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.