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.

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