Monday, March 12, 2012

Mountain kittentails: a synaesthetic Synthyris everyone should grow

I know it looks like a cross between a Galax and grape hyacinth, but this gorgeous morsel from the interior Northwest is surely one of America's least appreciated and most glorious wildflowers. Synthyris missurica is found from the Idaho panhandle to the Warner Mountains of northeasternmost California, a substantial chunk of territory. Although I have crossed its range innumerable times, I have yet to find it in the wild (something I hope to do this summer). But I have grown it for forty years. I first obtained it from George Schenk and his magnificent nursery the Wild Garden in Bothell, Washington: the spiritual antecedent of Heronswood and Far Reaches Farm, where I spent yesterday afternoon and will return in a few hours.

These clumps in our slowly diminishing colonies at DBG were grown from a clump I shared with a colleague a quarter century ago: that clump was divided into dozens of pieces, and plumped up in the greenhouses, and then planted along the north side of one of the berms at Denver Botanic Gardens where it has provided a modest and beautiful little edging for decades...The evergreen foliage is substantial, the flowers (lasting a month or so in early spring) are a delight: really a plant I would not want to be without...and thanks to the North American Rock Garden Society's amazing plant sale at the Annual Meeting I just attended in Everett, Washington, I have a good clump for my home garden again. There are few more rewarding early spring perennials for a shady rock garden or border.

Funny world we live in: I recall ordering this as a young man (possibly even a teenager, as young perhaps as my son who turns 20 years old this very day) from George Schenk. He described his form as 'Magna" I believe, and claimed it was tetraploid. I subsequently obtained Synthyris stellata (which I have seen growing abundantly in the Columbia river gorge--filling the north facing road cuts on shady banks near the Oneonta gorge), which has been lumped into S. missurica by busybody botanists (the Columbia gorge endemic has a fringe of pointy dentate leaf margins, while typical missurica is more roundly scalloped--and other subtle differences as well not to mention geographical distinct populations. Wouldn't it be fun to spend a summer exploring the dozens of mountain ranges where this occurs from the Idaho panhandle, the Blue mountains of Washington, the Wallowas of Oregon, the Warners of California, to find the diploid, more tetraploids, perhaps some pesky triploids? What other wonders would you find growing nearby?

The taxonomic history of this wonderful native makes a compelling narrative: first collected by Lewis and Clark, it was named by the somewhat shifty Frederick Pursh as Veronica reniformis...You can click on the hyperlink to find out the whole story of how the name morphed to the misleading epithet it now possesses (hard to think there was a time when the headwaters of the Lochsa river in Idaho were thought of as "Missouri"! But then again, the predominant and only iris truly wild throughout the Rockies and intermountains West is Iris missouriensis, another western wildflower that is not found native in Missouri!)

Strange, how things change and morph: when I purchased this plant, every botanist on earth would have agreed it was a Scrophulariaceae, related to such plants as Mimulus, Paintbrush and Verbascum. Today, these four plant groups are classed in four different plant families! (and Synthyris has joined veronica and penstemon in Plantaginaceae!) Oh the vagaries of time!

I am writing about an interior Pacific Northwestern wildflower (which at least is in full bloom in gardens hereabout) while I am sitting on a comfortable armchair at a motel in Port Townsend, Washington...although this is the "rain shadow" of the Olympic Mountains, rain has been beating down on the roof of the motel resoundingly. it's 7:00AM and still dark (second night of daylight savings) and I'm headed home today after a delightful and rewarding trip.

The Land of Chilliwack, Chelan and Sequim: the sonorous alliterative Salish flavored landscape of towering douglas fir and plangeant gray skies! I have a lifetime of sweet memories from visits here: I can see why the locals are so fiercely proud and attached. When the misty veil is dropped, as it was the luminous, crystalline day we arrived and Mt. Tahoma stood out above us like the Paramount movie logo, the region becomes almosty mythical in its majesty. That is if you can ignore the sprawling mess of human clutter alongside the Puget trough (Pugetopolis they call it)...not that we in Frontrangeopolis have any reason to feel superior).

The only difference is that misty veil and towering trees do much to mask and mitigate: something our poor windswept steppe cannot do. But I have veered away from the mountain kittentails (a lovely common name that perhaps should stick)...can I help that it inspires a wealth of synaethetic associations for me?

What a terrific place we are lucky to live in here in the "bewitched and blessed, Mountain forests of the West" as Vladimir Nabokov so wonderfully put it.

1 comment:

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