Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Oh! The tales I could tell...



Somewhere in my voluminous slide library (and I mean SLIDE library: 35 mm.: remember those?) I have a picture of the first specimen of this plant I ever saw. Not far outside Bristol, with a wonderful view of the Severn estuary lived Eric and Mabel Hilton. Eric was a keen rock gardener, and he and I had corresponded and swapped seed many years. I visited them on my very first visit to England, and his expansive garden "Severn View". I recall the wonderful days I spent there, photographing and marvelling at the hundreds of wonderful alpines thriving in Eric's endless screes and rock work, all in crisp, bright April sunshine with the sea shining below. There were hundreds of plants in that garden I yearned for, but none more so than a tiny bergenia with white flowers. I photographed the clump, easily a meter across, studded with hundreds of flowers...
This picture isn't that original plant, incidentally. It's a rooted cutting I brought home from the plant below, which was in turn a rooted cutting from Eric's original clump. He brought a single piece to me in Denver as one of his host gifts when he and Mabel visited in 1982. The plant is Bergenia stracheyi 'Alba'--a nearly pure white form of the predominant bergenia that grows in the Western Himalaya in unbelievable abundance. You see, the leathery leaves are apparently unpalatable to sheep, goats, cattle etc., and in September of 2011 when I visited Pakistan, this species dazzled me with its abundance and ubiquity above treeline. We managed to get a pinch of seed, and now grow a pinker, somewhat larger form in Plantasia of this taxon, but this tiny, white flowered one is still my favorite of the genus. Perhaps because I saw it in the wild. More likely because it brings back memories of Eric and Mabel--two wonderful gardeners--who treated me so splendidly nearly 30 years ago!

In addition to the wonderful flowers, the terrific fall color recommends this to rock gardeners especially: here is the best colony I have grown, which still occupies this spot in the Rock Alpine Garden at Denver Botanic Gardens. Over the years I have foisted cuttings of this plant on no end of garden visitors, most of whom aren't terribly enthusiastic...until last weekend. Of the thousands of plants in my garden, the one that John Lonsdale fixated upon in my garden was this plant. I managed to send him off with lots of cacti and other goodies from my garden and cold frame, but I forgot to give John a piece of this wonderful, tiny bergenia...I am writing this (and copying it to him) so that he knows I haven't forgotten. By the way, if you have not visited John's website, you're missing out on one of the high points of the world wide web...I shall root some for you, John, and post them this spring!
What amazes me about plants and gardens is that every plant has this sort of history! Truly amazing...


Saturday, January 22, 2011

Strange bedfellows...

Perennial gardeners dwell on plant combinations with almost annoying persistence: a border is all about color repetitions and contrasts: rock gardeners are strangely silent on the subject. It's as if every rock garden plant is a gem set apart from any other neighboring plants. But in fact, rock garden plants often jostle and combine, and they certainly sit in proximity to one another. I find these combinations fascinating: who would think that a buckwheat from Wyoming, a woodruff from the Mediterranean and a South African succulent from the Eastern Cape province would grow so cheerfully next to one another? The buckwheat is Eriogonum ovalifolium, one of the most widespread and variable and truly wonderful plants in that great genus--this being a very congested form that Mike Kintgen brought back as seed from central Wyoming. The Asperula eludes me: I grow a half dozen or more and they are all wonderful and I get them mixed up: I'm sorry. I am not perfect. Sorry to disappoint...but the mesemb is another matter. I collected seed of it on a private farm near Tarkastad in the East Cape on my March expedition with Jim Archibald. Bergeranthus jamesii blooms from late spring to autumn, producing inch wide shaving brush flowers of luminous lemon. They are closed in the morning, revealing an orangy tint to the back of the petals, but in the late afternoon and evening the flowers positively glow. It is one of the longest blooming and most rewarding rock plants. I am amazed that it has not seemed to have attained much notoriety. It is dead easy to grow and produces buckets of seed. The buckwheat and Asperula have a long history in gardens, and are widely known and grown--but both only bloom for a few weeks and that's it for the year. The Bergeranthus is a summer long winner: and yet I don't think it is mentioned in a single one of the hundreds of rock garden books in my sizeable book case dedicated to the subject.
And yet not long ago, Graham Stuart Thomas in his magnificent book on rock gardening bemoans that everything in the way of alpines has already been introduced!
I don't think so!

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Graceful, no?


Everyone loves orchids, and our gardens are chockablock full of all manner of daylilies, hostas, penstemons--you name it. But who cares about milkworts? Well...I do! If you Google image Polygala you will an astonishing range of treasures found throughout the Northern Hemisphere, with some of the most outlandish restricted in nature to South Africa. Only a very small number have made it securely into North Temperate gardens, notably the alpine Polygala chamaebuxus, which you may find in early summer in the Alps, usually in its yellow phase.

The lovely pink milkwort above is Polygala amoenissima, although I had a very similar plant once labeled P. amara--both originating in the Caucasus of Western Asia. This has proved to be a very vigorous, long lived plant in my rock gardens, producing a few welcome seedlings to expand the display. Its first flowers can appear in late April, and it continues to sport its little pink orchids through summer and into the fall: quite a display for any plant.

I grew this blue gem for several years as Polygala vulgaris, although a simlar species (Polygala calcarea) is well established in British Gardens. Come to think of it, I remember that Betty Lowry found it to be almost a pest in Western Washington: I have yet to get a blue milkwort to persist for very long, although I have great hopes for Polygala hybrida, a taller kind I found everywhere in the Tian Shan last September. It has virtually the same habit and stature as the pink one above, only the flowers are always a brilliant sapphire blue.

I have seen so many tiny polygalas in Africa, and I've seen specimens of many more strange ones in Asia. I think this family still holds great promise, at least for rock gardens.
Who says all the best plants have been introduced?

Monday, January 10, 2011

Baroque interlude

Of course, I'd heard of Balboa Park in San Diego: big park, nice trees people would say. Why didn't anyone tell me this is America's grand recreation of Spanish Renaissance architecture? The endless complex of buildings in Spanish style at the heart of the Park are almost surrealistic in their extravagance: I was enchanted (despite the drizzle) and amazed at the scope and the extent of the illusion. And the trees and gardens are there....but those buildings!

We spend enormous amounts of money on things nowadays: the Olympics for instance. They seem to have taken the place of the old Expositions and World Fairs. But any buildings constructed are always contemporary and functional. There is something amazing that people would have gone to such enormous extremes a hundred years ago to honor the Spanish heritage of California. I have not researched it yet, but I suspect there was a single person at the bottom of it all--and a damned persuasive one at that.

Many images and vistas crowd my mind from my recent 3 week sojourn in lotusland: California is a beguiling place any time of year, but in the depths of Colorado winter, it's heaven. It didn't hurt our family and friends there are all connoisseurs and consummate hosts...

In fact, my feelings upon returning are perfectly captured by this little vignette from Balboa Park:


Saturday, January 1, 2011

Gold for the New Year...


One of the highlights of this past year for me was finding this delightful umbel growing practically everywhere in the Altai Mountains: after much searching and seeking and groping on the internet (or should I say googling) I believe that it appears this is the REAL Bupleurum aureum, which everyone insists on lumping into Bupleurum longifolium...utterly different from the animal of that name I have grown for decades (and which I can't even find a picture of in any book or on the web, but which grows everywhere in my home garden and Denver Botanic Gardens)...

So this may likewise prove annual: but it is very different from anything I grow as Bupleurum, and much much showier. I found a similar plant in 2009 that was even flashier (if someone bugs me, I will unearth that picture) which seemed perennial. But even if this is an annual, who can't use some glorious gold like this in the New Year? It grew practically everywhere: in moist spots and dry, high and low. It had been blooming for a long time (there was abundant seed) and had lots of buds to go. I look forward to having some of this Altai gold in my life and in my garden.

Seemed like an auspicious way to begin the New Year! Happy New Year to you and may gold and good health come into your life this year!