Friday, August 31, 2012

Cardinal sins

Scarlet letter, Scarlett O'Hara, scarlet fever, crimson tide--there is something about fire engine red that fulminates, that dazzles, and that calls to most of us (forgive me those who are color blind!) much as it does to hummingbirds.  The sin in this picture is no doubt the twining Ipomoea tendril I didn't remove. I do think this conveys that shocking impact that this plant produces early in the morning when I look out at my garden and a random sunbeam piercing through the giant Scots Pines ignites that beacon of late summer. See next!

Backlighting is of course effective at all times of year--but something about the declining light of late summer that makes things shine and glow with special fervor. Denver Botanic Gardens is full of brilliant color that makes a late afternoon visit a positive feast of backlight (try it!), but all of our gardens have vignettes like this that provide those little epiphanies through the days that are the very fragrance of our lives. Alas, they also lead us into a thicket of mixed metaphors.

Oh yes, the plant is a hybrid between Lobelia fulgens and Lobelia cardinalis (a subspecies of which even grows in Colorado!). Lobelia fulgens itself is rather tender, but its northerly cousin (L. cardinalis) is very tough. The range of the latter in nature amazingly and coincidentally almost entirely overlaps with that of cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis), one of the most dazzling native birds of the eastern United States extending into the Southwest. Nature can be very witty. The first few years I grew it, this hybrid strain was nearly 5' tall. Now, ten or more years later it is just a few feet tall, but every bit as dazzling.

For the heck of it, I am including a picture of the plant taken in two very different lights: immediately above is at 6:00AM yesterday (August 30), and below a picture taken a week or so ago on a cloudy's just as brilliant in the oblique light, in a way--just not quite the top?

Fiddlesticks! Cardinal flowers are always over the top...this plant has been elected as the very Pope of my garden when it comes to spectacle this week. Allelujah!

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Gentle weeds...

Everybody has them: plants someone else considers to be ineradicable, hateful weeds,but which you find tolerable--even desirable. My list of these is very long: I begin with the Star of Persia (Allium christophii or albopilosum), which my colleagues at Denver Botanic Gardens have come to almost detest. If you are lucky (as I have been) you can occasionally find large mounds of these that have been removed in early summer once they bloom--bulb and all! You pay many dollars apiece for these mail order, but Denver Botanic Gardens carts out thousands almost every year (do the math!) my garden they are very manageable: I water so little the seedlings don't proliferate as much as I would like. Location location location!

Here is my sad, lonely single specimen of Alyssoides graeca, another wonderful self sower--below you can see a small part of a huge patch on the conifer berm at DBG.

I have planted my single plant on a nice slope alongside other rather challenging plants: but not one seedling! Hardly lives up to billing as a weed--but I know it can be!

I have seen Asarina procumbens, the wonderful groundcovering snapdragon from Spain, be positively weedy in the Eastern United States--self sowing wildly in shade or sun. For some strange reason, Denver (where we generally grow Mediterraneans much more easily than they do in the East) I find it only grows in crevices--and sunny ones at that. Go figure. I am patiently waiting for it to reveal its wooly, weedy heart. So far I am disappointed--it is very demure for me indeed!

The cutleaf fleabane daisy (Erigeron compositus) merits a blog post all its own: few plants in the West are more universal or variable...this is the form sold by Little Valley Wholesale Nursery, and a delightful one at that--about mid sized (3-4" tall and across) is as vigorous a self sower as every other form I grow of this---and I grow a lot! There are some that grow only an inch or two tall, others nearer a foot. They run the gamut from white through lavender and even pink. They appear to be self-pollinating, so you can even grow these relatively close to one another and they stay true to type. Time to start that Erigeron Society, friends! And this should be its icon...

Most Erodiums are anything but weeds--some never self sow in my experience. But this wonderful low elevation form (Erodium trifolium) from the Mediterranean surprises on all accounts: it is much hardier than its coastal origin would suggest: I have grown this continuously for nearly three decades. it blooms from spring to fall, and has gorgeous foliage to boot! Just don't try and buy it (no one seems to sell it) but anyone who grows it at home will probably have a hundred seedlings to share with you...

Euphorbia epithymoides is usually considered relatively well behaved, and so it has been in my garden where this one clump is all that seem to ever have. But Sabine Schaffner in Boulder has dozens of husky clumps and endless seedlings showing up. I have read that it is considered invasive somewhere--but I personally doubt it! If so--get me a few more of those pests for my yard! I think I like it even more in fall when it turns a blood red for weeks.

Gazania linearis is universal in the Drakensberg--and I have seed a few gardens where it has made itself a tad too comfortable. Greg Foreman at Kendrick Lake had all of them removed a few years ago (and there were hundreds if not thousands)...I noticed a few have snuck in again! This is so easy to remove, I don't think it shall ever pose a menace--and with flowers like this for months on end, who could live without it?

Yes, Virginia. Pasqueflowers(Pulsatilla vulgaris) can be weedy. One of the few mandates I have been subjected to at my work was to "remove all those pasqueflowers": the year was 1984 and there were massive clumps of pasqueflowers in almost every bed at DBG Rock Alpine Garden, by the hundred and thousand. It took dozens of wheelbarrowloads to get them all out....and yes, they have crept back. But watch out--it could become a ravishing weed again!

And finally, bulbs: everyone knows how Muscari can take over the joint. But in Colorado many tulips self sow, but none with the vim and vigor of Tulipa tarda. Sandy Snyder (that's her meadow below) actually mows them when the seed pods are still green to try and restrain them..

I love them unrestrained!

These and a number of their quasi-weedy cousins are mainstays for me, and think more gardens should have their share of mild-mannered but slightly rowdy guests--I mean weeds.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Flossy perfection: the hunt. The story.

You know the drill: first you see it...and then you notice it. Finally you realize how special it is. You begin to fret a bit...why didn't I know about this earlier? Where on earth did it come from? Who is responsible for it? That's what I have been going through the last few years with the silvery Vernonias that have suddenly graced a very few fortunate gardens (not mine, incidentally). This one (Vernonia lindheimeri) is in Mike Kintgen's wonderful private garden (which is filled with unique and special treasures). There are some equally spectacular specimens of this at the Gardens at Kendrick Lake...but this should convey the silvery, silky majesty of foliage and graceful form. And those rich violet-purple heads of bloom? This constitutes perfection! And it is not mine! Is there justice in the world? The answer is...until I possess this and grow it at least half as well I shall not rest content!

You know you have a wonderful plant when it looks good from far away, and still looks good as you come closer. Silver leaved plants in our climate are a dime a dozen--tansies, Senecios galore, grizzly bear cacti, artemisias and antennarias all glisten and shine and shimmer, This one seems to hold up to any of them, which is saying a lot....and that purple is just the right "je ne sais quoi"...

Perhaps it is the hunt: the way that something enters our consciousness.  As steppe creatures--Steppenwolves as it were--we espy our prey from afar and stalk it (Google search and the internet have made the search almost too easy)...and soon we are filling in our credit card number--and then it's just a matter of time.

Although being from Texas, this might best be planted in spring. This year has coaxed it into such early bloom, perhaps it shall produce viable seed (most years it gets frosted first)...Perhaps we shall be able to grow hundreds or thousands: I want to see the world peopled with Vernonia lindheimeri!

We find ourselves researching in floras, looking through reference books (precious little on this gem, I must say)...and then another goal comes into view: How can I juggle my schedule and see if one day I can track it and find it growing in the wild?

This process of discovery, familiarity, and ultimately cohabitation--this sort of horticultural don-juanism--is an affliction all plantsmen have experienced endlessly.Unlike Don Juan, however, we do not move on and cast our conquered loves aside for a new one--we carry our loves around like an ever expanding posse--or harem, loving them all endlessly and forever!

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Queen of torch lilies: Kniphofia caulescens

Anyone who has spent any length of time in South Africa will come back with pictures and tales of Kniphofia caulescens, which should rank near the top of any sane person's list of best torch lilies. You see, this is a widespread plant found in vast throngs, as in the picture above--usually at very high elevations in and adjacent to Lesotho. This is one distinctive and very hardy red hot poker! The blue leaves are diagnostic--they almost look like a blue leaved yucca or agave they are so distinct and sculptural all on their own.

But it is the amazing, nearly profligate display of the flowers that makes this so special. This clump above is blazing away in the middle of the Rock Alpine Garden as I type this: it has been blooming for nearly two weeks, and promises to go on another two at least. If you live in or near Denver, trot on down to worship it soon--you will not regret it. Actually, if you live anywhere, hop on a plain, train or automobile and hustle your tushy down here anyway: Denver Botanic Gardens right now are simply too gorgeous for words--although Matt Mattus has managed pretty effectively to capture some of the luster in his must read blog!

How photogenic can a plant be? Here is our regal queen in the garden of Elaine and Bob Menter, in Greenwood Village, Colorado. Notice how cunningly Elaine tucked some lavender-purple foil (veronica? campanula? forgot which) as a backdrop (Elaine and her garden are of a league with this great plant: queenly all!)

This was a particularly stunning clump with gigunda heads of bloom in our old cutting garden: now an expansion of the Japanese garden occupies this space: time does move on. Wish the Kniphofia had moved as well...

 And here yet another clump at Denver Botanic Gardens--in the South African plaza (appropriately enough). Somewhere I MUST have photographed the impossibly stately and wonderful unblooming rosettes you can see right now at the Gardens on Kendrick Lake: imagine them for a moment in your mind: incredibly symmetrical and icy fountains of sapphire blue--worth growing as a foliage plant...

But the flowers--the strange blend of  burnt orange verging on vermillion with the pale yellow--almost white tubular florets--and the classic torch lily shape: yum yum! This clump is in the wonderful garden of Ann Weckbaugh in the south of Denver.

Did I mention that Plant Select has featured Regal torch lily as one of their choices in 2010? Although I suspect many seed companies and individuals might have grown this in the 20th Century, I believe much of what is in cultivation traces to my many trips to South Africa, where I have repeatedly sought this out...                    

It makes a spectacle (both in foliage and in late summer flower) that provides a focal point for your garden, and thanks to Plant Select, it is quite easily tracked down in independent garden centers across the country. And do plan a trip to the high Drakensberg in January or February one year so you can be dazzled by fields filled with thousands of these in nature! 

Sunday, August 19, 2012

The paradoxical plants of a thousand names...

The names? Corn lily, False hellebore, False Poke,American False Hellebore, American White Hellebore, Bear Corn, Big Hellebore, Corn Lily, Devils Bite, Duck Retten, Indian Hellebore, Itch-weed, Itchweed, Poor Annie, Blue Hellebore, and Tickleweed....and that's just out of Wikipedia! I'm trying to remember what my dad called it (it was everywhere in the Flattops where we went fishing)...I think there is a rule somewhere that you cannot be considered a wildlife photographer in the West unless you take pictures of the pleated foliage emerging in early summer. I guess I'm in the club.

Above is a shot of Veratrum tenuipetalum, the current name for the universal false hellebore of the Rocky Mountains. Some years vast fields of foliage dominate whole valleys with nary a one in bloom. Then, boom! One year there are flowers everywhere. Such a year was last year (2011): this picture was taken on Kebler Pass between Aspen and Crested Butte.

Here we have a closer shot--they are majestic. I assumed growing at high, cold valleys they would be a challenge to grow in the garden, but in 2009 we visited the Royal Horticultural Society's magnificent garden at Wisley and saw this grand specimen: Veratrum californicum, I believe:

And a few days later we saw this honker blooming at Kew: Veratrum nigrum occurs across a wide swath of Eurasia (we saw it in early June in the Altai of Kazakhstan!) in an amazing range of habitats from moist grasslands to dry woods. It is not nearly as massive as many of its white flowered kin (generally four or so feet tall), with gorgeous pleated leaves. It is amazing this is so rare in cultivation flowers do have allure, as Paul Bonine reveals in his delightful book.

A rather lurid (and out of focus) closeup of the same...please hurry on!

Everything so far is really just preamble to my showing off my dinky and adorable tiny black hellebore: Veratrum formosanum is endemic to Taiwan, with the same dark blossoms as its more common cousin, only it usually grows well under 2' tall. The foliage is much narrower, and daintier altogether. You can see it fits in nicely into a rock garden. Although it thrives in a border as well...

Here is a picture of the flower stalk--you might describe the flowers as maroon, chocolate or just plain dark. They are fascinating to look into, and a complete contrast to everything else in the August garden. I have several of these in my rock garden, and this time of year they stand out in every sense of the word, despite their somber coloration. This deserves far greater popularity (if only there were some nurseries offering it).

I obtained mine from Beaver Creek Nursery in British Columbia, and Roger still lists it: don't all order it at once! And don't expect your grassy little tuft to make quite the impact of a vast meadow full of corn lilies in the Alps, or the Cascades. But once it settles in, you can expect its dark little towers to brighten your late summer in a most paradoxical fashion!

Thursday, August 16, 2012

My very first contest! Wooo Hooo!! : Iris RULE!

 Iris x germanica 'Many Mahaloes'

I have heard them called (ever so cruelly) "poor men's orchids". A certain "Jim" from Kansas City once wittily (and even more cruelly) quipped "they're just hankies on a stick".  To the first comment I simply say that I have found sumptuous TRUE orchids for sale at Whole Foods recently for under ten dollars, but try and buy the latest awesome tall bearded for less than three figures and I say good luck! Orchids are now the poor man's iris!

And when have you seen a hanky with such silky texture, shot with highlights and shimmering in the moment? Never, I say! NEVER! No hankies these! And the names! 'Many Mahaloes'! 'Batik'! Reading through a list of tall bearded iris is as evocative for some of us as reciting Lolita's class list was for Humbert Humbert.

 Iris x germanica 'Batik'

Isn't this one amazing? I wish that that all bearded iris in my home garden:(note to self: better order one soon)
 Iris x germanica 'Honey Glazed'

What about this contest I promised you? Well here's how it goes! My buddy and true plant phenomenon Kelly Norris has just published a wonderful book called A Guide to Bearded Irises. I recommend clicking on both these hyperlinks for more info! Then go to the bottom of the page for the scoop...
CONTEST! (This is SO cool--my blog has really joined the BIG time when it can step up to contests, don't you think? What's next? American Idol? The Blog Olympics? I can dream?

Oh yes.. the contest: you have TWO ways to win (either one would be fun and both have pretty good odds--this is not Lotto).

If you just respond to my blog (the way you so often do)--preferably with a charming comment about stand a good chance of winning a FREE (and I repeat Free!) copy of A Guide to Bearded Irises...I have pre-selected a number and if you are that number in the sequence of responders, I shall mail you a copy of the book)....My contest goes from April 15 to the end of this month (then I will announce the winner at the bottom of this blog column) and inform them....

At the same time, Kelly is running his own contest: click on this URL and he will explain the whole process to you: it involves putting ten pix of irises from his book on your Pinterest page (I am playing the contest myself--you can't have enough bearded irises when you have a half acre like I do!):

I would love it if one of MY blogging community won the book and the iris collection---so do give it a try. We should all have our own Pinterest page (apparently), and I (for one) have never had enough of irises...

I shall end on two notes: first of all, Kelly Norris is someone you want to play with. He is an enormously talented plantsman in all facets of the word, and positively oozes charm, charisma and has an energy level that could power a nuclear facility (one that is totally safe, however). He is worth engaging! And irises are quite simply the loveliest flowers on the planet. I grow hundreds of species and cultivars, and I never have enough: I probably had several thousand iris flowers in my personal garden this year, and I never come close to sating on them. The first iris blooms in February for me (sometimes January--one of hte reticulatas) and there is hardly a day subsequently until well into summer when I do not have bevies of iris blossoms to better my spirits and lift my soul. There are still irises blooming (the old Vesper iris "Pardanthopsis dichotoma" is now an iris again---hurray!)

That last picture I posted was photographed at Denver Botanic Gardens last May: the garden was created by Ann Montague--one of my many extraordinarily talented colleagues: the TB's bloom for weeks there, and I find myself returning, day after day, like a very hungry and rather over-large bee, buzzing over their scintillating flowers and realizing that yes, Virginia, there is a Heaven. And irises grow there for sure!

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Zeus beard?

In case you are still sadly esconced in the 20th Century (remember then?), succulents rule in this millenium, what with global warming and micropropagation. What more iconic succulent for temperate climates than hens-and-chicks? The sizeable clan of Sempervivum contains a discrete subset that have traditionally been called Jovibarba (literally Jupiter's beard), which just about any Sempervivum (or Jovibarba) connoisseur will tell you is the creme de la creme of the genus (or should I say genera)! Are you confused yet? Just wait until the Sempervivum/Jovibarba bug bites you and you discover there are hundred of both, all of them delectable.

Although only a handful of species, Jovibarba encompases vast variability. So let us focus on just Jovibarba heuffellii, the most diverse and confusing of all! This varies from typical Sempervivum in that it divides like an amoeba rather than sending out "chicks" and the flowers have consistently fewer petal segments. And they bloom later in the year than most true Sempervivum.

I photographed this wonderful specimen in the Rock Alpnie Garden.

Here we have a wild form of J. heuffelii 'Hot Lips' a wonderfully named hybrid that can attain immense size--these stems are almost 2' tall.

I believe this wonderful specimen in my home garden is called something like  'Silver [or is it bronze?] Ingot' (I have managed to lose the name)--it is one of the most beautifully colord species looking like metal more than plant.
Jovibarbas are restrained, colorful year around and easy to grow. They bloom in the dog days of summer: what great er proof do we need that one does not need to venture to Africa or Mexico to find dashing and beautiful succulents for your garden! But what the heck do they have to do with Zeus' beard?

Saturday, August 11, 2012

A Colorado treasure: the Tatroe Garden

Marcia and Randy Tatroe have lived in their suburban paradise almost a quarter century. In that time Marcia (with lots of brawny help from Randy) has utterly transformed a very conventional piece of lawn with a few shrubs into a year around wonder. I don't suggest you ask Marcia what she thinks, however: she is a consummate perfectionist: she told me last week that her garden had been devasted by hail twice this summer, and that drought had destroyed half the plants utterly, and the other half were gasping their last.

The garden (however) looked pretty snazzy. It is chockablock full of thousands of plant trasures that seemed to love the drought, and were positively exploding with color. Above is a closeup of Clematis fargesii (perhaps better classed as C. potaninii nowadays). Mind you, those flowers are two inches across--produced lavishly ona rambling vine that once clambered twenty feet or more up the trees in her back yard. She has trimmed it back, but it was still festooned with hundreds of white starburst blossoms.

I was a tad annoyed to find this: I have four or five plants of Silene plankii, all of them blooming now, and none nearly as attractifve in flower.Good thing I like her! this is a rare, compact cushion silene from New Mexico that is barely known in cultivation.

Here is one of the astonishing vignettes featuring botanical (or in this case zoological) ceramics. Where does she find these things

This astonishing cousin to Aquilegia chrysantha and A. desertorum was self-sowing liberally in her shady corner: m columbines all hybridize, but these are sufficiently isolated they are breeding true: hurray! Maybe I shall get a pinch of seed soon.

Mimulus cardinalis in an orage form blooming in a shady bog: Reds this time of year really stand out, and I do recall a hummingbird whizzing past.

Zephyranthese candida and dwarf cattail in the miniature pond: charming!

And moon carrot (Seseli gummiferum) shooting like frozen fireworks in the twilight...and much much more! Thank you, Marcia and Randy! Your garden is a never ending source of delight and inspiration for all of us--even now that there's nothing at all to behold...

(P.S. If you do not have a Marcia's Cutting Edge Gardening in the Intermountain West, do click on that link and order a copy right away!)

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Rare Plant Nurseries rule!

Some people collect rare coins, others collect stamps. I collect rare plant nurseries. During my recent visit to Spokane I was lucky enough to have time to visit not one, but TWO such nurseries...which is appropriate since when I grew up, several aeons ago in the middle of the 20th Century, two Spokane area nurseries provided "correspondence school" plants for me (so to speak) that helped enormously in my horticultural education. Before I address the here and now, I would like to pay tribute to Lamb's Nursery and Thurman's Gardens: I practically wore their catalogues out over the years. Lamb's was one of the premier sources for garden perennials (which were not as popular back then as they are now), and Thurman's had the glitziest of rock garden/wildflower catalogues with a positively lascivious picture of Lewisia tweedyi on the cover. I made the mistake of loaning this last one out to someone years ago, and I have not had the opportunity to glimpse it in years: I am sure it would send huge shock waves of Proustian nostalgia through me...

As a young man of 26 I first visited Spokane and made a pilgimage to both these orginal nurseries. Many decades later I arrive to visit their successors. I begin with a picture of Diane Stutzman, who owns Desert Jewels Nursery with her husband, which has a treasure trove of native plants and succulents. Do click on that hyperlink to get much better pictures of their wares than my midsummer visit (in blazing sun) can do justice to. Do check their website for the times they are open and their terms: this is not the primary business of the owners. That said, I can assure you have put their heart (and a great deal of elbow grease) into it!

Despite its being early August, there was much in color at Desert Jewels: here you can see the meadow garden ablaze with tallgrass perennials.

And there were a number of penstemons blooming: the flowers here are on Penstemon richardsonii, growing in a drift of Penstemon barrettae.

It is not likely to show up at your local box store very soon, but click on the shot above to see a wonderful planting of Eriogonum microthecum getting ready to bloom. Even without flowers, the grey, artistic mass of stems is striking. Imagine the dome of white fading to pink: I was so thrilled to see Diane had this propagated: I was able to bring several back! They had hundreds of kinds of plants--mostly natives from the interior Pacific Northwest, and mostly grown from wild seed, all grown in the sort of deep pots that make dryland plants much easier to establish: perfection!

In addition to natives, Desert Jewels has some outstanding succulents such as these immense Jovibarba heuffellii: I have never seen these growing so immense--nearly a meter tall! There were many unusual Hylotelephium and other Sedum cultivars as well...

I stupidly did not take any closeups of the plants from Desert Jewels (and the ones I brought back are in the ground already) but I did take a picture of this Gentiana striata at Alan Tower Perennials, the other choice nursery I visited. Alan's nursery is very much a full service garden center with a wide range of trees, shrubs, perennials, alpines, aquatics--even cacti! I was enchanted with his many rare conifers and rhododendrons, but I came away with many rare gentians and other alpines they had grown from seed collected across Asia by the intrepid Czechs.

Alas! Alan did not have plants for sale of THIS, the ultimate cushion plant. Gypsophila aretioides is found in the highest mountains of Western Asia (Caucasus, Iran), where it makes immense and very ancient vegetable sheep. This specimen is doing its best to mimic its cousins back home, swallowing a label in the process!

Lambs and Thurman's are (alas) no more...but Spokane continues its grand tradition of rare plant sales in two worthy successors!

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