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.

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