Field Notes 2

Interior West BY LAUREN SPRINGER / Fort Collins, Colorado, Zone 5

Wild Encounters

LAST SEPTEMBER, 11 plant-besotted friends and I went to South Africa. It was early spring down there, and time for one of the natural wonders of the world—a yearly floral extravaganza of unrivaled magnitude and diversity. We spent two weeks in the western Cape, Namaqualand, and the Karoo, in the presence of plant majesty. Majesty may seem a funny word for small, fleeting, delicate beings. But South Africa’s flowers are majestic, along the lines of centuries old cacti, or the ancient towering trees of western North America.

We all had slightly different agendas. Nurserymen were eager to find potential introductions. Gardeners imagined coddling myriad new beauties in their back forty. Designers looked for visual inspiration in the floral tapestry spread over the land. Feverish students noted site, elevation, and growing conditions of each botanical gem. Photographers laid themselves prostrate in supplication to the perfect flower, to capture the perfect shot.

Why go to the ends of the earth to see plants? Before I left, I received an e-mail from a horticulturist who was also taking a group of people to South Africa. He asked what gardens I was planning on seeing. I was struck by that question. It would not occur to me to go to the ends of the earth to see plants in gardens. I wondered how this group of people differed from my merry band of botanizers.

What is it about wild plants in wild places that resonates so much more deeply for some of us than seeing plants in gardens? Certainly every plant, even the most overblown hybrid whatnot, has a story to tell about its provenance. Often the story of how it came to live among us is a fascinating one as well. But the story of a plant growing in the wild, untouched by the hand of man, says more. Maybe more isn’t accurate—maybe it’s what it says, how it transcends the fact that it’s a flower, even a plant. It speaks of all life, of creation, of connectedness, of time.

Blue-purple babianas growing in rock crevices tell of a collective life of a species delectable to baboons, surviving with corms tucked safely from the nimble monkeys” grasp. Peach-pink oxalis alongside romuleas the exact same color speak of two beings attracting the same pollinator. A satiny orange-red sparaxis, with brilliant black and white insect guides, has a day or two to show its piercingly perfect beauty to the sky in hopes to procreate. All that beauty, lasting for so short a time, yet ageless; for how many years has the same story played out in those meadows, hills, and mountains?

A look toward the horizon, where the orange-painted land meets the sky, and then down at one’s feet, into the orange face of one gazania. Perhaps we’ll grow that gazania. And propagate it. And others will then grow it too. Perhaps we’ll want to make an orange carpet across a garden we make in the future. We may do all that. But the best part is the realization that to know a gazania on the veld in Africa, or for that matter, a gentian in the Alps, or a bamboo in a forest in China, or the penstemon that popped up along the driveway, is to come home.

Worth growing

Hardy twinspur Diascia integerrima ‘Coral Canyon’

This seemingly demure South African perennial has proven dependable in much of the Interior West. A clonal selection made from seedlings of the hardy species, ‘Coral Canyon” has a dense, floriferous habit. Hundreds of spurred, warm pink flowers cover the wiry midsize mound from early summer past frost. Full sun and a bit of additional irrigation are best. ‘Coral Canyon” combines well with traditional border perennials such as ‘Mainacht” salvia or ‘lcicle” veronica, and with small grasses and dwarf conifers in a naturalistic planting style. Zones 4–9. Sources, page 92.

To do in the garden

  • Finish planting as soon as possible before the heat sets in.

  • Pull weeds now before they steal all the water and food, or worse, go to seed.

  • Put containers outside for summer vacation, add slow-release fertilizer, repot if necessary, clean up and check for pests.

  • Make notes where bulbs are needed; otherwise come fall you won’t remember where they are and aren’t

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