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.

Notes:
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.

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