Panayoti Kelaidis, Denver Botanic Gardens |Central Texas Gardener

December 27, 2019

– Today we’re talking with Panayoti Kelaidis,
or AKA, PK. – That’s right. – For short. You’re the senior curator and director of
Outreach at the Denver Botanic Gardens? – I am indeed. – One of your specialities is really the cultivation
of native alpine and zeric species? – Absolutely, yeah. When I started at Denver Botanic Gardens,
it was pretty much a park with mostly just annuals and fairly common things, and I developed
the first big display of perennials at the Botanic Gardens, just as the perennial explosion
occurred. – So how did you get interested in that, versus
sort of the typical? – Well, I suppose it’s the way a lot of… I was one of those plant little nerds, you
know. Occasionally you get this kids who are really
into, especially cactii or succulents, but growing up in the Rockies like I did, and
spending a lot of time in the mountains with my family, fishing and whatever, the wildflowers
in the Rockies are so spectacular that I always was interested in wildflowers. And eventually, it suddenly became my career. – It’s always interesting to hear about how
people sort of got bit by the plant bug, and especially nowadays since there’s increasing
plant blindness, and there’s sort of a decline in botany and why it’s so important. So I always find it very fascinating to hear
each person’s story. So, you’re also the co-author of Steppes:
The Plants and Ecology of the World’s Semi-arid Regions. What is a steppe? – Most people, if they hear the words, the
steppe concept, they think of Russia, and Russia has these vast grasslands that they
called, in Russian, , which meant step. But that word was applied, gradually, more
and more to that kind of climate region across Asia, and just like the Mediterranean climate
region occurs in California, South Africa, we realized that people didn’t realize how
similar these climate regions were around the world that are in the middle of continents. They’re very cold, and dry, and have grass. So, this is the first book, I think, that
really has highlighted the fact that we have these sister climates in South America, South
Africa, Asia, and especially in the heart of America. A lot of people know about the woodlands of
the east, – Sure. – and they know about, you know, the California
coast. – Right, right. – And they know about Florida, but people
don’t realize that there’s this phenomenal climatic zone that occupies most of the United
States, which we have replaced, mostly, with corn and soybeans and wheat, and that this
is one of the richest biological regions in North America. – And I was surprised to find there’s really
a lot of variety in there. – Absolutely, well, what do we eat? Well, we eat grains, which of course are grass,
so the dominant element of a steppe is grass. And then, what else do we eat? We eat things like beans and pulses, and so
the bean family is number two. And then we have things like the crest family. It turns out the families of plants that predominate
in the steppe regions of the world are what we eat, and that’s because we are products
of the steppe. Humans actually evolved on the steppes of
South Africa and gradually wandered to the steppes of Central Asia, so we are the steppe
children of the world. And so, you want to know that the steppe is? It’s what we eat. – Well that’s, wow. That’s really, really interesting. Steppe children, I like it. So for you, what makes these communities so
unique, these plant compositions of the steppe? What makes it different from, say, just a
prairie or something like that? – Well, prairies are parts of the steppe phenomenon,
and in North America it really includes the tall grass prairie, the short grass prairie,
all of that is steppe. And it’s essentially areas that get extremely
cold winters, usually down around zero or so, and then hot summers, and where the landscape
is predominantly grasslands. So that’s, most of the world’s steppe regions
kind of fit that MO. And in the United States you’re really looking
at Central Texas as kind of the south end of that, and then it goes all the way up to
Canada. And that is the bread basket of North America. – Sure. – It’s also one of the most important areas
where people are moving, just like here in Austin, and then Denver, has become a major
focus. So the steppe has become an area where people
first grows and develops into human beings, and now we’re kind of inundating these steppe
regions again. And I think we have to know what we have lost,
and what we should preserve. And a lot of that is the interest of why we
did this book. – Okay. Well, also, looking into this, there are also
antibiotic components of steppes that are just as important as the plants, or have a
profound influence in these areas? – Well, yeah, obviously the fact that most
of the steppe regions have a mountain range to their west. That kind of keeps the rainfall, that’s what
governs the dryness conditions that you have. Then you have the situation, the prevailing
winds. But what really, I think, more than anything
else, the climatic extremes are what have created these conditions but I think what
makes them so compelling is the fact that, because you have these extreme conditions,
the plants that have evolved there are extremely diverse, because every little niche is a little
different. – [John Hart] Right. – So, if you’re in England, for example, no
matter where you plunk your rhododendron, it’ll grow. But when you come from a climate like central
Texas or Colorado, or much of the steppe shady varia, you could have ferns, you could have
things from moist climates. If it’s a hot, exposed area you might have
cactii and succulents. And then you have the grasslands, so you have
these incredible, subtle micro-climatic factors and that’s what people have in their home
gardens as well. So, if you’re trying to garden in someplace
like Kansas, if you want to grow rhodedendron, boy you better put in a lot of humas and water
it all the time. You know what I mean? – Right. – And so, you have to learn how to manage
micro-climate much better in a climate like the steppe. – I’d like to go a little bit now into sort
of the design aspect of this, right? So, what is your strategy when it comes to
planting designs using these plant communities? Versus, you know, it seems like these lend
themselves more towards a more integrated approach versus, you know, what people might
typically think of a flower bed or something. I don’t think you do, either. – Well, I think, theoretically, you could
have a very standard, very conventional flower bed, with just steppe plants. It could be done, and in fact we actually
recently, one of our colleagues designed a garden like that using very drought-loving
plants, and it works. – [John Hart] Right. – You can do that, but you really have to
consider, for example, Colorado. When I was born we only had about a million
people and now we’re approaching seven million, and yet we have the same amount of water coming
from the mountains. Now, we’ve had a couple of wet years, so nobody
worries, but we’re gonna have a drought. And when you have a drought, now we have a
million more people with their straws in the water, so to speak. – Right. – So, if we really wanna have landscapes that
can survive over time, you have to have plants that can survive over time. And these drought periods usually last three
or four years, and if you have trees that need a lot of water, or shrubs that need a
lot of water, they just die. So, part of the reason we’re looking at these
plants is, number one, they will live. And it turns out that a lot of the steppe
plants are spectacularly showy, we just haven’t bothered. For example, one of my hosts here in Texas,
Scott Ogden, found this grass growing near Dallas called, it’s a muhly grass, it’s a
Texas muhly, and we introduced it through plant select. It’s the most beautiful grass you can imagine. It’s Muhlenbergli reverchonii, and it’s a
Texas native, and it’s become an important garden plant all over the United States. It turns out, if it grows in west Texas, central
Texas, it’s probably gonna grow other places. And yet, it’s one of the most beautiful. And guess what? It’s become a hugely popular plant in Europe. Even though it’s not a steppe condition there,
it’ll adapt. – I’ve certainly heard people say, well, some
of these native plants aren’t as showy, or they don’t see as much variety in some of
them. I mean, there’s some wildflowers, obviously. – I’m sorry, I have to disagree. Some of the most spectacular plants that are
used in gardens all over the world are our prairie plants. The echinaceas, the rubiaceas, the lupines,
the Texas bluebonnets, these are gorgeous and they’re the basis of the English border. I think the trouble is that we have brainwashed
people into thinking that things have to look a certain way, and the fact is that our native
plants, done well, are more beautiful. And I have seen gardens that are native and
adapted and they’re more beautiful because they actually adapt to the landscape and the
gardeners don’t have to kill themselves to maintain them. In the long run, you can create gardens that
you can walk away from and they won’t fall apart. – I’d like to know your thoughts as well,
certainly a lot of the things that we hear when we deal with native plants at the Wildflower
Center, is that they want that ever green sort of thing, or always flowering. And a lot of that comes out with traditional
gardening through the planting of annuals and just circulating that out. But something that I definitely find quite
rich is that you get these textures and seasonality with these natives that change over time,
and so they’re not necessarily a static… You know, we tend to think of our gardens
as always having to look a certain way, but when you plug in with some of these natives
they offer you this whole different view. – I get you, and there is a way. You know, you plant some petunias, or you
plant some things, and you get this nice patch of color. But, you know, you can get that with a salvia. You can get that with agastaches, for example,
those are southwestern natives. Now it is a slightly different texture, but
eventually, once you acquire that texture, you look at these banks of just the same solid
color and it gets boring after a while. But, part of the reason we look at things
like our native grasses, is you have a garden that incorporates some grasses, some succulents,
some native shrubs, and that really works year-round and you don’t have to kill yourself
every couple of months by tearing everything out and starting over again. And, there’s nothing like the grass moving
in the wind. I think once people understand and utilize
our native plants intelligently, they’ll never go back because it’s so much more gratifying,
and so much deeper. – Panayoti, thank you so much for coming to
speak with us today. This was a quite enriching discussion and
I really enjoyed spending time with you, and I think the audience will as well. Well, coming up next is Daphne to answer all
your questions.

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