Chasing Wildflowers: A Mad Search for Wild Gardens

Raconteur Scott Calhoun leaves his plant-loving reader ravenous for Baja fish tacos, Mexican Coca-Cola, ice-cold Tecate, Red Iguana mole, Johnny Cash, Ravel, Kandinsky, Yeats, Lewis Carroll—and sneaking out from home at four in the morning to hunt for what spring does to wild places.

Chasing Wildflowers is “garden” writing at its juiciest. Calhoun has constructed an ark bearing into the world his passions for exploration, traveling, photography, thinking, eating, listening, reading, friendship, family, plants, gardens—in fact, for life in all its forms.

Calhoun’s actual arks are a number of wheeled vehicles, including the 2000 Toyota 4Runner of a friend who believed that it has been blessed by a Navajo medicine man.

Over a period of two years, desert-dwelling Calhoun (a professional plantsman and garden designer from Tucson) takes off in early spring for trips to Sonora, Mexico; Sedona, Arizona; Coral Pink Sand Dunes, Utah; Baja California; Lancaster, California; Austin, Texas; Snowbird, Utah; Vail, Colorado; Cedar Breaks, Utah; southeastern Arizona; and southern Arizona’s Huachuca Mountains in search of spring flowers in wild gardens.

Sometimes in the company of pals or family members, Calhoun finds them: Yucca baccata and his beloved penstemons in the high country of Sedona; the fabled boojum (Fouquieria columnaris) and eponymous fairy duster (Calliandra eriophylla) in Baja California. Thanks to Calhoun’s sensitive photography (along with his lovely prose), the reader can appreciate the beauty of these delicate, flowering, ephemeral landscapes.

My favorite photograph (page 57) is of Joshua trees (Yucca brevifolia), rabbitbrush (Chrysothamnus nauseosus), and goldfields (Lasthenia spp.) in a misty landscape near Lancaster. Goldfields carpet the landscape with sweeps of tiny yellow daisies. Calhoun comments on the moment:

When I turned north onto Highway 14, those roadside yuccas petered out, and Lancaster arose like a dusty and forgotten province of LA. I stopped only for gas, and hurried out to the poppy preserve. . . . All afternoon, the weather threatened. Dark gray clouds had gathered over the mountains and valley, looking a lot like rain. I reached the edge of the poppy preserve as big, low, blowsy clouds crept over the hills. Then I saw it—down beneath the gray clumps of rabbitbrush was a carpet of goldfields, a tiny yellow daisy that sends up to 500 to 800 blooms per square foot!

I was sometimes impatient as Calhoun fiddled with tripods and the like. If he were a less passionate man, I might not have noticed. But, as it is, his book is delicious. I never wanted a moment’s distraction from what he was seeing, feeling, hearing, thinking, tasting, and smelling. The truth of any book is how it lingers with and changes the reader. Among what has lingered with me are a serious fish taco craving and nonstop Johnny Cash lyrics: “We got married in a fever . . .” (Calhoun was speaking of his own marriage.)

And here’s how I’ve changed: As soon as this year turns to the next, I will be daily checking www.desertusa.com (“the most comprehensive wildflower site for the Southwest”) and www.calphoto.com, an equally compelling day-by-day alert to the wildflower season in California. The 2005 Prius will be gassed, the iPod chock-a-block with road tunes . . . and one dark morning, I’ll roll out of the driveway at four.

Paula Panich, garden writer
Los Angeles, California