Plant provenance reveals much

eremurus, iran, drought-tolerant, bulbs, xeric, native habitat
Eremurus sp. growing in their native habitat. Courtesy of D. Lofti-Azad.

Success with a plant is inextricably linked to knowledge of that plant’s provenance. If you know what the conditions of plant in its native habitat are, you will have a good gauge of whether or not you have or can effectively create the right growing conditions for it in your own landscape. Beth Chatto is perhaps the pioneer of this approach, of using plants whose natural growing conditions match the growing conditions of your site. And on the surface this sounds like such old news and so completely obvious that why should we care? Because more often than not information on the specific provenance of a plant and the particular climactic, geological, and topographic conditions of that place of origin are not immediately available. Rather, we are given a generic set of guidelines by which to care for the plant: average water needs, keep evenly moist, plant in fertile soil, fertilize annually.

We take the various Eremurus / foxtail lily species as a case in point. Some entries may make vague reference to the plants being from places such as Iran, Afghanistan, and the Hindu Kush, but the buck generally stops here. Without any information on their native growing conditions, we are then offered up generic advice on care of these plants, particularly with regards to water. In the case of Eremurus bungei, this site says that the soil should never be allowed to dry out once they are planted. This one doesn’t mention water at all. And this says “Average Water Needs; Water regularly; do not overwater”. We are left with the impression that Eremurus bungei / foxtail lily must be from an environment that is neither too wet nor too dry and that is never affected by drought. And none could be further from the truth. Their native growing conditions are intensely dry, including in winter (which are somewhat cold), and rocky. The plants shoot out leaves during the brief time when moisture is available in the soil and must gather up enough energy as quickly as possible before the heat and drought of summer set in and they go dormant once again. In short they are the prototypical dry-landscape/high-desert bulb.

allium, Iran, native growing conditions, xeric, water conservation
Allium growing in Iran. Courtesy of D. Lofti-Azad.

This is not common knowledge in part because nurseries are thinking about sales and would like to sell more Eremurus than fewer, and thus if they are advertised as needing average this and average that, then the average person in average anyplace USA can purchase and grow them, regardless of whether this is true or not (and, yes, it is somewhat true: you can prep your soil in various ways to make certain species of Eremurus grow in Minneapolis or North Dakota, albeit a bit tenuously). The other reason for the lack of information on native growing conditions of landscape plants is that species plants (as opposed to cultivars) are relatively new to the gardening scene. Heretofore the provenance of most plants was the nursery, end of story. And many plants have been in cultivation for so long that common knowledge of their origins has all but disappeared (did anyone know, for example, that geraniums are actually native to very dry regions in South Africa?).

We have nothing against cultivars at all and use them when need be, but our hope is that as interest in species plants grows, so too will access to detailed information on these species plants’ native growing conditions. The result can not only be increased knowledge of and interest in protecting the native habitats of these plants, but also in more sophisticated, climate-specific plant palettes that truly mesh with the ebbs and flows of the places they are located in.

An unfloppable bluestem

little bluestem jazz, prairieform, landscape design, drought-tolerant, grasses

For the landscape work we do in Minneapolis we work within a very limited, cold-weather-mandated plant palatte. Limitations placed on creative work should be seen as opportunities to push envelopes and tackle challenges, not as limitations in and of themselves. In any case, when a new plant does come along that can survive a Minnesota winter and look good in spite of whatever other weather curveball might be thrown at it, we do do a proverbial dance and say, “Hot,” or something like that. So, we’re doing that now, as there’s a new plant to add to the Zone-4-hardy, drought-tolerant-but-not-depressing arsenal of groovy MN-friendly plants. It’s called Schizachyrium scoparium ‘Jazz’ / little bluestem ‘Jazz.’ We love little bluestem for its mid-height vertical featheriness, and its lovely color transformation from fresh green in early summer to blue-green, to red-tinged, to bronze. Our only complaint other than that it does come up late (which is unavoidable as a warm-season grass), is that it has a tendency to flop over later in the year and can get taller than you might want. Enter ‘Jazz,’ a variety that will only grow to 2′ and will not flop over, even as the growing season progresses. Sounds like even a good choice for the front of the border or just behind it. We shall be using it with gusto this year.

What we do in winter. . .

Indian grass under a blanket of snow in a PRAIRIEFORM landscape

People ask what we do in winter here when we can’t be outside installing landscapes. This year we are spending the season giving presentations on the irrigation-free landscape, what we have learned, and what are next steps are. As far as those next steps go, we are searching out new sites with new variables and wider audiences for new irrigation-free landscape installations. If you are interested in having us give a powerpoint presentation (very visual, minimal text, and we promise we don’t just read off of lists on the screen), contact us: .

Last step for the irrigation-free landscape: bulbs

irrigation-free landscape, allium, minneapolis, saint paul, drought-tolerant, landscapes, prairieform, landscape design, xeriscape
Planting Allium giganteum in late fall in the Irrigation-Free Landscape

The Irrigation-Free Landscape is almost ready for its winter slumber. Just before it goes to sleep, we wanted to plant some bulbs to ensure good late-spring color. The perfect bulb for a cold-climate but drought-prone garden is Allium. It will appreciate the drier conditions in the garden and reward you with electric-purple globes of color come late spring. Leave the spent seedheads on through summer to add additional form, texture, and color to the landscape. Loveliness.