Sunday, February 25, 2007

Mt Atlas Daisy

What’s blooming outside: Nothing. An alfalfa field that’s been turned into a rough lawn was burned during the week.

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

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

What’s green in my yard: Columbine, rose stems, Apache plume, thrift, rockrose, coral bells, hollyhock, winecup, yellow evening primrose, horseweed, dandelion, Mount Atlas daisies, black-eyed Susan, Mexican hat, chrysanthemums, some yellowbrush. Needle grass has been compressed by the weight of snow; evergreen perennials are uprighting their stems; rugosa rose fruit is desicating.

What’s gray: Four-winged salt bush, snow-in-summer, pinks; Greek and fern-leaf yarrow, golden hairy aster, buddleia leaves are getting brown spots.

What’s red: Cholla, pinks, small-leaved soapwort; coral, blue and white beardtongues.

Animal sightings: Pigeons looked for roost in my eaves last weekend; small birds in Áñil del muerto yesterday; gopher probably killed the roots of the two remaining 10-year old miniature roses. Local hardware is now carrying gopher poison, traps, and gas canisters.

Weather: Light covering of snow pellets Tuesday morning; intermittent strong winds during week broke off tumbleweeds and spread remaining seed on still wet ground; yesterday winds turned cold, threatening to kill plants with green or tender parts like roses, flax and coreopsis.

Weekly update: Last Sunday a Santa Fe grocer was selling hydrangeas. Somewhere in that city there, no doubt, are houses with such perfectly controlled interiors that those water hungry shrubs can survive. Not in my drafty place.

My first years in New Mexico were spent learning what does not grow here, unaided by wholesalers who stocked local hardware shelves with whatever was popular or available from contracted growers. Even the best intentioned nursery catalogs didn’t help. A plant that grew in dry shade in Minnesota probably still needed more water or less reflected light than the Española valley could provide.

In 1995, I ordered some Mount Atlas Daisies from Weiss Brothers on the belief that Morocco has a dry Mediterranean climate and the naive assumption that mountains are mountains. Anacyclus depressus was introduced by John Ball when he published the findings of Joseph Dalton Hooker’s 1871 expedition to the Great Atlas Mountains. It’s now recognized as a subspecies of Anacyclus pyrethrum, used for centuries to treat toothache, ague, and rheumatism.

Others have made similar attempts to match far-flung habitats with their own. Europeans use the composite flowers in alpine and rock gardens. In the intermontane west, municipal spokesmen promote it as a water-wise plant. After some experience, they’ve narrowed their recommendation to use along gravel walks.

The plants did very well the first years, colonizing by 1998. Individual plants spread to 8" and bloomed from late April through late July. Then, in 2002, there were fewer, smaller plants. The number continued to decline, and the Carpet Daisies, as they’re also called, didn’t bloom last year.

Seedlings persisted in odd places, but remained small, maybe 3" across. I don’t know if the perennials are naturally short lived as some say, or if the winter and summer droughts of the past few years sent the organism into remission. This spring the newer plants crowd the soaking hose, instead of the hard dry spots they once favored.

Searching for matching ecologies may be a noble pursuit, but mountain environments are far more complicated than mass market garden books can report. One place the daisies are growing today is Oukaïmeden, an Atlas resort near the Toubkal National Park on the drier south facing slopes of Adrar Tizrar overlooking a large grassy plain that supports transhumant sheep herding. Mohamed Rejdali found them on trodden and grazed lands and along roads and the park’s car lot.

Oukaïmeden is more than 2500' feet higher than Española and more than 5 degrees latitude to the south. It averages 14" of rain a year, compared to our 10". More important, its floristic diversity is supported by wet lawns when water accumulates beneath the soil.

It doesn’t matter much that the Anacyclus groundcover can adapt to Germany and Poland, where crown rot is the biggest problem. Here, the environment apparently fell below its minimum thresholds for survival. Hopefully, the increased water, especially the unusual amounts of snow, will bring it back. I won’t know for a few months, but right now I can see that not only are the evergreen plants perking up, but new plants nurtured by a return to a more Moroccan climate are poking through the soil.

Alaoi Haroni, S., M. Alifriqui, and V. Simonneaux. "Altitudinal Wet Pastures: Threats and Conservation Means; the Case of Oukaïmeden Plateau (High Atlas Mountains, Morocco)," Proceedings, European Water Resources Association, 2005.

Ball, John. "Description of Some New Species, Subspecies, and Varieties of Plants Collected in Morocco by J. D. Hooker, G. Maw, and J. Ball," Journal of Botany 11: 364-374:1873.

Hooker, Joseph Dalton. Journal of a Tour in Morocco and the Great Atlas, 1878, reprinted by Elibron, 2001.

Rejdali, Mohamed. "Annotated Checklist of Oukaïmeden, High Atlas," available on-line.

Photograph: Mount Atlas Daisies, one established plant and two new ones, 18 February 2007

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Apple Trees

What’s blooming outside: Nothing.

What’s blooming inside: Aptenia, zonal geranium; kalanchoë buds formed.

What’s green and visible in the area: Some honeysuckle leaves; needle grass and other unidentified grasses: agave, yucca, yew, and juniper. Pines and arborvitae are more brown than before; piñon more gray.

What’s green in my yard: Columbine, rose stems, sweet peas, thrift, rockrose, hollyhock, winecup, vinca, Saint John’s wort, coreopsis, horseweed, dandelion, some yellowbrush. Looks like new Mount Atlas daisy seedling; coral bells are turning green.

What’s gray: Buddleia, Greek and fern-leaf yarrow, golden hairy aster, four-winged salt bush. Snow-in-summer and pinks look more alert.

What’s red: Cholla, pinks, small-leaved soapwort; coral, blue and white beardtongues.

Animal sightings: Small birds flitted between peach, cherries and cholla yesterday.

Weather: Some rain Sunday; 3-4" of snow on ground Thursday morning, melted by Friday afternoon, except in shadows. Ground continues to freeze and thaw.

Weekly update: It’s apple pruning time in the valley.

Last Sunday, a man on the back road stood on a short ladder to trim his trees in the mist. Another cut his the last week of January, three weeks ago. Others are probably waiting for thawing ground to stabilize.

My trees are too young. I assumed from the varieties sold at farmers’ markets that Red Delicious was the most commonly cropped apple here. In 2003, I planted three Bisbee cultivars, along with another variety for pollination. They didn’t grow much the first two years, but overcame transplantation shock and developed better roots. Two years ago grasshoppers stripped them, and they put out no new growth in the fall. Last year, they had scattered leaves that began the recovery process.

When I bought two year saplings, they had been trimmed and pruned to leave one strong stem and a few smaller horizontal branches. The central trunk, or leader, does not bear apples. Instead, it functions as a pump, bringing sap up to leaves that fortify it with nutrients created by photosynthesis. Sap returns through the horizontal
branches where it deposits those nutrients in the flowers and fruit.

After apples form, Malus Pumila trees begin their regeneration by forming small leaf and larger bloom buds along the sides of branches. Adolescent trees produce only leaf buds, and concentrate on producing branches, including the small spurs that bear fruit.

When water levels in the soil drop in autumn, roots produce abscisic acid to prepare the terminal bud meristems for winter. Ethylene, another inhibiting growth hormone, prepares the branches to drop their leaves.

When temperatures fall below 55 degrees F, critical processes continue beneath the protective cover of hardened bud scales. When temperatures fall below 35, activities necessary to bud development all but stop.

Scientists aren’t sure exactly what occurs during winter. They only know if the weather warms before trees experience 1,000 hours of cool temperatures, apple buds open later and over a longer period of time, and so miss the flowering time of their pollinating cousins. Poorly formed flowers produce little fruit.

When farmers prune their trees, they take spurs down to three buds, and remove any branches that look like they’ll only produce leaves. Coincidentally, auxin, a growth hormone, is synthesized in terminal buds; when those tips disappear, the tree transfers development energy to the remaining lateral buds.

Red Delicious is notorious for vertical branches that compete with the leader. You can identify unpruned trees in the local orchards by the mantles of 1' to 2' spikes rising from the branches.

If an apple tree remains unclipped, it may lapse into a biennial cycle to only produce fruit every other year. Pruning helps a tree balance its competing requirements. It’s done now, after the worst of the winter cold to prevent freeze damage to the cuts. It needs to be completed before the tree blooms. Exactly when depends on individual growers, and the weather.

Orchards have probably nearly accumulated their chilling time. I think we had over 800 hours between October 16 and the end of November, and have had more than 200 scattered hours since temperatures fell before the solstice.

An experienced eye can see right now, in the cusp of winter, what the crop may be in September. Weather, insects, disease, irrigation, sprays and fertilizer may improve the fruit, but they can’t increase the yield beyond the potential of the existing buds.

As for my trees, I can only hope for good weather to keep them growing to maturity. They have recovered enough to produce the rudiments of spurs. Patience and water are all I can provide, along with snipping the dead tips some sunshiny day.

Photograph: Branches of Red Delicious apple tree, Bisbee cultivar. 10 February 2007.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Four-wing Saltbush

What’s blooming outside: Nothing.

What’s blooming inside: Aptenia, zonal geranium.

What’s green and visible in the area: Needle grass and other unidentified grasses: agave, yucca, yew, juniper, arborvitae, piñon and other pines. People down the road burned weeds along road and fences.
What’s green in my yard: Columbine, rose stems, thrift, rockrose, coral bells, hollyhock, vinca, coreopsis, Mount Atlas daisy, horseweed.

What’s gray: Snow-in-summer, buddleia, pinks, Greek yarrow, golden hairy aster, four-winged salt bush.

What’s red: Cholla, pinks, coral beardtongues.

Animal sightings: Dog and cat sized prints in mud.

Weather: Warm temperatures continue to melt snow into saturated soil sitting atop frozen ground that refreezes at night. Some snow survives in north and west areas in shadows of slopes, buildings or fences.

Weekly update: Who would think a plant we send to Iran and Uzbekistan to mediate ecological disasters would be fussy in New Mexico?

Atriplex Canescens doesn’t even have a common name. Frederick V. Colville called it Four-wing Saltbush for the Bureau of Plant Industry. Spanish speakers have several terms, including Chamiso. The Tewa living among the Hopi in Hano, Arizona called it ‘Tajaen

The mound-shaped shrub evolved in central México, then moved north through the Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts. It survives with 8" to 12" of rain a year and is found anywhere from below sea level to 8,000'. Taproots that can reach down 20' tolerate soils containing salt, selenium, boron, and alkalis, but accept slightly acid soils, deep sandy loams, heavy clays, and gravel washes.

Saltbush has been used to reclaim abandoned mine sites and rescue eroded grazing lands. The leaves contain high levels of protein and carotene in the winter, but saponin makes them unpalatable in the summer when they’re producing seed. If the soil is saline, the leaves may exude salt into their surface flakes.

The Chenonpodia species has male and female plants, but the females morph into males when there’s not enough water. Genetically, some plants have double sets of chromosomes, some three, and some four. While the plant tends to keep its narrow grey leaves in winter, it will drop them when times are bad, and some have even adapted by growing from spreading roots rather than windblown seeds.

A male shrub appeared in 1992 uphill from my neighbor’s new septic field. A male and female were blooming downhill from mine in 2000, some six years after the tank was installed. The original plant is about 4' high, mine closer to 6'.

This year, I noticed two new plants expanding the copse that already had attracted winterfat and yellowbrush. Another was growing uphill, about 3' from a water line. So far they have produced no seed heads, but the young plants have more leaves than the older ones this winter.

This preference for lands that border disturbances led Charlie Steen, an archaeologist with the National Park Service, to use the presence of stands of Saltbush to locate possible ruins on the Pajarito plateau. It usually wasn’t directly over the ruin, but atop the middens, usually rubbish heaps, that accompany settlement.

Some plants are growing down the road where an abandoned roadbed cum arroyo goes under the road; they remain short, probably because county road crews cut them down in late summer. If they’re anywhere else in the area, the dense upright branches are indistinguishable from other brush. More likely, they’ve been eaten, or the seeds are just very picky about where they germinate.

Picture: Female Fourwinged Saltbush, with empty seed cases; male shrub in rear without cases. 4 February 2007.

Sunday, February 04, 2007


What’s blooming outside: Nothing.

What’s blooming inside: Aptenia, zonal geranium.

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

What’s green in my yard: Rose stems, rockrose, Mount Atlas daisy, horseweed.

What’s gray: Snow-in-summer, buddleia, pinks, Greek yarrow, golden hairy aster, four-winged salt bush.

What’s red: Cholla, coral bells, pinks.

Animal sightings: Wednesday, scared up a large-eared rabbit who bolted for the empty lot across road.

Weather: Snowed Tuesday night. Warm temperatures Wednesday softened the ground and turned the snow to slush which has been freezing every night since in places where it has not evaporated or melted.

Weekly update: Theory and reality clash here.

Bulbs ought to grow. After they bloom in April and May, the leaves carry nutrients down into the bulb, where the plant creates embryos of next years flowers and leaves. During the summer heat and drought, after the leaves have died away, cell division slows, earlier for Daffodils than for Tulips.

In the fall, after the monsoons have brought new water, bulbs put out new roots. The cold slows elongation of flower stalks, redistributes water within bulbs, accumulates nitrogen in roots and converts starch to sugar which is transferred to developing shoots.

In 1997 I planted tulips and daffodils on the east side of the house, and absolutely nothing came up.

It’s pretty hard to fail the first year with healthy bulbs. After all, they’ve gone through the regeneration process in the hands of skilled nurserymen. I blamed in on the gopher who may have eaten the tulips and removed the dirt under the poisonous daffodils, and decided anything that attracted that mammal wasn’t worth the risk.

Years passed. I noticed red and yellow tulips never seemed to survive for more than a year or so in anyone’s yard. I also noticed grape hyacinths I planted in 1997 on the west side of the house were thriving.

I thought perhaps bulb catalogs were misleading when they said bulbs only needed cold for 13 to 14 weeks. When they’re put in a refrigerator at 35 to 48 degrees, temperature and humidity conditions are uniform. Snow does more than chill: it puts moisture on frozen ground ready to sink in, protects that water from drying winds, and insulates the ground against wide temperature changes.

On the east side of my house, the snow melts quickly. This year it has been bare and recovered at least five times. The west lies in the shadow of the house, and has been snow covered since late November. There’s 2 to 6 inches there now.

The point of cooling bulbs is to recreate their natural conditions. Narcissus Pseudonarcissus, the parent of domestic daffodils, is from the Cordillera Cantábrica of northern Spain and Portugal. When it naturalizes in England, Caldwell and Wallace observed it prefers southern or western exposures, often in damp, poorly drained soils. Other have found it likes heavy clay.

Tulipa Genisarias, the progenitor of hybrid tulips, had been cultivated by Moslems for centuries when they were discovered by Europeans. M. H. Hoog found the primary gene center for the genera lay in the Pamir Alai and Tien Shan mountains. The geophytes diffused from there to the Caucasus where a secondary gene center developed. Modern tulips are from the eastern Crimea, just west of those mountains.

Española lies at about 6,000' at 36 07 N latitude. The Iberian mountains are at 43 00 N, while the Caucasus are at 42 00 N and the Crimean at 45 00 N. Our average rainfall is 10" a year, while it's 21" in Leon south of the Cantabrians, and 14" in Feyodosia at the east end of the Crimea. We may get more sun and less precipitation, but our hot dry summer, cool wet winter seasonal patterns are similar.

In 2003, I decided to try again, this time on the west side of the garage that so far has never seen a gopher. The snow disappears a little sooner there than by the house, but the water that drips off the metal roof has dug a furrow that fills with ice in winter.

I planted four varieties of tulips among exiting plants between the garage and the drip line, then put a mixed bag of daffodils between the furrow and grass, just beyond the existing plants.

The first year, most of the tulips and many of the daffodils bloomed. The stems were a little shorter than advertised, but otherwise there they were. They’ve now bloomed three years, with increasingly shorter stems, perhaps because the past few winters have seen little snow. The number of tulips has remained constant, the number of daffodils has declined leaving only the best adapted varieties.

They’ve passed the first test, and probably can survive for years, as they are. Genuine colonization won’t occur until the bulbs clone themselves. In the best conditions, daughter bulblets take three years to flower. Here in the hostile, dry rio arriba those fertile years may be spaced by seasons of dormancy.

For now, the snow promises they should break ground in March and bloom another year.

Caldwell, John and T. J. Wallace, "Narcissus psudonarcissus L.," The Journal of Ecology 43:331-341:1955.

Hoog, M. H, "On the Origin of Tulipa," Lillies and Other Liliaceae, Royal Horticultural Society, 1973:47-64, summarized by many, including Richard Wilford and the Missouri Botanical Garden.

Kilsdonk, Maria Gerarda van. Assessment of the Internal Quality of Stored flower Bulbs using Magnetic Resonance Imaging, 2002, "General Introduction" available on-line.

Picture: West side of garage, 31 January 2007. Snow covers daffodil bulbs. Tulips are between the ice and stucco wall. Vegetation includes needle grass, phlox. purple coneflower, and Silver King artemisia.