Human Flower Project
Glimmer Twins of the Western Slope
Talk about a dream hike in the Rockies…two expert mountain plantsmen meet at last, and lead the way to Pike’s Peak.
A “bun” of Phlox condensata
growing at Colorado’s Cumberland Pass
Photo: Allen Bush
By Allen Bush
Eighty-two % of Colorado’s population lives on the Front Range megalopolis—north and south of Denver—but, if you’ve got a shred of interest in alpine flowers, curiosity will lead you west across the Continental Divide to hidden treasures on the Western Slope. Two gifted gardeners first met here over the July 4th weekend: one a Western Sloper by birth, the other a Western Sloper by the grace of god. (Pardon the variation on the Southern USA car bumper sticker.)
Panayoti Kelaidis is the pride of Oak Creek. Kirk Alexander is the best-kept secret in Carbondale. Lucky is anyone who has the good fortune to travel for a few days with them, the very best talent the Colorado Rockies have to offer.
Their meeting place, with an arresting view of snow capped Mount Sopris, was the spectacular hand-built home and garden that Kirk Alexander shares with his wife, Sue. They live in the hills above the Roaring Fork River, a tributary of the Colorado near Carbondale.
Kirk and Sue Alexander’s rock garden in Carbondale, Colorado
Photo: Panayoti Kelaidis
A sixty-four year old landscape architect (licensed for 29 years in North Carolina), garden designer and sculptor, Alexander can’t move mountains but has re-built hefty portions of them for clients in North Carolina, Maryland and Colorado.
With a 35-ton crane, boulders have been set in place around his home; you’d think the glacier crept to halt at the front door.
Rock gardens aren’t exactly what you’d expect of a flatlander from Southern California. And gardens, of any sort, weren’t part of the wide world outdoors for young Alexander, son of a homemaker and a policeman who moonlighted tending bar. Alexander’s precious free time during high school in Monrovia, California, apart from balancing part-time work, cars and girls, was spent surfing, not mountaineering. Nothing got handed to him and little stands in his way. Artistic notions blossom endlessly from an imagination fostered outdoors. Metal sculpture has, since 2007, become a huge obsession. Well, not as big as his mega boulders, but just as creative and much easier to transport weekly to the Aspen Saturday Market.
Flying helicopters during two tours in Viet Nam fascinated the young chief warrant officer. There was lots of time to stare below at endless hues of green in the forest canopy. There were frightening interruptions, too. Alexander explained: “Most of the time flying in the A Shau Valley that borders Laos was routine but punctuated with moments of terror…The job outweighed these moments and was just part of it.”
Landscape architect and sculptor Kirk Alexander at Pike’s Peak, July 2011
Photo: Allen Bush
The G.I. Bill, following military service, covered expenses that led to a less dangerous professional career in landscape architecture. Building gardens was the goal but required more know-how than schooling could provide. Alexander has constantly tried to understand the natural systems that inspire his gardens. Hovering in nature, including the A Shau Valley, shaped his adventurous personality and career.
I first met Kirk when he drove into my nursery in Fletcher, NC in 1982 in a Chevrolet El Camino. He possessed little more than this fine, used pick-up and some hand tools and looked like any other jackleg landscaper, scuffling around for a cheap gig. But there was more than met the eye. Kirk asked hard questions about the native provenance of my perennials and their cultural requirements. I took a shine to him right away. We’ve been friends since.
Kelaidis, a 61 year old, self-taught gardener, is Senior Curator and Director of Outreach at the Denver Botanic Gardens. Coal miners, finishing-up the shift in Oak Creek in the early 1950s, might have guessed the young son of the town barber, who doubled as a pool room operator, would one day become a crafty poker player—like his daddy. Against long odds, Kelaidis, became a legendary plantsman. (We met at the 50th anniversary gathering of the North American Rock Garden Society in Asheville, North Carolina, 1984. We were both in our early 30s then and Panayoti was already a Herculean figure in American horticulture. In the last few years, we’ve become good friends.)
Panayoti Kelaidis in a Kazakstan meadow surrounded “ by one of the rarest plants in Central Asia, an herbaceous Daphne relative Stelleropsis altaica,” writes colleague and traveling companion Mike Bone.
Photo: Mike Bone
Kelaidis’ father won $5,000 in a poker game in Colorado Springs in 1930. Returning to Crete with a wad of cash, he found a beautiful wife, and they traveled across Europe before stops in New York, Chicago and Denver. His wife loved these big cities. She asked her new husband, “Are these great cities like Oak Creek? “Not quite,” he answered at each stop. His day of reckoning was coming soon.
By the time they got to Oak Creek, the handsome winnings from the card game were gone. The newlyweds squeezed into an apartment with relatives until they could get on their feet again. The couple was smart, resilient and fun loving. Panayoti’s mother enjoyed inviting the Greek miners home for dinner. There, in Oak Creek, they started their family and kept things going until the coalmines closed in 1952.
The family moved to Boulder when Panayoti, the youngest child, was three. But Kelaidis’ father’s heart never left Oak Creek. He returned to nearby mountain streams to catch trout whenever he could. Panayoti’s mom would say, “Take the kid!” Dad would go off to catch trout; the boy would wander off to see what was in flower.
This love of all things floral would lead, eventually, to the Denver Botanic Gardens in 1980 where he now presides in a distinguished position as community ringleader – spreading the magic of gardening. The contagion is rampant. Spend a few minutes with any of his colleagues—Brian Vogt, Sarada Krishnan, Mike Bone, Mike Kintjen, Dan Johnson or Ann Montague —and one thing becomes clear. They love what they’re doing. The gardens look terrific and the public is coming through the turnstiles in droves. The Denver Botanic Gardens has got it going.
Kirk Alexander and Panayoti Kelaidis, here at Cumberland Pass, are heaven-sent guides along Colorado’s Western Slope
Photo: Allen Bush
Alexander and Kelaidis began exploring streamsides in childhood. (Alexander fished for trout in the canyons of the San Gabriel Mountains above Los Angeles.) Both were blessed with extra-sensory gifts for observation. Alexander has a peerless knack for shape and color, and builds gardens from scratch – a surprisingly rare feat for landscape architects, who now do more land planning than gardening. Kelaidis has an encyclopedic recall and a plant explorer’s talent to spot – for instance - a mariposa lily, partially hidden behind a sagebrush while driving down a dusty gravel road.
Both have formal educations that seem almost secondary to the flourish of serendipity and talent. Kelaidis dropped-out of graduate school at Cornell. He grew weary of academic studies in ancient Chinese language and literature but never lost interest in Byzantine history or the Classics. He loves poetry, too. (I took him a copy of Stanley Kunitz’s The Wild Braid but he’d read it already.) Frankly, there’s little that doesn’t interest him. He has skimmed pools, failed miserably at restaurant work, been a computer systems analyst and taught English as a second language. But the whole time, he imagined walking mountainsides or puttering around in a garden. Gardening was always within reach.
Kelaidis and Alexander come upon a 1000+year old Bristle Cone Pine (Pinus aristata) on Pikes Peak. A bristle cone pine in the White Mountains of eastern California, nearly 5,000 years old, is thought to be the oldest living plant.
Photo: Allen Bush
Alexander received his Masters in Landscape Architecture from North Carolina State University but always preferred the mud to the drudge of a drafting table. Neither Alexander nor Kelaidis hides his shortcomings, nor do they toot their horns. Both are humble Western Slopers. Their successes seem unavoidable now. And their work ethic leaves admirers groping for a few extra hours in a day to keep-up.
The purpose for the Colorado trip was a 5-day get together of the Ratzeputz Gang – an odd-lot assortment of headstrong nurserymen, seedsmen, an academic and Alexander. (Ratzeputz, a ginger-based schnapps, was a late night component on the first 1987 trip to Germany—thus the name). Kelaidis, our most distinguished guest, and Alexander lead the Rockies tour. Kurt Bluemel, Pierre Bennerup, Georg Uebelhart, Steve Still and I were ready to wander the mountains again.
Eritrichium aretoides, known as the alpine forget-me-not, at Pike’s Peak, July 6, 2011
Photo: Allen Bush
The common thread among the Ratzeputzers is a love for gardens, for the wild and for fine steaks. (We have our occasional differences, but these three points are unassailable.) Every few years since 1987, the gang has traveled to Germany, Holland, Denmark Sweden, Czech Republic, Estonia, Russia or Argentina. But trips don’t have to be so far flung. Woodland pilgrimages to the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee and North Carolina are convenient and hillsides of white flowering Trillium grandiflorum and birch groves with carpets of green sedges (Carex pennyslvanica) humble us.
We took directions from the Western Slopers on our Colorado wildflower tour. Kirk knows his way around the mountains – mountains, anywhere. He wasted no time learning the best places to cast a fly rod for rainbow, brown and the occasional cutthroat trout when he moved to the Western Slope in 2006 from Asheville, NC - in the heart of Blue Ridge Mountains. Back roads provide a wonderful access for fly-fishing and an overview of the flora. Kirk led us on the first portion of the trip.
The Ratzeputz gang (l-r): Steve Still , Kurt Bluemel, Kelaidis, Alexander, and Pierre Bennerup (Georg Uebelhart and Allen Bush not shown) at Pike’s Peak, July 6, 2011
Photo: Allen Bush
Inviting Panayoti along meant we wouldn’t have to fumble around trying to i.d. wildflowers we’d never seen before. Our ace in the hole, he’d hiked a few mountain ranges in his career. Notched on his belt are exploration trips to the Andes, Altai and Drakensberg, to name a few. Chances were good he’d laid eyes on most of the wildflowers we’d see in Colorado. When we got beyond Crested Butte, and over the Cumberland Pass, he could steer us toward tufa outcrops near South Park. And when we got to Pikes Peak, he’d know the best stops on the way up the windy road to the 14,000’ (4267 m) summit.
near Gothic, Colorado
Photo: Allen Bush
Kirk had done trip-reconnaissance the week before our arrival—any excuse for a motorcycle ride. He’d ridden his 1100 Moto Guzzi Quota (one of only one hundred shipped to the U.S. from Italy) up to the Flat Tops and across Kebler Pass to Crested Butte and up the valley to Gothic. He emailed the gang six days before we met at his place in Carbondale for drinks and steaks: “The hot spot for flowers was about 9,000’ (2743 m) but it has been hot and dry ever since with no weather in the 7 day forecast so I expect to see the plants around the 10,000’ (3048 m) level… We’ll see. The dirt roads in the higher areas are sometimes closed due to snowdrifts so we can only explore up to a point. The meadows above 10,000’ (3048 m) were green but not yet in flower.”
We drove toward the Flat Tops on July 3rd. Two four wheel drive cars were packed with water (lots of it for hydration in the thin, dry air), beer, wine, lunch stuff and beef jerky. Although it was holiday weekend, there wasn’t a lot of traffic. Regular stops for wildflowers were easier and not so dusty. Once off the beaten path, the wildflowers come fast and furious. At the lower elevations around 7,500’ (2286 m), there were fields of brightly colored, yellow-flowering mules-ear Wyethia amplexicaule. As we climbed the windy road, Panayoti pointed-out the beautiful violet colored blooms of Penstemon watsonii. At nearly 9,500’ (2896 m) there was a smallish round cactus, Pediocactus simpsonii var. minor —only a few inches tall—with cushions of white flowering Phlox multiflora var. caespitosus nearby. In the shade of an aspen on the curve just ahead was a tall white flowering spike of Swertia radiata keeping company with a few Colorado columbines.
George Uebelhart photographs Hymenoxys grandiflora, known as “old man of the mountains,” as Kirk Alexander keeps an eye out for stray off road vehicles
Photo: Allen Bush
And so it went for the next three thrilling days. The valley road, leading to Gothic had exploded with lupines and Delphiniums since Kirk’s reconnaissance the week before. The 12,000’ (3658 m) top of Cumberland Pass had panoramic views of the surrounding mountaintops and close-up looks at Erysimum amoenum, Eritrichium aretoides, Phlox condensata and Physaria alpina. Young folks riding noisy ATVs nearby couldn’t have imagined how exciting it was for us to see alpine buns like these. My grizzled posse, crawling around quietly on all fours that week, must have struck an odd pose from the Flat Tops to Pikes Peak.
Hanging with Kirk, Panayoti and my Ratezeputz buddies magnifies the joy of flowers and friends. Sign me up anytime. I’ll be on board and buckled-up when the Western Slopers ride again.