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.

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