Sunday, October 28, 2007

Virginia Creeper

What’s blooming in the area: Roses, white sweet clover, pink evening primrose, winterfat, chamisa, snakeweed, áñil del muerto, golden and purple asters.

What’s blooming in my garden: Pinks, snapdragon, petunia, chocolate flower, blanket flower, chrysanthemum.

Inside: Aptenia.

Animal sightings: Ants.

Weather: Frost on my windshield Monday morning; last rain, 29 September.

Weekly update: Virginia Creeper. The very name evokes the Blue Ridge or primeval forests that greeted the first settlers at Jamestown.

I shouldn’t be surprised it grows almost elsewhere in the country. After all, many plants are named when they’re first encountered, before more is known about them. Canadians call it Engelman ivy.

Still it’s a surprise to have it constantly volunteering in arid New Mexico. Most of the specimens in the university herbarium are from counties along the Continental Divide, east of the Sangre de Cristo, or along the roads and railroads west from Albuquerque. Nothing from Rio Arriba or its neighboring counties.

The Zhangs and Shi tested Parthenocissus quinquefolia as a potential restoration tool in the Hunshandak sand lands of northern China and discovered that when the woody vine has less soil moisture, it transfers its growth to its taproot and alters the breathing patterns of its leaf stomata.

Here many of the places it grows are shaded, but some are in sun all day. Many, including those under trees, may have access to preserved water. The vines growing along fences may also have found water conserved by nearby roads. The liana is apparently very adept at exploiting soil, water, and light conditions.

Since it seems unlikely it invaded the Española valley by itself, it probably was introduced: the local hardware often sells rooted cuttings. I suspect the plants covering two tall cottonwood stumps down the road were deliberately planted, and I think the vine in front of a large pine tree hitched when they dug the tree up and moved it here.

It has erupted in my yard in so many places I thought maybe the seed was in the soil, waiting for water. But Van Clef and Stiles says that’s not possible, that the seed is only good for a season. Indeed, most forest herbs don’t create seed banks.

The seeds are spread by birds. However, less than half the dozen places it’s growing along the main road are near utility lines. The only vines that aren’t on fences, are in trees. Normally I drive in heavy commuter traffic when the birds have retreated to a few sections of the overhead lines; pigeons prefer the metal roofs of two out buildings. Birds don’t perch everywhere Virginia creeper grows.

In my yard, birds occasionally land on one of the fences, but not the fences where Virginia creeper has attempted to grow. Various types of birds have nested in my porch, in my garage, and in my neighbor’s metal barn. A number of the seedlings have sprouted near the eaves or down wind or downhill from the undereave entry points.
Virginia creeper has been growing next to my neighbor’s barn since at least 1997, but didn’t start to put many vines through or under the border fence until after last summer’s wet season. It usually takes a few years to establish itself. So far, the tendrils haven’t used their adhesive pads to climb the wood, so they might safely be left to compete with the downy chess grass, wild lettuce, and horseweed that grow along that section of driveway.

The only problem with birds as the agent for diffusion is that before there can be seed to drop, there must be flowers. Like other members of the grape family, Virginia creeper’s green floral clusters are so small they wouldn’t be seen from the road and the purple berries are too dark. So it means nothing to say I’ve never seen them blooming. However, Iverson’s team says they don’t flower often, at least in Illinois, and Grey-Wilson warns his vines only fruit during hot summers in Britain.

That leaves a puzzlement. Along the main road, the places with dense colonies of vines are too far apart to be spreading from a single plant, and neither far enough nor close enough for birds. The only alternative is that once a plant is established it roots its own branches, which may grow twenty feet a year, and expands on its own momentum. Then, when it does produce fruit, a bird can move it another thousand feet down the fence or across the road.

It’s persistence and spread may be a bit of a riddle, but nature is unfaed. Most of the year, Virginia creeper blends with other vegetation, dark green leaves in summer, dead leaves in fall, bare branches in winter. For just a brief spell, ended this year by last Monday’s cold, nature shows off when the five-part leaves turn burgundy and reveal their profligacy.

Grey-Wilson, Christopher. Gardening on Walls, 1982, cited by Ken Fern, Plants for a Future Database, available on-line.

Iverson, Louis. Illinois Plaint Information Network, with data compiled by David Ketzner and Jeanne Karnes; available on-line.

University of New Mexico herbarium. Institute of Natural Resource Analysis and Management on-line database.

Van Clef, Michael and Edmund W. Stiles. "Seed Longevity in Three Pairs of Native and Non-native Congeners: Assessing Invasive Potential," Northeastern Naturalist, 8:301-310:2001.

Zhang, Z.J., L. Shi, J.Z. Zhang and C.Y. Zhang. "Photosynthesis and Growth Responses of Parthenocissus quinquefolia (L.) Planch to Soil Water Availability," Photosynthetica 42:87-92:2004.

Photograph: Virginia creeper growing over a stone wall near the orchards and climbing into the apple trees behind; dried pigweed in front; 20 October 2006.

Sunday, October 21, 2007


What’s blooming in the area: Roses, Heavenly Blue morning glory, narrow leaf globemallow, white sweet clover, chamisa, winterfat, Tahokia daisy, Maximilian and native sunflowers, áñil del muerto, broom senecio, gumweed; golden, strap leaf and purple asters; cottonwoods turning yellow by the river; horses in to pasture.

What’s blooming in my garden, looking north: Chocolate flower, blanket flower, Mexican hat, black-eyed Susan, chrysanthemum.

Looking east: Sweet alyssum, winecup, hollyhock, larkspur, California poppies, Crackerjack marigolds.

Looking south: Rugosa rose.

Looking west: Catmint, purple ice plant.

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

Inside: Aptenia, zonal geranium.

Animal sightings: Quail still harvesting the yard; grasshoppers, ants, black widow spider, ladybug on saltbush; Juara, the runaway cat, is still well-fed and living under my neighbor’s abandoned truck.

Weather: Windy evenings and cold mornings; last rain, 29 September.

Weekly update: It’s so easy to impute modern life in Rio Arriba county to its Spanish heritage and very difficult to identify the deeper strands of influence without falling into the snares of romanticism or stereotype.

Oñate arrived in our valley in 1598, hunting for gold, and found people who’d been farming along the river confluences for several hundred years. A generation later, Alonso de Benevides saw water for irrigation, piñon for fuel and food, adobe for building, and Spanish settlers on the best lands in 1630.

When Zebulon Pike explored the upper Rio Grande in 1807, he didn’t see enough wood to support a moderate population for 15 years He thought they would be reduced to mudbrick houses and have to settle for "cattle, horses, sheep and goats" rather than crops. He labeled the plains an "internal desert" and people stayed away until artesian wells were introduced.

What separated the two military scouts were the expectations that come with time. Seventeenth century colonists still accepted contact with Spain every three years. Nineteenth century Americans no longer tolerated rivers that weren’t navigable enough to ship crops to market.

The Franciscans saw Tewa speaking pueblos they thought could be turned into farm hands like the Moriscos in southern Spain. Americans met mobile Indians who’d had the horse for many of those intervening 177 years and weren’t about to labor for them.

The natives of arid Spain knew how to live with less than 20" of rain a year, the easterners did not. Landscape and experience influenced how each saw the possibilities of New Mexico.

The expectations of snapdragons are easier to meet. They like cool weather and limestone soil. Mine usually stop blooming in the summer and resume with better flowers in the fall after they’ve grown more leaves. Most years, a few perennials survive the winter to grow, if not bloom, the following summer. Several have gone to seed and reappeared closer to water.

This year the Bells, Sonnets, and Rockets stayed in bloom until August when the monsoons failed, and resumed flowering the middle of September when water returned to the area. When last summer stayed wet and cool, Sonnets and Rockets bloomed until mid-September, then stopped for the year.

Weather is the hidden link to Spain. Back when the earth was covered by jungle in the middle Eocene, 38 to 54 million years ago, a drier area developed outward from the modern Mediterranean. The traditional snapdragon family, Scrophulariaceae, evolved to the west in the Mandran.

When the modern distribution of climates emerged some five million years ago, Antirrhinum developed in the relicts of that Mandran-Tythan band, in modern California and Iberia. The continents had long been separated, so parallel developments could only have resulted from similar genetic responses to changing conditions by species with common ancestors.

My snapdragons may be derived from Spain’s purple Antirrhinum majus that have been bred for color, habit and resistance to fungus, but they aren’t popular here because they came with the conquistadores. The bedding plants are bought as soon as they appear in stores in April because people have had good luck with them and they like the bright complex flower spikes.

An accumulation of experiences has formed both our expectations for a good flower and the snapdragon’s ability to survive our harsh summers. It’s more than wondrous coincidence that both the buyers and the flowers come from Spain, but not an inevitable consequence of shared national heritage. Landscape still matters.

Axelrod, Daniel I. "Evolution and Biogeography of Madrean-Tethyan Sclerophyll Vegetation, "Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden, 62:280-334:1975.

Benavides, Alonso de. Memorial que fray Juan de Santaner de la orden de S. Francisco presenta a la Magestad Catolica del Rey don Felipe Quarto, 1630, republished 1996 as A Harvest of Reluctant Souls, translated and edited by Baker H. Morrow.

Gübitz, Thomas, Ailsa Caldwell, and Andrew Hudson. "Rapid Molecular Evolution of Cycloidea-like Genes in Antirrhinum and Its Relatives," Molecular Biology and Evolution 20:1537-1544:2003.

Pike, Zebulon. Quoted by Walter Prescott Webb, The Great Plains, 1931.

Photograph: Snapdragon with seed stalks, 20 October 2007.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Cutleaf Coneflower

What’s blooming in the area: Roses, silver lace vine, buddleia, datura, Heavenly Blue morning glory, rose of Sharon, narrow leaf globemallow, white sweet clover, chamisa, broom snakeweed, winterfat, Tahokia daisy, Maximilian and native sunflowers, áñil del muerto, ragweed, broom senecio; golden, heath, strapleaf and purple asters; milkweed leaves turning yellow.
What’s blooming in my garden, looking north: Golden spur columbine, chocolate flower, blanket flower, Mexican hat, black-eyed Susan, yellow cosmos, chrysanthemum; rose hips.
Looking east: Pinks, sweet alyssum, sidalcea, winecup, hollyhock, California poppies, Crackerjack marigolds.
Looking south: Rugosa rose, Crimson Rambler morning glory, Sensation cosmos, zinnia
Looking west: Russian sage, catmint, purple ice plant; leadplant leaves turned red, lily leaves turning yellow
Bedding plants: Sweet alyssum, snapdragons, petunia, Dahlberg daisy
Inside: Aptenia, zonal geranium
Animal sightings: Quail, grasshoppers, ants; gopher active; goats in empty field down the road.
Weather: Cold temperatures destroyed grape and zinnia leaves, but zinnias are still blooming; winds continued to scatter seed. Last rain, 9/29/07.
Weekly update: Plants that went into remission in the summer heat and drought are blooming again. The rugosa rose, pinks, and snapdragons do this every year, but it’s not routine for my cutleaf coneflower.
I’m not sure what is normal for it, since it shouldn’t grow here at all. Rudbeckia laciniata prefers stream banks and forest edges, and can’t tolerate drought. My rhizomatous plant must depend on water in the soil rather than atmosphere, since the one is fairly constant here, and the other changes every year.
This particular composite, with its distinctive young green cone, does occur naturally in Rio Arriba county. Standley saw it along the Brazos river north of Tierra Amarilla in 1911. It’s since been spotted along the Rio Vallecitas in Carson National Forest. Both are at much higher elevations than Española.
Even with its seeming obscurity, Curtin found Spanish speakers in northern New Mexico who knew dormilón well enough to tell her they used its leaves to treat gonorrhea and "female trouble" in the late 1940's. More recently, Moore heard it used for late periods as well as uterine and vaginal problems.
The basal rosette of deeply lobed leaves arrived in my yard by chance. I ordered Maximilian sunflowers from an Iowa nursery in 1999, and this was shipped instead. Since it’s not something Henry Field offers, I don’t know if it was a local volunteer, stowed there in some seed, or crowded out a potted plant it bought elsewhere for resale.
My plant normally starts producing clusters of yellow flowers on 5' stalks the end of July and stops five weeks later. Why it’s reblooming now on lower branches when the leaves are already turning yellow is as big a mystery as how it survives this arid environment.
Botanists believe the leaves that produce a plant’s food through photosynthesis control its blooming schedule by sending messages to the cell production center in the central stem when they detect the species specific necessary hours of darkness. That would help explain why the late spring and early summer plants are reblooming, but not this late summer plant.
Perhaps the failure of the monsoons disrupted the cycle of this water loving perennial and stopped the growth of some stems in August. When it finally rained, those inactive stalks may have resumed growth and now are mature enough to send urgent signals to their meristems to convert to reproduction as quickly as possible.
Its taken botanists some seventy years to establish the little they now about flowering cycles. Why should a stray cutleaf coneflower let the most recent theories stop it from blooming when it needs to?
Notes:Curtin, L. S. M. Healing Herbs of the Upper Rio Grande, 1947, republished 1997, with revisions by Michael Moore.Moore, Michael. Los Remedios: Traditional Herbal Remedies of the Southwest, 1990.New Mexico State University. "Vallecitas Mountain Refuge, Tusas Mountains, Rio Arriba County, New Mexico," 2004, available o.Standley, Paul C. "The Ferns of Brazos Canyon, New Mexico," Amen-linerican Fern Journal 4:109-114:1914.Zeevaart Jan A. D. "Florigen Coming of Age after 70 Years," The Plant Cell 18:1783-1789:2006.
Photograph: Cutleaf coneflower with bud, young flower with green cone and older bloom with disc flowers, 13 October 2007.

Sunday, October 07, 2007


What’s blooming in the area: Roses, Apache plume, silver lace vine, buddleia, canna, datura, Heavenly Blue morning glory, rose of Sharon, narrow leaf globemallow, white sweet clover, yellow evening primrose, pigweed, chamisa, broom snakeweed, winterfat, Tahokia daisy, Maximilian and native sunflowers, áñil del muerto, ragweed, broom senecio; golden, heath, strapleaf and purple asters; black grama grass; red peppers visible from road; baled hay left to dry in field.

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

Looking east: Pinks, sweet alyssum, sidalcea, winecup, hollyhock, California poppies, Crackerjack marigolds.

Looking south: Rugosa rose, Crimson Rambler morning glory, Sensation cosmos, zinnia.

Looking west: Russian sage, catmint, ladybells, purple ice plant.

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

Inside: Aptenia, zonal geranium

Animal sightings: Quail, ants, bees, grasshopper, flies.

Weather: Rain Monday and Thursday night; windy all day Saturday; ice on my windshield Wednesday morning.
Weekly update: Temperatures fell some mornings this past week, and plants responded. Catalpa, locust, and cottonwood leaves began to yellow. More Virginia creeper turned red. My nasturtium, which had only begun blooming with the rain on the 27th, went dormant again.

Last year the dwarf Jewel bloomed from August 22 to October 20. The large, furrowed seeds were planted the same time both years, the second week in May, but this year’s plants emerged May 25, two weeks before last year’s June 13.

When dates vary so widely, I suspect plants are sensitive to environmental conditions. Garden manuals advise the annuals like cool weather, but assume moisture is available. Since the plants were on the same irrigation regimen both years, the failure of the monsoons in August and the lack of atmospheric moisture must have been critical.

Their ancestral homeland is Perú, but by the time the Spanish arrived, tajsa had spread to south central México where it was eaten. In Perú they used the leaves for recuperative baths and to treat scabs. Nicolas Monardes was the first European to describe flor de la sangre in 1569 when he reported the leaves worked on fresh wounds. We now know the genus contains tropaeolum, a mustard oil that has antiviral, antifungal and antibacterial properties.

Monardes was a physician trained at a time when medical training at Alcalá de Henares still included botany. He worked for Phillip II and had interests in the drug and slave trade in Seville, the primary port for the Americas. He used his contacts to obtain seeds and information from returning sailors.

His seeds probably came from some place on the Caribbean coast, simply because Perú was still serviced by ships that went north to Panama once a year when the prevailing south wind was favorable. Cargo was transshipped across the isthmus. However, his medicinal information more likely came from someone returning from Perú.

Some believe Monardes was discussing Tropaeolum minus, the parent of my Jewel, and others that he was describing Tropaeolum major, the more common vining plant. Many believe the current varieties have resulted from so many crosses, species is no longer relevant, and use major for any nasturtium.

In Perú today, major grows wild on the hills above Ariquipa on the coastal side of the Andes at about 700' where goods from the interior were gathered for shipment to Lima before Cape Horn was discovered in 1616. It has naturalized along the south coast and in inland desert counties of California and currently is expanding its range in the Iberian peninsula, probably as minimum temperatures increase.

Whatever its pleasures where it is colonizing, here, in the rio arriba, nasturtiums survive on the frontier of the possible and respond accordingly.

Calfora. "Tropaeolum majus L.," available on-line.

Cobo, Bernabe. History of the Inca Empire, 1653, quoted by Hipernatural.

Monardes, Nicolas. Dos libros, el uno que trata de todas las cosas que se traen de nuestras Indias Occidentales, que sirven al uso de la medicina, y el otro que trata de la piedra bezaar, y de la yerva escuerçonera, 1569, cited by many and quoted by Hipernatural.

Picó, Belén and Fernando Nuez. "Minor Crops of Mesoamerica in Early Sources (II). Herbs Used as Condiments," Genetic Resources and Crop Evolution 47:541-552:2000.

Sobrino Vesperinas, Eduardo, Alberto González Moreno, Mario Sanz Elorza, Elias Dana Sánchez, Daniel Sánchez Mata and Rosario Gavilán. "The Expansion of Thermophilic Plants in the Iberian Peninsula as a Sign of Climate Change" in Gian-Reto Walther, Conradin A. Burga and Peter J. Edwards, "Fingerprints" of Climate Change, 2001.

Van Wyk, Ben-erik and Michael Wink, Medicinal Plants of the World, 2004.

Weigend, M. and H. Forther. "Two New Species of Sisymbrium (Brassicaceae) from Coastal Peru," Brittonia, 51:119-123:1999.

Photograph: Jewel nasturtium with lance-leaf coreopsis seed heads and unwanted grass, 29 September 2007.