Sunday, April 29, 2007


What’s blooming in the area: Apples, iris, flax, tansy and purple mustard, shepherd’s purse, hoary cress, stickseed whitebristle, oxalis, dandelion, downy chess and three awn grass; buds on fern leaf globe mallow; Siberian elm dropping seeds. Woman was putting in her vegetable garden yesterday near the orchards.

What’s blooming in my yard: Cherry, Siberian pea shrub, lilac, first spirea, grape hyacinth, hyacinth, tulip, daffodil, moss phlox, coral bells, yellow alyssum, Mount Atlas daisy; buds on thrift, pinks, and perky Sue.

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

What’s reviving in the area: Grape leaves emerging at hacienda down the road.

What’s reviving in my yard: Jupiter’s beard, leadplant, tomatilla, gayfeather, coneflowers emerging; leaf buds on rose of Sharon and catalpa.

Animal sightings: Long thin bird with long thin beak; full-sized flying grasshoppers and a few baby grasshoppers; ants.

Weather: Full moon; windy afternoons; some rain Tuesday.

Weekly update: They say Germans always settled on limestone soil in Pennsylvania and the restless Scot Irish left them what good land they had; others joke their Norwegian ancestors in Wisconsin found farms as bad as they had left, when they could have gone to California.

How did they manage that? Explorers and pioneers looked for familiar vegetation to tell them what virgin land might support. Coronado told Charles V he saw “grass like that of Castile” on the way to Cibola in 1540; he didn’t need to mention horses, cattle, or sheep.

Farmers use the white-flowered shepherd’s purse (Capsella bursa-pastorisas) blooming in my neighbor’s drive as a sign that soil is salty. Ehrenfried Pfeiffer says the appearance of this and other members of the mustard family (Brassicaceae) also implies crust formation and hard pan that result from the loss of friable loam from overgrazing and poor farming methods.

Tumble mustard (Sisymbrium altissimum) is a more familiar token of range abuse. At the moment it’s still a thistle-like rosette in my neighbor’s drive, but it will soon bolt to produce clear yellow four-petaled flowers. While it tends to hug roadsides, there’s one area near the orchards that’s covered each spring. I don’t know if its presence simply reflects the current neglect of that lot, or if it hints at some earlier use, say as a corn field.

Indicator plants can reveal the history of agriculture itself. Young and Clements observed that while purple mustard (Chorispora tenella) has been in this country since at least 1929, it’s only become a nuisance in the Great Basin in the past ten years, with most of the growth since 2002.

The most likely reason is that farmers have been doing less tilling and harrowing since herbicides became available. By the time they apply the chemicals, the winter annual has already produced the next batch of seed and inhibited the alfalfa or winter wheat.

So far, purple mustard is only a haze in a few places in town and outside the orchard fences. It probably represents nothing more than people’s tolerance for whatever grows in the public domain so long as it doesn’t get tall like the sunflowers that are mown down in late summer.

Native tansy mustard (Descurainia pinnata) is the species most eager to take over my yard. Dunmire and Tierney suggest it can be used to locate prehistoric settlement sites, for it grows near remains of the Anasazi who lived west of the Rio Grande between Bernalillo and Cochiti between 1300 and 1500. Because it can survive heavy soils, they’ve found it colonizes decaying adobe mortar and plaster. When the dull yellow flowers and spiky seed ladders appear in bottom lands, they believe they connote the presence of ancient garden plots.

When I first heard the term indicator plant, I thought I could find plants that would grow in my garden by extrapolating from volunteers in the same family. With so many mustards blooming in the spring, I felt sure yellow alyssum and candytuft would grow. I was wrong. Only one Alyssum saxatile survived.

It could be all these mustards signify is the current interregnum when flowering fruit trees in the rose family are passing and hybrid teas have yet to appear.

Notes:Coronado, Francisco Vasquez de. Report, republished 1896 by George P. Winship as The Coronado Expedition, 1540-1542, cited by Robert D. Baker, Robert S. Maxwell, Victor H. Treat and Henry Dethloff, Timeless Heritage: A History of the Forest Service in the Southwest, 1988, and by Samuel Woodworth Cozzens, Explorations and Adventures in Arizona and New Mexico, 1988.

Dunmire, William W. and Gail D. Tierney. Wild Plants of the Pueblo Province, 1995.

Pfeiffer, Ehrenfried E. Weeds and What They Tell, 1950's, kept in print by Bio-Dynamic Farming and Gardening Association.

Young, James and Darin Clements. “Blue Mustard in Cheatgrass Communities,” Society for Range Management Proceedings. 58:261-262:2006.

Photograph: Tansy and purple mustards near post office, 21 April 2006, with dandelions; plants since removed, but seeds left behind.

Sunday, April 22, 2007


What’s blooming in the area: Apples, plum, bradford pear, white fence rows, purple-leafed flowering trees, first lilac, tulips, yellow iris, tansy and purple mustard, shepherd’s purse, hoary cress, stickseed whitebristle, alfilerillo, dandelion, native dandelion, downy chess grass.

What’s blooming in my yard: Peach, cherry, sand cherry, Siberian pea shrub, forsythia, grape hyacinth, hyacinth, daffodil, moss phlox, yellow alyssum, Mount Atlas daisy; buds on spirea, Bath pinks, and coral bells.

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

What’s reviving in the area: Cottonwood leaves are beginning to fill the gaps between the bright green Siberian elms; leaves appearing on apricot, Russian olive, and Virginia creeper; sideoats gamma greening. Saturday men were burning weeds on the local chapel grounds; another crew was clearing and burning trash near the wide arroyo; several men were checking their dikes while their fields were flooding.

What’s reviving in my yard: Anthemis and coreopsis came up from seed; globeflower, baptista, Maximilian sunflower, chocolate and blanket flowers emerged; leaves appeared on tamarix; leaf buds showing on locust and rose of Sharon.

Animal sightings: Gopher attacked Maximilian sunflowers a few days after they emerged; large bumble bee on Siberian peas; black butterfly with white edges on its wings; horses were grazing near main road; turkeys were in a field near the orchards.

Weather: Waxing moon. Strong winds all week destroyed leaves on several newly planted roses; Russian thistle tumbleweeds collected on fences. Heavy clouds formed many days; yesterday they finally dropped less water than the winds had taken.

Weekly update: Dandelions are fabled forces of nature.

Years ago I read they weren’t widespread until the automobile. That urban legend assumes some mythic, prelapsarian world before European plants invaded, and blames technology for the despoliation.

In fact, John Josselyn saw the flowers in New England in the 1660's, centuries before Henry Ford. At that time, Nicholas Culpepper tells us, the French and Dutch on the continent were eating the leaves in the early spring while the English were using the taproot to treat urinary problems.

Its most common use as a diuretic entered European medicine through Córdova where a convert, Arib ibn Sa’d, included it in his gynecological treatise of 965. However, seeds winnowed from puffballs probably weren’t brought by the conquistadores: Hernández Bermejo and León note bitter greens like dandelion (Taraxacum officinale), chicory (Cichorium intybus), and comfrey (Symphytum officinale) disappeared from horticultural Spain with the reconquest.

When the milky-stemmed perennial appeared on Spanish lands in northern New Mexico, the settlers called it chicória (chicory) and consueldo (comfrey). Apparently all the colonists retained from their Iberian past were some words and a recognition the three species belonged to the same epistemological category.

They treated the actual plant as a curiosity to be tested until its utility could be discerned. None of the uses mentioned by Curtin were common in contemporary herbals. Those who talked to her in the late 1940's boiled and fermented flowers to treat heart problems and pickled the leaves to purify blood. They used the flowers to dye deer skins.

Local Tewa speakers also regarded k‘ot‘awo as a new discovery to be absorbed into traditional categories. In 1916, the Santa Clara were mixing dried leaves with dough for bad bruises. At San Ildefonso, ground leaves were made into a paste applied to broken bones. Both pueblos bound fresh leaves in bandages around fractures.

They may have borrowed the idea of a dandelion poultice from the Navaho with whom they had equivocal relations. The Ramah of McKinley County applied it to swellings. The only other tribes Moerman mentions who used dandelions as a plaster were the Iroquois, another Athabaskan speaking tribe, and the Aleut who share Alaska with Athabaskan speakers.

On the other hand, the Athabaskan speaking Apache who moved to the Mescalero reserve in Otero County from farther east were able to observe others who knew the traditional plant, probably whites. They adopted it to strengthen their drinks.

Even now, long after the Smithsonian visited the Espanola valley, dandelions are still regarded as a novelty. A few years ago my western neighbor put in a sod lawn. When the yellow flowers appeared, I assumed he would exterminate them at once. Instead, with none of the received wisdom of suburbanites, he let them be for several months.

The next year, the hollow stemmed composites were growing next to my garage on his side. Since then, they’ve spread to the tiles to the south of the garage and the drip line in back.

The history of the dandelion remains a series of dots - Arib ibn Sa’d, 965; New England, 1663; Santa Clara, 1916; my neighbor’s lawn, 1990's - with no connecting lines. Folk wisdom fills the gaps, whether it be a new use or a new origination tale.

Arib ibn Sa’d. Khalq al-janin, 964-65, cited by Hernández Bermejo and León.

Culpeper, Nicholas. Culpeper’s Complete Herbal and English Physician, 1650's, 1826 edition republished in 1981.

Curtin, L. S. M. Healing Herbs of the Upper Rio Grande, 1947, republished 1997, with revisions by Michael Moore.

Hernández Bermejo, J. E. and J. León. Neglected Crops: 1492 from a Different Perspective, 1994, chapter on Spain on internet.

Josselyn, John. Cited by Alfred W. Crosby, Ecological Imperialism, 1986.

Moerman, Dan. Native American Ethnobotany, 1998, and on-line database includes Meredith Jean Black, Algonquin Ethnobotany: An Interpretation of Aboriginal Adaptation in South Western Quebec, 1980; Edward F. Castetter and M. E. Opler, Ethnobiological Studies in the American Southwest III. The Ethnobiology of the Chiricahua and Mescalero Apache, 1936; James William Herrick, Iroquois Medical Botany, 1977; G. Warren Smith, "Arctic Pharmacognosia," Arctic 26:324-333:1973, and Paul A..Vestal, The Ethnobotany of the Ramah Navaho, 1952.

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

Photograph: Dandelion, 15 April 2007, just before the flowers were torn off.

Sunday, April 15, 2007


What’s blooming in the area: Plum, bradford pear, purple-leaf sand cherry, fence rows of pink and white flowered trees; pastel tulips, tansy and purple mustard, dandelion, stickseed whitebristle; apple buds; potted roses at one local hardware where a man bought some for next week’s opening at the ballfield because no bedding plants were available yet.

What’s blooming in my yard: Sand, sweet and sour cherries, peach, forsythia, moss phlox, yellow alyssum, hyacinth, grape hyacinth, pushkinia, first daffodil open but few left in area; buds on Bath pink, coral bells, Siberian pea shrub; peach more fragrant than hyacinths all week.

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

What’s reviving in the area: Heath aster, loco up; leaves on silver lace vines; Bermuda grass spreading. One man was pruning his fruit trees yesterday, another was tilling his orchard.

What’s reviving in my yard: Leaves opening on snowball, peach, cherries, weiglia.

Animal sightings: Blue tinged bird apparently is the one nesting in my porch soffit; a neighbor says he replaced the hanging porch lamp where birds nested last year with a basket; nest visible in tree down the road.

Weather: New moon; last Sunday damp air and stillness suggested the calm before a storm; winds and rain passed through later in the week, left the ground wet; frost on leaves yesterday morning. One hardware covered all its plant racks with tarps and lined the garden area fence with garbage bags to protect plants Friday night; it also stopped shipments of bedding plants.

Weekly update: Plant catalogs promote heirloom varieties to tempt the unwary with visions of ancestral estates. I succumbed when I bought a dozen Distinction hyacinths in 1996. Ten years and several floral transformations later, I wonder what’s been blooming.

Jo Ann Gardner uses 1950 as a cut-off date for The Heirloom Garden, just before nurserymen began releasing plants for the new Levittown style suburbs with their smaller yards. This was certainly a milestone for hyacinths which demand grand massed formal beds that can be ignored, covered or reused during the summer. No one where I grew up had such space or labor, not even the city park. At best, maybe three people in the older part of town had double lots with herbaceous borders.

Although I’m sure people had short palings hidden near a door, as I’m sure they do here, the only ones I remember were grocery store pots ready to force into winter bloom. The newer houses, with their 4' x 8' construction, were too small to disburse the strong fragrance.

Hyacinths have been in decline ever since breeders began discovering successive waves of newer middle classes. Charles Darwin reported Amsterdam had nearly 2,000 varieties in 1768, but Haarlem knew only 700 in 1864. Last year, McClure and Zimmerman offered 21 cultivars and John Scheepers 14, with 26 unique varieties between them. Mass market catalogs typically offer one pink, one blue, one white, and maybe a yellow or purple.
When I bought those first heritage bulbs I was tired of seeds that were developed for greenhouse growers, and hoped longevity in the market signified durability in the garden. Distinction was introduced in 1880.

Ten of the dozen bulbs sprouted in 1997, and continued to arrive every spring, albeit with increasingly sparser flowers and shorter stems. Most didn’t survive the drought of 2002: today, two clumps remain with narrow grape-colored stalks and spaced florets that resemble their scilla cousins more than the commercial Hyacinthus orientalis.

When I needed replacements, Distinction was no longer available. I settled for ten Queen of the Violets, an 1883 sport of King of the Blues which itself had been introduced in 1863. Two plants with lighter, bluer heads showed in spring. One is blooming now, proving a pedigree is no guarantee a plant will thrive in the rio arriba.

Last year the Queen went out of circulation, so I looked for a color more like Distinction when I ordered replacements. It no longer mattered that Woodstock was recently introduced. I no longer cared to hear it was a mutant form of Jan Boss, developed in 1910 and distributed in 1927. I’m content they all emerged, and are either blooming or budded.

It will be another year before I know if Woodstock is as hardy as Distinction, for it seems that when I was searching for a more Edenic past, I put my bulbs in the least hospitable place in my yard, under a ramp where the shade is so dry not even weeds volunteer. Inadvertently I evoked their primeval home, now the Taurus mountains, where hot dry summers alternate with wet winters. Those that survived are the ones that had preserved the legacy of their forefathers for themselves and their progeny.

Darwin, Charles. Variation in Animals and Plants under Domestication, 1868;
cites Des Jacinthes, de leur Anatomie, Reproduction, et Culture, 1768, and Mr. Paul, Gardener's Chronicle, 1864.

Gardner, Jo Ann. The Heirloom Garden, 1992.

John Sheepers, Inc. 2006 catalog.

McClure & Zimmerman. 2006 catalog.

Tijssen Historic Bulbs. Hyacinth release dates at

Photograph: Ten-year old Distinction hyacinths, with first year Woodstock in middle ground and moss phlox and other plants in back, 8 April 2007.

Sunday, April 08, 2007


What’s blooming in the area: Bradford pear, plum, fence rows of pink and white flowered trees; more places with clumps of daffodils; tulip buds; dandelion, first stickseed whitebristle.

What’s blooming in my yard: Sweet and sour cherries, undamaged part of forsythia, moss phlox, hyacinth, pushkinia; yellow alyssum and lilac have color in their buds.

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

What’s reviving in the area: Tansy mustard, woolly plantain, fernleaf globemallow up; cottonwoods, apples and blackthorn opening first leaves; black gramma grass has some new blades; Russian olive leaf buds. Some fields and gardens have new furrows, some with standing water earlier in the week. One neighbor is erecting a barrier from railroad ties and bark board scrap after a drunken driver ran down his barbed-wire fence.

What’s reviving in my yard: Buddleia, catmint, Rumanian sage, harebells, sidalcia, snapdragons, garden phlox, ladybells, sweet pea, peony, hartwegia, chocolate flower, artemisia, frikarti aster up; raspberry, barberry and spirea leaves opening; tamarix and Siberian pea shrub leaf buds expanding.

Animal sightings: Bees appeared as soon as peach flowers began to open; bird with robin’s egg blue head and shoulders landed in peach; men, two horses, a pickup and a small herd of cattle were beside the main road one morning.

Weather: Waning moon; moderate winds all week turned cold yesterday, with smatterings of snow.

Weekly update: The Rose family continues to premiere spring.

Apricot flowers are browning; cherries and plums, peaches and pears are blooming; the apples are leafing. Half-opened leaves on hybrid teas near the post office are visible from the road and some red raspberry canes have materialized in my yard.

Even though a man near the orchards occasionally sells his surplus raspberry suckers, I consider my plants a luxury I indulge despite constant failure because there is no other way to eat the fruit. The drupelets ripen for a few weeks and don’t store or ship well. Jams and frozen berries are too sweet, sherbert is fattening. The last time I spent $4.00 for a pint brought in from California, they were bitter.

I first tried growing the white-flowered brambles when I returned to Michigan and bought bundles of bare root Heritage and Latham. I was surprised when only one survived under the eaves of the barn because blackberries (Rubus occidentalis) grew wild when I was a child and farmers sold raspberries from roadside stands. However, that one cane suckered into a colony, and I realized I only needed to find one accommodating partner to foster a briar patch.

After years of failure here with mail order varieties, I bought a potted Willamette in 2004 from the local hardware which I planted in the dripline under the back porch roof. It survived the next year’s grasshoppers, but did little last summer. This year, two suckers are up, one on each side of the tiles that isolate the house from fire fuel and vermin litter.

I don’t know if I can attribute their success to last year’s cool temperatures and water, to the new fence that decreased winds they despise, or the survival instincts of Rubus idaeus idaeus. I’m inclined to favor the last, but I suspect it helps that Oregon State’s cultivar withstands warmer climates than the native Rubus idaeus strigosus derived Latham or Cornell’s Heritage.

Even though a thicket will eventually disappear, canes drop uneaten fruit on the ground every summer where the seed remains viable for 100 years. The hard rind prevents it from germinating, but annual weathering slowly removes that skin and alternating seasons of heat and cold stratify the seed.

In Slovakia, raspberries appear about 30 years after fields are abandoned, the time it takes for seed to germinate. In Michigan, shoots appear whenever forests are cut or burned because the seed has been ready, waiting for sun and nitrogen. They continue to sucker for 10 to 20 years, then die out, or go dormant when they no longer can compete with shade trees.

When I see my plants, my childhood delight in raspberries and my sense of a legendary Michigan woods past return with an awareness that those thorny reddish-brown stems are not simply a sign of grace, but a better sign of the nature’s regenerative powers than all the pretty Easter bulbs I saw for sale yesterday.

Blazková D. and S. Brezina. “Secondary Succession in Abandoned “Poloniny” Meadows, Bukovské vrchy Mts., Eastern Carpathians, Slovakia,” Thaiszia - Journal of Botany 13:159-207:2003.

Natural Food Hub. “Grow Fruit & Nuts in the Home Garden in Warm Temperate Areas,” on internet.

Tirmenstein, D. “Rubus Idaeus,” 1990, part of U. S. Forest Service Fire Effects Information System available on-line.

Photograph: Willamette raspberry sucker, 7 April 2007.

Sunday, April 01, 2007


What’s blooming in the area: Apricot, plum, dandelion. Three have a few daffodils blooming while one woman has masses of white and yellow, some planted last fall; mine are still emerging.

What’s blooming in my yard: Frost damaged the forsythia Wednesday; hyacinths and puskinia stems drooped Saturday morning, but revived with sun.

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

What’s reviving in the area: Elms bright green; neighbor’s blanket flowers coming up. Ditch meeting yesterday.

What’s reviving in my yard: Saint Johns wort, sea lavender, garlic chives, pigweed and horseweed up; ring muhly and purple ice plant greening, until frost; new blades where buffalo grass planted last summer; spirea, Apache plume, raspberry and more roses have leaves; moss phlox forming buds; peach and lilac buds showing color.

Animal sightings: Flock of small birds in drive where tahokia daisies, sweet white clover and áñil del muerto grew last fall.

Weather: Full moon; fogs and frosts; water in the crevices of arroyos. Yesterday a woman in the village was inspecting her fruit buds while her husband ran a hose.

Weekly update: Today, darkening yellow splashes signal the locations of forsythia bushes that will be difficult to find in a month when the hollow brown branches are hidden by green, serrated leaves.

The species sold here, Forsythia x intermedia, began as volunteer seedlings in Göttingen noticed by Hermann Zabal in 1878. He believed they were a cross between two Chinese species, viridissima and suspensa.

The first is an erect shrub that can grow more than 10' and can get as big around. Its sap must course through the tall spikes at the rear of my plant where the more widely spaced buds were just opening when the frosts settled. One house near the orchards has a fence row of interlacing feathered boughs some 10' high.

Their sheer magnificence offends those who believe man should subdue nature, and the garden should be an exemplar of one’s virtue. Christopher Lloyd warns forsythia "can be strikingly handsome, but one has to be careful." Albuquerque’s Rosalie Doolittle advises "it can grow out of bounds."

It has been subjected to the most severe control by those who treat it like its Oleaceae privet cousin. Near the village, there’s one dense, 3' formal hedge of rounded shrubs that’s fairly covered with flowers, and another with sparse blooms spotting bare wood. Another three people in the area have kept their hedges short, but otherwise unpruned.

Natural gardeners like Lloyd prefer suspensa’s arching branches, so long as they’re in an unfettered area. Since I built the fence behind my plant, it has abandoned symmetry to lunge for the light. The gangling, horizontal branches bend under their own weight and, if they reach the ground, may root.

Doolittle suggests southwestern architecture demands distinctive, brilliant plants, even if, like forsythia, they require attention. Eleven people, many of them living in newer houses on the main road, have a single plant near the house that’s stayed small, whether from conscientious maintenance, nipping for winter bouquets, or irritation when a branch crosses a walkway on a wet day.

Those who’ve learned from their neighbors tend to place the shrubs near a fence or wall, where they can grow unhampered, sometimes upward, sometimes outward, sometimes not at all. Sixteen yards have specimens, six have groups, often with evergreens. The best are beside an open rail fence, near grapes and daffodils.

Seven years ago, when I stared at 8" sticks of Lynwood Gold, the common intermedia introduced into this country around 1949, I would like to have known which species’ genes would be dominant. My blooming bush is now 6' wide and 4' high, but with near barren branches reaching 7'.

It turns out it may not have mattered. Ki-Joong Kim tested a number of forsythia species and cultivars to reconstruct their evolutionary relationships and discovered there was no molecular evidence to support intermedia’s traditional ancestry. All the baseborn seedling’s seedling’s bud sport’s cuttings’ cuttings can promise is better weather’s coming.

DeWolf, Gordon P. and Robert S. Hebb. "The Story of Forsythia," Arnoldia 31(2):41-63:1971.

Doolittle, Rosalie. Southwest Gardening, revised 1967.

Kim, Ki-Joong. "Molecular Phylogeny of Forsythia (Oleaceae) Based on Chloroplast DNA Variation," Plant Systematics and Evolution 218:113-123:1999.

Lloyd, Christopher. The Well-Tempered Garden, 1985.

Photograph: Lynwood Gold Forsythia between other shrubs, 28 March 2007, the day before frost killed the flowers.