Hartley Magazine

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Step into Steppes by Ethne Clarke

The semi-arid steppes of the world can teach us ways to conserve water in our gardens and create sustainable landscapes.

This year the North American Rock Garden Society, aka NARGS, is holding its annual general meeting in Colorado, hosted by the Rocky Mountain Chapter. Kicking off at the Denver Botanic Garden, it then moves to Steamboat Springs for the main event; I’m all signed up!

This year’s AGM is set to be the largest gathering in quite some time, with members from all over the world attending – attracted not just by the stellar quality of the speakers, but also by the opportunity to do some serious botanizing hikes in the Rocky Mountains.

The conference theme is the study and appreciation of the particular biome known as a steppe: there are five in the world, including the one I grew up in and on the fringe of which I now live – the Central North American Steppe — it might be more familiar as the Great Plains — stretching from Canada to Mexico, and hugging the Rockies along its western edge.

02 Central Americe Steppe Neil Allen
The Rocky Mountains runs like a backbone between the grasslands of the Central North American steppe to the east and the Intermountain North American Steppe, which is occupied in large part by the Great Basin and its deserts to the west. Cartographer: Neil Allen

Since moving to the Front Range, I’ve been obsessively observing the freaky weather that rolls in over the top of Pike’s Peak or off the Kansas grasslands to the east. Getting to grips with gardening on a prehistoric sand dune and puzzling out the myriad other quirks of living at altitude (I love the bumper sticker, “Sea level is for sissies”) has been its own learning curve. Sudden fusillades of hail, wind that howls like a banshee through the trees. It’s never dull. Of course, there’s any number of scholarly books I could tackle to help me suss all this out, but life is too short and I need to crack on with my garden.

03_Pikes Peak
Clouds mantle the summit of Pike’s Peak, stretching along the whole range as far as my eye could see. Rolling in the from west, this bank hung there all day in early March, dumping “weather” on the western slopes, while we on the eastern side wished it would make up its mind

Fortunately, the Denver Botanic Garden, and its outlier, Chatfield Farm, a 700-acre public garden in Littleton, CO, have come up with the answer: They and Timber Press have published The Steppes: The Plants and Ecology of the World’s Semi-Arid Regions.  Written by a team of authors, all experts in their field, it is packed with knowledge and revelation, yet never dry or condescending, making it a exceptionally good read about the five steppe regions that are the most bio-diverse parts of our planet: the Central Asian, the Central North American, the Intermountain North American, the Patagonian and the South African.  Note that two of the five steppes are in North America.

The introduction, written by Panyoti Keliades, Senior Curator and Director of Outreach at the Denver Botanic Garden, roams freely – like the man himself — across these regions, setting them in their global context, describing the etymology of the word steppe, before moving on to comparative analyses and overviews of their climates, geology, flora and fauna and much more.

04_Steppes COVER
At 359 pages including index, with more than 300 color photos and maps, Steppes is a treasure trove of accessible, workable information to five of the world’s most important yet under-recognized biomes. These vast tracts of semi-arid land, and the plants that grow there, have great potential for ornamental use in public and private landscapes. Photo Ethne Clarke


05 open book
Open Book

Talking to Panyoti about why this book matters to anyone who gardens, or has a healthy curiosity about our world, no matter where they live, he explained that, beyond causing humans to first stand upright to see above horizon of tall grasslands, and to take a bi-pedal step forward to explore, the steppes were the nursery of humankind.

“The challenge and danger of the steppes are responsible for Homo sapiens’ enormous brain and sophisticated social networking. The first crops in Eurasia were domesticated on the steppe foothills of the Caucasus (wheat, barley), and in the Americas a few millennia later (corn, potatoes).”

Driving the point home, he emphasized, “The steppes were the superhighways of human migration, so we are all children of the steppes. Yet, ironically, it is the least understood biome on the planet.”

So what does that mean for you and me? Well, as I emerged from the chapter about the Central North American Steppe, all the wiser for having had the climate and geology explained clearly and succinctly by the author, Larry Vickerman, Director of DBG Chatfield, and comprehending the interdependencies of the biome, I understood why it makes sense to embrace the tough and wily plants that have evolved to survive here. In most basic terms, this is where I start my “native” garden, and the Plant Primer, which concludes each chapter, is ground zero. My sand dune at 7000 feet is going to be pretty amazing by the time I’m done with it.

06_Blonde Ambition_DBG
‘Blonde Ambition’, an introduction from Plant Select is a highly ornamental form of the common prairie blue grama grass (Bouteloua gracilis), and a must-have plant for dry gardens in the American west. Photo Denver Botanic Gardens




Thanks to Timber Press, I have two copies of this terrific book to give away to the first two readers to message me “I Like Steppes” on Facebook @ Ethne Clarke. The Force be with you!


Or, for more information about the book, click here.


© Ethne Clarke 2016

Other than those taken by the author, all photos are from Steppes© Copyright 2015 by Denver Botanic Gardens. All rights reserved. Published by Timber Press, Portland, OR. Used by permission of the publisher.