Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Okay, okay! Enough clamoring! A few more treasures...

I suppose Joe Seals asking me to post a few more pictures doesn't exactly constitute a mandate....but what the hey! A few pictures of plants I was thrilled to obtain on my recent trip to California. The first picture was taken at Annie's Annuals where I seem to have seen it blooming most any time I have visited. This amazing South American has not thus far proved hardy for me, although I keep trying. But well worth growing as an annual. How to pick from Annie's amazing collection (but I have gone on about that nursery before...)

Space and a measure of decency prevent me to reveal the vast sea of pots of Cyrtanthus breviflorus coming into bloom at Suncrest: I last found this in full seed on Oxbow, Lesotho (February 2008) and I have found it blooming in January on the summit of Naude's Nek Pass in the East Cape, both locations above 2400 m. Nevin tells me this blooms all summer long in Watsonville. Needless to say, I brought some back...What a wonderful Amaryllid: and one that has enormous potential across the USA...

Is it variegated or merely missing some trace element? I brought it back to Denver to find out (much to Nevin's relief...he is not a fan of variegation.) So I suppose if we develop a strain of these we'd best not name it for him. It is Glaucium grandiflorum, in case you are interested...but probably not the scarlet form I have been yearning to regrow for decades now...I was impressed to see how widespread Glauciums are in the Bay area: I think they are among the most spectacular garden plants I've helped popularize. A variegated form would be fun indeed...

The picture, alas, does not do justice to this wonderful Sisyrinchium bellum: Suncrest has selected several clones from along the California coast, all with flowers nearly 2" across in a shimmering violet-blue that was eye-blasting. I have never seen blue-eyed grass with such a large flower (excepting the nodding, Olsynium types of course...). I am nervous about whether a coastal plant like this will prove hardy in Denver...check in next year and I'll let you know!

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Of pigsqueak and Megasea...Queen of Bergenias

George Orwell once wrote a book Keep the Aspidistra Flying, a condemnation of Victorian bourgeois values symbolized, epitomized and practically embodied by Aspidistra, a dusty, indestrucible and usually quite prosaic houseplant that was universal in Victorian houses... had George been a bit more of an outdoor gardener, he might well have picked Bergenia instead. These dusty, musty, often slug-nibbled, plasticky mostrosities are universal in English "rockeries", and everywhere in rocky strewn cities on the left coast: as thick as wheat in Kansas, bergenias are everywhere in Portland, Seattle, Vancouver, San Francisco etc., clambering and slopping onto pathways and over rocky walls wherever you look. Any self respecting gardener rightfully might eschew them...

But not me: I love bergenias. Given the right spot, and a little T.L.C., they can be cheesecake in the garden. I grow a dozen species and special forms and have barely made a dent in this genus. But I only encountered this queen of Megasea (a dreadful old scientific name that has been superceded: but I love the nautical idea of a "Mega-Sea" nonetheless) a few days ago at Suncrest Nursery in Watsonville, possibly the finest wholesale nursery in the world. (At least, that's how I feel about it: I am astonished how much in the way of really unique and choice plants they crank out)...they had a number of bergenias, all choice, but this amazing species, with the largest, nodding flowers of the genus, and such a graceful habit stunned me. How can I have lived my stuffy, Victorian, bourgeois little life so long without it?

This is Bergenia emeiensis, from Mt. Omei, in Szechuan. The climate there is none to rigorous, but something tells me this plant will do just fine in Denver. I am coming home with a gallon pot, and Orwell be damned, it shall get pride of place in my rock garden. Although I confess, I am drawing the line at Aspidistra! No mother-in-law tongues for me!

If you beg, I might tell you what other treasures I brought back from Suncrest, from Annie's and elsewhere...or you can just let me sit here and titter and gloat all on my own. Haw haw, heee heee ho ho...

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Misnomer Garden: Not just Rhodies, and more than a foundation

I believe it's Rhododendron strigillosum, in full glorious bloom at the Rhododendron Species Foundation, one of the most miserably named of magnificent gardens. Of course they have lots and lots of rhodies (nearly four hundred species, I believe, and dozens of forms of some of them, almost all with locality data)...that would certainly be enough to justify their existence, but this is in fact a full fledged botanical garden and a wonderful display garden to boot! There are tons of un-rhododendrons to complement the rhodies, and a depth of programatics and extensive facilities and appurtenances of all sorts that put many mere botanical gardens to shame. I first visited this institution way too long ago (not long after it was founded, I fear), right after a large rock garden had been constructed and planted to tiny lepidotes...maybe twenty years ago. Didn't think much about the place subsequently...

After all, rhododendrons are not exactly appropriate landscape plants in Colorado. Although I have grown my share (and many have thrived in special microclimates here). But something told me I should check them out. I was joined by Peter George, president of N.A.R.G.S. and my dear buddy Bill Adams of Sunscapes Nursery two weeks ago and rain notwithstanding (it drizzled through our whole visit as you shall see), I spent an enchanted hour or two literally rushing through the Garden before our flight.

Despite the early season (March 10) there were dozens of rhodies already in bloom...one of my favorites is the tiny, groundcoverin Rhododendron forrestii, which I have even managed to grow and bloom in Denver. Of course, for us it did not form a massive spread meters across!

Ypsilandra thibetica is just one of countless wonderful herbaceous companion plants that occur here and there throughout the grounds. This one is a high elevation collection by Steve Hootman, the redoubtable director of RSF: I neglected to photograph Primula moupinense or Lonicera crassifolia, just two other spectacular herbaceous plants that have become instant classics thanks to the collecting prowess (and generosity) of Steve and his associates.

A tiny, subtropical Agapetes sp. in the Italicbrand new Conservatory at RSF: I was enchanted by the wonderful assemblage of cloud forest ericads and companion plants (Pleiones in full bloom: sorry I couldn't show everything!) displayed here. This is one of the most wonderfully exected conservatories I have seen...It looks stunning despite only being open for a year or so, featuring primarily the dazzling Vireya section of Rhododendron from Southeast Asia and Indonesia. Below is proof that it was raining (sorry for the water smear on the unidentified gem: wish I could have shown you pictures of them all--dozens in every color imaginable).

Here is an overview of a tiny portion of the Conservatory: wonderful rock work. What fun it shall be to return in a few years and see it all knit together with all manner of subtropical gems!

There was a terrific "Stumpery" designed to show off ferns of all kinds, sweeps of Epimedium, and all manner of woodland gems, and Rhodies in every permutation imaginible. The gift shop and the expansive nurseries were impressive: most of the rhodies grown on site from verified germplasm...way too much to share in this brief blog.

A picture above of Peter George on the left, and Steve Hootman, CEO of the Garden on the right alongside propagation benches (notice, filled with un-Rhodies galore). I honestly don't think there are many plantsmen of Steve's caliber in the country, and few indeed lead botanic gardens of this quality. He has dedicated twenty years to RSF, and his vision is expansive and compelling. I wish we had days rather than brief minutes to really absorb the depth of this remarkable institution.

Have you noticed how at the end of garden tours, plantsmen always end up in the propagation benches...here the vast expanse of seedpots filled with tiny rhody seedlings is just too irresistible not to share. Imagine these pricked out in coming weeks and planted in the endless blocks of lath houses and nurtured and soon available to you and other enthusiasts across the country through their distribution scheme.

I think I have conveyed some of my enthusiasm for what I now think may be one of the handful of finest botanic gardens in America. They are constructing an extensive new rock garden, and contemplating more: if they achieve that (and bring down a fraction of the gems such as the 250 kinds of daphnes from Mount Tahoma Nursery a few miles away from them in Graham) they shall leave the rest of us in the dust. Hopefully Steve won't follow up on this pregnant hint!

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Edenic nursery: "Far OUT" Reaches Farm

No, Virginia...this is not an extraterrestrial space vehicle but Epimedium grandiflorum in an especially luminous, wine-red form...one of the thousands of treasures grown and sold by Far Reaches Farm, arguably the finest mail order nursery in America today (OK, OK, Tony...you are hard to beat! but they are gonna give you stiff competition!)...If you have not yet ordered from them, I'd hurry up: they've posted their catalogue on the web for the first time this winter, and it is awesome (and easy...too easy to use). Mind you, it only has a smattering of what they grow at their incredible Port Townsend treasure trove...

Here's one of the jillion Corydalis they offer, this one a hybrid between elata and a flexuosa type that promises to take over your woodland garden with frothy blue for much of spring: get a load of the size of their plants! No puny stuff here! There are umpteen greenhouses full of treasure, each named for some deceased plant collector ("Forrest", "Archibald", etc....I looked around nervously to make sure none were named for me)...

One of their many display gardens: this an extensive woodland garden under lath (no tree roots that way: cool idea). Of course, did I take any pictures the day I arrived and there was no rain? Repeat after me (in proper John Belushi cadence): Nooooooooooooooooowoooooooooooo! So the few pictures I took were in pouring rain (it does rain in Washington State we discovered, even in this area of relative rain shadow)...and a very poor depiction of what must be some of the most colorful perenninal borders and woodland gardens in America. Can't wait to get back summerish to see them!

Here is a special picture taken with my magic camera depicting the ectoplasmic connection between the proprietors of Far Reaches: Kelly Dodson and Sue Milliken are both not only first rate plantsmen and gardeners, they are two of the most thoughtful and kind people you shall ever meet, and possess boundless energy, enthusiasm and (best of all) a sense of humor. You must imagine Kelly below the waist wearing a colorful kilt (or something equally outrageous) and you will be close to the mark. Sue shall be wearing the pants. They met on a plant collecting trip to China (can you imagine anything more romantic?) and the magic lingers...

I was there in snowdrop time...too early for much color (although the white of this double Galanthus in their lath garden ain't bad...). Everyone bemoans the loss of great nurseries: Washington State has seen its share of great nurseries that have closed. The Plant Farm in Kirkland (Bob Putnam), Wild Garden in Bothell, Grand Ridge in Issaquah, Mt. Tahoma in Graham and Heronswood in Kingston have all ceased operations as mail order nurseries (I know, I know, there is another Heronswood in Florida or something--and Rick Lupp is still open for sales by appointment). Far Reaches seems to have gathered some of the magic of all of these: no accident since Kelly grew up with all of them, and has gathered their collective manna in their new operation....

Port Townsend ought to be a tourist trap: charming town center, docks, marinas, sea-side charm. The town is full of giant, champion specimen trees and eclectic gardens. There may be a tchotchky store there, but I missed it: it's actually pretty authentic. We stayed at a very pleasant motel with clean appurtenances and great views for $56 a night (which pretty much says it all): Hightail it pronto to Port Townsend and put up there or at the slightly more upscale bed and breakfast at the marina for a few days: go hiking up on the Olympic peninsula and load up with living treasure at America's greatest nursery for perennials, woodlanders and wildflowers (not to mention exotic woody plants and alpines). You will thank me one day for this tip! Come to think of it...you owe me BIG time!

Monday, March 12, 2012

Mountain kittentails: a synaesthetic Synthyris everyone should grow

I know it looks like a cross between a Galax and grape hyacinth, but this gorgeous morsel from the interior Northwest is surely one of America's least appreciated and most glorious wildflowers. Synthyris missurica is found from the Idaho panhandle to the Warner Mountains of northeasternmost California, a substantial chunk of territory. Although I have crossed its range innumerable times, I have yet to find it in the wild (something I hope to do this summer). But I have grown it for forty years. I first obtained it from George Schenk and his magnificent nursery the Wild Garden in Bothell, Washington: the spiritual antecedent of Heronswood and Far Reaches Farm, where I spent yesterday afternoon and will return in a few hours.

These clumps in our slowly diminishing colonies at DBG were grown from a clump I shared with a colleague a quarter century ago: that clump was divided into dozens of pieces, and plumped up in the greenhouses, and then planted along the north side of one of the berms at Denver Botanic Gardens where it has provided a modest and beautiful little edging for decades...The evergreen foliage is substantial, the flowers (lasting a month or so in early spring) are a delight: really a plant I would not want to be without...and thanks to the North American Rock Garden Society's amazing plant sale at the Annual Meeting I just attended in Everett, Washington, I have a good clump for my home garden again. There are few more rewarding early spring perennials for a shady rock garden or border.

Funny world we live in: I recall ordering this as a young man (possibly even a teenager, as young perhaps as my son who turns 20 years old this very day) from George Schenk. He described his form as 'Magna" I believe, and claimed it was tetraploid. I subsequently obtained Synthyris stellata (which I have seen growing abundantly in the Columbia river gorge--filling the north facing road cuts on shady banks near the Oneonta gorge), which has been lumped into S. missurica by busybody botanists (the Columbia gorge endemic has a fringe of pointy dentate leaf margins, while typical missurica is more roundly scalloped--and other subtle differences as well not to mention geographical distinct populations. Wouldn't it be fun to spend a summer exploring the dozens of mountain ranges where this occurs from the Idaho panhandle, the Blue mountains of Washington, the Wallowas of Oregon, the Warners of California, to find the diploid, more tetraploids, perhaps some pesky triploids? What other wonders would you find growing nearby?

The taxonomic history of this wonderful native makes a compelling narrative: first collected by Lewis and Clark, it was named by the somewhat shifty Frederick Pursh as Veronica reniformis...You can click on the hyperlink to find out the whole story of how the name morphed to the misleading epithet it now possesses (hard to think there was a time when the headwaters of the Lochsa river in Idaho were thought of as "Missouri"! But then again, the predominant and only iris truly wild throughout the Rockies and intermountains West is Iris missouriensis, another western wildflower that is not found native in Missouri!)

Strange, how things change and morph: when I purchased this plant, every botanist on earth would have agreed it was a Scrophulariaceae, related to such plants as Mimulus, Paintbrush and Verbascum. Today, these four plant groups are classed in four different plant families! (and Synthyris has joined veronica and penstemon in Plantaginaceae!) Oh the vagaries of time!

I am writing about an interior Pacific Northwestern wildflower (which at least is in full bloom in gardens hereabout) while I am sitting on a comfortable armchair at a motel in Port Townsend, Washington...although this is the "rain shadow" of the Olympic Mountains, rain has been beating down on the roof of the motel resoundingly. it's 7:00AM and still dark (second night of daylight savings) and I'm headed home today after a delightful and rewarding trip.

The Land of Chilliwack, Chelan and Sequim: the sonorous alliterative Salish flavored landscape of towering douglas fir and plangeant gray skies! I have a lifetime of sweet memories from visits here: I can see why the locals are so fiercely proud and attached. When the misty veil is dropped, as it was the luminous, crystalline day we arrived and Mt. Tahoma stood out above us like the Paramount movie logo, the region becomes almosty mythical in its majesty. That is if you can ignore the sprawling mess of human clutter alongside the Puget trough (Pugetopolis they call it)...not that we in Frontrangeopolis have any reason to feel superior).

The only difference is that misty veil and towering trees do much to mask and mitigate: something our poor windswept steppe cannot do. But I have veered away from the mountain kittentails (a lovely common name that perhaps should stick)...can I help that it inspires a wealth of synaethetic associations for me?

What a terrific place we are lucky to live in here in the "bewitched and blessed, Mountain forests of the West" as Vladimir Nabokov so wonderfully put it.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Eureka! Caucasian iris blooms....

There are plants one waits to grow for a very long time: I have known about this wonderful pale yellow reticulate iris for many a decade. Once or twice I have even been given small bulblets that failed to flourish. Last summer I saw it on a wholesale bulb list for a surprisingly reasonable price (provided you bought fifty that is)....I pooled resources with four other gardeners, and we bought quite a few kinds of bulbs including the requisite fifty Iris winogradowii...and I got ten for my share, five of which so far have shown some color so far, and the one above has been blooming since February 26. If you are not aware, this is one of the rarest irises in the world, only a few hundred of which persist on its alpine home in the Caucasus. It is well established in European gardens, enough so that you can now get these for a few bucks a bulb if you shop around (and buy quantities, that is)...

It is reputedly quite sensitive to heat, so I have placed it on the north slope of my rock garden under towering Scots pines where it grows alongside many ferns, primulas and saxifrages. Here's hoping it likes the spot and clumps up. It's progeny, Iris x 'Katharine Hodgkin', quickly forms dense clumps for me!

Here's a closeup of its cousin, Iris danfordiae, from Turkey. Actually, this is the standard form in cultivation which turns out to be triploid, and therefore sterile. I have found it stays quite perennial and reblooms in my garden planted among Fritillaria, Calochortus other iris and a wealth of other bulbs in my blue gramma grass (Bouteloua gracilis) meadow.

I dote on the purple, blue, lavender and other cool blue hues of typical Iris reticulata and its brethren. What better companion colors for these than yellow? Strike up the melody and bring on the yellow reticulates!

Friday, March 2, 2012

Dun buns...

Rock gardeners are famous for their bun fixations: more than one casual visitor at a rock garden meeting has been put off by people constantly commenting on one another's buns, extolling buns and saying how much they love to pat buns. Of course, they are referring to the cushiony form of plants in extreme environments. Above you have Erinacea pungens (top) and Acantholimon ulicinum (bottom), two cushion forming buns you shan't want to pat: the picture was taken a week or so ago in the Rock Alpine Garden at DBG: a bunnery.

Many succulents form buns, especially in our climate. Above we have various clones of Stomatium mustellinum, a wonderful night blooming succulent from the Drakensberg. I am fascinated how different the coloration is between one plant and another: all from the same wild pinch of seed.

Even cacti can form buns on our windy steppes: here is our native Echinocereus viridiflorus, forming a veritable "pollster" (German for pillow), a term used for buns that form nearly spherical form.

Those who only love the lush, "English" garden look will not be too impressed with buns. But through the long, windy and alternately hot and cold Great Plains winter, a garden filled with lots of these buns and cushions is somehow a compensation: they never seem to be hurt by the weather. They stay clean and trim. And they provide a sort of sculptural element that looks good in various lights, growing on you over time.

You are welcome to admire my buns, and I shall love to admire your's in turn!

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