Horticultural Cowboys



From left: Steve Castorani, Bill Barnes and Joel Hayward at Pawnee Grasslands

Guest Post by Allen Bush

Willie Nelson warns, in his song of the same name, “Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be cowboys…”   Then he offers a way out: “Make ‘em lawyers and doctors and such.” Willie, I have a better idea. Make ‘em gardeners and such. The pay scale won’t come close to that of doctors and lawyers, but the company will be a lot better.

My mama would have liked the small group I hung out with in early June in Colorado. These day trippers — gardeners and nurserymen — are a little odd (think of them as horticultural cowboys) but that’s half the fun. Peculiar neurological hard wiring allows them to imagine their gardens as an extension of the Colorado high plains — or wherever they wander. The process seems to require an environmental trigger during childhood –- backyards, wood lots and empty spaces. The take-away, when the stars are aligned, can be the endless magical realm of possibility and discovery.

There is no statistical way to analyze the love for gardens or the natural world. Precious few receive this joyful good fortune. Put my posse in a garden or on open grassland, and then watch in amazement as they poke around for plants — like slow moving rats in a maze. In spite of gray hair and creaky joints, this bunch is seldom bored, still believing their best days are ahead of them.  What’s up with that?

This expression of child-like curiosity – at least for one day in early June — can be explained in three magical words: prickly pear cactus.

Prickly Pear Cactus in Joel and Pat Hayward’s garden

Joel Hayward was our tour guide to the Fountain of Youth. Hayward grew-up on a ranch near Deer Trail, a small town about 70 miles due south of the Pawnee Grasslands. His grandfather homesteaded here during tough times, when the Colorado Great Plains were parched and the native prickly pear was the last option for cattle feed.  His granddad, out of desperation, rigged a blowtorch and burned-off the spines.  The cattle ate the spineless cactus.

Lauren Springer Ogden had told us the day before about the towering Pawnee Buttes, but it was the nearby grasslands that got our attention.  Lauren said they were at their peak.  High country flowering in the Rockies was a few weeks away.  We took the hint. Hayward volunteered for the mission. Although he knew the area perfectly well, he didn’t say anything about what was in store. Our trip was a surprise, planned with uncanny stagecraft.

Harlan Hamernik with horned toad

East of Fort Collins, on a windswept day, we drove past fields where rows and rows of corn had been pummeled the night before by a vicious hailstorm. Roadside cottonwoods were stripped bare of their leaves.  Pellets of ice were still piled-up in drainage ditches. Past Ault, Colorado, not far off Highway 14, we turned off the main road. Stray cars and trucks passed by.

The curtain went up at the Pawnee Grasslands. The show was on. There were horned toads, burrowing owls, swift foxes, prairie dogs, antelopes and the prickly pear cactus, Opuntia polyacantha. Who the hell stops in the middle of nowhere for pricky pear cactus?

Hayward came loaded with cold drinks, binoculars, a telescope and a vast knowledge of the area’s cultural and natural history. He knew where to stop — lessons gleaned from dozens of visits since he was an undergraduate at the University of Colorado. Bill Barnes, Steve Castorani, Harlan Hamernik and I were along for the ride.

We pulled-over near Keota, a ghost town. The plantsmen posse scattered over the new playground, across the treeless expanse of fruited plain, where we found thousands and thousands of flowering prickly pears, in shades from cream-colored to screaming yellow to reddish purple.

An hour later, Hayward tried to herd the cats back to the car. There was more to see: Prairie clover, Geyer’s larkspur and Hooker’s sandwort. Wide-eyed gardeners, because we know what we’re looking for, see even more than cowboys do.


  1. I love the photo of the Prickly Pear Cactus growing out of the stone wall. That is a scene no doubt remembered by Joel and Pat on one of their treks. Replicating nature and creating an actual scene as if it’s always been there is rewarding. And I love this quote here:

    “He knew where to stop — lessons gleaned from dozens of visits since he was an undergraduate at the University of Colorado. ”

    That’s called hands on learning experience. Something you don’t get in a Lab or off the internet. But judging perhaps from his age, that is how researchers use to be taught or rather taught themselves. Funny, I just wrote about this very thing yesterday dealing with science and Technology verse common sense.

    Thanks for this post Allen. But then I’ve liked your other posts as well


  2. My grandparents farmed western Nebraska from the 30’s to the 50’s along the Republican River before it was dammed up and became Swanson Lake. i loved the picture of the Prickly Pear. My favorite was the Yucca or soapweeds, as we called them. You bring back good memories.

  3. Was just up on the Pawnee Grasslands last weekend for a day of birdwatching. Chipping Sparrows, Lark Sparrows, Northern Harrier, Great Horned Owl, Ferruginous Hawk, Green-Tailed Towhee, Sage Thrashers, Loggerhead Shrike, Northern Mockingbirds, Cordilleran Flycatcher to name just a few. The Pawnee is a truly unique environment with plants, birds and wildlife to observe and take note of. Most of the time people would just pass through this type of country and comment on it as a wasteland (note the first photo in the blog). It is only about an hours drive northeast of metropolitan Denver – but for most city-dwellers it might as well be on the surface of the moon… Allen thanks for the post!

  4. “Who the hell stops in the middle of nowhere for pricky pear cactus?” I do ! But my purpose is usually less horticultural than culinary. Prickly pear jelly is my husband’s only Christmas gift each year. Finding a reliable source for the fruit is what I do the rest of the year.

  5. Pawnee Grasslands seemed so desolate until we stopped. (I’m used to Kentucky’s thick, green tree canopy.) The big surprise was just how biologically rich it was. Timeless, you understand these WOW moments. Joel Hayward’s sharp eyes caught sight of plants and critters I couldn’t have imagined. Marcia and Mark have known this beautiful landscape for a long time. Laura, prickly pear jelly is a new one on me. I’m on the lookout! Thanks.

  6. I think that horned toad is smaller than the one I put in the center pocket of my purse, in high school. I took it home, but neither my sister nor my mother were impressed, and made me let it go.

    My son’s mother had no such problems, save around poisonous critters or plants.

  7. Allen,

    I loved this post. You are a horticultural Jack Kerouac–on the road with a handful of colorful characters searching for, well, you don’t know what, but you’ll know it when you find it.

    My first reaction when reading or hearing about your adventures into the wild is, “I want to be this guy.” No doubt your job is filled with less adventurous moments, but the highlights (and the cohorts) are pretty special.

    I’ve had the pleasure of hearing you speak and reading several of your articles. What I love the most is that your work is that it is a celebration of the plantsman–that rare breed of horticultural artist/breeder/gardener/hunter that understands plants intuitively and blazes a path for the rest of us.

    So I say, “Hail to the plantsmen! ” They are the last cowboys.

  8. The Pawnee Grasslands are an amazing sight–a wild, quiet, seemingly-desolate but-teeming-with-life prairie experience. You get the sense of exactly what the western pioneers experienced. My first visit was going to Keota when my youngest daughter Lily was a baby, at a gathering with Colorado’s largest quilting club. I was there with a friend, a museum curator. That was 16 years ago–one of those ghost town houses was opened for the event by its generous owner. The wide-open prairie, clear skies, simplicity (a day with no electricity and having to use an outhouse with a warning about watching for rattlesnakes). Beautiful and unforgettable. Cowgirls (and Colorado plantswomen) love it too.

  9. This post brings up many memories of hikes with my dad. I grew up in Colorado in the city and we would go hiking on the weekends exploring the vast barren landscapes. I always related to cowboys and the open range mentality. But as a city dweller, I only once experienced a cattle drive wearing tenis shoes and a baseball cap. Even though my grandfather was a cattle rancher a blizzard put him out of business. In looking back, I often wonder if my interest in gardening now is from those weekend hikes with dad or from something deeper inherited from my grandfather.

  10. Thank you so much for this article, I loved it! It is always great to read about kindred spirits. Take me hiking anywhere and you’ll find me poking around to look for fun plants recognize and others that I have never seen before.

Comments are closed.