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Kent Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 18 July 2014 by Tim Ingram

'Jewels of the Plains'

'Jewels of the Plains' - Claude A. Barr

It is hard to imagine that the Internet will ever absorb the reader in the way a good book can, even though those of us who write on it hope that what we write might sometimes have similar value. Books on plants are multifarious but often rather technical or encyclopaedic - actually rather similar to much of the Internet itself. There are not many authors that capture the plants they study in a more literary style that comes from discovering and observing them in the wild, growing and propagating them, and encouraging others to do so too. The North American rancher, plantsman and nurseryman, Claude A. Barr studied the plants of the Great Plains for all of his life and wrote of them in the 'Jewels of the Plains'. In his forward to this book H. Lincoln Foster penned: 'There should be a wide readership for this unique piece of work, especially amongst that increasing band who love and want to grow native American plants'. He carried on: 'We can only pray that some reader of this book will be inspired as Claude Barr was when young and that we can look forward to a new generation of explorers, experimenters and gardeners to carry on a tradition so beautifully presented in these pages'.

'Jewels of the Plains' - Claude A. Barr

Let me introduce you to this book and some of the plants therein. Anyone with a long fascination about plants and places will find it a treasure, and its author an inspiration.

Claude Barr was obviously out of the ordinary in his interest in plants from a very young age, and also (amongst Americans) in studying Greek along with English at the local University in Iowa. He lived through the harsh times of the Depression and was brought up with the values and challenges that faced American homesteaders in the early twentieth century. He gave up the opportunity of a scholarship at Harvard to return to the Prairie Gem Ranch that he and his parents owned in South Dakota in the Great Plains of central USA. Here the dry gumbo clay only enabled sufficient grazing to support a cow and calf or steer per each 20 acres in the drier years! The ranch was at 3300 feet with a treeless upland exposure, difficult soil and uncertain water supply, but the saving grace was a fascinating natural flora that had not been closely studied except by P.A. Ryberg several decades before.

Stimulation came from other nurserypeople and gardeners, notably Mrs C.I. de Bevoise, one of the founders of the American Rock Garden Society, and botanist/writers such as Dr. Ira N. Gabrielson who wrote in similar vein about  the 'Western American Alpines'. This latter book, published in 1932, is occasionally available from specialist booksellers and is equally as fascinating as the 'Jewels of the Plains', with a similar and overlapping flora but lacking many species, as Barr says in his preface: '... of high merit [which] had no counterparts at all among the Western alpines'.

(Probably an age where photographic reproduction of plants in books was expensive and limited resulted in more comprehensive writing about plants but there is an amazing black and white picture of Avalanche Lilies in this book, really no less evocative than similar pictures posted recently on the SRGC Forum. Other more recent books, such as the 'Land Above the Trees - A Guide to American Alpine Tundra' by Ann H. Zwinger and Beatrice E. Willard, evoke the same wonder with just words and line drawings).

Barr combined ranching with studying and propagating, and writing about, the Great Plains flowers - from Saskatchewan into Texas and the Rocky Mountains across to Missouri - giving him a unique knowledge of the region. From 1935 to the 1960's he distributed plants to gardeners right across the US and Canada and to Europe, Japan and Australasia; a remarkable legacy and one which must have had a significant role in opening the eyes of gardeners to the wonders of the Great Plains flora. His book brings all of this together and was published by the University of Minnesota Press in 1983.

There are plants here that are familiar - the silver-grey carpeting Antennaria aprica; 'Wild Indigo', Baptisia australis; Lobelia cardinalis, not common and richer coloured than more eastern forms; even the very widespread junipers J. communis and J. horizontalis and potentillas P.fruticosa and 'Silverweed', P. anserina. But also surprisingly in the rare moister places - and relicts of cooler glacial periods - are Sanguinaria canadensis and the American form of Linnaea borealis. For every plant that British gardeners will know there are ten or twenty that most will not, and undoubtedly some that would make good plants in our gardens. The 'Coneflower' Echinacea angustifolia, is 'bold, spectacular and beautiful'. Maybe this is now eclipsed by the many new hybrids available in dramatic colours, but this species sounds ideal for our dry Kentish garden with deep roots and an ability to withstand summer drought. Barr even mention 'a marvellous variant in which the brown cone is replaced by a wide, full pompon of pink rays', as well as a white form, which in the related E. purpurea is such a lovely counterpoint to the rich pink.

Echinacea is not such an unusual garden plant but what of Clematis occidentalis (tenuiloba): '... the prize rock garden clematis of the West, perhaps of the world...'? This beautiful little herbaceous species is a 'low, deciduous perennial with flower of the Atragene-type. The four long-attenuate, blue-purple sepals are poised in a nodding position and of thrilling grace and carriage'. Anyone who has seen plants of this displayed would agree. It runs around gently and only grows between 10 and 15cm in height.

This second picture shows it at the local Essex AGS Group Show last spring...

There are other very interesting small clematis from the Great Plains, C. fremontii and C. scottii (C. hirsutissima), but despite Barr's description of the latter as 'marvellously free blooming', a plant in our sand bed grows well but so far is yet to flower.

Gardeners on the whole, even alpine gardeners, are a relatively conservative lot and not so easily tempted to grow plants they don't know. But it is hard to resist the description of 'Bigroot bush morning-glory', Ipomaea leptophylla'... one of the most spectacular individual plants of the plains'. This carries large trumpets of 'subdued rose-purple' on spreading stems and although the top growth is frost tender the plant has deep tuberous roots which enable it to withstand severe drought. The 'Four-o'clock plant', Mirabilis multiflora, has something of the same habit, and I could imagine devoting a deep sand bed to these and others. Some of the most compelling plants of all are the 'Locoweeds' Astragalus and Oxytropis species, which are often seriously toxic to cattle and horses. They are frustratingly difficult to cultivate, in fact hardly cultivated at all, but many are extraordinarily attractive for their mounds of silvered leaves and often vivid flowers. A particular species was discovered by Barr and named for him...

Why try and grow them? All I can do is direct you to Graham Nicholls' book 'Alpine Plants of North America', by a plantsman who knows them as well as anybody and grows many of these plants so well. His book and cultivation skills mirror those of Claude Barr, and his writing an equally unique introduction to New World alpines.

The 'Jewels of the Plains' is one of those books which you go on learning more from every time you consult it. It is one of a number of specialised texts - as Lincoln Foster comments: 'One thinks of Lester Rowntree, Carl Purdy, Kathleen Marrige, Ira Gabrielson, Edgar T. Wherry - all devoted to the study of, and growing of, the native plants of their particular region'. We are not so often blessed with this pioneering spirit and sense of discovery in the British Isles any more, and those that have it have always had to travel further afield to find it, but you can still gain a sense of it from this writing and from growing some of these plants.

More information about Claude Barr and the plants of the Great Plains is given in these two publications from the North American Rock Garden Society. The alpine flowers of North America have as distinct a fascination as those more familiar to British gardeners from Europe, Asia and the Himalayas, and have stimulated fine writing from many gardeners and botanists of the region, of whom Claude Barr is a wonderful example.


Sedum obtusifolium

I mentioned this plant earlier in the month and it is quite an unusual species which makes a particularly fine and neat specimen on our new raised bed. After flowering it dies back to soil level, producing new rosettes of flat leaves later into autumn and winter. It is native to N. Iran, E. Caucasus, Armenia and Anatolia (E. Turkey), growing at high altitudes to 2000m. It is sometimes placed into a separate genus, Phedimus, with affinities to Hylotelephium and Rhodiola. Certainly a valuable and colourful plant for dry gardens and a good example of the Crassulaceae, a family often rather overlooked or disregarded by alpine gardeners.

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