Sunday, May 27, 2007

Black Locust

What’s blooming in the area: Purple and white locusts, locoweed, oxalis, tamarix, snowball, privet peaked, silver lace vine, red hot poker, short yucca with stiff leaves peaked, Joseph’s coat, Austrian copper, pink shrub, Dr. Huey, miniature, tea and other hybrid roses, Apache plume, skunkbush, four-winged saltbush, oriental poppy, peony, fern-leaf globemallow, purple beardtongue, purple salvia, white evening primrose, purple mat flower, bindweed, wooly plantain, blanket flower, goatsbeard, hawkweed, native and common dandelion, rice, redtop and three awn grass; tumble mustard near 5' where sunflowers grew several years ago; long needle grass seeds are reflecting light into sheets of white; downy chess turning brown, buffalo gourd and milkweed visible from road; daylilies have buds.

What’s blooming in my garden, looking north: Lady Banks rose, golden spur columbine, perky Sue, fern-leaf yarrow; buds on hartwegi, coreopsis, chocolate flower.

Looking east: Coral bells, thrift, pinks, small-leaf soapwort, snow-in-summer, creeping baby’s breath, pink evening primrose, last year’s snapdragons, pink salvia, rockrose, winecup, California poppy, Mount Atlas daisy, Kellerer yarrow; buds on hollyhock; zinnia and sweet alyssum seed sprouting.

Looking south: Weigela, beauty bush, spirea has few flowers left, raspberry; rugosa rose; buds on floribundas and Blaze; glads, cosmos and bundle flower broke ground.

Looking west: Iris, flax, catmint, baptista; buds on sea lavender and Valerie Finnis artemisia; perennial four o’clock emerged.

Bedding plants: Sweet alyssum, snapdragons, petunia, Dahlberg daisy, marigold.

Inside: Aptenia, kalanchoë, zonal geranium; buds on coral honeysuckle.

Animal sightings: Red-throated bird was calling from utility line after Wednesday’s rain; large yellow and black butterfly (or moth) landed with open wings on beauty bush; large bumble bee at top of locust; grasshoppers, mosquitoes and crickets have been hatching; large black ants were stealing zinnia seeds Sunday.

Weather: Full moon; stormy weather most of week, with real rain Friday; sandwiched between the cloudy, windy afternoons was our first summery weather which killed two roses with weak roots. Horseweed seeds no doubt are ready to sprout where I pulled plants from wet ground yesterday.

Weekly update: When I got out of my car Monday evening, I discovered my black locust was blooming.

My exhilaration didn’t just come from the contrast with the temporarily still weather. When I saw trees covered with white clusters in the village last weekend, I told myself this was another year when my only reward would be that my tree had survived the frost.

I planted the bare root sapling in 2000. It first bloomed in 2004, when it was about six years old, which is about when the species begins to bear seeds. The next year, I thought I’d killed the shallow roots when I dug a hole for another shrub, and the leaves died. Last year, the leaves emerged around April 15, and were killed by frost a week later. No more flowers. This year it waited until May 2, and still the leaves were blasted May 9.

I can’t say my tree is beautiful. The frost apparently killed the potential blossoms near the canopy base. At the top, some branches had shot up, and destroyed the general symmetry. They are the ones now weighed by heavy racemes that toss in the wind like camels’ heads.

It’s another plant so sensitive to temperature that every ten feet of altitude translate into flowers a day later. I don’t know if that’s why it leafs and blooms from the bottom, or why the top branches were saved by their height, or even if that’s why my tree is slower than the ones in the village.

I certainly don’t understand how nature can produce a tree that so consistently gets its timing wrong. Even in its native range, the zone 6 Appalachians and Ozarks, George R. Trimble says Robinia pseudoacacia is highly susceptible to frost damage. Outside the range in England, Allan Mitchell complains black locusts bloom less often than not.

Even though nature guarantees the large florets will attract bees, even to the heights, it doesn’t rely on seeds for reproduction. This locust only produces a good crop about half the time. Instead, trees expand through root suckers into copses.

Worse than suckers, thorns and blighted springs, Mitchell grumbles he’s left with a graceless, brittle tree in summer. In Albuquerque, Rosa Doolittle warns it’s scraggy in winter, and the pods, when they do appear, are a nuisance.

If master gardeners disdain it, nature has found other admirers. Its Leguminosae roots support bacteria which divert nitrogen from the air into the soil. It’s so effective, other species, including catalpa, grow better when they can take advantage of its largesse. Coal land owners use it to reclaim stripe mines, and, in Europe, trees have colonized large areas reduced to rubble by war.

People in the village grow it anyway. A few have purple cultivars, but most have tucked the white species into a fence row where it fertilizes its neighbors without defiling the area near the house. We’ve all learned, beauty comes with imperfections and compensations.

Doolittle, Rosalie. Southwest Gardening, 1967.

Huntley, J. C. "Black Locust," in Russell M. Burns and Barbara H. Honkala, Silvics of North America, 1990.

Mitchell, Alan. The Gardener’s Book of Trees, 1981.

Trimble, George R. Summaries of Some Silvical Characteristics of Several Appalachian Hardwood Trees, 1975, cited by Huntley.

Photograph: Black Locust, 26 May 2007.

Sunday, May 20, 2007


What’s blooming in the area: Purple and white locusts, tamarix, snowball, privet, yucca, Austrian copper, Persian yellow, and pink shrub roses, Apache plume, skunkbush, golden spur columbine, oriental poppy, peony, fern-leaf globemallow, white evening primrose, purple mat flower, stickseed whitebristle, oxalis, bindweed, native and common dandelion, goatsbeard, tansy, tumble and purple mustard; rice, needle, downy chess, and three awn grass; June grass going to seed; lambs quarter and áñil del muerto sprouting.

What’s blooming in my garden, looking north: Lady Banks rose and perky Sue; buds on fern-leaf yarrow, blanket flower, coreopsis, chocolate flower.

Looking east: Coral bells, thrift, pinks, small-leaf soapwort, snow-in-summer, creeping baby’s breath, pink evening primrose, rockrose, winecup, Mount Atlas daisy, Kellerer yarrow; buds on pink salvia and hollyhock; Siberian pea has pods.

Looking south: Spirea, beauty bush, raspberry; buds on floribundas.

Looking west: Iris and flax; buds on sea lavender, baptista, catmint, purple beardstongue.

Bedding plants: Sweet alyssum, snapdragons, petunia, Dahlberg daisy, marigold.

Inside: Aptenia, kalanchoë, zonal geranium; buds on coral honeysuckle.

Animal sightings: Green bird with dark, long wing stripes in peach; humming bird, gecko, ladybugs under peach, bumblebee on pinks, darning needle, small butterfly, big black ants, small grasshoppers; sheep returned down the road.

Weather: Waxing moon, last frost May 7; lightening, clouds and winds every afternoon; rain and hail Wednesday, rain Thursday, spatters other days.

Weekly update: My favorite snowball is blooming.

Alas, it’s not in my yard, but in the village. It was taller several years ago, with rangy branches that flung its Christmas ornaments. Then someone decided it needed pruning. Last year, there were few flowers. This spring it looked like a pollarded trunk. Now, despite it all, its remaining 8' are covered with tightly corseted white clusters.
I wish I knew exactly what type Viburnum it is. When I look in mass market mail order catalogs, I see snowballs without definition and I see all kinds with specific names that don’t look like anything I want. In the area, 15 shrubs have slightly smaller heads than my favorite, and 10 have much smaller heads or more obvious horizontal layers. Most seem to have three-lobed leaves.

I feel like the people in Waverly, Alabama who walked into Greene Hill Nursery when they heard it carried traditional shrubs, and backed out exclaiming "No, no, no. We want the old snowball bush."

Steve Thomas finally satisfied them with Chinese Snowball (Viburnum macrocephalum), which Robert Fortune had shipped to England in 1846, shortly after Britain forced China to open some ports to its trade. It has serrated, oval leaves and 5" trusses.

It fell from trade favor because it’s not comfortable beyond zone 6 and its cuttings don’t like immediate transplanting. Japanese Snowball ( Viburnum plicatum tomentosum.), introduced a half century after Carl Peter Thunberg described it in a Kyushu garden in 1794, was a good substitute with 4" heads, ovate leaves, and a tolerance for zone 5.

What others are growing here could be anything. In 1995, one local hardware was selling Viburnum opulus ‘Roseum’ as Snowball Bush. In 1996 and 1998, it sold something described as Viburnum Snowball. Since 2003, it’s carried Viburnum plicatum, which it calls Japanese Snowball, even though it has maple leaves. The other hardware is offering the European lobed-leafed Eastern Snowball this year.

Last year I renounced local shrubs that couldn’t survive a summer, and ordered something called White Snowball from a midwestern nursery that sells bare root, field grown plants. It provided no identification, but the tripartite leaves tell me it’s probably the sterile opulus exported to England before 1597 as Gheldersche Roosen.

In the wild, all three Viburnum have flat round cymes, with larger, sterile flowers on their perimeters that attract insects to the smaller, bisexual flowers. Growers in China and Holland apparently found ways to encourage the asexual florets at the expense of the others, until the dominant large flowers morphed into spheres.

I’ll probably wait several years to discover if my blooms are acceptable. More likely, I’ll back away muttering "No, no, no. I wanted the bush in the village."

Coats, Alice M. Garden Shrubs and their Histories, 1964; reprinted 1992 with notes by John L. Creech.

Thomas, Steven, Greene Hill Nursery. Incident described in Steve Bender and Felder Rushing, Passalong Plants, 1993.

Yang, Qin-er, Michael Donoghue, Shiro Kobayashi, Hideaki Ohba, and Stephen Smith. "Caprifoliaceae," draft for Flora of China.

Photograph: Area snowball, 19 May, 2007, probably Viburnum opulus ‘Roseum.’

Sunday, May 13, 2007


What’s blooming in the area: Tamarix, snowball, yucca, Austrian Copper and pink shrub roses, golden spur columbine, fern-leaf globemallow, white evening primrose, stickseed whitebristle, oxalis, bindweed, native and common dandelion, goatsbeard, hoary cress; tansy, tumble and purple mustard; rice, needle, downy chess, and three awn grass; June grass going to seed.

What’s blooming in my garden, looking north: Perky Sue; buds on fern-leaf yarrow and blanket flower; butterfly weed emerged; fruit developing on sour cherry.

Looking east: Siberian pea shrub, coral bells, thrift, pinks, small-leaf soapwort, snow-in-summer, pink evening primrose, Mount Atlas daisy; buds on peony, pink salvia, creeping baby’s breath, Kellerer yarrow; last year’s sunflowers coming up.

Looking south: Spirea, lilac; buds on beauty bush.

Looking west: Tulip, iris, flax; buds on sea lavender; fruit forming on peach.

Bedding plants: Sweet alyssum, snapdragons, Dahlberg daisy.

Inside: Aptenia, kalanchoë, zonal geranium

Animal sightings: Rabbit prospecting; ladybug, bumblebee on pinks, large black butterfly, darning needles.

Weather: New moon; cold temperatures killed leaves on locust Tuesday; rain mid-week, but winds returned even on hot afternoons.

Weekly update: Lilacs like a cold spring, or so I was told by neighbors when I lived in Wyandotte County, Ohio, the year newly flushed flowers filled the town with their fragrance.

This apparently is more than folk wisdom. Remains of common lilac’s progenitor appear in Hungarian fossils from the tertiary, and, according to Kim and Jansen, the shrub probably evolved 12 million years ago when ice-caps were developing. Glaciers may have isolated it from its Oleaceae peers in Asia.

Joseph Caprio determined common lilacs still need 1049 hours between 37 and 48 degrees to set their buds. Those minimum 44 days represent a few more chilling units than apples require, which may explain why they emerged about four days after the orchards this year.

Temperature is such a strong factor governing Syringa vulgaris that scientists have been using it to evaluate the effects of changes in climatic conditions. When they were establishing a baseline, Caprio’s colleagues discovered lilacs were unfolding an average 7.5 days earlier in the western United States in 1994 than in 1957. Peter Marra’s team found the date for bud burst was 3 days earlier for every degree of increased average temperature in the east between 1961 and 2000.

This year, we had a snowy winter, followed by warm temperatures in mid-March. My first florets opened April 25. I planted the shrub in 1997 and it first blossomed two years later. The earliest date the racemes appeared was last year on April 21; the latest was in 1999 on May 10. A twenty day fluctuation is not unusual.

Lilacs may demand cold weather, but they did not like last weekend’s cold winds and frosty mornings. My lilac was in full fluorescence Friday, but has had only scattered, four-petaled trumpets since. Towards town Monday, there was only one white lilac left with much color. Revenants of light lavender remained in 15 yards; some white sprays remained in two places and two people had dark purple heads.

The affinity between lilacs and cold is obviously conditional. Last year a man down the road watered his shrubs when morning temperatures were still low enough to freeze. This year, those are the only shrubs I don’t see with even a hint of leaves. I don’t know if the iced branches, the prior year’s grasshoppers, or something else killed them, but established lilacs don’t die willingly: they might have lived another hundred years and pirouetted through most of them.

Caprio, Joseph M. "Flowering Dates, Potential Evapotranspiration and Water Use Efficiency of Syringa vulgaris L. at Different Elevations in the Western United States of America," Agricultural and Forest Meteorology 63:55-71:1993.

Cayan, Daniel R., Susan A. Kammerdiener, Michael D. Dettinger, Joseph M. Caprio, and David H. Peterson. "Changes in the Onset of Spring in the Western United States," American Meterological Society Bulletin 82:399-415:2001.

Kim, Ki-Joong and Robert K. Jansen. "A Chloroplast DNA Phylogeny of Lilacs (Syringa, Oleaceae): Plastome Groups Show a Strong Correlation with Crossing Groups," American Journal of Botany 85:1338-1351:1998.

Marra, Peter P., Charles M. Francis, Robert S. Mulvihill and Frank R. Moore, "The Influence of Climate on the Timing and Rate of Spring Bird Migration," Oecologia 142:307-315:2005.

Photograph: Common lilac, 12 May 2007, after cold temperatures killed most of the flowers.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Coral Bells

What’s blooming in the area: Apples, yucca, stickseed whitebristle, oxalis, bindweed, dandelion, goatsbeard, hoary cress; tansy, tumble and purple mustard; June, rice, downy chess, and three awn grass; buds on snowball and fern leaf globe mallow; catalpa, locust, wisteria, Rose of Sharon and grapes leafing out. One local hardware has number of varieties of tomato and pepper plants.

What’s blooming in my garden, looking north: Yellow alyssum; buds on Perky Sue and fern-leaf yarrow.

Looking east: Siberian pea shrub, moss phlox, coral bells, small-leaf soapwort, pink evening primrose, Mount Atlas daisy; buds on thrift, pinks, peony, and Keller yarrow; tomatilla coming up.

Looking south: Spirea, lilac; morning glory and cosmos volunteers emerging. Winds killed another hybrid tea.

Looking west: Grape hyacinth, tulip, iris, flax.

Bedding plants: Sweet alyssum

Inside: Aptenia, kalanchoë, zonal geranium, honeysuckle.

Animal sightings: Quail, humming birds, orange and small brown butterflies, ladybug, orange winged flying grasshopper, stinkbugs, ants.

Weather: Waning moon; strong winds all week disbursed Siberian elm and dandelion seeds; nourishing rains Tuesday and Wednesday, no doubt, planted them well. Pigweed metamorphosed from seedlings into plants Wednesday night, and Russian thistle germinated. Frost on my car this morning.

Weekly update: My coral bells are blooming, a profound vermillion. Last year the Bressingham Hybrids didn’t bother.

They did well enough when I planted them in 1997, spreading in a bed that gets shade, variable water, and strong winds. Then heath asters insinuated themselves and smothered the evergreen plants in the winter of 2003. I moved the asters, but could do little about the ensuing drought and grasshopper invasion.

I probably attempted coral bells because outlanders still confuse New Mexico with northern México. Once one person confused the abbreviations NM and NMex, the origins of the plant were repeated by others who didn’t question the published word and sought order in contradictory sources.

Heuchera sanguinea entered the botanical dictionary when Frederick Adolphus Wislizenus got himself incarcerated in a silver town in the opening skirmishes of the Mexican-American War. He had migrated to this country after one of the many failed revolutions in Frankfurt and gravitated towards St. Louis where another refugee, George Englemann, had settled.

Both had trained in science and medicine. When Englemann arrived in Philadelphia in 1832, he called on Thomas Nuttall, then moved to the entrepot for the west, and established collegial contact with botanist Asa Gray at Harvard.

Wislizenus was more restless, and, clinging to a different university tradition, periodically disappeared on long country hikes. In 1846, he joined Albert Speyer, a gun runner headed for México from Santa Fé. Stephen Kearney watched them; the Mexicans arrested them, but let him wander the 6,512' high foothills of the Sierra Madre Occidental outside Cusihuiriachuc where he collected plants.

A few years later, Charles Wright, another protégé of Gray, went to newly opened Texas to collect plants, then apparently followed one of the trails from El Paso to Nogales pass through northern Chihuahua and Sonora. He found Wislizenus’ coral bells growing in Santa Cruz, a settlement at the head of the Santa Cruz river valley on the other side of the continental divide.

The perennials have since been found in the southern counties of Arizona and up the eastern border with New Mexico where silver was mined.

Precious metal production declined in México after the expulsion of the Spanish. Juan Porfirio Díaz solicited foreign investment in Chihuahua in 1880, and V. T. Hoskins believes Heuchera sanguinea was introduced into this country two years later.

Revolutionary discontent with Profirio Díaz’s dictatorship culminated in martial law in Cusihuiriachuc in 1886. The next year, yet another Gray protégé, Cyrus Guernsey Pringle, saw the plant growing on La Bufo hill there above the mines.

In the meantime coral bells traveled to England as an alpine where William Robinson suggested only cross-breeding and selection had made the new arrival "tractable" enough for the garden, and thought maybe more work was needed before it would become hardy enough to survive there.

Sometime after French imperialism was stalled in 1862 at Puebla on cinco de Mayo, Victor Lemoine began experimenting. He not only crossbred different Heuchera species, but successfully mixed genera within the Saxifrage family to produce what he called Heuchera x brizoides in 1912.

Bailey later found the taxon used for Heuchera lithophila and Alan Bloom apparently adapted it for his Bressingham hybrids in the early 1950's. Now it’s used as a generic identifier for any cross between sanguinea, micrantha, americana, bracteata and whatever else will cooperate.

My coral bells may have nothing to do with New Mexico, may, in fact, not even have much Heuchera sanguinea blood left after their sojourn among the Anglo-Saxons. But whatever they are, their destiny has been inextricably bound with that of what became a Yankee financed Hispanic settled state.

Back in Chihuahua, a Canadian company, Dia Bras Exploration, bought the Cusihuiriachuc mining district last year. It remains to be seen if it and NAFTA can resuscitate the moribund mines as successfully as nature has revived my lobe-leaved plants.

Bailey, Liberty Hyde and Ethel Zoe Bailey. Hortus, 1934.

Hoskins, T. H. "Choice Herbaceous Plants," Garden and Forest, June 29, 1892.

Kearney, Thomas Henry and Robert Hibbs Peebles. Arizona Flora, second edition, 1961.

Pringle, Cyrus Guernsey. Notes on Heuchera sanguinea, Garden and Forest, May 23, 1888.

Robinson, William. The English Flower Garden, 1883; 1933 edition reprinted by Sagapress, Inc., 1984.

Wislizenus, Frederick Adolphus. A Memoir of a Tour to Northern Mexico, Connected with Col. Doniphan's Expedition, in 1846 and 1847, 1848, with section on plants by George Engelmann.

Wright, Charles. Plantae Wrightianae, 1853, edited by Asa Gray.

Photograph: Bressingham Hybrid coral bells, 29 April 2007, with columbine leaves in background.