December Walking Tour - Fall and Winter Beauty
By Mike Bone, Curator of Steppe Collection
Fall and winter are seasons often characterized by bleak days and the dull tones of brown in the landscape. But this is not an absolute. The winter interest of plants is sometimes the most interesting time in the Gardens. The structure of trees and the dancing seed heads of ornamental grasses are only at their peak when the flowers and greenery of summer and fall have passed us by. So many times the beauty and complexity of the evergreens and broadleaved evergreens are lost to the garish colors of spring and summer. This month we will take a stroll through the Gardens and see some of the finer points of the winter landscape.
When you first enter the Gardens and are at the crossroad, you can’t help but notice the large Koelreuteria paniculata (golden rain tree) on your right. The papery bracts that encapsulate the seed is almost as ornamental at the panicles of flowers in the spring. The dried bracts dance and rustle in the breeze creating a feast for the senses. Right around the corner is Yuccarama. The diversity of the tree yuccas in this part of the garden is really special. These handsome specimens are tall structural pieces that soften the stark concrete walls of the main building.
Moving to the west there are some beautiful examples of evergreens and broadleaved evergreens. Vauquelinia californica (Arizona rosewood) is a unique member of the rose family but has found a nice warm microclimate on the south side of the Boettcher Memorial Tropical Conservatory. At the west end of the Water-Smart Garden is one of our best specimens of Berberis fremontii (Fremont’s mahonia). This late in the season the plants are just loaded with bright red fruits. The Water-Smart Garden is choc-a-block full of texture and color throughout the winter.
One favorite is the Crataegus ambigua (Russian hawthorn) right outside of the Bill Hosakawa Bonsai Pavilion. This plant is used in Denver landscapes but is not well known in other parts of the country. Some of the local appeal is due to the promotion it receives from Plant Select®. Please visit their website to find out more about this multi-season of interest tree.
Entering the Japanese Garden from the east you are taken down a path past the Tea Garden and get a glimpse at the quiet beauty of the Japanese Garden. Standing on the Moon Viewing Deck you can get an appreciation for how the grasses move in the winter winds and watch as ancient sculpted pines flirt with the frozen waters and see their opaque reflections mirrored back at them.
Once you leave the Japanese Garden at the west end you are staring down the long tree-lined path that takes you through the Gates Montane Garden. The entrance to this garden is reminiscent of the path into Narnia. In this garden is a wonderful woodland tapestry of texture, color, and forms. Some of the best are the ground covering Berberis repens (creeping Oregon grape), as well as our native Paxistima myrsinites (mountain lover).
Walking south through the Gates Montane Garden if you stay to the left just past the bench you find a small path that transitions from the Rock Alpine Garden to the Plains Garden. Here is where the beauty of the steppes is very evident. The movement of our native prairie in the gentle winter breeze the colors of the grasses in colors of silver, red, tawny and white. Standing amongst the music of the prairie you can see the expanse of Dryland Mesa and the beauty of cacti in the winter.
As you go past Dryland Mesa through the South African Plaza, turn left and stop to marvel at the most amazing and unusual Dwarf Conifer Collection. Collectors and expert horticulturists have planted and maintained what is a unique and masterful collection of conifers. The tapestry that this weaves together is quite lovely. Then looking east you get a glimpse of one of my favorite vignettes in all of the gardens, the Moon Gate entrance to PlantAsia. Here is a perfectly framed picture of the mighty Tien Shan Mountains with the sweeping steppes of Central Asia behind them. The art and structure of the moon gate combined with the rock work evokes truly an emotional response.
The last stop before you get to warm up inside is the Ornamental Grasses Garden. We have however discussed grasses and their wondrous qualities long enough. We are here to marvel at the structure and beauty of Rhus typhina ‘Dissecta’ (staghorn sumac). The flower buds perched atop twisted stems harken to the cruel beauty of nature, especially when seen as the foreground to the contemporary architectural mystery of the Science Pyramid. Then go ahead and go into the Science Pyramid, warm up and learn a little more about Citizen Science and the great steppes that we call home.
Photos by Mike Bone