Steppe Grasslands

March 7, 2019 Panayoti Kelaidis , Senior Curator & Director of Outreach

Of the many remarkable changes I’ve witnessed since I first came to work at Denver Botanic Gardens in 1980, none have excited and pleased me more than to watch as our horticultural staff have shifted the focus of plant collections here away from the traditional annuals and perennials that were the mainstay of nurseries in our region a half century ago. Where the Gardens consisted of long rows of petunias and Salvia splendens in the 1970s, we now find more and more gardens that showcase the flora of semi-arid grasslands that occur naturally in our climate. Of course, there are still classic garden plants that come from maritime climates featured in containers and a few of our gardens, which provide a wonderful foil for the exciting and novel plants of the steppes.

American horticulture has been accused of being “bi-coastal,” with our plant palette and styles set in the wetter climates along the oceans. There are local gardeners who struggle to grow rhododendrons, hydrangeas and Japanese maples, but more adventurous gardeners realize that there is greater success experimenting with the enormously diverse and rich flora that occurs in drier climates in the American west, and in our sister climates of Central Asia, Southern Africa and Patagonia.

The first native garden was among the first of any at Denver Botanic Gardens—the Gates Montane Garden, featuring our native trees. But the first truly dry gardens here were created in the 1970s. Dryland Mesa was the first and features a wealth of native cacti and yuccas but also many broadleaf evergreens like mountain mahogany (Cercocarpus spp.) and manzanita (Arctostaphylos spp.) that glow even in the depths of winter with bright color. My personal favorites in this garden are the bright silver-blue western mahonias (Berberis fremontii in particular) which provide four-season interest with fragrant yellow flowers in early spring, bright red fruit in fall and winter, and evergreen leaves that positively glow.

The Plains Gardens followed with a wonderful re-creation of our diverse native grasslands. And these gardens have been joined with a dozen other gardens that showcase various facets of steppe flora including PlantAsia’s southern half, the Roads Water-Smart Garden and, of course, the grand Steppe Garden itself—the very expression of the Gardens’ mission of “connecting people with plants, especially plants from the Rocky Mountain region and similar regions around the world.”

I will be presenting on steppe grasslands at the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art the evening of March 14.

Steppe: The Grasslands that Nurtured Humankind

Thursday, March 14, 2019
6-7:30 p.m.

Doors open at 6 p.m.
Talk begins at 6:30 p.m.


All these themes will be echoed eloquently by the art of Karen Kitchel whose paintings inspired by grasslands are featured by the BMOCA.

What fun it is to explore the theme of grasslands in the realm of painting as well as botany and horticulture!

Thumbnail Image: Karen Kitchel, Larger Than Life #11 (detail), Oil on panel.


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