Expert Plantsmen Live Pie to Pie

[imgbelt img=pies-baking530.jpg]Horticulturist Allen Bush reaches rural Kansas and Nebraska just in time: Penstemon grandiflorus is in season, and so is strawberry-rhubarb pie.


Jelitto Perennial Seed colleague, came over from Germany for a visit in late May 1997, we did linger. Slivers of prairie remnants in Kansas and Nebraska had a peculiar appeal—more interesting, now, than the bright lights of the big western cities. Between us, we’ve traveled the Alps to the Altai and Andes poking around for plants. (Uebelhart, a native of Switzerland, has a sharp eye and an encyclopedic knowledge of plants – essential gifts for the best plant hunters.) It would be a stretch to call this work, but rarely does botanic obsession take on Indiana Jones-style intrigue, either. Occasional landslides and truck drivers, passing on blind curves, with perilous drop-offs and raging rivers hundreds of feet below have scared the wits out of us in a few far-flung places, but these aren’t worries in Kansas or Nebraska (though you should be careful for a speeding plantsman around Clarkson, Nebraska). The back roads in these parts are so desolate that an occasional passing car is more curious than death- threatening.

Dyck Arboretum in Hesston, Kansas, about forty-five minutes north of Wichita. Larry Vickerman, then Dyck Director and now Director of the Denver Botanic Gardens at Chatfield, dared us to come-out for a prairie tour. He promised us we wouldn’t be disappointed with the plants or the arboretum (we weren’t!), but made no assurances about the weather. In a manner that suggested there was still time to back-out, he mentioned the possibility of tornadoes that could blow us to Kingdom Come, days that could turn on a dime from near freezing to blistering hot, and gumbo roads so mud-choked when it rained, we might never get unstuck.

Jelitto Perennial Seed

Baptisia australis var. minor: cattle don’t like it, but
gardeners sure do

We never saw a funnel cloud but we found pleasures you won’t find at Stuckey’s. Delphinium virescens grew happily in a ditch in the Flint Hills, near Cambridge. And a lovely, dwarf Tradescantia tharpii prospered with inhospitable dry soils in the Smoky Hill Region around Marquette. Throughout Kansas and Nebraska we saw blue spikes of the smaller False Blue Indigo, Baptisia australis var. minor. I told my nurseryman friend George Arnold, of LeRoy, Kansas, how breathtakingly beautiful I thought this species was. The former rancher, who needs few words to make a point, replied, “The cattle won’t eat it.” I felt vindicated a few years later when I spotted it growing luxuriantly in the gardens in front of Arnold’s Greenhouse.  I still kid George about the littler Baptisia. (It’s still useless cattle feed, he reminds me.)

A Wichita television station got wind that a Swiss guy was wandering around looking at prairie plants. They sent a crew to tag along. Georg was asked —a half-dozen different ways—what was so wonderful about Kansas. “It’s beautiful!” he explained to a reporter who couldn’t quite understand why.

But plants were only half of it. Each day around noon, and later at dinnertime, we’d stop in a charming small town for nourishment. After the first lunch of cheeseburger, fries and a coke – one of many like this—the waitress, with hair up high, asked if we’d like a piece of pie. I politely refused. Vickerman took me aside as we left the restaurant and brought me to my senses.  “You’re in pie country!” he told me straight-up. I had no idea a refusal of a fresh slice of pie was a breach of prairie protocol. When asked, next time, don’t hesitate, he said: “You ask, ‘What’s fresh?’”

For the next few days, in and around small Kansas towns like Lincoln or Matfield Green, we continued a ritual of plants and pies. Oenothera macrocarpa ssp. fremontii, Calyophus serrulatus and Penstemon grandiflorus were in season. So was strawberry-rhubarb pie. And selections of key lime, chocolate coconut, cherry, and apple were available in a pinch. You could overhear folks at nearby tables talking about the offerings and freshness of pie crusts. These were connoisseurs.  Near mid-week, if further confirmation were needed, we witnessed an astounding rite of passage. We pulled into a country store, gassed-up and wandered in for some snacks (our craving for sugar by now addictive). A mother was ringing-up the cash register,  as her ten year old boy came flying through, and she yelled-out, “Johnny, don’t run-off. Today you’re going to make your first pie crust!”

[imgcontainer left] [img:Harlan-Hamernik320.jpg] [source]Allen Bush

Harlan Hamernik, nursery owner of Clakson, Nebraska, dares gardeners to try his Plains-friendly varieties.

Nobody loves plants of the Plains like Harlan Hamernik, founder of Bluebird Nursery in Clarkson, Nebraska; his wholesale company motto is: “If they’ll grow in Nebraska, they’ll grow anywhere!” Linger awhile with Harlan and your head will be spinning. His vast horticultural know-how is staggering, but as you head-off to a nearby prairie, his driving style makes Sichuan truck drivers look tame. I’ve never seen anyone barrel down a country road, scanning the uninterrupted horizon, barely looking at the road ahead, keeping-up his end of drive time banter, and still able to spot plants 150’ away, partially obscured by prairie grasses.

We pushed on to Ed Rasmussen’s Fragrant Path Nursery near Fort Calhoun, Nebraska. The weather had turned wet and cold, just as Vickerman had warned. Rasmussen mails-out a seed catalog each year that includes a fine list of rare heirloom flower, herb, grass, vine, tree and shrub seeds. Six days a week he oversees his commercial crops, packages seed orders, fusses over a substantial home vegetable garden and orchard, and tends his family’s private arboretum. On the seventh day, he bakes a pie. A man with a “love the one your with” outlook toward desserts, Ed said, “My favorite pie is generally the one I am eating at the moment.” His garden holds the key, but friends chip-in, too. In March he told me, “Yesterday we had a little lunch in the tool shed and Gretchen brought a rhubarb ginger custard (well, two) pie which was awfully good.” Ed confessed, “I generally don’t like it when people make pies as good or better than mine.” Then in a not so sheepish tone he added, “But by way of consolation, it doesn’t happen that often, and if I get to help destroy the evidence, that helps too.”

Linger over your own pie as long as needed. I’m certain all evidence will be eaten…