Friday, October 25, 2013

Pawnee Buttes Sand Cherry: the scoop

Prunus besseyi 'Pawnee Buttes' at the Shinn Garden, Fort Collins last week
If you drive almost anywhere in the Denver Metropolitan area this week, you are apt to see quite a few of this plant growing (and glowing) on median strips and industrial landscapes: I would be very curious to know what Landscape Architect has glommed on to this plant...Pawnee Buttes is quietly becoming "bread and butter" (i.e., a universally grown, serviceable shrub),and yet it has become an emblem of sophisticated xeriscapes and connoisseur's gardens in our region as well...not many plants can straddle both rather contradictory realms! The dramatic specimens featured in this first image have been growing quite a few years along the driveway at the garden of Carol and Randy Shinn--who have one of the finest plantsmen's gardens in Northern Colorado.
Pawnee Buttes Sand Cherry along York Street near I-25 interchange two years ago
Here are a row of Pawnee Buttes (actually a few hundred feet more of them outside the frame!) in their most furious fall color phase--they look pretty much like that this week, although this is a picture I took several years ago "on the fly" from my car. I suspect those are 'Autumn Blaze' Acer freemanii behind them, which are likewise blazing bright scarlet all around Denver as I type this. I remember quite vividly a time at a Plant Select meeting fifteen years ago or so when the subject of Pawnee Buttes came up as a potential candidate for the program....I averred that it had good fall color, and everyone around the table laughted at me said they didn't think so, but somehow Gary Epstein and I bulldozed the plant through anyway. Little suspecting it would have quite so much traction since. I am quite sure if I could gather the naysayers  together today, they would deny they ever denied that it had fall color. There is a bitter irony in being right some times....

Original plant of Pawnee Buttes at Rock Alpine Garden, blooming in late April
The first law of photography is that you never apologize--although my pictures are so mediocre usually apology is truly redundant...but the glaring light in which I photographed the original plant of Pawnee Buttes obviously doesn't do the plant justice. This is the specimen that caught the eye of Gary Epstein (proprietor of Fort Collins Nursery Wholesale) and his propagator Scott Skogerboe--two of the greatest plantsmen in America. Their partnership merits many another blog--and someday perhaps I shall celebrate that dynamic duo--but this plant would not be a universal landscape plant across America today had they not taken cuttings and gotten it into production several decades ago!

Pawnee Buttes in early June (Photo by Randy Tatroe)
I probably have fifty transparencies I've taken at "the Buttes" over the last three decades. But my very first trip up there was thirty years ago this autumn in the company of Jim and Dorothy Borland (whose marriage I'd attended not too long before that at the lovely chapel at Denver University). On that fateful trip (fateful in several ways perhaps) we actually climbed West Pawnee Buttes, something one can't do nowadays very easily. In fact, it was anything but an easy climb back then--turns out it's actually a technical climb--but climb it we did. The top is pretty much carpeted with Astragalus sericoleucus I'm quite sure whereas there are huge cushions of A. tridactylicus on the flats below....or maybe they're both the latter. I knew my Orophacas pretty well back then, and I think I may be right--perhaps a field botanist who knows may read this one day and correct me? (Fat chance, I speck)...When we finally descended (the scariest descent of my life) down a rather steep cliff, we were a tad punchy, perhaps, and one of us noticed dense mats of prostrate sand cherry scattered here and there on the clay slopes. An argument ensued: was the dwarfism environmentally induced, or were these truly prostrate sand cherries? (The common sand cherry of commerce back then was a monster six feet or more tall at maturity).
Jim Borland (right), Charlie Weddle (left) in 1982
Some time ago I had scanned some old images--and this one dates from even EARLIER than our Pawnee Buttes hike--Jim was a tad younger back then! I'm sure if you asked him today, he'd insist that HE was the one who insisted it was a genetic dwarf (I secretly think I argued that side--we will never know for sure, alas). Argue we did: and Jim took cuttings at the time (it was legal to do that sort of gentle larceny back then: today we'd get a summons) and rooted them. And somehow one of them eventually got planted in the Rock Alpine Garden, circa 1984. In a perfect world Gary, Scott, Jim, Dorothy and I should all get together next year and celebrate! Perhaps we shall? The gentleman next to Jim is a giant of American horticulture few people nowadays know--but there was a time he was featured on the cover of Park Seed company's catalogue year after year and I remember wondering (as a child) who Charlie Weddle was and what he did to merit that cameo! He could inspire a whole bevy of blogs for me--had we but world enough and time...

Jim Borland on the Uncompaghre Plateau, 1983
Another shot of the wiry, youthful Jim taken on yet another field trip we once took together up the Uncompaghre...Larry Schlichenmayer, Jim and I took many a field trip all over the Rocky Mountain region for several years--right up to 1984 as a matter of fact--and this no doubt was on one of those...I got married in late summer of that year, and my batching field trip days were done for--and I launched a two decade career with my ex-wife that is richly documented by a shelf of Rock Garden journals and 11 years of catalogs of Rocky Mountain Rare Plants. No blogs forthcoming thence.

Jim Borland last year in native habitat, West Denver
Here be Jimbo nowadays--perhaps not quite so wiry thin as he was. He broadcasts with Keith Funk at 7:00AM-9:00AM on KEZW every Saturday morning: "Ask the Garden Pros" has become iconic--it's been on for decades. I love to listen in and often call in: click on the URL above (and if it's Saturday morning) you may hear Jim dispensing timely and very good advice. I clicked on it, and Lo! and Behold! there was a banner add promoting the sale of CD's by Nana Mouskouri (whom it just so happens I fancy). The insidious capture of our personal data by computers is far wider than we can begin to imagine. I can't quite summon you, however, but in my mind's eye I imagine you at a table with a cup of coffee off to the side. I have resisted placing product adds on my blog (there have been some offers!)...but we have drifted a bit far from the Pawnee Buttes and their little minion. I am glad to finally write this story out fully: there is a story like this for all the thousands of plants in our gardens. Alas, most of those stories may never get written down.


  1. Hi Panayoti, I managed to grow one robust Astragalus sericoleucus from seed. I did not even have to climb Pawnee Butte. :) In my area the favorite parking strip planting is another shrub that has great fall color 'some' years. They love Rhus aromatica 'Gro-low.' In my garden it has reached the size typical of the species. I have not been sheering it. We do have similar cherries around the Lake Michigan dunes and some gravelly prairies. However, our species is P. pumila and I do not recall it being nearly so prostrate.

  2. I am impressed you germinated and grew A. sericoleucus: I have done so in the past on occasion--and even gotten some pretty good sized mats. But it never persists in the garden in my experience--at least not very long. The Western American astragalads are gorgeous, but evanescent...the Mediterranean species are often much better in the long haul..

    There is one form of pumila from the Gaspe (I think) called Prunus pumila var. depressa which is fantastic! I grew it for many many years, but think I've lost it finally. Would love to get it back. it is MUCH more compact than Pawnee Buttes--a completely flat mat. Good fall color too--I haven't thought about it for years. Thanks for reminding me: I believe Lincoln Foster wrote it up once: Siskiyou used to have it...


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