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.