Plains Folk

Jewels of the Plains


Comes the time of a prairie summer when we give thanks for the treasury of wildflowers that adorn our landscape. “Jewels,” the self-taught horticulturalist Claude Barr called them—but I’ll get around later to him and his wonderful book, Jewels of the Plains: Wildflowers of the Great Plains Grasslands and Hills.

You have your favorites, I have mine. Each of mine is associated in my mind with some particular place. Bergamot, in lavender waves lapping the slopes of the Killdeer Mountains. Butterfly milkweed, sparkling in the emerald pastures of the Flint Hills. Prairie penstemon, along Nebraska Sandhill roadways.

Up and down the plains, too, we have had our homespun horticulturalists, people who have invested in the effort to grow things in their niches of the prairie. I think immediately of Old Jules Sandoz, father of Mari Sandoz, the writer; I have seen the flowers and fruit trees he planted on his Nebraska homestead. Or there was Elam Bartholomew, that fastidious plantsman from Rooks County, Kansas.

Among them all, however, Claude Barr leaves a peculiar legacy. He was a botanist, a horticulturalist, a lover of prairie wildflowers, an explorer for botanical treasures, and a propagator of prairie plants for emplacement in cultivated gardens. His place was western South Dakota, specifically his ranch, which he called the Prairie Gem.

This was not an easy place for such an effort, for the ranch was marked, says Barr, by “its naturally treeless upland exposure, its difficult soil, and its lack of water facilities.”

Difficult soil: here Barr speaks of the notorious gumbo that is a fact of life in the country west of the Missouri River. In some other part of the plains, you might think you have difficult soils, but the gumbo is pernicious. It is exceedingly fine-textured. It absorbs moisture reluctantly, gives it up grudgingly; erodes readily (hence the badlands of the Dakotas); is alkaline; and lacks organic content.

Before improved roads, people knew better than to attempt travel on wet gumbo. It killed horses, impacted the wheels of wagons, and generally immobilized the country.

During the 1930s and for decades thereafter, Barr traveled the plains, from Texas to Saskatchewan, bringing home flowering plants dug from the wild to be planted, nurtured, and eventually sold to gardeners. This involved the laborious building up of soils for his plots and the hand-watering of the plants.

When he got too long in the tooth to keep up that kind of work, Barr set about writing his book, recounting his adventures and recording his plant knowledge. It turned out, too, he was something of a poet, for his plant descriptions often wax lyric. He writes, for instance, of the wildflower known as prairie smoke: “Refinement and delicacy of mien mark this somewhat retiring plant.” In reference to my favorite penstemon, mentioned above, he praises the “stately and well-attired P. grandiflorus, with long spikes of very large, lavender trumpets.”

The book was in press but not yet printed when Barr neared death in 1982. Friends put together a sort of page-proof, with his text and photographs, so he could see it before he died.

Barr’s Jewels of the Plains became a sort of cult classic, went out of print, but was brought back with an attractive new edition from University of Minnesota Press in 2015. Recommended for your summer reading, or as a gift to a gardening friend.

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