The gardener's eye

The Gardener's Eye

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Montana Jewel Heist

The Jewel Basin From Mount Aeneas

The Picnic Lakes

Mountain Goats Near Mount Aeneas Summit

Winding Pathway

Subalpine Fir Abies lasiocarpa Along Trail

Another Subalpine Trail

Field of Glacier Lily Erythronium grandiflorum

Naturalized Alpine daisies

Herbaceous Clematis

Last week we visited my wife's relatives who have a house on Swan Lake near Bigfork, Montana. It was my first trip to Montana and I fell in love with this region of the state just south of Glacier National Park. We spent a lot of time on the lake kayaking, tubing and water skiing but my favorite part of the trip was hiking in the Jewel Basin in Flathead National Park Wilderness Area about a half hour drive from the house.

The Jewel Basin gets its name because the high alpine lakes that circle the basin form what looks like a jewel necklace from the air. There was quite a bit of snow still on the ground and it reminded me of hiking in New Hampshire in April. July is the best month to observe the wildflowers of this subalpine habitat. The most common flower I encountered was the bright yellow glacier lily, Erythronium grandiflorum. I often saw it in great masses in fields and drifts along the trails leading to the summit of Mount Aeneas. The green corn lily, Veratrum viride, with its wide pleated green foliage, was a wonderful contrast to the bold architectural tufts glaucous leaves of the ubiquitous bear grass (actually in the lily family) Xerophyllum tenax.

What fascinated me most was the distribution of large drifts of perennials on a small scale and the subalpine fir, Abies lasiocarpa, on a grand scale. There was much to inspire me as I continue to develop the so-called wild garden in the lower level of my garden. I am particularly interested in foliage textures rather than the ephemeral beauty of flowers which are fleeting. The plantsmen in me tends to collect small numbers of a large variety of plants which ends up looking fussy and contrived.

When I returned to Peterborough, I saw the wild garden with new eyes and realized I want to have greater masses, but fewer species, of plants with interesting textures. I can't use the exact species that I observed in the Jewel Basin but I can try to replicate the feeling they evoked. I plan to relocate several of the spruce trees, Picea orientalis 'Gowdy', to form a more natural pattern like the one I observed with the subalpine fir but this time on a much smaller scale.

The recent drought has actually been fortuitous because it has prompted me to remove plants that pouted, like Veronicastrum virginicum, for example, while I was away. I will add more of the very tough but beautiful Trachystemon orientalis and larger drifts of epimediums and hellebores. I will most likely remove the stunted sourwood, Oxydendrum arboreum, and replace it with another silverbell, Halesia tetrapetala 'U. Conn. Wedding Bells', which has survived admirably. The search is now on for interesting plants that make the grade for a mass planting and are well-adapted to the dry woodland that I am creating.


  1. Dear Michael, I am amazed by your pictures of this magnificent region which, very clearly, is a haven for fauna and flora. The mountain goats are a delight, as is it all!!

    I note your comment on returning home that, contrary to the plantsman which you are, you should try for a fewer number of species but planted in greater numbers. This is exactly my philosophy and, although it of necessity means denial of much, it is, I believe, in the long run the more effective way of establishing garden pictures.

  2. Edith,

    Thanks for your kind comments. I'm glad you liked the pictures from the Jewel Basin. I was able to get quite close to the mountain goats which was very exciting and a little scary.

    I think trying out a wide variety has been a good first step in the process of making worthwhile garden pictures. Now I have a better idea of which plants to add and which ones to subtract.

  3. Those were great pictures. My mother grew up in a house on the shore of Flathead Lake in Polson. I was there every summer as a child. The high country is always a revelation: many species in great numbers, at least among the perennials. I love Xerophyllum tenax.

  4. Jordan,
    Thanks for your comment. Glad you like the pictures. What a great place to explore as a kid. I saw a few Xeroophyllum tenax in bloom which were very cool. I had no idea it is was not a grass. There seems to be a greater diversity of perennials in Montana then I have found in the NH White Mts.

  5. Incredible. Breathtaking. I think when I ahve more space someday, drifts--and massive drifts--are th eway to go. I've always wanted to visit Millemium Park in Chicago to see what an Oudolf design was like. Sometimes, my little spread feels claustrophobic with the variety, yet the variety is what helps the wildlife. A conundrum for sure.

  6. Michael, That was a beautiful tour of Jewel Basin. I'll have to start going to the gym more regularly so I can see it for myself one of these years. Love, Annie

  7. Annie,
    Great having you in Peterborough for a visit. Glad you were able to see the garden. Looking forward to hiking in the Jewel Basin! Love, Mike



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