Saturday, May 30, 2015

With a Broad Brush

While these two showy Sonoran wildflowers may look nothing alike at first glance, both are members of the  broomrape family Both also have interesting names. The red-orange prairie-fire, also known as Indian or desert paintbrush grows in profusion along the
ditches and even on cliff faces in northern Arizona. 
Purple Owl's Clover is also known as exserted paintbrush because its flower-head has a tuft-like, 'thrust out' appearance.  The resemblance to clover, I get. The 'owl' not so much, though the hints of yellow among the purple might have something to do with it: a bit like eyes peering out from those feather-like clumps.

The historic uses for the plants are equally interesting.  Some Native Americans ate paintbrush plants in combination with other greens as part of their diet; others used them to concoct a rinse that gave their hair a glossy look. No herbalist, I found myself content just to marvel how their splashes of color made the desert landscape a whole lot brighter.

Friday, May 29, 2015

It wasn't a member of the snapdragon (beardstongue) family I was expecting when I started foraging in my Southwest desert wildflower book to identify this showy pink flowering plant.  Turns out,  it is penstemon palmeri, known by the common name Pink Wild Snapdragon.
 Despite a howling wind, the tall stalks supporting the blossoms stayed steady long enough to catch a photo. Growing nearby was a blue variety, though I'll admit I struck out when trying to pin down its exact name. The list in that color is formidable. 
I grew up gardening in the Midwest with snapdragons, albeit with shorter stalks than these wild relatives. The plants are popular annuals with gardeners in that climate because they bloom much of the summer season. Still, finding these plants thriving in the arid Sonoran landscape came as a pleasant surprise. And as a diehard weaver, I also found it interesting that the name this variety is a mixture of Latin [penta or "five"] and Greek [stemon meaning "warp, thread", the same origin as"stamen", the pollen producing part of a flower]. 

Phoenix Botanical Garden
In the Arizona desert, all is not cactus. The wildflower exhibit at Phoenix Botanical Garden is a glorious display of the richness of life possible in this harsh and sometimes barren climate. Fleabane, members of the mallow family and exserted Indian Paintbrush created a carpet underfoot in April worthy of a millefleurs tapestry.                                                       

After a lifetime gardening in the Upper Midwest and on the East Coast, learning to identify the species capable of surviving in this dramatic new environment is a formidable challenge.  Appreciation of the beauty that exists in this setting?  No problem at all.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Tufted evening Primrose.
The perfect blossom.  Tufted evening primrose.  Banks of the showy white flowers lined the path as we headed for the information center to check in for our 10 AM hike to the spectacular Sinagua ruins at Palatki, near Sedona, AZ.  Three hours later after we climbed to the cliff dwellings, visited the Grotto and marveled at its amazing rock art, we return to the van for lunch. The primroses were gone. All that remained were bloomed out wisps of bright pink that had once been pristine white petals, now tattered and folded in on themselves. The night of their flowering was over.
Life is an ephemeral business. Like the flowers of the field, we fade, the ancient texts say.  That pretty much sums it up. Unlike the primrose, the ancient rock art at Palatki survived as mysterious evidence of native cultures going back 5000 years. Once white painted images (pictographs) of wild game roamed across the cliff face, blackened now by generations of fires from agave roasting pits. 

The native peoples who lived here learned from their attempts to tame the landscape. When walls fell, they improved the mortar and construction.  Centuries later, their handiwork stands as a tribute to the creativity and resilience of the human spirit. And for those of us who come after?  There's so much to experience and so little time.

Life like an ever moving stream bears all its sons away. The primrose may have disappeared in the twinkling of an eye, but those ancient walls and paintings endure: a reminder of life's fragility and a quiet challenge to leave behind the best of what we create.

At left:  Pictographs of animals along the Grotto Rock Art trail, blackened by fires from agave roasting pits; (left, below) Palatki's stunning two-story cliff houses.  Above right: The Grotto lined with amazing rock art.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Iris - Corfu, Greece
Time for a gardener becomes measured by that familiar progression of plants known and loved. As long as I can remember, iris has always been one of my favorite perennials and perennial spring favorites. It comes into its own after the crocus and other early bulbs have blossomed themselves out.  And so there they were alongside the rocky ledge near our cruise ship in the port of Corfu, Greece.
It's a small world after all.  I smiled and broke out the camera.
Iris - Appleton, WI
My Corfu iris were a down-home variety compared to the showy hybrids in a friend's spectacular cottage garden in my Wisconsin hometown. But even at its simplest, the graceful fleur-de-lis needs no apologies,  For centuries, kings of France and other royalty immortalized it on their crests and shields.

Spring is now coming into its own in the Upper Midwest, but has long since passed on Corfu. Even though the seasons are out of synch,  half a world away from each other, iris flourish as lovely mile-markers in the gardener's year.
I don't need to see the 'flower of the lily' in bloom in Tempe  either to remind me that summer can't be far behind. Iris forever claims pride of place in the May calendar of my memory.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Spring bulbs like these don't thrive in the Southwest desert.  I located some mini-daffs for my mom on Valentine's Day back in February, but they were for sale---potted---on a display rack outside a Tempe grocery. Mom and I both had gardened for many years in the Upper Midwest. Spring and the thousands and thousands of varieties of bulbs in those gardens of our memory were inseparable.
The bulbs in this photograph were spotted through the lens of my camera during a trip to the Dalmatian Coast a month later.  Naturalized in the garden of a country church on Corfu, they evoked the same powerful images for me of childhood and gardens past.
Jonquil, narcissus, daffodils. In truth, the terms have always blurred in my own gardening vocabulary.  But apparently the flat-bladed leaves of the plants, shown here, give them away: daffodils. Jonquil leaves are darker and shaped more like soda straws. Although there are also thousands of varieties of Narcissus, the most well known are the potted paperwhites on sale during the December holiday season.
Familiarity in the plant world tends to breed that kind of scrambled identity.  Popular names for plants quickly evolve from region to region. Witness the confusion that reigns when gardeners get together and compare notes about  what they know in their respective locations as cowslips, marsh marigolds, buttercups or kings cups.
One year I actually made it my mission to learn the Latin names of every plant in my garden. An exercise in futility. These days, I'm happy if I can come up with any description at all that would help the nursery clerk point me toward the right aisle or display rack in search of a particular perennial.
A rose by any other name?  To me the cheery faces in this photo spell and will always spell,  S-P-R-I-N-G.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Bees on a cactus, Phoenix Botanical Garden
Colonies of bees or hives are so crucial to plant reproduction that the term 'birds and bees' has become a euphemism for learning about human sexuality. Yet for whatever reason, hives in some parts of the United States are experiencing over 60 percent mortality rates, cause for worry among farmers and gardeners everywhere.
As I go about the challenge of creating a new garden this summer, good soil and plenty of sun are only part of the equation to consider. I need to think about sharing that space with the birds, bees and butterflies without which
Cosmos in the author's garden
plant life in the garden cannot flourish.
A blossom's fragrance can attract bees to a garden. But then apparently bees also are fond of anything blue. The website honeylove identifies 30 common plants from cosmos and asters to bluebells, lavender and sunflowers that are apiary friendly.  Many double as butterfly or hummingbird magnets.  And much to my delight most of them are on my personal gardener's list of  all-time favorite perennials.
Threatened as bees have become, they are savvy about survival. Teamwork matters. They communicate with one another through 'dance' and release of pheromones to avoid plants where pollen has been harvested recently. That handy bit of knowledge saves energy as the bees forage in the garden for food. Bees also pick up on the electrical fields surrounding flowers that tell them whether to bother stopping for lunch or if some other bee already has beat them to the punch.
Like bats, bees inspire both fascination and vague feelings of anxiety. Parks in the American Southwest have had problems in recent years with aggressive strains of bees 'attacking' hikers in the wild. Having been stung a time or time, I'll admit the tiny creatures sometimes make me a bit edgy as I am working alongside them on a hot summer day.  But coexistence is essential. Without bees, gardens would cease to be.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Some plants challenge the imagination and our sense of the possible. The cactus is one of them. Some of the most fragile looking blossoms seem to flourish amid thorns capable of skewering most life forms that come anywhere near them. Other buds and flowers pop up like over-the-top
characters from a Star Wars movie. As a newcomer to the desert landscape myself, I have come to appreciate the cactus as the very embodiment of Survival. And resilience.
The cactus bides its time. It squirrels away precious resources for the the future. It makes the most of conditions that defy life and living.
There's a life lesson in there story somewhere.  Meanwhile, as the flowering season for cactus draws to a close, I walk the desert garden and simply marvel.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

 I have been working for several months now on a compilation of my gardening columns from the Petoskey MI News Review. Entitled Through the Gardener's Year, the book of essays has been forcing me to rethink what it means to live the gardening life year-round, to bloom wherever we are planted.
Spring, I've come to appreciate,  is not just about a date on the calendar. Context matters. Without an anchoring sense of place, time in a garden ceases to have any true meaning.
After a lifetime living and gardening in the Midwest and on the East Coast, moving to a Tempe, AZ

Columbine - April
Phoenix Botanical Garden,
area code for much of the year has changed my perspective of what seasons mean to a gardener. Right now in Northern Michigan, ice still shrouds large expanses of Little Traverse Bay.  In the desert Southwest, the fallow winter months are long past.  'Spring', aka summer elsewhere in the country, annuals are already past their prime as temperatures creep toward the triple digits.
The desert is anything but a barren place. Heat and water set the time for cactus to bloom.  Sage has its own season for flowering. And then when and where I least expect it, I find one of my favorite 'Midwest' spring beauties thriving in a desert wildflower garden as mounds of Columbine create a lush carpet in a shady spot.
Change of scene is good for a gardener. It forces us to rethink the rhythms and parameters of the day to day. Wherever we find ourselves, gardening is not about permanence, but change.  Seasons come and go, a familiar and reassuring pattern. Yet woe betide us if we discount the capacity to challenge and surprise.
Like life, it seems. In the garden, it is all about the instinct to grow.