In praise of bluestems...

December 9, 2010 Panayoti Kelaidis , Senior Curator & Director of Outreach

You would have to be a very strange individual to drive down York street on a sunny morning any time this winter and not notice (or really be stunned) by this amazing planting of little bluestem on the 'West wedge' of the new parking structure.I am not big on formal bedding (by and large) - check out the big bluestem at the bottom of this blog and you will see what suits my taste more - but I'll make an exception for this delightful concatenation. Just like ruddy soldiers, the bluestems are neatly aligned with the morning sun burnishing their symmetrical rosiness! Let's take a closer look... This is a clump of bluestem I photographed closer up last year at the Pueblo Nature Center. If you examine bluestems closely in nature (they are abundant around Denver in the fragments of nature still left) you will find a great deal of variation. Most of the cultivated forms turn a brilliant pink in autumn that lingers through the winter and is positively dazzling in the right backlight. Shopping centers are chockablock full of Calamagrostis 'Karl Foerster' which legions of landscapers are busy cropping down to crew cuts as we speak. I have railed against this abomination before. I would be thrilled if they would replace all those tedious Foerster grasses with this infinitely lovelier native that would not even need to be irrigated! Now let's take a gander at its taller cousin... I took this picture recently in the Ponderosa Border, the easternmost panel of the Western Panoramas--those four magnificent gardens that flank the amphitheater. Casual concert-goers and visitors with an untrained eye walk by these not realizing that these four gardens adumbrate our natural environment as subtly and profoundly as Bach's Brandenberg concertos celebrate the life force! Our masterful Assistant Director of Horticulture, Dan Johnson, designed these four season gardens almost a decade ago, each panel being a symphonic tribute to an ecosystem in Colorado. The Ponderosa Border celebrates the foothills, and big bluestem is indeed found occasionally on the piedmont mesas near us. Usually at least twice the height of little bluestem, this gorgeous giant of a grass can grow five feet tall with a bit of water (or even taller on the tallgrass prairies of the Midwest where it is a major constituent). It may not overwhelm or kick you in the eye like a scarlet geranium or azalea in full bloom, but the graceful fountain of rosy purple is thoroughly dramatic for those more in tune with nature's rhythms. These two magnificent native grasses give me a thrill whenever I walk by. You can have your electronic gadgets, your television and mass culture. Give me a gentle breeze, a bluestem (either one) and a kiss of the Colorado winter sun and I'm a happy camper!


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