Sunday, August 5, 2012

Spokane visit

If you were to torture me long enough, I might confess under duress that the area between Spokane, Washington and Moscow, Idaho may be the one spot in North America I might choose to live in if I had a pick a perfect place to garden. The summers are significantly cooler than the Colorado Front range, the soils are often deep, and rich and neutral in pH. Winter precipitation is predictable (although the skies are often very gray--a minus in my book), and the weather is not prone to the violent extremes we are used to in the Rockies. Practically everything I love to grow: alpines, xeric plants, steppe cushions, bulbs--the whole shebang seems to grow better there than anywhere else in the country. And there are some extremely talented horticulturists who have taken advantage of these pluses: Here Maralee Karwoski, who gardens with her husband John in Spokane, is standing in front of a champion Salvia pachyphylla. Their garden boasts all manner of hostas and ferns as well as Mediterranean and steppe climate plants--all grown to perfection.

Here is Maralee's monster Origanum libanoticum: I think she grew more Plant Select plants than I do myself! How embarrassing!

Speaking of Oreganos, I saw no end of them in Spokane including this one I had never seen before: it is a vivid purple form of Origanum laevigatum called 'Pilgrim': it was in many gardens there, this photograph was taken in Manito Park--well worth its own Blog entry later on (hope I shall get to it)...

In addition to meeting dozens of people I've not known in the past, I was also able to spend time with Alan Tower, whom I have known for years. Alan owns Spokane's most diverse plantsman's nursery, Alan Tower perennial gardens, which have extensive display gardens and an amazing range of plants from choice alpines, xerophytes, to woodlanders and all the classic perennials. He has an amazing range of choice dwarf conifers and rhodies as well--and his prices are incredibly reasonable. Here is Alan on top of Steptoe Butte--a wonderful wildflower destination an hour or so south of Spokane where we botanized last Wednesday. Behind Alan stretches the Palouse prairie, one of America's most fascinating ecosystems: like tallgrass prairie in the Midwest it was practically busted overnight and very little unaltered prairie remains.

I was amazed to see that Calochortus macrocarpus was still blooming on the Palouse Prairie: I cannot imagine how many of these magical flowers were plowed to provide us with Top Ramen noodles (the consistently high quality Palouse wheat is exported for this purpose to Japan). I would opt for the Calochortus myself!

It was startling to see Heuchera still blooming as well: this wonderful white species is H. cylindrica, which has a wide range in this region. It would not be found on the Palouse, except that Steptoe is a Quartzite outcrop on an otherwise deep bed of Loess loam with no Heucheras, of course.

Another shocker was this gentian--which might key out to G. affinis in some floras, but which I believe to be the true G. oregana. Gentiana affinis has much smaller, narrower flowers and narrower foliage as well: it is common in Colorado. This more closely resembles the high altitude, wet loving Gentiana calycosa, but it is adapted to drier, hotter habitats.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              ,but
What a great garden plant this would make in Colorado xeriscapes!

I finish with what may look pale and pallid to you, but is a glistening white buckwheat that I have been yearning to fill my garden with (I have one measley plant right now). Eriogonum heracleioides is one of the most widespread species from northwest Colorado all the way to British Columbia. Its linear leaves and white flowers would make the perfect foil to our ubiquitous E. umbellatum. This trip has reinforced my desire to grow more of this...and I shall end on this moonlight white gem from Steptoe Butte--a place I shall revisit!


  1. Isn't Spokane great? I have never seen so many plant-crazy people as at a multi-vendor plant sale I went to in Manito Park in September 2001. Of course you know it gets buried in snow for months at a time some winters, right? There are a couple other good plant sites to visit near Pullman such as Kamiak Butte and Smoot Hill, a little slice of mostly-preserved prairie where I took a few field trips during my systematics class at WSU.

  2. I heard about the winters: great for plants, maybe not so hot for us sun lovers. It will take a lot to get me out of Colorado, I suspect!

    I would love to botanize more there. Great to know about more sites to put on my list!

    Now to get all the goodies I bought into the ground...

  3. Three cheers for Spokane, Manito Park and Steptoe Butte. It's wonderful to read of someone appreciating my homelands, even thou it's hard to imagine the area being thought of as any sort of horticultural ideal.

  4. There are not many places where you can grow Acer palmatum as well as you can grow cacti--with just a little more water!

    Spokane grows better alpines than almost anywhere in the USA as well. Great woodland plants in the shade and awesome perennials.

    The left coast grows awesome giant trees, liverworts and ferns--but many sun loving perennials get too lank, and weeds are omnipresent.

    We have hail, late frosts and scorching summers. The eastern half of the US has the worlds best springs and falls, but challenging summers and winters.

    I think the Eastern and Western fringes of the Palouse country are as close to climatic perfection for the kinds of plants I love (perennials like Peonies, gentians, primulas, Eriogonum, Penstemon etc. etc.), and xerophytes as well as awesome Hydrangea and Lilacs. The rhodies I saw looked as good as Seattle's.

    I would choose Spokane over Seattle, Portland (or Denver, alas) if it were a matter of gardening alone...

    (But I love my sunny winters).

  5. I once talked to a seasoned rock/alpine gardener in Pullman who said he used to live up in northeast Washington close to the Canadian border. He complained that he couldn't grow nearly such a wide range of alpines in Pullman because snow cover was so much less reliable than his previous location. I guess that's something else to consider! (And don't forget Sequim; it's just as dry as Spokane with a lot less cold and snow.)

  6. Great Pictures and commentary. After moving here from Alaska, I agree that Spokane is a paradise for plant lovers! There is so much diversity here and I'm still learning about many of the great plants mentioned.

  7. I was searching your blog for info on Gentiana for drier gardens and found this great post with other familiar plants. I took cuttings of Eriogonum heracleoides this Spring and am thrilled that at least one is going to stick around. I think this plant could look great in cultivation. Right now at lower elevations near my home near Chain Lake, BC (Canada), its white flowers have turned to burnt orange, contributing to the rusty glow of dry bunchgrass-covered hillsides.

    Another great Eriogonum from these parts that I don't often (ever) see in cultivation is E. niveum - the snow buckwheat. I found a population in July that is further West than any reported Canadian occurrence; at 2700' elevation just outside of Princeton, BC (USDA Z4 on the eastern foothills of the Cascades). I'm returning to collect seed in the Fall.

    Finally, good to see Huechera cylindrica - something I see from dry valley bottoms in Southern Interior BC all the way into fairly wet subalpine locales in the Cascades. I just collected seed this past weekend.

  8. Now if you can only get seed of Gentiana oregana--what a great plant that is too! The heracleoides makes it all the way to Colorado. We have it in some gardens here and it's a great performer and good foil for umbellatum. I think H. cylindrica is underrated. You live in a great place for plants. Remember me with some of that niveum seed!


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