Sunday, December 28, 2008

Winter Mysteries

What’s still green: Juniper and other conifers, roses, Apache plume, honeysuckle, prickly pear, yucca, red hot poker, vinca, rock rose, blue flax, sweet pea, sea pink, winecup, hollyhocks, pinks, bouncing Bess, snapdragon, Jupiter’s Beard, golden spur columbine, Saint John’s wort, some grasses.

What’s gray, blue or gray-green: Piñon, winterfat, saltbush, buddleia, loco, snow-in-summer.

What’s red: Cholla, coral bells, coral beardtongues, soapworts, pink evening primrose, purple aster.

What’s blooming inside: Christmas cactus, aptenia, rochea, bougainvillea, zonal geraniums.

Animal sightings: Man down the road has brought in some hogs.

Weather: Storms moved through, dropping some snow on Monday night and Thursday morning. After warm temperatures melted most of it, leaving mud sitting on frozen ground, temperatures fell this morning to their lowest so far this winter. Plants still buried under piles of snow will be OK; I’m not sure about those with shallow roots in the thawed areas. 8:24 hours of daylight today.

Weekly update: ’Tis the time for some houseplant to produce a brilliant flower to protest the soddeness that follows melting snow.

It won’t be the succulent I bought last July when the local hardware was selling off the orphans. The perennial came with a picture of bright red flowers, the names Rochea coccinea and Campfire. In fact, it has tiny white, tulip-shaped flowers in groups of nine crowded on elongating stems that are barely visible from a distance.

In the early days of the last depression, Bailey said Rochea flowers grow in dense terminal clusters, that coccinea sports bright scarlet, two-inch-long flared tubes. The only red I see appears along the edges of the pairs of elliptical leaves when temperatures fall and slowing photosynthesis drains away the green. Rochea’s ovate leaves are supposed to alternate along the stems; these form beneath the pairs of light-sensitive flower heads.

I suspect I have a South African weed that probably was grown in Estancia by McLain Greenhouse from contaminated seed. Had it been a cutting, they would have known. But then, had they known, poor Española is just the sort of place it would have been shipped to salvage the cost of potting soil.

The spring selection in the hardware associated with the smallest chain in town has been declining each year. Probably because the parent faces stiff competition from Lowe’s and Wal-mart, it’s been offering fewer plants each year, and the choices have been getting odder, as if the buyers were taking the lowest priced, remaindered lots. One year the only fruit trees the store received for its spring tent sale were peaches. Last year they got almost no tomatoes.

The more managers retrench in the belief people won’t be buying, the more they create that condition. People who walked in last spring and found half the usual shelf space devoted to annuals, and came back a week later to find nothing new had been received, didn’t return. When last year’s seeds arrived later than usual, I regretted not spending more time looking at mail order alternatives.

It was with some foreboding then that I opened the early batch of seed catalogs this week: fear they had retreated to offer less I could grow, panic that if I didn’t find everything I needed, I might have to go without. Of course my anxieties were met with higher shipping costs and the loss of some favorite varieties. The single colored larkspur had been replaced by a "new series" for "commercial cut flower growers." Jewel nasturtiums were gone from another and the Bright Lights cosmos banished to the "super sale" of the discontinued.

But then, I looked at catalogs from places I haven’t used in a while and discovered they not only had adequate substitutes and lower shipping, but tucked here and there were those elusive possibilities that tempt me to try something new: why not another variety of creeping zinnia instead of nasturtiums? why not pink baby’s breath in place of larkspur?

In the scheme of things, these alterations aren’t particularly radical, aren’t going to make much difference to any company’s bottom line. They’re just extensions of what I’ve learned works, the simplest kind of innovation. They aren’t nearly so daring as buying that weed last July, and, whilst that unknown may not be the bright spot of color I’d expected, at least it’s blooming, unfazed by the market forces that sent it my way, a quiet witness that even the lowly have a place in this winter of discontent.

Notes: Baily, Liberty Hyde and Ethel Zoe Bailey. Hortus, 1930.

Photograph: Unknown plant sold as Rochea coccinea, 23 December 2008.

Sunday, December 21, 2008


What’s still green: Juniper and other conifers, roses, Apache plume, yucca, prickly pear, honeysuckle, red hot poker, vinca, rock rose, blue flax, sweet pea, sea pink, winecup, hollyhocks, pinks, bouncing Bess, snapdragon, Jupiter’s Beard, golden spur columbine, Saint John’s wort, purple aster, some grasses; arborvitae turning brown.
What’s gray, blue or gay-green: Piñon, winterfat, saltbush, buddleia, loco, snow-in-summer.
What’s red: Cholla, coral bells, coral beardtongues, soapworts, pink evening primrose.
What’s blooming inside: Aptenia, rochea, bougainvillea; Christmas cactus close to opening.
Animal sightings: Birds were out Tuesday as soon as there was enough light to see, even though a low wind made it difficult for them to perch. Sunday the blue bird huddled above the porch post under the eave, obviously regretting the decision to winter here.
Weather: Sunday, wind and rain in the night before Monday’s fine snow that turned heavy after dark. The 7" in my drive has been compacting and evaporating ever since, but there’s still a thin covering in many places ready to turn to ice if it’s stepped on. 8:23 hours of daylight today.
Weekly update: Something still green for the solstice should not pass unnoticed.
The Vinca minor I planted in deep, dry shade in 2000 and 2001 has survived and produced a few flowers, but the trailing stems have yet to find places wet enough to root and expand. Even so, after this week’s snows the sparse, leathery leaves are green.
John Williamson noticed periwinkle in the "Unicorn in Captivity" tapestry produced in France around 1500 for François IV de La Rouchefoucauld. One group of five-petaled blue flowers appears with a carnation under the animal’s tail, where it signifies the promise of fertility. Another clump, beyond the enclosing fence near a pomegranate, is intended to ward off the evil represented by the white campion.
The unicorn hunt, shown in five tapestries in the set, climaxes when the male animal is killed on the solstice, after having been tranquilized by the attention of a young virgin. The animal’s immediate rebirth into captivity was associated by church leaders with the birth of Christ a few days after mid-winter, but has deeper roots in the annual battle, first suggested by James Frazer in The Golden Bough, between the oak, representing summer and the sun, and holly, signifying the winter that must kill the god-king so a younger, more vital man may rein.
Robert Graves noticed the same juxtaposition of periwinkle with the lure of fertility and betrayal leading to death in a French ballad from the 1100's in which a shoemaker representing Llew Llaw Gyffes is tempted by a beautiful lady into a large bed with blue pervenche flowers on the four posts. The Celtic sun god is murdered by his rival after she binds him with the runners.
Myrtle, as my mother prosaically called periwinkle, is peripheral in the iconography of these artifacts of high French culture, but its associations with death and fertility go back to those times when plants, not animals, were used to express man’s relationship with nature and the supernatural.
Around 1230, Guillaume de Lorris wrote one of the most popular romances of the period, "Roman de la Rose," which is set in May when, to quote Chaucer’s translation, "the erthe wexeth proud" and men forget the past solstice "in which that winter had it set." A young man enters a walled garden posted with warning signs of evil where he falls in love with a rose, but is imprisoned by the guardian before he can liberate her. The first flowers Lorris lists in the garden are violets and "fresshe pervinke, riche of hewe."
The thing I wonder is how a flower, for it is always the flower that is used, no matter how inappropriate the season, went from being the healing herb used by Romans for its astringent qualities to a symbol for the sorceress who lures a man to his destruction. One possibility is that when the Romans took the Apocynaceae north to places like Britain it no longer produced seed, and any sterile plant was seen with suspicion by people who relied on grain.
After the courtly culture of the troubadours passed, the plant that had been emblematic of destructive virginity became the magical tool to cure it. In London around 1525, the unknown man who published The Book of Secrets of Albertus Mangus prescribed a charm made from powdered periwinkle, houseleaks and earthworms to "induceth love between man and woman."
In 1650, Nicolas Culpepper associated periwinkle with Venus and told his English readers the French used an infusion "to stay women’s courses," the physical manifestation of barrenness and impotence. This use of tannin from the leaves persisted into the early twentieth century when homeopathists recommended lesser periwinkle for the heavy flows of menopause that signal the end of female fecundity.
Today, both pagans and papists notice the perennial: Magica D’La Luna proclaims violette des sorciers a Wiccan patron herb while Mary DeTourris Poust includes pucellage in her garden devoted to flowers sacred to the virgin Mary. The constellation of motifs found in medieval France may have dissolved, but myrtle still blesses both the solstice and Christmas with green leaves rising from the snow.
Notes:Anonymous. The Boke of Secretes of Albartus Magnus, of the Vertues of Herbes, Stones, and Certaine Beastes. Also a Boke of the Same Author of the Maruaylous Things of the World and of Certaine Effectes Caused of Certayne Beastes, 1525, edited by Michael R. Best and Frank H. Brightman as The Book of Secrets of Albertus Magnus, 1999.
Boericke, William. Materia Medica, 1901; augmented 1927 edition kept in print by B. Jahn Publishers of New Dehli; his description is "continuous flow, particularly at climacteric."

Culpeper, Nicholas. Culpeper’s Complete Herbal and English Physician, 1650's; 1826 edition republished in 1981.

D’La Luna, Magica. "Periwinkle," available on-line.

Frazer, James George. The Golden Bough, 1922 abridged edition.

Graves, Robert. The White Goddess, 1966 second edition.

Poust, Mary DeTurris. "Planting with Prayer in Mind, 7 May 2008, available on-line.

Tuckwell, William. Chaucer, 1910, grouped with early work, translations before 1373.

Williamson, John. The Oak King, the Holly King, and the Unicorn, 1986; the seven tapestries are now owned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Photograph: Vinca minor and dead June grass and iris leaves, 18 December 2008.

Sunday, December 14, 2008


What’s still green: Juniper, arborvitae and other conifers, roses, Apache plume, yucca, prickly pear, honeysuckle, red hot poker, iris, vinca, rock rose, yellow evening primrose, blue and yellow flax, oriental poppy, sea lavender, sea pink, winecup, pinks, bouncing Bess, snapdragon, golden spur columbine, Saint John’s wort, catmint, fern-leaf yarrow, tansy, senecio, Mount Atlas daisy, Mexican hat, anthemis, chrysanthemum, black-eyed Susan, purple aster, some grasses.
What’s gray, blue or gray-green: Piñon, winterfat, saltbush, buddleia, loco, snow-in-summer, yellow alyssum, Silver King artemisia.
What’s red: Cholla, coral bells, white and coral beardtongues, pink evening primrose.
What’s blooming inside: Aptenia, rochea.
Animal sightings: Bird with chalky blue back around front porch last Sunday; rabbit tracks in snow Wednesday morning.
Weather: First snow Tuesday, along with first major power outage since the Thanksgiving fiasco a few years back; 8:24 hours of daylight today.
Weekly update: The first thing my furnace man asked last week was "Did you get any fruit?" When I had someone up from Santa Fe, he noticed the catalpa, but this tradesman, like any true son of the rio arriba, saw the peach and wanted to know.
Small talk in the valley has its own rhythms. I asked after the apples and he said the only ones who’d gotten much were in Los Alamos.
This would be a hard year if we still followed the old ways that depended on dried or stored apples for food and fresh ones for cash in the fall. The spring cold spells coincided with blossoming times, and I only saw fruit on a few trees in the 24 orchards I routinely drive by.
Most of the orchards have seen better days. Belle Becker says her family sold apples on the highway to Taos to people who came from Texas to fill their trucks until "the deep freeze in the 70's." That’s back when Emilio Naranjo was at the height of his political power in the county. Now, many have gaps where trees have died and not been replaced. A few are used for parking, but some are still carefully maintained, the grounds plowed or mowed, the branches pruned, the fruit picked. One paints the trunks white, another puts plastic collars made from empty plant containers around the bases.
Commercial apples are relatively recent. When Francisco Domínguez visited the area in 1776, he noticed only peaches and apricots. But, by 1830, Josiah Gregg saw trees around Santa Fe grown from pips that had come north. The Santa Clara bought the small, thin-skinned yellow mansanà from Mexican peddlers and used them to seed small orchards. These manzanas méxicanas were growing in Chimayó when Don Unser’s grandmother, Benigna Ortega Chávez, was a child early in the twentieth century and seen in Santa Cruz in the 1930's.
Change came with the railroads. Not only did the Denver and Rio Grande open markets for local farmers, but the transcontinental lines provided a distribution network for Clarence Stark, who began promoting his Delicious in 1895 by sending free samples with mail orders. By 1900, those saplings had begun to bear, and people wanted the sweet, five-pointed fruit from his Missouri-grown bare roots.
A revived knowledge of pomology probably filtered south from Denver where Stark had been treated for tuberculosis in 1887. While there he established dryland orchards and made promotional trips, including some to Mormons, who’d brought their apple growing techniques from the east. Whipple wrote in 1914 that the apple industry was still comparatively young in New Mexico and expanding the most around Farmington. Delicious wasn’t yet among the common varieties.
The seedling Jesse Hiatt found in Iowa near his Yellow Bellflower tree around 1870 was probably just reaching the Rio Grande when Naranjo was born in Guachupangue in 1916. Mrs. Chávez remembers her father, Reyes Ortega, and Santos Ortiz brought the first manzanas americanas to Chimayó from Sombrillo. By the time Naranjo was in high school in Santa Fe in the 1930's, Red Delicious and its pollination partners, Jonathan and Winesap, had become the most important varieties in Santa Cruz.
There are no orchards left along the Taos highway at my end of town, and only a few places in the village have trees. The land in the one has turned commercial, that near the church was always too valuable for farming. Arboleroas were kept to the periphery there, like they were in Chimayó, where trees were banished to life outside the plaza.
Some of the early plantations were ambitious. The largest one today is six rows of 32 trees suggesting an original plan for 192. The other large plantings look like they were 6 by 20 and 6 by 16. More orchards are two or four rows wide and six trees deep, one to two dozen trees. When hard cash came from men like Naranjo’s father, Alejandrino, who worked the mines and smelters of Colorado, these were sizable investments.
Such abundance must have become not only a symbol of economic comfort in bad times, but also such a mark of success that people still buy a half dozen trees for their much-reduced lots. Dwarf trees a 92-year-old man can maintain without a ladder are planted in three rows in a fenced plot to the right of Naranjo’s home. When he died a few weeks ago, he may have outlived the traditional life that formed him and the political machine he built, but his trees, like all the orchards in the area, are outliving him. Next year, people may ask his heirs if they got any fruit.
Notes:Becker, Belle. Interviewed by Kevin Huelsmann for "The Villages of Española," Rio Grande Sun, 29 May 2008. Domínguez, Francisco Atansio. Republished as The Missions of New Mexico, 1776, translated and edited by Eleanor B. Adams and Angélico Chávez, 1956.Gregg, Josiah. Commerce of the Prairies: Life on the Great Plains in the 1830's and 1840's, 1844, republished by The Narrative Press, 2001.Robbins, William Wilfred, John Peabody Harrington and Barbara Friere-Marreco, Ethnobotany of the Tewa Indians, 1916.
Terry, Dickson. "The Stark Story," Missouri Historical Society, The Bulletin, Sept 1966.
US Dept of Interior, Tewa Basin Study, volume 2, 1935, reprinted by Marta Weigle as Hispanic Villages of Northern New Mexico, 1975.Usner, Don J. Sabino’s Map: Life in Chimayó’s Old Plaza, 1995.
Whipple, O. B. "Apple Growing in the Western Mountain States" in Liberty Hyde Bailey, The Standard Cyclopedia of Horticulture, 1914.

Photograph: Small apple orchard near the village, 7 December 2008.

Sunday, December 07, 2008


What’s still green: Juniper, arborvitae and other conifers, roses, yucca, prickly pear, honeysuckle, red hot poker, iris, vinca, rock rose, yellow evening primrose, blue flax, sea pink, winecup, pinks, soapworts, bouncing Bess, snapdragon, golden spur columbine, Saint John’s wort, catmint, fern-leaf yarrow, tansy, senecio, Mount Atlas daisy, Mexican hat, June and other grasses. Russian thistles breaking loose; ditch meeting this week.

What’s gray, gray-green or blue-green: Piñon, winterfat, saltbush, buddleia, loco, snow-in-summer, yellow alyssum, Silver King artemisia.

What’s red: Raspberry, cholla, privet, coral bells, white and coral beardtongues, pink evening primrose.

What’s turning yellow: Apache plume.

What’s blooming inside: Aptenia, rochea; first bud on Christmas cactus.

Animal sightings: Last Sunday migrating birds made a great din overhead, but the scattered dark specks kept disappearing into the cloudless blue sky when they changed direction and stopped reflecting the sun. The only thing I know is they weren’t geese, for they neither honked nor flew in formation.

Weather: Mornings mostly cold, nights mostly clear and starry; last rain 11/27/08; 8:31 hours of daylight today.

Weekly update: Whoever it is who decides what plants to ship to our local hardware stores always sends things that can’t survive here. Every year people buy the brilliant, cerise-flowered Salvia greggii, variously described as zone 6, 7 or 8, but are more cautious with unknowns that aren’t in flower. One woman walked away when the clerk told her the maple she was looking at needed to be taken in for the winter.

Then, at the end of the season, when these inappropriate perennials are on sale with 50% price reductions, some are willing to gamble. Two years ago, the overstocked stranger was Buddleia davidii. I bought two Monum at my local hardware that were immediately eaten by grasshoppers, then I tried two Black Knight from a Santa Fe big box that I immediately sprayed.

Someone down the road must have taken the entire remaining inventory of the plum-colored Monum, and this summer had three-foot bushes on irrigated land out by an outer wall. The butterfly bushes began producing lilac-shaped racemes at the ends of new stems in mid-July that continued into September. Mine were attacked by grasshoppers again, and grew only a foot with sporadic blooms in August.

But now my shrubs are doing something extraordinary - putting out new growth when our early morning temperatures are falling in the low twenties. Furthermore, Julie Ream says, if my tubular Black Knight florets managed to be fertilized, the seed is still maturing and will be disbursed sometime in January, while some Hungarians discovered they could root cuttings in sand in greenhouses kept as low as our daytime 45 degrees.

Seeds for these Scrophulariaceae were first sent to Kew Gardens from Yichang near the gorges on the Yangtze in western Hubei where the British had forced an open port in 1876 after the Second Opium War. The area was known for the quality of its tea leaves and oranges, and the first customs officer, Augustine Henry, was looking for new medicinal plants in 1887. Most modern varieties are derived from stock grown at the Jardin des Plantes and sent to Kew in 1895, perhaps from seed collected in the 1860's by a French missionary, Armand David.

Reginald Farrer became fascinated by plants in an abandoned quarry when he was a teenager, and, after leaving Oxford for a visit to China in 1902, returned to England to write a popular book describing his rock garden in 1907. The following year he raved about Buddleja variabilis, as it then was called, saying it was as luxuriant and gorgeous as any tropical, hardier than many lilacs, and bloomed in August.

At the same time, he converted to Buddhism, then returned to China a few years later with William Purdom to visit Gansu in the Tibetan borderlands. Among the seeds they sent back to Kew in 1914 where those for a dwarf davidii subspecies, nanhoénsis. The species is polyploidic and thus can easily produce genetic sports that may or may not survive.

The intrepid traveler visited Arras in war-ravaged France after the first World War, and came upon a Buddleia gone wild in the rubble, "exactly as I last saw it on the shingles of Tibet." Some sport of the plant naturalized on the lime debris of London during the Second World War, and many now fear it may become as invasive on the gravel edges of stream beds as it has in the kiwi plantations of New Zealand.

Before it was condemned by environmentalists and banned from gardens in Washington and Oregon, nurseries periodically introduced new cultivars by selecting mutations, including Peace in 1945. Ruy promoted the hardy Black Knight in 1959 which, coincidentally, produces less seed than most varieties. Monrovia introduced a cultivar of nanhoénsis in 1984 as Petite Plum or Monum for smaller gardens.

It’s since been the object of research by botanists trying to find better growing methods for nurserymen and by others trying to find ways to kill it. Farrer himself wondered who had planted the cherished "new rare treasure" he saw in Arras, before adding "not that it matters, or can make any difference to this scene of sordid modern ugliness in ruins." Perhaps it was a similar swing in taste that exiled this unwanted, paradoxically heat loving, cold thrifty plant to the shelves of Española. Farrer, himself, died in Burma in 1920 looking for more plants.

Farrer, Reginald John. Alpines and Bog Plants, 1908.
_____ My Rock Garden, 1907.
_____ The Void of War: Letters from Three Fronts, 1918.

Ream, Julie. Production and Invasion of Butterfly Bush (Buddleia davidii) in Oregon, 2006.

Újvári, Melinda and Gábor Schmidt. "Mini-cutting Propagation - A New Way for Propagation Semi-shrubs," no source provided, available on-line.

Photograph: New growth on Black Knight buddleia with iris in back, 30 November 2008.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Corn Harvest

What’s blooming: Nothing; dead grasses and Russian thistles turning black.

What’s still green: Juniper, arborvitae and other conifers, roses, yucca, prickly pear, honeysuckle, red hot poker, vinca, rock rose, yellow evening primrose, blue flax, sea pink, winecup, pinks, soapworts, bouncing Bess, snapdragon, Jupiter’s beard, Saint John’s wort, senecio, Mount Atlas daisy, Mexican hat, June and other grasses; iris, catmint, fern-leaf yarrow and tansy still have some leaves.

What’s gray or gray-green: Piñon, winterfat, saltbush, buddleia, loco, snow-in-summer, yellow alyssum, Silver King artemisia.

What’s red: Raspberry, cholla, privet, coral bells, white and coral beardtongues, pink evening primrose; Japanese barberry still has some leaves

What’s turning yellow: Apache plume, golden spur columbine.

What’s blooming inside: Aptenia, bougainvillea, rochea.

Animal sightings: Large bird, maybe a duck or grey goose, in hay field in front of the house where chickens had been let loose earlier this year.

Weather: Why does it always rain, snow or sleet on Thanksgiving, as it did this week, when the holiday isn’t tied to any particular lunar or solar event? Congress made it the fourth Thursday of the month in 1941. Now ice forms on the windshield after dawn instead of the dry frost flakes earlier in the week. 8:41 hours of daylight today.

Weekly update: The problem with growing vegetables is sometimes you succeed. If there’s more than you can eat off the vine, then you must either can, freeze, dry or hope for lots of friends. My bucolic idyl of leaving the surplus for the birds was shattered when hornets arrived to harvest the peaches. Nothing is more unpleasant than removing rotten tomatoes in the spring. If you flirt with farm life, you have to learn it all.

Dehydration was the only preservation method used in this area. Squashes and meat were cut and hung, chiles were strung into ristras, fruits were sliced and laid flat. Corn will cure on the stalk, but was husked, then left to continue drying. The Santa Clara tossed cobs onto their flat roofs or platforms built from cottonwood poles, then stacked them in a storeroom.

Any child knows how to eat dried fruit or jerky. Cooking pinto beans simply takes time. Maíz is another matter, because it’s hard as unpopped corn and takes days to soften in water, or must be ground. Raw corn’s proteins are difficult for humans to digest and lack both niacin and the amino acid tryptophan which the body can use to create the B vitamin. When Zea mays was exported to northern Italy and Africa, pellagra followed; the vitamin deficiency spread in the American south in the early twentieth century when food processing methods changed.

Long before Cortes arrived, the Maya learned the secret of soaking dried kernels in an alkaline hydroxide solution that loosens the outer skin and removes the germ, at the same time it liberates the niacin. They grew it with beans that not only provided ixim’s deep roots with nitrogen but contained the missing amino acids that can combine with those of corn in the body to produce complete proteins. They probably also absorbed calcium that had soaked into rehydrated kernels.

The lowland Maya apparently burned the shell remains of pachychilus snails and used the calcium carbonate ashes in their soaking solutions. The ashes reacted with water to produce the calcium hydroxide that, in turn, interacted with the starches. As cintli moved inland, burned limestone was used instead. A generation after Cortes, the Aztec told Bernardino de Sahagún nextli meant ashes and was combined with water in nexatl. Today, treating corn with wet lime is still called nixtamalization.

The use of ashes followed maize into the eastern woodlands of this country where the potassium hydroxide from wood ashes was substituted. Neighboring English-speaking settlers used their byproduct from manufacturing lye soap with animal fat, hardwood ashes, and boiling water. By the time the USDA was telling women how to can hominy in 1912, Katherine Ola Powell assumed they were using household lye, salty sodium hydroxide, and telling them to leave the flat sweet corn in running water for three or four hours to remove the poison. Later, the University of Georgia extension office suggested baking soda instead, a sodium bicarbonate derivative of lye.

When corn moved into the southwest, early pueblo women ground the dried kernels on portable basalt slabs with carved out depressions. One of the men following Coronado when he visited the seven Zuñi cities of Cibola in 1540 saw mealing troughs made from sandstone slabs divided into three sections. In the first, corn was crushed on a lava or basalt stone into tchu-tsi-kwah-na-we. Next it was ground into sa-k’o-we, a coarse meal then was reground on a sandstone slab for o-lu-tsi-na. By the end of the nineteenth century, Martha Stevenson found two grinding mills, and sometimes a sieve, had replaced the second and third metates.

Frank Cushing saw Zuñi women in the early 1880's chew some of the coarse meal and mix it with the finer flour and water, then leave it to ferment, thereby increasing the niacin and protein content. At that point, they added ground lime and salt to the yeast which then was added to many of their corn dishes. Among the Tewa-speaking Hano of eastern Arizona, Barbara Friere-Marreco saw them add ashes from burned sagebrush. The alkalines not only change the color and taste of tortillas but make the dough more pliable.

Traditional Mexican methods co-existed with ground corn in a variety of foodways that converted what was essentially grass into something palatable and nutritious.. Cushing saw Zuñi women boil dried kernels with ashes for dough or grinding. Friere-Marreco found posole being made by soaking cobs, but the Santa Clara were using lime instead of ashes. She also saw no metates in the newer homes; women used coffee grinders to make the fine flour they mixed with water for atole.

In the same years in Chimayó, maíz was taken to small water-powered mills with horizontal grindstones that also handled wheat and chili, flavoring them all. Posole was made with lime, but all people remember now is that certain women with wood burning stoves made the most wonderful tortillas, "tan sabrosas."

Today, if you go into our local groceries, you can find frozen posole made from corn, water and lime or fécula de maíz made from corn starch ready for atole. You can also find frozen and dried maso for tortillas made from corn treated with lime. Peter Casados sells dried posole, chicos, harina for atole and roasted white corn meal for chaquegüe grown at El Guique, just beyond San Juan. Or, for flaky cornbread, you can buy degerminated American meal that’s been enriched with niacin and other nutrients.

Whenever you hear that simple tale of the feast shared by pilgrims and Wampanoag at Plimoth plantation in 1621 to celebrate the first harvest of wheat and corn, remember Edward Winslow was the one reporting they ate migrating birds and deer. The four women who survived the first year would have known the methods for handling that bounty were a cultural gift more precious than the seed itself.

Notes: Atole is a beverage; posole is similar to hominy; chicos are dried kernels cooked with beans; chaquegüe is a gruel or mush; maso and harina are flours.
Casados, Peter. PO Box 852, San Juan Pueblo, NM 87566.

Castañeda, Pedro de. Relaccion de la Jornada Cibola,1596, translated and reprinted many times.

Cushing, Frank Hamilton. Zuni Breadstuff, 1920.

Nations James D. The Maya Tropical Forest, 2006.

Robbins, William Wilfred, John Peabody Harrington and Barbara Friere-Marreco, Ethnobotany of the Tewa Indians, 1916.

Sahagún, Bernardino de. Historia Universal de las Cosas de Nueva España, c.1577, translated as Florentine Codex: General History of the Things of New Spain, Book XI - Earthly Things by Charles E. Dibble and Arthur J. O. Anderson, 1963.

Stevenson, Martha Coxe. The Zuni Indians, 1904, reprinted by The Rio Grande Press, Inc., 1985.

Usner, Don J. Sabino’s Map: Life in Chimayó’s Old Plaza, 1995.

United States Department of Agriculture, Home Extension Service. Katherine Ola Powell, Successful Canning and Preserving, 1917.

____, University of Georgia. Elizabeth L. Andress, "Hominy without Lye," 2005.

Winslow, Edward. Letter dated 11 December 1621, originally published in A Journal of the Pilgrims at Plymouth, 1622; reprinted many times since and available on-line.

Photograph: Chiles abandoned to the elements, 28 November 2008.

Sunday, November 23, 2008


What’s blooming: Nothing blooming, but burning continues; first Christmas lights out.

What’s still green: Juniper and other conifers, roses, yucca, prickly pear, honeysuckle, red hot poker, vinca, rock rose, hartweig, yellow evening primrose, blue flax, sea pink, winecup, pinks, soapworts, bouncing Bess, snapdragon, Jupiter’s beard, senecio, Mount Atlas daisy, Mexican hat, June and other grasses near ground; only protected leaves survive on sweet pea and hollyhock.

What’s gray or gray-green: Piñon, winterfat, saltbush, buddleia, loco, snow-in-summer, yellow alyssum, Silver King artemisia.

What’s red: Raspberry, cholla, privet, coral bells, white and coral beardtongues, pink evening primrose; few leaves left on apples, cherries, spirea and pasture rose.

What’s turning yellow: Some arborvitaes, willow, Apache plume, iris, Saint John’s wort, golden spur columbine; many cottonwoods and globe willows bare.

What’s blooming inside: Aptenia, bougainvillea, rochea with leaves bleaching out and leaving red edges.

Animal sightings: Rabbit at the front steps last Sunday.

Weather: Cold most mornings with dry air leaving flecks of frost on the car as it continues to steal moisture from the last rain, 11/10. High winds Thursday denuded the cottonwoods and other exposed trees, leaving them ready to handle the weight of winter ice and snow. Apples, cherries, locust, and other shorter or less-exposed trees still have some leaves. 9:08 hours of daylight today.

Weekly update: Raising horses and planting corn seem to be two ways men here try to maintain ties with their rural past.

Among the Santa Clara, the men were responsible for planting k’un and women took custody of the ears during the communal shuckings. By the time Barbara Freire-Marrenco talked to women in 1912, the young were turning to wheat for tortillas because they no longer were willing to do the arduous grinding that overdeveloped some hand muscles and could lead to degenerated elbow joints.

Whatever traditions existed among Spanish-speaking communities changed when the cash economy infiltrated at the end of the nineteenth century and adult men spent most of the year in Colorado, Wyoming or Utah working the smelters, mines and potato fields. Planting was left to women and children.

By the 1930's, Santa Cruz grew more wheat than corn, as did Chimayó and the Spanish speakers clustered around San Ildefonso, with hard-up flour mills in Santa Cruz and Española. The wheats brought into the great plains from Europe like the Red Durham preferred around San Ildefonso could handle our harsh growing season better than corn which even the Santa Clara could only grow in small isolated patches where water could be diverted or stored and that preserved the genetic identity of desired blue and white varieties.

Field sizes had already shrunken through divisions, especially after expansion into Colorado and east of the Sangre de Cristo was stymied by the western movement from the settled parts of the United States. Still people clung to those diminished lots as a refuge for survival, especially after outside employment disappeared in the early depression. Even after the opening of the national laboratory and conversion of the land in my immediate area to hay for horses, people retain their desire to own a piece of arable land.

Now those hay lands are being divided. Down the road, a small square hay field irrigated by pipes survives, perhaps financed by the single-wide perched on a narrow lot just beyond the fence. Periodically, a pair of horses was brought in this summer to graze the small area, and once in a while I saw the father from the trailer watching his toddler splash in the flooded field. He planted a row of corn along the fence, that grew taller at one end than the other as water seeped beyond the irrigation dike.

Closer to where I live, a cement-lined ditch bisects a large field with hay surrounding a new house where horses are often let out to graze. On the triangle between the ditch and the road, another family improved their double-wide and planted a patch of sweet corn, too large to feed the family when it all ripened, and too small for commercial sales. After the stalks had dried, he cleared them into shocks and later added a harvest figure, the only ones I’ve seen in this part of the country.

Between the two nostalgic corn patches some men converted a pipe-irrigated hay field into a market garden with corn along the edges and other vegetables between. I often saw the two out collecting produce for the local farmers’ market circuit when I passed on my way to work at 7:30. Their field was typical of the truck gardens that still existed into the depression that depended on tourists and places like Santa Fe.

The more traditional field lies across the road where several older men plant every few years. I don’t know if they picked the years 2003 and 2007 because they had signs they would be good years, or if they deliberately left the land fallow, or could only get periodic access to it. While it looks like it had been leveled and edged for flood irrigation, I never saw evidence they had water like the adjoining new house. They planted a full field last year that was four inches high by the end of June. In July I saw them out with hoes clearing the weeds. I never saw them again, so I don’t know how they gathered their crop.

I do know they did something none of the other local growers have done this year and no one would have done in Chimayó where clean fields "free of weeds, trees and organic debris" were valued: they left the stalks in the fields. Winter battered them, and someone finally cut the remains in mid-April. All summer, seedlings from last year sprouted, grew to different heights and then were invaded by pigweed.

I’m not sure if they didn’t know the full cycle of a corn field, as men wouldn’t who had had to leave every year for outside work, or if they no longer had younger family members around to help with the clearing. Dying, revived, and new traditions co-existed on my main road this summer while nature ensured the survival of maíz and fathers introduced their young to planting.

Lund, Erin Suzanne. An Anthropological Examination of Classic Maya Burials from Moho Cay, Belieze: Skeletal and Dental Evidence of Demography, Diet, and Health, 2003.

Robbins, William Wilfred, John Peabody Harrington and Barbara Friere-Marreco, Ethnobotany of the Tewa Indians, 1916.

US Dept of Interior, Tewa Basin Study, volume 2, 1935, reprinted by Marta Weigle as Hispanic Villages of Northern New Mexico, 1975.

Usner, Don J. Sabino’s Map: Life in Chimayó’s Old Plaza, 1995.

Photograph: Feral ragged corn dried golden by the sun and greyish pigweed; Russian olive in back; 22 November 2008.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Pasture Rose

What’s blooming: Freeze dried purple aster by front gate; many trees still hold dead leaves; one family has bagged their dead debris while their neighbors were burning yesterday.
What’s still green: Juniper, arborvitae and other conifers, roses, yucca, prickly pear, honeysuckle, red hot poker, vinca, rock rose, hartweig, yellow evening primrose, blue flax, sea pink, winecup, pinks, soapworts, bouncing Bess, beardtongues, snapdragon, Jupiter’s beard, snakeweed, senecio, yarrow, Mount Atlas daisy, Mexican hat, chocolate flower, June and other grasses, alfalfa; only protected leaves survive on sweet pea, hollyhock, catmint, chrysanthemum and purple coneflower
What’s gray, blue or gray-green: Piñon, winterfat, saltbush, buddleia, loco, snow-in-summer, yellow alyssum, chamisa, Silver King artemisia.
What’s red or orange: Pasture rose, spirea, raspberry, cholla, privet, coral bells, white beardtongue, pink evening primrose.
What’s turning yellow: Cottonwood, willow, globe willow, Apache plume, iris, Saint John’s wort, golden spur columbine.
What’s blooming inside: Aptenia, rochea, bougainvillea; Christmas cactus leaves turning red.
Animal sightings: Brown bird with dark head in cherry; horses brought in to browse mown alfalfa field down the road.
Weather: Rain Monday with heavy frost on windshield subsequent mornings when temperatures fell to high 20's after dawn; 9:13 hours of daylight today.
Weekly update: A run of mornings with consistently cool temperatures this year has given the valley something rare: fall color. Not only have huge cottonwoods changed into golden domes, but tamarixes and other small-leaved plants have transmuted into orange-shaded lattices. The sand cherries turned their usual purple, but here and there some neighbors’ shrubs have been the brilliant red of maples.
In my yard, the pasture roses have been the most amazing because they not only turned red, but the leaves glowed when light filtered through them. The maroon raspberries at their feet were comparative dullards, opaque ground-hugging triangles of hairy corduroy.
The reds come from anthocyanins, flavonid chemicals formed by interactions between sugars and proteins that protect plant tissues by absorbing ultraviolet light. They become more prevalent in leaves when cool weather slows the production of chlorophyl and other protective agents are generated. With many hybrid roses, the new growth is red until photosynthesis accelerates. On some cultivars, the leaves keep a red edge long into the blooming season.
In the fall most hybrid rose leaves darken, then dry and fall from stems that tend to stay green all winter. The only other roses I have that shaded into burgundy this year have been the crenellated rugosas. The precise shade of an anthocyanin red is determined by the pH in the plant sap, which in turn is controlled by the soil: the more alkaline the soil, the bluer the color.
Japanese scientists have been curious about the distribution of the some 550 anthocyanins so far identified. Among wild and cultivated roses they found chemical patterns identified three subgroups within the Rosa genus: one the gallica, chinensis, Synstylae (including winchurana, musk and multiflora), Cherokee, Macartney and Banksia, another the species of Scotch roses, and a third which includes dog, carolina, and cinnamon roses.

Volker Wissemann and Christiane Ritz found members of the last two groups did not share the same DNA patterns as the first. Others found the carolinas, native to eastern North America, are natural scions of Rosa arkansana and Rosa virginiana, both themselves natural hybrids of other native roses. Apparently, as the plants evolved on two continents, the chemistry of the American roses diverged from the Eurasian ones originally used to create modern hybrids.

I got my carolina rose through one of those impulses that happen after one has dutifully pruned one’s wish list to fit the budget, and then said, "oh why not" when filling out the order form. In 1998 I bought seeds from Prairie Nursery, blithely ignoring the warning that the "seeds are double dormant and require treatment to break dormancy and induce germination." When nothing sprouted I shrugged.

Four years later, in 2002, I noticed what looked like rose leaves in the drip line where I had dropped some 300 seeds and wondered, but I cautioned myself with memories of other briars that had looked like roses only to become unwelcome pests. Leaves continued to appear each year, teasing me with possibilities, and then colonized last year among the raspberry canes.

Then on June 10 a single pink flower appeared, and I knew I had grown a carolina rose from seed. That doesn’t sound like much if you live where pasture roses sucker into great thickets, but here the "dry prairie" of a Wisconsin seed company is only a wet dream. Even if all I ever get are leaves, I now know at least once a decade, when the fall is both cool and dry, I’m going to have the most spectacular red leaves in the valley.

Notes:Joly, Simon, Julian R. Starr, Walter H. Lewis and Anne Bruneau. "Polyploid and Hybrid Evolution in Roses East of the Rocky Mountains," American Journal of Botany 93:412-425:2006.

Mikanagi, Yuki, Masato Yokoi, Norio Saito and Yoshihiro Ueda. "Flower Flavonol and Anthocyanin Distribution in Subgenus Rosa," Biochemical Systematics and Ecology 23:183-200:1995.

Prairie Nursery. Wildflowers and Native Grasses, 1996 catalog.

Wissemann, Vilker and Christiane M. Ritz. "The Genus Rosa (Rosoideae, Rosaceae) Revisited: Molecular Analysis of nrITS-1 and atpB-rbcL Intergenic Spacer (IGS) versus Conventional Taxonomy," Linnean Society Botanical Journal 147:275 - 290:2005.

Photograph: Pasture rose, 9 November 2008, with darker raspberry leaves at bottom left and native grasses in rear.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Chocolate Flower

What’s blooming: Chrysanthemums in town next to wall, purple aster next to cedar fence, fern-leaf yarrow may have bud; vegetable gardens have been cleared, and some have been burning dead weeds.
What’s still green: Juniper, arborvitae, roses, forsythia, privet, yucca, prickly pear, honeysuckle, daylily, red hot poker, baptista, sweet pea, vinca, golden spur columbine, rock rose, hartweig, yellow evening primrose now darker, yellow flax, sea pink, hollyhock, winecup, catmint, calmintha, oriental poppy, pinks, soapworts, bouncing Bess, beardtongues, globemallow, Jupiter’s beard, snakeweed, senecio, yarrow, Mount Atlas daisy, coreopsis, perky Sue, Mexican hat, black-eyed Susan, dandelion, needle, June, and other grasses, alfalfa.
What’s gray, blue or gray-green: Piñon, winterfat, saltbush, buddleia, loco, snow-in-summer, California poppy, yellow alyssum, chamisa, Silver King artemisia; Russian olive leaves dead on trees.
What’s red or orange: Tamarix, prairie rose, spirea, raspberry, sand cherry, cholla, barberry, leadplant dropping leaves, coral bells, white beardtongue, pink evening primrose, tansy turning red, purple coneflower.
What’s turning yellow: Siberian elm, cottonwood, willow, globe willow, apples, apricot, Apache plume, iris, phlox, blue flax, purple ice plant, Saint John’s wort.
What’s blooming inside: Aptenia, rochea, bougainvillea has recovered from first cold nights.
Animal sightings: None.
Weather: Morning temperatures in mid-20's; last rain, 10/14/2008; 9:41 hours of daylight today.
Weekly update: As anyone who has coexisted with a cat knows, domestication is, at best, a negotiated condition. There was Dusty who insisted on snuggling into armpits and weaving underfoot, and Maui who would plop into any warm lap. Then there was my childhood pet, who spent most of his time roaming the neighborhood and only came home to heal his wounds, and yet on those rare days when he remembered where we lived, insisted on sleeping on my bed.
Chocolate flowers are a lot like Tom. They don’t stay where they’re planted but reseed randomly, then spend their summers sprawling about the garden, covering some three feet with gray-leaved stems tipped by opulent yellow daisies. However, as soon as the weather turns bad, they huddle against the house begging to be brought inside the stockade. In return for reflected heat, they were one of the last flowers to open before morning temperatures plunged into the middle 20's this week.
Berlandiera lyrata is native to the western highland limestone shortgrass prairies running from Kansas down to México where Theodor Hartweg collected one on the way to Zacatecas for the Horticultural Society of London in 1837. The only people who seemed to have cared were botanists interested in defining the relationships between various species in the composite family.
Few even noticed the yellow ray flowers which often drop by noon. Many called it green-eye because the surviving lime green calyx maintains a dark center, divided into sections like a grapefruit. Then, it fossilizes into a tan shell with narrow dark seeds and a whitish center.
It still had no common name in 1930 when Liberty Hyde Bailey noted Berlandiera are tamable and "sometimes transferred to grounds." Still, the first edition of Sunset’s Western Garden Book ignored them in 1950 and the Denver Water Board overlooked them in 1996.
No one considered the tap-rooted perennial a serious garden flower until people began moving into the intermountain west where moisture was scarce and eastern favorites couldn’t survive the altitude, water and temperature extremes no matter how carefully they were tended. Even then, seed catalogs were careful to use words like "meadow" and "wildflower garden" in their descriptions. Only one actually described its selection as an erect dwarf.
Then someone, perhaps the German Jelitto seed company, called it schokoladenblume, and suddenly everyone noticed it has a pleasant fragrance, even here in arid New Mexico where nothing can be detected from a distance. It’s not clear if the name chocolate flower came from the maroon color of the center disk, or from the aroma. I’ve found no one who has identified the plant’s essential oils, but one perfume company, Cacharel, began to include it in one of its blends in 2006.

Chocolate flowers have been growing in my yard since I bought my first plants in Santa Fe in 1997, and they dictated the growing conditions. Fortunately, the areas they stake out are not places other plants want, and so for more than ten years they've been a semidomesticated part of the garden, elbowing the Mexican hats, black-eyed Susans and blanketflowers for lebensraum, coming into bloom by mid-May and staying as long as civilized conditions remain.

Notes:Baily, Liberty Hyde and Ethel Zoe Bailey. Hortus, 1930.

Bentham, George. Plantae Hartwegianae, 1839, edited by David Winger, 1996.

Sunset. Western Garden Book, 1954, edited by Walter L. Doty and Paul C. Johnson.

Photograph: Chocolate flower next to stucco wall, 1 November 2008; dark shadow is the green calyx.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Purple Coneflower

What’s blooming: Second generation snapdragon, single purple aster plant, chrysanthemums, one blanket flower, one golden hairy aster, chocolate flower near house.
What’s still green: Juniper, arborvitae, roses, forsythia, privet, yucca, prickly pear, honeysuckle, daylily, red hot poker, baptista, sweet pea, vinca, golden spur columbine, rock rose, hartweig, yellow evening primrose, yellow flax, sea pink, hollyhock, winecup, catmint, calmintha, salvias, oriental poppy, pinks, soapworts, bouncing Bess, coral bells, beardtongues, globemallow, Jupiter’s beard, snakeweed, senecio, yarrow, Mount Atlas daisy, coreopsis, perky Sue, Mexican hat, black-eyed Susan, tansy, dandelion, needle, June, blue grama and other grasses.
What’s gray, blue or gray-green: Piñon, winterfat, saltbush, loco, snow-in-summer, California poppy, Silver King artemisia.
What’s red or orange: Tamarix, prairie rose, spirea, snowball, sand cherry, cholla, leadplant, white beardtongue, pink evening primrose, purple coneflower; purple sand cherry dropping leaves, barberry turning yellow.
What’s turning yellow: Siberian elm, cottonwood, willow, globe willow, apples, apricot, Apache plume, iris, phlox, blue flax, purple ice plant, Rumanian sage, sidalcea, sedum, Saint John’s wort, Mönch aster; catalpa, Bradford pear, peach, cherries, lilacs, caryopteris dropping leaves.
What’s blooming inside: Aptenia, rochea.
Animal sightings: Birds heard rustling branches but not seen.
Weather: Early morning temperatures flirt with 32 degrees, clear, starry nights; last rain, 10/14/2008; 9:58 hours of daylight today.
Weekly update: Some thirteen years ago I bought two purple coneflowers in Santa Fe for the garage. One survived and by 1998 had become established enough to put out multiple stalks and a daughter. The following year more seedlings appeared and I decided to help the process by breaking apart the seed heads, like I do with marigolds.
I learned one painful lesson. Not all composites are alike, and knowledge from one cannot always be transferred to another. If I’d been raised at a time when one learned smatterings of Greek and Latin, I might have known the root for Echinacea meant spiny. I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s made this mistake: King’s American Dispensatory described the fruiting head as a hedgehog in 1898.
Later I realized this was the same Echinacea purpurea people were proposing as an alternative treatment for AIDS, cancer, the common cold, and whatever other condition could not be explained by modern medicine. I also realized how many made the same kinds of mistakes by thinking by analogy and how much knowledge has been lost since medical practice coalesced around William Osler’s 1892 medical text and the later formation of the FDA.
The plant promoted by King was Echinacea angustifolia, which grows on limestone plains east of the Rockies where many tribes used the large taproot for medicine. H. F. C. Meyer heard about saparidu hahts for snakebite from Pawnee and, like other doctors of the period, tested it on himself: he claimed he let a rattlesnake bite him in 1871, then bathed the bite with a tincture and drank some of the liquid.
Having survived, he wanted to market it commercially, and in 1885 sent specimens to John King, one of the leading eclectic physicians. King did more tests and began promoting it through the Eclectic Medical Journal in 1887. By 1903 it was so popular, King’s Dispensatory warned "it has suffered the usual over-estimation, and the exaggerated claims" made for new remedies. One even claimed it cured impotency.
Purpurea grows in parts of the Mississippi drainage and has fibrous roots which make it easier to transplant, and facilitated its adaptation as a garden plant. King’s handbook indicates it too was used with for medicine, but seems to have been limited to treating syphilis. Who knows if it was the confusion of species, the easier availability of the garden plant, or the association with sexually transmitted diseases that led to its first use for AIDS.
In the early twentieth century, pharmacists and physicians knew the significance of species, and also knew angustifolia roots from the Smokey Hills area of Kansas and Nebraska were better than those from marshes, and that methods of digging and curing roots mattered. Eclectic manuals described the roots in detail; chemists devised tests to distinguish good extracts from false or adulterated ones; dosages were clearly defined.
After the introduction of sulfa, the interest in angustifolia declined, and with it the body of knowledge accumulated by doctors accustomed to seeing themselves as natural scientists and pharmacists trained to judge for themselves the purity of their products. When coneflower became popular in the 1990's, researchers discovered commercial preparations, made outside the jurisdiction of the FDA, could use either species, leaves or roots, in varying levels of potency. Medical experimenters were no more knowledgeable about the differences and their varied results added to the confusion about the efficacy of the herb.
Since, chemists have suggested polysaccarides from purpurea may be the agent that promotes the growth of T-cells. Others have found purpurea extracts increase the number of killer cells in aging mice that lead to higher survival rates from leukemia. However, researchers are still trying to identify the specific chemical or group of chemicals that can be used in the replicable tests necessary to send something for FDA approval.
In the meantime, the ignorance that follows from a paradigm shift continues, especially now that malpractice suits are used to establish accountability. I have a friend who found Echinacea root for sale with no instructions for use. Since it was a root, she chewed it like she would a carrot. Her body spent the better part of two days renouncing her. Since that’s not one of the reported allergic reactions, she has no idea if it was the root that was toxic for her, or if it had been contaminated by a preservative or some fungus.
So while scientists are relearning the knowledge of previous generations of herbal practitioners, people like my friend and I are left to relearning the lessons of childhood. She’s a bit more cautious about what she puts in her mouth, and I’m a whole lot more careful about grabbing an unknown flower.
Notes: Eclectic practitioners were somewhere between homeopathists, allopathists, and physicians in the competing medical theories during the nineteenth century.Felter, Harvey Wickes and John Uri Lloyd. King's American Dispensatory, 1898, Henriette Kress’s copy available online.Gilmore, Melvin R. Uses of Plants by the Indians of the Missouri River Region, 1919, reports Pawnee use for snake bites.
Kindscher, Kelly. The Conservation Status of Echinacea Species, 2006.

Osler, William. The Principles and Practice of Medicine, 1892.

Photograph: Purple coneflower after first frosts, 26 October 2008, with Silver King artemisia.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Silver King Artemisia

What’s blooming in the area: Tea and miniature roses in town, white sweet clover, purple asters; dead leaves on catalpa and some cottonwoods, others still yellow.
What’s blooming in my garden: California poppy, Mexican hat, chrysanthemum, chocolate flower near house; peach, rose of Sharon, Siberian pea and caryopteris dropping leaves; cold killed leaves on apricot, black locust, weigela, cutleaf coneflower, Maximilian sunflowers; leaves beginning to yellow on Apache plume, flax, sea lavender, some iris; leaves turning red on pink evening primrose.
Bedding plants: Snapdragon, sweet alyssum.
Inside: Aptenia, zonal geranium
Animal sightings: Rabbit reconnoitering last Sunday.
Weather: Temperature fell to mid-20's on Thursday and low 30's Friday and Saturday. Last rain, 10/14/2008; 10:15 hours of daylight today.
Weekly update: It’s not that I didn’t know. Milaeger was quite open when it said Silver King artemisia "will spread very quickly." A few years later they modified that to "rampant grower."
But sometimes that’s what you want - dense foliage that will quickly and cheaply fill an area where other plants won’t grow. I don’t remember now where I put the disc-flowered composite in Oakland County in 1986, but I do know it didn’t do particularly well. Michigan may be the only state in the country where Artemisia ludoviciana is considered a threatened species.
But that was there.
I didn’t deliberately bring the grey-leaved perennial to New Mexico. A piece of rhizomatous root stuck in a pot with something else in 1991, and emerged the next summer in my holding bed. I moved the survivor to the northwest side of the house in 1997 where it formed a colony the next summer. Not only did it begin to spread, but it hitchhiked again when I move a white yarrow, The Pearl, from there to the northwest side of the garage in April of 1998.
Now both beds would be overrun if I let them. It turns out, Silver King is a common name for the albula strain of the mexicana subspecies that’s native to the arid southwest from Colorado-Utah-Nevada south into México. Here it stays in range of the hoses and prefers the shelter of buildings, and so doesn’t follow the water into more exposed, sunnier areas.
The ancestral mexicana grows in the central highlands of México above 5,500' where it has been used medicinally by both the Aztec and the Spanish. In the Chiricahua mountains of southeastern Arizona, it prefers the canyons and limestone soils. George Osterhout found a variant, silvicola, with larger heads in Colorado that stayed along the northern streams, much like my cultivated variety.
So far I’ve let the mexicana albula grow at the outer edges of the beds, hoping the height, usually 18" to 24" by August, would shelter the more desirable plants during the summer heat and winds. The roots are fairly shallow, so they don’t compete directly with the nearby deeper rooted perennials. While the rhizomes haven’t gotten too dense, the multiple shoots with their flower bearing branches will crowd out the phlox and coneflowers. I have to spend at least one day a year, and sometimes more, keeping it to the periphery.
Sometimes I wonder why I’m so generous, but I know the reason’s aesthetic. Silver King has insignificant flowers that recently have been turning to seeds, but the herbaceous foliage is a good contrast with the blue flowers by the house and the phlox and lilies by the Navajo white garage where it grows out to the equally gray winterfat. More than Vita Sackville-West have enjoyed a garden limited to shades of white.
Invasiveness is in the eye of the overrun. In most parts of the country, proscribed plants are introduced aliens like kudzu or Siberian elms that do better than expected and escape into the wild. My most aggressive plants are natives to the region that don’t grow in this particularly hostile area, but are well adapted to flourish once those barriers are accidentally removed.
Notes: Bennett, Peter S., E. Roy Johnson and Michael R. Kunzmann. An Annotated List of Vascular Plants of the Chiricahua Mountains, 1996, available on-line.Heinrich, Michael. "Ethnobotany, Phytochemistry, and Biological/Pharmacological Activities of
Artemisia ludoviciana ssp. mexicana (Estafiate)" in Colin W. Wright, Artemisia, 2002.
Milaeger Gardens, The Perennial Wishbook catalogs, 1987, 1993.Osterhout, George E. Included in John Merle Coulter and Aven Nelson. New Manual of Botany of the Central Rocky Mountains (Vascular Plants), 1909.
Photograph: Silver King artemisia, 19 September 2008.

Sunday, October 19, 2008


What’s blooming in the area: Tea and miniature roses, datura, gladiola, white sweet clover, chamisa, broom senecio, purple asters; cottonwood and milkweed turning yellow, cherries deep red, most Virginia creeper and grape leaves dead.
What’s blooming in my garden: Russian sage, California poppy, hollyhock, winecup, chocolate flower, fern-leaf yarrow, blanket flower, black-eyed Susan, Mexican hat, chrysanthemum, Sensation cosmos; leadplant leaves red.
Bedding plants: Snapdragon, sweet alyssum, protected French marigold and gazania.
Inside: Aptenia, zonal geranium.
Animal sightings: Green bellied sparrow-like birds in Maximilian seed heads.
Weather: Temperatures were near freezing Monday morning before rains came through on Tuesday, followed by heavy fog on Wednesday and frost everywhere Friday morning. 10:35 hours of daylight today.
Weekly update: Chamisa is an iconic shrub for Santa Fe’s southwestern romantics. In the late 1940's, Leonora Curtin said it "recalls instantly the all-pervading sense of beauty that one attaches to New Mexico in the early autumn" and that "nothing so characterizes the landscape."
Oddly, while I see it along the road as I drive down the thousand feet from the city, the only place it grows in a dense stand here is the waste land where the Santa Cruz, running from Chimayó and Truches, drains into the Rio Grande. I don’t see it disrupting the prairie grasslands or scrub, nor do I glimpse it amongst the distant juniper.
Like many totemic plants the woody composite is more a keepsake of man’s life on the land than a relic of untouched wilderness. Chrysothamnus is native to the west from northern Mexico to the plains of southern Canada. Sparse nauseosus specimens have lived in such isolation from one another, the species has developed at least 26 recognized varieties that themselves vary so much from location to location that men trying to grow it for its vulcanizable latex during the world wars couldn’t find a single population that was reliable enough from season to season to cultivate.
Our graveolens subspecies thrives along arroyos and alkaline flats in open, sunny areas where its deep taproots can burrow until it locates water. Down the road, a few rabbitbrushes grow some twenty feet above a deep arroyo carved by an acequia that spills water much of the summer.
Another colony is settling the arroyo a half mile south where seed from the self-fertile tubular yellow disc flowers was blown or washed. The shrubs stay in the wet, sandy bottomland where they are creating islands in soil the transitory flowing waters can’t wash away. The contours were especially sharp last Sunday before the afternoon winds had a chance to erase the new erosion from night’s rains.
Ranchers found little use for the narrow-leaved shrub because the latex makes it unpalatable. A decrease in chemicals and an increase in protein make the herbage more edible when temperatures drop in fall and winter and other food becomes unavailable, but not enough for them to encourage it on their lands the other side of the river. The fact rabbits nibble it is no recommendation.
Spanish-speaking settlers gave the fuzz-covered shrub the same name as saltbush and sagebrush, chamizo, a word for brushwood or charred wood, with pejorative connotations of cheapness and poverty. If it ever grew in the area, it’s long been cleared and kept cleared. Not everyone likes the flowers’ strong aroma and protein-rich pollen. The only plants in the village are widely spaced clumps edging a fallow field far from the chapel.
The pueblos didn’t find many more uses for nauseosus . The Zuni used the bigelovii subspecies for baskets, no doubt exploiting the rubber compounds in hakoha luptsine’s twigs. However, the Hopi called our graveolens hanoshivápi because the Tewa-speaking Hano, who abandoned this area after the reconquest, used it for firewood.
The high resin content makes the woody base and annual growth flammable. It not only burns easily in a wildfire but it’s one of the first plants to revive, either from recently buried seed or root buds. While there’s little competition, chamisa can dominate a disturbed area for thirty to fifty years, before it gives way to bunch grasses or conifers.
This past week, as I drove in and out of rain showers, I saw the aging flowers by the roadside and once again pondered the microclimates that control what can grow here, and the people in the pueblos, settlements and enclaves along the highway who decide what will be allowed to survive. Santa Fe sí, Española nada.
Notes: Chamisa does not appear in many on-line Spanish dictionaries. The one appearing under the Oxford imprint defines chamizo as a colloquial term for brushwood or charred log. SpanishDict associates chamizo with a thatched hovel, while Tomasino suggests the related verb, chamuscar, means both to sear and sell cheap.Curtin, Leonora Scott Muse. Healing Herbs of the Upper Rio Grande, 1947, republished 1997, with revisions by Michael Moore.Robbins, William Wilfred, John Peabody Harrington and Barbara Friere-Marreco. Ethnobotany of the Tewa Indians, 1916.Stevenson, Martha Coxe. The Zuni Indians, 1904, reprinted by The Rio Grande Press, Inc., 1985.
Photograph: Chamisa in an arroyo bottom, 12 October 2008, soon after some rain.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

F1 Snapdragon

What’s blooming in the area: Tea and miniature roses, gladiola, some kind of yucca, datura, Heavenly Blue morning glory, silver lace vine, mullein, white sweet clover, yellow evening primrose, alfilerillo, lamb’s quarter, chamisa, broom senecio, snakeweed peaked, wild lettuce, hawkweed, áñil del muerto, Hopi tea, gumweed, heath and purple asters, native sunflowers peaked; cottonwoods turning yellow by the river.
What’s blooming in my garden: Russian sage, catmint, golden spur columbine, large-leaf soapwort, California poppy, hollyhock, winecup, Jupiter’s beard, nasturtium, chocolate flower, fern-leaf yarrow, blanket flower, black-eyed Susan, Mexican hat, chrysanthemum, Sensation and yellow cosmos, perky Sue, African marigolds, Maximilian sunflowers peaked, zinnia; snowball leaves turning red, rose of Sharon leaves turning yellow.
Bedding plants: Snapdragon almost gone, sweet alyssum, moss rose, French marigold, gazania.
Inside: Aptenia, zonal geranium, bougainvillea
Animal sightings: Flock of small green birds in Maximilian sunflowers last Sunday; insects disappearing.
Weather: Yesterday’s rain was more welcome than the winds; frost on the car windows Thursday morning; 10:54 hours of daylight today.
Weekly update: Garden writers warn you: if F1 hybrids go to seed, they don’t come true. I have a yellow snapdragon growing amongst my pink and rose hollyhocks to prove it. Not just yellow. The buds are magenta, the aging flowers bronzed peach. Almost anytime I see it, the short, bushy plant has competing colors.
Two years ago I planted six pink Sonnet, six pink Rocket, and six red Rocket plants 15 to 20 feet downwind from where this yellow wonder appeared a year ago near the base of a hollyhock that apparently protected the tender perennial during the winter. I don’t know which plant, or plant combination, sired the fledgling, but the likely parents were all F1's.
We’ve known the habits of hybrids since Gregor Mendel described the dynamics of variation in 1866: that for every trait, nature begins with two alleles, one dominant and one recessive, and they always appear in a ratio of 1 pure dominant, 1 pure recessive, and 2 mixed. Seedsmen use F1 to refer to crosses between lines that have been purified through six generations to ensure all the alleles for a given trait are the same, and the resulting hybrid is predictable. However, as soon as the protected offspring is fertilized it reverts to the 1A:2Aa:1a pattern.
What’s surprising is that it took so long, nearly a hundred years, for seedsmen to exploit that knowledge for Antirrhinum majus. Rocket was the first popular F1 introduced by Harris Seed in 1960 when it won six All-American selection awards. Burpee had the first F1 award winner in 1957 with its rose-colored Vanguard. Sakata’s Sonnet became available through Stokes in 1988.
At first, those like Mendel who tried to replicate Darwin’s findings worked with economically important plants that were easy to manipulate, like corn, or with the anomalies he identified, like snapdragons. At Michigan Agricultural College, William Beal described methods any farmer could use to produce hybrids in 1876. He alternated rows of two common corn varieties, southern dent and northern flint; then removed the tassels from one group, to ensure all the seed would have the same male-female cross. The resulting crop produced 21 to 51 percent more corn. My home county production in 1874 was nearly 39 bushels an acre.
By 1900, a number had observed patterns like Beal’s and were ready when Hugo De Vries publicized the monk’s work in Germany. A few months later, William Bateson translated his article into English for the Royal Horticultural Society. Both men addressed an international breeders conference in New York in 1902.
Botanists pursued the mechanisms for selection, the chromosome and gene. Those who wanted to know why a red and a white snapdragon always produced pink ones and why the dominant to recessive color hierarchy dictates magenta over yellow, crimson over bronze, and bronze over yellowish-bronze learned combinations of genes could control a trait. Erwin Baur was using Antirrhinum in 1907 when he discovered mutations could be unstable. Hans Sommer’s team established snapdragon genes could change places to create these unexpected variations in 1985.
Seedsmen preferred the simple and predictable, and continued to refine pure lines into selections. Sutton offered 67 snapdragon varieties in England in 1926. Thompson and Morgan listed 82 in 1955. Two were advertised as reselected, but none were described as hybrids.
Farmers stayed loyal to Beal’s methods long after Donald Jones produced inexpensive hybrid seed in 1918, because his double-crossed corn required maintaining four potentially patentable pure lines to produce the immediate parents of seed that couldn’t be saved. Economically pressed farmers didn’t want to become dependent on seed salesmen, especially when many of the early releases didn’t adapt to local conditions. It wasn’t until the reorganization of agriculture in the 1930's that hybrids were accepted. This year Michigan is expected to harvest 140 bushels an acre, more than three and a half times the 1874 yield.
By then, the demand for ornamental seeds was depressed and flower seed breeders were more interested in exploring the possibilities of chemically altering the fertilization process to keep all the genes from both parents. Instead of four possible outcomes for any given mating, there were sixteen. In 1938 Bernard Nebel and Mabel Ruttle established colchicine as the best catalyst; in 1942 they published research on sterility in tetrapolid snapdragons. David Burpee introduced his first variety in 1946; Thompson and Morgan offered three in 1955.
The market for ornamental seed in the lean years of the 1930's and 1940's was florists. It was the expansion of suburbs after the war that created new demand for cut flowers on plants that homeowners could grow. Fred Stratt turned to F1 crosses, but his employer, Harris Seed, couldn’t afford the labor-intensive fertilization control required to mass produce Rocket seed. They teamed up with PanAmerican who had begun producing its seed in low-cost Costa Rica in 1946.
And so finally, decades after Mendel and Beal and Jones had worked out the theory, method and incentives for producing a robust F1 hybrid, I can buy good snapdragons. But when I look at what happens if one actually thrives and goes native, I’m still left with the question every farmer has ever asked when faced with a piebald: "Whoever was your daddy?"
Desai, Babasaheb B. Seeds Handbook: Biology, Production, Processing, and Storage, 2004, describes color hierarchy for breeders.
Everts, L. H. County history for 1877 includes data from 1874 census on crop yields; errors in reporting are possible.Fitzgerald, Deborah. The Business of Breeding, 1990, traces the resistance to hybrids.Michigan Corn Growers Association. "Michigan Corn Crop Outlook is Favorable," 3 October 2008 press release.Paul, Diane B. and Barbara A. Kimmelman. "Mendel in America: Theory and Practice, 1900-1919," in Ronald Rainger, Keith R. Benson and Jane Maienschein, The American Development of Biology, 1988.Rice, Graham. "Antirrhinums (Snapdragons)," Garden Answers, April 1999, has information on Sutton’s.Zhang, Dongfen, Qiuying Yang, Weidong Bao, Yu Zhang, Bin Han, Yongbiao Xue, and Zhukuan Cheng. "Molecular Cytogenetic Characterization of the Antirrhinum majus Genome," Genetics 169: 325–335:2005, reviews history of genetic research with snapdragons.
Photograph: Two-year old second generation F1 snapdragon between showers, 11 October 2008.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Ruby Seedless Grape

What’s blooming in the area: Rose of Sharon, tea and miniature roses, some kind of yucca, buddleia, winterfat, datura, Heavenly Blue morning glory, bindweed, blue trumpets, honeysuckle, silver lace vine, ragtag bouncing Bess, mullein, white sweet clover, yellow and white evening primroses, alfilerillo, lamb’s quarter, amaranth, ragweed, goat’s head, chamisa, broom senecio, snakeweed, wild lettuce, horseweed, áñil del muerto peaked, Hopi tea, gumweed, hairy golden, heath and purple asters, native sunflowers peaked, cockle bur, sandbur.
What’s blooming in my garden, looking north: Red hot poker, golden spur columbine, nasturtium, chocolate flower, fern-leaf yarrow, blanket flower, black-eyed Susan, Mexican hat, chrysanthemum, yellow cosmos, perky Sue.
Looking east: Large-leaf soapwort peaked, scarlet gilia, California poppy, squash, hollyhock, winecup, Jupiter’s beard, sweet alyssum from seed, African marigolds, Maximilian sunflowers, zinnia; ripe raspberries and tomatoes.
Looking south: Blaze roses, Sensation cosmos; rugosa rose hips red, edible grapes.
Looking west: Russian sage, catmint, Mönch aster peaked, Silver King artemisia.
Bedding plants: Snapdragon, sweet alyssum, moss rose, French marigold, tomato.
Inside: Aptenia, zonal geranium, bougainvillea.
Animal sightings: Bees, ants, few grasshoppers.
Weather: Soaking rain last night; nature continues to prepare for winter, plants are going out of bloom, leaves are beginning to turn color and a few are dropping. 11:22 hours of daylight today.
Weekly update: A Roman Catholic community must have wine, and so, in the early years, stoneware jugs were sent to frontier missions every three years or so by ox-cart. Franciscans tried to become self-sufficient, but grapes are sensitive to climate and soil. Whatever seeds or cuttings they brought, only one prospered, a large, dark fruited one possibly related to the Sardinian Mónica.
The vines García de San Francisco planted in 1629 at Senecú, the first settlement north of the Jornada del Muerto, survived the destruction of the Piro pueblo by Apache in 1675. Cuttings were taken to El Paso by García when he moved there in 1659 and may have been sent to the larger northern missions like San Ildefonso before the pueblo revolt of 1680.
Juan de Torquemada reported Tewa speakers were using "mucha uba" in bread in 1723, 29 years after de Vargas reconquered the Black Mesa. Francisco Dominguez saw vines growing in Santa Cruz in 1776. More recently, Barbara Freire-Marreco found grapes cultivated by San Ildefonso in 1911, probably for raisins, while the Interior Department observed uvas to the north along the El Rito, the Chama below Abiquiú and the Rio Grande between Velarde and Dixon in the 1930's.
When I moved here in 1991, two people had vines, one group growing along a sturdy rail fence, the other spreading onto wires strung between posts in a field. A few years later someone living near the river put in a vineyard with sapling posts supporting each root and top wires spreading the tallest growth.
I never see their fruit which tends to be protected by large, hairy, scallop-edged leaves, so I don’t know their varieties. The local stores offer green, red and purple varieties, and more are available by mail. I bought one of each in 1998, with the expectation the purple Concord derived from the hardy Vitis labrusco grown in upstate New York would do well, and the zone 7 green Thompson seedless vinifera popularized by Armenian refugees would fail. Instead, a Ruby seedless survived, and this year produced its first edible fruit.
Harold Olmo began work with the vinifera hybrid in 1939 by crossing the popular, but essentially tasteless winter grape, Emperor, with a seedless hybrid developed by Alberto Pirovano from the Muscat of Alexandria and a seedless sultanina. Olmo selected a cultivar in 1950 for further development, and released Ruby in 1968 when it quickly became the late-season crop in the San Joaquin valley. It has been since eclipsed by imports from Chile.
A zone 7 vine is a poor choice for the Española valley, and has been replaced by Flame in the local hardware. Most springs my Ruby vine leafs out in late April or early May and is killed by frost. The replacement growth keeps the root alive by producing buds for the next season’s fruiting wood, but doesn’t usually flower.
This year the weather stayed cool and leaves didn’t appear until May 14. Ruby thrives in the hot summers of the San Joaquin: it needs at least 100 days with temperatures above 50 degrees and cool nights. Here, when I’ve had fruit develop, there wasn’t enough time for it to mature. In 2006, I found fruit August 20 that didn’t begin to turn until September 16. In 2007, it was September 22 before I saw color. This year, the fruit appeared earlier, around July 12, and I ate some last weekend, but the still forming green clusters haven’t a chance.
A strange season for the valley, this, but one simpático for an alien from California whose fruit not only was sweet and thin-skinned, but contained but the merest remains of seeds that had been aborted by some recessive genetic pattern unique to the sultana.
Domínguez, Francisco Atansio. Republished 1956 as The Missions of New Mexico, 1776, translated and edited by Eleanor B. Adams and Angélico Chávez.

Torquemada, Juan de. De los Veinte í un Líbros Rítuales í Monarchia Indiana, 1723, cited by William Wilfred Robbins, John Peabody Harrington and Barbara Friere-Marreco, Ethnobotany of the Tewa Indians, 1916.
US Dept of Interior, Tewa Basin Study, volume 2, 1935, reprinted by Marta Weigle as Hispanic Villages of Northern New Mexico, 1975.
Photograph: Ruby seedless grapes, 28 September 2008.