A Tibute To Sally Walker: Plant Explorer

By David Salman

The gardening world has been enriched by generations of plant explorers and seed collectors who have spent their lives in the remote regions of the world to bring back plant treasures for gardeners to grow and appreciate.  

Western gardeners have Sally Walker, founder of Southwestern Native Seeds of Tucson, Arizona. She and her husband have spent a lifetime exploring the vast areas of the western United States and northern Mexico, searching for beautiful and useful wildflowers. This is a difficult task that involves many months away from home, driving thousands of miles across the deserts, plains, and mountains to identify and document plants. Then, they must return at just the right time to collect seeds!  

Some of our very best High Country Garden native plants are a result of Sally's efforts and exploration. 

Learn More: Agastache Introductions - Superstars of the Perennial World

Gardening is a collaborative effort, and we owe a debt of gratitude to Sally Walker and other Western plant explorers for their work that has enriched our gardens. The plants below are just a few plants that we grow from her seed collections. 

 

Swallowtail Columbine (Aquilegia), cultivated with seeds discovered by Sally WalkerSwallowtail Columbine (Aquilegia), cultivated with seeds discovered by Sally Walker
Swallowtail Columbine (Aquilegia)

2000 Green Thumb Award Winner 

Certainly one of the most spectacular of our native columbines. 'Swallowtail' has huge bi-colored yellow and sweeping 4-4 1/2" long spurs. The flowers appear in late spring and are held on sturdy stems above the mound of blue to blue-green foliage. 

Agastache rupestris (Licorice Mint Hyssop), cultivated with seeds discovered by Sally WalkerAgastache rupestris (Licorice Mint Hyssop), cultivated with seeds discovered by Sally Walker
Agastache rupestris (Licorice Mint Hyssop)

1997 Plant Select Winner 

Agastache rupestris is a superior perennial enjoyed in the garden for its spicy fragrance, uniquely colored flowers, and finely textured foliage. This western native is also a superb hummingbird plant, attracting them for several months with nectar-rich flowers.

Arizona Columbine (Aquilegia desertorum)Arizona Columbine (Aquilegia desertorum)
Arizona Columbine (Aquilegia desertorum)

 

Arizona Columbine is a favorite with its profusion of small bright red-orange and yellow flowers. Dry, hot summer weather doesn't shorten the 3-month blooming season.

Cardinal Beardtongue (Penstemon cardinalis)Cardinal Beardtongue (Penstemon cardinalis)
Cardinal Beardtongue (Penstemon cardinalis)
 

Cardinal Penstemon is a rare, cold hardy wildflower from the southern mountains of New Mexico. Tall, impressive spikes of dark red flowers bloom in mid-summer, a favorite source of natural nectar for hummingbirds.

Southwestern Native Seeds Catalog

Here we have an image of the 1993-1994 Southwestern Native Seeds catalog. Hand-drawn illustrations on the cover include two well-loved native plants available from High Country Gardens: Penstemon palmeri (Palmer's Penstemon) and Penstemon pseudospectabilis (Coconino County Desert Penstemon). Transcript below.

Trascript: "This is our 19th year and 19th annual seed catalogue. But it is far more than our 19th year of photographing, pressing, and keeping careful records of native plants in the Southwest. And it is this stockpile of information and experience that enables us to assemble this catalogue of seeds of the finest and most beautiful native plants over a very wide region. And it is important that Tuscon is central and such an ideal location for a catalog such as this. It is within range of an enormous number of beautiful natural areas in all directions, plant communities of great diversity, and has a very large native flora of its own. This year was a landmark for us as we finally “reached the Pacific” and were able to include the lower Coast Range of California, which is farther than many of the areas we’ve been going to on a regular basis, but which we hadn’t been able to visit before we devised our mailing schedule. Here the plants are totally different. They’re different everywhere, but in the Coast Range they are amazingly different and very beautiful, as are the mountains they’re found in. Many of the penstemons, such as P. spectabilis and P. clevelandii are nothing short of spectacular. Another new areas that we were able to visit this year, which is about the same distance, was the Sierra Madre of Chihuahua. Here of course few seeds were ripe, but the flowers were numerous and beautiful and the scenery spectacular. Some of these species extend into Arizona, but many do not and extend farther south. And even some species that extend into Arizona have different and more brightly colored flowers south of the border, including Salvia lemmoni and Monarda austromontana. The people of this region are as colorful as the flowers with a mixture of the typical Mexican villages and mule-drawn plows, Mennonite settlements where German is spoken and delicious cheese is sold, Mormon settlements, and Tarahumara Indians who still utilize natural rock shelters, earthen jars, and stone grinders in their daily life. A third area that we were able to explore more thoroughly than ever before was Utah. An outstanding discovery here was the beautiful Gilia subnuda, growing in the bright sand with clusters of ruby red flowers on nearly naked stems, looking very un-gilia-like. Other outstanding plants here include the sprawling Penstemon platyphyllus, with profuse bright violet flowers and Yucca harrimaniae, with tapering, fibrous leaves and cream flowers. So this year we more of less “closed the circle” around Tucson and should now be able to keep a representation of the most beautiful native plants of the Southwest in the catalogue more or less permanently.

The catalogue itself is similar to those of the past with some improvements in the key that should make it more descriptive, It is designed to answer the questions that most often arise, and it includes pertinent information on growth, characteristics, and needs of the plants, and even includes locality data for everything in the catalogue. Separately upon request, we have growing instructions for desert plants and a bibliography of useful reading materials for both growing and identifying the plants. As always the seeds we list are essentially of the outstanding native plants of this region along with other areas where we were able to collect. The are often little known in cultivation or known amongst the Indians, but highly suitable to be introduced as ornamentals, sometimes superior to those already available. These are seeds of wildflowers, trees, shrubs, and succulents which can be used in gardens, rock gardens, nurseries, landscaping, botanical gardens and arboretums, for scientific research, and by private flowers and flower lovers everywhere. And those who might otherwise never have the chance to see or grow these plants can now have that opportunity."

 

Sally Walker is featured in our Heroes of Horticulture Series, in partnership with Plant Select®.