Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Wild iris: just about my favorite thing in the world.

One of the darker Iris missouriensis in South Park
Since I doubt that you are counting, I might as well tell you that this is my 300 post on this Blog: although I am not preternaturally fatidic [in case my buddy Bob is reading: I like to make him look up a word or two], I thought I should blog about something special. Irises (and especially the only native Iris of Colorado) are as special as it gets in my book. So here ya go!

There are many flowery spectacles on Planet Earth that I adore, but not many delight me more than a vast field of wild iris. There is something about that blue color, and the variation one can find in them. It's another snowy, blustery day (finally! winter decided to arrive at the end of February) and I am catching up on many tasks, but I stumbled on these and realized that they bring the bounty and beauty of Colorado back better than anything else I can think of. Can't wait till late May and June when the iris fields in our mountains are blooming again!

A paler clone
Of course, one of the great pleasures of trodding* through a field like this is picking out your favorite color form. Is it the bright purple blue one there, or this silvery stripy one?

Mid blue: I like it too!
Do you opt for the classic pattern, or seek out the palest one?

A wonderful blend of shapes and tints
 From a distance a field like this can almost look like a pool of water. But up close, it's the variability that intrigues. I love the varying shades of blue--don't you?

I especially like it when you find two contrasting tints together, like this darker blue in among the nearly white....I could wax on and on about the fields of irises in the West: from the time I was a small child I have looked forward to driving through the mountain parks and plateaux throughout the montane and subalpine West where Iris missouriensis grows in such vast quantities at times. I can't begin to count the times I've wandered, seeking out the special one...which of course I always neglect to collect. You can imagine my chagrin when I found out some Government office listed this iris as a "Noxious Weed" even though it was native just because it's unpalatable to cattle...which may explain why there seems to be so much of it around still (while more palatable natives have disappeared).

This was one of the most consistently dark blue ones: I wish I had dug a piece of it now (ranchers are not too crazy about irises--they usually say "take them all!"--which, of course, I never would)...In fact, although I have grown hundreds and hundreds of iris species and cultivars over the years, I usually don't do much with I. missouriensis--probably because it's so abundant nearby and I enjoy it in the wild so much!
 And of course, one must find and worship the nearly albino (even though it's the blues we really love)...

Of course, visiting an iris field alone isn't much fun. Here back in 2010 I was lucky to have Wiert Nieuman who'd just retired as curator of Utrecht Botanic Garden in Netherlands along with me on that day. A better companion, a lovelier day I can't imagine. Life can be very sweet indeed in June, in South Park (the place, not the TV program, btw), on this fragile and precious planet we are so busy turning into an overheated shopping center and housing development.

*I realize that treading and plodding are almost synonymous (not really): I invented that portmanteau word to see if that same buddy Bob looked it up or not (pouncing, as it were, upon my neologism not realizing I'd planted it for him...) [insert cackling emoticon with evil sneer].

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Another childhood mystery solved...

"Anemones" (Pulsatilla patens)
     "I have grown to believe that the one thing worth arriving at is simplicity of heart and life. That--
     "One's relations with others should be direct and not diplomatic.
     "Meannness and hardness and coldness are the unforgiveable sins.
     "Conventionality is the mother of dreariness.
     "Pleasure exists not in virtue of material conditions but in the joyful heart.
     "The world is a very interesting and beautiful place.
     "Congenial labor is the secret of happiness and many other things which seem, as I write them down, to be dull and trite commonplaces, but are for me the bright jewels which I have found beside the way".

          A list of observations written in her diary, quoted in "Separate Lives, The Story of Mary Rippon" by Silvia Pettem, The Book Lode, Longmont, 1999.

I can't begin to imagine how many times in my life I have sat on the sandstone benches of the Mary Rippon Theater on the Boulder C.U. campus, watching Shakespeare plays under the stars: the very first time was Midsummer Nights Dream, the inaugural year of the first Shakespeare Festival (when I was in Kintergarten! I still remember parts of the production! And being a little shocked by Belly Bottoms' aquiring a donkey's head).  This transpired almost twenty years after the Professor for whom the theater was named had died in 1935. By the way, this was the first Festival to complete the Bard's canon in the New World, I suspect I have sat through 100 performances there over the years, and I have walked through that open quadrangle framed by Hellems and the Museum Building thousands of times as a youngster and Collegian, often wondering who Mary Rippon truly was as I did so.

I found a crisp paperback copy of her biography published 15 years ago at my nearby ARC on Saturday, and was riveted from the first page by her astounding story: that a woman without a college degree would be hired by the first President (Dr. Sewall) of CU to teach--from the very first year of the University--and that she would have a stellar career, heaped with honors and become the mentor of hundreds during which time she conceived a child out of wedlock with a student, then secretly married, and carried on a relationship with her husband that spanned decades, his life abroad and that she supported him and her daughter much of that time, and even his new family once they had divorced--all this is most amazing to read about. A wonderfully written book, carefully pieced together from thousands of tiny fragments of information the author ferreted out (Mary Rippon had destroyed most of her letters and large parts of her diaries---with only the most incidental information left to re-create the portrait). The Appendix citing sources is half as long as the biography! That's scholarship for you!

What emerges is a painting of an extraordinary human being indeed. She summarized her philosophy not long before she died in those few sentences I transcribed above which certainly resonate for me. 

Although many themes echoed for me throughout this book--the glimpses I got of my home town as it was in the dusty and yet pristine 19th century were especially delightful, and I was heartened by the realization of how truly honorable and thoughtful people were during the long Victorian era, despite the moral serverity of the times.

The role that flowers play throughout the book is amazing: hence the "anemones" at the top of the masthead: Mary would rent a horse from the livery every spring when the pasqueflowers bloomed and rode out onto the mesas south of the University to admire them--very likely around the very spot where I grew up and spent my childhood and much of my youth. She and her daughter were both great fanciers of wildflowers and naturalistic gardening--another peculiar bond I share with them both.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Life well lived: RIP Robert Johnson.

Agave utahensis

Bob Johnson, proprietor of Intermountain Cactus Nursery, passed away on Saturday, February 16, 2013. I met  Bob on three occasions, on almost ten year intervals. The first time was when the Wasatch Chapter of the North American Rock Garden Society sponsored an Annual General Meeting of that group in the summer sometime in the mid 1990's. Bob gave one of the talks at that meeting about hardy cactus: it made a huge impression on me at the time: the wonderful pictures of plants I did not know as well as I wanted to, and his delightful delivery and repartee. It helped fan the flames of my love of these wonderfully prickly plants.

Expansive lawn with Joshua Trees at Bob's home

I finally visited his remarkable home and garden in Kaysville, Utah only three or so springs ago on a wonderful cross country trek I took with my son his last year of high school (spring vacation to be exact). We dropped by to visit Bob and typically I have lots of pictures of his garden--and none of him!

closeup of same
Here's a slightly closer view of the majestic Yucca brevifolia in front of the Johnson home.

Some of the specimen succulents at the Johnson's
I'm not sure why it took almost two decades to finally visit Bob in his home habitat: I probably had visited Salt Lake city ten times in the interim. So many people I know there and things to see. I am so glad I finally did drop in on Bob and see the extraordinary range of plants he grew and how he grew them--even if it was in the very early spring of a rather cold and nasty year...

Another view of one of the display beds in the front garden full of succulent treasure...

A grand entrance in March, lined with Forsythia in full bloom....

A hoary Yucca harrimaniae in the demonstration beds...

Gallon pots filled with Sclerocactus of various persuasions...

Seed flats filled with Echinocereus species...

More seed flats filled with Echinocereus seedlings in full exposure to the elements...

 A wonderful snowball Pediocactus species...

 Escobaria missouriensis seedlings...

Another view showing how Bob grew our unusual ball cacti...

The larger beds in the back yard--stretching over an acre--with the Wasatch front rising majestically not far beyond...

More views of the growing beds...

Another bed for growing larger specimens and Opuntia cacti.

Maihuenia poeppigii in one of the growing beds...

Another majestic specimen of yucca--probably of the harrimaniae persuasion...

Beds filled with Agave pups...

Some wonderful Cylindropuntia whipplei with the Wasatch in the distance...

A yucca with Agave utahensis, the one featured at the top of the blog...

A lone albino Sclerocactus was blooming during my visit--a ghostly premonition that this might have been my last time to see Bob. We all assume there is another opportunity, another chance. But this was it, which is why I post every picture I took that fleeting day. Imagine a sunny day in May or June with hundreds of opuntia blossoms, yuccas with glowing candelabrums, the spires of agaves. Bob selected dozens of outstanding clones of our native prickly pears--many of them unique. He shared these widely, along with the seedlings of precious ball cacti--helping fan the flames of appreciation of some of our most beautiful and neglected native plants.

He lived an extraordinarily rich life, surrounded by loving family, friends and a supportive community both in Utah and across the globe. Why then am I so sad at the passing of this giant of our hardy cactus world?

Like these pictures, taken at the end of winter, really--slightly overcast and pensive--I regret that the too few times we met (once in Denver when he visited on a sunny, glorious day at Denver Botanic Gardens)--that we did not have more time to enjoy one another's company...to share new discoveries and to revel in the old.

Thank you, Vince, for encouraging me to share these pictures and give testament of my few visits with the guru of Western hardy cacti--the Khan of the Intermountain succulent realm--Bob Johnson (whom I imagine finding lots of promising hybrids as we speak in the Elysian fields!)...

Sunday, February 17, 2013

The first iris: Mrs. Danford's bright gem

long lived clump of Iris danfordiae
 It's not blooming yet. Most years, Iris danfordiae opens its first flowers in early February and we have even had January bloom. But this strange, dry year things are retarded. In fact, I had the hose running around my garden from morning until sunset...It would be hard to convince a Scotsman that we have to water in mid-winter (even the cacti!), but such are the dues for living in a semi-arid climate. So this post will be something of an act of hubris (or stupidity) or both, because not a single iris is poking up yet. But I predict the hundred Iris danfordiae I planted in my blue gramma grass meadow (where a wealth of other bulbs follow on their heels) will be out before long. The bed is hard as a rock much of the year, but many bulbs seem to like it--and it dries out in summer. Iris danfordiae are a bit of a crap shoot in Colorado, but I have read that if they are planted deep enough or where they can "bake" they can become perennial and live to bloom again. For instance, like this big clump was growing in Western Panoramas at Denver Botanic gardens...

Blue gramma grass meadow with Iris danfordiae
 Here is the meadow almost precisely a year ago: you can see the iris dotted about it like the proverbial "pimples on a prairie"--almost all had only one flower. It is so exciting to anticipate this year's flowers: will they all come back. Will many have multiple bloom? Check back in March and I'll add this year's pictures for comparison...surely SOME will come back (I believe I counted all 100 last year...). Perhaps our native prairie is a close equivalent of Anatolia whence this comes?

Iris danfordiae in blue gramma grass meadow
Don't let the pictures fool you--the plant is only a few inches wide and a few across--but despite its petiteness (or perhaps because of it?) this is the jewel of early spring. These first few flowers of the season are such a delight!  Mrs. Danford must have been a fox!

Thursday, February 14, 2013


Impatiens bicolor (closeup)
This time of year, gardeners get might "impatient"--so what better post on a Valentine's day than these wonderful summer delights (with their somewhat heart shaped flowers and buds)... I doubt you have seen this one before--Dan Johnson and I collected seed of it in September of 2001 (yes--not long after the infamous 9-11-2001) in the Himalayas of Pakistan. I don't recall seeing this offered by any company--we may have indeed introduced it to cultivation subsequently. Like all impatiens, it is prollific and explosive in its seeding--so we have been a tad cautious about sharing it. But it has shared itself generously at Denver Botanic Gardens and a few local gardens as well...
I am a bit surprised the botanist only thought it had "bi" colors--I see white, yellow and pink. Like others of its clan, it likes shade and not too dry a spot--although Pakistan being at the dry end of the Himalaya this is not as fussy as the gigantic sorts that are such weeds in England and the Pacific Northwest.

Impatiens biclor
 Another view of our Pakistani...which admitedly looks an awful lot like the other compact impatiens that is often grown (although compact is relative--this can get a meter tall in a moist enough spot)...
Impatiens balfourii
 Impatiens balfourii is much more bi-colored than its more westerly occuring cousin. It is every bit as vigorous--my original plantings have spread far beyond their allotted space in the Rock Alpine Garden, and now it's busy gobbling up Woodland Mosaic: the flowers are truly ethereal, and the plant is really pretty manageable. I've had far more trouble when I grew our native Touch-me-not (which is locally common in the Denver-Boulder area along some piedmont streams): our orange and yellow native spread everywhere and the seedlings seemed to mature in no time flat!
This year perhaps I will finally obtain the brilliant new Blue Tibetan impatiens that is offered by Annie's Annuals (I shan't tell you the name lest you buy the last ones), and maybe I can persuade Impatiens omeiana to actually grow well enough to overwinter.
Perhaps you can solve a mystery: early in my career a neighbor who lived near Colfax invited me to a garden party "I have a pretty garden, you must see it: it's full of little orchids"--well--who would resist attending a nearby party where the garden is "full of little orchids!"...there were lots of neighbors there that afternoon and some good party snacks--the orchids were out back she told me. So I sidled my way through the munching crowd, and walked into an enchanted little back garden with hostas and other pleasant shady things. No orchids in sight, but dozens of diminutive impatiens--half the size or less than the two I've described, with even more spritely bright rose and white flowers with a sort of monkey like face. I stupidly didn't ask for seed--and I am still wondering what they might have been. This was 30 years ago--the lady was elderly then. But the house still stands just a few blooks from work. This year, I must go see if any of the "little orchids" persisted. What the heck could they have been?

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Vermilion blush...

Red emperor (Tulipa fosteriana)
 I realized (blusing a deep vermilion shade) that approximately 2% of those visiting this blog are probably pretty pissed off: the page that has received far and away the most hits is "Autumn Embers" which is a very mediocre post I did years ago talking about the subtle shades of foliage in the fall: I was curious why this was such a popular post, so I Googled "Autumn Embers" and realized that rhody fanciers were clicking on it to learn more about the re-blooming orange-red azalea by that cultivar name....I can almost hear them click another URL in disgust...oh well. Perhaps a little bouquet of tulips will calm their souls. Red tulips are....well...red tulips. They are brash and bright and frankly, I can't have enough of them. They love Colorado, so you must forgive me for flaying you with them: I like them! Red emperor (above) is hard to beat: I was responsible for planting hundreds of these in front of Mayor Hiclenooper's offices in Downtown Denver where they made a spectacle--another story!

Tulpa albertii
 I have only seen this magnificent tulip at Denver botanic gardens...I'm not sure if I like it more all by itself...
Tulipa albertii
 Or in a glittering, glimmering mass...I have seen a few tulips in the wild in Greece and Kazakhstan (although only at high elevations in the latter--although I saw tons of seed capsules!). What fun it must be find these in the Spring!

Tulipa humilis
 A change of palette for the nonce: enough scarlet! How about magenta? I have a special fondness for this group because they love our climate especially, and self sow prodigiously on my xeriscape. I would dearly love to see T. humilis on the mountaintops of Mesopotamia/Caucasus where it is apparently common--well heck, it's common chez moi as well!
Tulipa humilis at Quince
                                                                                                                                                                              I'll bet there's a hillside in Iran that looks just like this! Well, guess what? It's in Denver!
Tulipa humils

 And here's a paler pink form that's clumping up. Hard to believe these could be blooming in a month!

Tulipa eichleri
 Back to the scarlets: here is one of the more long lived sorts that clumps up nicely. Not often to be found in bulb catalogs lately...

Tulipa eichleri at Quince st. garden
 Here's one of the banks on east ridge where it has naturalized...

Tulipa vvedenskyi and Aubrieta
 I have a much nicer pic of this in transparency: maybe one day I will scan it. I have seen these very plants photographed and published in books, calendars etc. (I had no idea when I planted these together I'd be creating a sort of classic)...imitation is the sincerest form of flattery--thank you, photographers, for immortalizing this planting! I must remember to re-create it at home too...

Tulipa greigii
 I can't remember if I took this at DBG or at Kendrick Lake--there are lavish plantings of this at both. They often bloom so early--late March some years--that many visitors miss ths outrageouse splash of color. Only in April can you get away with this much vermilion madness...

Tulipa chrysantha ex Goteborg

On a calmer note, this is a closeup of a little tulip I got years ago from Henrik Zetterlund. It prospered at my old house, and when we moved to Quince, I scattered seed in our new blue gramma meadow--perhaps ten years ago. Those seedlings germinated, and multiple clumps throughout the meadow are spreading. I believe it will not be too long before the whole little meadow is a solid patch of these--

One of the great mysteries of spring for me is why I see so few tulips in local landscapes when they are so beloved by people, so incredibly cheap and so easy to plant and maintain...oh well. I add dozens each year, and dream of the day I might visit them in April in their native haunts in Central Asia...

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Pax Verbascum

Verbascum acaule
 So there! You think all mulleins are coarse and gigantic: here's one that fits in your teacup. I have grown it on and off for decades--and it is currently missing in action in my garden. From alpine heights of Greece: someone needs to go fetch a pinch of seed!

Verbascum dumulosum
 The queen of dwarf mulleins has to be this gem from Southern Turkey--a shrub actually. It should be required that everyone grow this some day--and I mean everyone! I've seen this grown a meter across at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh (and it was a royal display as well!). Apparently quite restricted and vulnerable in nature. I do not think gardens really serve as safeguards (although think Franklinia, alas! which only exists in gardens). But by growing these plants we are reminded how imperative it is to preserve them in wild habitats. A profound and important service of ornamental horticulture that is conveniently overlooked or downplayed by many botanists!

Verbascum olympicum at Forest Edge Gardens
 I trust you notice my Zeus-like demeanor next to Verbascum olympicum...Tim and Laura must have a million of these at Forest Edge--the most extravagant display I've seen--although I did see a similar stunning mass of giant, candelabroid mulleins once in late January at Rhodes in South Africa...I know, I know: I'm out standing in my field!

Verbascum roripifolium
 The most delicate and really an indispensible mullein--with bright GREEN and lacy leaves. The flowers are really huge and the stems so fine and hairlike that they look suspended in mid air. And it blooms for months and months. Biennial--but it does self-sow generously...

Verbascum epixanthinum
I grew this honker for several years at DBG, and one day it was gone. Didn't think much about it until I saw it again at Dare Bohlander's garden (where this was taken) and had to grow it again. Handsome brute of a plant! 

Verbascum songoricum

I grew this beauty for several years (and even saw it growing wild in Kazakhstan). Although mullein are said to be weedy, this never self sowed despite growing in good habitat I thought. I saved seed--must grow some more!

Verbascum atroviolaceum

Not quite the same as the Verbascum phoeniceum wild forms I've grown but very similar. This is a surprisingly long lived perennial and very adaptable to soil and exposure as well. I wouldn't want to be without it! I believe I saw something just like this in Kazakhstan.
Verbascum phoeniceum hybrids
 These are the amazing hybrids you can find commercially of  "V. phoeniceum"--surely one of the best plants for dry shade ever (here growing UNDER the spruce tree in front of my house).

The queen of purple mulleins is, alas, biennial. Introduced to cultiation by Jim and Jenny Archibald, I was thrilled to be able to grow this at the Gardens, and Mike Kintgen has taken this on as almost a crusade: it's fun to see where Mike and his team seem to plant masses these each year. The first year rosettes are scrumptious, white frosted pancakes...and then THIS:

Verbascum wiedemannianum
 This almost captures that intense purple-blue color. Very royal...don't you think?

Verbascum 'Mystery wrapped in an Enigma"
 I have a problem! There is a species of verbascum I have growing here and there, hither and yon: it produces these lavish sheaves of bloom for over a month...and I lost the data on what its name is. I can say, it lives forever, looks very trim even in seed--this may be the best herbaceous verbascum for gardens--and I'm clueless as to the name! Any help out there?

Verbascum bombyciferum
Who needs flowers? Practically every mullein has beautiful leaves: my picture of V. sinuatum (with wonderfully marginate leaves) doesn't quite cut it...but I notice that when I blogged about the bomb squad, I never showed the premier wooly species in rosette. One year I grew so many there were over 200 stems--which even I think is too many mulleins!

I have now completely blown my cover as rock gardener: anyone who has grown dozens of gigantic mulleins in a lifetime is obviously a bit eccentric, perhaps (I admit it!)...oh well: Pax vobiscum! I mean Pax verbascum!

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