Friday, November 30, 2012

Molly the Witch

We are now less than half a year away from the time when Molly the Witch (Paeonia mlokosewitchii) casts her spell: she almost always blooms for Mother's day--or even a tad earlier in these days of earlier springs. As you gain your horticultural stripes in colder regions, you must somehow get your mitts on this subtle queen of wild peonies.
Here are the shoots in March and early April...emerging in my home garden...even at this early and rather provocative stage, Molly is arresting! 
Here she is in her full glory, this clump happens to be at Laporte Avenue Nursery in Fort Collins--one of the few nurseries that regularly grows this gem. Although I can't guarantee they always have it in stock (it does tend to sell out quickly)...
Here's a fine specimen on Ridge Road in Littleton--at the Snyder garden. I suspect more than one passing motorist has swerved...
Even in seed it is a wonder in the garden. Why am I writing now, in the early days of winter about this glory of early spring? Well, friends--when Molly is blooming I am bewitched by a thousand or more gems that are popping up everywhere (and this coming year I am likely to be in Sweden)...that's what blogs are for, silly: a chance to linger over the year and glom on to a few gems like this that enrich our lives so much. We have one specimen of Molly at Denver Botanic Gardens that must be 30 years old and just gets better and better. Every year I find my way down to it and spend a few minutes enthralled: that sort of ritual fills the life of a gardener with magic moments. If you've found your way to Prairiebreak, I know you know!
I think that botanists have recently lumped this into some other Caucasian taxon. We horticulturists are not apt to change too quickly! It does get better: at Gothenburg Botanic Gardens almost twenty years ago I saw a tiny form of this that was deep golden yellow from did not survive the trip back back then: time to write Zetterlund and beg some more seed!

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Fearful symmetry

Sunday night Jan and I went to see "The Life of Pi"--which despite having rave reviews only had a dozen or so people in the huge theatre. I thought this Watercolor tiger painting (which you can purchase if you click on the hyperlink!) captured a bit of the essence of the movie--as well as Blake's classic poem at the bottom.  Richard Parker (the tiger in the movie) was the kicker for me: how the hell they could have done such an astonishingly perfect job of cyberartistry with this awesome cat? Apparently, the critters in the boat are all phony cyber creations, although they looked distressingly real to my eyes. I don't want to spoil your appreciation of this movie--it is well worth seeing on many levels. But I realized watching it that much of my life has been a struggle with my own personal tiger. Piscine (the protaganist) implies at the end that perhaps Richard Parker (the tiger antagonist) was in fact himself...I said the movie operated on many levels!
I've read two biographies of Bruce Chatwin, and they both mentioned Bruce's great interest in Dinofelis, a Miocene carnivore that appears to have specialized in eating our ancestors. The terror inspired by tigers in particular, may be a deep-seated human instinct inspired by millions of years of eluding (or trying to elude) the ironically named Smilodon. What if our intelligence came about as a direct result of "smarter" humans being selected because they found better ways to elude their ultimate predator and lived to procreate, passing on ever smarter genes?
I have a hunch that those increasingly smarter humans may have eventually developed methods to drive Dinofelis into extinction After all, paleontologists believe humans have driven dozens of other taxa of megafauna off the earth in the last tens of thousands of years through our extraordinary capacity for, well, let's be blunt--our mastery of destruction.
May I suggest (just as the "Life of Pi" seems to) that we are ourselves in fact the tiger. Until we manage to subjugate or at least grasp this fact that is. The tigers of ignorance and hate, greed and anxiety, guilt and fear are the creatures that drive so much of what we do from day to day. They do damage of course on their own, but also preoccupy us such that we do not attend what we should, something that may become an even greater predator in time, perhaps?
Let us hope we can somehow master that force within us--before we make all wild tigers extinct (not to mention the great bulk of other creatures out there that have not already been supplanted by Superstores, endless suburbs, shopping malls, farms and exurban wastelands).
And although the nearly extinct (or at least sputtering) Repugnican Party wackos would deny it, there is lurking out there a much bigger, much fiercer tiger than any of these (likewise our own creation--our own image, as it were projected onto an unimaginable scale): carbon emissions and the global warming they have set in motion are fiercer than any tiger you can conjure, although the eyes and teeth are not evident to reactionary pundits quite yet. Ironically, real tigers are composed mostly of carbon, come to think of it! How fearfully symmetrical!

The Tiger
By William Blake

                                                 Tiger, tiger, burning bright
                                                 In the forests of the night,
                                                 What immortal hand or eye
                                                 Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

                                                 In what distant deeps or skies
                                                 Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
                                                 On what wings dare he aspire?
                                                 What the hand dare seize the fire?

                                                 And what shoulder and what art
                                                 Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
                                                 And when thy heart began to beat,
                                                 What dread hand and what dread feet?

                                                 What the hammer? what the chain?
                                                 In what furnace was thy brain?
                                                 What the anvil? What dread grasp
                                                 Dare its deadly terrors clasp?

                                                 When the stars threw down their spears,
                                                 And water'd heaven with their tears,
                                                 Did He smile His work to see?
                                                 Did He who made the lamb make thee?

                                                Tiger, tiger, burning bright
                                                In the forests of the night,
                                                What immortal hand or eye
                                                Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

Monday, November 26, 2012

In praise of spines

Opuntia ursina at Timberline
Any fool can love a prickly pear in bloom: they are unspeakably lovely in flower. But the general run of people find the form of the plants strange--even repellent. I maintain they are an acquired taste. I adore the sumptuous flowers in early summer (and applaud Kelly Grummons for beginning to hybridize reblooming prickly pears). But I enjoy the stem shapes and colors almost as much--and for a much longer period of time than their fleeting flowers. Here are a few of my favorite Opuntias (and Cylindropuntias, to be pedantic!)

Cylindropuntia davisiae 'Golden Lion'
Two cane chollas have proved extremely cold hardy as well as spectacular in their spines: This Golden cholla of the Chihuahuan desert is a show stopper summer or winter.
 Opuntia aurea 'Chocolate Princess'
Kelly Grummons crossed two forms of O. aurea to produce this amazingly colored prickly pear that stays quite dark even in summer!
 Cylindropuntia whipplei 'Snow Leopard'

Possibly the most vivid species is this cane cholla from northern Arizona is this white wonder. Also very easily grown.

 Opuntia clavata and Opuntia fragilis (forma)

Almost as glistening a white, this creeping Opuntia (sometimes classed as Grusonia) is found primarily between Santa Fe and Albuquerque in New Mexico. It is painful to manhandle, but vigorous once established. Notice the brilliant contrast with the fragilis behind.

 Opuntia 'Coral Carpet'
This selection is possibly a hybrid at Timberline. It is a wonderful burnished brass in winter--and stunning with summer flowers.

 Opuntia trichophora
Many the name changes for Opuntias in this group-- all have lovely flowers, but the stems are so wonderfully covered with spines that they seem to glow as well...ursina, trichophora and hystricina are often mixed up in horticulture--but any form with one of these names is worth growing nonetheless...

 Opuntia basilaris
This species has an almost Henry Moore sculpturesque form: the lack of spines is typical, but believe me, the glochids are worse than spines--watch out! But with such cool shape and wonderful colors, who can resist?

 Opuntia nichollii
This specacular golden spined selection from near the Grand Canyon also has good flowers. It should be in my garden!

 Opuntia phaeacantha 'Paradox'
Did I mention thus far that the fruit display on many species is even showier than their flowers? This selection from Western Colorado--but almost any form of this species tends to be fruity indeed. Kelly loves to juice these (cheesecloth is the secret strainer)...And tongs are essential.

And finally Opuntia trichophora in its shaggy wonder...Now can you see why opuntia lovers are as fond of the stems and habit as we the magical flowers! You too could get stuck on them!

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Untimely daffs...

Narcissus albidus v. foliosus
If it were not for the seemingly endless variability of Mediterranean bulbs (and those from Central Asia and other bulby places too I suppose) winter would be very long indeed. I only obtained these two morsels in the last few years, both blooming cheerfully the last week of November! We have had numerous hard frosts, and the temperature at night has not been much above freezing most of the last month--with one or two nights dipping into the teens. This has not been through a winter yet, but N. cantabricus below did go through last winter.

Narcissus cantabricus

I visited Savill Gardens in Windsor Great Park in April of 1981 on an enchanted late afternoon--there were hardly any visitors there, and the bright day was gradually turning golden with late afternoon light. Long will I remember the bright pink petals of Magnolia campbellii floating down ever so slowly, and the streamside planted thickly with Lysichiton (camtchaticum over there, americanum over here) amid drifts of Primula denticulata and other early spring goodies....But what really dazzled me was how each dell and hollow was planted to its own subspecies of Narcissus bulbocodium...a brassy pale yellow one growing by the million in this clearing, a brilliant yellow dominating a meadow a bit further on. Seemingly dozens of kinds of hoop petticoats thriving and spreading into innumerable quantities, all growing completely happy, and in peak bloom. I am curious if there are not a meadow or two there for the late autumn and winter blooming white ones? I shudder to imagine a copse filled with one of the petunioides types!

Meanwhile, I am more than content with my little tufts here and there of some of the variations on this remarkable group of Narcissus. One day I must return to Savill Gardens--surely one of the finest gardens in the world. And perhaps one day I shall visit the heights of the Guadarrama, the Picos and the various Sierra where the bulbodocium section grows wild.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Odd couples. Unique pairings. Kooky combos.

Lovers of perennial borders are always seeking out wonderful ways of combining plants. Rock gardeners are notorious for their love of the cameo shot: and I'm a culprit in this arena. I have taken tens and thousands of mug shots of plants...finding two together in my image collection is a challenge--and when you do, what strange and mysterious things result.

I don't believe I have flaunted this one on this blog before: Paeonia cambessedessii was just moved from this spot (where it has not bloomed quite as well since I took this picture four or fice years ago.) And the Gentiana acaulis dwindled in this spot--but the Daphne cneorum 'Album' behind is bigger and better than ever, thank Heavens! This patriotic combination caused just about every visitor I led to it to glare at me with envy. Those are the moments gardeners live for.

Where else will you see Allium schubertii combined with BOTH Monardella macrantha AND Sedum rupestre 'Angelina'? I take credit for the picture, but the combination is Dan Johnson's in Yuccarama at DBG--tucked behind a wall where few sensitive souls are apt to see it and swoon. If they do, they are apt to fall into the prickly arms of
Yucca rostrata.

Don't look for either of these plants at Walmart, incidentally. The Sempervivum is 'Gold Bug'--one of the yellowest of its motley tribe. Those single rosettes are framing Rhinephyllum sp. --possibly a new species that I obtained from Steve Hammer of the Sphaeroid Institute. This miniature combo is primo every day of the year (although the Mesemb only blooms for five or six months). It is a dainty morsel that answers the question "why build a rock garden?"...

I took this picture in early July of 2009 on an enchanted trip to Kazakhstan led by the indefatigable and magnificent gentleman Vladimir Kolbintsev [possibly the best all around naturalist I have ever known, and a boon companion] for Greentours: the picture was taken on a remote corner of Mongolia (the only place we visited in that country not overgrazed--too far from any villages you see)...and the plants are a monstruose form of Rhodiola rosea and the ubiquitous Eritrichium pauciflorum of that area. Such is the stuff dreams are made on (for plant nerds anyway...)

Another unlikely (but wonderful) combo: Trollius altaicus rising out of a slightly less monstruose clump of Rhodiola rosea....

I finish with the most outlandish combo of all: myself and my girlfriend Jan Fahs--the beauty on the right (in case you were wondering--next to the beast on the left) at the Fete des Fleurs gala last summer at Denver Botanic Gardens.

I shall probably still take mug shots of alpines and rock plants...but I shall also try to find companions for them--for plants no less than people do not exist in a vacuum. And they often look (and grow) much better paired. I can attest to that!

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Friendly strangers

There's really nothing so very strange about the "Persian candytufts" (Aethionema)--although their name derives from the ancient Greek "aethes", which means strange. They are foreign to most gardens since these are quintessential rock plants. And one of the many good reasons to have a rock garden. I've noticed over the years that the best rock gardens usually feature plenty of these, and not to brag too much, mine has more than most. Here some of innumerable Aethionema grandiflorum in my garden (the form once sold as A. pulchellum--and certainly different from the A. grandiflorum I have grown from wild seed: botanists! get your act together!). This forms a miniature, gnarly shrub in time, and lives forever, and grows vigorously provided it is not too wet or too shady. They do pop up everywhere for me: I have a problem weeding them out, so I seem to have a few more every year...oh well.

Most Aethionema are pink, but I obtained this white one years ago from one of the Czech collectors and I believe it is A. iberideum from Turkey. Alas, it does not produce seed and if I don't propagate it soon from cuttings we may lose it.

This diminutive and very prostrate Aethionema glaucescens would be welcome in the more intimate crevice garden or trough--much more manageable than its sometimes robust cousins. It generally stays under two or three inches tall--although it can eventually get six or eight inches across.

I believe this is the true A. schistosum: over the years I have received a half dozen very different plants under this name. This one is a good pink, and almost as compact as the last species. I recommend it wholeheartedly for the small rock garden or trough!

In my experience, Aethionema subulatum has the darkest pink flowers of the genus (so far). It isn't the smallest species, but does not get as large or seed as much as A. grandiflorum. I am surprised this very lovely plant has not gained currency.

As you can see, I like it enough to grow lots of it in my rock garden (which is not infinite in space...)

One last glimpse of it: there was a time when pinks and pale blues--all the pastels--were the rage and the norm. At this time, the brasher "jewel-tone" reds, oranges and bright purples have elbowed these gentler pinks out of fashion. Those of us who dwell with the eternal verities don't pay attention to such nonsense: I love all colors including baby pink and rich rose! So what if they aren't "manly" and overstated! Everyone should cultivate their sensitive side (sniff sniff).

There are really dozens more Aethionema (I've grown far more than these--but hesitate to try your patience). They are much of a pinkness, after all...but if I were to be told to grow only one, I think I might pick Aethionema capitatum, pictured above in my rock garden. This was grown from seed of the plant below--check it out!

I took this picture five or ten years ago in Bill Adams wonderful rock garden in Pueblo. This same plant today is a gnarly bonsai (with a trunk bigger than your thumb, and an almost tree-like form and shape--less than a foot tall and not much broader. It blooms for a month or more at the height of spring and in early summer. The seedpods are appealing, and the foliage beautiful blue the year around. Like all aethionemas, it is very drought tolerant. I grow some with no supplemental irrigation. This one stands out!

It is strange indeed that such charming plants that provide so much beauty with so little fuss are still strangers to so many do we change that?

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Prickly business: a Southern California specialty nursery

Southern California might well be considered the Mecca of all cactophiles: Mexico may boast the largest number of species, and of course South Africa postively bristles with succulents (albeit not cacti), but Southern California boasts dozens of dazzling public gardens displaying fantastic succulent collections (not just the Huntington, btw), and more specialty, wholesale, and retail nurseries growing and selling succulents than you can shake an ocotillo cane at. I was lucky enough to visit several of these during my recent lecture tour: I was captivated by Prickly Palace. The picture above was not taken at that palace, exactly, but in the private garden of the absolutely astonishing garden full of all manner of spectacular specimen succulents grown to perfection. As I looked up and down their street full of conventional gardens (lawns, blobby bushes) that could have been in New Jersey or Idaho (whose owners pay untold thousands of dollars to keep their dullish gardens surviving on life support) when they too could have a desert garden full of beauty. Are people nuts or what?

Buck Hemenway (above) and his wife (whom you shall meet shortly) started this nursery to support their serious addiction to all things succulent. I must qualify in the latter category, since they were very hospitable during my recent visit. Here you can see Buck pulling aside one of the many aloes and other goodies he gathered and gave Denver Botanic Gardens for our collections (gratis, incidentally). In addition to being a nurseryman, Buck has dedicated countless hours in service to many affiliates of the Cactus and Succulent Society of America, as well as serving on the National board of that organization in many capacities. People like him are the ones who keeping the flickering flame of civilization glowing.

A glimpse of one of their growing areas, this one featuring all manner of cacti--in all sizes. I suspect many of the plants you see are specimens they are growing and perhaps grooming to put into one of the innumerable Plant Shows sponsored by CSSA throughout Southern California. Buck and Yvonne are frequent (and extremely successful) entrants in these shows. Moreover, they usually sell plants at them as well. Buck is likely to be conducting the auction at one of these meetings (he did so at two I happened to attend), to which they donated many of the best plants. And, oh yes, Yvonne will be outbidding others at the same auction...I think you call people like this "players".

One little corner of one of their houses where they cluster their non-cactus succulents...we shall take a a closer look at that out-of-focus red blur in the foreground next...

Here is Yvonne, a full partner to Buck in the business. I think her smile speaks volumes. She is accompanied by Monadenium coccineum, a delightful, everblooming succulent in Euphorbiaceae. I notice I brought one of those back (the plant, not Yvonne silly!). I enjoyed chatting with Yvonne about many things, especially the wonderful plans she and Buck have to move to Calitzdorp, a village in the Little Karoo of South Africa in a few years: their appetite for travel made me feel like a tyro.

Another flashy succulent I found there--a spectacular cultivar of Adenium. It's amazing these are not more often seen as house plants!

They had extensive beds outdoors for propagating larger succulents--such as this mass of Agave. Their Aloe beds will be in peak bloom over the next rew months: I may have to find my way back there soon...

They had flats full of treasures, such as this outlandish Ariocarpus agavoides, an amazing miniature cactus that reminds me more of a Lewisia than an agave.

And of course, they had to have the requisite Golden Barrel (Echinocactus grusonii): you never know when some Chinese plutocrat might drop in looking to replace the sentinel lions on his front stoop.

My one glimmer of schadenfreude occured when Buck told me that his Delosperma sphalmanthoides (pictured here) had never bloomed. Until I realized his plant was twice the size of any I have managed to overwinter. This was growing in a special area (with many tables and some overhead protection) where they cluster hundreds--maybe thousands--of special treasures, many of them South African bulbs, which they wish to keep track of. That treasure trove merits its own Blog posting--except that my camera had trouble focusing through my hot tears of envy!

Buck and Yvonne: I salute you, and thank you for all you do for the world of horticulture and its wandering minstrels like myself. Long may your reign in your Prickly Palace--whether in Riverside county or the Little Karoo!

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Best in show cushions and buns

Rock gardeners are known for their interest in alpine cushion plants. Although succulents usually summon up images of fleshy crassulas or sedums, there are several succulents that can equal any alpine in their rounded, tight mounds. I photographed this amazing specimen of Deuterocohnia brevifolia (Synonym:Abromeitiella brevifolia), a bromeliad from the foothills of the southern Andes which makes a wonderful specimen in a pot. This specimen has apparently won many a medal for its owner, here shown at the San Gabriel Cactus and Succulent Show at the Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanic Garden in Arcadia, California on November 3. Here it takes the first prize in Bromeliad division. (It was just one of over 800 incredible specimens in that show: Plant shows, sales and auctions are alive and well in California, let me tell you: I attended several in a week!)

 And here is a terrific example of the same species grown as a virtual sphere by
Peter G Walkowiak, a dynamic nurseryman who hosted me last week, and who owns and operates a spectacular nursery (HCI Services) in Escondido, California: if you look beyond the bromeliad, you can get a hit of the hundreds of other superb specimens that he grows as stock plants (and show plants too). Kind of like a permanent plant show in his back yard! This is just one of the hundreds of amazing succulent nurseries that make Southern California a Mecca for lovers of these plants. By the way, I have seen this bromeliad growing lustily out of doors at both the Edinburgh and also Kew's Royal Botanic Gardens: one fantasizes it might grow high enough in the Andes to be hardy in can dream you know!
 I admired Mike Kintgen's amazing pictures of Euphorbia resinosa, which forms vast colonies in the foothills of the Atlas mountains of Morocco. I was therefore thrilled to find this terrific clump--possibly six or eight feet across--at the University of California at Riverside's amazing botanical garden last week.
 Here you can see the plant in better context, surrounded by cacti and other succulents in their extensive desert garden...

Feeling just a tad jealous of these immense succulent mounds in California, I must compensate by sharing this picture of Euphorbia clavarioides var. truncata I took last summer at Timberline garden where Kelly is growing it outdoors: this was grown from cuttings of plants he grew from seed from my collection in 1994--surviving all these years in Colorado!

Although this is a Euphorbia, this is also a bona fide alpine that would take pride of place in any self respecting rock gardener's collection, despite its emphatic succulence, bringing two of my great loves together in one plant. I went to California expecting many things, but finding enormous cushion succulents was not one of them!

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