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.

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