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.

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