Ink & Penstemon

Observations on plants, gardening, & nature from the Great Basin steppe in the American West.

If you get mired in something, click on the Penstemon barbatus 'Elfin Pink' image.



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    A view of their greenhouse selection. So many choices! The outdoor ponds. Lots of Nymphea, including the western native, Nuphar lutea. A Mimulus sp. doing a nice marigold impression. Lovely. Just 3 of the many, many, Utah natives available. More goodies. I need more bloody dock (Rumex sanguinea) around. They have many handy lists for shoppers. Greenhouse biological control. I forgot what this trailing beauty is and had every intention of getting it but somehow walked out without it. This will have to be rectified soon. A variegated garlic. A portion of my spoils. Excited as several of these are native and hardy. The little guy is a dwarf Mentha aquatica, or water mint. It will trail over the pot when this is set up.

    Some photos I took a trip to Desert Water Gardens in Salt Lake City today. Scroll over the captions for comments.

    Ever since I read this article in Fine Gardening by Joseph Tomocik, former horticulturist over the aquatic plants at Denver Botanic Gardens, I’ve been wanting to try container water gardening. Ponds are too much maintenance, and they tend to emphasize fish over plants, whereas I am more interested in the plants themselves. I quickly became frustrated as local nurseries only carried the “meat and potatoes” of aquatics; I had almost resigned myself to hefty shipping charges for mail-order nurseries to get more unusual plants.

    So I was thrilled to discover Desert Water Gardens in Salt Lake, where they grow not only a wide variety of aquatic plants, but unusual western and Utah natives as well. The “grow native” movement here always emphasizes dry land gardening, so DWG’s selection of beautiful and unusual plants for bog and pond fills a much needed niche. Many plants they grow are used in wetland restoration projects along the Wasatch Front.

    I went in with the intention of walking out with about 5 plants and left with 9 and intend to return for more.

    Astragalus utahensis flower. Photo credit Steve Hegji. Planning to grow a lot more of these.

    Tulipa linifolia brightening the gravel garden. Spring needs more red.

    What’s blooming in the garden? Pediocactus simpsonii. It smells like old roses to me.



    Sometimes I just feel inexplicably guilty for all the plants I’ve neglected to death. 


    (via mamisgarden)

    Evening spring sampler: Pulsatilla vulgaris, Tulipa biflora, multiflora hyacinth.

    Viola beckwithii, Pleasant View, Utah. Photo credit Larry Quinn. One of the “sage brush” violets, once common along the Wasatch front, now endangered because people have built their houses over them.

    Astragalus newberyi, Dugway Pass, Utah. Photo credit, Steve Hegji.

    Death Camas by BLMer Kasey Hill. Wild Rose by BLMer Heather Schlenker. Sego Lily by BLMer Heather Schlenker. Arrow Leaf Balsamroot by BLMer Amy Lapp. Indian Paintbrush by BLMer Channing Swan. Photo by BLMer Greg Mann. Columbine by BLMer Heather Schlenker. Fireweed by BLMer David Alderman. Bluebells by BLMer Heather Schlenker. Arrow Leaf Balsamroot near Soda Hills in Idaho by BLMer Kasey Hill.


    Celebrate Spring! 

    Why Saving Endangered Plants Matters

    A few months ago, our local paper ran an article about how oil and gas leases in eastern Utah were being stymied by two rare Penstemons, Penstemon grahamii and Penstemon scariosus var. albifluvis as they currently going through the process of being listed for protection as endangered species. Local politicians continue to rail on about how economic development is being held-up by the attempts of uncompromising enviro-nuts conspiring with federal agencies to save a couple of ratty desert flowers at the expense of “energy independence.” From time to time, these articles are accompanied by delightful comments from various individuals along the lines of how stupid it is to make a fuss over a %@#*&! flower, and, if they came across such a plant, they would wipe their backsides with it.

    Trolls, and duck dynasty-types aside, why it is more difficult to make people care about endangered plants than endangered animals? Perhaps, it’s because we tend to anthropomorphize them; the sight of a lone wolf being hunted down by a helicopter or a polar bear floundering in open sea stirs up our existential guilt. This guilt is compounded if the animal is doe-eyed and furry. That sympathetic response to a “cute” factor is harder to conjure up for a plant. 

    Not that attractiveness is a good thing for rare plants; in fact beauty is often detrimental to their survival. One of the most endangered plants in Utah is Arctomecon humilis, or the “Dwarf Bearclaw Poppy.” It is also one of the most beautiful, so when it isn’t being run over by ATVs, it is being dug up by admirers who want to grow it next to their front door. As in most cases, digging equals death. And so what if they die? Since plants don’t look pained or scream as they are dying, it’s much easier to stomach the notion of killing them. People will ignite a firestorm over white-tailed deer hunting and barred-owl culls, because those animals feel pain! They have feelings! But bulldozing land to expand an airport, or pulverizing biological soil crusts and squashing rare cacti on a weekend ATV ride is totally okay because it’s just dirt. They’re just plants. They’ll grow back. 

    Which is the other PR problem plants have. People presume that since dandelions seem to produce bucketfuls of seed and seem to be able to grow everywhere, that all plants will bounce back eventually. Of course, anyone who has attempted gardening knows better. 

    Prolific ubiquity or nature-as-Eden has always been a myth. At their peak, passenger pigeons in North American were estimated to have numbered 3.7 billion birds. (By comparison, there are only 260 million rock pigeons world-wide today.) Because they were everywhere and in such huge numbers it was difficult for people to accept that human over-hunting had wiped them completely out. People like to hold onto some hope that there is another plant or butterfly just over the hill, out of the way where no one has looked because who wants to accept that they are personally responsible for wiping something out forever? The last two known Great Auks were strangled to death by Icelandic fisherman in 1844. I’m betting if you had told them that those two were the very last of their kind, they would have found something else to eat. Nowadays, people would round up those Auks, put them in captivity, try to coax them to breed, and take DNA samples to stick in some fridge for safe keeping. 

    Science will save us from our own wanton destruction!

    Except, it can’t. In the case of the Dwarf Bearclaw Poppy, botanists have been collecting seed and been trying to grow this plant since it was listed in 1979. They can get seed to germinate, but after about a year, the plant dies. Studies have been done, DNA has been sequenced, and field trials have tried a gazillion different approaches to give this little perennial what it needs, with zero results. It’s like the Panda of native Utah flora. The only thing they can seem to do it to protect the few last pockets of unique land where the Poppy hasn’t been trampled to death, dug out, or paved over. If the gypsum soils they grow in are disturbed, though, seeds won’t germinate there either. What good does it do to have seeds frozen away in a seed bank in some Nordic mountainside if the specific environment the plant has adapted to is covered by a sun-belt housing development or a runway?


    Arctomecon humilis, on the brink. Photo credit USFWS on Flickr.

    Perhaps the best argument I’ve heard for why we should care about endangered plants, animals, and insects, isn’t just for the “right” these living things have to exist. The earth has had mass extinctions before and has bounced back in a myriad of unusual, amazing, and startling diverse ways. By allowing something like a rare desert poppy to disappear, we are in fact, threatening the delicate balance of the Earth as we’ve come to know it. These delicate dryland plants are so uniquely adapted to their particular environment that in them, we should see an echo of our own fragile existence on this planet, and worry.

    Lawn violets adding color and fragrance to a still largely dormant lawn. I can understand why people consider this plant to be weedy, because it is, but I wouldn’t rank it in the same class as the bluegrass itself. In fact, I think I would much rather have a “lawn” of these violets than the grass. The denser patches give off their distinct and deep perfume in the early evening.

    When funny botanists become rhapsodic: a touching ode to another rare Utah plant, Caesalpinia repens. To quote a particularly poignant stretch of verse:

    Oh Caesalpinia repens!
    You are so beautiful, and so rare
    With your little bird of paradise flowers.
    And so imperiled at a G2 rating
    Your pinnate leaves unfurl in only 5 Utah counties
    So beautifully that Stan Welsh called you a
    “striking plant in the light of early morning”

    Oh Bureau of Land Management!
    You are such a wonderful government agency.
    A bureau so nice and careful and smart.
    You treat your valuable little plants so well
    Like when you closed the overused camping area
    And moved it across the road
    To where the rare little Caesalpinias are.

    The blog at doesn’t seem to be posted to much anymore, and it is a bit academic, but it’s loaded with gems like this.

    A post for cactiphiles: Echinocereus triglochidiatus var. mojavensis in the wild, Great Salt Lake, Utah. Notice in the third photo how the large clump’s center is dying out. Yet another example of how seeing plants is superior to seeing them in gardens. I will try to revisit these colonies when they are in bloom.

    My favorite early bloomer, Ranunculus andersonii spring pics from Saturday afternoon on Stansbury Island on the Great Salt Lake. The flowers emerge more white and deepen in their pink color as they age in this population. I almost always find the flowers in northern exposures among the outcrops of tufa and quartzite. My favorite colony wasn’t as spectacular this year as cows have severely trampled their area this winter. Always worth the trip.

    Astragalus holmgreniorum (Holmgren's milkvetch) Astragalus montii (Heliotrope milkvetch) Pediocactus winkleri (Winkler's pincushion cactus) Asclepias welshii (Welsh's milkweed)

    More rare, endangered Utah native plants via USFWS Mountain Prairie on Flickr. Holmgren’s milkvetch, Heliotrope milkvetch, Winkler’s pincushion cactus, and Welsh’s milkweed. Scroll over the captions for botanical IDs+common names.

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