Thursday, August 10, 2017

A steppe up!

Many of us go through life dreaming things up that never happen. Of course, when things happen you didn't even dream up--that can be frightening, or in some cases quite the opposite. I spent decades talking up the steppe with colleagues at Denver Botanic Gardens: it seemed like such a natural focus for the Gardens (and many of my colleagues have shared this obsession over the years) but somehow, the "phenomenon" never seemed to take root. It began to pall a bit in my eyes. I don't know what I expected, but I never dreamed in my wildest reveries that one day I would stroll through the very epicenter of Denver Botanic Gardens and see a garden of my dreams (dreams I'd never even had!) materialized and there, tangible and real.

I suspect part of the reason this garden exists is that Mike Bone visited the Central Asian steppe of Kazakhstan and Mongolia (on trips I have described hitherto). And the key factor was that the C.E.O. of Denver Botanic Gardens--Brian Vogt--"gets it" big time. In addition to being a public adminstrator and having a keen mind for business, Brian was trained as a classicist and has a grasp of geography and civilization. He assimilated the notion, ultimately mandating the Steppe garden as well as the Science Pyramid (which has a large component of education about the steppe) and finally having five of us write and publish Steppes, Plants and Ecology of the world's semiarid regions:

If you don't have your copy of this book YET, now is an excellent time to get one: Timber Press (the publisher) is having a 30% off sale and you can get the book for a modest sum...

Just click HERE to get to their page....

[Notice the clever way I've done product placement: don't worry--I shan't be doing this again very soon]
African section of the Steppe Garden in early June

Back to the Steppe garden: what can I say? Designed by Emmanuel Didier, Principal of Didier Design Studio, I was invited to provide input early in the design process--which I declined. I've had quite a bit of input over the decades throughout the Gardens: several of my younger colleagues were on the design committee. I feared that my involvement might frustrate them: I was confident (and a bit curious) about what they would produce.


I didn't expect to see the lavish displays of hardy ice plants, like this, fill in so quickly!

Nor did I expect the dramatic rock features and the intricate "omphalos" in the center of the Garden. All these surprised and delighted me.

I love the stylish flow of the paths and intricate fountain areas: somehow they seem to resonate with the Mid-Century Modern architecture around them.

The layout of the beds has pleased me--but what has truly astonished me has been the variety of plants that were put in, and their stellar performance. This area is filled with plants from southern Africa of known wild sourcing (largely)...

There were marvelous displays of bulbs in the spring, like these wild tulips.

A bit later some Allium snuck in...

Arctotis adpressa

This stunning little Arctotis may trace back to one of my African trips: widespread on the karoo, I don't know I've ever seen it in another garden.

Corydalis shanginii subsp. ainii Rukšāns ex Lidén

This rare corydalis seems to be settling in, and makes a fine contrast to the Orostachys spinosa rosette.

These Cotyledon orbiculata made it thtrough last winter!

Taken in early spring, the white mutation of Delosperma congestum ('White Nugget') were striking for ages!

The typical yellow form of the same species...

Also making a spectacle!

I was convinced Dracocephalum grandiflorum wouldn't make a good garden plant: I thought it would resent our heat. Not apparently in THIS garden where it still looks good.

A closeup of the same...

And another shot...

Fritillaria eduardii was great this changeable spring...

Fritillaria sewertzowii is very sculptural,
Rheum nanum

One of my favorites (possibly an acquired trait), I love this miniature rhubarb.

Tulipa sylvestris v. australis
Wonderful vignettes with unusual plants from all angles...

The delospermas are especially well showcased--something near and dear to my heart (both personally and professionally!)

Delosperma 'Alan's Apricot' has been blooming steadily for months!

Wonderful masses of steppe plants from Eurasia--Dracocephalum mairei in the foreground.

I love those sessile leaved alliums!

A midsummer tableaux showing that the season for plants here lasts for months and months!

And one of the most satisfying spectacles, Michauxia campanuloides has had a wonderful season this year...

This unusual cousin to Campanula is from Turkey, and rarely seen in public (or private) gardens!

I think you can tell I like this plant...

There are any one of a dozen plants already showcased here that have never been seen in a regional (or likely national) garden. I'm sure that as time goes on, this garden will continue to be a splendid showcase not only for steppe gardening, but for unusual garden plants we should all be growing!


  1. I obtained Arctotis adpressa years ago from Bill Adams' Sunscape nursery. It readily divides and establishes in the cool of spring, so I have a number of them around. The species is quite hardy over winter, loving the coolness and moisture of spring but suffering greatly during summer heat and drought. It is a perfect, virgin-white daisy, a favorite of visitors that I have tried to pass to others without success. It likes my sand soil.

  2. Those Delosperma carpets are simply stunning!

  3. "A Steppe Up, Garden Plants and Practices for Xeriscaping" might make a good program title. Maybe in KC next year? Email

  4. I had the previously mentioned book out and my wife looked through it. She asked me to tell you she really liked it. Of course, I like it too. I just wanted to finish reading it before commenting myself.

  5. Thanks for the feedback (as always, James!)...I didn't know your wife was a plant-lover too! That book consumed a big chunk of two years and I'm glad it's living on with others!


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