Sunday, January 26, 2014

“the rarest prairie gem of all”

Claude Barr at his Prairie Gem Ranch in southwest South Dakota, 1976.  From Jewels of the Plains.
These days I have so much work that I’m relying on guest bloggers to keep In the Company of Plants and Rocks up and running.  Last week, S.H. Knight, “Mr. Geology of Wyoming,” posted geo-poetry.  Today’s guest is Claude Barr, "the eminent plantsman of the plains.”  Barr is not a famous man, at least not outside a small circle of native plant enthusiasts, which is a shame.  When I recently reread his book, looking for information on Easter daisies, I found myself thinking “What an amazing life!  More people should hear this story!”  Perhaps this post will help a little toward that end.

It really is a remarkable story.  Even as Barr struggled to keep his ranch going during hard times, he pursued his passion -- gardening with and studying the native plants of the Great Plains.  From his nursery in rural South Dakota, he shipped plants and seeds to people all across North America, and overseas as well.  But that’s enough from me.  I’m turning the post over to Claude now, so he can tell you his story in his own words.  (Judging by his book, the man is a skilled and eager writer.  I’m sure he would be quite at home in the blogosphere.)
Jewels of the Plains holds a wealth of knowledge, gathered during a long life devoted to “the flower jewels” of the Great Plains.  What follows is a small collection of excerpts.

“I do not have the fondest memories of Arkansas, where I was born near Bentonville on August 27, 1887.  My family starved out of Arkansas, paying a farm purchase loan at ten percent interest and selling eggs as low as three cents a dozen.  However, it was there I came to know the fragrance of many flowers and fruits, and the taste of wild grapes, persimmon, Mayapples, black and red haws, pawpaws ...”

“The earliest experience I can recall that would indicate I was interested in plants occurred when I was a very small boy.  With my two older sisters I went over a hill in early spring to gather fresh green stuff -- grass, as far as I remember -- for Easter baskets.  There I came upon a plant that grew in a neat gray carpet, close to the ground, with soft silky surfaced leaves in pleasant pattern, one of the pussytoes.  In contemplating it I derived a keen and unaccustomed pleasure.”
Antennaria parvifolia, one of the pussytoes.  Photo by Wasowski, Sally and Andy, from the from the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.
“While in high school [in St. Louis], I was offered a very modest scholarship to Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, for three years.  Times were hard but it never occurred to me not to finish, and so in 1914 after some delays I received an A.B., with majors in English, Greek, and public speaking. ... While selling stereoscopes and views in eastern South Dakota during a vacation from college in 1909, I heard of land available for homesteading in the southwestern corner of the state. ... I went with my father to help him file a claim.  Deciding that a homestead would be a good property investment for myself, I filed also ...”

“Thus my Prairie Gem Ranch began as a government homestead of 160 acres ...  The limited acreage was the traditional allotment to an individual or a family, whether in the region of America’s finest farmlands or in the Great Plains of progressively higher elevation, lower rainfall, and with often unusable, alkaline, ground water.”

“The deficiencies of the land were wholly unsuspected.  In 1910 there were only two fair rains in early June.  In 1911 corn planted in May germinated in August. ... [yet] an unreasonable hope spread among the newcomers that the plowing under of the grass and more rain would bring better conditions.  But the soil was tough -- ‘gumbo’ clay -- different from anything we had ever known.  Tractors broke down under the strain and plowshares bent. ... Now sixty years old and with funds much depleted, my parents were totally at a loss to picture another start elsewhere.  Their letters to me bore an unmistakable message of despondency.  Giving up an offer of a graduate scholarship at Harvard, I decided to return home ...”
Northern Great Plains.  Barr’s ranch was near Smithwick (from Jewels of the Plains; click image to view).
“Although the climate and soil were demanding, there were certain unique benefits.  From our doorstep we could see the Badlands and Black Hills in opposite directions.  More important, I had many opportunities for acquainting myself with new plants. ... I saw for the first time such marvels of beauty as the great white evening primrose known as Gumbo Lily ... off the wagon [driven by his father] I would hop, to kneel and study the blossom closely, then run to catch up.”
Oenothera caespitosa, the gumbo-lily.  “These flowers, two and a half to four inches wide, open so rapidly in later afternoon that the movement of their unfolding may be watched.”  Photo by Byerley, M. Brooke, from the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.
“In the early days, we went to the Black Hills for little pines to start our groves.  By chance and inclination, I brought back in a spadeful of soil a plant ... of our South Dakota state flower, the Pasque, or ‘crocus’ as it is commonly known.  A young Black Hills pine was placed where its night-time singing would be convenient to an open window.  The shade at its foot contributed to the long life of the pasque flower, Pulsatilla (Anemone) patens.  In an April of fine flowering, I snapped a photo that recorded seven wide and close-clustering blossoms on the plant.”
Pasque flowers herald spring in southeast Wyoming.
“The act of preserving this delightful impression was to prove a significant step toward the writing of this book.  I submitted the black-and-white picture of the lovely pasque flower, with a short column of notes, to House and Garden, New York.  The article was accepted and published in 1932 ... Following this opening into the new world of garden writing, I selected the subject of Calochortus, mariposa tulip or sego lily ...
"One who has not seen the beauty of these delicate flowers cannot picture it."  Sego lily, Calochortus gunnisonii.  Photo by Wasowski, Sally and Andy, from the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.
“In 1935, I sent out my first catalog, ‘Beautiful Native Plants of the High Plains, Badlands, and Black Hills,’ to be furnished directly to customers, and began a collecting and nursery business.  It was a welcome sideline to cattle ranching in those very lean years of the early 1930s.  For some years, Mrs. De Bevoise [a founder of the American Rock Garden Society] continued as my best customer, until I built up a mailing list by advertising.”

“[Western American Alpines by I.N. Gabrielson], which takes the reader into the mountains by word and picture and shows many plants in picturesque haunts, is to be regarded as a treasure by any lover of the rare and beautiful.  I studied it with fascination -- and with the frequently recurring awareness that a species described as an alpine could be matched in beauty by a sister species of the Great Plains.  With this awareness came the further realization, at first provocative, then obsessive, that numbers of Great Plains plants of high merit had no counterparts at all among the Western alpines.  There could be but one solution:  there must be a companion volume covering the jewels of the Plains.  I began to work at once on this absorbing project.”
“Over the vast expanses of the Plains, the phloxes have little choice of habitat; all are inured to open sun”  Musk phlox, Phlox muscoides (P. hoodii spp. muscoides); flowers ca 1/4” across.  Photo by J. Dorn, © R. Dorn; Digital Library/Archive University of Wyoming; may be re-used for educational purposes.
“Income had long since determined our activities.  Cattle and poultry products were the standbys:  our weekly income was based on butterfat and eggs, and there were seasonal returns on marketable cattle.  I took temporary jobs in the township office and did occasional roadwork.  By the late 1940s the government  grazing plan had been in operation ten years.  Pastures had responded remarkably well to lighter stocking ... About this time a fortunate rise in cattle prices cleared me of all my financial obligations including college debts.”

“In 1957 I sold the milk stock to gain time for ‘the book.’  I spent this time growing and shipping plants to every state in the union and every province in Canada, to seven European countries, to Japan, Australia, and New Zealand.  I sold the beef cattle in 1963 -- and still had little time for writing. ... So I made the decision to continue only with seeds -- this to keep in touch with the world -- and to concentrate on my writing.”
The Great Plains of North America, with ecoregions.  "Traveling this seemingly endless grass-and-sky country, the initiated bear ever in mind that meadows of the right type, and rocky pastures, bluffs, and breaks of all descriptions harbor the flower jewels which at frequent intervals deck the Plains.”
“I knew that for my book to be of ultimate value, it had to present a vivid description and outline of garden value for every species of the region, so that appreciation of these unique plants could be more widespread. ... I had to consult books and herbaria where descriptions, pictures, and preserved specimens have been brought together ... The great herbarium of the University of Wyoming, at Laramie, known as the Aven Nelson Herbarium [now the Rocky Mountain Herbarium], houses the largest collection of Great Plains plants readily accessible from Prairie Gem Ranch. ... The shortest route from the ranch to Laramie is 230 miles.  But by taking alternate routes, which did not add too many miles to the trip, I was able to collect many valued specimens, photographs, and habitat data.”
"Little has been done toward color selection in Yucca glauca ...  From a clump of a few crowns, later to be destroyed by road building, I brought to the garden a plant whose sepal segments were strongly tinted with red."  Flowers of soapweed yucca (Y. glauca) growing near Laramie, Wyoming.
Claude Barr passed away in 1982, shortly before his 95th birthday.  Jewels of the Plains was published the next year through the efforts of colleagues and friends determined to share his “great knowledge of and love for the wildflowers of the Great Plains.”  The book is out of print; remaining copies are available from the Great Plains Native Plant Society as a special premium with purchase of a Life Membership.  Barr was the inspiration for the Society, formed in 1984, and his legacy continues at the Great Plains Garden near Hermosa, South Dakota.
“many readers of Jewels of the Plains may well decide that its author was the rarest prairie gem of all"
(University of Minnesota Press; photo from GPNPS).


  1. Lovely. I looked for the book and it is available on Amazon, too. I hope all that work that's keeping you busy is something you love. Really enjoy your blog.

    1. Thanks, Martha, for reading Plants & Rocks and for commenting. I hope you enjoy Barr's book. Work is good -- I just wish there were more time as I enjoy blogging so much. Btw -- thanks for sharing the Seeger video. Great man and great tune :)

  2. What a wonderful article. Thank you!