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.

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