Human Flower Project
Alpine Valley Down by the Alley
Allen Bush explores alpine possibilities in the Ohio River Valley. What a view!
By Allen Bush
Eritrichium canum Hybrid ‘Baby Blues’
Photo: Allen Bush
It happened so fast. One day I’m “shovel ready” on cheap landscape jobs in Louisville, Kentucky, and the next, I’m falling in love with tight buns in London. (Trust me: You won’t find buns like these in the bakery!)
Ground hugging Dionysias and Saxifragas became a brief obsession over thirty years ago when I lived and gardened in England. I was introduced to a wide world of rock garden and alpine plants through the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, as well as from the glorious displays of nurserymen and enthusiasts at the Royal Horticultural Society Flower Shows at Vincent Square, 1978-1979.
There, to behold, was a level of horticultural expertise I could never have imagined. Names like the Ingwersens, Eliotts, Jack Drake, Kate Dryden and Tony Hall were glittering stars of my new galaxy. They delivered littler plants, plucked from cold frames and glass houses, and grown to perfection in shallow terra cotta bulb pans. They brought familiar woodland ephemerals like Trilliums and lady slippers, too, which I knew and loved. I was pleased the Ohio Valley and southern Appalachians - my neck of the woods - were so well represented.
But “alpines” were in a different class altogether – from the tall mountains. I had never seen tall mountains before nor set foot anywhere close to these cute buns—or cushion plants. My world expanded. I had a connection, now, to towering ranges. These “high” enthusiasts, who loved their munchkin plants, got around. There were tales of adventurous explorers prying small plant pieces from thin, rocky crevices or harvesting a few seeds. I was hooked.
Davies Alpine House
Photo: Richard Wilford
That same year, while I was an International Trainee at Kew, the new Alpine House was completed. (An even newer version, the Davies Alpine House, opened in 2006). They both featured alpines displayed in landscaped rock gardens. In the 1979 house, a refrigerated bench kept the sensitive plants from over heating and lights extended day-length to mimic summer in far northern latitudes. Alpine tundra plants were perfectly at home. After Kew, I was privileged to pot-up alpines for three months at the Ingwersen’s Birch Farm Nursery, located on the back of William Robinson’s Gravetye Estate in West Sussex. That year was the firm’s 50th anniversary, and Will Ingwersen published his Manual of Alpine Plants to commemorate the milestone.
Ingwersen invited me to his home one evening before I returned to the U.S., and showed slides of a fantasy garden project cut short. The extraordinary plantsman and pipe-smoking raconteur was asked in the mid-‘70s, by the Shah of Iran’s sister to come to Tehran and talk about building a rock garden.
They met on the plains outside Tehran near the town of Karaj. Ingwersen asked what she had in mind. The Shah’s sister said she wanted a 50-acre rock garden. The English nurseryman, whose modest nursery consisted of less than one acre, was floored. The enormity of such a project would exceed – by far – the total acreage of the world’s largest and best rock gardens at Wisley, Kew and Edinburgh in the United Kingdom, Nymphenburg in Munich or the Denver Botanic Gardens in Colorado. (Inwgersen’s father, Walter, built the rock garden at Wisley while he was under house arrest during the First World War—on the suspicion, because of Danish ancestry, that he might be sympathetic to the Germans.)
Will Ingwersen questioned the Shah’s sister to see if she had any idea what might be required. He mentioned rocks: she pointed to the Caucasus Mountains. He said they would need roads built to the mountains: she assured him it would be done. He said he needed huge road building trucks to haul the rocks: she asked, how many?
And it might have been done except for the Iranian revolution in 1979. The Shah’s family went into exile and garden making took a back seat to fundamentalist religion. Pray tell.
Achillea ex. Utah, two shades of yellow
Photo: Allen Bush
I learned a few revolutionary lessons on a much, much smaller scale over the next 30 years.
I returned home in late August 1979 with several hundred plants, all of them carefully inspected and cleared for entry into the United States. The phytosanitary certificate was the easy part. Acclimatizing high alpine plants to the sweltering heat and humidity of the Ohio Valley would prove impossible. Louisville’s South Park Hill 902’ (230 meters) is the tallest of our worn down Ohio Valley hill tops - well short of the Swiss Matterhorn 14,692’ (4,478 meters).
More than twenty years passed before I decided to pick-up where I’d left off. I put in a scree garden in Louisville in 2005, on an urban patch considerably smaller than Will Ingwersen’s doomed Iranian rock garden. And though most Saxifragas and all Dionysias were out of the question, there were still plenty of good options to explore.
Allen Bush’s scree garden, Louisville, Kentucky, May 2009
Photo: Allen Bush
There have been a few high elevation alpine successes like old man of the mountain Hymenoxys (Rydbergia) grandiflora and the squat mountain ball cactus Pedicocactus simpsonii var. simpsonii, and there are plenty of short species suitable for the scree, troughs or the front of the border. My starting point for my little “alpine valley on the alley” would be low-growing perennials, but this expanded quickly to include small bulbs – among them are species crocus and tulips in the late winter and spring and colchicums in the fall.
Leopoldia (Muscari) pamirica
March 27, 2011
Photo: Allen Bush
One bulb, from Kurt Bluemel, is a special favorite. It’s a lovely grape hyacinth, Leopoldia (Muscari) pamirica that he collected with Joseph Halda in the Pamir Mountains of central Asia. The little blue blooms open in March with the dwarf Narcissus ‘Little Beauty.’ Neither seems to mind a little snow. Nor do the dark pink blooms on Cyclamen coum ‘Silver Leaf ‘ which likes a little shade and can be mixed with the Canada columbines that live a few years and also gently re-seed. It’s the best columbine for the Ohio Valley.
My favorite is Aquilegia canadensis ‘Corbett.’ The pale yellow blooms open in early April and flower for three weeks. I’ve also grown the low growing red blooming ‘Little Lanterns’ 12” (30 cm) that’s a pinch shorter than ‘Corbett’ 10” (25 cm). Either will work with the bright yellow blooms of Aurinia (Alyssum) saxatilis ‘Compactum Goldkugel’ and the dwarf, white blooming candytuft Iberis sempervirens ‘Snowcushion.’ The Canada columbines, Aurinia and Iberis re-seed around unobtrusively.
Aquilegia canadensis ‘Corbett’
Photo: Allen Bush
You might overlook the small, dull white early April blooms on Antennaria plantagnifolia, but its gray mouse-eared foliage is the key feature. The leaves look like they could easily melt in Louisville’s heat and humidity, but the Eastern North American native pussy toes doesn’t skip a beat and makes a small tight groundcover. The virtues of silver-gray foliage don’t stop here. The diminutive lambs ear, Stachys byzantina ‘Silky Fleece’ has gray, fuzzy leaves one-third the size of the ordinary lambs ear. It has been stellar with Phlox subulata and Phlox bifida and needs only full sun and well, drained soils. The gritty soil mix of the sreee makes other species do-able that wouldn’t stand a chance a few feet away in my clay-loam soils. The scree mix contains 50% soil, 25% gravel and 25% grit. (My two initial, bare piles of stones, intersected by a grass walkway, was brilliantly described as looking like Putt-Putt at Machu Pichu – so said a friend who wouldn’t know a columbine from a colander.)
Aerial view of the Top Hill garden, Louisville, KY July 2009
Photo: Mike Hayman
Nearby in early May is the low-growing Tradescantia tharpii and the lovely Oxalis violacea, both of which I saw for the first time in Kansas on a botanizing trip in 1997 with my Jelitto colleague Georg Uebelhart and Larry Vickerman. Larry was Director of the Dyck Arboretum in Hesston, Kansas, and is now Director of the Denver Botanic Gardens at Chatfield, Colorado. A year or two later I discovered the Oxalis growing in the shade of a beech tree in nearby Cherokee Park – two miles from my Louisville home. Not quite the rarity I first thought, but it’s tough as nails and drought resistant (think dry Kansas prairie and beech tree root zone). There’s a cute Kentucky native bluet Hedyotis (Houstonia) pusilla that grows adjacent to the Oxalis in my scree and doesn’t seem as fussy as the common bluet Hedyotis (Houstonia) crassifolia. You could match this with the low-growing, white flowering Penstemon hirsutus var. pygmaeus forma alba or the delicate pink blooms on the Lebanon stonecrop Aethionema coridifolium.
Penstemon hirsutus var. pygmaeus forma alba
May 10, 2011
Photo: Allen Bush
You’ve got lots of yellow flowering possibilities as the temperatures heat-up later in May. I’ve grown the reliable evergreen Penstemon pinifolius ‘Mersea Yellow’ for six years and it doesn’t skip a beat. It grows only 10” (25 cm) tall and if we didn’t get occasional summer downpours, it might grow even shorter. The lighter yellow blooms on Hypericum olympicum ‘Citrinum, a Royal Horticultural Society Award of Garden Merit (A.G.M.), grow to the same height as ‘Mersea Yellow’; it flowers until early June. But the workhorse of the little yellow bloomers is Calyophus serrulatus that flowers every day for five months. (I’d swear on a stack of bibles that this is true.) I’d long presumed this was a species native to only the North American Great Plains states, but there’s an outlier population in the far western part of Kentucky and a rare disjunct population in Vermont.
Plantsman Roy Davidson whose name is commemorated on Pulmonaria longifolia ‘Roy Davidson’ discovered the tough ground-hugging yarrow that, unfortunately, never got a proper cultivar name. It moves around gardens and the nursery trade as Achillea ex. Utah. The blooms open-up a bright yellow and fade to pale yellow. The combination of the two yellow tones is lovely. And the tidy Clematis fremontii isn’t a species for pillar or post. It only needs a couple of square feet to sprawl around. I discovered that the blue-flowering Gentiana cruciata ‘Blue Cross’ likes our alkaline soils (7.2 pH). The little clumps are growing steadily. The surprising blue-flowering annual Eritrichium canum Hybrid ‘Baby Blues’ not only flowered on schedule in late May but soldiered through 100 F (38 C ) temperatures in late August. I was surprised it grew it all and never expected it to thrive.
Eryngium leavenworthii Sept. 4, 2011
Photo: Allen Bush
It’s late September and there’s no sign that the Eritrichium ‘Baby Blues’ is giving-up. It’s hard to imagine that ‘Baby Blues’ could be overshadowed by anything, but blue-purple blooms of Eryngium leavenworthii are stealing its thunder. (And, in the midst of its floral run we had a storm that dumped 4” (10cm) of rain overnight with thunderclaps that rocked the house. What happened to gentle soaking rains?) I do pinch the self-seeding Eryngium leavenworthii stems two or three times from early to mid-summer to keep them from getting too leggy, but it’s a simple chore. It’s also an acknowledgement that Louisville is not as dry in summer as the Flint Hills of Kansas – home of the annual Eryngium—where it grows shorter than it will in my garden.
There are two exceptional long flowering Verbena canadensis cultivars to keep the Eryngium company. These I purchased from Kelly Grummons at Timberline Nursery in Arvada, Colorado (worth visiting anytime you’re close to Denver). The white blooming ‘Summer Snowflake’ and the pink-purple ‘Annie’ start flowering in May and rival Caryophyllus serrulatus 10” (25 cm) for extended flowering season. This will take me through to hard frost.