Friday, June 29, 2012

The Moonlight Larkspur


It was 25 years ago last week that Jim and Jenny Archibald flew into Denver on their first expedition to Western America: how do I know this so precisely? Because the arrived the day my daughter, Eleni, was born (June 17, 1987)...we shall not dwell on a few of the amusing and not so amusing ramifications of this conjunction.

Suffice it to say that I was rather torn, shall we say, between my fatherly responsibilities and my pressing desire to host the premier plant explorers of the last half of the century. I couldn't WAIT to show off Denver Botanic Gardens to Jim and Jenny. And when I finally managed to shepherd them down there, I remember only two things: it took them forever to get down to the Rock Alpine Garden because Jim was so entranced with our Spuria collections (which we subsequently flushed), declaring it the best thing we had at the time...and seemingly the only plant in the Rock Alpine Garden which captivated Jim was Delphinium semibarbatum (better known by the zippy name Delphinium zalil) which I had obtained from Index Seminum. I had a stand of a couple plants forming astonishing golden candelabrums. These persisted for a number of years and they were at their apogee for Jim and Jenny exactly a quarter century ago...they persisted a few years and one day I realized they were gone....I regret that there are quite a few sad stories along these lines in my resume...but this one has a sort of happy sequel. Read on!


Last year we obtained seed from a seed company (and Mike Bone and I collected seed on the Kazakhstan steppe in 2010): I assume this accession was from the seed company, although I recall there were a few last blossoms on the plants where we collected seed and they were this same moonlight tint. Mike Kintgen planted these out in the new grassy section of the Steppe part of the Rock Alpine Garden, not far from where I planted them some 26 or 27years ago. This form appears to be a bit smaller, and a good deal paler than my bright golden yellow gem. But truth be said, this pale yellow color is easier to use in the garden, and very lovely indeed.

So once again, the zany, zesty, and yes--zippy--Zalil is back! Why do I not hear clarions blasting? Drums rolling? Why is the world so much more interested in Angelina Jolie's anorexic midriff than in the moonlight (and sometimes golden) larkspur of the wild, windy Steppes of Asia?

I will tell you why, friends....the vast unwashed οι πολλοι (hoi polloi) are hopeless!

(P.S. We still need and want the deep golden form: help me get it Puhleeaase!)

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Thistle thistle burning bright....


I know, I know, they are dreadful weeds, and prickly at that. Of course, there do exist rare, endangered thistles, and even thistles that are even hard to grow. But we are not talking about those obscure, recondite thistles. Here I mean to speak of the unspeakable, namely donkey farts (Literal translation of Onopordon), which are bona fide weeds no matter how you slice it. Why are such bristly, painful, nasty and otherwise so unpleasant...saddled with an ignominious Latin name, why on earth would I blog about these? Because, my dear, I love them. And I'm not even Scots.

These are rosettes of the stemless donkey fart (Onopordon acaule) which has become a sort of signature plant in my garden. I have let it naturalize and some years there are a few dozen of these scattered around my garden causing ordinary garden visitors a great deal of chagrin. You can't imagine how much I enjoy watching generic gardeners cringe. But most imaginitive gardeners are frankly quite jealous, and you'd be surprised how many beg seeds of these from me (they have to beg very very hard to get a pinch of seed, and then I give them just a little and they have to promise to not let the plants go wild)...I never give seed to anyone who lives near wild spaces...growing this sort of thistle in your garden is akin to keeping lions and tigers as pets: advisable only for those who can go the full length of protecting themselves and others from their terrible symmetry.


The first picture, by the way, was Onopordon acanthium, the impossibly elegant and truly weedy true Scotch thistle. Like all admirers of all things Scots, I realize one only is supposed to use the epithet "Scotch" to refer to the wonderful whisky...but I think the common name for this thistle is well esconced. And who in their right mind would ever say Scots' tape (come to think of it)?

 I believe it may be one of the most gorgeous and statuesque of all weeds--a match to any fussy ornamental in elegance and beauty. I have encouraged a small colony to naturalize in my immediate neighbor's garden adjacent to mine, so I can enjoy the spectacle and yet pretend to eschew responsibility...but spitefully, one rosette popped up on West Ridge, and I was too weak willed and just plain bad to weed it out: this year it has delighted me for weeks with its ghostly elegance.

The last shot is of the stemless species when the seeds explode: that is the time for action! I hoe them all out (in the process, a few seed escape and pop up next spring in just enough numbers to satisfy my wanton, weedy cravings)....I suppose in a very conceptual, abstract way they depict in sculptural form at this puffy stage what a donkey fart might look like--painted by Salvador Dali, perhaps.

Pity the fussy gardeners who are denied the pleasure of gorgeous weeds. I have been accused of loving every plant on the Planet, and I suppose I may be guilty of that (any creature that can magically create carbohydrates from a dash of water and a splash of sun is pretty awesome in my book) but weedy or no, the sumptuous silvery-white wedding cake-snowflake majesty of onopordons is as essential to me as the occasional (very occasional) powdered sugar dusted doughnut...and probably as reprehensible!

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Elated over Yucca


 I have never heard anyone call it "Soaptree Yucca", the Universally agreed upon common name supposedly: I call it the New Mexico Tree Yucca, since it is particularly abundant in New Mexico, and the wise people of that great state have made it their state flower. There are some huge specimens in Colorado--it seems to possess amazing cold hardiness. And now that the hot stretch of summer is underway, it seems to explode into bloom. The picture above was taken about ten days ago, as was the shot below. I have had some clumps in my garden bloom in May, and I have seen it blooming in August. The form and habit of the species is incredibly varied: I suspect some hybridization may be responsible, as well as numerous ecotypes that must occur over its large range in the Chihuahuan desert uplands...

 This is a rather petite specimen in Leo Chance's amazing Colorado Springs garden (the author of Cold Hardy Succulents I blogged about a few weeks ago...). The flower color is almost always that luminous ivory, and the flower display can last up to a week if cool weather prevails (which it didn't this year: five days was it)...

Here you can see that some earlier clumps are already forming big seedpods when my taller clump beyond is still in bloom: I am surprised to get so much seed set. I had read that each species of yucca has its very own Pronubia moth that cannot pollinate other species...perhaps our local Yucca glauca is similar enough to Y. elata that they are able to set viable seed?

Almost anyone who gardens in this area and grows these plants is sure to have some interesting observations: some specimens have an amazing amount of frilliness on the leaf that is decorative in the extreme. The only sad thing about this plant is that it hates being moved. You had best start with a young plant or seedling, and make sure you put it where it is to stay. Some forms are rhizomatous--so watch out! removing a large clump could be a challenge!

I should really be blogging about firescaping and the issue of fires in Colorado, since that is high on everyone's agenda right now: there are a dozen or more massive fires around the state. That blog shall come...but meanwhile, let's just enjoy this tough and rewarding native succulent that should be more often seen and grown!

Friday, June 15, 2012

Miracle garden


In the course of my career--or perhaps I should just say "my life" (since the two are pretty much synonymous)--I have spent a good deal of my time in gardens. Comes with the turf, I guess...and every garden is miraculous. But there are a few....like the Gardens at Kendrick Lake--that never cease to amaze me. This is the Xeriscape demonstration garden of Lakewood, the brainchild of Greg Foreman, although he works alongside a whole team of keen gardeners, several of whom spend a good more time here than he does. The thought that you could make a three acre perennial garden in a city park (and the Lakewood crew actually have several ambitious gardens, and small xeriscapes in many of the 130 parks that are scattered around Lakewood), and keep it in tip top shape year around without volunteer help---well it boggles this professional gardeners mind. Lets not even talk about the dozens of miles of glorious xeric median strips they have installed in recent years...Greg and his troops are constantly renovating, upgrading and just generally polishing their jewel gardens. I visit every few weeks--sometimes even more often. It is so radically different in early morning light from glaring mid-day, and the golden evening light is extremely flattering on this wide open space. If you are in this area and do not visit this garden regularly you are missing out on a horticultural extravaganza second to none.

One of the many treats at Kendrick are the way cacti are showcased in so many ways.


Penstemons love this garden. This one is Penstemon centranthifolius which comes from Southern California and shouldn't be hardy. There are numerous specimens here, and I have seen it on the parkways: don't look for it in Denver nurseries (I have: it is not there)...


And of  course, hardy ice plants are showcased beautifully. The yellow one on the left is probably 20' wide....That's the way to show off ice plants!


There are Linum narbonense all over this garden: it is probabloy what tipped the committtee of Plant Select into choosing this plant for the program next spring (there are many such plants that have caught people's eye at Kendrick and suddenly they are front runners at Plant Select!


I would love to show all hundred or so pix I downloaded recently from my most recent visit--rest assured there are so many incomparable vistas and irresistible vignettes. I finish with this well nigh perfect specimen of Monardella macrantha 'Marion Sampson', (one of hundreds of species of unsual plants here, each of which seems to be grown to perfection....)

Would all Park systems were this inventive and accomplished! My kudos to Lakewoodites one and all, and especially to their Park management and mayor: you have a living monument to your wise governance!

Thursday, June 14, 2012

CAMERA! Obscura!


It is more or less Universal now, but when Jim and Jenny Archibald first offered seed of Digitalis obscura back in the 1980's I doubt that there was a plant of it growing in North America (at least!)...With its linear, evergreen leaves and nearly shrubby habit it is quite different from all the others members of this small, but indispensible genus of Eurasians. Above it is growing in an east facing bed along Josephine street (at a bank, for heaven's sake!), not far from Denver Botanic Gardens. That picture seems to have captured the wonderful burnt umber color of the flowers...


The second picture shows it at the Gardens at Kendrick Lake, that cornucopia of perfectly grown plants. They have planted this on North facing as well as South facing banks there: they seem to do equally well.

I have a sad little specimen at home I shall not share right now: Oh! to have the space and watering system set up to grow chubby, cheerful plants like this!

This was championed by Plant Select way back in 2002! I doubt it shall ever fall out of fashion again!                                                          

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Modest beauty



This closeup is misleading: few gorgeous plants are as subtle and inconspicuous as the brown flowered priairie ball cactus: Escobaria missouriensis. The flower color can vary from nearly green to almost russet, and usually falls into an in between shade akin to copper--an unusual color for any flower. This beautiful miniature native cactus once grew by the untold million across the shortgrass prairie of the Great Plains: much of its range has been plowed or overgrazed. I have only found it a half dozen times around Denver, usually in the lower parts of the piedmont, and rather just a few specimens each time. I'd be hard put to find most of these locales again! It also occurs in the Intermountain area of Western Colorado, Utah and beyond. The species has been split into varieties (v. caespitosa) and even new species (E. marstoni), and one could accumulate quite a bevy of variants over time. Well worth doing.


Even when it is done blooming, the prairie ball cactus is still appealing with these bright red fruits that persist a whole year and are often more visible than the straw colored flowers. It underscores how close Escobaria is to Mammillaria: there are a bundle of mammillarias with similar bright red seedpods. Cactus collectors have been accused of overcollecting rare cacti (and there are some reprehensible people without a doubt). Of course, all the cactus collectors in the world have not done a fraction the damage that other human activities have wrought on our native plants: farming, housing, ATV's and cattle are the real culprits. And nowadays, there are dozens of nurseries in America and many more abroad producing an enormous volume of our native cacti from seed and cultivated plants: I know countless people who grow native cacti and would never dream of collecting a wild specimen. The real enemy is ignorance.