Sunday, November 25, 2007


What’s blooming: Sweet alyssum from seed, purple aster.

What still has leaves that shouldn’t: Spirea, forsythia, beauty bush, weigela; some local cottonwoods, catalpas, Russian olives, weeping willows..

What’s still green and visible above the snow: Conifers, grasses, Apache plume, roses, hollyhock, snapdragon, columbine, bouncing Bess, California poppy, rockrose, pink evening primrose, vinca, sea lavender, yuccas, red hot poker, Saint John’s wort.

What’s still gray-green: Salt bush.

What’s still gray: Buddleia, snow-in-summer, pinks, winterfat.

What’s turning red: Cholla, coral bell.

What’s blooming inside: Aptenia, geranium.

Animal sightings: Quail, small brown birds with light bellies and red sides; gopher active.

Weather: Snow late Thursday night, everything not buried in the morning was wearing a white crown; little melting since.

Weekly update: Nature’s a bit of an exotic dancer. She thrills you with her whirling colors and flourishes. Then, when you think you’ve seen everything, she drops her skirts and you discover what’s been hidden behind her leaves.

Down the road, unpicked apples expose their abstract placement. In the yard, I can see buds for next year’s lilacs and peaches. When I looked at the bare locust tree to see what was still green, I found Doctor Huey roses growing into the branches.

In town, catalpas bloom at slightly different times in June, but now I can find them all by their straight, parallel pods hanging like icicles frozen in the wind. Most lie among other trees and shrubs along property lines extending back from the highway in town where people built after the automobile made that a desirable location. Others dot the farm, village and orchard roads.

I just discovered the tree I planted in 2000 had bloomed this year, and I never noticed: the broad, heart-shaped leaves obscured the flowers, then shrouded three pods. I assumed my tree was still getting established. Joseph Breck warned gardeners in 1851 they didn’t bloom until they were ten to twelve feet tall. Mine, after years of drought and grasshoppers, is still only eight feet high.

I also wasn’t sure if the tree I ordered from an Ohio nursery was the same species that grew in village. The southern Catalpa bignoniodes was discovered in the southern colonies and spread north as an ornamental. Seeds were shipped to England in 1726. It’s still the most common variety in commerce.

The northern Catalpa speciosa was noticed by William Henry Harrison when he was territorial governor of Indiana territory between 1800 and 1812. However, botanists assumed it was simply an ecotype of the familiar southern tree with variations in habit attributable to differences in climate and soil. While scientists didn’t separate the two until later, Harrison took seeds back to Cincinnati where they spread through Ohio at the same time other settlers were bringing southern seeds in from the east.

Herbert Roberts suggests the easiest way to distinguish the two is by their bark: speciosa is furrowed, while bignoniodes has a scaly, pealing outer surface. The leaves of the one have a more pointed tip than the other. His photographs suggest the parallel, diagonal pods I see in town appear on northern trees while my crooked pods are found on southern ones.

I planted mine because I liked the white flowers that floated above new leaves. I’m not sure why others here grew a tree associated with the rich bottom lands of the Wabash and central Mississippi rivers. In Ohio, they were valued for fence posts, because the wood doesn’t rot in the ground.

In 1902, Roberts was suggesting the northern species be grown for rail ties in notoriously treeless Kansas. At that time, the Rio Grande Western was growing 60,000 saplings as an experiment in Provo, Utah. The year before, that rail line had merged with the Denver and Rio Grande which had reached our valley in 1880. It’s possible some railroad gandydancer brought northern seeds to town.

More likely, they were simply an ornamental grown to beautify the main road to Santa Fe after World War II when traffic picked up and people finally had some extra cash, as well as exposure to landscape design in other parts of the country where they’d been stationed. The use among other trees or shrubs is the one suggested by Breck a century before, perhaps because catalpas grow best in some shade.

Reliable as they may be when they’re converted into lumber, alluring as they may be in bloom, they are still a tease. Every year they grow in late summer. Every year their terminal buds are killed by cold. Every year, you must wait to see it they survived, for they are the last tree to leaf in spring. And then, this year, nature concealed my flowers and pods until she resumed her danse de la vie.

Breck, Joseph. The Flower-Garden,1851, reprinted by OPUS Publications,1988.

Roberts, Herbert F. “The Hardy Catalpa”, Kansas State Agricultural College Bulletin 108:99-140, 146-213:1902.

Photograph: Catalpa pods and snow, 23 November 2007; dark, oval spot is a neighbor’s trash container at the road.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Russian Olive

What’s blooming: Coral bell, snapdragon and sweet alyssum from seed, chrysanthemum, purple aster.

Inside: Aptenia, geranium; coral honeysuckle putting out more new leaves.

Animal sightings: Small birds flit from peach to catalpa and beyond

Weather: Cold mornings with the smell of wood smoke, warm afternoons; last rain, 29 September.

Weekly update: Tis the fickle time of year when warm afternoons belie cold mornings and you can’t tell if a flower is real or a desicated shell of itself. Unsheddable dead leaves, most brown, stay on trees. Cherries and spirea remain shades of scarlet, but it’s impossible to know from a distance if they’re shriveled or whole.

Russian olives clasp dry, grey-green leaves, but I have one with a few narrow willow-type lances still turning yellow. Nearer the river, some trees looked untouched yesterday by last Thursday morning’s cold.

Elaeagnus angustifolia is an anomalous presence, a silvery fruit that’s not an olive, but an oleaster, an import from Europe that’s filled open gaps along the river. Mennonites who fled Prussian conscription for the Ukraine in 1789, spent years learning dryland farming and the value of windbreaks. When Russia threatened conscription in 1880, many migrated to the opening wheat lands of our plains and brought with them both the idea of a shelter belt and Russian olives. They arrived in South Dakota in 1874; in 1901, the state Agricultural Experiment Station issued a bulletin from Niels Hansen promoting the ornamental species.

Cuttings spread among Mormons in Arizona and Utah, and were growing in Mesilla Park in 1903 where New Mexico State was developing its new horticulture farm. Elmer Wooten and Paul Standley reported trees in several places in the state in 1915, but it didn’t naturalize along the middle Rio Grande until dams were completed at Elephant Butte in 1916 and Cochiti in 1975.

Some despise it as a reminder of what has been lost along the rivers. But, if home landscaping reveals anything about our views of an ideal natural world, then some here associate the trees with the river they knew as children. Two of the ten owners of ambitious homes built since I moved here in 1991 have planted Russian olives.

Their unconscious ideal may be a pink adobe set far back from the farm road sheltered by cottonwoods. While the back is now wild wood, the front is dominated by two large specimen Russian olives, one on each side of a bare yard so flat it has to have been leveled by flood irrigation. Grassland expanding out from the homestead to the road is all that remains from the agrarian past, and yesterday that green had retreated to the protection of the trees.

The new home owners differ from the traditional one because they no longer can afford to be open to strangers who use the main road. Their trees screen their houses from unseemly prying. But like the person who imposed formality of the rural land, these people didn’t act on some impulse in the local hardware. Russian olives can no longer be sold in the state. They went to some trouble to find and transplant thorny saplings to places where they could be seen from front windows.

Why? Perhaps because the airy placement of leaves with grey-scaled underbellies along dark curving boughs contrasts with the more somber cottonwoods in the drought of summer. Maybe, the fragrance from tiny yellow flowers in spring promises the return of life flowing from its nitrogen fixing roots. Even now, the spectral leaves sheltering green grass give hope that wintry cold may be delayed.

These images of the past, the future, and the river may be as illusionary as today’s freeze dried leaves, but they’re woven into life in a forever changing river valley.

Garcia, Fabian. Comments on Mesilla Park, 1903, cited by Deborah M. Finch and Joseph A. Tainter, Ecology, Diversity and Sustainability of the Middle Rio Grande Basin, 1995.

Hansen, Niels Ebbesen. Ornamentals for South Dakota, 1901.

Tellman, Barbara. "Stowaways and Unwanted Guests: How Some Exotic Plants Reached the American Southwest," California Exotic Pest Plant Council, 1996 symposium, comment on Mormons available on-line.

Wooten, Elmer Otis and Paul Carpenter Standley. Flora of New Mexico, 1915.

Photograph: Russia olive on farm road with small cottonwood in front, 11 November 2007.

Sunday, November 11, 2007


What’s blooming: Coral bell, snapdragon and sweet alyssum from seed, chrysanthemum, purple aster.

Inside: Aptenia, geranium; coral honeysuckle putting out new leaves.

Animal sightings: Birds in fruit trees.

Weather: Some very cold mornings; changes in sun angles more obvious; last rain, 29 September.

Weekly update: Winterfat looks the same all year. Most don’t actually notice it. Many, who see it along my drive, tell me it’s chamisa; a few say sagebrush. All that registers is a large, nondescript grey shrub with dark, pealing branches.

When I look more closely, I realize it changes with the seasons and the years. It begins as a small, erect sprig, with clusters of narrow grey leaves covered with white hairs. If it’s not yanked quickly, it puts down a deep tap root that splits into a Y a foot or so below the surface, firmly anchoring it against the winds. It also spreads more fibrous, shallower roots to collect surface moisture.

The little twig becomes several foot long branches rising from a short, yellowish trunk. Each year, new stalks are added, or the existing ones grow longer. My largest shrubs are about 7' wide with spreading 4' long branches, laying over dead wood. In areas where cattle or sheep graze in early winter, mature wood, filled with crude protein, disappears and the vigor of the bush increases from low buds on the trunk.

New leaves appear in spring that nudge off ones that survived the winter. Clusters of young, short, curved leaves are interspersed with inch-long, solitary lances. The rejected leaves join the remains of last year’s seeds in a self-maintained mulch beneath the lowest branches.

Flower spikes emerge in early summer where leaf clusters connect to the branches, an event invisible to all but the most acute observers. Like other members of the goosefoot family, this Chenopodium produces only the most essential parts: male and female organs anchored in separate cups of bracts, protected by tiny horns. No petals, no sepals, no scent.

Once the wind has moved the pollen down stem from the males to the females, across the shrub or to other plants, grey-green seeds form. Their tufts of white hairs transform bushes into piles of fluffy wands spreading above skeletal bases. The shrubs are at they’re most beautiful in early fall when sunlight filters through the seed heads.

Now the weather’s turned cold and the fine hairs that cover the leaves are turning pink. Many seed heads have disappeared, their seeds turned light brown. The branch tips are reverting to their lamb’s quarter form with narrow spikes curving out from clusters of clasping leaves.

Soon they will become forlorn heaps of brittle wood with tiny leaves no longer visible from afar. Beneath the wooly coverings, the leaves of summer were pale green, the twigs straw. In winter, everything looks like a Whistler study in black and grey.

On the ground, still attached seed hairs will collect moisture that will freezes to insulate the embryos from our wide ranging daily temperatures. Then, in the spring, when the air approaches 59 degrees, life will stir itself, new buds swell, and winterfat will rejuvinate itself.

Booth, D. Terrance. Work with winterfat seeds described by Don Comis, "Winterfat Seeds Take Ice Stakes Through the Heart," Agricultural Research, 47:24:January 1999.

Carey, Jennifer H. "Krascheninnikovia lanata," 1995, in United States Forest Service, Fire Effects Information System, available on-line.

Photograph: Winterfat tip, 6 November 2007.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Autumn Leaves

What’s blooming in the area: Áñil del muerto, purple asters.

What’s blooming in my garden: Snapdragon, coral bell bud, petunia behind hollyhock leaves, sweet alyssum from seed, blanket flower, chrysanthemum.

Inside: Aptenia, geranium.

Animal sightings: Quail, ants.

Weather: Some very cold mornings; last rain, 29 September.

Weekly update: We’re having a genuine autumn this year, after several years with no serious frost until late November. After the cold a week ago Monday, trees that had stayed green suddenly were brown. Those that had some intimation of the coming desolation were more intensely yellow. A few had brown, yellow, and green patches.

Beneath the surface, abscisic acid is sealing the joints between branches and leaves, so that no open wounds remain when leaves finally drop. Meanwhile, the rate of photosynthesis is slowing as perennials enter winter dormancy, and the quantity of chlorophyll in leaves is decreasing. As the green fades, other leaf pigments become visible, including the yellow xanthophyll.

Xanthophyll had been known for years when Frederick Addicott’s team reported abscisic acid as a long sought growth inhibiting hormone in 1963. It begins as xanthoxin with 15 carbon, 22 hydrogen, and 3 oxygen atoms which have split from the 40 carbon, 56 hydrogen, and 4 oxygen atoms in a molecule of violaxanthin.

Xanthoxin is inherently unstably, and loses two hydrogen atoms to become abscisic acid aldehyde. When exposed to oxygen, that molecule converts into abscisic acid with a half life of about eight hours and four oxygen atoms. That in turn becomes phaseic acid with another oxygen atom, then dihydrophaseic acid with two more hydrogen atoms.

Xanthophyll sounded much simpler when Jöns Jakob Berzelius described the pigments in fall leaves in 1837. Scientists have since applied the term to any oxygen compound with 40 carbon and 56 hydrogen atoms.

The most important xanthophyll in leaves at dawn is violaxanthin. Instead of shucking off atoms and moving through the plant as abscisic acid, it stays in the leaf and loses an oxygen atom to become antheraxanthin. Later in the day, it loses another oxygen atom to become zeaxanthin, before reverting to its original state in the night.

Scientists want to know more than that zeaxanthin is created to protect the photosynthesis centers in leaves from increased solar energy levels in the day or that abscisic acid is a response to threats from low temperatures and drought. They want to know the nature of the bonds that connect those carbon atoms, the type of oxygen, the enzymes that transform each of the compounds, and the system of communication that triggers the creation of xanthoxin.

I don’t think about molecules, when I look through my windshield at the changing patterns of color formed by groupings of trees against the open fields, the sky, and each other. Still, it’s reassuring to know laboratory scientists remain who use the simple methods we were taught in high school chemistry to submit any scientific postulation, no matter how complex, to the old tests of dissolution, heating, sniffing, and spectrum analysis to reveal the beauty beneath senescent skin.

Compounds in the abscisic acid chain
C40 H56 O4 - violaxanthin
C15 H22 O3 - xanthoxin
C15 H20 O3 - abscisic acid aldehyde
C15 H20 O4 - abscisic acid
C15 H20 O5 - phaseic acid
C15 H22 O5 - dihydrophaseic acid

Compounds in the violaxanthin chain
C40 H56 O4 - violaxanthin
C40 H56 O3 - antheraxanthin
C40 H56 O2 - zeaxanthin

Photograph: Yellow and green leaves on young cottonwood, 3 November 2007.