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.

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