Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Hummingbird magnetism and not so scruffy Scrophs...among other germane subjects.

Scrophularia macrantha (closeup)
You will simply have to conjure up a picture of a hummingbird sipping away at this--I'm no Pat Hayward who seems to have no end of closeups of hummingbirds (my few are blurry)...but suffice it to say "red birds in a tree" is an example of a hummingbird magnet, as well as a Plant Select choice--this one from 2008: although High Country Gardens had begun to sell it much earlier (1996?). David Salman is also responsible for the amazing common name (the plant is anything but common in nature). If you click on the link in the previous parenthesis you will see it is clustered in a very tiny area, mostly Luna County, New Mexico, where I collected a few capsules on a field trip on Cooke's Peak at about 7500' among the craggy Arizona Cypress that have their  northeasternmost geographic and altitudinal extreme at that point (we got seed of those for the first time that trip as well)...
Scrophularia macrantha dwarf form (At Kendrick Lake)
This post has many themes, the first of which is to commemorate my drive up to the end of the road on Cooke Peak, a trip my brother-in-law, Allan Taylor, and I undertook exactly twenty years ago this autumn. I wish I could clone myself--one of my clones would immediately set off for Southern New Mexico where they have had torrential monsoons this year and make my way up Cooke Peak and see if any Scrophularia are left there:  Come to think of it I did go back five or six years ago with two of my colleagues named "Mike" (I've had about twenty with that name--not so helpful a hint)...and I didn't find Scrophularia that trip. And the Cypress were mostly dead from a severe drought that occurred much of the spell between my two visits....there are botanists who would have objected to my collecting the seed back then (albeit it was on private land and we had the owner's permission): and that population may be gone. Instead, I shared seed with Kew and David Salman and grew it as well--I wonder just how many gardens it's growing in now. I'll bet it's in the tens of thousands! All from a few seed capsules.  The picture above is from a very compact plant that persisted for several years at the Gardens at Kendrick Lake--cuttings did not stay small like this--it must have been the spot!
Scrophularia macrantha growing in a median strip in Lakewood
I took this picture "on the move" once through Lakewood when I saw this monster specimen growing in the middle of Alameda Boulevard--Greg Foreman has used it all over that fair city--I am astonished it has proved so hardy coming from so far south. And it can get monstrous in the right soil and site--this one had to be 6' tall! You will often find hummingbirds buzzing specimens like this throughout the summer--which brings up my second theme: the wealth of hummingbird magnet plants introduced by Plant Select (and High Country Gardens) over the last two decades have truly altered the feeding habits of these birds: many birders have noted to me that hummingbirds (which were seen throughout most of the 20th Century for a few brief weeks in Denver come spring and fall)--now can be found much of the summer!
Salvia x 'Raspberry Delight'
(S. greggii x S. microphylla v.wislezinii)
Can you blame them when we put out banquets like the Salvia above--which is still blooming madly even after a pretty heavy frost last week. This is the toughest of the greggii types--and OUGHT to be in Plant Select! It is a distinct shade that differs significantly from the two stalwarts already in the program: Salvia greggii  'Furman's Red' and 'Wild Thing'. I grow a dozen cultivars in this complex--and would love to have many times that since this group of salvias blooms for months and is extremely drought tolerant!

I should append no end of penstemon pix right now (pseudospectabilis, eatonii, pnifolius, barbatus, cardinalis, havardiana, rostriflorus, x Mexicali cvs. etc. etc.--many of them already Plant Select and some still in the wings): all of these are favorites of the hummingbirds as well--no wonder they linger in Denver! By the way, they really began to come to the city in droves in the summers of 1999-2003 when drought conditions in the mountains were so severe in the summer that flowers ceased blooming at altitude, but continued in our gardens: did we inadvertently help hundreds of hummers survive the drought? Have we interfered with nature? If so, do those who put out bird seed "interfere with nature"--that's the birder equivalent of gardening perhaps. Which was the more culpable act? Plucking a few seeds two decades ago? Or planting plants that lure hummingbirds to a range they did not once occupy? The morally pure would decry both actions...but in the grand scheme of things, both are trivial compared to the aboriginal humans' causing the extinction of hundreds of taxa of megafauna across Eurasia and the Americas (and all the islands from Madagascar, Mauritius,  Melanesia, Australia, Hawaii New Zealand etc. etc.--where we have and continue to wreak havoc).

Zauschneria garrettii (on Idaho/Wyoming border near treeline)
I finish with two of the ultimate Hummingbird magnets: most botanists insist on calling Zauschneria "Epilobium" and I have no doubt they are closely allied. DNA may even demand we lump the two. They differ so much in habitat (Epilobium is largely mesic in its habitat preferences while Zauschneria is xeric--and they have distinct distributional patterns in nature--Epilobium is primarily Holarctic, while Zauschneria is Madrean...) and I always say if hummingbirds can distinguish the two genera, perhaps they know something botanists don't! I'll go with the hummingbirds! On the subject of folly--it's funny to think zauschnerias are regrarded as "tender" when the germplasm that resulted in 'Orange Carpet' was collected at nearly tree line on the border of Idaho and Wyoming: "California fuchsia" you say? HA! More like "Wyoming scarlet willow herb"--Yeah, right! I suppose some "botanist" may coin that cognomen some day...gag me with a Dasylirion (desert spoon--get it?)

Zauschneria arizonica with Eleni Kelaidis
This picture was roughly the same time I took that fateful field trip with my Brother-in-law...I shall end with a picture of him. But I couldn't resist this shot of my adorable daughter taken around 1992 in September at our old home on Eudora. Thank God for cameras and pictures (and good volunteers who scan old images!)...Thank God for hummingbirds and Mother Flora while I'm being grateful.

Allan Taylor and Yucca elata
That's Allan (on the left of course...): you'd never guess he was 80 years old when I took that picture a couple years ago. Apparently, being a great Linguist (he is an authority on many Indian languages and speaks a dozen or more other languages quite fluently), a passionate and inspired gardener (and arborist), having five wonderful children and being a rabid Left-winger and proselytizing Atheist (and just generally a polymath and bon vivant) contributes to long and rich life...we have Allan to thank for the trip up Cooke peak where Scrophularia macrantha was introduced (and a good deal more...). We have Allan to thank for many other great plants in cultivation as well--(I feel another blog post dawning I should add to the pipeline!) I have done over 500 blog posts for Prairie Break and Denver Botanic Gardens over the last decade: strange that I have never acknowledged my enormous debt to Allan, who got me gardening as an eight year old...over a half century ago! Better late than never: Live long and prosper, Мой возлюбленный зять!


  1. A lovely post and lovely pictures of your daughter.
    I fell in love when I saw that Slavia, photography and combinations of plants are great, but the best is its resistance to drought! I must get it!
    Greetings from Tarragona.

    1. Yes, the 1992 picture of Panayoti's daughter is very cute. It almost seems unfair to the beautiful plant. Panayoti's daughter steals the show.


  2. Gracias, Yolanda! He ido dos veces a Espana, pero todavia no he visitado a encanta hacer conocimiento por FACEBOOk a una aficionada a las Salvias! Espero que se encuentre la Salvia en Espana--si no, tal vez puedo enviar algunas semillas este invierno.

  3. Hello !! I really enjoy your blog , and find it very educational . I have a question regarding the hardiness ( or lack of ) of Zauschneria . I live at 7800 ft , in a town out side Colorado Springs , and have tried with much failure to grow Zauschneria . Do you have some tips , magic dust , that you might share with me to help grow this b
    eauty ? I know it can't be elevation as Betty Fords grows it as easily as weeds grow .

    1. I have seen Zauschneria garrettii thriving above tree line in the Wasatch Mountains above Salt Lake City--and I know it grows above Jenny Lake in Teton National Park--areas MUCH colder than Pikes Peak area--cold is not a problem. What you must do is plant in May or June--and keep moist the first year: plant in a somewhat amended mineral soil in full sun (at your altitude)--they will not grow well in dense shade, and only middling in partial shade. I know that garrettii thrives at Steamboat and Vail--which are higher than you are...elevation isn't everything. Other Zauschnerias will be trickier--although I have seen forms of Zauschneria californica growing above treeline in the Sierra Nevada--don't give up hope!

    2. I will try again in June , Thanks for info !!

  4. I grow Zauschneria garrettii in a Northwestern Suburb of Chicago, IL. It grows into a massive sprawling mat for me. I just grow it in pea gravel, which has sunk into our clay and has some loam in the mix that eroded from further up slope.

    I can vouch for the hardiness of Penstemon eatonii, pinifolius, barbatus, and cardinalis in my northern zone 5 garden. I have not yet tested P. havardiana and rostriflorus. I do not think they would prove hardy. I did try P. pseudospectablis. All plants perished the first winter without ever getting a chance to flower. Likewise, P. superbus did not survive through its first winter. I grow my penstemons in a gravel bed on the east side of my house. This protects them from the harshest western wind. I did grow P. mexicali in my parent's zone 6 Michigan garden. However, I have not yet tried it in my current location.

    A great Penstemon for hummingbirds that Panayoti did not list is P. murrayanus. This has done well in my garden for three years and counting.

    An additional great hummingbird plant Panayoti did not mention is Mimulus cardinalis. I have also had this plant for three years in my garden. It can survive the brutal cold as long as it is covered with a few inches of deciduous tree leaves. I find it interesting that the foliage of M. cardinal will stay green well below zero with a little mulch. If you remove the mulch too early in spring any frost will turn these exposed leaves to black mush. Therefore you must wait until after the last frost date to remove the mulch and/or cover the plants with mulch if a late frost is forecasted.

    I do not have high hopes for the hardiness of Scrophularia macrantha in my northern zone 5 continental garden. Plant Select does claim zone 5 hardiness, so I will have to try this species. I might be able to keep it alive if I plant it right next to the house. The hummingbirds do enjoy our native, but less showy, Scrophularias.


    1. If you can grow murrayanus, surely rostriflorus and pseudospectabilis would grow for you too, James! Scrophularia macrantha does well in Arkansas and lots of places in the East--I think it's quite hardy--do try it! I didn't mention the Mimulus because they are mesic rather than xeric (silly reason I know): There are a wealth of hummingbird plants I MIGHT have mentioned--Ipomopsis, Gilia, Aquilegia, Lonicera etc. etc. --there are a LOT of hummingbird plants--but I was mostly focusing on the Plant Select ones because these are the ones that have had widest dispersal...Thanks for your informative addenda, however! I never cease to be impressed with what you have grown...

    2. I'm in zone 4 Southeastern Minnesota and I have had great success overwintering many western hummingbird plants in my sand beds. These include all the penstemons James mentions that he's had success with, in addition to P. pseudospectabilis and P. rostriflorus. I've had limited success (one or two winters) with P. labrosus and P. alamosensis.

      I had Scrophularia macrantha from Alplains seed persist for three years in a bad location with heavy soil and not enough sun. I'd like to try it again in a better location. I also had Stachys coccinea (but only the high elevation from from Alplains seed) persist in the garden for four winters.


  5. I searched old correspondence and I did try to grow Penstemon rostriflorus. However, I did not get any seed to germinate. I should try P. rostriflorus again. Especially, since it lives at altitude and ranges into Colorado, Utah, and Nevada. I have been avoiding plants whose ranges are essentially restricted to New Mexico, Arizona, and California since many have proven to not be hardy in my area. I should mention that upon reviewing my records I discovered my experience with P. superbus was with only one plant which germinated from seed. This is too limited of a number to be conclusive. I do remember lots (~20 or 30) P. pseudospectabilis that did not survive the first winter. Your hybrid swarm of P. pseudospectabilis and P. palmeri would be worth a try. The P. palmeri should impart more cold resistance. Trials with seed collected from a different location or in a different spot in the garden might yet prove successful with P. pseudospectabilis.

    I grew a lot (~20) P. clutei from seed last year. They survived the winter fine. A number grew well and bloomed. After blooming and setting seed, all the most robust growers then died. Only a few of the more runty individuals, which did not bloom, are still alive. This indicates to me that hardiness was not an issue. Some other factor must have caused the plants demise. Since I was able to collect seed I plan to try again.

    Another great hummingbird plant that should be mentioned is Lobelia cardinalis. Embarrassingly, I do not have this plant in my garden. I come across it so frequently in local ecological restorations that I have not allocated space for it. It is a favored plant of restoration practitioners. Unfortunately, it tends to get out competed over time in a restoration setting unless there is some periodic disturbance occurring or the soil chosen just happens to be right. It tends to be permanent only in acidic seeps.


  6. No luck with the few Scrophularia macrantha tried in Abq, but the penstemons were nothing but luck...a bounty from each one planted...just pull out the ones I didn't want.

    From your geographic origins lesson (great!), I vote "Epilobium" for the garrettii from up high and up north in WY/ID, and "Zauschneria" for them in AZ, NM, CA...geographic distinction, lest any arcticists be confused! (not that E. garrettii is not tough in Abq's hot summers...may need to try it in E Paso?)

    Great pic of Allan, and that nice soaptree!


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