HIGH GROUND: PENSTEMONS & OTHER ALPINE PLANTS, MIKE KINTGEN, CURATOR OF ALPINE PLANTS, DENVER BO
"Alpine plants are very cute - deep down they remind of the beautiful mountain habitats that they live in. Even on a day when I haven’t been in the mountains for several weeks, I can see Gentian acaulis in the garden or a penstemon in the garden and it immediately takes me back to time in the Alps or in the steppes of Western North America…."
Mike Kintgen, Curator of Alpine Plants, Denver Botanic Gardens
Alpine plants – those uniquely interesting individuals and communities that not only survive but thrive in the extreme conditions of high elevations around the globe have a long history of attraction for plantspeople and gardeners the world over. Increasingly, they are ever more attractive to scientists and researchers as well looking for indications of the complex effects of the climate crisis on our world’s plantlife, and for strategies that plants employ for greater resilience.
For our fourth and final episode in a series exploring some of the varied and innovative work being done by native plant experts, enthusiasts and organizations on the ground around the country - we go high – to Denver, Colorado to speak with with Mike Kintgen – plantsman, home gardener in both Denver and Steamboat Springs, CO , and Curator of Alpine Plants at the Denver Botanic Gardens in Colorado.
The Denver Botanic Gardens has one of the largest alpine collections in the country and is home to the Plant Collections Network “Alpines of the World Collection.” It is widely considered among the best alpine and rock garden collections in the world. Mentored by some of the best in the world, including Denver Botanic Gardens’ Panayoti Kelaidis, Mike is an active and often leadership member of the North American Rock Garden Society and the American Penstemon Society. He regularly speaks around the world on the Denver Botanic Gardens and its steppe and high elevation floras found in semi-arid regions around the world
In our conversation, Mike describes the extensive collections of alpine plants at the DBG and explains some of the ex situ conservation work on their behalf, in other words conservation growing, seed saving, and trialling of these plants outside of their native environments in order to inform how to best care for them in their native places. He shares some of the importance and concerns with understanding the life of the alpine zones in the world as some of the first environments and likely most endangered by the ongoing climate crisis. He is an active member and advocate for some of the groups working to raise awareness and protections for alpine and steppe plants – including the North American Rock Garden Society and the American Penstemon Society.
You can follow along with Mike Kintgen's Alpine work at the Denver Botanic Gardens online: Denverbotanicgardens.com; and the DBG and Mike on Instagram: denverbotanic, or Mike's Page: mikekintgen; and on Facebook: denverbotanicgardens or Mike's page: mike.kintgen.5
The North American Rock Garden Society are at: NARGS.org
And here, finally is a link to the North American Botanic Garden DRAFT Strategy for Alpine Plant Conservation that Mike mentioned. The strategy is being co-authored by the Betty Ford Alpine Gardens and the DBG.
THINKING OUT LOUD this week..
Here’s an image from this conversation that is really staying with me – that of Mike the young boy – 7 years old maybe? Who wanders down his cul de sac and is compelled by and happy in the sight of his neighbor Alice’s front garden – her flowers, the trees, the patterns and colors – the seasonal shifts.
I know I’m always going on about the power of our gardens in this world – my firm belief in their (and our) ability to effect positive change in our families, our communities, our economies, and our culture through this activity and relationship we ourselves are called to.
The journey of young Mike falling in love with Alice’s Garden, then going on to join the Rock Garden Society, and volunteer at the Denver Botanic Gardens and be mentored by one of the world’s great alpine plantsmen, Panayoti Kelaidis, and in turn becoming a leading plantsman himself and mentoring, modeling to, and teaching 1000s of others through his passion – well there just isn’t a better example than this as to the ripple effects of our own gardens and our own proactive welcoming of the whole world (in whatever way we’re moved) into our gardens of beauty and life.
This is a ripple effect to have faith in - enduring faith. Keep gardening. It’s important.
I love that there are Botanic Gardens and Arboretums in the world – communal places designated for the appreciation of, learning about and just spending a little time with plants in otherwise very human centric spaces.
It wasn’t until I lived in a more urban environment for the first time, which was during high school for me that I regularly visited such spaces and it wasn’t until I’d lived for a time in New York City as a young adult that I became heartsick for green spaces. Heartsick and homesick for the earth actually. I didn't even recognize the source of my sadness until I recognized that I felt better after being in green – even little bits of green. The likes of Central Park were good ideas for so many people on so many levels.
When I was mother of very little girls living just outside of Denver and visiting family in the city quite regularly, the Denver Botanic Gardens was our go-to urban outing. We’d all feel better just going through the entrance – they girls'd be let loose from the stroller or pack and I’d be let loose too - breathing deeply, moving - running freely – our eyes, lungs, hearts, and heads more relaxed almost immediately – I remember especially-needed walks in early spring after a long snowy winter inside - walking with the girls under a beautiful old alleé of flowering crabapple trees in spring.
Perhaps you live in a city or have and perhaps you have a public garden or arboretum, a good public park, even a well-tended cemetery or university campus that is your personal green refuge and place of regeneration? As we head toward the end of summer, as students around the world return to dormitories and classrooms – work schedules perhaps intensifying again after summer breaks – pay attention to this need in yourself and those around you.
Pay attention to those spaces that fill this need in you – notice the people who make these spaces possible as communal sources of energy and light.
From legislators and voters who pass bonds to support botanic gardens, or maintain protections for state and national parks and seashores, to the people working in them every day - like Mike - to make and keep them such beautiful and regenerative communal resources – thank you all.
These spaces mean more to the rest of us than you might know – than even we might know ourselves.
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