Sunday, January 27, 2008

Cheat Grass

What’s still green: Conifers, rose stems, yuccas, coral bell, sea pink, Saint John’s wort, yellow evening primrose, Mount Atlas daisy, some grasses
What’s gray or gray-green: Salt bush, winterfat, snow-in-summer, some pinks.
What’s red: Cholla, some pinks, small-leaved soapwort, coral and purple beardtongues, purple aster.
What’s blooming inside: Aptenia, geranium, kalanchoë.
Animal sightings: Bird heard chirping Thursday morning when storm preparing to come through.Weather: Ice remains in drip lines, including over the bulb bed by the garage; sprinkling of snow pellets Friday; 10:19 hours of daylight today.
Weekly update: Madeline Bassett pops up in Wodehouse novels to bedevil Bertie Wooster and declaim anthropomorphic images of nature. Everything she sees represents some aspect of the domestic life of the wee folk or God’s wonder-working ways.
Ironically, we use the terms we reserve for successful, if unscrupulous, businessmen for the plants we hate: aggressive, unfair competitive advantage, adaptable to deteriorating conditions, opportunistic. It’s as if plants, like women and Blacks, violate the natural order if they exhibit any of the competitive characteristics of men and large mammals.
Take cheat grass. Mine started growing late last fall, and now it’s green along the western faces of my fence and garage. Even though some is still buried in ice, it can resume growing as soon temperatures reach 37 degrees. People whose hobbies have been shaped by Hollywood’s world of perpetual sunshine find such as ability to thrive in winter abnormal.
Come spring, the annual will be the first green grass, almost dense enough to pass as a lawn. Then, in May, it turns red with seed and soon after dies. The drooping seeds attach themselves to socks and fall apart when touched, so every thin, brittle beard of every spikelet has to be removed individually. It becomes an eyesore just when city folks are ready to visit national parks.
Worse, Bromus tectorum, is not a native. It evolved in arid Asia before herbivores and has spread through overgrazed lands, especially in the Great Basin, as a mute reminder of our love for beef. Further, it spread when fire was used to eliminate unpalatable scrub. It also expands when grazing is stopped to restore the range because cattle and sheep controlled it by eating it before it sets seed.
While cheat grass didn’t create the situation, it’s blamed for perpetuating it. The stalks are curing just as fire season begins and its dead litter feeds wildfires that destroy other more desirable vegetation. In many drier areas, the native plants weren’t adapted to fire, and failed to recover, leaving cheat grass to hold the soil, at least against severe spring winds.
Some ecologists think it may be impossible to restore areas of the more arid intermountain west to their pristine pre-Columbian condition because too much damage has been done to the structure of the soil crust itself. In those areas, cheat grass may be an inescapable, permanent feature of the landscape.
None of this makes the grass welcome in my yard. I leave it along the drive where my tires keep it in check, and it prevents worse plants, like Russian thistle, from germinating. There I can enjoy it as it turns from bright green to a silvery haze of waving stalks to deep red patches, before dying tan and sere. But, I could just as easily enjoy it along the road.
When it gets near my garden, I pull it whenever I happen to be weeding the neighboring sunflowers and marigolds. It comes out with a ball of relatively short, fibrous, dirt-holding roots, that leave enough of a hole to cause problems if they had been pulled before the plant produced seed, when winds were high and nearby plants not yet established.
If I were a mule deer or bighorn sheep, I might think differently. I certainly would appreciate it right now, when its crude protein is about 20% and it’s all that’s green. But then, come April when the plants are ripening and the nutrients declining, I would have to roam elsewhere.
In this area, I wouldn’t have to go far, but in the more arid west where it’s the only plant that grows for acres, I might be reduced to a starvation diet of rain sopped stalks with 2% crude protein. Populations of black-tailed jack rabbits decline in those conditions, as do the numbers of birds that prey on them and other small mammals.
So why do people who eschew the sentimentalism of Madeline Bassett revert to anthropomorphic terms for cheat grass? When something lives on a different biological clock and uses our best management weapons against us, we have few words to describe it and nothing but metaphors to vent our frustration and helplessness.
Wodehouse, P. G. For instance, Right Ho, Jeeves, 1934, and Jeeves and the Tie that Binds, 1971.

Zouhar, Kris. "Bromus tectorum," 2003, in United States Forest Service, Fire Effects Information System, available on-line.

Photograph: Cheat grass growing around remains of perennial four o’clock near water frozen in garage drip line; dead grasses are needle, cheat and three awn.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Cheddar Pinks

What’s still green: Conifers, rose stems, yuccas, coral bell, sea pink, Saint John’s wort, yellow evening primrose, Mount Atlas daisy, some grasses.

What’s gray or gray-green: Salt bush, winterfat, snow-in-summer, pinks.

What’s red: Cholla, small-leaved soapwort, coral and purple beardtongues, purple aster.

What’s blooming inside: Aptenia, geranium, kalanchoë.

Animal sightings: Quail feeding yesterday afternoon.

Weather: Very cold the end of the week with ice still floating in the river yesterday morning; changes in daylight stretching to 10:14 hours today are noticeable during my daily commutes; last snow 1/06/08.

Weekly update: The cold returned, and this time there was no insulating snow.

Many surviving leaves have turned burgundy, including those of purple asters, beardtongues, small-leaf soapwort, and cheddar pinks. Most will survive this week, but the pinks are always problematical. In the best conditions, they thrive for a few years, then die in the first spell of harsh weather.

It’s more difficult than it should be to replenish them each year. Not all commercial varieties grow here, and those that do aren’t always offered. Seedlings need to be transplanted early, but last year Bath’s Pink didn’t appear in Santa Fe outlets until June. They died in the drought.

Dianthus gratianopolitanus isn’t doing much better in the wild. Both Poland and Germany list it as an endangered species. The population in the Jura Alps, which spreads from Switzerland into France, Luxembourg and the Saar valley, is declining. The only place it naturalized in England is the limestone cliffs of the Cheddar Gorge in Somerset near Bristol.

The species not only has limited soil preferences, but needs a long cold period before it blooms. Sonali Padhye’s team found they bloom four to five weeks after exposure to 68 degree temperatures, but that the grassy clumps only produce spotty single five-petaled fringed flowers unless those warm temperatures come after a transition time when the crown has been able to bulk up with narrow, gray-green leaves.

The only reason I bother with them is they are the only thing I’ve found that will grow in the exposed conditions on the east side of the house where the snow melts immediately and the winds whip through in spring.

Apparently, Dianthus emerged within the carnation family about 13 million years ago during the Miocene when grasses were spreading, the seas receding, and the Eurasian landmass forming. Harry Godwin found fossil relics of gratianopolitanus in deposits from the last glacier in England, and noted they still grew on limestone grasslands like those beyond my fence.

The particular variety currently offered that survives best here, Bath’s Pink, is from north Georgia where it adapted to granite soils, hot summers, and high humidity. Landscape designer Jane Bath gave pass-along plants she’d nurtured to Marc Richardson and Rick Berry to test before they released them to the trade in 1987 through their Georgia nursery, Goodness Grows.

Luckily, Bath’s Pink is still offered by one mail order house with an early discount deadline. So yesterday, before I went to the post office, I was out looking at motley leaves, wishing they were tea, and could tell me how many I should order, if the plants I receive will grow, and if there is any chance I’ll be able to buy more this spring. They wouldn't tell me how long, how severe this winter will be, or even how they were doing.

Bath, Jane. "The Story of Bath's Pink," Georgia Perennial Plant Association Perennial Notes, winter 1994.

Godwin, Harry. The History of the British Flora, 1975, cited by Peter Poschold and Michael F.WallisDeVries,"Ths Historical and Socioeconomic Perspective of Calcareous Grasslands - Lessons from the Distant and Recent Past," Biological Conservation 104:361-376:2002.

Padhye, Sonali, Beth Fausey, Erik Runkle and Art Cameron. "Day Neutral Spring-Flowering Perennials," Greenhouse Grower, March 2006.

Photograph: Cheddar pink leaves, some burgundy, some still green, 19 January 2008.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Sprenger's Asparagus Fern

What’s still green: Conifers, rose stems, yuccas, coral bell, sea pink, Saint John’s wort, yellow evening primrose, Mount Atlas daisy.

What’s gray or gray-green: Salt bush, winterfat, snow-in-summer, pinks.

What’s red: Cholla, small-leaved soapwort, coral beardtongue, purple aster.

What’s blooming inside: Aptenia, geranium, kalanchoë.

Animal sightings: Birds gathered in trees last Sunday before the storm moved through Monday.

Weather: Afternoons thawed the drive, and evenings refroze it. Some snow Monday, new moon Tuesday, 10:02 hours of daylight today.

Weekly update: South Africa is the last place I ever expected to cultivate.

It isn’t just the politics. I always assumed that far southern hemisphere land, with its own floristic province which had evolved independently of the Eurasian landmass, produced plants too exotic to grow here.

But, this past week, when I looked out the windows of the enclosed porch towards sodden stalks detailed against wet cedar, the smell of damp earth infused the air where the space heater was drying the just watered aptenia of the Zulu and zonal geraniums descended from Cape Province parents.

Last summer I decided, once again, that the bowl of geraniums needed some kind of vine to fill the gaps between leaves on the fleshy stems. Vinca and Wandering Jew had failed. I doubted pothos or philodendron. I tried asparagus fern with little expectation that favorite of 1980's fern bars would survive my temperature extremes, intense sun, and occasional drought anymore than a lounge lizard could take daylight.

I’ve been surprised. The cluster of 8" stems in the original 2" pot have more than tripled in length, and now arch up through the geraniums to provide an unexpected veil of narrow leaves that soften its shapes and highlight its colors.

Mystified, I discovered my sprengeri variety of Asparagus densiflorus entered the nursery trade around 1890 through a bulb house in Naples with contacts in what had been the Boer colony of Natal. One of the Dammann owners, Mecklenburg born Carl Ludwig Sprenger was then experimenting with cannas and getting seeds from German speakers in the area.

I found my cousin of garden asparagus is as exotic as anything I might expect from that evolutionary island. Like the prickly pear fading in the cold out front, asparagus fern developed flat stems that photosynthesize sunlight into nutrients with less water loss than would occur through leaf pores. Those cladodes appear to be long narrow leaves, but the actual leaves are the tiny brown spines beneath the points where the modified branches attach to the round stems rising from the crown.

This member of the lily family has surface tubers which store water but do not participate in reproduction. Instead, tiny, six-petaled, white flowers produce dark red berries spread by birds, especially in parts of the world with climates similar to southern Africa.

This alien species from a stratified land passed into my life because another east African asparagus had trained my taste to expect some kind of filler in houseplant containers. When I was a child, florists still included tall stems of plumosa behind single roses or carnations in bud vases and often held them together with narrow satin ribbons.

Perhaps I can tell the remnants of my adolescent conscience this green protector of brash beauty no longer is South African, for the same reason I’m no longer part of the English who fought the Boer War and my neighbors are no longer the same Spanish who supported Franco. Asparagus fern seeds are sold in Europe, plants are produced in hothouses in Florida, and scientists are testing tissue propagation from small plant segments. We’ve all become domesticated together, and let our more feral traits atrophy.

Photograph: Zonal geranium through branches of asparagus fern looking out towards the cedar board fence, 12 January 2008.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Broom Snakeweed

What’s still green: Conifers, rose stems, yuccas, coral bell, sea pink, Saint John’s wort, yellow evening primrose, Mount Atlas daisy.

What’s gray or gray-green: Salt bush, winterfat, snow-in-summer, pinks

What’s red: Cholla, small-leaved soapwort, coral beardtongue, purple aster.

What’s blooming inside: Aptenia, geranium

Animal sightings: Small birds out Saturday; pigeons threatening to settle on back porch.

Weather: Very cold until Friday when snow melted and drive softened near the gate; a little rain last night.

Weekly update: The cold has set in; whatever was green a few weeks ago is dead or crumpled by still melting snow. Down the road, arborvitaes are turning yellow and some pines are showing a brown epidermis. Maximilian sunflower stalks have been flattened by rain and snow; corn stalks are battered and half-down.

Fields lining the road are gray from bare winterfat, weathered Russian thistle, and dried grass stalks. Tarnished lumps of snakeweed provide the only variation on land whittled by cold winds from the north.

Unloved and unlovely, broom snakeweed symbolizes the final degeneration of the land. It arrives when the range is overgrazed or after fire, often waiting for the first wet season after a drought. It appeared in my yard after dry seasons killed grasses on trampled ranch land to the north. It lingers, unchallenged for years, before finally disappearing on its own.

You can’t remove it without encouraging it. Deep taproots are anchored by extensive lateral roots that cannot be dug out without planting new seeds. Lopping the top simply prunes woody stems that last only a year anyway. Fire kills mature plants, but seeds blow in to colonize newly fertilized land.

Occasionally, a horse will try to eat snakeweed in winter, but resinous glands on the short, skinny leaves protect it from all but the hungriest grazers. In spring, when new branches push up from the woody crown, sheep will nibble. But ranchers worry: saporins in the tender foliage can cause cows to abort, poison some who overeat.

The young, sticky stems grow one to two feet, with dense, dark-green leaves brightened by yellow undertones. Come late summer, the shrubs turn clear yellow from tiny, four-rayed composite flowers grouped into loose, terminal cymes. From a distance, green stems and tips of the tan bracts holding the flowers lend a chartreuse hue. Now those empty vessels provide the golden-moss color. When they fall away, dead branch stubs remain to scratch ankles of the unwary.

Gutierrezia sarofaroe is the kind of plant with enemies even more destructive than itself. It attracts grasshoppers, but I’ve never seen them stop to eat on their way to my garden. Supposedly, mealybugs and aphids will kill it, but they aren’t welcome where roses grow.

Humans usually try to find some justification for a dullard that smells like turpentine, but scientists have done no more than recognize it contains a number of volatile oils. No one seems to have found a use that’s been widely adapted, no matter how efficacious.

An Arroyo Seco médico used it for hemorrhoids, and other Spanish-speakers have tried it for douches and rheumatism. San Juan gave a tea to birthing women or bathed newly born infants, while Santa Clara tried it in sweat baths to cure colds and sore throats. More southern pueblos used it for emetic teas drunk before hunts.

It remains a stubborn, useless intruder that’s tolerated because it’s too much trouble to remove. It thrives on such neglect to leaven the winter landscape with some trace of color, even if it’s as muted and dreary as the season.

Notes:Curtin, L. S. M. Healing Herbs of the Upper Rio Grande, 1947, republished 1997, with revisions by Michael Moore.

Dunmire, William M. and Gail D. Tierney. Wild Plants of the Pueblo Province, 1995.

Tirmenstein, D. "Gutierrezia sarothrae", 1999, in United States Forest Service, Fire Effects Information System, available on-line.

United States Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Range Plant Handbook, 1937, republished by Dover Publications, 1988.

Photograph: Gray grasses and winterfat with a band of bronzed snakeweed and scattered patches of snow, 1 January 2008.