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.

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