Traveling The West Looking For Wildflowers



My last few weeks have been spent touring the American West with a wildflower expert from England named Sheila Collenette. She spent 27 years in Saudi Arabia and has written two huge books* on the wildflowers of that country and is recognized the world over as an authority on the subject. Both her books are now out of print and available only on the used book market or eBay if you are lucky.

This spring and early summer has been disappointing in the Southwest for wildflower displays, so we found relatively few in bloom as we drove northward through Death Valley and Northern California. Once in Oregon, there were many flowers in bloom for Sheila and myself to photograph. The winter rains had been more obliging there than in the Southwest. As we traveled toward Washington state, there were plenty more flowers in bloom.


This is a wild larkspur, from which some of our garden flowers evolved.

We were heading for Seattle, where Sheila gave two lectures** on Saudi Arabian plants, many of which are succulent species, including some euphorbias related to the Crown of Thorns grown on many windowsills in America.

Throughout our travels, we found many different species of lupine. The wild species are small, as compared to the giant lupines grown as garden plants in the herbaceous border.

Have you ever wondered how plants we grow in our gardens came about? They are not just grown from seeds collected from wild specimens. Some will have evolved into today's giants from small wild species, which are then crossed with the larger specimens of lupine until eventually a much larger plant is produced.

In the case of the small wild lupines, which are mainly in shades of mauve and blue and cream, the garden variety is much taller, with spires of flowers in all those colors, as well as pinks. Even the leaves are much larger.

If the adult garden lupines are left to increase in size each year, the flowers will be smaller each year, eventually reverting to the native color of mauve-blue. Then it is time to start some new plants for the following year.

If you want first-rate specimen plants, sow the lupine seed one year and develop good strong plants for planting into their flowering positions for the next year. When setting into their final places, put some bone meal in the holes or around the young plants.

We saw many blue flowers, particularly dainty blue flax and larkspur, from which the garden delphiniums have been developed. Blue flax is good in borders or where it can make its own home in a naturalized area. Each flower lasts only one day, but the flowers keep coming. It is a dainty plant, no more than two-feet tall, with thin leaves.

Everywhere we drove, we saw the yellow toadflax. It may look pretty, but is considered among the noxious weeds, which have been imported to this country. Toadflax was introduced as an ornamental from Europe in the mid-1800s.

Some fields are now bordered by this invader, pushing native grasses away, thereby reducing animal foods for grazing. Many pastures were nearly full of the Scotch broom and gorse, which have become aggressive pests of the western coastal areas and have rendered useless much grazing land.

Even the English foxglove has made its home here along the roads. It is in the digitalis family from which the heart medicine is derived. It may help some humans, but is toxic to animals.

Of course, whenever you travel seeking flowers in bloom, you will not be able to find all the flowers native in any particular area as they flower at different times of the year.

When in the still snowy parts of the West, we were hoping to find some of the plants that pop up as the snow melts, but were not lucky this time.

Once in Seattle, we visited Weyerhaeuser's Rhododendron Species Botanical Gardens, which also had some species of azaleas.

The evergreen ones can make a good screen and produce spectacular flowers annually, but they need an acidic soil. If you want to grow them around here in the Rim Country, you will need to bring in some acidic soil and keep treating it to maintain the correct pH level. It takes up to twelve months to effectively change the pH (alkalinity vs. acidic level) of any soil, so don't be surprised if your initial attempts at growing rhododendrons are not very good, unless you have acquired a lot of new acidic soil.

Even in Yellowstone National Park, there were flowers growing in varying soil mediums around the geysers and mud pots, and all of them were growing in the caldera of an active volcano. This has to prove that, wherever you live, some plant will manage to grow. In Yellowstone, you must stay on the boardwalks and take pictures of flowers with a telephoto lens. To me, Yellowstone is one of the most exciting places on Earth.

The best way of learning about plants of any sort is to join a club and talk with other members. In Payson, there are two general gardening clubs -- the High Country Gardeners Club and the Rim Area Gardeners. There are also some specialist clubs, which cover a more limited selection of plants, such as the Bonsai Club and the African Violet Club. The nearest cactus club is in Phoenix and I make the effort to attend their meetings.

An advantage of being in a plant club is that you can participate in their activities, from which you may learn a great deal. Hence, Sheila and I became friends years ago and we have since had great pleasure traveling together, seeking wild flowers and staying in each other's homes.

If you need advice about how to get rid of a weed you have in your garden, or any other garden related problem, try asking the Master Gardeners at the Co-operative Extension Office in town. And there is always the Payson Public Library, which has a good selection of books on gardening.

  • Sheila Collenette, "An Illustrated Guide to the Flowers of Saudi Arabia" and "Wildflowers of Saudi Arabia."
  • * At the biennial convention of the Cactus and Succulent Society of America, Inc.

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