Sunday, January 28, 2007


What’s blooming outside: Nothing. Someone in the village pruned his fruit trees; two men down the road were clearing weeds Saturday.

What’s blooming inside: Aptenia, zonal geranium.

What’s green and visible in the area: Honeysuckle; needle grass and other unidentified grasses; agave, yucca, yew, juniper, arborvitae, piñon and other pines.

What’s green in my yard: Columbine, rose stems, sweet peas, thrift, rockrose, yellow evening primrose, vinca, tansy, coreopsis, Mount Atlas daisy, horseweed.

What’s gray: 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: More gopher mounds, especially near tree roots.

Weather: By Wednesday, snow was gone from open fields, but survived on walks, drives, and north and west sides of buildings and fences. Ground frozen.

Weekly update: Horseweed is a weed, plain and simple.

Farmers hate it. Seed can sprout anytime after it drops, and it starts blooming here in June. A single plant can produce 200,000 wind-borne achenes and 80% of those can germinate. 91% of those that emerge in the fall survive winter as rough textured basal rosettes. More break ground when temperatures rise in the spring.

Worse, roots release chemicals that inhibit corn growth. Roundup Ready soybean, corn and cotton seeds were released in 1996 and 1997. Farmers tilled their land less often to uproot weeds. Conyza Canadensis plants that resisted the active agent, glyphosate, were reported in 2000, and Darwinian selection has prevailed.

In my yard, the annual’s not particularly noxious, just gawky. The stalks grow anywhere from 1' to 6' high, but the white composite flowers are no more that 1/4" high and never fully open. The fluorescence is so private it might never occur, except for the puffball seed heads.

Horseweed has no nasty thorns or harpooning seeds, and isn’t particularly difficult to pull when the ground is wet in July. The roots don’t usually break and regenerate like dandelions. The taproots are long, but aren’t nearly as entrenched as those of sweet clover.

When I remove them, they release a lemon smell that hints the plant might be good for something. Indeed, limonene from leaves grown commercially in Michigan is used to flavor candy and soft drinks.

Even so, here in the southwest, this North American native has been ignored more than used, perhaps because the leaves are so bitter not even a rabbit will eat them in winter.

The Zuni dried flowers to induce sneezing for sinus and nasal problems. The Ramah and Kayenta Navajo used the stalk or leaves in a lotion for acne. The Kayenta of Arizona also tried hot poultices for prenatal infant infections and earaches, and essayed the plant for stomachaches. The Ramah of McKinley County prescribed a cold infusion for snakebite.

Young Spanish girls in the rio arriba soaked pazotillo leaves in water to lighten their complexions. They probably theorized the aroma of limonene signified it would bleach like the acids in lemons do.

It was the eclectic physicians who determined the tannin that causes the bitterness could staunch bleeding. In 1898, gynecologist Finney Ellingwood recommended an oil made from cinnamon bark, Erigeron Canadensis, as it was then called, and grain alcohol for heavy menses and bleeding from abortions. Scientists have since established that tannin is a polyphenol that binds with proteins to produce clotting.

Such utility does not negate Horseweed’s ugliness. I sympathize with farmers whenever I yank plants or cut stalks. Then I smell the lemon and wonder why someone somewhere isn’t investigating how this insignificant composite can withstand the full chemical force of Monsanto and what that biological mechanism might suggest about disease, survival, and life itself.

Curtin, L. S. Healing Herbs of the Upper Rio Grande, 1947, republished by Western Edge Press of Santa Fe in 1997 with notes by Michael Moore.

Ellingwood, Finley. The American Materia Medica, Therapeutics and Pharmacognosy, 1919, Hebriette Kress's copy available on-line.

Shaukat, S. Shahid, Nadia Munir and Imran A. Siddiqui. “Allelopathic Responses of Conyza candinsis L.(Cronquist): A Cosmopolitan Weed,” Asian Journal of Plant Sciences 2:1034-1039:2003.

Stevenson, Matilda Coxe. Ethnobotany of the Zuni Indians, 1915.

Vestal, Paul A. The Ethnobotany of the Ramah Navaho, 1952, cited in the Native American Ethnobotany database.

Wyman, Leland C. and Stuart K. Harris. The Ethnobotany of the Kayenta Navaho. 1951, cited in the Native American Ethnobotany database.

Picture: Horseweed growing under a rugosa rose, 21 January 2007.

Sunday, January 21, 2007


What’s blooming outside: Nothing. The man down the road who painted his new vertical board fence green this past summer added framed pictures of the virgin Mary this week that imitate niches in an adobe wall.

What’s blooming inside: Aptenia, zonal geranium..

What’s green and visible in the area: Snow covers everything again.

Animal sightings: Rabbit tracks.

Weather: The early week was cold, but most of the snow was gone by Wednesday. It snowed again Friday night, leaving about half an inch Saturday morning. Temperatures rose above freezing by midmorning, and snow started falling in the afternoon. Another quarter inch accumulated by nightfall when temperatures fell and the snow stopped.

Weekly update: Tansy leaves have survived the snow. It’s the most remarkable thing they’ve done in twelve years.

Tansy promises composite yellow corymbs, leaves that repel insects and rhizomatous roots. Mine never bloomed but it did spread underground. Since I already had any number of combative yellow plants that did flower, I saw no reason to give it leg room. I started pulling it out in 1999, putting some discards in places where nothing grew. It’s taken nine years to rid it from my garden, if I have.

The rejects survived in one place where water is too erratic for anything else. There it behaved almost like a fern bank or low hedge. That is, until the grasshoppers ate it to the ground in 2005. It barely came back this past wet, cool summer.

Tansy has a reputation for such fickleness. An abuela in Taos told Michael Moore the ponso she grew from garden cuttings was safe, but plants that grew from seed were "bad medicine." Tanacetum Vulgare can become so toxic it can kill.

Roman Catholics ritualized its use to young sprouts, limiting it to cakes, teas or puddings eaten during Lent or Holy Week. Many have observed horses and cattle will only eat Tansy leaves when they’re young. Curious Hungarian researchers measured the essential oils during growth and found differences indeed existed in the accumulation patterns of the six chemicals they analyzed.

While variations in chemistry during a plant’s life cycle have long governed human uses of plants, Lithuanian scientists tested Tansy from three locations for several years and found the concentration of volatile oils in mature plants was less in 2002 with a dry, warm spring than in the previous two years. They isolated 41 chemicals in mature plants, and variations in the strength of each within the plants.

Further trying to refine the reasons for the volubility of Tansy, Norwegian chemists brought plants from forty locations to one site where they grew them for two years before extracting the oils. Jens Rohloff’s team found that even then the distilled essential oils varied from 0.35 to 1.90% and those plants that contained the most thujone were especially rich in volatile oils. In addition, they identified six other chemotypes, each of which varied in strength from plant to plant. They had earlier established genetic uniformity in the population.

Canadians discovered the distillation method itself influenced the ability of beta-thujone in Tansy oil to kill spider mites. They also found the presence of another chemical that survived one of the extraction processes may have enhanced the strength of the thujone they took from another species, one of the many chemicals found in unpredictable degrees in Tanacetum Vulgare.

Thujone is most famous for its presence in absinthe. Hold and her colleagues found the terpenoid inhibits the activity of GABA A receptors in the brain which, in turn, prevents the release of chloride to calm neurons. When they gave high doses of thujone to mice, the overexcited neurons produced convulsions, and ultimately death.

The alpha form of thujone is more toxic than the beta. Mockute’s team noted that Tansy from eight countries contained beta-thujone, while plants from three countries had alpha-thujone like that they found in Vilnius.

However, it’s not the thujone that works against Colorado potato beetles, but the vapors which mask the attractive smell of the spuds.

We’re still discovering individual human variations in health and temperament that arise from individual biochemical differences. The possibility that a plant like Tansy that looks so uniform contains the same secret idiosyncracies is beyond our ken. Until science can identify the sources of variability and produce croppable plants, we’ll continue to treat it with prohibitions, do not touch, do not plant, do not nibble.

Chiasson H, A.Belanger, N. Bostanian, Cvincent, and A Poliquin. "Acaricidal Properties of Artemisia Absinthium and Tanacetum Vulgare (Asteraceae) Essential Oils Obtained by Three methods of Extraction," Journal of Economic Entomology 94:167-71:2001.

Hold K.M., N. S. Sirisoma, T. Ikeda, T. Narahashi, and J. E. Casida. "Alpha-thujone (the Active Component of Absinthe): Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid type A Receptor Modulation and Metabolic Detoxification," Proceedings, National Academy of Science 97:3826-31:2000.

Moore, Michael in L. S. M. Curtin, Healing Herbs of the Upper Rio Grande, 1947, republished by Western Edge Press of Santa Fe in 1997.

Mockute, Danute and Asta Judzentiene. "Composition of the Essential Oils of Tanacetum Vulgare L. Growing Wild in Vilnius District (Lithuania)," Journal of Essential Oil Research: 16:550-553:2004.

Nèmeth, É. Z., É Héthelyi and J. Bernth, "Comparison Studies on Tanacetum Vulgare L. Chemotypes," Journal of Herbs, Spices & Medicinal Plants 2:85-92:1994.

Rohloff, Jens, Ruth Mordal, and Steinar Dragland. "Chemotypical Variation of Tansy (Tanacetum Vulgare L.) from 40 Different Locations in Norway," Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, 52:1742 -1748:2004.

D. Thiery, D. and J. H. Visser. "Misleading the Colorado Potato Beetle with an Odor Blend ," Journal of Chemical Ecology 13:1139-1146:1987.

Photograph: Tansy with dead rose canes and white stalks of grass and áñil del muerto that did not prosper there, 14 January 2007.

Sunday, January 14, 2007


What’s blooming outside: Nothing.

What’s blooming inside: Aptenia, zonal geranium.

What’s green and visible in the area: Snow finally melted yesterday, too late to see what’s still evergreen.

Animal sightings: Monday, birds, probably quail, left tracks around áñil de muerto in drive where snow had dumped the seed heads; yesterday, red-bellied birds hunted around the Black-eyed Susans.

Weather: Cold temperatures early in week, dry air started to evaporate snow; warm temperatures Friday and Saturday melted remaining snow and thawed top layer of ground which refroze each night.

Weekly update: I’m constantly surprised at how little we know about plants, after eons of agriculture and centuries of scientific exploration.

Several years ago I bought a groundcover at Home Depot. When I got home I realized I’d never heard of Aptenia. The only reference I could find was Aptenia Cordifolia in my 1934 Hortus. Since it was grown in zone 9 Arizona by McK Greenhouses, I decided I’d probably let my hopes overrule my experience again, and that my perennial in fact would be lucky to survive the summer in zone 5.

Feeling chagrined and conservative, I stuck the four slips in a planter on my inside porch, hoping, if nothing else, they’d provide some greenery. They grew long trailers with pink flowers. However, when I trimmed the stems, thinking they would come back vigorously, it took two years. I would have been better off taking the cutoff pieces and sticking them back in the dirt.

They’re finally blooming again, but only when the sun shines. On overcast and snowy days, the buds half open.

When I could see the flowers, I decided there really should be some information about Aptenia on line. I learned Louisa Bolus initiated it into the world of botany in 1928. Full Linnaean descriptions of leaves, flowers and fruits followed. Younger researchers have been analyzing the DNA of the Aizoaceae family to define evolutionary relationships.

But, I didn’t learn much more. When something’s new and there’s little information available, the curious test it with tools they use to deal with nature in general. In some cases, they use methods that lead to new knowledge, in others the expansion of popular superstition. So far, no consensus has developed about Aptenia.

Writers echo one another’s unverifiable comment it was introduced into California in 1970 from Israel. The Mediterranean Garden Society continues to promote the plant, but Ran Pauker only told them about his experiences in the Negev in 2000. Purists condemn it as a noxious, aggressive invasive threat to ur vegetation, because it spreads quickly and smothers other plants. One is an extension of the conservationist’s search for water-wise landscapes, the other the xenophobic fear of another kudzu invasion.

Exotic cooks have nibbled it and declare it can be used in salads. Pragmatist repeat it won’t burn easily in a wildfire, but none have provided anecdotal or experimental evidence.

The fact the ice plant cousin has succulent leaves has attracted the attention of those who search for new mind-altering drugs. Michael Smith and his co-workers analyzed the existence of mesembrine alkaloids in the Mesembryanthemaceae subtribe of the Aizoaceae family, and found Aptenia was the only genus to contain significant quantities. Since, drug sites have passed on their own lore, probably as unverifiable as the west coast lore.

When I looked for information on South African plants I found a different vacuum. Early settlers and their descendants, like Louisa Bolus, recorded the diverse flora they encountered, but most of their Capetown publications aren’t available in northern New Mexico.

When Crouch and Hutchings began researching the herbal practices of the Zulu, they found another area that is more hearsay than fact. The most intriguing comment they reported was from Rev. J. Gerstner, who noted in 1938 that Aptenia was one of the few plants that appeared to be cultivated, set to grow along kraal fences where it would "be always at hand." As an outsider, and a moral authority at that, he was told it was anti-inflammatory. The plant’s mere existence signified more than was knowable.

And so it blooms, the little pink daisies, oblivious to my ignorance, happily scrambling over my chair, treating this human artifact as one more interesting support in a useful life.

Bailey, Liberty Hyde and Ethel Zoe Bailey. Hortus, 1934.

Bolus, Harriet Margaret Louisa. Notes of Mesembrianthemum and Some Allied Genera with Descriptions of a Hundred New Species. Part I. Bolus Herbarium, 1928.

Crouch, N. R. and A. Hutchings, "Zulu Healer Muthi Gardens: Inspiration for Botanic Garden Displays and Community Outreach Projects," Proceedings, International Botanic Gardens Conservation Congress, 1998.

Gerstner, J. "A Preliminary Check List of Zulu Names of Plants, with Short Notes." Bantu Studies 12:215-236:1938, quoted by Crouch.

Mediterranean Plant Society meeting, 11 November 2000, notes available on-line.

Smith, Michael T.
1996 _____ Neil R. Crouch, Nigel Gericke, and Manton Hirst. "Psychoactive constituents of the genus Sceletium N.E.Br. and other Mesembryanthemaceae: a review," Journal of Ethnopharmacology 50:119-130:1996.

1998 _____ Courtney R. Field, Neil R. Crouch, Manton Hirst. "The Distribution of Mesembrine Alkaloids in Selected Taxa of the Mesembryanthemaceae and their Modification in the Sceletium Derived ‘Kougoed’," Pharmaceutical Biology 36:173-179:1998.
Photograph: Aptenia Cordifolia, 6 January 2007.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

New Year's Rituals

What’s blooming outside: Nothing.

What’s blooming inside: Aptenia, zonal geranium, Christmas cactus.

What’s green and visible in the area: Snow still covers everything; its weight collapsed the sunflowers and áñil del muerto earlier this week.

Animal sightings: Animals left tracks looking for food. Some bird, probably a quail, landed on the cholla, then walked between the cactus and front garden. Quail later found the sunflowers. Green-bellied birds, much puffed up by the cold, foraged in front and discovered they couldn’t hop onto Mexican hat or black-eyed Susan stalks.

Weather: Moisture condensed into hoar frost early this week, then fog condensed early mornings mid-week. By Friday, warmer temperatures were beginning to melt snow, when it snowed again and temperatures dropped..

Weekly update: The week between Christmas and New Years used to be when seed and nursery catalogs would arrive. I would begin the annual ritual of planning next year’s garden: reading about new plants, making lists, totaling prices and crossing out items to fit a budget. Everything needed to be done by mid-February to receive early ordering discounts.

All has changed in the last twenty years.

There are fewer catalogs. Some companies, like Mileager, changed to internet marketing, and I didn’t have an on-line provider. Some, like White Flower Farm, looked at my scant ordering history (or maybe my zip code), and dropped my name. Others, perhaps like Bluestone, may have noticed I complained about bad plants, and decided I wasn’t a valued customer.

Some companies simply disappeared. A few years ago, the owner of Nor’East retired and sold his business. Abundant Life had a fire, and merged with Territorial. Weiss Brothers returned an order saying it no longer was in the mail order business. The owners of Raintree divorced, and each sent a catalog from a new entity, inviting me to take sides. Others were taken over by the next generation or investors who thought all the oddities their parents sold should be replaced by more commercial products.

Corporate takeovers take their toll, although it’s usually hidden. The first thing that changes is the address. In the 80s, it was to Bloomington, Illinois, and Plantron. More recently, many have changed to the Randolph, Wisconsin address of J. W. Jung. Van Bourgondien and Van Dyck moved to Virginia Beach from Babylon and Bridgewater, New York. Henry Fields abandoned Shenandoah, Iowa for Aurora, Indiana.

Changes in the catalog are more glaring. Offers replace plants. Pictures are cluttered with balloons filled with admen’s catchwords ("Great Color," "Fast Grower," "Must Have.") The traditionally fusty, thick Thomson and Morgan and Wayside Gardens sprouted so many guideposts last year, I set them aside. The pictures were obscured with captions that were so distracting I couldn’t read the text.

I’m not sure there are many catalogs left that serve my original purposes - to provide plants or seeds I can’t find in local stores, and find things grown regionally that might do better in my conditions than the rarified hybrids developed for bedding plant and cut flower growers.

When I first started requesting catalogs in Michigan, I searched for nurseries in the northern midwest, thinking they were growing their own produce. Some were, but even then, most were supplementing their stock with items purchased from foreign suppliers. Already, there were the mere retailers who grew nothing, but packaged European and Japanese seeds in catalogs aimed at niche markets.

The more the seeds derived from the same growers, and the only distinction between catalogs was the wit of the retailer, the more price became the only criteria. Cost became more important when shipping fees increased, first when companies like UPS raised their rates, then when petroleum companies raised theirs. Shipping used to be just a little over our high gross receipts tax, then rose to double it. This year, most of the seed company rates are running about 25% of my orders.

With the transition from production to marketing, the idea of an ordering season disappeared. Seed catalogs arrived earlier and earlier, plant catalogs later and later. Companies no longer needed to know what would sell to determine what to plant; they controlled the market so they could believe what they offered had to sell. Early ordering discounts disappeared, leaving only high volume order ones.

I spent this past New Years Day going through catalogs and looking out at snow that transformed the prairie into a tundra. I was down to four seed catalogs, two geared to commercial growers. One made clear with price increases that my business was more a nuisance than before, but it is still the only company that offers single color packages of annuals like larkspur and bachelor buttons. The other apparently figured the more sales the better. The third was filled primarily with purchased seeds, but its original varieties were still there to be ferreted out. The last, which once sold only its own seeds, started supplementing its choices a few years ago.

As for plants, I don’t think I have any choices left. I’m down to two outlets I trust, and only one has sent a catalog.

I contemplate the new year, and regret the losses of the past. I would like to add some new plants, but there’s no longer a Lambs catalog to study. I would like to buy some older varieties, but there’s no longer a Rocknoll or Mellinger. I would like to continue using Crimson Rambler morning glories and Florence bachelor buttons, but they’ve been dropped by the larger catalogs, and I have to scour the others.

I would like more of nature’s bounty, and business models dictate less is more.

Notes: The history of Ferry-Morse and Burpee are treated in Cameron, the story of a midwestern small town, available at .

Photograph: Snow early morning, 6 January 2007, taken through the porch window. Juniper and bunch grasses, with winterfat in back, sunflowers in front.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Christmas Cactus

What’s blooming outside: Nothing.

What’s blooming inside: Aptenia, zonal geranium, Christmas cactus.

What’s green and visible in the area: Snow covers everything.

Animal sightings: Rabbit out last Sunday. Occasional small bird landed on Maximilian sunflower heads during week and leaned over to peck seeds.

Weather: Sunday melted snow from 20 December; about 3" left by Wednesday. Heavy snow fell Friday at dawn. Smaller flakes fell Saturday before dawn and continued all day; temperatures stayed warm enough that some snow melted below, while more accumulated above.

Weekly update: Holidays are so alluring with their Poinsettias and Christmas Cacti, which some are able to keep blooming year after year.

I finally succumbed. I rationalized that since it was a cactus, it should be able to survive the rugged conditions on my enclosed porch. Only when I got home did I read the label. Bay City Flower Company never actually called it a Christmas Cactus, just gave a Latin name, Schlumbergia Truncata, said it was the product of “worldwide hybridization” and left it to me to supply the associations, which of course, gullible consumer that I am, I did.

When the deep-rose-colored buds started to open, I discovered the flowers look like badly died carnations, with white centers and carmine tips. Fortunately, I normally see it from a distance, through the porch door, and the colors diffuse into an opalescent pink.

I can’t fault the grower for misrepresentation. Schlumbergia Truncata was the first of the genera to be sent to Europe in1819 from the Organ mountains north of Rio de Janeiro. Schlumbergia Russelliana followed in 1837, and, was inevitable in those days of experimentation, William Buckley introduced a cross of the two in 1852 for the Rollison Nurseries in England that became the first Christmas Cactus (Sclumbergia x Buckleyi).

From there it spread, not just through commerce, but through its own initiative. Schlumberigia has jointed stems that break easily, and root themselves in the litter that accumulates in tree branches. It quickly became a pass-along plant that moved from neighbor to neighbor, from generation to generation, as it had probably moved from tree to tree under the rainforest canopy.

Mark Zwonitzer tells us, Mollie Bays Carter’s “granddaughters, great-granddaughters, and great-great-granddaughters still have portions of a Christmas cactus she started more than a century ago, and to this day that plant blooms in houses up and down Poor Valley.”

It’s a shorter hop from Brazil to my New Mexico porch via England and Half Bay Moon, California, than from commercial greenhouses to her small Clinch Mountain hamlet in southwestern Virginia in the early twentieth century where hard cash was scarce. Mollie was 17 when she married Robert Carter to live in a log cabin with nothing covering the window opening in 1890. A few years later they moved to land given them by her father, and later still, to a house built for them by their son, Eck.

One can conjure any number of routes that plant took to arrive there. Mollie’s brother, Flanders Bays, ran singing schools and sold trees and shrubs for Larkey Nursey; later her son Pleasant joined him on the circuit. Either could have bought a plant at discount, or been given one. It’s the type of thing that might have been used as a sales prize.

One of Robert’s kin on his paternal grandmother’s side, John Smith, left for Richmond, a rail junction town in Indiana in the 1880s. Thereafter, whenever someone needed money he headed to Wayne County. Robert had gone before he married Mollie. Pleasant gave it a try in 1911. Anyone could have brought back a plant, and from there it could have spread from Bays to Bays, until it reached Mollie.

The plant may not really be 100 years old. Accurate chronology is often lost when grandchildren discuss a past before their memories. It could as easily date from some time in the 1920s when Eck was making good money working as a postal clerk on the railroad, or after Pleasant began making hillbilly records with his wife Sara and Eck’s wife Maybelle. A brilliant red flower blooming in December is just the sort of inexpensive luxury someone would buy who didn’t have a lot of money, but could afford a small indulgence.

The little plant could have followed any of the paths cash took to enter a subsistence community much like that of northern New Mexico before World War II. The important thing is that despite its commercial origins, the Christmas Cactus became a symbol of family tradition, not just among the Bays and Carters, but among families everywhere in this country who pass on cuttings.

In southwestern Virginia it became something more. Gardening may not have been indigenous there, but an appreciation of beauty was, especially for gifted voices. Mollie’s son and daughters-in-law became famous as A. P. and the Carter Family. Sara will always be remembered for putting together one of their most enduring songs from a miscellany of exotic plant images. “Wildwood Flower” is about love and beauty and music, and maybe that rare glimmer of winter color that was passed from hand to hand as precious a heritage as all the song signifies.

Notes: Zwonitzer, Mark with Charles Hirshberg, Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone? The Carter Family and Their Legacy in American Music, 2002.

Photograph: Schlumbergia Truncata, 30 December 2006, with two flowers and some buds looking through the window to fresh snow.