Anna Naeser: Anna’s Garden
August 30, 2008
When I first moved here, and visiting family meant driving east across the country, I remember looking forward to the strange, arid landscape of eastern Colorado, watching the side of the road for glimpses of a striking white flower that just popped out at me from its dun-colored surroundings. I couldn’t understand why everyone I asked about it dismissed it as just another weed, just like they dismissed the exotic magpie I was enthralled with. What I saw was a species of the prickly poppy, Argemone, native of plains and foothills, probably Argemone polyanthemos.
I found seed of Argemone pleiacantha, the Southwestern prickly poppy, at Plants of the Southwest in Santa Fe and I’ve been trying to get it to grow in my garden for years. Last year I finally succeeded: Gerry found a plant hiding behind our big Rocky Mountain juniper, Juniperus scopulorum. One seed finally survived and found just the right conditions to germinate and grow. This year it has multiple stems and as many as six flowers at one time. It has been blooming all summer. This prickly poppy has a 4-inch white flower like the finest crinkled silk, decorated with a bunch of bright orange-yellow stamens and in the middle of that, like a glass-headed pin fastening the flower to the stalk, is an inky black 4-lobed stigma; it is an absolutely gorgeous flower. In contrast, the plant is gray-green and thistly. The smooth leaves are outlined with yellowish prickles, as are the veins on the underside of the leaves, and every other part of the plant including the seed heads. If that isn’t enough of a defense, every bit of the prickly poppy is poisonous too. It reminds me of the many cacti with their extraordinarily beautiful and fragile blooms among wicked spines. I can’t imagine anyone, man or beast, messing with this flower, but no doubt there are insects and other organisms who relish it and who are unimpressed by the armor.
I would happily give this plant a prominent place in my border or my sunny south slope, where it could be the star, but that isn’t what it has chosen. It takes a bit of scrambling, braving legions of cheatgrass awns, to get to it in a kind of gully formed by the juniper, an immature clump of scrub oak, Quercus gambelii, and the crumbly sandy soil laced with basalt stones of the uphill slope. The prickly poppy and several other wildflowers have colonized this protected spot, thriving in the full sun, heat, and drought.
There are the loaded seedheads of a Penstemon of some kind that must have bloomed in early summer, with strong stems clasped by large blue-gray leaves. It is a special treat to find scarlet gilia, an old friend from years of hiking. Scarlet Ipomopsis aggregata, also known as skyrocket, is a quintessential hummingbird flower: inviting, narrowly tubular flowers flare into pointed reflexed lobes in long clusters. Today, I found several basal rosettes of this biennial so there’s a good chance I will have it in bloom again next year. Half a dozen asters are just starting to bloom with bright lavender ray faces and yellow eyes, probably Machaeranthera canescens. Close by is a showy four o’clock, Mirabilis multiflora, another hummingbird favorite. This one I started from seed in a deep pot and transplanted while very small because it has a taproot (supposed to get enormous). I read that it is often found in association with pinyons and junipers, so I put it near them. The big root allows it to withstand a prolonged drought, so this is a long-lived perennial. So far, I have only seen a handful of leathery blue-gray leaves and no flowers on this plant, but another seedling planted in my desert border thrilled me when it bloomed this year, opening its magenta trumpetlike flowers in late afternoon and closing them up again the next morning.
Now that I’ve found this little patch of wildflowers in an unirrigated corner of my garden, the effort it takes to enjoy them only adds to the fun. I can see why these wonderful wildflowers are not popular as landscaping plants. They just grow so slowly and they are so demanding. They won’t grow in fertile, amended garden soil with regular water. Luckily, I have lots of “poor” dry soil for them to grow in.