Thursday, July 22, 2021

The La Plata Mountains! Finally!

Jeff Wagner with the high La Plata mountains behind

I have this fellow to thank for FINALLY getting me to one of Colorado's great mountain ranges. Technically a part of the greater San Juan range, the substantial ridge of peaks comprising the La Plata mountains are a few score miles south of the San Juan mountains proper: the first towering peaks north and east of the four corners.

I'm guessing the whole hike was perhaps three miles--the last half mile being relatively steep: but culminating in views like this, well worth the effort!

And there were flowers abounding the whole way: three species of paintbrush for instance. This is C. rhexiifolia: I stupidly never got a picture of C. haydenii, endemic to southern Colorado and Northern New Mexico!

A more orangy phase of the same paintbrush

I was relieved we didn't have to cross that causeway!

A local clover, Trifolium brandegei, is enjoying the view as much as we do.

We walked not to far from the lake on our way up and back...I wondered if there might not be something different growing there...another day perhaps I'll find out!

The meadows were all brimming with flowers: Osha and Helianthella quinquefolia were especially glorious. Here the corn lily is still in bud.

Seas of corn lilies (Veratrum tenuipetalum) in superbloom everywhere in the San Juans!

I was surprised to see Mertensia franciscana in a dryish meadow.

Every mountain range seems to have its own color phase of Penstemon whippleanus: in the San Juans they're a dusky maroon.

I photographed this San Juan endemic on Red Mountain pass over a month ago: it was everywhere on the La Platas--forming seed. Besseya ritteriana is the only yellow Besseya. Closely allied to Synthyris that grow far to the north and west--which are always blue--and Wulfenia from Eurasia, likewise blue. Some ornery botanists have suggesting lumping them all into Veronica--but we'll ignore that!

Near the trailhead on Kennebec pass there is a sign identifying all the lofty peaks in the San Juans looming a couple dozen miles to the north.

I had a little trouble correlating the sign to the shadowy silhouettes in the distance!

Superbloom on the corn lilies for sure! And Super hike for me! Fun to add yet another mountain range to the list of those I've hiked in. Now there are just a couple hundred more in the West to do--and let's not talk about Eurasia, the Andes, New Zealand or Africa!

This is another in my series about the hikes we'll be doing as part of "Edge of the Rockies"--the annual general meeting of the North American Rock Garden Society. 160 rock gardeners from across America have signed up to attend: click here to find out more about it!

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Frankly, I was worried! (a well Engineered hike) [First installment of several]

Lisa Bourey and Jeff Wagner among the corn lilies (Veratrum tenuipetalum)

It was frankly a scary scenario last spring: while the Front Range was drenched every other day with rain or snow, the rest of Colorado was sunny and dry and far below seasonal snow pack. The southern quadrant of the state (including the San Juans) seemed to be especially bad. And here we were planning an annual meeting of NARGS in early August! 

Someone on the Conference committee must have "pull". Or have ransomed their soul to the devil! The controversial "monsoon" (or are they simply strong mountain convection storms?) started EARLY--daily storms (oftentimes drenching) started before the 4th of July. On the 15th of July, Jan and I drove down to Durango (third drive to there in a month or so!) and that evening were drenched in a half inch deluge at our Host's gorgeous home (Maureen Keilty and Dan Peha). A signal perhaps of things to come!

Well, I shouldn't have worried: the San Juans are simply glorious! On Friday the 16th we took off towards Engineer peak with a band of guides (led by Lisa and Jeff shown above). Right off the bat we were stunned by the superbloom of corn lilies (aka "false hellebore", "skunk cabbage" etc.). Thousands towered above us on the path right from the start.

Monument plant (Frasera speciosa)

The corn lilies were matched in height (if not numbers) by monument plants as you can see. The numerous "megaherbs" of subalpine meadows were glorious as ever. I need not have been so nervous!

For the first quarter mile one walks though a forest of blooming cornlilies interspersed with masses of paintbrush (Castilleja miniata) and big drifts of showy perennials: delphiniums, mertensias and columbines..

There are a dizzy variety of yellow composites like sneezeweed, and perennial sunflowers--and let's not even count the numerous species of Senecio!

I never tire of photographing paintbrush!

As we climb higher the tall perennials give way to lower plants and the Castillejas become more magenta (C. rhexifolia)

Pretty soon the giant cone of Engineer mountain looms up ahead: every few hundred feet, the palette of plants shifts underfoot...

The stunning masses of alpine flowers cannot be captured properly by the camera...

Couldn't resist taking a picture of my friend,  Eva, in the field of flowers!


We veer to the right and see the rock glacier in the distance! There are no end of little treasures tucked here and there around it...

A dwarf form of Anemone multifida in pure white.

The obligatory Colorado Columbine (Aquilegia coerulea)

A few more gems like Geum rossii

I never tire of sneezeweed (Hymenoxys hoopesii) with huge orange-tinted blossoms.

Helianthus quinquenervis

The gorgeous alpine sunflower is usually four or five feet tall--but above treeline you find these compact races: is it genetic or environmental?

Salix reticulata

Dwarf willows are definitely genetic dwarfs!

The prize of the trip for me was finding the endemic alpine buttercup: Ranunculus macauleyi

Ranunculus macauleyi

 I had not seen this in the wild for many years, and seeing it in full glory really thrilled me!

On our way back the sun comes out and the scenery changes view altogether. Like walking through a different field altogether! Still time to join up with us you know! Just click here and sign up! I see the forecast for this week is heavy rain every day in the San Juans! The show will be even better when the NARGS conference starts!

Monday, July 5, 2021

Cutting edge gardener par excellence! Jim Tolstrup to speak at Denver Botanic Gardens

Jim Tolstrup

 It's been a while ago--a few decades at least--when I first met Jim. He'd come back from New England (where among other things he'd been Barbara Bush's garden designer at Kennebunkport) and was now busy designing an ambitious botanic garden at the Shambala Mountain Center. I shall never forget driving there one day for the dedication of an ambitious Chinese Garden...

 Little did I know what Jim had in store in his next incarnation! A few years later I began to hear buzz about the High Plains Environmental Center in the Centerra Complex in Loveland. My curiosity grew--and I decided to add a side trip on a tour Jim and I were leading to Pawnee Buttes to check it out. I wrote a blog about it five years ago that is worth revisiting: Return of the Native.

In a nutshell: Jim has worked with the developers of Centerra to revegetate large areas of weediness, transforming them into stunning re-vegetated prairie. They have forged a fantastic partnership--the Development essentially underwriting a private botanic garden to serve the community by maintaining common areas in native vegetation, educationg homeowners in Xeriscape and serving the community in a wide spectrum of ways. This remarkable process has been described by Jim in a wonderful book: "Suburbitat" which you can now purchase in Kindle format on Amazon.

 Better yet, come hear Jim present to the Colorado Native Plant Society in the Sturm Family Auditorium at DBG on August 10th -  6:30 to 8:30. The talk is free and open to the public.

 Here's the writeup for his presentation:

 Jim Tolstrup, executive director of the High Plains Environmental Center (HPEC), will delve into material from his recently released book SUBURBITAT: A guide to restoring nature where we live, work, and play. Since the late 1850’s, permanent settlements in Colorado have manifested as one continuous arc of colonialism that has decimated the indigenous people, plants, and animals of the high plains. As a result, the short grass prairie has become one of the most degraded ecosystems in North America. This talk will explore the pragmatic realities of working with city planners, developers, landscape architects, HOA boards, and homeowners to reverse this trend and create beautiful native landscapes that restore biodiversity and conserve natural resources. This is the mission of the HPEC which is celebrating the 20th anniversary of its founding this year. Among the successes of the HPEC are the creation of habitat in urban stormwater ponds and constructed natural areas, the operation of a nursery that propagates over 100 species of native plants, and hosting events that foster reconciliation with indigenous people. The widespread use of native plants in restoration and landscaping has resulted in Centerra (the community where HPEC is located) being certified by the National Wildlife Federation as the first Wildlife Habitat Community in Colorado. This presentation is intended to inspire and assist individuals and groups seeking to restore their relationship to the land and make their community a refuge for native biodiversity. 

 So if you join me at Jim's presentation you'll not only have a chance to see the handsome devil in person, but learn about one of the most extraordinary projects to occur in land use planning in America.

You won't regret it!


Sunday, July 4, 2021

Discovering a giant in your back yard: the confession of a serial reader.

 Craig Childs, author

 Prairiebreak is pretty consistently focused on the world of plants and gardens, I realize. This may give the impression that it's the only thing I care about. I'm afraid I've given you the wrong impression! I have a couple other aces lurking up my sleeve.

Along with the natural world, I've been a pretty obsessive reader most of my life (although I lapsed from my book or two or three a week habit from 1980-1990 when a new career gobbled up most of my time and energy.)

I will not bore you (or try to impress you) with my literary tastes: let's just say I have almost as many books in my library as I have taxa of plants in my garden. How many is that? Let's guess between 4-5000 (I keep a log of plants I've grown that's twice that--but they do die).  And I have read MOST of the books I own--and I've read many more I gave away, sold as a penurious student or checked out of libraries. I keep a book log too--but only from the last few decades which stands at over 2000 titles--at least that many and more backlog I have yet to enter. Another project for me to pursue!

I have discovered most of the books I love when a friend tells me about them, or when the authors I like allude to books they like. I discovered Craig Childs perhaps the oddest way yet: I have been a lifetime member of the North American Rock Garden Society and as vice president of that society (and now president) I persuaded friends to host our conference in Durango. Co-chair Jeff Wagner and Lisa Bourey who both head the program and field trip committee suggested Craig Childs as a speaker.

They know Durango, and who best to speak--I was content not to question or grill them. But in correspondence they mentioned he'd written some books. I thought why not check them out? So I Googled Craig (you might want to too). To save you time, I'll copy the short Bio he sent Jeff to be put in the Conference website: 

BIO: Craig Childs is the author of more than a dozen books of adventure, exploration, and natural history including House of Rain and The Secret Knowledge of Water. At Adventure Journal Quarterly magazine he is a contributing editor, and his writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Outside, and The New York Times, where he has been called "a modern-day desert father." An Arizona native, he currently lives off grid with his wife in Southwest Colorado.

 Adventure. Exploration. Natural History: hey--I'm up for that. So I ordered a volume off Abebooks: The Animal Dialogues appealed to me: I'd like to dialogue with animals. I dipped into it when it arrived, and suddenly found I'd torn through 20 pages. Childs' prose is pretty damn gripping. And what he writes is not something you will have read elsewhere. There is a sense of something hovering behind--hard to describe: a higher consciousness? What Vladimir Nabokov describes as a velvet curtain--a resonance of a writer deeply steeped in language and experience. I ordered several more books--although I notice that first hardback editions of many of his books (which I like to possess) are not easily obtained on the internet: for a contemporary writer this signifies that they have a devoted audience.

And sure enough when I bring up his name, all my friends have read one or two of his books! How can he have escaped me? And he lives right here in Colorado!

Best of all, he will launch the Annual General Meeting of the North American Rock Garden Society's meeting on August 5 with a keynote presentation on "Rocks that Speak: Ancestral Imagery and Rock Art on the Colorado Plateau". And I shall be sitting there, front and center!

And perhaps you should too! Still time to sign up! Just click

Hope to see you there!

Monday, June 21, 2021

Lovely larkspurs and a rustic rest stop

Wouldn't you know, a Facebook friend (Rich Guggenheim) captured the Delphinium geyeri at Denver Botanic Gardens last Saturday far better than my several dozen attempts on two or three different days.


This planting in our terrific recreation of the Great Plains ("Laura Porter Smith Plains Garden) was my favorite of several hundred floral spectacles that graced DBG in the past week or so: never have we had such a spendiferous and florally awesome spring and early summer before (and perhaps never again) thanks to unprecedented precipitation the first half of the year).

The combination of our local dryland delphinium (that's blazing by the tens of thousands on the Dakota hogback just west of town) with Sphaeracea coccinea and orange prickly pear is vintage Dan Johnson curator of native plants and Associate Director of Horticulture and our resident magician.

The species is basically a Wyoming endemic--common along the east base of the Front Range of Colorado with a few outliers in Montana, Utah (and possibly New Mexico and even Nebraska!). The finest displays I've ever seen are near Denver, Fort Collins and at a wonderful spot called "Split Rock" smack dab in the very center of Wyoming--a place I have visited perennially for more decades than I care to admit to!

Early on Sunday morning I took several dozen pictures trying to capture the beauty of this delightful plant--I should have taken a hundred more!

Split rock is an intriguing must visit one day if you haven't!

The gnarly limber pines are intriguing even in skeletonized form!

Fun to find Oregon woodsia in a shady crack (Woodsia oregana)

Heuchera parvifolia

Cryptantha flava--which is so abundant in the Colorado Plateau, makes one of its most northeasterly appearances at Split Rock--just going past bloom, unfortunately.

Another fern growing on a shady bank, and going dormant since there hasn't been rain in a while (Cystopteris fragilis)

The ubiquitous Achillea lanata (our version of millefolium)

Only one bitterroot still almost blooming: most were almost in seed.

None of the Calochortus gunnisonii were open--too early in the morning!

But Lygodesmia grandiflora was in full glory--one of the least appreciated and showiest composites of the west.

If you've made it this far I have a treat for you! Surely one of our loveliest modern folk songs, Bill Staines' Wyoming lullaby tugs on my heart strings whenever I hear it: I hope it will for you too as well: it's sure good to be back home!

It's sure good to be back home!

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