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The Tortoise Theory of Plants

Remember the old story of the Tortoise and the Hare? The Hare was fast and over-confident, but the humble tortoise just kept plodding along. We all know who won the race . . . .
Lately, I have developed the ‘Tortoise’ theory of landscape plants. This is an amendment to the ‘Sleep, Creep, Leap’ idea about perennials in general. It has struck me that there are a handful plants that initially grow so slowly as to try one’s patience. But in the end, these are the very plants that turn out to be the real stars, the most satisfying, the most magnificent.
Curleaf Mountain Mahogany is a great example of this. I planted this one as a tiny seedling about 12 or 13 years ago and then waited expectantly. For two, three or even four years it barely inched up. Then suddenly one year–without warning–it started to grow . . . and grow . . . and grow. Now I consider it to be the queen of the nursery garden, a real gem and a delight in every season.
The opposite story is the notorious Silver Maple. Fast growing, these were planted widely as nearly instant shade trees about 60 years ago. I just had the third of four Silver Maples at my house removed. (Expensive! It involved a crane.) They all were reaching the end of their lifespan and threatening to crush my house. The really bad story about these weedy trees is that they are now colonizing the banks of the Boise River, especially downstream from Boise, crowding out our native Cottonwoods.
I guess the best things in life are often worth waiting for.

I took this photo yesterday of Myrtle Spurge, aka Donkey Tail Spurge (Euphorbia myrsinites), spreading aggressively in the Boise Foothills. This attractive attractive pest was once considered a great choice for xeric landscaping, but its drought-tolerance and ease of propagation has allowed it to jump into the wild. A native of Eurasia, it can easily overwhelm native competitors and is now listed as a noxious weed in Colorado, Oregon and some Utah counties. It is probably too late to prevent it from taking over large areas of our Foothills, but we should still avoid it in our landscapes. Always wear gloves when yanking it out–the stems contain a nasty, milky sap.

One of the most delightful signs of spring is the emergence of Aase’s Onion in open, sandy areas of the Boise Front. These charming natives are known to occur only in 6 counties of S. Idaho. Named in honor of Hannah Aase (1883-1980), a former botany professor at WSU in Pullman, this ephemeral beauty is also called the South Idaho Onion.

Most of us just encounter onions in the kitchen or in our soup. But it’s exciting to know that there are nearly 20 different onion species that are native to Idaho, and many, many more that are found elsewhere in North America. Another reason to keep your eyes on the ground when hiking!

Here is a truly inspiring landscape created by customers Pascale and Matt at their home on the bench. They describe their soil as alkaline clay. They write: “We’ve found some plants do fine in the clay- lavender, artemisia, most ornamental grasses, ice plants, echinacea, Jupiter’s beard and catmint. For the more drainage-sensitive plants we had soil brought in and built small berms. We used a sandy loam mixed with lava fines. It was really tough to keep up with the watering the first summer until we got the drip irrigation installed, now it’s a pretty low-maintenance yard.”
Low maintenance and stunning!

The charming groundcover above, “Dwarf Wormwood”, is a part of the large genus Artemisa. With hundreds of species worldwide, Artemisias are called, variably, Wormwood, Mugwort or Sagebrush.
In Europe, the genus was named after a famous Greek queen and healer, Artemisia of Halicarnassus, as well as the Greek goddess Artemis. Artemisia was used traditionally in the medicines of Europe and Asia and has recently been tested for use in the fight against Covid. Artemisias have also played a role in flavoring food (Tarragon) and drink (Absinthe).
Upon colonizing the American West, Europeans were reminded of another Old World medicinal herb, Sage (Salvia), and gave the widespread local Artemisa its confusing name ‘Sagebrush’. They viewed the Sagebrush ‘ocean’  as endless and saw little utility in it.
We are are coming late to the appreciation of Sagebrush as the anchor of our high desert landscape and the key species for the preservation of much desert life, including the endangered Sage Grouse.


A hike on Sunday revealed a glorious spring bloom in the Foothills. Arrowleaf Balsamroot, Lupines, Evening Primroses, pink and white Phlox, Death Camas, Biscuitroot, Bitterbrush in its full-bloom glory and more. Despite the sea of invasive grasses, these troopers bloom on gamely, giving hikers a real show. I have found it difficult, if not impossible, to grow many of these local natives in the garden. So, I appreciate them in the wild, where they are happy. I hope you can too!

With the unseasonably warm weather this November, the bees–honey bees, bumblebees and others are still foraging. The standout in my garden is Boltonia asteroides, or ‘False Aster’. With an amazing long-lasting and ultra-late bloom, this plant is just the best at providing late season food for our insect friends. On top of that it is a visual knock-out, livening up the garden just before true winter arrives.

Glorious May! There is so much plant excitement right now–among other things, it’s chokecherry bloom time. The Japanese are justly proud of their flowering cherries, but here in the western U.S., we have our chokecherries! If you hike in the foothills, you will recognize the dangling flower clusters easily. A dead giveaway for chokecherry i.d., they help you distinguish this plant from its very common cousin, bitter cherry.
Later on, when the fruits are in season, try one to discover exactly why they deserve the name chokecherry! There are numerous recipes online for chokecherry juice, syrup and jam. I haven’t tried them, but apparently (and surprisingly) the results are tasty. Unsurprisingly, chokecherries are one of those super fruits like blueberries–high in antioxidants and all kinds of other healthy compounds. So, when you get the chance, try one.

Creeping Oregon Grape, Mahonia repens, is one of our most versatile and useful native plants for landscaping. Its evergreen leaves settle into deep reddish-purple in winter, and when spring comes it erupts with a flush of cheerful yellow flowers.
Mahonia repens is a quite common in the upper foothills. There it grows mostly in the forest, tolerating deep shade–but the plants are small and don’t flower a lot. Oddly, this native develops into a much larger, showier specimen down here in the valley, happy in sun or shade.
Because of its compact proportions (2′ x 2′ or so) Mahonia repens has many uses in a landscape. You may be familiar with a much larger Oregon Grape, Mahonia aquafolium, which is fairly common in yards and along the greenbelt. The big one can sometimes be a bit overwhelming. Both Mahonias are admirably drought tolerant.
As winter approaches, my admiration for tough, evergreen plants skyrockets!

A sure sign of spring–the yellow blossoms of Creeping Oregon Grape are a welcome source of pollen for hungry bees of all sorts. Oregon Grape (surprise!) is the state flower of Oregon, and the OSU Extension Service declares that no garden should be without one. The short, “Creeping” version in my front yard is an Idaho native–a lovely little evergreen shrub that grows in sun or shade. I definitely agree with OSU!

March 23, 2019

It’s Datura season at my house. In the mid to late summer this amazing plant begins producing giant trumpet-like flowers, sometimes a dozen or more on a single plant. Datura is famously hallucinogenic and poisonous but also incredibly alluring for honeybees.The flowers open just as dusk is falling and honeybees–who usually don’t stay out real late–get so excited that they try to squeeze their way in before the flower has actually opened up. It is fun to stand around and watch the flowers open, as you can see the petals twist and move in real time. The flowers last only one night and remain open for a while the next morning. Then they wilt and are replaced by a new crop of flowers the following evening.

I took this photo this morning of the oldest/upper part of our demonstration garden. Most of these plants have been here for 12 to 15 years. Last year, the drip watering system sprung a leak, which I didn’t manage to repair until sometime in July. The plants looked fine, and so the repair job took a back seat. In the end, the area got water only three times all summer.

Based on that experience, this year I postponed watering until early July and then watered once more in early August. Despite the persistent heat, the plants still mostly look fine. Frankly, I have been kind of amazed!

The lesson here seems to be that many of our plants can develop extreme heat and drought tolerance once they are well established.

Establishment is the key—and that takes time. As the plants in a low-water landscape grow, they put a lot of energy into their root systems—which can be massive. That is why many perennials appear to grow so slowly in the first year or two. Watering plants long and deep but infrequently encourages roots to go deep and find the water.

Sometimes a broken pipe or other accident can reveal new truths. This example demonstrates how extreme drought tolerance can develop over of many years. Patience!

Buckwheat season has begun! As many of you know, I am a huge fan of Buckwheats, a large genus (Eriogonum) of annual and perennial flowering plants native to N. America, mainly the arid Western US. This early blooming buckwheat is Eriogonum heracloides, called variously Creamy, Wyeth, Whorled or Parsnipflower Buckwheat.  I use ‘Whorled Buckwheat’, as the whorl of leaves halfway up the flowering stalk is a good identifier.
Whorled Buckwheat lives in the Boise Foothills, along with Sulfur Buckwheat. You can see its cheery bloom in a few weeks as you drive up Bogus Basin Road.
The blooming of Whorled Buckwheat is a sure sign that we are settling into the truly warm weather of spring—and it might be a good time to plant your tomatoes!
*Erion is Greek for woolly and gonum means knees, so you can call these plants the “Woolly Knees”!

It is officially spring, and few plants announce that fact more enthusiastically than Mountain Alyssum. Just starting to bloom in the garden, this hardy European wildflower joins the crocuses, grape hyacinth and the early daffs in promising a coming riot of joyful color.

This photo, taken August 18 on top of Trinity Peak at 9,500, is of one of my most beloved native landscape plants, Cutleaf Daisy. The wonder is that it grows well down here in Boise and also thrives at more than 6,000 feet higher! We learn by trial and error which high elevation plants can descend to the valley and which can’t.

Regular nursery open hours are due to end in just two days, yet there are still so many beautiful plants in bloom! In this strange year–cold, with snow in May, then heat without a break all summer–the flowering time of many plants was delayed. Several plants are just now beginning to flower. But of course, no two years or seasons are alike or predictable. The magic is in growing plants that are flexible and resilient, plants that can put up with whatever our erratic and changing climate throws at them.

The two plants shown above are versions of Lacy Buckwheat (Eriogonum corymbosum), a beautiful, large Utah native. Both will cover themselves with small white flowers in the fall, but one will bloom earlier than the other. These two plants offer a great example of something I see all the time: genetic variability in native plants. Unlike highly cultivated species—which tend to be quite uniform –native plants can be highly variable in appearance, even differing in leaf color as in our two examples. This genetic variability allows native plants to adapt and survive the challenges that Mother Nature throws at them year after year.

And for me, it is also one of the challenges and joys of gardening with natives.

There is no sweeter place for a tiny xeric landscape than on a shed roof. This one was constructed by my friend David, a visionary gardener. When I climbed up a ladder to get a better look, I saw the expected sedums–but the big surprise was all the prickly pear cacti. Apparently they are shallow-rooted and completely suited to a green roof. Who knew?

Harvest time in the Hackberry!
Netleaf Hackberries are a striking presence in the rock outcroppings of our lower foothills, and they produce a crop of small, sweet berries each year. The trees hang onto much of that fruit through winter, then leaf out in the late spring. Although the berries are partially dried, the birds are now having a feast.
Yesterday as I walked over to the nursery, I saw robins, waxwings and others swarming this tree.
So why plant natives? Hackberries are a great example of how native species can support local wildlife.

As many of you know, insects are in crisis. The latest numbers from the Xerces Society are very troubling. Destruction of habitat–the result of industrial farming and general human sprawl–is probably the main cause for the catastrophic decline of many insect species. But those of us who own or control even a small bit of ground can help out by creating better habitat, especially by growing flowering plants. The above photo of bumblebees on Nodding Onion in the demonstration garden shows the potential.
A new booklet, “100 Treasure Valley Pollinator Plants” is hot off the press, full of information to help folks make planting decisions that will benefit all kinds of bugs. The booklets will be available at the nursery next spring. It was the brainchild of Judy Snow, who also created the Pollinator Garden at the Garden City Library–always worth a visit!

The longer that I work with plants, the more I learn to love and appreciate insects of all kinds. This time of year, insect activity is one of the best things about the garden. The story of insects is a story of connections: plants feed insects, insects pollinate plants, insects become food for birds, bats, fish, frogs and more.
Watching these beautiful and industrious bees, it is easy to forget that the big picture for insects is truly grim. Dave Goulson, entomologist and author of two entertaining books about bees (A Sting in the Tale and A Buzz in the Meadow) recently wrote about what he calls the looming “Insect Apocalypse”. Researchers are seeing a decline in the overall abundance of insects worldwide on the order of 75% over the past 50 years. The data is alarming, depressing and numbing, but we can all do something.
Goulson asks us to “Imagine green cities filled with trees, vegetable gardens, ponds and wild flowers squeezed into every available space – in our gardens, city parks, allotments, cemeteries, on road verges, railway cuttings and roundabouts – and all free from pesticides.”
It’s a vision well worth working on.
Note: The nursery will be open for fall planting starting Wednesday, September 1. Hours are: Wednesday-Friday 12-5; Saturday 10-5. Loads of plants will be available!

These lovely Asters have been blooming away in my backyard for several weeks now. As the growing year winds down, there is nothing more satisfying–for us and especially for the bees–as fall-blooming Asters. One member of this tribe, Boltonia or “False Aster”, has on occasion bloomed clear into December! Are things looking a bit dull in your yard right now? Think Asters!

This was the scene yesterday over at the vegetable beds near the nursery: last year’s lettuce popping up again in March! This has been going on for several years now: Pam & Roger, the gardeners, allow some of their lettuce to go to seed, and–voila!–we have all kinds of baby lettuce the following spring. If thinned, many of these will produce beautiful big heads.
At this point, you make be contemplating a Victory Garden. Good idea! If you don’t happen to have lettuce volunteers, it’s not too late to seed–and lettuce comes on fast in the spring.

Greetings from New Mexico! I am here visiting my daughter and brand new granddaughter. Meanwhile, a couple hikes and some exciting plants. This one, Narrowleaf Yucca (Yucca angustissima) was seen growing in abundance at Rio Grande del Norte National Monument. As you can see from the photo, this (like all our true Western yuccas) is far different from the one you see all over Boise. So much more erect and structurally pleasing. Some of you may recall a previous rant about those wretched (Eastern) Yuccas . . . .

I stopped by to see my friend Nell the other day and was wowed by her stunning front yard. A vibrant celebration of native plants, it features Orange Globemallow, Woolly Sunflower (aka ‘Oregon Sunshine’) and several different Penstemons. These are set off by Bitterbrush (on the left, just finishing bloom) and Curleaf Mountain Mahogany. Originally designed and installed by Casey O’Leary in 2013 and cared for by Nell ever since, it is a real inspiration!


The Paintbrush is blooming on Mores Mountain! It’s just one of the most striking sights awaiting hikers. But as much as people would love to have Paintbrush in their home gardens, I have not yet figured out how to grow these beauties in a pot–or even in the ground. Fun facts: 1) the red you see are bracts (modified leaves), which hide the tiny flowers 2) most Paintbrushes are semi-parasitic, deriving some of their nutrients and water from the roots of a host plant, a strategy that allows them to inhabit drier spots.There are about 250 species of Paintbrush in N. America and over 20 in Idaho. Photo courtesy of Kathleen Moyer.

June 15, 2018

People often ask for plants that attract hummingbirds. Because of their tubular flowers, Penstemons are a great choice. I’ve been watching hummers return to this planting of Rocky Mountain Penstemons in my backyard every morning and evening for a couple weeks now. Before that, the birds were busy visiting my nearby Snowberries. Red flowers are especially good at attracting hummingbirds, but Penstemons of any color work! They are also an excellent food source for different types of bees and an occasional butterfly.

     Fall is coming and it feels like the beginning—not the end–of our nursery season. Since most of our plants are perennials, they grow slowly. When started from seed in the spring, most of them are just ready for sale about now, which means that this time of year we have the most to offer. The tables are full!
     But, more importantly for you the gardener—fall is the premium time to plant perennials. Small starts go into the ground as the weather is cooling and so avoid the heat stress of summer. They have many months to keep working on their big root systems—one secret to drought tolerance—before being put to the test next year. Fall planted perennials are set to take off the next spring and they are often astounding in how much they grow in their first year.

Arrowleaf Balsamroot, Balsamorhiza saggitatta, is my nominee for the title ‘Queen of the Foothills’. Its big, happy flowers are one of the first treats of the wildflower season. The blooms arise from a massive taproot that can extend 6’ into the ground.  This huge root, plus stems and seeds, were all used for food and medicine by many native peoples.
Many, if not most, native plants thrive only in restricted elevation ranges. Not Balsamroot! Given full sun and relatively dry soil, this plant grows cheerfully from the lowest to the highest elevations in our foothills. So for flower lovers, the Balsamroot season stretches out as we follow the movement of spring up the mountain.
The downside of Balsamroot is that it refuses to grow for any length of time in a pot. Apparently, its gigantic taproot will not tolerate such a restriction. So—no Balsamroot at the nursery! You can collect seed in about a month, direct sow it into the ground and wait patiently for nature to take its course.

If you have a moment to take a quick drive up Bogus Basin Road, you will see Rabbitbrush right now in all its glory. Rabbitbrush bides its time, growing on its silver-gray leaves throughout the spring and summer–a typical denizen of our high desert environment. Then, wham! Fall arrives and Rabbitbrush bursts into exuberant bloom, like one last blast of summer sun before the dark of winter. These clumps of tiny yellow flowers will soon turn white with seed, and there will be a beauty there too. I love Rabbitbrush in the wild, and I love it as an elegant landscape plant in the xeric garden.

If you have been hiking in the foothills or along the greenbelt recently, you have probably noticed lots of these little cages protecting tiny plants. They are part of the ongoing, city-led work to restore areas of native habitat.  As folks become aware that improving habitat is crucial to the long-term health of insects, fish and birds, volunteers have jumped in to help. Leading the effort to organize and recruit volunteers is our local chapter of the Audubon Society. It is exciting to see how a love of birds is translating naturally into a love of the native plants that support birds. To learn about a variety of projects underway and perhaps to become a volunteer, check out this information on the Audubon website:

Over the years I continue to revise my thinking about what makes a great landscape plant. One of the first plants that I worked with when starting the nursery was ordinary Catmint, Nepeta mussinii. As much as I liked it, I realized that it seeded out freely and could be a troublesome invader. So I switched to a sterile type of Catmint, one that definitely would not overrun a garden.

However, as I observed ordinary Catmint spreading itself throughout my huge front yard, I noticed how beautifully long-blooming it is and how much it is visited by bees and other pollinators. The sterile form, on the other hand, didn’t bloom as long or enthusiastically and did not offer a lot for pollinators. I learned that when we choose plants for certain qualities (like good behavior), we may lose other benefits (like production of pollen and nectar).

Catmint is not appropriate for every landscape, but in the right setting it is a superstar!

Rosemary is one of my favorite water-thrifty landscape plants. It is beautiful, especially in winter, and feeds honeybees in summer. The hitch is that Rosemary, even the most cold-hardy varieties (e.g. ‘Arp’) are only marginally hardy here in Boise. The solution: find (if you can) the right micro-climate like this one–a warm, sunny, south-facing brick wall. The brick is not absolutely necessary, but it helps.
P.S. Note the purple carpet in front. That is Woolly Thyme in winter, a nice contrast.


As summer kicks into full gear, we begin hustling to gather seed at Draggin’ Wing Nursery. There are nearly 90 species on my seed collection list this year, most of which are available from plants now growing in the demonstration gardens.
The seed set on Curleaf Mountain Mahogany, above, is particularly spectacular this year. Probably thanks to those amazing spring rains. When a tree is loaded with seed like this, the whole plant can look like a giant ball of fuzz.
Attached to each seed is a long, furry tail. As the seed ripens, the tail begins to corkscrew. And when the seed eventually falls, the corkscrew can help to spin it right into the ground.
Curleaf Mountain Mahogany is a widespread native tree/shrub occurring in upland areas throughout southern Idaho as well as the West in general. One of its great assets as a landscape plant is that the leaves stay green all winter. It is an unusual creature: an evergreen tree that is not a pine, fir or spruce.

Of the three ‘hot’ deserts in the western US (Sonoran, Mohave and Chihuhuan), the Sonoran is considered the most botanically diverse. Never having been there before, I recently drove south to see it

Ancient giant saguaros, pockmarked with the old holes of nesting birds, are almost other-worldly.  Agaves, from small to gigantic, form graceful, fat rosettes–many with dead  flowering stalks still towering above them. Sprawling prickly pears and fuzzy-looking chollas catch the sun.  Tall thin, spiny ocotillos wave in the breeze.  An amazing variety of trees– palo verde, ironwood, mesquite and others thrive in the hot lowlands, while various oaks, junipers, sycamore, manzanita and much, much more grow at higher elevations.

All in all, it is an amazing landscape, full of plants of amazing form and variety. I had hoped to see a few more spring flowers, but the winter has been dry and there was little color. Yet the beauty of the Sonoran Desert (like any great landscape) does not depend on colorful flowers alone.

As spring is rapidly advancing, are you eager to check out some of the early blooming wildflowers in the Boise foothills? If so, take a look at Treasures of the Boise Front, an marvelously informative website created by botanist Barbara Ertter. You can find detailed descriptions of many foothills hikes, along with pictures and descriptions of native and non-native plants found along those hikes. One to look for right now is the endearing Sagebrush Buttercup.

Driving up to Bogus Basin recently, I noticed the beautiful clumps of Strict Buckwheat scattered along the roadside. Strict Buckwheat always blooms this time of year in the lower foothills, but I was particularly impressed by its ability to put on a dazzling show despite the blazing heat of the past summer. Strict Buckwheat is one of my favorites in the native garden, spreading gently by seed and staking claim to any open dry area.
Note: A friend recently forwarded a NY Times article entitled “Why You Should Do Your Spring Planting in the Fall”. The article reaffirmed much of my gardening experience. Fall planting provides new transplants a long period of R&R before facing the heat and drought of summer. The vigor of a fall-planted hardy perennial far surpasses that of one planted in the spring. At the nursery, where we begin production in early spring, many of our perennials are not ready to plant out until fall. Leftovers from fall sales are what we have to offer in early April.

If you get a chance, stick your nose in a handful of syringa blossoms and inhale. Our beautiful state flower is in full bloom right now, and I think this is a banner year.
The plant was named (botanically) after Meriwether Lewis–Philadelphus lewisii. But it is commonly called after two other plants: oranges–as in ‘Mock Orange’ and lilacs–as in ‘syringa’, which is the genus for lilacs. Ah, the confusion of common names.
Syringa is quite widespread along various trails in the foothills, but you are not likely to really notice it until it is blooming.
Last summer, I was fortunate enough to experience a raft trip down the Middle Fork of the Salmon River. It was late June, and syringa was in full bloom, lining the river banks for mile after mile. It was breathtaking. I have rarely had a more visceral sense of the generosity and beauty of nature: a great choice for our state flower.

Years ago, when the kids were small, we started replacing the traditional Christmas tree with a sagebrush. Going out into the desert to cut one was a family adventure and the result was always somehow miraculous. The trees looked windswept and architectural, beautiful in the way that asymmetrical Japanese-style flower arranging is beautiful.
These days when I am out hiking I am often struck by the unpredictable and graceful forms of many sagebrush. While sagebrush is not a good fit for many landscape projects, I think it is too often overlooked as design feature, especially in native and xeric projects. Next time you look at sagebrush in the wild, see if you find the structural beauty in its gnarly, off-kilter form.

Years ago, when the kids were small, we started replacing the traditional Christmas tree with a sagebrush. Going out into the desert to cut one was a family adventure and the result was always somehow miraculous. The trees looked windswept and architectural, beautiful in the way that asymmetrical Japanese-style flower arranging is beautiful.
These days when I am out hiking I am often struck by the unpredictable and graceful forms of many sagebrush. While sagebrush is not a good fit for many landscape projects, I think it is too often overlooked as design feature, especially in native and xeric projects. Next time you look at sagebrush in the wild, see if you find the structural beauty in its gnarly, off-kilter form.

Defying the the cold, slushy, Friday the 13th weather, this group of hardy volunteers met along the Boise River yesterday to continue the work of removing stands of invasive False Indigo (Amorpha fruticosa) and planting saplings of native Cottonwood. False Indigo is a vigorous shrub that has moved in from its native range in the central U.S. to colonize the banks of the Boise River, crowding out willows, cottonwoods and other native species. The project was sponsored by BREN, Boise River Enhancement Network, a mostly volunteer organization dedicated to improving the ecological health of the Boise River. Removing invasive species such as False Indigo, Canada Thistle and Russian Olive is a big part of that effort.
Check out the BREN website for information on river health, restoration efforts, birds of the Boise River and more!