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.