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.
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?
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.
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 Pronghorns.net doesn’t seem to be posted to much anymore, and it is a bit academic, but it’s loaded with gems like this.
Steve Hegji went out to check out what was happening with the spate of warm weather out on Stansbury (+60F!), and whether Ranunculus andersonii is beginning to bloom:
I decided to take a side jaunt out there on my way home today. The answer [to whether R. andersonii is beginning to bloom] is…YES, but only just starting. Most of what I saw looked like [this] - with buds and leaves emerging from the soil.
But there were a few plants in the sunnier locations that were in bloom.
I think after this next storm passes through that there will be about 2 more weeks of peak viewing for the Buttercup….
Finally, I’ve attached a couple pictures of Cymopterus purpurascens - which was also blooming on Stansbury Island. … There are 20 different Cymopterus species that have been collected in Utah - many of them VERY COOL looking.
Agreed about Cymopterus, Steve. Very, very cool indeed. I may have to collect some seed of it this year and see if I can get this unusual ephemeral to perform in my rockery.
For interested parties, a group of us are planning a trip out to Stansbury soon to see these beauties. Any interested parties are welcome to come.
When I started to garden, I bought plants. I even bought them from White Flower Farm, which charges you three times more than what the plant would cost if you bought it locally, plus shipping. In the early days, spending a couple of hundred dollars on plants seemed exorbitant, but one soon learns that two- to three-hundred-dollars worth of plants only goes so far. Soon, the amount of money you’re spending can skyrocket. You’re doing really well if you are spending just a couple of hundred dollars each season.
If you are childless and have a solid job, this lifestyle may be tenable. For me, as my family has grown, so has its demands upon our household income; the cold-hardy reality of budgeting has set in. For me, It is now a necessity to grow the majority of my plants from seed.
Starting plants from seed is considered by many gardeners online to be the purview of the experts, and there may be some truth in that, especially if you are drawn to rare or expensive plants. But I’ve become convinced that growing your own plants from seed is the only way one can achieve a great garden. Once when I was talking to a notable garden designer about her garden, she indicated that all of her rarities and interesting introductions grown from seed were a product of necessity as much as passion. To buy plants in the quantities she needed would have cost a fortune. I guess even nationally famous garden designers who’ve written many successful gardening books must make do with modest salaries, but their gardens speak for themselves.
Growing from seed is less expensive, but still has its costs. And, plants that are patented, or grafted, or whose seed is very difficult to propagate or source still must be purchased as plants. Also, the cost of growing materials is not insignificant, but the amount of plants you get more than makes up for that investment. I’ve made do without a greenhouse or cold frame (so far), thanks to wintersowing in milk jugs, and there are many plants that take off with direct sowing. Of course, there is the question of time, and that is the trade off. As a gardener, you must learn to wait for anywhere between two and five years to get a perennial, bulb, or woody plant ready to plant out in the garden, and that is a significant investment of your time and often space. But I think by engaging in plants from their beginnings gives you a better sense of what the plant needs and how it grows. Hence, the best gardeners are the seedy types.
In this light, I would encourage you to follow #seedchat tonight as it is the 3rd annual seed swap! Get sowing!
“Between your love for me and mine for you
— air of stars and tremor of plants —
a thicket of anemones raises
with a dark moan an entire year.”—Federico Garcia Lorca | from ‘Sonnet of the Garland of Roses’ in Sonnets of Dark Love, translated by Angela Jaffray. (via indigenousdialogues)
Remember that Twilight Zone episode where a woman is going insane because the Earth is slowly getting closer to the sun and everything is baking? It turns out she’s just delirious from a fever, but, while she’s relieved to find everything to be nice and cold, everyone else is freaking out because the Earth is actually moving farther away from the sun.
Reading many gardening blogs and just listening to people in general, I feel like this woman. Am I delusional because I love winter? Am I really alone in my love of winter?
Yes, winter is good! The only way it could get better is if all that snow dumping on the east moved here to the west. Winter sports! Snow! Rich foods! Hot drinks! You can wear huge sweaters and bulky clothes and not looked upon as dumpy! You get to clean your house really, really well! Indoor plants never looked so good they’re so spoiled and sitting in a greenhouse for hours is pleasant instead of sweltering!
Many get caught up in the lack of flowers and growing things. Those things are very good, but they have their time. I would go crazy in a sub-tropical/tropical biome where things just kept growing (although these plants go through their own cycles that coordinate with the rainy seasons). It reminds me of a woman I knew and visited who lived to be 106. In her last few years, she complained that everyone she knew over the years had died; her husband, all her children, all her friends. She no longer recognized her neighborhood and had to move in with one of her grandchildren to take care of her.
Everything has its time. So why not enjoy what’s in front of you?
Pretty winter vacation in Island Park, ID. I could have sat here all day.
I bought a leaf-blower and the world is still with us.
I know this will consequently make me fall out of favor with some. I have avoided blowers for eight years, doing the work largely with a rake any by hand, but now that a large portion of my garden is a gravelly, dry-land garden, located under a crabapple and between two Norway Maple trees, it was the only way. That much humus would be death to the many cactuses and agaves that now reside there. Raking was not only unlikely but impossible. The tines would have uprooted the shallowly anchored plants, and removing leaves embedded in the long white-spined cholla by hand would have been fruitless and painful.
The blower isn’t a miraculous solution. I didn’t get the bag for the vacuum feature, so I still had to rake up what detritus I blew out of the desert sage. I also gained the insight that desert plants have evolved to catch and hold onto what ever piece of organic matter blows their way, so encouraging them to let go of their treasures was more difficult than I anticipated. I believe the mature Dorr’s sages still clutch a few prized Norway Maple leaves in their bosoms. Gardening by hand still very much applies here.
On the upside, it is amazing how much time the new blower saves. In the back garden, I turned its wind onto the leaves hiding under the dining set and the concrete bench, and cleared off the piles burying the Lewisias. All this work was done in about 3 minutes when it normally would have taken 15 or 20. And, it was nice to blow all of those lovely leaves straight into the beds.
Ironically, it didn’t work as well with blowing leaves off the lawn. I want to get them into the beds, but since they blow away erratically, it’s usually easier for me to do a few sweeps with the rake than to herding stray leaves around interminably.
So my verdict: Leaf-blowers are good for patio, gravel areas, troughs, new rock garden. Use a rake for everything else.
The Weatherman tells me that rain and possibly snow is approaching. Normally, I wouldn’t mind except I have this dry land garden now and there are things in the dry land garden that don’t like those sort of things. Also, since this is the garden’s first winter, it is its first great test. Did I add enough expanded shale to the soil? Have things gotten established enough to survive?
I’m not too worried. Most of the plants out here are tougher than I am. But the Agaves are iffier. They are just wee babes! The Miserable Gardener says the key to overwintering Agaves is to make sure the soil is dried out so they can’t uptake any water. Otherwise, those cell walls will be impaled with ice shards of death. In theory, my soil is well-drained enough that wet soils shouldn’t be an issue. But I’m not a gambler.
In the case of the Agave neomexicana, it can fit happily under a classy dome. I can prop up the bottom on sunny days so it doesn’t too steamy in there.
However, most of the new Agaves are bigger than this. So, I give you the Agave tent:
Agave parryi. I had to fish leaves out of this one’s crown with needle-nosed pliers.
Agave harvardiana with pup!
They are just inexpensive sheets of clear vinyl I picked up at the fabric store and secured into the ground with stainless ground staples. The plastic has the added benefit of keeping the leaves from the neighbor’s Norway maples out of the crowns. Don’t worry. I’ll get those leaves out from under there before they have a chance to get mushy. Air can circulate under the plastic and the spines have punched holes through the plastic to help with that too. #fingerscrossed
Recently, I’ve posted several posts from the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Given that many of you who follow the blog are not from Utah, you are not likely to be very familiar with this area. The monument is in the southern part of the state and is unusual for its size; it covers 1.8 million acres, which makes it just larger than the entire state of Delware. Its immensity and isolation makes it appear a bit impenetrable for the casual tourist. Also, given its proximity to the state’s National Park System, it is too often overlooked, although there are areas within the monument worthy of being in a National Park. There aren’t many paved roads in it, just a couple of dirt roads that traverse particularly scenic areas. The Cottonwood Canyon Road is one of them.
Cottonwoods along the eponymous Cottonwood Canyon Road.
It follows the Grand Staircase, or layers of sedimentary rock that descend from the newer Claron and Kaiparowits formations near Bryce Canyon, down to the oldest, the Tapeats formation, in the Grand Canyon. No matter where you go in the Grand Staircase, you are overwhelmed by this sense of change, time, and scale, and you are dwarfed by it. The Cottonwood Canyon Road is an excellent route through the Monument, especially if you start it at its northern end.
The first attraction along the route is the view of Bryce Canyon and the Kodachrome Basin.
Cute bespectacled kids and a view of Kodachrome State Park in the background and Bryce Canyon in the far distance.
Followed by Grosvenor Arch.
Followed by the Cottonwood Narrows.
Followed by many other strange and beautiful things along the way.
As you can see from my other posts, it is also a very good region for botanizing given the changes in the soil composition.
Lygodesmia juncea on the roadside.
If you ever make it down to Bryce, consider taking a day trip even further south. Just don’t try to travel the road while wet or be prepared to be stuck. But, for the record, we drove this in our minivan without trouble.
If you would like a closer look at these images, you can look at them in detail on my Flickr account. The link is in the sidebar.