Thursday, April 10, 2014

Has Spring truly sprung? (an April Alphabetarium)

Bulbocodium vernum
 We almost wondered if Spring would ever arrive: now suddenly magnolias are in bloom all over town, the early plums and apricots are out, and even all the pear trees. Crocuses and snowdrops are mostly over, and the early spring rabble is at its peak...most all of these are photographed today in my garden (the one above is an exception--my pictures from home didn't turn out nearly as well as this shot from the grand border at Denver Botanic Gardens). Of course there's lots to say about every picture, but this time of year we don't need prose, we need color! and there is color aplenty (at least until Sunday when it's supposed to snow again--ugggh). That's Colorado. Take it while it's good!
Coluteocarpus vesicarius

Corydalis solida 'Beth Evans'

Corydalis solida 'George Baker'

Corydalis solida 'George Baker'

Corydalis solida 'Dieter Schacht'

Delosperma sphalmanthoides

Draba bruniifolia ex Toros Dag

Draba hispanica

Fritillaria bucharica

Fritillaria caucasica

Fritillaria michaelovskyi

Fritillaria michaelovskyi

Iris aucheri

Iris aucheri

Iris reticulata 'Cantab'

Narcissus nanus

Primula abchasica and Chionodoxa sp.

Primula marginata

Primula veris and Hepatica americana

Ranunculus calandrinioides

Townsendia hookeri in a trough

Tulipa humilis 'Alba oculata'

Tulipa humilis

Tulipa humilis

Tulipa humilis and Corydalis shanganii

Tulipa montana ex Iran (Archibald coll.)

Veratrum nigrum

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

The resonant velvety harmony of plant collections

Weeping Scholar's tree (Styphnolobium japonicum 'Pendulum') in City Park, Denver

My mentor, Paul Maslin (an eminent Biologist at the University of Colorado at Boulder) was born in 1909 and grew up in central China. He eventually came to the U.S. for his college education and stayed, although memories of China haunted him all his life. When Nixon opened the doors to that country in the 1970's, Paul and his wife Mary were some of the first tourists who went there from Colorado. I well remember many stories he told contrasting the Feudal China of his childhood, and the dramatic changes of post Cultural Revolution China. One of his observations that stuck with me was the abundance of  weeping Scholar trees (Styphnolobium japonicum 'Pendulum'--still usually called Sophora japonica by fuddy duddies like me) he saw in China "why do you never see these in America?" he kept wondering. I only know the one above in Denver--growing beautifully in the terrific perennial garden in City Park. I discovered this two decades after Paul had died, and think of him whenever I visit it.

Dennis Hermsen, myself and a young weeping Sophora last Saturday at Iowa Arboretum
Paul's nagging question has occasionally come to mind--especially when I make a yearly pilgrimage to enjoy the gardens at City Park, where I always stop to admire Denver's sole weeping Sophora. So you can imagine my surprise when I spoke last Saturday at the wonderful Iowa Arboretum in Madrid, Iowa when one of the audience came up to me and presented (among a bevy of gifts) a wonderful 4' specimen of weeping Sophora.

One of the many benefits of being a Senior Curator of a public garden is that America's great plantspeople use you serve as a conduit (as it were) between great collectors and their intention that important plants find their way into significant plant collections. I'd heard of Dennis from our mutual friends, Gary Whittenbaugh and Jerry Morris. Meeting him at this Symposium and receiving the Sophora and other treasures are the real pay off for the day to day work one does: incidentally, the specimen he gifted the Gardens came from a scion off the very same Sophora in the first picture above. It took a rather circuitous route back home!

I am already savoring the picture in my mind of the wonderful specimen this will form in a few years time in our Japanese Garden complex. It will combine in my mind the ancient traditions of Oriental horticulture with memories of my mentor and his long experiences in China, and a beloved tree in City Park, and finally getting to know one of America's great plantsmen.

Dennis owns a nursery in Farley, Iowa that I have now put on my bucket list! And I look forward to his visiting Denver Botanic Gardens soon (he has come in the past, but we've never connected) and showing him around my private garden as well. And you can be sure I shall be planning some appropriate gifts for him in anticipation.

I am sure there are other hobbies where people are as thoughtful and generous--although none spring to mind. Each of the gifts Dennis gave to Denver Botanic Gardens: three hefty grafted specimens of a weeping white spruce discovered by Jerry Morris in Montana and a fantastic miniature Gingko in addition to the weeping Scholar tree--all of these represent plants that he has grafted, grown for years and cherished. None of them are easily found in Commerce, if you can find them at all.

A surprising number of plants at a botanic garden (or private plant collection as well) are the result of these sort of serendipitous meetings and relationships. The interplay of people and their passions and history provides a sort of resonant velvety harmony, as it were, to the beauty of plant collections.

Monday, March 31, 2014

The hardy Palm Trees of Colorado.

Washingtonia sideroclada ssp. argentea

 Palm trees are generally thought of as Tropical plants, restricted to humid, warm winter regions. Obviously, most people are not aware that there are many iron-clad species, such as this small colony that once grew along Monaco Avenue in Denver, a short ways south of Evans. Despite being planted in a rather exposed microclimate, with a deep sandy soil, these throve for many years: I would admire them as I drove by year in year out, their graceful, bending forms and rigidly proud fronds outstretched with an almost military rigidity: what's not to like? Then a day came when I noticed the sign....

Sign of things to come
 It should have worried me that the restaurant where these where originally planted was rarely patronized...the pressures of development on our endemic urban Arecaceae cannot be overestimated. Not too many weeks passed by before I discovered they were now extinct. Surely the rarest Ironclad, silver Arecas in the region (if not the world) have now joined the Dodo and the Liberal Wing of the Republican party in the annals of prehistory. We cannot be too vigilant, nor can we trust in fly-by-night "conservation" organizations like Nature Conservancy and Defenders of Wildlife, who take little interest in these urban ecotypes. They'd just as soon see this planted to junipers!
Cocos nucifera ssp. boulevardensis
Possibly always rare, and now extinct in its type locality--this high altitude coconut palm once throve along Colorado Boulevard here in Denver--producing its characteristic clusters of fruit that fortunately never fell on passers by.

We're not sure if the proximity to "Hooters" has any significance....

I admired the lofty crowns of this evergreen palm for many years, until it too fell victim to "progress"...
Cocos Santafeensis
This delightful colony of an apparently sterile form of the genus still persists--possibly responding to the abundant irrigation on the lawn beneath. I hope some of those would be "environmentalists" will make an effort to preserve this thriving colony before it's too late for it as well!

A closer look!
I am somewhat concerned by the way these are growing that they may, in fact, represent a single clone--the bane of our street tree culture nowadays. By propagating so many trees from single germplasm accessions we reduce biodiversity to a single gene pool--and lay our trees open to all manner of disease and pests. I would not be surprised some day if some sort of rust were not to set in simultaneously on all of these.
A single specimen
Here perhaps you can better admire this distinctive variant planted near a rather outlandish stylized stone: The graceful organic form of the palm makes a striking contrast to the angular, metallic and rather unnatural "stone"--true art if I ever did espy it!

A closer look...trying to ignore that "rock"
Aceca variabilis v. grotesquissimus forma Sinorestaurauntorum

 I shall end my little disquisition on the palms of Denver with this--the most colorful of all of them--reduced, alas, but to a single female that is not likely to produce viable seed with no male palms nearby. How sad it is to think that this noble varicolored hardy palm may one day join its brethren in extinction. Fortunately, we have managed to photograph a few of these to prove that the alpine palms of Denver are still hanging on (albeit by their frond-tips): there are a number of others I've spied over the years--perhaps next year this time I can expand this little monograph to capture them before they too succumb to "progress".

Thursday, March 27, 2014

My sweet Wyomin' home...featuring the blue phlox of Wyoming

Phlox pulvinata
This picture happens to be in my garden, but I have a whole suite of shots of this lovely phlox I photographed on top of Medicine Bow Pass in the incomparable Snowy Mountains of Wyoming. Hard to believe one can depart Denver, skim past the Front Range megalopolis, drive to the Laramie Plains full of steppe-climate treasures, and then traverse the montane and subalpine and arrive at a vast tapestry of this Phlox, Eritrichium, glacier lilies galore in about two hours. Most years I make the trip two or three times, usually in late June and July. But this incredibly sweet smelling phlox that varies from icy pale blue to deep purple shades is always a grail...

Phlox pulvinata on summit of Medicine Bow Pass in late June

 Here is that vista, from on of my many favorite "sweet Wyomin' homes"-- a place I have come to again and again over the past four or five decades. I am actually imagining the smell so vividly of this phlox, a fragrance that wafts up on warmish days (it's NEVER hot up there) and envelopes you with a strangely tropical, muskiness that belies the alpine vistas. Just three little months and I can stand here again...aaaaah.

Phlox pulvinata closer up
 A little closer view showing how dense the colonies are up there, interspersed with all manner of other alpine gems. Our winter is lasting so long this year (although daffodils are out and the first magnolia blossoms are opening on the x loebneri at the Botanic Gardens' house), our landscape is as sere and harsh looking--freeze dried from a had winter, and sun baked from lots of sun and wind--rather like Wyoming in a way. It's an acquired taste: once you acquire a love of the brash steppe you feel constrained and overgrown after a few days in the perpetual greenery of Maritime climates.

Phlox pulivinata, up close and personal! in the wild...
 Mugshot of a particularly blue violet form of this cushion phlox. There are other blue phloxes--the two primary contenders are of course Phlox divaricata of the Eastern woodlands,  and Phlox bifida of the southern Great Lakes sandy prairies. I did select a particularly deep violet blue of the latter in the garden of the late great Betty Blake (a plant that may persist somewhere still). Neither of them are quite this winsome a shade of blue violet. Laporte Avenue Nursery is not currently listing Phlox pulvinata (although they have) but they do offer 'Betty Blake' in a good form, but probably not the real form I once grew which was much bluer.

And here is the REAL 'Betty Blake' from around 20 years ago at DBG

The original collection from Betty's garden was a pretty dark, good blue. But it may be MIA...and I admit that many pulvinata are paler in hue, but there is sure to be one at least as good as Betty up there on the Medicine Bow (or the dozens of other ranges in the west where pulvinata is supposed to grow). And they are sure to have that heavenly fragranc.

 One last lingering look from the Snowies....oh yes, the title of this blog comes from an enchanting song I learned from Gwen Moore, my ex--she would sing it very winsomely on our many trips across Wyoming--it was one of her favorite songs, and remains one of mine. One may divorce, but one stays married to the better memories, which were legion.  It was made famous by Chris LeDoux (famous is a relative term--hard to believe such a really wonderful song isn't that famous in a world of American idol and "Voice" contenders singing songs I find pretty repellent--and let's not even talk about "Rap"--which deserves the parentheses.) This song was written by Bill Staines, one of America's great song writers, whom I've had the privilege of hearing a few times. I link the lyrics to the song here, and click on the two previous links on this blog to hear two very different versions of this song: both pretty cool in their way...the song being a tribute to a great state, and a sort of musical equivalent to this exquisite and little known plant (rather like the song in meriting a little more love!).

A flower. A song. Some memories. A backdrop of sagebrush and distant pronghorn. Our lives are comprised of these quiddities, these tesserae, which gradually mesh and form the mosaic of our personalities, the sum and substance of our souls.

Friday, March 21, 2014

The other state cactus...

Pediocactus simpsonii 'Snowball'
Recently, a bill in the Colorado Legislature was introduced and subsequently passed nominating Echinocereus triglochidiatus as Colorado's state cactus. Now, I have to say that no one is more fond of claret cups than I am: I probably have a few dozen planted around my house. I have sought them out in every state where they grow, and when they bloom, I hover as expectantly as a hummingbird over them, although perhaps with less efficacy. But claret cups are even more abundant in Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Nevada and California than in our state where they are concentrated along the Western plateaux west of the Continental Divide at modest elevations, with a second population hugging the foothills of the Eastern slope.

Pediocactus simpsonii occurs in other states too, I aver. But I am quite sure if you gathered all the simpsonii in the other states where they occur and weighed them, they'd be a fraction of what occurs in our state. Colorado is the epicenter, the Omphalos, the heartland, the bees knees and cat's meow of mountain ball cacti, and don't you forget it! And the snowball, once abundant along the western fringe of Denver (mostly supplanted by suburb) is the loveliest of all in my book.

Pediocactus simpsonii ex New Mexico
Though who can fault it in any of its color phases--it pretty much covers the purple-red, yellow and cream--all the delicate pastels. And it has a powerful fragrance to boot.

Pediocactus simpsonii (more snowballs)
These are snowballs I'ave had in this trough for years--if you look carefully, you'll see lots of little seedlings...wooo hooo!

Closeup of Pediocactus simpsonii 'Snowball'

Pediocactus simpsonii ex Aquarius plateau, UT
A very strange collection from the Aquarius: it must be 20 years old and hasn't done much more than this...Utah simpsonii is often strange.

Pediocactus simpsonii ex Idaho
Here's one of several Idaho collections that have even been put in a different species by a well known German splitter...

Pediocactus simpsonii ex Irish Canyon, nw Colorado
This is the giant of the genus in my experience--I grew this clump for almost 20 years--I love the pale yellow coloration. This is typical of what you often find around the Uinta Basin.

Closeup, Pediocactus simpsonii ex Irish Canyon
Closeup of the Uinta Basin form.

Pediocactus simpsonii ex Monarch Pass, Colorado
An enchanting form from very high on Monarch pass where this is abundant on southern slopes to almost 10,000'!

Closeup of Monarch Pass Pediocactus simpsonii
Closeup of the same...

Another yellow flowered form, this one from near Mt. Borah in Idaho

Snowball blooming on Green Mt., Lakewood, Colorado
Here is the snowball in the wild--blooming in late March a few years ago. This year, I suspect it will be April before we find it in the wild, but they are budded up all around my yard as I type...

Pediocactus robustior ex Nevada
ediocactus robustior ex Washington State 
 The two above represent a heavily spined, coarse form from the Columbia plateau which makes enormous clumps and has other subtle distinctions--it has sometimes been classed as a species, and other times as a species in its own right. It is distinctive to my eyes, and very beautiful.

Pediocactus simpsoniii in seed, on Flattop Mts., Garfield Co, CO (9000'!)
 Even our southerly forms can clump up pretty well--this massive clump from the Flattops produced a wealth of seed that year.
Pediocactus simpsonii in seed on Green Mt.: yum yum!
And finally, the snowball in seed. Almost as fetching as it is in bloom. Prettier if you're a little piggy like some people who read this!

A week from now the Colorado Cactus and Succulent Society is holding the annual Show and Sale. There are always a few of these in the show--and since they're usually in bloom--they can take a prize or two. But in my book, they're our ultimate cactus--and one of the most precious wildflowers of the Rocky Mountains!