Sunday, March 25, 2007


What’s blooming in the area: Apricot, dandelion. Daffodils are opening down the road, but just emerging by my garage.

What’s blooming in my yard: Forsythia, hyacinth; pushkinia and native dandelion in bud.

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

What’s reviving in the area: Bradford pears, weeping and globe willows have leaves, arborvitae turning green, tansy mustard in neighbor’s drive. Outer edges of piñon turning blue in village; four of the six I transplanted last summer survived; seven more need moving.

What’s reviving in my yard: Purple mat, bouncing Bess, large-leafed soapwort, yellow evening primrose, loco, vinca, daylily, tulips, tahokia daisy coming up; iris, red hot poker and winterfat have new leaves; California and Shirley poppies germinating; coral bells, beardtongue, pinks, small-leafed soapwort and purple aster turning green; Russian olive, purple-leafed sand cherry, and snowball leaf buds expanding; spirea and lilac buds showing green; peach and apple buds fattening with leaves beginning to open at branch tips.

Animal sightings: Put down ant dust last Sunday; new hills by Thursday.

Weather: Waxing moon; ground was turning to dust when trod before three days of rain saturated the soil and temperatures dropped.

Weekly update: Spring arrived in the valley last Sunday when apricot buds burst open.

Apricots have been grown here as long as this land has been entailed. Ibn al-Awam saw al-burquk in Moorish Andalucia in the middle 1100's. They weren’t on the list of plants prescribed by Spanish officials anxious to transplant their cattle and grain economy to the new world, but the pits were easy to stow, the flesh sweet and nutritious. Like those legendary emigrants sneaking past the Holy Office, the trees defied officialdom.

Alonso de Benavides, a Franciscan associated with the Inquisition in Cuernavaca, noted albaricoques were grown in Santa Fé in the late 1620's, when he came north to superintend the missions. In 1776, another Franciscan, Francisco Atanasio Domínguez, reported the rosy-hued, orange-colored fruit in small orchards on family-owned ranchos around Santa Fé. That was probably two generations after my local village was settled.

The interior department sent its own observers in the 1930's. In the Española settlements east of the river, Prunus armeniaca was an important crop in the "heart of the fruit-growing region." When the trees produced, which was about one year in four, the flavor was "excellent" and the yield "exceptional." Most years, frost nipped the blossoms.

They had already spread to the Tewa, where anthropologists from the Smithsonian discovered the Santa Clara had extended the terms for chokecherry, "be" and "bep’e", to all fruit trees in the rose family, including "apple, peach, plum or orange." I assume the outlanders, who’d lived in Arizona, California and Colorado, mistook the white flower clusters that sheathed dark branches for the zone 9 Citrus sinensis.

Yesterday I counted trees blooming in 8 house lots edging the highway by the pueblo. Flowers were visible in 47 yards near my main road, in 23 places in the village, and in 29 on the adjoining roads.

In the village, apricots grow near houses, within the stone or stucco walls if they exist. Only five were in fields, four at the edge of apple orchards, the other heading a line of trees bordering a vineyard. In yards and compounds, specimens tend to be in front, near the wall or road. When there’s more than one tree, they’re planted on opposite sides of the house, sometimes surround the homestead.

Five-petaled blossoms could also be spotted back along drives in town and along the main road, suggesting the boundaries of old farmsteads abandoned as land use has changed. Apricots take at least four years to bear, then produce for another 20 to 25 years.

The front locations were probably selected because they were near ditches and protected from winds; the sites also kept the spreading roots away from buildings. However, as apricots have become symbols of domestic well-being, more people have placed them where they can be seen.

The fig-sized drupes are one of the few plants recognized by Rubén Cobos as having a local name, and his albercoques are the one food people take to work to share. The fuzzy-skinned fruits are also the only ones that are quickly eaten. Both giving and receiving signify the trust, generosity and friendship that survive even in censorious times.

I suspect many of the trees now blooming have been grown from pits passed within families and given to friends, for the tall spreading trees are too big to be the semi-dwarf Blenheim-Royal available yesterday in the local hardware. Carlos Romero’s team found it could distinguish the DNA of Spanish leaves from that of California cultivars. I suspect if ours were tested, the genes would be like those of their owners: mixed among the newcomers would be germplasm dating back to the conquistadores and, before them, the caliphates.

Cobos, Rubén. A Dictionary of New Mexico and Southern Colorado Spanish, 1983.

Dunmire, William W. Gardens of New Spain, 2004, mentions the work of Benavides, Domínguiz, and Yahya ibn Muhammad Ibn al-Awan.

Robbins, William Wilfred, John Peabody Harrington and Barbara Friere-Marreco, Ethnobotany of the Tewa Indians, 1916.

Romero, Carlos, Andrzej Pedryc, Verónica Muñoz, Gerardo Llácer and Maria Luisa Badenes. "Genetic Diversity of Different Apricot Geographical Groups Determined by SSR Markers," Genome 46:244-52:2003.

US Dept of Interior, Tewa Basin Study, volume 2, 1935, reprinted by Marta Weigle as Hispanic Villages of Northern New Mexico, 1975.

Photograph: Apricot and other trees beside main road, 24 March 2007, between showers.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Blue Flax

What’s blooming inside: Aptenia, kalanchoë, ivy and zonal geraniums; honeysuckle buds elongating.

What’s reviving in the area: Forsythia is beginning to bloom in the village and town; stems of globe and weeping willows have turned bright green; more fields have been plowed, ditches cleared, and weeds burned. The local hardware stores have their first shipments of seeds; the one has its bare root roses, the other some potted fruit trees.

What’s reviving in my yard: Pushkinia, horseweed, hawkweed, tansy, and the unidentified yellow coneflower emerged; iris, coral bells, pinks, moss phlox and fern-leaf yarrow produced new leaves; columbine leaves turned green; some tea roses are leafing out while the rugosas have new sprouts.

Animal sightings: Horses were being trained in both rings in the village yesterday.

Weather: New moon, with very warm afternoons that have stimulated plants that respond to temperature more than sunlight. The peach buds are expanding on greening twigs, but will likely be damaged by frost in April. Last precipitation, 8 March.

Weekly update: The flax has made it through another winter.

The five-petaled blue perennial has naturalized on the west side of the house where seedlings have come up each year since I put out two plants in 1995. It almost died out during the cold, dry winter of 2002, and barely bloomed last summer as it recovered from the grasshoppers of 2005, but ten plants are now up, and I expect more will appear.

I don’t know my plants’ antecedents. When I found them in the local hardware, they came from an unidentified source with a generic, mass-produced Pixie label that simply called them “Blue Flax Linum.”

In those years, Santa Fe Greenhouse was selling Linum perenne ‘Lewisii.’ In 2002, David Salman introduced Linum lewisii ‘Appar,’ which he said had been collected in “South Dakota and improved through breeding to have outstanding vigor and a long season of bloom.” This year, the catalog description and index entry remain the same, but the actual identification has been modified to Linum perenne ‘Appar.’

A. Perry Plummer collected the original seed in 1955 for the Forest Service. The Aberdeen Plant Materials Center tested seed from a number of locations, and released his to restoration seed producers in 1980 as the most prolific.

Then, in 1993, R. L. Pendleton’s team discovered the reason Appar outperformed its rivals was that is wasn’t the western native Linum lewisii after all, but the European Linum perenne which the USDA says has clung to zone 5 as it moved from the mid-Atlantic states.through Ohio, Michigan, Illinois and Wisconsin to Kansas and Nebraska. Unbeknownst to them, it also migrated north to neighboring zone 4 South Dakota.

The original audience for the plants cared more the seed worked than that it was a certifiably American. The sparsely rooted forb has been used to reclaim mine lands around Anaconda, Montana, contaminated by copper, zinc and arsenic, and has also been tested on buried uranium tailings at Shiprock.

However, since the 1950's, environmentalists and Lady Bird Johnson have made many care very much about the biodiversity of the plains. The Colorado Weed Management Association banned Appar as an invasive species, only to hear loud protests from seed producers who had invested years in the Aberdeen seed.

In 2000, the association met to rescind its ban after pro forma workshops on the two Linaceae species. Pendleton had already established the pair don’t interbreed, so there was no danger of DNA dilution. Taina Matheson’s group later found both varieties produce genetic variations, so neither selection is likely to precipitate an environmental catastrophe.

Meantime, government researchers had been collecting more samples. Stanley Kitchen’s compeers ran field tests to identify one they believe produces between 70 and 90% of the seed spawned by Appar. Maple Grove, found in 1988 by Susan Meyer in Millard County, Utah, was released in 2003, about the time the Santa Fe nursery was able to procure Appar through commercial channels.

At the 2000 weed association workshop members were told how to identify the species. Following Linneaus, the only external characteristic that separates the two is that all lewisii flowers have styles that are longer than their stamens, while some perenne plants have longer stamens and others have shorter ones. You know what you have if you have long stamens, otherwise your knowledge is tempered by variations in the stand. Younger scientists use DNA.

There are reasons I don’t know the identity of my plants. I care more that my colony of short-lived individuals perpetuates itself than how, and for the moment, I’m satisfied.

Keammerer, Warren R. and Jeffrey Todd. High Altitude Revegetation Workshop Proceedings, 2004, includes papers on Anaconda and Shiprock.

Kitchen, Stanley G. “Lewis Flax–native or Exotic–cultivar or Weed: Implications for Germplasm Development,” Seed Gleanings 21:4-5:2002.

Matheson, Taina, Devin P. Johnson, Sanuel L McMurry, and Leigh A. Johnson, “Using ISSRs to Assess Genetic Variation Within and Between Populations of Blue Flax,” Botany Conference Abstracts, 2004.

Pendleton, R.L., S. G. Kitchen, and E.D. McArthur, E.D. “Origin of the Flax Cultivar ‘Appar” and Its Taxonomic Relationship to North American and European Perennial Blue Flax.” Wildland Shrub and Arid Land Restoration Symposium, 1993, cited by Kitchen.

Salman, David, president, Santa Fe Greenhouse and High Country Gardens. Annual spring catalogs.

United States Department of Agriculture. “Linum Perenne,” available on-line.

Photograph: Blue flax leaves, 11 March 2007, showing new growth under darker leaves that survived the winter.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Ground Covers

What’s blooming inside: Aptenia, zonal geranium, kalanchoë; honeysuckle and ivy geranium buds.

What’s reviving in the area: Daffodils emerged down the road; green leaves appeared on lance-leaved yellowbrushes. Saturday, three men in the village were burning weeds along the road: one worked the gas burner, while another raked over the charred plants. Nearer my place, one man was burning weeds a second was dropping on his pyre. Two patches in the village were plowed this past week; an alfalfa field down the road was turned over, as was the yard where the sheep ate last summer.

What’s reviving in my yard: Crocus and hyacinth bulbs planted last fall poked through; new leaves on flax, caryopteris and Mexican hat; some chrysanthemum leaves pushed up, as did Autumn Joy sedum and one species daylily; June and needle grass are greener at their crowns; more moss appeared in the bed west of the garage.

Animal sightings: Small birds built a nest in the eave of my front porch, and now consider the peach to be their territory; ant hills sprouted in the drive.

Weather: Waning moon, with frosty nights and warm afternoons; a little rain on Thursday.

Weekly update: Ground covers, so beloved by my mother, do not exist in this part of New Mexico. When she reinforced her yard lines with barberry hedges, she filled the dug up ground with lavender-flowered moss phlox. Here that area under shrubs would either be bare or colonized by adventitious grasses and weeds.

It may be the heritage of fire. The Cerro Grande taught those who had forgotten how dangerous plant life can be when houses with no trees and wide expanses of concrete were more likely to survive in Los Alamos than those that melted into the landscape. We’re reminded of the fire’s wiles every time we drive up the hill and see dead trees far from the front which had their moisture sucked by the heat, ready to immolate themselves when the flames arrived.

The preference for bare ground may arise from an atavistic memory of some family farm where the ground was cleared in the spring, and only the orchard had a grass covering or an even older, inherited European aesthetic. Pictures of Italian villas show areas around houses were paved with stone.

Old Mediterranean gardens used low hedges to define their boundaries. The dense outer plants redirected the winds away from the interior herbs which pictures usually show stood isolated from one another. Both ornamental beds and vegetable patches assumed virtuous tenders who made sure nothing competed with the specimens for food and water.

The lack of ground covers here could simply reflect the realization that vermin and grasshoppers take advantage of matted plant life to nest. My mother’s cat may have found the occasional field mouse, but they were nothing near as dangerous as our disease carrying rodents. In Michigan, I never heard a spring report of the first diagnosed case of bubonic plague.

For whatever reason, people here favor a view of the homestead untouched by William Robinson’s late-nineteenth century English impatience with bare ground and his recommendation that one "let the little ground plants form broad patches and colonies by themselves occasionally, and let them pass into and under other plants" in mixed borders.

I’ve been trying to establish ground covers for years, if for no other reason than to countermand nature’s choices: the harmless, but sparsely leaved knotweed, and the attractive, but vicious goat’s head. Along the soaker hoses, between taller, more dramatic flowers, I want inconspicuous plants that spread over the drier soil and keep it from blowing away.

I’ve found a few species that can colonize barren areas, but winecup and rockrose are too aggressive to function as the lowest level of Robinson’s domestic adaptation of the four layers of forests. Sweet alyssum is an annual which can only defend the soil against early spring winds if dead plants are left to winter, and possibly nurture disease and deer mice.

Probably because wholesalers see no market, it’s difficult to find plants in local stores, and mail order nurseries often don’t offer them because they have to ask higher prices than customers will pay who need masses of plants. Amos Pettingill didn’t offer my mother's moss phloxes because "they are difficult to ship."

Last summer I may finally have found some viable snow-in-summer in the local hardware. Plants I’d bought before were either root bound or had rootballs encased in the hardened layer that sometimes forms inside plastic pots. They kept their leaves during the snows that alternated with thaws, and now are putting out new leaves. Last year they spread from 2" clusters to 6" mats. This year, they may finally prove that ground covers are possible here, even if they’re not popular.

Pettingill, Amos. The White-Flower-Farm Garden Book, 1971, page 290.

Robinson, William. The English Flower Garden, 1933 edition reprinted by Sagapress, Inc., 1984, page 47.

Photograph: Snow-in-summer in front of green pinks and a red-leaved coral bell, 10 March 2007.

Sunday, March 04, 2007


Signs of spring: Leaf buds visible on tea roses; tumble mustard growing in my neighbor’s drive; purple aster leaves more obvious. Home Depot and Lowe’s have shipments of trees, bareroot shrubs, bulbs and Ferry-Morse seeds.

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

What’s green and visible in the area: Some honeysuckle leaves; 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, Mount Atlas daisies, black-eyed Susan, Mexican hat, chrysanthemums, some yellowbrush. Moss growing on the west side of the garage where ice lingered.

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

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

Animal sightings: Horses in the village. The other local hardware, the one that sold sonar devices to repel gophers, now has traps instead.

Weather: Ground remains frozen; cold winds, sometimes strong; light dusting of snow before dawn Saturday; full moon.

Weekly update: Linnaeus lived in a Manichaean world where things were either annual or perennial, coniferous or deciduous.

Here in New Mexico we have semievergreens that lose their leaves farther north, but keep them here most winters. Last weekend many of the remaining coreopsis and vinca leaves were killed by cold winds that followed the disappearance of their protective snow cover. Leaves of pinks, columbines, and beardtongues remained dark maroon.

Dark, weatherbeaten leaves on Japanese honeysuckle vines in the village looked greener on a coyote fence behind protective boulders where Queen Anne’s Lace bloomed last summer. The fence fronts a ditch. Behind it lies an orchard and French-influenced territorial style farm house on grass flats that stretch back towards the river.

After watching those vines bloom year after year, I bought a honeysuckle plant last spring for my inside porch where the more common philodendron and pothos wouldn’t grow. When I got home, I discovered I’d bought coral honeysuckle by mistake.

Honeysuckle has two species diffusion centers: one in northeast Asia of Manchuria, China, Korea and Japan that begat the village vine, Lonicera japonica, the other in the eastern United States that produced my Lonicera sempervirens. Some 65 genera share this bipolar distribution.

The honeysuckle family emerged during the late Cretaceous, some 65 to 97 million years ago when polar water temperatures were some 35 degrees higher than today. Arctic sea temperatures rose 3 degrees during the Eocene when forests spread to the poles some 55 million years ago and the primary Caprifolia genera began to evolve. Many believe the temperature spike was caused by an increase in carbon dioxide.

Forests that had spread through the northern hemisphere receded when northern ocean temperatures dropped to current levels 25 to 34 million years ago. Glaciers reformed and disrupted the forest corridor, thus isolating plant communities.

Temperatures rose to levels slightly less than those at the end of the Eocene 5 to 25 million years ago, and species again diversified during the resulting Miocene as plants adapted to changing conditions. Many plants’ DNA shows they now share more with surrounding plants than with their ancestral genera. The village honeysuckle has sweet, night blooming flowers that attract pollinating insects. The native has odorless red funnels to lure hummingbirds.

When the two honeysuckles compete for resources, Japonica is more successful. It apparently has retained more of its Eocene heritage. It remains active so long as predawn temperatures don’t fall below 26 degrees. The stems begin elongating when soil temperatures are between 37 and 46 degrees. New growth appears when air temperatures are between 42 and 85.

More important, it tolerates higher levels of carbon dioxide, a trait that may be traced to surviving the global warming that ended the Cretaceous. Cold-tolerant leaves use the gases released when other plants die in the fall to maintain their color during the winter. In the valley, more gases are released when people use wood stoves and burn weeds.

At the moment my plant is the more precocious. Last weekend, it put out new leaves. This week the stem began lengthening and Friday the leaves spread to reveal flower buds.

My porch shares many characteristics with the outside environment, including the quality of light, longer hours of daylight, changing sun angles and drafts. However, the porch is warmer, with a minimum temperature in the low 40's and highs last week in the mid-80's. Plants also get more reliable water.

It won’t be long before outside temperatures rise, and Japanese honeysuckle growth will be visible from the road. Soon after, temperatures on my porch will increase, and my plant will retard its growth to protect itself.

In the meantime, I watch the two wintergreens recover from winter and think about that other Asian-American disjuntion archeologists want so badly to explain: the movement of Clovis people to Curry County 10,000 years ago when temperatures were reaching modern levels.

Bell, Charles D. and Michael J. Donoghue. "Dating the Dipsacales: Comparing Models, Genes, and Evolutionary Implications," American Journal of Botany. 92:284-296:2005.
Schierenbeck, Kristina A. "Japanese Honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica) as an Invasive Species; History, Ecology, and Context," Critical Reviews in Plant Sciences 23,:391-400:2004.
Wen, Jun. "Evolution of Eastern Asian and Eastern North American Disjunct Distributions in Flowering Plants," Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics 30: 421-455:1999.

Photograph: Coral honeysuckle on inside porch with new leaves opening to reveal flower buds, 2 March 2007.