Monday, September 9, 2019

In Memory of Zhirair Basmajyan

The Western friends of Zhirair Basmajyan, recently learned of his death on 17 August 17, 2019. I'll be honest and admit we are all curious what happened. Armenian news reported that Zhirair was at his weekend house (a small cottage like place where he had more space to garden, about 25 km from his home in Vanadzor) when he was visited by a 20-year old kid from a nearby village. The two got into a fight, leaving Zhirair stabbed to death. The kid burned down the house in an apparent effort to hide the evidence. Zhirair was 45.

His nearby family that survives him are his wife, 10 year old son, mother, stepdad, and extended family of aunts, uncles, and cousins.  I am grateful that they are there for one another and to support his wife Alla and son Alen.

I met Zhirair through email, our correspondence starting about 12 years ago. We traded plant material and became close friends. I stayed with him a few weeks one spring in Armenia, which was very patient of him and family. We stayed in contact over skype or the phone. For a while, we kept up a tradition over skype that we had started in person: chats over greek coffee and chocolate. We hadn't talked much in the last year, and I kept thinking I needed to go see him again and I deeply regret not doing so.

Knowing Zhiro encouraged me to be a fearless traveler. He showed me a universal culture of generosity to host and know travelers. He was tolerant of people and their shortcomings in a way that is rare in even the old and wise. Yet he was a worldly man, quite aware of the darkest possibilities in humanity.  His autodidactic qualities and attitude made the education of the average privileged American look absolutely spoiled, weak, lazy and frail in comparison. He sparked for me an understanding of the complexity and nuance of nationalities and humanity, to shun oversimplification of history and prejudice.

Zhirair was a massive genius. I often felt it juxtaposed against his ostensibly simple life in a medium-sized village in Northern Armenia, but he was not trapped: his life was very much a manifestation of his decision to live life to the highest quality of one’s preferences: he savored his plant collections, which were spread out throughout several family member’s homes and their humble summer cottage in Pushkino. He knew everyone in his community and had broad connections to people close and afar, quietly listening after striking up conversation with someone new he met. His home satisfied his need for immediate community, and his late night internet time connected him to the world- to many of us, he was an internationally famous flower bulb expert- if unknown  because of this humility.

He committed to a group of plants for years, rather than swinging through genera like most of us. He cultivated specific, sophisticated tastes for Tulips, Lilies, Roses, Fritillaria, Crocus, and others. He would gather a breadth of knowledge of that group of plants to its maximum.  He held a collection of plants, and especially tulips, that included otherwise extinct heirloom varieties, being dedicated to their preservation.

He cherished the Russian he was taught in school, having been raised in soviet times, for he knew that another language widens one’s access to the world. With his massive brain, he taught himself english, his initial reason being that he wanted to understand for himself the lyrics of Madonna. His english was incredibly good in person, having worked on the nuances of pronunciation and depth of vocabulary.  

He was a little vain; enjoying fashionable but casual clothing. The Armenian culture strong in him, he subscribed to taking care of himself cosmetically, resisting the signs of age. Armenians are big on fashion and beauty; pot-holes in the streets don’t keep all the women from wearing the most recent fashion’s high heels, and they navigate them amazingly. He once had me send him hair restoration products that were not available to order into Armenia, and once, some shoes that were designed to make the wearer appear taller. He wasn’t ashamed- he owned this part of himself, articulated it quite illuminatingly, and I loved that. He said that owning lots of clothing meant he didn’t have to do laundry as often. 

The weekend/country house

In his honor, I want to share and stress what we, his plant friends, can learn from him.

This one is huge: he discovered how to rid a tulip of the breaking virus. This is probably still considered impossible by many experts. It’s like an AIDS cure for tulips. This is how I understand it:  When the plant is in active growth, and it has a lot of leaf/flower, the bulb is small: the virus is often mostly pushed up into the vegetative top of the plant, and the bulb, while at its minimum size, can actually be clean.  The top parts are carefully cut off and the tiny, emaciated but clean bulb is taken to grow on to bulk back up to size over the period of several growth seasons to recover its size. This method makes it possible to recover rare varieties whose remaining cultivated stock are diseased. I don't think someone could have figured this out without the sort of intense observation Zhiro had.

Two major themes of Zhiro’s garden prowess: 

1. Tireless persistence. 
In cutting tulips to enjoy as cut flowers, he used a brand new razor blade for every cut, eliminating the possibility of spreading virus. He even sustained some nerve damage once by finishing digging his tulip bulbs on his last possible weekend to do so when the weather got to be truly nasty and cold.  
He sought contact with hobbyists the world over- that is how we met. If it took patiently waiting for a person to come through with their agreement to help him get something done, he did: be it a postal worker helping him with plant import permits or a neighbor who traded him vines. He also always followed through with his promises, generously sharing incredibly rare plant material. He would remember the desires of bulb friends abroad so as to fulfill their requests when the opportunity arose, even if it was years later. He tried new ways of growing things are carefully observed the outcome.

It took a massive amount of work, every year, to dig his bulbs.  Many of them required a dryer dormancy than the place where they grew best. He knew which beds were most apt to be visited by virus-carrying bees and constructed screen-houses to protect them. He had to re-weed his beds each year, because he didn’t weed them during the vegetative phase, as bruising and brushing was apt to spread disease.  New beds he cleaned by hand, sifting the soil and removing every visible root. His bulb collection was spread across several family member's homes, including a garage roof and the weekend house.

2.Care for Detail. 
He visited his tulip bed every day, cigarette in hand, observing every plant, looking for disease. He noted the size of bulbs between seasons to gauge how much they increased in that period. If there was so much as a bit of pollen that was a different color, he would notice. His attention was fierce.  

These superpowers of his were only matched by the same in his character as a person.

Some favorite quotes from him, often from late night conversations over coffee or long walks:

“I don’t mind crazy people. I love my crazy friends.”

“You shouldn’t fight your complexes. You should make friends with them.”

“Live lightly.”

 Ժիրայր Բասմաջյան

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Palms, Bananas, and wacky Tress in Grand Junction, Colorado.

I've been compiling pictures for over a decade for this post.  
So it's a long, and incomplete tour of odd plants but mostly trees of my home city.
I dedicate this one to my friend Sonia, who is the finest example of tireless in her advocacy for trees.

What's the weirdest thing that can grow outdoors in Grand Junction, Colorado, in the surrounding valley?  We can guess, or we can have a look.

How about a Giant Sequoia.
Sequoiadendron giganteum. 

This little dude has a fatty trunk, just like his grandparents, and is in a cul-de-sac near St. Mary's hospital.  A few of the blue form have been planted around but none have attained any maturity.

There is a Joshua tree in the Redlands. Yucca brevifolia. (some may include this in var. caespitosa from the copious rhizomes.) There have been joshuatrees in the CSU extension office garden, and there was, inexplicably, a giant Y-shaped one in an orchard south of Palisade; I haven't checked up on it in at least five years.

A green leaf form of the Smoke bush, Cotinus coggygria, has gotten to tree proportions on Pabor Ave. in Fruita.  Since moving to Fruita, I've noticed a handful of landscape species do better here and are more seen on average than in Grand Junction, just 15 miles east.  It includes the dinner-plate Hibiscus and Smoke bush. Maybe it's that our soil is not necessarily clay, but can be silt.  

An English oak, Quercus robur I think, in what we called "Rocket Park" as a kid whose acorns are long like shiny tan sausages. Orchard Avenue. I've got a 20' tall seedling from this beaut in my parent's back yard, having planted the seed in my carrot patch when I was a kid. It's fruit are more classic acorn shape.

Pistachio trees (Pistacia vera) are dioecious- so they are either boys or girls. 
 There is one on 29 rd north of Patterson; her little husband tree died some years ago, so this widow produces a crop of empty fruit.  There exist at least half a dozen in town, and sadly, all of them seem to be too alone to make fruit. I planted one at the botanic when I worked there, an Uzbek form, and I'm not sure if it's male or female.  Will someone be a matchmaker and plant friends for them?
 So many lonely pistachios.

One of several figs in town; this one is in Clifton next to a building that is usually a Church.  During such a spell, my parents got married in it. The fig is the shape and size of a lilac.
I've killed a lot of "hardy" figs to tell you that 'Chicago Hardy' is the one that will die to the ground the least, and actually produce and ripen fruit in late summer.

A positively treelike specimen of the native desert holly: Mahonia (Berberis) fremontii.  Someone bravely prunes it often. Either that or it will attack them with its spined leaves, I guess. South of Orchard Ave on 18th st.

There is a whole stand of Western Soapberries in old downtown Clifton, near the railroad tracks. When I was a kid it was unirrigated.  Sapindus (saponaria var.) drumondii. They've grown up from the single tree that I first spotted from a bike when I was a single-digit age. As kids, we were mesmerized by the lose black balls that you can see and hear roll around free in the translucent fruit. The hard, gummy shell was interesting to pick apart, but none of us thought to put it in our mouth, or we'd have discovered an incredibly powerful soap. Friends of mine know that my obsession with this species is unending, as I'm 33 and still sowing seeds which will take at least 7 years to grow into a decent plantable tree. I want at least a hundred planted before I die.

Every couple of years, I stop by, say hello and leave a stack of chocolate for the folks on whose property these grow, and collect a few hundred seeds for another small crop of saplings. I'm still crap at producing them as containerized trees, and have killed most of them over the years learning, but it's a small flow I'll keep up as long as I can, because it is a nearly pest-less native tree which can grow even here without irrigation, with 9' of annual precipitation (2200mm).  Through a fun story which begs another post another day, a friend found a massive, gorgeous, and quirky 50' (15m) soapberry in Denver, which has been through some rough historical weather, proving its worth against cold, for which the species generally isn't credited.

Trachycarpus wagnerianus.
Lee Lindauer planted palms 20 or 30 years ago now. A 15' tall Trachycarpus fortunei grew in his building's courtyard years ago but I believe it has expired. There still may be a Chamerops humilis in there.  This is on the corner of 8th and Rood in downtown.
He also planted Sabal scrub palm (left) and a Magnolia grandiflora or virginiana. I forget which this is. There is a very fine Magnolia "Bracken's Brown Beauty" that he's probably also responsible for at the botanic gardens.  Add into your prayers they don't kill it down there doing something truly stupid. 
There is a track record: Once, four or 5 Texas live oaks (Quercus (virginiana var.) fusiformis) lined the parking lot. (I know those were also Lee's idea.) They did great.  One was an incredible weeping form. 

Two produce tiger-striped acorns. 

Super special.   In truly nasty winters, the trees will defoliate instead of keeping their deep olive leaves on the  silver-grey branches.  One winter years ago, just the weeper dropped its leaves.  Some moron who was probably paid to think he knew a dead tree from a living one, cut it down.  It resprouted from the base, but I think that was removed later.  I've heard exact replicas of this story, true or not, about Larch (Larix) trees elsewhere being chopped down because someone with a chainsaw didn't know they were supposed to drop their needles. 

A teen, jazzed with Mr. Lindaur's palms, and when the internet marketplace was a new idea, I ordered seed and plants from afar.  So my poor parents have a dozen, perhaps, various palm trees, including Sabal minor, Trachycarpus fortunei (the fastest grower, some even came up from seed I gave up on and thew out in the yard!) and a Rhapidophyllum hystrix (haven't been able to source the needle palm in recent years). This is a T. wagnerianaus, which is slow and steady but the leaves are less apt to burn. The secret and the key to growing them is protection from the sun in winter. I throw a burlap bag over this one. A leaf cage if it's lucky.  Perhaps one would do well tucked against the north side of a house.  I'll have to try that. They like rich soil and water, too. Mine all get weekly waterings.  
Yep. Palms in Colorado. The Grand Valley is a USDA zone 7, mostly. Palisade seems warmer and more protected. They can be weeks later for the killing frost.

I worked out how to grow Bananas, too- the Japanese fiber banana, as a kid. Musa basjoo.  When I went to college anything fancy like that in the garden died, but a garden client asked how to grow bananas here in Colorado. We planted her one and I gave her a long list of things she must do to make it work. A year or two later, she calls me, and asks if I want a start from hers. "Sure." I go over and she's grown a behemoth clump of the bastards in her back yard near the Horizon drive Safeway. The Ramada next to it in the picture is tall; note the sitting stool- and the stems of the plant are 5' (1.5m) tall.
 Holy crap.  Nice work. 
Musa basjoo, a banana in Colorado.

Periploca graeca, the "Silkvine" is in the dogbane family with Amsonia/Bluestars. It's semi-evergreen and eating a fence on Elm Ave and 28 1/4 Rd. I stopped on my bike (note the gloves) to find the flowers one summer, because I was baffled by the near evergreen leaves. I never worked it out, but Jim Borland did by email.

 28 1/4 rd? Yes, the area has a pseudo-mormon system of streets, using fractions between main letters and numbers. I was raised on a street with the romantic name "D and three-quarters." Is that a lady and a few horses?  

The valley and surrounding areas boasts a lot of Silk trees, or "Mimosa"- Albizia julibrissin. They are reliable enough here that Nurseries sell them. I don't think its a matter of mild winters as much of long hot summer giving them good fast growth and hardening time. 

I remember a friendly lady giving me some seedlings of her silk tree when I was a kid that came from her tree, which she had carried in the back of her little car when she moved decades ago from Tennessee or somewhere. She also grew long-stem roses by striking cuttings from the cutflowers- a helluva homegrown skill. She said the silktree leaves were closed when it was stuffed in her car. There are a few big ones around, and I took seed from one which has persisted, unirrigated mind you,  from an erstwhile trailer park (-at the "Old Spanish Trail" trailhead on Orchard Mesa). Now there are concrete pads hidden under dust and cheatgrass, interspersed with small dead trees which used to shade the trailer homes- and a few remarkable trees still living.  I want those genetics to shade my home.  

I was told this Cupressus arizonica, next to Walnut dorms, (maybe they have bene renamed) at CMU, was the champion. I am not sure of that. Allan Taylor tells me that he once gave a bunch of Arizona cypress to the fellow in charge of landscaping back when it was Mesa State College, which is why campus was once cluttered with this excellent tree. I wonder how many are still there.  When was in school there, I watch all kinds of Saucer magnolias and Sweet gums, rare here, disappear for construction.

A very fine Bristlecone (Pinus aristata) has graced about 4th street and Orchard for years.

Our mostly hackneyed botanic (with one or two excellent, volunteer-run exhibits) has one of the two large turkish cedars (Cedrus libani v. stenocoma)  in the valley- another is on the north side of Unaweep Avenue on Orchard Mesa, I think.  Speaking of the botanic- there are a handful of fantastic of Chilopsis linearis- desert willow- planted circa 2000. They are pure burgundy or pure pink, and seedlings grow in nearby parking lot cracks until they are sprayed.  

Someone told me that the glorious bicolor-bloomed Chilopsis in front of the First Congregational Church on 5th and Kennedy was a champion tree.  That same church, with a lovely garden and obvious plantswomen in the congregation, has the most mature desert live oak (Quercus turbinella) I know of in the valley.  Both it and Chilopsis have absolutely no problem with winter hardiness.

If you ride a bike you are more apt to notice these things. I find. Like this Empress tree, ironically at the corner of Elm Ave and Elm Dr. Paulownia tomentosa. I'm responsible for the poorly placed ones at the local botanic.  If you've never treated yourself to it, take a close look at their falling flowers- but as I recall they are actually white but covered in purple fur. Seeing that on the sidewalk is how I found the first one.

I don't know if this one in Palisade is still there, but I just realized a few weeks ago that the Catalpa across the alley from me in Fruita is... actually a Paulownia, too.

We've got some notable Elms, which I've not taken pictures of. One has a massive trunk burl, and another one, west of 7th street on the south side of Grande Ave, has a buttressed trunk.

There is a large Pond Cypress (Taxodium) Northeast of Patterson and 1st street.  It has burnt umber autumn foliage.

A grove of true bamboo, probably Phyllostachys aureosulcata, is 15'  (5m) tall or so tucked behind a farm house in Palisade. Locals often think their Arundo donax grass is "bamboo."   But bamboo is evergreen. Arundo donax is a noxious weed nowadays.

Some bamboo escapes its back yard on Rodelle Drive, seen from S Redlands Road.  I had a patch at my folk's place for a decade; I had to dig out by hand because glyphosate remarkably didn't work the year prior. It took me a whole weekend. The mass, cut down, filled the pickup bead two or three times.  Luckily, the rhizomes are shallow in our clay soils- no more than 10" (25 cm) deep.

Sometimes I check on these guys in the middle of the Colorado national Monument.  The Apple and Peach trees, growing at the base of a rimrock monolith, receive only the rain that accumulates off of it to deeply percolate into the sandy soil.  They surely grew from seeds literally spat from the windows of passing cars.  There is a plum in a canyon, too, near a popular hiking trail, and I wonder if a person or a bird is responsible for that.  

I know this Arizona cypress isn't at the college library anymore because it isn't a college anymore, it's Colorado Mesa University, and the google satellite pictures show a construction zone where the tree once stood, southeast of the library.  We don't transplant big trees in the Western US. Honestly, I don't think we care.  As a default, we sacrifice history, sensibility, civic care, posterity, and more in our residual manifest destiny mindset of ceaseless growth, growth, expansion, "improvement" and progress. This feeling was amplified for me when I returned from Germany this month. I realized how we generally, in the states, have little honor for history or even our old people, and certainly rarely build anything to last, and don't respect trades that maintain things. I love America, and it's my choice of country to live for many reasons, but I'd love us to grow up a little: we'll sacrifice anything for the fleeting moment's bottom line

 What was the state's champion (largest recorded) Chinese pistache, Pistacia chinensis to the left (in winter) of yet another bygone cypress. Maybe 2007.  It, too, fell to the bulldozer.  Just once, I took branches from this male pistache, and took it to an even bigger female tree in Palisade,  and we pollinated her, yielding just that year a bunch of turquoise and red fruits, all over one side of the tree- as the pollen moves like dust in the wind!  I wish I'd done a better job sharing seeds of that funny matchmaking, now that she's a widow tree, too.

He had not too interesting bark. But Pistacia chinensis is widely grown as a small street tree in Texas and further because of its deep red autumn color, drought tolerance, and heat tolerance.

When I talked to the lady who lives at the house with this Ginkgo on Hillcrest Ave, she said it does't have fall color.  It drops all of its leaves green, in one day. She says it sounds like a waterfall when it happens. There is another ginkgo less than half a mile away, also planted in the 40s to 60s time period.  The Hill that St. Mary's hospital is on seems to grow trees really well. It may be one of the older neighbourhoods in town, affluent for longer, so that irrigation water has been uninterrupted for the better part of a century.  

Another one North of Patterson and 26 3/4. The lady who planted it, now deceased, was a sweetheart and a lover of the orient. Mrs. Bishop planted for the future.

If the water were turned off in town most of these trees would die. Maybe we should start planting for the apocalypse and invest in trees that would endure, and continue to cast shade, cool our homes, and make habitat- in the very real future possibility of no municipal water used in landscapes.  Hm. It's an idea.  Sounds like a life work for some dumb young person.

Mugshot: Centaurea deflexa

Centaurea deflexa is a new species in cultivation form Southern Turkey.  It has begun to spread a little underground in my garden. The strappy semi-wooly leaves lay tightly on the ground, while the flower heads are held on funny, bent, S-shaped stems that hang off the side of the plant like the arm of a chandelier.

Monday, July 29, 2019

High and Low Watermarks for hardy Yuccas

In one day last week, I had the unusual pleasure of experiencing what is among the tallest (hardy) Yuccas, and also the smallest.

While Yucca faxoniana (above, one of my four favourite species, zone 5), rostrata, and thomsoniana, may all be capable of growing taller trunks, they are not as hardy and certainly don't boast the bloom stalk size of Yucca elata.  My timing was accidentally perfect to see it in bloom at my friend John Stireman's outside of Salt Lake City.

He measured the top of the stalk at 23 feet (exactly 7 m) with image software.  It has bloomed before but never quite so high.  I stalk this plant frequently and have never known one with such long, stiff, inflorescences.

Yucca elata (the "Soaptree") is from the Arizona and New Mexico vicinity, accustomed to mercurial and extreme southern plains weather.  It has a reputation for HATING transplanting when large, usually dying or at least dying to the ground and losing any trunk it has grown. Many guess that it has deep roots which do not branch out from where they are cut off.  In pots in the nursery, I find it a bit slow compared to most species. Don't let that stop you from planting it for posterity- these are mild challenges.  Just don't miss an opportunity to buy it or sow it when you can, leave it the hell alone in your garden,  and make an investment for the future.

Then I took off to South-Central Utah.

Here is where I write about something I had been long worried about and decided not to write about.

I try not to get political. But I spent some long nights researching, measuring dried flower bits, reading, and mapping this "Yucca nana" critter. The species is not a botanically accepted name, but it is widely used in horticulture.  After all that research, I must totally agree with science. My opinion as a not-real-botanist is that it is a horticulturally and aesthetically fun form, but according to the rules of botany and science, does not warrant new species status. Its dimensions fall within harrimaniae, and there are several non-isolated populations, most of whose edges intergrade into larger forms of Yucca harrimaniae- some of whom have 2-3' (up to 1m) leaves.  Not a clean distinction.  Don't get me wrong- I love it to death and I wish it could be named so. Maybe we ought to call it Yucca harrimaniae f. nana.  It still causes heartthrob in the chests of even the most jaded Western-American plantsmen, and is the cutest thing that can poke an eye out.

There, I wrote it.  Sorry friends.  I hope you'll still talk to me.

It seems like there is a rule that in landscaping, Yuccas must be planted close near sidewalks where, when they reach their completely unsurprising adult size, will jab passers-by. Then they get cut to the ground for this perceived transgression, but keep limping back from the roots.  Sad.

Yucca "nana" is the answer to our prayers- all the glamour without the size.
The perfect crevice garden Yucca.  It is rhizomatous.

The smallest I've seen is a dwarf form further dwarfed in the crevices up on top of one of these crashed sandstone spaceships above.

 It grows in solid rock, rocky ground, and open soil. I've even seen it in clay and silt. Rocky places will dwarf it further.  Anecdotally, it seems to produce good seed in nature less often than other wild Yuccas around here.  And speaking of which, there is a fantastic recent interview from In Defense of Plants that blew me away about the sex lives of Yuccas with some truly surprising and amusing stuff. Do yourself a favor next time you've got 44 minutes driving, doing dishes or weeding.

I keep thinking about sparse grasses in semi-desert steppe habitat. I think there is a breakthrough in Steppe gardens we are missing having to do with that.  See the little yucca in there?  There are limestone fragments under all that.  I love the traditionally uncomfortable mix of rock garden and meadow here. Grass and rocks. It makes the designers' mind ask "Is that Ok? Can I do that? Is that legal?  Will I get in trouble?"

Let's try it.

Incidentally, John grows Yucca nana, too. For him in his sandy soil, it is not so petite, and grows into a veritable knee-high hedge that looks like a pile of giant, clean, sea-urchins.  He cuts them to the ground occasionally, and they come back.

Size in Yuccas is strongly influenced by both genetics and environment.

Let's not under-appreciate the stalwart year-round presence and humble surprises that Yucca brings us.