Where do plants go when they die at the Gardens? Most, as you might expect, go to the compost pile, but a select few get a lucky break: a chance to be displayed again.
Each fall, armfuls of cuttings are hung and dried in our tool room for winter arrangements. These are what we call “everlasting plants,” varieties that stay crisp and colorful long “since sunshine fed them, or the showers,” as English author Walter Thornbury so sweetly put it.
Only the most resilient plant stems, flowers and seed pods make the cut. They not only have to hold their form or color for months after they’re pulled, but they have to take a good battering from the weather.
This year, we take you on a tour of more than two dozen winter outdoor containers, from classic elegant designs of cut evergreens, grasses and dried flowers to quirky new displays that depart from the traditional bouquet.
We start at the parking garage by the York Street pedestrian crossway, where grasses take center billing in two lively bouquets that move at the touch of breeze. Plumes of pampas grass (Cortaderia selloana) tower above the rose-pink blades of little bluestem grass (Schizachyrium scoparium) and wheat-like flowers of Karl Foerster feather reed grass (Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’). Lacy umbels of Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium purpureum) and balls of dried hydrangea Annabelle (Hydrangea arborescens) add a playful contrast, while slender stems of Japanese rose (Kerria japonica) give the bouquet a zing of spring green.
Crossing York to the front of the Bonfils-Stanton Visitor Center, red twig dogwood shrubs (Cornus sericea) frame the front doors, their limbs angled skyward in grand gestures of hello. Among these living bushes are some of the largest and toughest flowers you can dry, each held high on stems of wood and wire -- giant sea holly (Eryngium giganteum) sprayed white, hydrangea Annabelle tinted chartreuse, moon carrot (Seseli gummiferum) colored red and -- the Cinderella of the bunch -- teasel (Dipsacus), sprayed green.
Passing through the Visitor Center and into the Welcome Garden, two large branches arc around the video screen, their bark lightly glazed in glitter. Dozens of ornaments made almost entirely from plants dangle from nooks in the branches, while bundles of dried flowers define tips of the branches with punches of red, green and white. Do you recognize the painted pods of evening primrose (Oenothera macrocarpa)? Or the maple seeds wired into flowers? What about the seed shell from false indigo (Baptisia australis) that’s become the face of a dancing sprite?
Turn to your left and you’ll find two garden trellises at the bottom of the stairs that long to be holiday trees. Each is entwined in false spirea (Sorbaria sorbifolia) stems and adorned with reddened stonecrop (Sedum sp.), white statice (Limonium sinuatum) and the dried fruits of teasel sprayed chartreuse. Pine cone ornaments and miniature wreaths of dogwood hang from horizontal wires and cuttings from spruce branches add softness to the display.
Next, take a stroll down O’Fallon Perennial Walk to the Romantic Gardens, where the tradition of outdoor arrangements at the Gardens was born. Here, more than a dozen urns arranged by Denver Botanic Gardens Guild volunteers are scattered in beds and gazebos. Evergreen boughs, dogwood stems, hydrangea blossoms and branches of rose hips combine with classic elegance. Scattered among them are wands of pussy willow, ripe with catkins - a whimsical nod to spring - and dried cuttings of dusty miller (Jacobaea), that lend a frosty contrast to deep green needles. Dried flowers, from statice (Limonium) to yarrow (Achillea), punctuate the bouquets with color.
Straight ahead in the Ellipse, oversized pine cones and diminutive plants transform urns at the entry into magical little gardens. The cones sit on their ends at playful angles, while red pansies shimmer in the sunlight. Boughs of juniper, speckled with icy-blue berries, and Hens and Chicks (Sempervivum) peek out at the edges. Nearby, perched on a stone railing in front of Waring House, are four more adorable urns. Each contains a single large pine cone nesting among holly grape (Mahonia haematocarpa), rose-colored barberry (Berberis) and yellow-green arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis).
Taking a turn west, head down the path past the Herb Garden to the Fountain Beds and Ornamental Grasses Garden, where two little Colorado spruce (Picea pungens) pay tribute to my favorite Christmas book, Mr. Willowby’s Christmas Tree, about a tree cut down to its tiniest and trimmed by woodland creatures. Each is wrapped in a garland of red strawflowers (Xerochrysum bracteatum) and topped with a large seed head of white-washed dill (Anethum graveolens). Bells in acorn shells add jingle, while bleached pine cones lend a frosty touch and sprigs of hawthorn berries, a bit of merriment. This one also includes umbels of moon carrot posing as giant snowflakes.