reasons 1) they do take a modicum of skill for nurserymen to produce and gardeners to maintain 2) they are relatively rare in either nurseries or the wild and therefore "choice" 3) these are three of the least lethal cacti. You can pet all three of these safely. In fact, you could rub your chin (or other tender body parts) against them (depending on your peculiar bent, shall we say) and not hurt yourself. The first two are utterly lacking in spines, but in the Mammillaria, the spines are transformed into amazingly frilly and gentle snowflakes of softness. These form amazing snowballs of furry beauty with time, and studded with creamy flowers for much of the late summer and autumn, the plant is irresistible.

I will always grow and enjoy my hardy succulents....but more and more windows in my house (and even my office lately) are burgeoning with these chubby and prickly little imps. I can't imagine my home or my life without them! (Warning, however: I find I'm now president of the darned cactus club! You too may find yourself cheerfully lolling in the cactus patch if you don't watch out!)

Thursday, November 17, 2011

A word may be stronger than man

Enough pictures! I want to share one of my favorite poems (sad to think Volodya would have expunged this post Onegin commentary)...This poem has cheered me up many a gray day. Khodasevich apparently really did live in a circular room.

Translation of Vladislav Khodasevich's "Ballada"
By Vladimir Nabokov


Brightly lit from above I am sitting
in my circular room; this is I--
looking up at a sky made of stucco,
at a sixty-watt sun in that sky.

All around me, and also lit brightly,
all around me my furniture stands,
chair and table and bed--and I wonder
sitting there what to do with my hands.

Frost-engendered white feathery palm trees
on the window-panes silently bloom;
loud and quick clicks the watch in my pocket
as I sit in my circular room.

Oh, the leaden, the beggarly bareness
of a life where no issue I see!
Whom on earth could I tell how I pity
my own self and the things around me?

And then clasping my knees I start slowly
to sway backwards and forwards, and soon
I am speaking in verse, I am crooning
to myself as I sway in a swoon.

What a vague, what a passionate murmur
lacking any intelligent plan;
but a sound may be truer than reason
and a word may be stronger than man.

And then melody, melody, melody
blends my accents and joins in their quest
and a delicate, delicate, delicate
pointed blade seems to enter my breast.

High above my own spirit I tower,
high above mortal matter I grow:
subterranean flames lick my ankles,
past my brow the cool galaxies flow.

With big eyes-as my singing grows wilder--
with the eyes of a serpent maybe,
I keep watching the helpless expression
of the poor things that listen to me.

And the room and the furniture slowly,
slowly start in a circle to sail,
and a great heavy lyre is from nowhere
handed me by a ghost through the gale.

And the sixty-watt sun has now vanished,
and away the false heavens are blown:
on the smoothness of glossy black boulders
this is Orpheus standing alone.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Dragons in the garden...the Dragon Arum anyway!

Time slips by almost imperceptibly, but it slips by. Some time in the 1990's I was working in the Rock Alpine Garden and a couple from Arkansas struck up a conversation...somehow the topic of the Dragon Arum (Dracunculus vulgaris) came up: this widespread Mediterranean is sold by mail order nurseries nowadays, but back then it was a sort of mythical plant that was not available commercially anywhere. The picture cannot begin to convey how elegant the leaves are, and how immense and striking the flowers are as well: they both can be nearly 2' long! Steve Marak asked if we'd grown it yet: well sort of! We'd gotten some seed that year form a European botanical garden and were nursing the plant along. He said he thought had a particularly hardy strain. It may have been a year or two later, even, but Steve eventually sent us a box full of a dozen or so fat roots late one summer. I planted these with some trepidation...worried I (or Colorado's fierce winters rather!) might destroy them...

Well, I believe every corm lived, and most bloomed the next year or so. Nowadays, every June we have quite a spectacle. I have counted a dozen open simultaneously (you have to be courageous to get close enough to count accurately because they stink to high heaven!)...Dare Bohlander planted white Gas Plant among them: they do overlap in bloom time and the contrast is more than stunning.

As I was sorting through this summer's pix I noticed I finally got a passable picture of that outrageous seedhead they produce: I have a dozen or so super pix of the plant at my work computer of course...the one above was taken last June and is passable, I think. Almost a half year has elapsed since they bloomed, and hard to believe in half a year the spring time will be slipping away again.

By the way, by the time Steve's Dracunculus were blooming, the ones we grew from seed started to bloom as well: they are both rather green leaved forms. There are wonderfully striped and stippled leaf forms out there, and even an albino! Dan Johnson purchased bulbs, and his are self sowing in his front yard (I believe there are seedlings showing up here and there at the Gardens as well): obviously the plant is suited to Colorado!

Another year has slipped by, and though we have grown these for almost two decades, I keep forgetting to get some for my garden, even though they are not expensive (and I could doubtless beg some seedlings from Dan).

Look at that spadix! We probably had ten like that. I did remember to collect a bit of seed: but why haven't I suggested we grow lots of it for our plant sales? Why haven't I sown it myself? Are we so sated, so glutted that we allow wonderful, alluring and strange plants like this to languish beneath our noses? I confess, I haven't quite figured out where to put this at home: it is a monster if not an out and out dragon, and one must place smelly (if glorious) things like this with a bit of care...

But truth be said, we have had an enormous influx of hundreds of exquisite ornamentals in our local industry, at the Gardens and sometimes it gets challenging to find a way to shoehorn them all into a garden, even a sizeable one like mine...

I remember seeing this along the roadsides in Greece in April of 1994 (my last trip there): it grows near both my parents villages and lots of other places as well...another compelling reason for me to get it!

I am beginning to compile my lists of acquisitions for the coming year and this will be near the top of the list.

I know Steve frequently haunts cyberspace and might stumble on this some day...and if you do, know you were absolutely right. This is one of our most spectacular plantings in bloom or in majestic seed! Thanksgiving is nigh, and I am indeed thankful to Steve Marak! And to my lucky stars!

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

When is a weed a weed? Aristolochia clematitis!

You know you have reached a new plateau in horticulture when you dote on weeds. I'm not talking sow thistle (quite yet) or Cardamine oligosperma--two plants I will not likely ever cotton on to. It would take a super horticulturists to warm up to those accursed little poppers! There is something a bit sad, perhaps, when you grow fond of brown, tan, gray and black flowers. We Fritillaria fanciers I suppose are prone to occasional bouts of melancholia. I have been quite keen on Dutchman's pipes for some time now, although I only have a few species thus far in my garden. They are a pretty strange lot. Most have strangely shaped flowers in neutral tints. It took quite a while, but eventually tracked down Aristolochia clematitis and planted one out in the Rock Alpine Garden...perhaps fifteen years ago. It took it a while, but I am beginning to see why I was warned never to plant it! "It is a goddamn weed, man!". Since I still do not have it in my home garden, I cannot say it is a weed for me. It is a desirable ornamental I do not yet possess in my garden, after all. OK, the flowers are rather small, and a sort of strange chartreuse color. Up close, they don't look quite as pipe-like as the more climbing sorts. But there is something sculpturesque about them, as there is about the peculiar flowers of their cousins, the wild gingers (Asarum) which hide their gloomy charms under their leaves on the forest floor: the ultimate in floristic depression. I love those too!

Don't they make graceful colonies? Like their close cousin Saruma henryi, which some gardeners also believe is a terrible weed, they can make a fine upright statement in a shady corner. Now to find a spot where they will not inundate their neighbors with their enthusiastic charms (and widely spreading rhizomes...)

So now the question is, where is that magical spot where I can display this rambunctious plants charms without cursing it after the passage of a few years...I have a spot in my garden to display Euphorbia cyparissias 'Fen's Ruby'--another potential menance, after all...not to mention Clary Sage. various thistles and other potentially wildly seeding and spreading treasures...

Perhaps it is a just a tad like playing with fire. Remember, however, that fire is essential for grilling, and paradoxically for maintaining healthy forests...and a garden without a few weedy plants properly modulated and controlled (just as one keeps the embers in the firepit!) is tame and dull indeed. Bring on the weeds!

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Twenty years ago this year...

Delosperma sphalmanthoides

Twenty years ago this past year John Trager, curator of the desert conservatory at Huntington Botanical Garden, was visiting me at Denver Botanic Gardens. He was intrigued when I showed him a small, tufted mesemb I'd received the year before from John Lavranos: John had sent me some plants he'd collected on the summit of Komsberg Pass. He was amazed that I had succeeded with South African succulents outdoors in Colorado, and hoped he might add some plants to our palette....boy! DID he!

"Sphalmanthus resurgens" or Phyllobolus pearsonii?

One of he plants he sent looked a great deal like a white flowered mesemb I'd grown from Mesa Gardens years earlier called (at the's changed name since) Sphalmanthus resurgens: that's it above: they do look rather similar don't they? Do you blame me for thinking they were in the same genus?

John rooted the cuttings at Huntington, and when they bloomed, showed them to Steve Hammer, who immediately realized they were unrelated, and that Lavranos had discovered yet another new species (he is blessed that way!). He published the name of the plant in the Cactus and Succulent Society of America journal in 1993, immortalizing my mistake!

This is the first of a half dozen species new to science I've had a hand bringing to light. I believe it is the first new species of plant described from specimens cultivated first at Denver Botanic Gardens. And it has set a very high standard indeed!

As I type this, I suspect that this is blooming on the rocky half acre or so (where Lavranos first collected it). I found the same spot in 1994...a year after the type description: there were a few dozen plants, perhaps, on the rocky pasture and that was about it. As far as I know it has not been found elsewhere. When I went back three years ago, a very high fence had been erected along the entire road in this vicinity: the Komsberg is now a game farm and henceforward it will be very hard indeed to check up on this Delosperma in habitat without connections!

Hopefully, it is still there. One thing is for certain: it is firmly established in horticulture: I know several nurseries that grow large numbers of it. I cannot say it is an easy or permanent garden plant. This last shot shows the sort of show it can make in April for a year or two. Inevitably it seems to fade away. The Gardens at Kendrick Lake have probably planted out more specimens of this last year than may exist in all the wild. That seems to be the one place where this is happy and seems to persist (so there is hope for the rest of us mere mortals!).

Perhaps some day I will be lucky enough to get permission to seek it out on its rocky home on that lofty and wonderful pass. I recall one visit finding incredible bulbs in seed everywhere(Moraea, Ornithogalum, Lachenalia, Laperousia, Romulea, Babiana, Geissorhiza, Tritonia, Ferraria, Hesperantha, Gladiolus and Ixia), simply countless species. On my last trip there, at the height of spring I saw practically none! Go figure!?

Like the American West and all steppe climates, the Karoo is infinitely rich unpredictable and mysterious. I feel like a lucky mortal indeed to have visited on six occasions at six different times of year...and to have these karroid mementos studding my life life and garden like glittering, magical, prismatic gems. None more evocative than this tiniest of Delosperma!

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