Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Barking up the right tree

Arbutus menziesii
 I have recently sung the praises of Madrone, specifically the majestic Ericaceous tree of the Pacific coast, which I have admired from the time I was a child on my yearly (or often twice or thrice yearly) trips out to the coast to visit family or give talks. I fantasized that there had to be a place somewhere along the Pacific where this had been isolated inland and might prove hardy in our harsh, steppe climate...

Arbutus xalapensis
 There may indeed be such a place, but part of the impetus to seek it out has been obviated by the existence of a truly hardy Madrone: I shall get around to providing evidence of that, but here you can see a young, but already impressive specimen I saw last Friday at the Rio Grande Botanic Garden in Albuquerque. There were many wonderful shrubs and trees I would have liked to transport home, but none more precious than their handful of specimens of Texas madrone--which is of course found in Mexico as well, but also in New Mexico (and possibly Arizona, if A. arizonica proves conspecific).

Arbutus xalapensis trunk
 Judging by this specimen, the bark on this inland tree may be even more spectacular than the coastal one...

Arbutus xalapensis fruit
 Of course, the plant is worth growing for the lustrous, evergreen foliage alone, and both the flowers and fruit are decorative. You would think that any tree like this that is proving hardy would attract a great deal of notice...

Arbutus xalapensis at Denver Botanic Gardens

Here is one of the half dozen or so specimens of Texas Madrone growing quietly on Dryland Mesa: I doubt that one in a thousand visitors to Denver Botanic Gardens has a clue what this is at this point in its life cycle. By the time it reaches the size of the specimen above, I have a hunch it could attract a good deal more interest. Dan Johnson, Associate Director of Horticulture at DBG is responsible for having located and obtained all the plants we have at the Gardens (as well as lovingly maintaining them in great health). This is just one of hundreds of Dan's remarkable plant "coups".

Greenhouses at Albuquerque
It's been several years since I visited RGBG, and I was rather startled this time to see that they'd somewhat anticipated our new Science Pyramid in their dark blue, pyramidal greenhouse structures--obviously a shape of the times!

Vitex filled courtyard
 One of the architectural features that most impressed me was the lovely courtyard designed to be in the shade of sizeable Chaste trees (Vitex agnus-castus). I planted Vitex decades at in the Rock Alpine Garden where it persists, but in Colorado it dies down to the ground. the closely related V. heterophylla is reputed to be hardier: it would be fun to replicate this luxurient courtyard in our region with the tougher species.

Vitex agnus-castus
  I missed the showy violet flowers, but the stems are lovely even in this stage.

Vitex agnus-castus
 Here you can see the Chaste tree courtyard a bit more clearly: a wonderful way to show off the trunks (and keep the nearby greenhouse from being obscured by too large of trees).

Lagerstroemia indica 'Dynamite'
 If there's one tree that gives madrone a run for its money (so to speak) in the ornamental bark category, it's crepe myrtle. As with madrones, I've fantasized for years that there MUST be some more cold hardy members of this highly ornamental genus--after all, they do come from the Himalayas! These seem to have come through the last few winters in good form: they've been unusually cold for Albuquerque with lows way below zero Farenheit. Didn't seem to see any damage on these. When I posted these pix on Facebook, experts like Dan Heims and Barry Yinger averred that this had to be 'Dynamite': The cultivar name is certainly appropriate!

Closeup of 'Dynamite'
 These were not quite big enough to show off the fabulous mottled and peely bark. But the blossoms are none too shabby!

Overview of entrance to Moorish Garden
Here is a picture showing the three wonderful crepe myrtles you encounter right after entering. You can bet your bottom dollar that there will be some of these tested out in Denver next spring! Even if they become herbaceous perennials (like the few I know of around town), it's worth having them around for the showy flowers, don't you think?


  1. What I love about crepe myrtles -- which do not grow in Seattle -- is the way the trunks will turn slightly, flattening out, just the way the arm does in front of the elbow & at the wrist.

    1. What an elegant observation: I've not noticed that--but shall certainly look for it next time I'm in Crepe Myrtle country. I am surprised Lagerstroemia doesn't do in Seattle: my Portland friends have lots of them--but I guess they do have hotter spells than the city on the Sound. Honored to have a scolium from a scholar like yourself!

  2. The peeling skin on your Arbutus makes me think of a very bad sun burn.

    It is possible to protect woody specimens that are not hardy. I had Buddelia in my garden for a few years until I got lazy and did not protect it. What I did was make a cylinder of coated garden fencing. I put the fencing around the shrub I wanted to protect and filled the entire thing with leaves. It worked great for the Buddelia. Although, I tried it on a Caryopteris and it died. The uncovered Caryopteris survived. Maybe Caryopteris need the cold.


    1. I am much too lazy to go to those extremes, James: you're a more assiduous gardener obviously. Either they make it or they don't! Heaven only knows, I have more than enough plants already (although I do still want more)...

  3. What a lovely courtyard surrounded by Vitex! Really beautiful ... I especially like.
    I have Vitex latifolia and I think it is a resistant variety. For the moment grows slowly but surely, and flowering is delightful.

  4. I know some of those places!

    The Chaste Tree courtyard is about my most favorite space there, but the original LA's didn't like it, preferring northeastern lollipop trees. While those Vitex might have been brought in as less shrubby, tree-like specimens, their present forms are so nicely pruned and trained! In 2011, some older Vitex in Abq died back to their main trunks from below -10F...that was a yearly occurance at even 0-5F in Oklahoma where I went to college...not sure why less hardy in OK, since dormant then.

    Never have seen winter damage on crape myrtles in Abq, ever. Though that 2011 freeze was the first time it's been below 0F in the valley at those gardens since 1996, I think. But I do see stunting of CM's in Abq, and they are beyond overplanted - they seem to really dislike the dry heat, need more water, and decline like elsewhere in the SW desert. But I've seen the 'Natchez' and 'Muskogee' selections rather vigorous in slightly more arid / hotter Las Cruces.

    My favorite space you got - the sotols, desert plants near the conservatory! I did a few blog posts in the past on that area and gardens.


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