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

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