Sunday, December 24, 2006

Christmas Trees

What’s blooming outside: Nothing.

What’s blooming inside: Aptenia, zonal geranium.

What’s green and visible in the area: Snow blankets everything.

Animal sightings: Before the snow, birds alternated between the sunflowers and fruit trees; crows were more visible down the road. A rabbit has left tracks in the snow.

Weather: Balmy weather last weekend melted most of the snow. Tuesday, there was about a quarter inch of snow at dawn; snow started falling at sundown, and continued until late Wednesday, leaving about 6" on the ground. Cold afternoons since have allowed the roads to dry, but little has melted. Small puffs still weigh on branches of evergreens and shrubs.

Weekly update: Christmas trees get scarcer every year. Or rather, fewer trees are placed in windows in the fronts of houses where they are visible from the road.

I’ve asked, and people tell me they have the trees in the room where children spend their time, especially on Christmas morning. If it’s in front, the curtains are closed; more likely the tree is in a corner or back room.

Even my mother, who insisted on driving around town in Michigan to look at the trees at least once every season, did not set a large pine or fir in the front window. She had cabinets built under that window, and so the tree was placed by the side window. When I was older, she put smaller trees on the cabinet top, and later, after I left home, she bought an artificial tree.

Here, if people want to decorate for strangers, they put lights outside. This would have appalled my depression father who always translated large light displays into utility bills.

When I first moved here, people ran single strings of outdoor sized lights along the eaves. Only with the introduction of icicle lights sometime after 1996, and, more importantly, the opening of large retailers with their sales in 2001, did people become more creative. Substituting irregular grids of lights for single strings produced new forms that stimulated new ideas for light placement that resulted in more ethereal shapes.

As the price of lights came down, if not utility bills, people strung colored lights on outdoor evergreens, then on any woody shrub, then on walls to create more substance from air. This year, some one has even draped lights over some tomato cages. Others are beginning to buy the lit forms that substitute realism for those uncomfortable with geometric abstraction.

The brighter lights make inside trees more difficult to see from an automobile. I’ve only noticed six this year on the main road, and only two of those have been visible every night.

Decorated trees aren’t really a New Mexico tradition. It was German immigrants who introduced them into this country in the middle nineteenth century, about the time the United States was wresting this area away from México.

Bright light is a far older tradition, usually in the form of bonfires. They dwindled into the small pyres called luminarias that were replaced by safer candles in paper bags. The electrified plastic boxes are no where near as popular or as bright as the tiny, white bulbs, and a lot more difficult to set up and dismantle.

Folklorists suggest Celts in temperate climates used fire to appease the gods of winter, to hope for a mild winter. When I was a child in Michigan, December 21 passed as the beginning of the cold and snow that hid food and killed the weak. Real winter came with January thaws and February storms. Midwinter’s eve was simply one more event between Thanksgiving and New Years.

In New Mexico, the solstice is winter. I’m much more aware of the shortest day here than I ever was in the north. In most years, this is as cold as it gets. There usually is snow again, and the dry winds of February kill, but the days are warmer. This year, we had our second heavy snow fall the day before.

One needn’t know the Celts spread to Spain long before the Romans conquered the Iberian peninsula. The dark, the cold recreate the impetus behind ancient rituals. Bright light is a natural defense against an indifferent universe. Their glimmer halts my rush into the house, make me take time, even as I shiver, to look across lands sloping towards the river where I rediscover houses I’d forgotten when they were hidden by leaves.

Christmas trees have become too cozy to symbolize man’s defiance of fate. They have evolved into symbols for fate’s nemesis, family and culture, the private traditions that inspire children to hope and ambition. Lights are the reminders of life when darkness obliterates all form.

Photograph: December 23, 2006.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Summer Mystery

What’s blooming outside: Nothing. Dead leaves still cling to some trees and shrubs.

What’s blooming inside: Aptenia, zonal geranium.

What’s green and visible in the area: Honeysuckle, dandelion, alfilerillo; grasses, including needle grass and June grass; yucca, yew, juniper, arborvitae, piñon and other pines.

What’s green in my yard: Snapdragons, columbine, rose stems, bouncing Bess, large flowered soapwort, sweet peas, moss phlox, salvia, Romanian sage, thrift, rockrose, hollyhock, pink evening primrose, iris, red hot poker, California poppy, vinca, tansy, Mexican hat, coreopsis, black-eyed Susan, perky Sue, mums, Mount Atlas daisy.

What’s grey: Snow-in-summer, pinks, buddleia, Greek yarrow, golden hairy aster, four-winged salt bush.

What’s red: Coral bells, pinks, small flowered soapwort, cholla; white, coral and blue beardtongues.

Animal sightings: Middling small brown birds; green-bellied bird in sweet cherry; number of new gopher piles near cherry and peach trees.

Weather: Smattering of granular snow Monday morning. Warmed up enough in the afternoon to melt most of the remaining snow from 29 November. Snow persists in western or northern shadows of buildings, fences, trees and shrubs.

Weekly update: Philosophers like to ask if something can exist if it has no name. Of course it can. There are any number of anonymous plants growing in my yard.

I don’t know the Latin identities of many of the grasses or forbs with flowers too small to photograph. Some I can identify by family, like the nightshade. Others I can only call the green thing or the white succulent. But, they exist.

I may not be able to write about them, but I can still communicate, so long as I have a camera or can draw. I can still delineate their defining characteristics. It just takes more effort for me to remember what I meant when I look at my old notes.

This past September I uncovered one strange flower when I removed a Russian Thistle covering it. Because its dead, brown flowers clung to the lower stem, it resembled some colorless cave dweller brought blinking into the light. I was almost afraid to touch the phallic stalk, lest it shrivel from contact. I took pictures, then continued weeding. When I came back a few days later it had died.

The only things I absolutely knew at the time were that the stem was square and the flowers in their spiky configuration placed it in the mint family. I also knew the flowers were purple, the vegetative parts gray, and the stalk about 6" high. I surmised it was an annual.

I looked in my field guides that organize by flower color and plant family or flower shape. Nothing. I set it aside as a puzzle to solve some wintry evening.

My imagination didn’t forget. I continued to speculate on some oddity that could only grow when conditions were cool and shady, a once in a decade plant. Then, a month later, I found two dead plants at the other end of the yard, on land tamped by vehicles when utilities were laid for the house. They had grown on the driest soil in the sunniest area.

So much for arabesques. I had no name, but I had some photographs and an untrustworthy memory.

Last Sunday I tried again. When I had no better luck with the field guides, I took down a more comprehensive handbook organized along Linnaean principles and tried to fit the picture into the words preferred by philosopher scientists.

I got the first question wrong, but it didn’t matter much that I thought the lips were not toothed. There was only one genus to search on the web, and its pictures sent me back to the handbook. I could answer the next question, if the upper lip of the calyx was underdeveloped. I translated that as the two petals of the flower which are joined, but the same size as the lower three and said no.

Then the guide asked if it had two or four fertile stamens. If the yellow blotches are stamens, it has two. I ignored the fertility qualifier, since the book didn’t mention it again. When it asked if the flower was regular or bilabiate, I assumed it was the latter, since it was divided into two distinct parts. Next it asked if the flowers were sessile or pedicellate. Since they look like they’re stuck on the stem, I tried sessile. That came to one genus, and the pictures didn’t match.

I gave up on the key, and started looking up each genus on the web. There were only 24. None had pictures that looked like mine.

Since I’d gotten a sense of which web sites were more likely to have pictures, I figured I might as well keep looking. What was another hour? I found a list of all the genera that exist in the lamiaceae family and started typing more words into search criteria, hoping to find a suggestive picture. Nothing.

So I’m back where I was last summer, with something that I’m sure scientists have identified, but in sources unavailable to an amateur like me. If anyone knows what this is, please tell me. I don’t have to know to exist. It lived and died without knowing me, but I’d prefer not returning the favor.

Photograph: Unidentified plant, 4 September 2006.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Winter Food

What’s blooming outside: Nothing.

What’s blooming inside: Aptenia, zonal geranium.

What’s green and visible in the area: Honeysuckle, dandelion, alfilerillo; grasses, including needle grass and June grass; yucca, yew, juniper, arborvitae, piñon and other pines.

What’s green in my yard: Snapdragons, columbine, rose stems, bouncing Bess, moss phlox, salvia, thrift, rockrose, hollyhock, pink evening primrose, iris, red hot poker, California poppy, vinca, Mount Atlas daisy.

What’s grey: Snow-in-summer, pinks, buddleia, Greek yarrow, golden hairy aster, four-winged salt bush.

What’s red: Coral bells, pinks, small flowered soapwort, white and coral beardtongues, cholla.

Animal sightings: Bird foraging near retaining wall yesterday.

Weather: Snow from 29 November began melting mid-week, but lingered wherever there were shadows or the ground stayed cold. My yard and ground on the east side of the house are bare; the other sides of the house, garage, and fence are still covered.

Weekly update: The snow remained pristine until the fifth day when some animal, probably a dog, walked down the drive, took a few steps towards the house, then turned back. A bird landed on the retaining wall, left a few tracks, then flew off.

No food here. I have no idea what the rabbits and mice are eating, but assume neighbors are putting out birdseed.

Last April, Robert Parmenter wondered what elk were eating in Valles Grande up beyond Los Alamos. He found the diet in the mountain meadows included Kentucky bluegrass, June grass and mat muhly, along with purple asters, sedges and dandelions. Along the slopes, elk preferred another bluegrass, but ate the same June grass, muhly and sedges, as well as bottlebrush squirrel tail and wheat grass.

The meadows of Valles Grande are in an 8,500' caldera left by volcanic activity that began 1,600,000 years ago. I lie at something just over 6,000' in the Rio Grande rift valley. My clay soil was made from ash of that, and later eruptions. I have most of the edible vegetation in the wetter valley meadow, but none of the plants Parmenter found only in the higher grazing lands.

My ring muhly, a different species of Muhlenbergia, was buried until snow melted between the bunch grasses. It’s normal altitude is 4,000' to 8,500', but it will grow as high as 10,000'. However, it has little range value: its low grass turns tough by mid-summer and its seeds have pointed tips to discourage grazing. This year it didn’t start growing much until June.

June grass, on the other hand, is considered good forage. The local Koeleria has some green at the base and its tall cured spikes stood above the highest piles of snow. It appears at lower elevations with sagebrush, and grows higher with aspen (8,000'-9,500'). It may occasionally appear with spruce (9,500'-11,500'). It was greening this past March and blooming in April when Parmenter was taking his samples in the national preserve.

Purple asters are the same at both altitudes, as much as any two asters are the same. Once called Aster Ascendens, it's been reclassified as Symphyotrichum Ascendens. Geraldine Allen suggested it’s a cross between two other asters, and its chromosomal structure varies in the Great Basin depending on other plants with which it has interbred.

There’s less information on the nutritive value of purple asters, beyond the hard evidence that 38% of the plants were cropped last spring. The basal leaves on mine appeared by mid-March, available to eat. They didn’t start blooming until the end of August. Now, they’re dead, seedless stalks, with no rosettes, green or sere.

Dandelions are dandelions. The other plants mentioned by Parmenter in the lower valley, bluegrass and sedge, don’t appear here. But then, neither do elk.

Allen, Geraldine A. "The Hybrid Origin of Aster ascendens (Asteraceae)," American Journal of Botany, 72:268-277:1985.

Parmenter, Robert R. "Range Readiness Analysis for VCT Livestock Program for Summer, 2006", available on-line.

United States Department of Agriculture, Forrest Service, Range Plant Handbook, 1937, republished by Dover Publications, 1988.

Photograph: June grass and purple aster, 9 December 2006.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Zonal Geraniums

What’s blooming outside: Snow has not melted enough to see.

What’s blooming inside: Aptenia, zonal geranium.

Animal sightings: No tracks in the snow.

Weather: Some rain Monday; snow Wednesday left at least three inches on the ground. Snow melted some each day, but temperatures remained cool enough that pockets linger between the grasses and at least an inch shrouds the beds near buildings.

Weekly update: Now that nature has donned its first mantle of snow, the only bright color I see through my window comes from zonal geraniums on my enclosed porch.

I didn’t intend to grow houseplants. They happened when I tried wintering expensive plants I was tired of replacing each spring. I didn’t have much luck, but the stumps of summer invoked the grand shrub of a geranium I saw in a plumbing shop in Philadelphia in the 1960s that filled the six foot window with trailing stems that always had blooms.

It took some years to find varieties that would survive my tough conditions. With a space heater set low, the porch temperature falls to 48 in the night, and rises to over 100 in the day. The extremes are less in summer, but the peaks are higher and consistent moisture impossible.

One parent of my plants, Pelargonium Zonale, was found at Meiringspoort on the Cape of Good Hope by Hendrik Oldenland when he was searching for potential commercial plants for the Dutch East India Company in 1689. Within a few years, cuttings were shipped back to Holland, and Mary Capell Somerset was growing them by 1710. Her husband, the Duke of Beaufort, developed their estate, Badminton, as an advisor to Charles II.

Another parent is the South African Pelargonium Inquinans which Henry Compton grew at Fulham Palace where he moved in 1676. His gardens became his retreat when James II suspended him as Bishop of London 1686 for refusing to reprimand one of his clergymen for preaching against Roman Catholicism.

Geraniums may not have taken sides in the years after the English civil war, but they definitely became capitalists. Pelargonium Horatus was developed for the bedding plant industry as a new species whose botanical content could change to meet the demands of the market, like any modern brand.

They made their debut with the masses at the Crystal Palace in 1854 when Joseph Paxton combined them with yellow calceolarias. The wealthy abandoned them as gaudy and gawky. Peter Grieve made them more garish with three-colored leaves in 1858.

Geraniums must have been a bright spot in Connellsville, Pennsylvania, in the 1940s when J. Robert Oglevee redirected the family nursery to flowers. During World War II, beehive ovens had burned day and night to convert the valley’s coal to coke for the steel mills of Pittsburgh. After the war, scarlet umbels followed Americans west to sunny California where field grown plants were cheaper than ones produced from cuttings back east.

Systemic diseases attacked in 1952. In the same years Eisenhower was decrying the development of the military industrial state, growers teamed with university researchers to find scientific solutions for their problems. Cultural indexing was developed to identify disease free plants for cut stock.

At Penn State, Richard Craig determined why seedlings were slow to emerge, then developed the first quick-germinating open-pollinated variety in 1962. Four years later, Lowell Ewart introduced the first F1 hybrid for Harris Seed, then moved to Michigan State. The flowers were smaller and the heads shattered, but seed grown plants were cheaper and less disease prone.

Vegetative stock suppliers ignored politics and followed the money to counter with new varieties. Oglevee began negotiating for rights to Wilhelm Elsner’s Dresden varieties in 1978. As soon as the Berlin Wall fell, Elsner expanded his licenses to growers in 19 countries in return for royalties on cuttings.

Goldsmith worked with growers in Kenya and Guatemala who ship rootless cuttings to wholesale greenhouses in this country. Fischer built a cutting production facility in Kunming, China in 2002.

The first plants I bought in 1997 were seedlings, Goldsmith’s Orbit and Sluis and Groot’s Ringo. Neither endured the summer heat. The ones I got the next year were Oglevee cuttings, and they didn’t survive either. It wasn’t until 2000 that some red and white plants, probably cuttings, I bought at the drug store not only made it through the summer but limped through the winter.

Buoyed by my success, I added some salmon cutting grown varieties marketed by Oglevee and more drug store plants. The weak died, but the fit regenerate their shed leaves and sporadically produce imperfect globes. I haven’t bought a new plant in five years.

Much as I’d like to think I’ve finally found the secret to growing geraniums, I probably owe my success to the genius of modern floriculture and the division of industry into discrete, untraceable units. However, it is just possible nature has intervened. Oglevee grows its cutting stock near Mexico City. It may be exposure to that climate in that altitude, even indirect, has created plants better able to survive northern New Mexico than ones grown in California.

Lau, Angela. "Ecke Ranch Adds Blooms to the Leaves," San Diego Union-Tribune, 27 July 2006.

Corporate web sites for
Goldsmith, Oglevee, and Fischer.

Sunday, November 26, 2006


What’s blooming: Sweet alyssum in a pot on the back porch. A bee working a purple aster near the retaining wall suggests the flower is still alive, even though a pinker version of itself.

What’s green in the area: Honeysuckle, cheese, alfilerillo; grasses, including needle grass and June grass; yucca, yew, juniper, arborvitae, piñon, and other pines.

What’s green in my yard: Snapdragons, columbine, roses, bouncing Bess, large flowered soapwort, sweet peas, sweet white clover, salvia, Romanian sage, thrift, rockrose, winecup, hollyhock, red and blue flax, pink and yellow evening primrose, hartwegia, iris, red hot poker, purple mat plant, catmint, California poppy, vinca, tansy, Frikarti and golden hairy asters, Mexican hat, coreopsis, black-eyed Susan, chocolate flower, perky Sue, mums, yarrow.

What’s grey: Snow-in-summer, pinks, buddleia, yarrow, four-winged salt bush.

What’s red: Raspberry, coral bells, pinks, small flowered soapwort, white, coral and blue beardtongues, cholla.

Animal sightings: Squeaky small brown birds; quail were near the wild area down the road where the ivy-leaved morning glories grew earlier; gopher piled up more dirt.

Weather: Clear days, bright stars; furnace runs more in night; no moisture since 15 October.

Weekly update: I recently published a history of my hometown. Before I started I drew up a list of topics that interested me. Naturally, I included gardens. It was only when I did research that I discovered how difficult it is to reconstruct the past.

It would be sheer luck to discover someone’s growing records, and probably impossible to find them for generations. There were traveler’s accounts and developer’s promotions for particular years that described native vegetation to attract settlers. There were also government statistics on crop yields.

Historians turn to nursery catalogs. But, they only indicate what was available, not what was purchased, and definitely not what grew. In my hometown, the seed companies themselves were interesting, because a man who invested in Ferry Seed also invested in the local farm equipment manufacturer. The artifacts of machinery were easier to trace than the seeds.

The better historic record is pictures, which usually can be dated. In Michigan in the nineteenth century, publishers sent artists to offer to do lithographs that were collected into county directories. In my area, the target audience was farmers, which means the pictures of homesteads include the farmyard layout, barns, animals, and at least some indication of the plants since they were indicators of status.

Early photography required light, so many family pictures were taken outdoors. By chance, the background will show the garden or yard. Even my class reunion picture, taken in 1982, showed contemporary methods of cropping corn, because the interior of the Elks lodge was dim.

People like my father, who took pictures of my mother’s first garden in 1948, were rare. Film and developing cost too much to waste on something as insignificant as flowers.

His faded, slightly out-of-focus slides illustrate the difficulties in identifying plants. The zinnias, marigolds and sweet alyssum are easy to identify by shape and color, as are the cosmos and blue morning glories in other pictures. But there’s a foot high plant with white or lavender flowers I don’t recognize.

I can only guess the large, gray blotches in the foreground are the concord grape I know my mother planted in that corner sometime. I can also surmise from a photograph of her foster mother standing in an arbor why my mother wanted that vine.

Pictures can be misleading. They represent a moment in time, and don’t hint my mother never again planted annuals. The next summer she put in shrub roses and perennials. The permanence of the photograph outlasted her interest.

Rather than documenting the existence of specific plants, photographs and lithographs capture the aesthetic of a time. I look now, not at the garden, but at the trees and grasses growing on what was then fallow farmland and consider how much my taste was formed by that landscape, ephemeral as it was. In a few years, the trees were uprooted for more houses, but today I look out my window in New Mexico on an uninterrupted view of golden grasses, broken by junipers, and feel serene.

It wasn’t just me. Many of my schoolmates grew up in town with a desire to return to that historic landscape. Some bought farms; more moved to local lakes. And, I’m sure with the growth of McMansion style developments, others have bought houses like my parents did that bordered on the past. Some always used the excuse of hunting or fishing to disguise the desire to get away.

I gather from friends here that the same attraction to nature, not as a farm and not as a wilderness, but simply as a latent utopia, exists in the Española valley. It’s not tangible childhood memories that drive us to buy seeds or seedlings in May; it’s a connection with our world formed when we were young that persists when we mature.

Notes: Cameron, the history of a Michigan rust belt town from 1830 to 2006, is available at

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Sweet White Clover

What’s blooming: Except for sweet alyssum in a pot and two purple asters near a wall, the flowers are gone, and along with them, the insects and other animals that fed on them. The active animals have turned to seeds, roots, winter annuals, and evergreens.

What’s green in the area: Alfilerillo; grasses, including needle grass and June grass; yucca, yew, juniper, piñon, and other pines. Arborvitae is skimmed in yellow.

What’s green in my yard: Coral beardtongue, snapdragons, columbine, roses, bouncing Bess, large flowered soapwort, sweet peas, sweet white clover, baptista, salvia, Romanian sage, thrift, rockrose, winecup, hollyhock, red and blue flax, pink and yellow evening primrose, hartwegia, iris, red hot poker, catmint, California poppy, vinca, tansy, Frikarti and golden hairy asters, tahokia daisy, Mexican hat, coreopsis, black-eyed Susan, chocolate flower, perky Sue, wild lettuce, mums, yarrow.

What’s grey: Snow-in-summer, pinks, buddleia, yarrow, four-winged salt bush.

What’s red: Barberry, coral bells, pinks, small flowered soapwort, white and blue beardtongues, cholla.

Animal sightings: A few surviving grasshoppers; birds around fence and trees; gopher dug more dirt near the sour cherry; something knocked bricks from the lining walls along the garden.

Weather: Clear days, bright stars, no moisture since 15 October.

Weekly update: Saturday was burn day in the valley. I saw five plumes of smoke along the main road in the morning, and noticed two others collecting dead weeds for pyres.

The man behind me at the post office said he was ready to burn his fields, which he likes to do every two years to eliminate mats. The grass comes back and the alfalfa’s not harmed.

I’m much more conservative about burning, probably because I come from Michigan where we were trained to build rock circles around cook fires. At one summer camp, the leader made us line the bottom as well, lest we ignite the peat. That seemed extreme to this teenager, but I’ve been told a peat fire has been smoldering northeast of town for several years.

On a still, cloudy day this July I found a place in my drive that was wet and laid down a long cardboard box that had held a sapling. I piled old financial papers in the box, turned on the hose and lit a match.

While the papers were burning, I cut down 5' high white sweet clover plants from last summer and fed them to the flames. Then I added other dead plants from the drive and rosewood cuttings I hadn’t taken out yet for the trashmen.

As the fire burned, plants in the area would catch. I protected the asters and grasses, but let the rest go, the yellowbrush, winterfat and clover that had invaded the gravel. I rather hoped the heat would kill them.

I’m quite willing to let white sweet clover grow in the yard, but its branches scratch the fence when they dry in winter. Unfortunately, Melilotus Alba needs water and chooses my garden. Yellow sweet clover, Melilotus Officinalis, is the one that grows along the shoulders until it’s mown down in late summer before it reaches its full height.

When I got home yesterday I saw the clover still growing amid the charred remains in my drive. The European native thrives on fire, and only starts to die out when prairie fires stop and other plants take its resources. With no water, it can die out in three years.

I was fooled by the grasshoppers that chomped last year’s biennial seedlings. It was easy to cut any stalks before the spikes of tiny white flowers appeared. But, as soon as it rained in July, old seeds sprouted.

Rain is protective as well as nutritive. The taproots are long; I’ve pulled some that were close to 3' long. They can only be removed when the ground is wet, which is often when it has already produced its tiny seeds. The trefoil seedlings are tedious to pull and impossible to poison in the rain.

White sweet clover was officially introduced into this country by Henry Tutwiler who imported seed from Chile to grow at Green Springs Academy in Alabama in 1856. The legume’s roots add nitrogen and humus to the soil. Animals graze the plants in early spring and eat hay that has been cured enough to dissipate the bitter coumarin.

I assume the rancher prefers alfalfa for his horses. He complained someone from Colorado was peddling hay that horses wouldn’t eat and contained tumbleweed seeds. When I suggested it might work as straw, he said no, not with those seeds. Had to be burned.

Notes: United States Department of Agriculture, Forrest Service, Range Plant Handbook, 1937, republished by Dover Publications, 1988.

Sunday, November 12, 2006


What’s blooming in the area: A few blanket flowers survive along my neighbor’s drive. Leaves dropping, cottonwoods and apples turned brown or bare.

What’s blooming in my garden: Fading chrysanthemums, sweet alyssum vital in porch pot.

Animal sightings: Nothing when I’m looking.

Weather: Clear days, bright stars, no moisture since 15 October.

Weekly update: Something purple was blooming on dense, ferny plants at my neighbor’s fence last weekend.

The five petaled flowers splayed in loose round umbrels and long, tapering seed capsules looked like something from the geranium family. Field guides tell me it could be Erodium Ciculatium, which goes by the not-so common names Filaree, Pin Clover, and Red-Stemmed Filigree. Europeans call it Common Cranesbill.

How it got to my uphill neighbor’s yard is guesswork. Spain introduced the Mediterranean annual to México and Chile. Mensing and Byrne analyzed pollen in Santa Barbara basin sediments to show it reached California at least a decade before the missions, and probably crept north from Baja. It could have landed here with settlers anytime after Oñate wintered north of town in 1589, or diffused from settlements and missions to the south.

The migration mechanism is simple: cranesbill’s sharp carpels stick to passersby, especially furry ones. Today it’s not only grazed by cattle and sheep, but mule deer, elk and pronghorn. Rabbits clear room when they gnaw competing perennial grasses. Deer or rabbits could have been the exozoochoric agent that moved seeds before cattle or sheep escaped.

Once in the soil, the desert colonizer germinates whenever daily air temperature ranges are warmer than 40 to 69 degrees, and there’s enough moisture. This summer it was blooming in my neighbor’s yard August 16, some forty days after the first summer rains. It adapts to drying soil by accelerating its maturation cycle to produce seed quickly, again as it has done next door where it’s blooming in the fall, rather than wintering over and blooming early next year.

How the seed moved from someplace like Anadalusia or Estremadura is more speculation. Most historians assume it was accidental, that it came with the food or accouterments of animals, might even have been in the wool of sheep. Others suggest the 1/16"-1/8" elliptical, brown seed could pass for wheat.

If instead the importation was deliberate, it might have been for medicine. Curtin found alfilerillo used for gonorrhea in Northern New Mexico in the 1940s. A contemporary Argentinian herbal suggests it’s useful for blenorragias, roughly translated as female gonorrhea. In 1987, Polish scientists established it is effective against Herpes virus type 1.

Modern herbals usually repeat it’s hemostatic, but Lust specifies storkbill’s uses for bloody uterine discharges and excessive menstruation. Gohar reports it has been used to induce uterine contractions, while a northern Mexican herbal explicitly suggests the leaves induce abortions.

Sexually transmitted diseases and female problems, whatever that euphemism denotes, certainly existed for early colonists, and familiar yerba seeds would have been brought by women who became curanderas. The French still call it peine de la bruja (witch’s comb.) More than likely, such things would not have appeared in records kept by literate priests or administrators.

All of which is interesting, but doesn’t much explain why its growing next to my drive. Since it often stays low, especially if it’s cropped or mown, and the flowers open mid-morning, it could be lurking along the road unseen. More likely, my previous neighbor imported the seeds with his wood pile or horses’ hay.

If it’s true a single plant can produce 2,400 to 9,900 seeds and its deep taproot deprives its neighbors of water, I hope my neighbor overlooks it and lets it multiply to intimidate the nastier pigweed and Russian thistle that thrive on his land.

Argentina. "Alfilerillo," at

Curtin, L. S. M. Healing Herbs of the Upper Rio Grande (1947), revised for Western Eagle Press by Michael Moore (1997).

Gohar, Ahmed A., Mohammed F. Lahloub, and Masatake Niwa. "Antibacterial Polyphenol from Erodium Glaucopyllum," Zeitschrift für Naturforschung 58:670-674:2003.

Lust, John B. The Herb Book (1974).

Mensing, Scott and Roger Byrne. 1998. "Pre-Mission Invasion of Erodium Cicutarium in California," Journal of Biogeography 25:757-762:1998.

Mondragón Pichardo, Juana. "Erodium cicutarium (L.) L'Her. ex- Ait.," 2004, revised by Heike Vibrans, 2005, available on-line..
Zielinska-Jenczylik J., A. Sypula, E. Budko and H Rzadkowska-Bodalska H. "Interferonogenic and Antiviral Effect of Extracts from Erodium Cicutarium," Archivum Immunologiae et Therapiae Experimentalis 35:211-20:1987.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Sweet Alyssum

What’s blooming in the area: If anything’s still blooming, it’s in some protected place hidden from the road. One man burned piles of weeds Saturday; most have left things as they are.

What’s blooming in my garden: Chrysanthemums, sweet alyssum, one blanket flower, single flower atop a yellow snapdragon spike.

Animal sightings: Flock of nondescript, middling small birds looked like clothes pins on power line last Sunday. During week, I scared up groups of birds from Maximilian sunflowers in mornings. Horses in village.

Weather: Frost Monday morning killed any remaining f lowers; rest of week, sunny, cool and dry. Last noticeable rain, 15 October.

Weekly update: Mustard is one of the first plants to arrive in spring, and one of the last to depart come fall.

Tansy mustard (Descurainia Pinnata) emerges the end of March and puts out its feeble, yellow-green flowers a month later. I yank the distinctive grey-green plants when they emerge along the retaining wall, So far, the southwestern native hasn’t found favorable conditions in the yard. It remains a harbinger, not a nuisance.

Tumble mustard (Sisymbrium Altissimum) is more attractive when it takes over fields and roadsides in mid-May. Fortunately, the invasive annual hasn’t appeared here yet, but the clear yellow flowers continued in my uphill neighbor’s yard until August, producing pregnant seed pods. Its early rosette, similar to a thistle, is easy to identify, and so it should be possible to keep it at bay if it threatens to migrate.

With so many unwanted volunteers from the Cruciferae family, you’d think Sweet Alyssum would be a natural in my alkaline, clay loam. Not so.

When I first tried, soon after moving here, the bedding plants died the day I transplanted them, the seed disappeared. I dropped seed in pots on my back porch with morning glories. They bloomed just enough to continue buying them, even though the tiny seedlings drowned when I watered them, then died when the summer sun no longer reached them.

Two years ago, I noticed morning glory seeds had blown over the retaining wall and deposited themselves where the tansy mustard grew. Last year, I broadcast the cayenne-colored, oleaginous seeds there, then got impatient, and added plants. They both did so well the flowers survived the mild autumn until after Thanksgiving.

This year, I scattered Carpet of Snow on half-day snow March 13. I bought packs of New Carpet of Snow April 15, then added leftover generic seed from 2005 on April 22. Seedlings started blooming June 24.

Plants and seeds of Lobularia maritima behave differently. Breeders select varieties which retain their compact habit, and probably use techniques that encourage flowers and discourage stems. The seeds I use are the older, leggier versions that quickly form long stems with small flower heads. Many side branches remain from departed seeds that resemble utility pole cleats.

They looked good in spring before anything else was blooming, then got messy when bare, colorless stems dominated the mats of white flowers. By then, I didn’t care because there were so many other things to see, I could afford to let them be. This year, as the cool season dragged on, even the bedding selections elongated. But still I didn’t care because the nearby marigolds were spectacular. The kelly green leaves masked dry, bare ground, and occasionally the sweet scent could be detected on damp mornings.

Now they’re all that’s left. In November you ask very little of a flower that blooms this late. They may be native perennials along the Mediterranean, but here they'll die when temperatures fall below their zone 7 tolerance. Until then, they repay benign neglect with endurance.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

California Poppies

What’s blooming in the area: New rose buds amid dying flowers; stands of native and Maximilian sunflowers in town. In village, one person built a vertical board fence along a side lane, another erected a corrugated steel fence to separate the house from its vineyard.

What’s blooming in my garden, looking north: Chrysanthemums, yellow Mexican hat; chocolate flower near house, one blanket flower, couple Black-eyed Susan buds still opening after flowers all killed.

Looking east: Sweet alyssum; California poppy on wooden retaining wall; pink bachelor button and larkspur next to same wall; flowers under leaves on hollyhock stalk that fell, grew close to ground and wall timbers.
Looking south: Nothing.

Looking west: One white phlox (David); faded Frikarti aster.

Bedding plants: Sweet alyssum; single flowers top yellow snapdragon spikes; petunias survive in grass next to retaining wall; one French marigold blooms under leaves near mums.

Animal sightings: Chartreuse-bellied birds on Maximilian sunflowers; small insects in California poppies; small geckoes, rabbit; gopher still tunneling.

Weather: Cold temperatures Monday killed all but hardiest or most protected flowers; most days since, frost formed on my windshield at dawn, stayed cool and sometimes slight winds developed.

Weekly update: California poppies were the last thing I expected to see last weekend when I surveyed the devastation wrought by one particularly cold morning.

I probably shouldn’t have been surprised. After all, the largest stand of Eschscholzia Californica grows in Antelope Valley on the edge of the Mojave where the mean temperature in nearby Lancaster during the peak blooming period this year, mid-March to mid-April, was 48°. The mean temperature for Pojoaque last Sunday was 45°. The minimum in California was 35°, while it was 33° a bit south of me; the highs were 61° and 57°, respectively.

But, I never paid much attention. I knew it was native to the Pacific coast from the Columbia to Baja, but just assumed that made it a warm weather, Mediterranean plant. In fact, it’s perennial in Lancaster’s zone 8, but its bloom and seed cycles make it an annual most places. It doesn’t like heat, and dies when temperatures rise. Mine started to brown this year the end of June, two weeks after the first flowers but a month before the full flush of color came with the cooling monsoons.

I bought it because it grew, or at least had grown well in Michigan in the 1980s when I discovered it in seed catalogs. I assumed then it was relatively new to the trade, a corollary to the wildflower movement initiated by Lady Bird Johnson in 1965.

I was wrong. It was popular in the east in the nineteenth century, and probably fell victim to the taste makers of my mother’s generation. William Robinson decreed it "should not be used to any great extent in the select flower garden."

Because it’s golden and from California, many associate it with the gold rush of 1849, but it was already known in 1851 when Breck described the best ways to truss the 2' flexible stems. With publishing schedules, it seems unlikely Breck tested offerings from early returnees in early 1850 and described them a year later.

More likely, he had seeds from a European friend who called it Chriseis Californica, and referred to Eschscholzia as a former, implicitly mistaken, genus. Adelbert von Chamisso officially named it in 1820 for Johann Friedrich von Eschscholtz, a colleague on a Russian scientific expedition that briefly visited San Francisco Bay in 1816.

Once, México took over California in 1821, the seeds could have moved to Europe on any ship. The fact that it has the four petals and two fused sepals typical of the poppy family may have piqued interest among those looking for another opium source. It wasn’t, but scientists still want to know exactly what narcotic substances it does contain.

In 1901, San Francisco based homeopathist William Boericke announced it "acted more powerfully than morphine" in animals and recommended it as a "harmless soporific." Even today, websites tout its tincture to alleviate anxiety and insomnia.

Lady Bird Johnson is more likely the reason I can have California poppies than Timothy Leary or holistic practitioners. No doubt my seeds’ ancestors were collected from some wild source, but the dynamics of commercial agriculture may have altered them through natural selection. The flowers are known to develop subspecies characteristics in new environments that disappear when the plants are returned to their home range.

It doesn’t matter to me if I have genuine natives or cultivated offspring. They’re blooming at something under 6000', not the 2346' of Lancaster. When the Maximilian sunflowers collapsed on them, the stems sought light on the retaining wall. The usual dark green beds with blobs of color I saw from above were transformed, at waist height, into discrete individuals.

The flowers remained elusive: they opened after I left for work and closed around the stamens before I returned. Even in midsummer, I had to wait for weekends to see them open. Now, I look out the window at daybreak to see if the closed flowers are still erect, if new buds have defied nature’s chill one more night.

Boericke, William. Materia Medica, 1901.

Breck, Joseph. The Flower-Garden,1851, reprinted by OPUS Publications,1988.

Robinson, William. The English Flower Garden, 15th edition of 1933 reprinted by Sagapress, 1984.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Black-eyed Susan

What’s blooming in the area: Roses; chamisa darker; scattered native and Maximilian sunflowers in town. Red peppers and flat, green squash visible with leaves gone.

What’s blooming in my garden, looking north: Black-eyed Susan, blanket flower, chocolate flower, Mexican hat, chrysanthemum.

Looking east: California poppy, winecup, pink bachelor button, larkspur, sweet alyssum; hollyhock back in bloom.

Looking south: Few sensation cosmos near porch.

Looking west: One white phlox (David), Frikarti aster; purple ice plant leaves noraml, but few flowers.

Bedding plants: Petunias, Dalhburg daisies, yellow snapdragons, sweet alyssum.

Animal sightings: Birds in area in morning; gopher set up camp near the peach, both cherries and the new tea roses.

Weather: Rain last Sunday night, cool temperatures Friday morning kill tender annuals before daylight. Zinnias and creeping zinnias gone. Crackerjack marigolds fared better than French; both have flowers on dead stems. Some heavenly blue morning glories, sensation cosmos and sweet peas survive in sheltered areas in village.

Weekly update: Garden writers glorify the fall garden with contrasting foliage and bright berries. In the rio arriba, there is no autumnal drama: everything quietly turns yellow or dies. In my garden, at least, the yellow is concentrated in Black-eyed Susans.

Experts can’t agree if Rudbeckia hirta is an annual, a perennial or a biennial. Unlike tomatoes which follow predictable patterns advertised in numbers of days from sowing to fruit, Black-eyed Susans go through phases that can last for months until conditions trigger the next phase.

Once a seed germinates, the plant produces a basal rosette of leaves. Then, to borrow a farmer’s word, it bolts, puts up a stalk with a single bud. As that flower opens, the plant produces branches and, sometimes, new stems, with more terminal flowers. Finally, it dies.

Catalogs promise bedding plant growers seeds germinate when the soil is 70 degrees, and it takes five to ten days for cotyledons to break the surface. Those who find virtue in the natural, organic life recommend exposing them to cold temperatures first.

Botanists, especially those helping cut flower growers, have determined Rudbeckia hirta needs four days with at least twelve hours of daylight to bolt. Harkess and Lyons found at least twelve such days are needed before the plant can continue flower development with shorter days. Deal and Hartley discovered some cultivars require even longer periods of daylight, and that Toto Gold takes nine weeks to bloom from elongation while Prairie Sun takes eleven. If the plants don’t get enough daylight, they remain rosettes and act as biennials, opening when they finally do get light the following year.

My first flower with narrow, separated petals opened the end of June, probably after the bare minimum number of long days. Most likely, it volunteered from last year. My large, overlapping petaled flowers started blooming the first of August, three months after an April 19 sowing. New stalks, branches and flowers emerged through September from seeds sown May 14 that settled between existing plants.

Conventional wisdom says the composites die after they’ve produced seed. Jamie Whitten tells wildflower growers Black-eyed Susans begin producing when they turn dark gray, about a month after they flower, and the black skinny achenes can be gathered easily when the cones are gray and loose.

Rudbeckia hirta is not self-fertile, and needs another plant to pollinate it. Apparently, they aren’t fussy, and not only mix with other cultivars, but other species to produce variants. In some areas, these strains have survived long enough to stabilize as regional subspecies. No doubt, this is what allows some to behave as perennials.

In my north-facing garden, Black-eyed Susans are decidedly annuals that don’t colonize. By the time they’re able to reproduce, the cold has driven away the necessary insects and there’s not a month left for maturation. Nature may not have intended them to bloom the first year on the northern prairies where days are shorter, but when they are transferred to the high steppes of New Mexico seeds germinate early and meristems absorb enough light to produce one of the last vital flowers of fall.

Deal, Tyson and David Hartley. "Flowering of Gloriosa Daisy," research report from W. D. Holley Floriculture Research Program, available on-line.

Harkess, Richard L. and Robert E. Lyons. "Floral Initiation in Rudbeckia hirta (Asteraceae) Under Limited Inductive Photoperiodic Treatments," American Journal of Botany 81:1021-1026:1994.

Whitten, Jamie L. "Black-eyed Susan. " United States Department of Agriculture, 1997, available on-line.

Sunday, October 15, 2006


What’s blooming in the area: Chamisa, roses, Maximilian sunflowers listing, purple aster, purple mat, silverlace vine. Two Santa Fe style houses have cleaned yards; elsewhere ragtag ends bloom of native sunflowers, áñil del muerto, yellow evening primrose, lance-leaf yellow brush, sweet peas, tall zinnias. Datura and heavenly blue morning glories open later. Wisteria, apache plume, caryopteris, coneflower turning yellow; pigweed browning even while putting out new plants. Red apples in orchards. Two black circles replaced piles of pigweed at sheep house.

What’s blooming in my garden, looking north: Black-eyed Susan, gloriosa daisy, blanket flower, chocolate flower, Mexican hat, yellow cosmos, creeping zinnia, nasturtium, chrysanthemum, miniature rose (Rise and Shine).

Looking east: California poppy, crackerjack marigold, winecup, pink bachelor button, larkspur, Shirley poppy, sweet alyssum.

Looking south: Sensation cosmos; few, smaller crimson rambler morning glory.

Looking west: Single white phlox (David), frikarti aster fading, few catmint, purple ice plant, remnants of Russian sage.

Bedding plants: Petunias, Dalhburg daisies, few snapdragons, nicotiana, marigolds, sweet alyssum. Zucchini put out flower.

Animal sightings: Grasshoppers; gopher active in front; rabbit settling into uphill neighbor’s yard; horses being trained in village; birds in area.

Weather: Rain Sunday and Monday; cool temperatures since with sunny days, frost forming in morning on my windshield.

Weekly update: Mums are the one thing that isn’t blooming this year.

Grasshoppers found them particularly tasty last year, and every leaf on every stem disappeared into their maws. They are the one perennial that made no recovery last fall.

This spring I surveyed piles of dead sticks and couldn’t believe something that once had been so vital could be so completely decimated. Some chrysanthemum type leaves came up, but they were near where Mary Stoker had grown for years, and never bloomed.

Cushions mums are one of the few flowers I grew as a child, back when dime stores sold perennials in paper wrappings. When I rented a house in Ohio in the early 1970s, I put out a grocery store plant that turned into a football mum, with large flowers and a 3' stalk that needed support.

I couldn’t believe I couldn’t grow them when I returned to Michigan in 1984. At first I blamed the supplier - there was only one. Then I blamed the potting soil that turned into a hard block when it dried, and wouldn’t stay moist in the ground.

I had no hopes when I moved to New Mexico: there was still only the one supplier, and the climate was much drier that the lowlands of Oakland county. I was shocked. The mums I bought in 1995 thrived next to tile that edged the front of the house and, apparently, trapped and channeled water. Roots near bad places in the eaves did better than those where the troughs were properly installed. One summer, one composite was knee high and as wide.

Then, the plants declined. They still bloomed as much, but the skeletons remained small. I thought, maybe it was time to reread the guidebooks with their many strictures. But, I clung to Albert Wilkinson, who suggested the best way to handle garden mums, not those grown for competition, was to let them mulch themselves in the fall.

I thought maybe they’d exhausted their soil. I couldn’t find any high potency food in local stores that was easy to apply for 35 feet. So, I continued to scatter Ironrite, trim dead flowers and wait until spring to cut dead stems.

When the forbs began to exhibit characteristics writers might describe as "woody," I fretted. Not enough to divide them, but enough to doubt. Next I rationalized, maybe five years was their natural cycle, and all the books were telling me was how to perpetuate favorites in the face of death.

Then the grasshoppers landed. My only solace was that, if I replanted, I could correct my mistakes. I had put in mixed colors in a long row like several people near the village, then felt the red-tinged plants clashed with the yellow. I also disliked the long green hedge of leaves that was robust at one end, and continually dying at the other. This time I would only buy yellow and bronze heads, and maybe only a few for the good side.

I discovered that while the vendor I distrusted is still in business, its products have disappeared from the places I shop. I could only find plants in drug stores during their Mother’s Day promotion. At least they were yellow, but there was only one variety and florist gifts tend to be less robust.

In September potted plants appeared in grocery stores, and two of the spring purchases budded. My mysterious remains, which used to bloom in July, were opening. I don’t have to say what survived: rose Megan and brick Warm Megan, sold as lavender and orange duplex daisies.

In between, most vigorous of all, stands the lavender pink, spoon-tipped Naomi. In the past it was a geodesic ball covered by short branches terminating in flowers. In late August the mound was flat as 3" stalks arose directly from the ground, for the length of 4'. As the flowers opened, the stems doubled in height, to a full 6".

I’m not about to remove what works, but nature is wrong. These pink-hued plants need more subtle companions than brash chocolate flowers and yellow cosmos. Even the single stalk of Lisa, the only yellow specimen from last year’s twenty, doesn’t go well with the survivors that have encroached its space.

Notes: Wilkinson, Albert E. The Flower Encyclopedia and Gardener’s Guide, 1943.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Maximilian Sunflowers

What’s blooming in the area: Chamisa, lance-leaf yellow brush, datura, purple aster, lamb’s quarter, golden hairy aster, purple mat, large white rose of Sharon, roses, sweet peas, silverlace vine, Maximilian sunflowers. Áñil del muerto and native sunflowers gone to seed, but short, young plants still vital. Heavenly blue morning glory fill 4' from their support to bottom of wall.

Cottonwoods by the river are gold and green; most other area plants are turning yellow, including my tamarix, Persian lilac, and locust. Only burgundies are Virginia creeper and leadplant; only oranges are sweet cherry and spirea. There are no scarlets. Siberian pea shrub and rose of Sharon are shedding.

What’s blooming in my garden, looking north: Black-eyed Susan, gloriosa daisy, blanket flower, chocolate flower, perky Sue, Mexican hat, yellow cosmos, creeping zinnia, nasturtium, lance-leaf coreopsis, chrysanthemum, miniature rose (Rise and Shine).

Looking east: California poppy, crackerjack marigold, tall zinnias, winecup, pink bachelor button, larkspur, Shirley poppy, sweet alyssum.

Looking south: Sensation cosmos, heath aster, crimson rambler morning glory.

Looking west: White phlox (David), frikarti aster, catmint, purple ice plant, faded Russian sage.

Bedding plants: Lots of petunias, but few Dalhburg daisies, snapdragons, or nicotiana. Marigolds and sweet alyssum kept their dwarf promise all summer, then grew with cool weather.

Animal sightings: Small birds, bees, grasshoppers, ants, white cabbage and brown patterned yellow butterflies on purple asters. Gopher threw up mounds near peach tree and Russian sage.

Weather: Warm days. Early in week crimson rambler morning glories emerged just before noon and stayed open all afternoon. Later, when night clouds trapped the heat, they unfurled at their usual time. Slight rain yesterday morning followed by afternoon winds. Two men flooded their land Friday.

Weekly update: Maximilian sunflowers are one of those perennials master gardeners promote as ideal for the serried border where plants quickly assume their predicted height, then bloom without growing. I should be so lucky, though breeders diligently attempt to produce those very backfill specimens for my delectation.

My defensive idea has been to sow tall, space devouring, bright colored annuals like crackerjack marigolds between the walk and retaining wall, with indeterminate tomatoes falling over the wall, poppies in the center and ground covers next the walk.

I relegate the unmanageables, the yellow evening primrose, áñil del muerto and sunflowers, to the far side, between the walk and cedar fence. My planned management chore is to remove seedlings within a foot of the walk. I’ve learned sunflowers are rough customers protective of their space.

This July it looked like the scheme might finally succeed. Tall zinnias were ablaze, California poppy leaves filled the middle ground and Dahlburg daisies had stayed in bloom. I’d kept the seedlings down. Even the tomatoes were doing well, until the gopher got hungry.

The maximilians were its victim last winter; by spring the four crowns I’d purchased in 2001 were covered with piles of dirt. Three rhizomes migrated, and plants emerged a foot or so from the wood debris where I’d planted them. They were slow to poke above ground on April 23. Last year it had been the 4th, and before that they’d appeared between the 10th and 15th.

Stems were topping the fence with buds when a heavy rain battered them August 11. They hadn’t bloomed, but were listing 45° above the annuals. As flowers opened along the stems, they became heavier until the sunflowers were laying just above the thrusting marigolds.

Not every stem fell. Plants still towered over the fence, waving in the wind. By the middle of the month they were seven feet high, fully eight foot by September 1. The mass of color, with darker annuals below, sunflowers stacked to the top of the fence, was all I could ask for.

Then the standing stalks started weaving farther and farther, until they too looked ready to collapse.

Two weeks ago I lashed them to the fence. I needed a clear path before bad weather and didn’t want to encourage hantavirus carrying deer mice. They’ve been sulking ever since, keeping their flowers to the eastward wall, refusing to follow the sun.

The same weekend I harnessed my Helianthus maximiliani, they materialized in ditches and along walls at five homesteads down the road, eight places near the village, two in the village and one yard in town. 3" composite blooms covered 6' to 8' stalks which were grouped in colonies with nary a one leaning, let along tipping over.

I assume the tall grass prairie natives are like annual sunflowers and get top heavy when oil forms in the seeds. My stalks certainly were weighty when I lifted them, and are testing the strength of their confining ropes. But, the huddled masses continue to bloom even as their leaves turn yellow and their petals shrivel, while my neighbors’ majestic, upright stands begin to splay.

The variations in blooming periods, and possibly oil content, may be traceable to the natural inclination of sunflowers to hybridize and localize. The USDA has collected strains to improve for range and prairie restoration with names like Aztec from Knox County, Texas; Prairie Gold from Kansas, and Medicine Creek from Hughes County, South Dakota.

I bought my New Mexico natives from Santa Fe Greenhouse. The area plants currently veering the most probably came from the same source. My other neighbors probably bought their roots from one of the local hardware stores, or transplanted gifts from friends. Nature’s preferences are modified here by sociograms and the usual differences in soil, water and exposure.

Sunday, October 01, 2006


What’s blooming in the area: Lance-leaf yellow brush peaked, datura, purple aster, tahokia daisy almost gone, lamb’s quarter, áñil del muerto peaked, golden hairy aster, bigleaf globeflower, purple mat, large white rose of Sharon, roses, sweet peas, heavenly blue morning glory, silverlace vine. More Maximilian sunflowers are blooming while the natives are going to seed. Apples are starting to drop. Three fields and a yard have recently been plowed; one’s already bright green.

What’s blooming in my garden, looking north: Black-eyed Susan, gloriosa daisy, blanket flower, chocolate flower, perky Sue, fern-leaf yarrow, Mexican hat, yellow cosmos, creeping zinnia, nasturtium, lance-leaf coreopsis, chrysanthemum, miniature rose (Rise and Shine).

Looking east: California poppy, crackerjack marigold, tall zinnias, winecup, large flowered soapwort peaked, pink bachelor button, larkspur, Shirley poppy, sweet alyssum.

Looking south: Crimson rambler morning glory, sensation cosmos peaked, heath aster peaked.

Looking west: White phlox (David), frikarti aster, lead plant, catmint, purple ice plant. Russian sage is sheathed in purple, but has no flowers to attract bees.

Bedding plants: Dalhburg daisies, marigolds, sweet alyssum, snapdragons, petunias, profusion zinnia, nicotiana.

Animal sightings: Gecko, bees, grasshoppers, ants; rabbit and gopher back; horse grazing near main road, turkeys near village.

Weather: Warm noontides, but frost on my windshield in the mornings; no rain. Shorter days make it harder to see the garden and more difficult to water during the week. Leaves beginning to turn yellow on area catalpas, cottonwoods, and weeping willow, as well as my cherries, peach, roses of Sharon, Siberian pea shrubs, rugosa and tomatilla; spirea, caryopteris and white spurge turning orange.

Weekly update: Fall is here. So far there’s been no hard frost, but dawn temperatures have dropped enough to damage flowers and turn leaves yellow.

Usually, autumn is abrupt: a single night destroys tender annual plants and perennial flowers. Spring is the gradual season, when microclimatic differences in water and temperature mediate change, when a week may pass between the time a plant blooms in the village, and wheb it appears on the main road, that’s higher and farther from the river. Another week may pass before it opens on my still higher, more exposed ground.

Cold a week ago Wednesday killed my grape leaves. The following Saturday, most leaves were dead on vines just down the road, and many, but not all were brown a bit farther. Closer to the village, only the top leaves on a rail fence were brown, and vines in the village did not seem to be affected.

Yesterday, the leaves in the village were brown while the ones over the wooden fence were turning yellow. Between the two, the leaves on an iron fence near an arroyo were still green. The others that had survived last week were either brown or red.

More exposed parts, like the upper grape leaves, are the first to go. Petunias in a tall ceramic planter down the road were dead last Saturday, but the ones I’m growing between irises near my retaining wall are still bright. This past week, the erect and top horizontal stalks on my neighbor’s moss roses withered, but tangerine flowers were still open along the ground yesterday.

Variety within species may contribute to the nonuniform durability of plants. Ruby is the only grape I’ve managed to grow, and almost every year its leaves are felled by spring frosts; my neighbors may have hardier types. It was that same time a week ago my friend in a nearby settlement said her hybrid tomatoes had succumbed but not her heritage Brandywine.

Subtle genetic changes resulting from the selective histories of growers may also explain some variations in how similar plants respond to cold. Many of my small zinnias were gone by the end of last week, but not all. Some still bloom between the corpses where I sowed three brands of thumbelina and three of lilliput.

Last Saturday, the tall zinnias in the village looked unfazed from the road. Yesterday, I could see brown heads, but not as many as were in my garden. My taller zinnias, which happen to be protected by marigolds, didn’t die but had a shock. The hybrids opened July 22 and had never gone to seed. The day after the cold temperatures, a number of flowers had exchanged their brilliant raiment for the drabbery of confinement.

My morning glories had a different reaction. Like the tall zinnias, the flowers were scotched by the cold, but not the vital stems and leaves. Every few days last week, I spotted a flower. Then, yesterday, there were nearly the same number as before the cold spell, but the trumpets were smaller and they didn’t open until warmed by the late morning sun.

The stay of the executioner has let some plants harden themselves for the next month, perhaps to rebloom. Others are now busily completing their life cycles, producing seed. A week and a half later, the youthful lush garden has vanished; the infirm mingle with the young, flowers peak through dead stems and leaves. Individual differences in specialized locations prevail.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Morning Glories

What’s blooming in the area: Lance-leaf yellow brush, datura, purple aster, tahokia daisy, ragweed, Russian thistle, golden hairy aster, bigleaf globeflower, purple mat, large white roses of Sharon, roses, purple salvia, sweet peas, heavenly blue and wild morning glories, silverlace vine, Maximilian and native sunflowers. Áñil del muerto smells late in day, especially if no wind; it was not perceptible until flowers began to die. Hay baled in one orchard; red apples visible in another. Two older men pulled pigweed and burned when they had large enough piles; stacks at sheep house are curing nicely, waiting for wind to scatter seed.

What’s blooming in my garden, looking north: Black-eyed Susan, gloriosa daisy, blanket flower, chocolate flower, perky Sue, fern-leaf yarrow, Mexican hat, yellow cosmos, creeping zinnia, nasturtium, lance-leaf coreopsis, columbine, chrysanthemum, miniature rose (Rise and Shine).

Looking east: Garlic chives, California poppy, crackerjack marigold, tall zinnias, winecup, large flowered soapwort, pink bachelor button, larkspur, autumn joy sedum, Shirley poppy, sweet alyssum.

Looking south: Crimson rambler morning glory, sensation cosmos, heath aster.

Looking west: White phlox (David), frikarti aster, lead plant, catmint, Russian sage, purple ice plant, young caryopteris.

Bedding plants: Dalhburg daisies, marigolds, sweet alyssum, snapdragons, petunias, profusion zinnia, nicotiana.

Animal sightings: Gecko, ants, flying and leaping grasshoppers, flies, horse. Bees, including bumble bee, move to asters in afternoon.

Weather: Temperatures, colder in night; have already killed my grape leaves. A friend in a settlement to the south says her hybrid tomatoes have been killed, but not the heritage Brandywine. Neighbor split wood yesterday; smell of wood smoke in the morning. Despite rain Wednesday and Friday, grassfire near big arroyo late Saturday afternoon was quickly contained.

Weekly update: Morning glories are another meso-American plant flourishing in this year’s cool summer and early fall.

I’ve had the most success with Crimson Rambler. Seed I bought two years ago, but sowed this spring, is blooming everywhere, hanging over pots, creeping along the retaining wall, and scaling any plant it strikes. With changing sun angles, the pots are shaded longer so flowers remain open most of the day.

Heavenly Blue is the name everyone associates with morning glories. Several years ago, a man down the road developed an intensively cultivated vegetable plot and planted the blue flowers along the vertical board front fence where they naturalized. When he moved, the next renter converted the garden into a dog run and systematically rooted out the vine, leaving the usual pigweed and bare dirt yard.

This year someone in the village seeded an annual bed a bit higher than the road. The morning glories started opening the end of July along a wire strung above a two foot wall. By mid-September, a sheet of backlit blue flowers filled the space between the support and the wall.

In the past in Michigan and New Jersey, I bought mixed packages. Instead of multicolored patches, I discovered only one color would bloom, sometimes red, sometimes purple, but never both, and never, ever white. Apparently, they were sensitive to the environment, and depending on sun, rain, and atmosphere, the seed that thrived would vary by year in the same location.

One thing that never varies in the village is bindweed, which starts putting out its pink or white round flowers the end of May. This year, small scarlet funnels also appeared along farmers’ fences the first of August.

A few weeks ago I discovered ivy-leaved morning glories in the ditch up the road when I went to take pictures of áñil del muerto. Last weekend, I found them mixed with pink and white streaked trumpets, which a USDA guide suggests may be hedge bindweed (Convolvulus sepium). However, it looked like the 1970 map showed them on the other side of the Sangre de Cristo and Cimarron ranges.

I’ll probably never know the origin of the other wild members of the convolvulus family. It’s difficult enough to know the commercial varieties. Morning glories don’t readily cross-breed, but they do mutate. Heavenly Blue is a selection of the perennial Ipomoea tricolor, which some call Ipomoea violacea. It’s the species that’s attracted the most research because its seeds contain LSD.

Crimson Rambler is probably not the same, if only because it’s not listed by the most authoritative psychedelic writers. More likely it’s the annual Ipomoea purpurea. However, most catalogs group it with Heavenly Blue because a morning glory’s a morning glory. This far north, they all die in the fall anyway. Even so, the purpurea have been more affected by this week’s cold temperatures than the tricolor.

The red flowers with arrowhead leaves are Ipomoea coccinea, while the tiny, blue ones with big, three-lobed leaves are Ipomoea hederacea. Both are available by mail order, but I’ve never seen either sold here. So who knows how they got here, the one twining through fences edging three roads, the other only in the proto-arroyo.

No one asks where bindweed comes from. Few want to know it’s Convolvulus arvensis. Still its profuse flowers scrambling over the ground delight, so long as it’s someone else’s land.

Notes: United States Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service. Selected Weeds of the United States, 1970, reprinted by Dover Publications as Common Weeds of the United States in 1971.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Sensation Cosmos

What’s blooming in the area: Lance-leaf yellow brush, datura, purple aster, tahokia daisy, stickleaf, white evening primrose, ragweed, Russian thistle, áñil del muerto, golden hairy aster, goldenrod, bigleaf globeflower, purple mat, only largest roses of Sharon, roses, purple salvia, canna, goat’s head, heavenly blue and wild morning glories, silverlace vine, Maximilian and native sunflowers. Tomatoes and gourds visible, grapes begin to show color, corn leaves turning brown, Virginia creeper turning red. More piles of weeds drying.

What’s blooming in my garden, looking north: Black-eyed Susan, gloriosa daisy, blanket flower, chocolate flower, perky Sue, fern-leaf yarrow, Mexican hat, yellow cosmos, creeping zinnia, nasturtium, chrysanthemum, miniature roses (Sunrise, Rise and Shine).

Looking east: Garlic chives, California poppy, crackerjack marigold, tall zinnias, winecup, floribunda (Fashion), large flowered soapwort, pink bachelor button, larkspur, thrift, four o’clock, autumn joy sedum, Shirley poppy, sweet alyssum.

Looking south: Small zinnias, crimson rambler morning glory, sensation cosmos, heath aster, sweet peas, hollyhocks, blaze, rugosa and rugosa hybrid (Elisio) roses.

Looking west: Purple coneflower, white phlox (David), frikarti aster, lead plant, catmint, Russian sage, purple ice plant, caryopteris.

Bedding plants: Dalhburg daisies, marigolds, sweet alyssum, snapdragons, petunias, profusion zinnia, nicotiana.

Animal sightings: Bees stay with Russian sage, ants, grasshoppers, dragonfly, cows lowing across the big arroyo, horse, more turkeys, flocks of birds overhead.

Weather: Day’s shorter and mornings colder, stronger afternoon winds with rain mid-week. Ladybells flowers die from cold; spirea and caryopteris leaves begin to change color. Men talk of an early winter.

Weekly update: If you don’t want to look your cosmos in the eye, don’t plant it.

Seed companies keep thinking, if only they could breed a short, well-behaved plant, they would find new buyers.
People either like the flamboyant, simple composite flowers or they don’t. It they love them, they accept their rambunctiousness. If they don’t, housebreaking won’t help.

Still, new varieties appear. PanAmerican developed the shorter, sturdier Sonata for bedding plant suppliers who sell to suburbanites living with neighbors concerned with real estate values and restrictive covenants. Sakata bred Versailles for the European cut flower market. Burpee reminds buyers it’s "very chic." Jung promoted Hinomaru as "elegant," while R. H. Shumway assures growers Sweet Dreams is "exceptionally elegant."

The real thing, the only cosmos, is Sensation, introduced in 1930. The most prominent color in any mix is light lavender pink. The darker rose and white are also sold as Dazzler and Purity.

It’s hard to believe it ‘s been growing here less than 75 years. It’s one of the few annuals found in the village, usually near a fence, wall or walk. It’s currently blooming in three yards, five places on the back road where farmers’ fields survive, and at two houses on the main road. Two have plants more than 6' tall; one has flowers towering over an 8' wall.

The path of Cosmos bipinnatus from Mexico to this Spanish-speaking valley wasn’t the trade route from Zacadecas, but the byways of European fashion. It’s found at low to middling altitudes in the Valley of Mexico where its called mirasol, and farther south in Puebla, Michoacán, Nayarit and Hidalgo. It needs heat to germinate, but long nights to bloom.

The bright flowers captivated nineteenth century English gardeners who grew hundreds in hot houses, then set them in beds that imitated Persian carpet patterns. According to Penelope Hobhouse, they were part of a Mexican plant craze that included zinnias and dahlias.

Greenhouses circumvented the limits of long nights, but nothing could help common gardeners or nurseries hoping to sell to them. In 1917, Robert McCurdy complained that his season was too short for cosmos "which is generally coming into its own about the time of the first frosts." A contemporary rued, "In the Northern States the superior variety, Lady Lennox, seldom blooms."

Sensation changed everything. The tetraploid was bred for longer days, and might bloom by the end of July. The colors are brilliant, the flowers big. It naturalizes despite poor soil, drought, high winds and hard rain.

I’ve never found a good place for cosmos. It’s found places it likes, always in a bed reserved for something else. So we battle - I remove its seedlings from where it wants to grow and it refuses to grow where I want it.

The seeds I planted in mid-May along the back porch have been blooming since mid-July, but languish about a foot high. The leftover seed I threw along my new fence in mid-June started blooming a month later. They’re taller than the May sown plants, so maybe they’ll come back.

For now, the tallest plants are volunteers I missed when I was weeding earlier this year. They track the sun, but it doesn’t matter the flowers turn their backs on me when the sun filters through the petals. I can’t imagine them in a carpet bed. They’re much too independent.

Hobhouse, Penelope. Gardening Through the Ages, 1992.

McCurdy, Robert M. The Book of Garden Flowers, copyright 1917, published 1932.

Unidentified comments on cosmos reproduced at

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Áñil del Muerto

What’s blooming in the area: Winterfat, lance-leaf yellow brush, datura, purple aster, tahokia daisy nearing peak, stickleaf, white evening primrose, horseweed, hawkweed, wild lettuce, toothed spurge, ragweed, Russian thistle, áñil del muerto, golden hairy aster, faded goldenrod, bigleaf globeflower, purple mat, rose of Sharon peaked, roses, sweet pea, purple phlox, canna, bindweed, heavenly blue and wild morning glories, cardinal climber, silverlace vine, Maximilian and native sunflowers, muhly ring and black gramma grasses. Peppers and grapes visible; buffalo gourd have fruit; apples beginning to drop to the ground. More hay baled and yards mowed. Man gave up on sheep and pulled his pigweed; weed piles drying in his yard and across the road waiting to be burned.

What’s blooming in my garden, looking north: Black-eyed Susan, blanket flower, chocolate flower, perky Sue, Hartweg evening primrose, fern-leaf yarrow, Mexican hat, yellow cosmos, creeping zinnia, nasturtium, chrysanthemum, miniature roses (Sunrise, Rise and Shine).

Looking east: Garlic chives, California poppy, crackerjack marigold, tall zinnias, winecup, floribunda (Fashion), large flowered soapwort, pink bachelor button, larkspur, thrift, four o’clock, Shirley poppy, sweet alyssum.

Looking south: Bouncing Bess, small zinnias, crimson rambler morning glory in full bloom, sensation cosmos, heath aster, blaze, rugosa and rugosa hybrid (Elisio) roses.

Looking west: Purple coneflower fading, white phlox (David), frikarti aster, lead plant, catmint, Russian sage, ladybells, purple ice plant, caryopteris peaked.

Bedding plants: Dalhburg daisies, marigolds, sweet alyssum, snapdragons, petunias, profusion zinnia.

Animal sightings: Worm, grasshoppers, ants, bees, mosquitoes, small butterfly, turkey flock in village.

Weather: Gentle winds early in week, rain Thursday with light showers Wednesday, Friday and yesterday. Mornings are colder. Ground in front away from garden wet for 1" then too dry to dig.

Weekly update: Yellow daisies overflow roadside ditches. Even people who never notice nature know something’s blooming.

The incurious absorb a few names, which they apply to anything that falls into the general category represented by the signature plant. If they call these anything, it’s wild sunflower. In Spanish, the generic term for yellow flowers is girasolillo.

Field guides use the term crownbeard. They also report names like gold weed, butter daisy, yellow top, and toothache plant. Spanish speakers have tried capitaneja, flor de Santa Maria, girasolillo o Santa Maria, qillu-it pilfers and mirasolcito del campo. L. S. M. Curtin heard áñil del muerto in northern New Mexico in the 1940s. None of these roll trippingly off the tongue.

Even botonists have not produced a name anyone can remember. Cavanilles called it Ximenesia encelioides, but Bentham and Hooker reclassified it as the slightly more pronounceable Verbesina encelioides.

Daisy it remains, even if the plants get 6' tall. The composite flowers have about a dozen double notched ray petals, that vary in number just enough for the counting out rhyme to work. When the center appears pock-marked, the disk flowers are open. The brown quills are the fused anthers of those flowers.

People say the plant stinks. I’ve never noticed it, and haven’t been able to release an odor by crushing the various parts. I don’t know if it’s variation in plants, the current phase in the life cycle, the lack of moisture in the air, or a stupefied nose. Still, it’s been called skunk daisy and hierba de la bruja (witch).

Michael Moore believes áñil del muerto refers to the smell. It’s also possible it literally means deadly sunflower. Sheep, a mainstay of the historic local economy, sometimes died when they ate it. Keeler, et al, isolated the active agent as galegine, a hypoglycemic alkaloid that’s been synthesized as metformin to treat type 2 diabetes.

Uglier names are used in the south Pacific where the plant was introduced to Kure when a radar reflector was built in 1955, followed by Coast Guard installations between 1960 and 1993. From there it took over Midway. It probably spread so quickly because the annual found a perfect incubator.

Here, a few of the flat, greyish white seeds germinate in the spring. In my yard, those are the flowers that are now nearing the top of the fence. Apparently it needs a high temperature to sprout and so waits for the first rains of July, then blooms when solar or atmospheric conditions are right in mid-August. By the first of September, 6" high stalks bloom along side rangy plants that have flowers at the end of every branch.

The usual explanation for the success of an alien specie is natives forgot how to compete for resources. On the periphery of the plant’s range, Inderjit and Dakshini confirmed chemicals released by the taproot suppress the growth of radishes. In this country, peanut and cotton farmers are avaricious for eradication research.

Here, in it’s traditional habitat, it’s gregarious when left to itself, but doesn’t mix with others. If it has a choice it doesn’t appear with sunflowers. Neither likes the prairies, but both rise in the disturbed ground of abandoned gardens, fallow fields and fence lines. There’s a reason people in easier farm lands call it cowpen daisy.

I’ve thrown dead stems of both along my fence. This year sunflowers are growing with the Maximilians. The tall daisies survived south of all but a few of the rough natives. Both will try the better, wetter garden soil, but I pluck them early.

My plants arrived when my neighbor dug his septic field with its basement layer of gravel and plastic that traps water. From there the seedlings migrated west. This year, like the Mexican hat, the seeds blew along the fence where they landed along a 15' stretch in the gravel and clay of my driveway. I can’t think of a better place to leave them to exercise their allelopathic magic on the weeds that creep in from my neighbors.

It remains there today, and everywhere in the rio arriba, a brilliant autumnal presence that leaves no trace in the collective memory because it has no name.

Curtin, L. S. M. Healing Herbs of the Upper Rio Grande, 1947, reprinted by Western Edge press, 1997, with revisions by Michael Moore.

Inderjit, Chikako Asakawa and K. M. M. Dakshini, "Allelopathic Potential of Verbesina Encelioides Root Leachate in Soil," Canadian Journal of. Botany 7:1419–1424:1999.

Keeler R.F., D. C. Baker, and K. E. Panter, "Concentration of Galegine in Verbesina Encelioides and Galega Officinalis and the Toxic and Pathologic Effects Induced by the Plants," Journal of Environmental Pathology Toxicology and Oncology, 11:11-7:1992.

University of Texas web-site has the best description of the flower.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Rose of Sharon

What’s blooming in the area: Apache plume, winterfat, lance-leaf yellow brush, golden eye, purple aster, tahokia daisy, stickleaf, white evening primrose, horseweed, toothed spurge, ragweed, Russian thistle, white sweet clover, golden hairy aster, goldenrod, bigleaf globeflower, purple mat, bindweed, roses, sweet pea, purple phlox, canna, heavenly blue morning glory, cardinal climber, trumpet creeper, silverlace vine, Maximilian, native and farmer’s sunflowers, muhly ring and black gramma grasses. Some pigweed, velvetweed and cosmos plants over 7' in village. People had serious allergy problems to pigweed midweek; state mowed shoulders of the main road.

What’s blooming in my garden, looking north: Black-eyed Susan, blanket flower, lance-leaf coreopsis, chocolate flower, perky Sue, Hartweg evening primrose, fern-leaf yarrow, Mexican hat, yellow cosmos, creeping zinnia, nasturtium, butterfly weed, chrysanthemum, miniature roses (Sunrise, Rise and Shine).

Looking east: Yellow evening primrose, garlic chives, California poppy, crackerjack marigold, tall zinnias, winecup, floribunda (Fashion), large flowered soapwort, pink bachelor button, larkspur, thrift, Shirley poppy, sweet alyssum.

Looking south: Bouncing Bess, small zinnias, crimson rambler morning glory, sensation cosmos, heath aster, blaze, rugosa and rugosa hybrid (Elisio) roses, tamarix.

Looking west: Perennial four o’clock, purple coneflower fading, white phlox (David), frikarti aster, lead plant, catmint, Russian sage, ladybells, purple ice plant, caryopteris.

Bedding plants: Dalhburg daisies, marigolds, sweet alyssum, snapdragons, petunias, profusion zinnia.

Animal sightings: Gecko, more grasshoppers, ants rebuilding, mosquitoes, sheep, horse.

Weather: Noisy last weekend as one neighbor down the hill ran a backhoe and another up the road used his weed-whacker on the pigweed. Mornings are cooler. Mild winds in mornings and mid-afternoons are pollinating late summer grasses and plants like pigweed.

Weekly update: After ten years, my Roses of Sharon are finally blooming. I discovered I wasn’t growing what I thought.

I planted three shrubs in 1997. I remembered them as double red and bare roots from one of the local hardware stores. In fact, they appear to be Collie Mullins hybrids of Hibiscus syriacus bought in pots from the other hardware. I have labels for both, The flowers are dusty pink with lighter streaks.

I bought them because they grow in the village and are related to hollyhocks which naturalize here. I assumed because they flourish a few miles away, they would survive. And they did start blossoming in 2001, but only produced a few flowers. Every year since things began well, then late frosts killed the leaves. Last winter the gopher burrowed in winter, followed by the grasshoppers. The frost got them again this year, so I was surprised to see any signs of color.

They bloom on new wood, need moisture to develop, and open best in shade. After last year’s depredations, they have nothing but new wood. This year has been remarkable, first for the cool nights, then the past few weeks for rain and clouds. In the early morning I can see them in all their glory.

Only glory may not be the word for them. When they first opened, the blossoms were stunted and the color an ugly purple red. The deformities reappeared when they shriveled from age. They took several days to fall.

More flowers turned the brush into pincushions - neat urns with decorations randomly stuck about. All faced away from the house where they couldn’t be seen. The cactus imitation is more pronounced in the village where one person pruned a group into a low, rounded hedgerow. A few grape moons with prominent stamens protrude into the road.

When even more flowers opened they resembled cocktail toothpicks with curlicues lodged on the tips of woody stems. The bushes have yet to develop any width. L. E. Cook says this hybrid only gets 4' wide for its 8' to 10' height. Mortrello Nurseries cautions patience, suggests the shrubs get tall before they expand.

Once enough flowers opened, their complex, camellia form emerged. It’s easy to imagine Carmen plucking one for behind her ear. Unfortunately, it’s just as easy to see their imitations on the hats of older women in period stage productions.

Up close, Roses of Sharon are fascinating, especially when they catch the afternoon sun. At a middle distance, merged into a mixed shrub border, they look like poor quality climbing roses. When I step farther away, they dissolve into skinny, pretentious poplars.

I drove through the village to see how I could have been so wrong about nature In addition to the formal hedge, another man put in a fence row a few years ago, probably ordered from one of the catalogs sent from Bloomington, Illinois. It looks just like the pictures, with no obvious gaps for dead bushes.

The most glorious mounds are taller than a double wide, three next to the house, one a little away. Two are red, the others single whites with red centers. Nearly as magnificent is a tall white column as tall as a garage near the post office. The shrubs at eight other houses are specimens, planted away from the house where the similarity to roses is best seen. They’re all about the same size as mine, probably hybrids. Most are double. None have surviving seedlings growing near to suggest old plants.

I’m reassured. When they grow here, they’re wonderful. I just have to wait a few more years for mine to broaden. Or, maybe the neighboring shrubs will fill in and provide a greener background for the blowsy blooms. In the slow time of near desert, I have adolescents waiting to grow into their flowers.

L. E. Cook Company, "Collie Mullens Althea," on-line catalog.

Mortellaro Nursery Inc. "Althea, Collie Mullens," 1998, on-line catalog.