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.

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