Sunday, September 16, 2007


What’s blooming in the area: Roses, silver lace vine, honeysuckle, canna, datura, silver-leaf nightshade, bindweed, Heavenly Blue morning glory, narrow leaf globemallow, white sweet clover, goat’s head, yellow and white evening primrose, purslane, Russian thistle, pigweed, broom snakeweed, chamisa, winterfat, Tahokia daisy, French marigolds, Maximilian and native sunflowers, áñil del muerto, ragweed, hawkweed, cocklebur, Hopi tea, gumweed, golden, heath and purple asters; apricots and unripe grape clusters visible, hay baled yesterday.

What’s blooming in my garden, looking north: Golden spur columbine, hartwegii, chocolate flower, blanket flower, coreopsis, Mexican hat, black-eyed Susan, yellow cosmos.

Looking east: Hosta, garlic chives, large-leaf soapwort, sweet alyssum, winecup, hollyhock, sidalcea, larkspur, scarlet flax, California poppies, pink bachelor buttons, African marigolds, Italian white sunflowers.

Looking south: Rose of Sharon, rugosa rose, Crimson Rambler morning glory, Sensation cosmos, zinnia.

Looking west: Caryopteris, buddleia, Russian sage, catmint, leadplant, ladybells, purple ice plant, Silver King artemisia, Monch aster.

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

Inside: Aptenia, zonal geranium.

Animal sightings: Quail, ladybug in Russian thistle, dragonfly, white butterfly on Tahokia daisy, grasshoppers, ants, bees; gopher leaving mounds.

Weather: Another week of promises, but no lasting rain; last wet ground, September 2, last real rain, August 8.

Weekly update: A week or so ago, The New York Times reported yet more genetic problems have evolved from this area’s isolation between Oñate’s entrada and the advent of the national labs. This time it was drooping eyelids caused by oculopharyngeal muscular dystrophy, probably inherited from a wandering French Canadian trapper, and headaches or seizures caused by cavernous angioma.

Our wild sunflowers blooming everywhere right now can also develop genetic idiosyncracies in isolation. All the flowers along the road and filling fields are a uniform, bright yellow. In my yard, many are darker gold, and a few are motley mixes. The difference is the feral plants mate with one another, while I throw down some purchased seed each year.

These two tendencies, the development of isolated populations and the openness to interbreeding have been instrumental in the development of the sunflower as a commercial crop. The cultivated large seed, single stalk plant diverged from the multiple branched one more than 4000 years ago in North America to become a separate subspecies, macrocarpus.

The Spanish took seeds back to Madrid where they spread through Europe. Peter I introduced them to Russia from Holland, and men like Andrey Bolotov, estate manager to Catherine I in the 1700's, found ways to extract oil. A century later, Russian Mammoth was developed, then exported back to the United States in 1893.

Agribusiness only became interested in hybrids when Americans became concerned about saturated fats, cholesterol, and heart problems, but their model for seed development required plants that did not exist. With corn, they removed the male tassels and fertilized the plants with other pollen. They often used pollen from the original plant to reintroduce fertility into the next generation. The composite disks of sunflowers, with both male and female organs, were too small to manipulate.

In 1969, Patrice Leclercq found a species of sunflower, Helianthus petiolaris, with naturally sterile cytoplasm that would combine with annuus. Soon after, Harry Kinman found the gene to restore fertility. Agricultural suppliers began improving farmer’s seed, and geneticists began testing the inherent dangers of that single prairie sunflower father.

Sunflowers for ordinary gardeners remained untouched. In 1987, when Yasuo Gato bought Vincent Van Gogh’s Still Life: Vase with Fifteen Sunflowers, Thompson and Morgan offered a smaller range of varieties than it had in 1955: one seed plant, Russian Giant, instead of four; one species, Italian White, in place of six; one semi-double, Piccolo; one dwarf, Sahin’s Teddy Bear, one branched sunflower with multicolored flowers, Ernst Benary’s Autumn Beauty, and one with yellow flowers, Sunburst.

People who couldn’t afford $400,000 for a painting and couldn’t summer in Provence, suddenly aspired to the life of Van Gogh and opted for sunflower arrangements. Only things hadn’t change since he rushed to finish work each day by noon before his flowers wilted.

Companies scrambled to produce seeds for the cut flower industry. For them, male sterility meant more than the possibility of a commercial hybrid. It meant little or no pollen to soil table cloths or annoy allergic guests, it meant no heavy oil bearing seeds to bend stems, it meant flowers that had no reason to die.

A number of new branching plants were offered in 1991, but the magic words "little pollen" and F1 did not appear in an American retail catalog until 1994 when Park offered Sakata’s Sunbeam. From the next year on, at least three new varieties have appeared a year as breeders have worked to shorten time to flowering, make them grow in any season, have more disciplined stems, longer vase lives, and more varied colors.

Here in the valley, we don’t think of cutting the flowers; we know them, and their bees, too well from the drive. Instead, we eat them. At least four people this year are growing the traditional Russian plant, but only one other person has colored sunflowers. Meantime, inexorably, the laws of genetics are working each time two pure natives cross-pollinate with the chance some recessive genetic equivalent to drooping eyelid will take hold and spread through the ditches and roadsides.

Crites, Gary D. "Domesticated Sunflower in Fifth Millennium B.P. Temporal Context: New Evidence from Middle Tennessee." American Antiquity 58:146–148:1993.

Daitz, Ben. "Heirs to a Rare Legacy in New Mexico," The New York Times, 4 September 2007.

Heiser, Charles Junior. The Sunflower, 1976.

Van Gogh, Vincent. Letter to his brother, Theo, 21 August 1888.

Zhukovsky, P. M. 1964. Kul’turnye Rasteniia i Ikh Sorodichi, 1950; translated by P. S. Hudson as Cultivated Plants and Their Relatives, 1962; cited by Heiser.

Photograph: Three native sunflower plants, three flower colors; 9 September 2007.

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