Sunday, June 10, 2007

Golden Spur Columbine

What’s blooming in the area: Catalpa, four-winged saltbush, honeysuckle, silver lace vine, sweet pea, locoweed, oxalis, yellow sweet clover, oriental poppy, fern-leaf globemallow, purple salvia, white evening primrose, scarlet beeblossom, velvetweed, purple mat flower, tumble mustard, bindweed, wooly plantain, goatsbeard, hawkweed, native dandelion, Apache plume, pink shrub, tea and other hybrid roses; rice and black grama grass. Needle grass seeds are beginning to stick to pant legs, three awn grass seeds beginning to work loose; pink evening primroses back in yard where Japanese beetles decimated them in 2003. One farmer is letting bales of hale cure in his field.

What’s blooming in my garden, looking north: Miniature rose, red hot poker, golden spur columbine, coral beardtongue, hartwegii, perky Sue, fern-leaf yarrow, chocolate flower, blanket flower, coreopsis, Mexican hat; buds on butterfly weed.

Looking east: Dr. Huey rose, coral bells, thrift, pinks, small-leaf soapwort, snow-in-summer, creeping baby’s breath, catchfly, pink salvia, rockrose, winecup, California poppy, Mount Atlas daisy, Kellerer yarrow; buds on bouncing Bess, Shirley poppy and hollyhock.

Looking south: Weigela, beauty bush, spirea, iris, rugosa, floribunda and Blaze roses; buds on daylily.

Looking west: Flax, catmint, purple and white beardtongues, Valerie Finnis artemisia; buds on lilies, sea lavender and Rumanian salvia.

Bedding plants: Sweet alyssum, snapdragons, petunia, Dahlberg daisy, marigold; buds on acorn squash.

Inside: Aptenia, kalanchoë, zonal geranium.

Animal sightings: Rabbit, gecko, bees on baptista and catmint, white butterfly on snapdragons, grasshoppers, ants, stink bugs.

Weather: Warming days and cold nights; rain last Sunday and yesterday; high winds Wednesday knocked fruit off peach, broke branches on locust and deflowered shrubs and trees.

Weekly update: My golden spur columbine is as much a wildflower as the novel Ramona is a realistic description of Indian life.

It’s not that they didn’t begin life as wildflowers and history, but that over time they changed into garden plants and a romanticized view of the past. When Henry King filmed Helen Hunt Jackson’s novel in 1936, he cast Loretta Young as the half-breed girl and Don Ameche as the Indian. It would have been impossible to do otherwise with a story of white reactions to miscegenation.

If my plants were still the species, the two seedlings I bought in 1997 would have died by now. Instead, they fill an area 5' by 8'. Two years ago, the grasshoppers left mere stubs that didn’t bloom last year. But now, they’re back.

Golden columbines have been slowing disappearing since the Pleistocine. Today, they grow in moist canyons east of the Continental Divide, usually in areas with igneous rock. Mine grow in sand and clay derived from volcanic ash in an area with morning and late afternoon shade.

Large-winged hawkmoths, with tongues that reach through the flower to the nectar in the spurs, are the species’ most important pollinator. The only sphingids I’ve noticed here were hummingbird moths in 2000 and 2001 in other parts of the yard. So far as I know, I’ve never seen a white-lined sphinx which feeds on columbine and is reported in Rio Arriba county.

The male anthers in the species mature earlier than the female organs, so they can only produce seed when moths transfer pollen from one flower to another. Then, the seed germinates best when air temperatures are between 77 in the day and 68 at night.

My flowers still have the adaptations for the moths: the long tails, the open petals that don’t close at night and face every direction to ensure an insect moves from one to another. However, commercial breeders like Keift Bloemzaden could not have afforded to perpetuate such idiosyncratic reproductive requirements.

Even though found primarily in New Mexico, Arizona, Texas and Mexico, seeds from the Colorado exclave are probably the ones used by early breeders. Silver mining that began near Georgetown in 1864 attracted the Union Pacific. Transportation, in turn, brought cultured tourists. Harvard botanist Asa Gray visited the area in 1872, when Charles Parry named a mountain for him. A year later, Gray officially described Aquilegia chrysantha.

A mere five years later, Jackson went to Colorado Springs looking for a clean air for her lungs. On her carriage rides into the Cheyenne mountains, she saw the columbines in ravines and had heard their Latin name.

Since European columbines were known to interbreed, plantsmen in eastern America and Europe would have been eager to experiment. Robert Nold believes most of the commercially available flowers today are "Yellow Queen" or one of its descendants.

Anything that can crossbreed or reproduce like my columbines is free to become a wildflower again. Jackson’s allusions to such variability of the species are still too controversial to admit historic re-enactments on her novel. At most, if anyone dared film Ramona today, Hispanic and Indian actors would be hired.

Notes:
Gray, Asa. American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Proceedings 8:621:1873, cited by Nold.

Jackson, Helen Hunt. "The Procession of Flowers in Colorado," Bits of Travel at Home, 1878.

_____. Ramona, 1884.

Nold, Robert. Columbines: Aquilegia, Paraquilegia, and Semiaquilegia, 2003.

Opler, Paul A., Harry Pavulaan, Ray E. Stanford, and Michael Pogue, Butterflies and Moths of North America, 2006, database available on-line.

Photograph: Golden spur columbine, 3 June 2007.

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