Sunday, March 30, 2008

June Grass

What’s growing in the area: Apricots, forsythia, first daffodils are blooming; cholla reverting to its normal green; piñon, arborvitae, weeping willow, needle and muhly ring grasses show new growth. People are still cleaning up from winter with more pruned branches laying about. Some were burning weeds yesterday morning. One person with a grassy yard has burned his entire area.
In my yard: Raspberry suckers, first tulips, Maltese cross have broken ground; small-leaved soapwort turning green; hyacinth buds still bundled into leaves.
What’s blooming inside: Aptenia, zonal geranium, kalanchoë, bougainvillea; coral honeysuckle in bud.
Animal sightings: White-tailed brown rabbit in drive Thursday morning.
Weather: Fewer nights were below freezing, more middling winds. Last rain 5 March; 12:39 hours of light today.
Weekly update: June grass is a camp follower. I no sooner put in my driveway, and there it was, next to my door. Then it tried to invade the garden, and finally settled along the edge of the west bed.
As I remember from M*A*S*H reruns, people who congregate on the periphery of miliary bases not only include those with something to sell, but also those seeking protection or other favors. When a distant kinsman of mine, William Woods Averell was posted to Fort Craig to protect the northern end of the Jornada del Muerto on the Camino Real from Apache in 1857, the biggest problems were not enough water and too much alcohol. The first was hauled up ramps from the river in wagons; he didn’t say who supplied the second.

Water is what attracts June grass. It needs at least 16" of precipitation a year, more than we get here. Its dark green leaves and rigid stalks would stand out if they grew on the prairie with the more flexible needle and rice grasses. Instead, the fibrous roots find pockets of moisture, then wait for the wind to break the stems to scatter seed far and wide. Eventually some lands along a road way where moisture collects and it can perpetuate itself.

Right now, after the winter snows and rains have passed, it’s putting out new growth from within its protective mass of dead leaves and cured stalks. The perennial will be blooming by early May, when the sheaths will open to reveal tightly packed chevrons of grains that will resemble corn in its husk. After the seeds have dropped, the cool weather grass stagnates during the heat of summer.

Koeleria macrantha may be widespread here and throughout the northern hemisphere, but it probably arrived here like any camp follower. Frank Kienast’s team found fossilized seeds on the Bykovsky peninsula near the mouth of the Lena river in eastern Siberia where permafrost erosion has exposed piles of hardened sediment that date back to the time when the last glaciers trapped water and exposed the Beringian land bridge that connected northeastern Asia and Alaska.

Kienast reports that steppe vegetation like June grass which supported large herbivores disappeared around 900 BC, killed by changes in moisture not temperature. It’s still found on the North slope of the Brooks range, and probably moved south with the climate. June grass may already have been here when mammoth hunters camped near Clovis some 11,000 years ago.

Like any camp follower dependent on others for its survival, June grass tries to anticipate and satisfy the expectations of potential patrons. The long, relatively wide blades look like lawn grass and stay green most of the year. However, it is a bunch grass, not one that spreads to fill in spaces at an even level. Even when plants are close to each other, it’s impossible to walk on them without falling into crevices between 3" high clumps.

Over time, habits of accommodation become second nature. When the environment changes, June grass passes on its adaptations through genetic changes. Czech plants have a 5% smaller genome than Slovakian ones. In Colorado, June grass transplanted from 12 locations, still differed when and how it grew. Philip Robertson and Richard Ward believe that moisture in the homeland was more important than altitude and the concomitant exposure to sun and growing season length in determining those habits.

Even though June grass must always adapt, this camp follower tries to recreate a familiar world behind its shield of external conformity. I’ve never been able to eradicate it from the west side of the house where flax and grape hyacinths grow. Kienast found June grass seed mixed with Alyssum obovatum, Silene repens, and perennial flax in ancient Siberia. Nick Hermann’s group found it growing with another Muscari in central Germany and the Czech Republic. Here the tall clumps create a protective border on the windward side for those early spring blue flowers, just beyond the demarcating bricks that define the camp perimeter.

Averell, Willaim Woods. Ten Years in the Saddle, edited by Edward K. Eckert and Nicholas J. Amato, 1978.

Herrmann, Nick, Gabriele Weiss, Walter Durka. "Biological flora of Central Europe: Muscari tenuiflorum Tausch," Flora 201:81–101:2006.

Kienast, Frank, Lutz Schirrmeister, Christine Siegert and Pavel Tarasov. "Palaeobotanical Evidence for Warm Summers in the East Siberian Arctic During the Last Cold Stage," Quaternary Research 63:283-300:2005.

Pecinka, Ales, Pavla Suchánková,, Martin A. Lysak, Bohumil Trávníek and Jaroslav Doleel. "Nuclear DNA Content Variation among Central European Koeleria Taxa," Annals of Botany 98:117-122:2006.

Robertson, Philip A. and Richard T. Ward. "Ecotypic Differentiation in Koeleria Cristata (L).Pers. from Colorado and Related Area," Ecology 51:1083-1087:1970.

Photograph: June grass, 23 March 2008.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Hairy Golden Aster

What’s growing in the area: Honeysuckle, bittersweet and arborvitae are greener. New growth on snakeweed. Down the road Russian thistles that were piled, but not burned before last Sunday’s winds, are now spread across nearby fences. Two men were cleaning a ditch in the village yesterday. Seeds, bare root roses, and the first trees and shrubs were available in one hardware yesterday; the other local store has had seeds for several weeks.

In my yard: Reseeded garlic chives are up. Maltese cross and cutleaf coneflower are putting out new leaves from their crowns. Pinks are beginning to perk up after being flattened by the last snows. Buds are visible on the cottonwood; green is breaking through buds on lilacs and spirea. Roses have been breaking dormancy: some are leafing out, while others are just showing red buds and others have those buds elongating.

What’s blooming inside: Aptenia, zonal geranium, kalanchoë, bougainvillea

Animal sightings: Hornets began hatching the beginning of the week; men have begun training horses in the village.

Weather: Temperatures continued wild swings from low 20's in the mornings to 60's when I arrived home; one evening the thermometer read 68. High winds since last snow on March 5; 12:19 hours of daylight today.

Weekly update: Hairy golden asters are one of those plants that manages to live an exuberant live without attracting much notice, much like Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.
In my yard, the native composite begins to bloom in June, and keeps on blooming until frost kills the current year’s growth. I’ve seen single stems pushing through sidewalk cracks in an old Santa Fe neighborhood that’s been converted to migrant housing by real estate speculators, and I always see it along the road in August.

Went I walked along the shoulder last summer I discovered that what looked like a pure stand, in reality, was a mix of Hopi tea, gumweed, and golden asters. The first composite has a tall, narrow disk with no ray flowers, while the second has a wide, squat disk with small rays. The asters have widely spaced, long, narrow ray flowers with the usual pad of disk flowers. Different as they are, from a distance they merged into a yellow blur when seen from a car window.

Even though it peaks in mid-summer, there’s never a time when the foot high plants are covered with flowers. After the first few weeks, round white seed heads coexist with pure yellow daisies at the tips of stems that start to sprawl as they grow heavier. Gardeners and nurserymen prefer plants that remain erect, smother themselves in flowers, and drop their petals without deadheading.

Botanists have looked so carefully at individual parts they’ve discovered a number of species when in fact there may only be one. Thomas Nuttall collected Chrysopsis villosa in 1811 on the Missouri, while Frederick Pursh called it Amellus villosus in 1814. They were separated from Heterotheca because the latter’s pappus, the part that acts as a container to hold individual disk and ray flowers and their succeeding seeds, has no bristles on the ray flowers. Golden aster pappi have two layers, the outer with bristles, the other with hairs that help the seed move with the wind.

Taxonomists also excluded them from the asters, which Joseph Dalton Hooker and George Bentham believed existed in both the old and new worlds, because asters aren’t yellow. Hairy golden asters became false hairy golden asters, if they were called anything.

Then came DNA analysis. In 1996 Chung Shen Xiang and John Semple not only reported North American asters have a different parent than asters in Europe, but they’re also related to Chrysopsis and Heterotheca. In 1951, Lloyd Herbert Shinners had already suggested those two genera were the same after he found vestigial pappi on Heterotheca in Mexico, and reduced pappi on some Chrysopsis. More research just proved asters, including the yellow ones in my yard, are still evolving with porous borders between what botanists want to call species.

Ranchers ignore them because they’re not poisonous and not particularly edible, except to sheep in the worst conditions. Since the harsh tasting leaves are ignored by herbivores, the taprooted perennials often cover overgrazed lands in summer. Only zoologists have found animals that like them, including chickadees, porcupines, bees, and caterpillars.

Few tribes have noticed them. The Cheyenne, who ranged from southern Colorado to the Black Hills, used the tops as a sedative. The Navajo, who migrated to New Mexico and Arizona from father north sometime before the Spanish, only discovered the plants were slightly irritating without being dangerous and so they could be used as a ceremonial emetic. No one local has found much use for something that survives drought, intense light, and heat.

Most forget it once it drops its narrow, green leaves that look gray from their white hairs. However, towards the end of last year I thought I saw leaves coming up from a crown. When I went back, I couldn’t find them and thought I misremembered or they had gone the way of other plants fooled by the long fall. A few weeks ago, I thought I saw them again, but I had to sit on the ground yesterday and pull away last year’s dark, woody stems and dead grasses to verify that they now have the most vigorous new growth of anything in the yard.

It’s the old problem of vantage point. Get too far away, and many things look the same. Get too close, and one thing disintegrates into many. Don’t look at all, and plants thrive unheeded and unheralded.

Notes:Haines, Arthur. "Clarifying the Generic Concepts of Aster Sensu Lato in New England," Botanical Notes, 10 December 2001.

Harms, Vernon L. "Cytogenetic Evidence Supporting the Merger of Heterotheca and Chrysopsis (Compositae)," Brittonia 17:11-16:1965.

Moerman, Dan. Native American Ethnobotany, 1998, and on-line database.

Photograph: Hairy golden aster, 22 March 2008.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Russian Thistle

What’s growing in the area: Globe willows are a brighter green. Apple trees were pruned in the main orchard this past week, the week before holy week sometime after the new moon. At least one field’s been tilled; many have been out cleaning dead leaves and weeds.
In my yard: Iris emerging; hyacinths up with buds visible. New growth on rockrose, snapdragon, coral beardtongue, bouncing Bess, golden spur columbine, pink evening primrose, Saint John’s wort, flax, hollyhocks, winecup, autumn joy sedum, tansy, Mount Atlas daisy, chrysanthemum, anthemis, hairy golden aster. Buds fattening on forsythia, spirea, cherry, and peach. Rose stems still green. Some grass blades up which could be cheat grass or Russian thistle; new growth in June grass clumps.
What’s blooming inside: Aptenia, zonal geranium, kalanchoë, bougainvilla
Animal sightings: Quail took off from area by the garage; small birds flittered near cholla.
Weather: Warm afternoons melted remaining snow, even though morning temperatures were still below freezing; high winds Friday; 11:50 hours of sunlight today.
Weekly update: High winds yesterday and the day before insured another good season for tumbleweeds.
Russian thistles produce their seed in late summer, but it isn’t ready to germinate until it finishes ripening in early spring. After last fall’s frosts slowed photosynthesis to reveal red betalains in formerly dark green stems, plants formed scar tissue near their bases with abscisic acid, which allowed this past week’s winds to break the half-inch woody stems, pick-up the dried spheres, and scatter shiny, dark seeds and small branches until the missiles hit fences or passing motorists.
Nature spent the past few weeks preparing friable surface soil when snow melt and rain couldn’t penetrate the freeze line and evaporated into the air. The wind nicely covered the seed with loose dirt it picked up crossing barren fields.
In 1893, Lyster Dewey traced this spiny Eurasian pest to a shipment of contaminated flax seed sent to Bon Homme County, South Dakota, in 1886. It took a few years to adapt to the new environment, then Russian thistle spread quickly on overgrazed range lands. McKibben found it in Lamy in 1894, the same year Southwestern Farm and Orchard warned readers it had been spotted in Santa Fe. Lamy was the main junction for the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe railroad. The weed was widespread in the state by 1915.
The weed, now called Salsola tragus, is harder to eradicate than it was introduce. Indeed, during the droughts of the depression the USDA promoted the plant for animal feed, since this member of the goosefoot family is high in protein and carbohydrates. Researchers found when it first sprouted and still resembled grass it was fair forage. It remained palatable while it bloomed and could be cut as hay. However, once the papery green bracts turned pink, the soft leaves withered, and were replaced by sets of three sharp, hard spines that protected it from grazing until the rains and snows of winter resoftened the stalks. During this phase they recommended ranchers could chop it to mix it with alfalfa for fodder.
It would be nice if you could simply set fire to an infested field of bushes ranging from 2" to 6' across, but the leafless branches enclose air pockets that make it hard to ignite. Most of my neighbors go out in fall or early spring to gather plants into huge piles they let settle for a few days. Then the towering smoke is mustard grey and smells from sodium carbonate.

Usually they yank the bushes and thereby drop a few seeds into the newly disturbed ground. I use brush cutters, then handle the 4' high balls by the stem stubs because the thorns irritate my hands. If the plants are still green, I let them dry a few days, then flatten them with a shovel or board to eliminate as much air as possible. They still suffocate when they burn.

One year I tried a herbicide. It took several applications and then the plants rotted, fouling the air with a different smell, before leaving carcasses that still had to be removed. Another year I tried a weed eater early in the season, only to discover the ribbed stalks sent out long branches along the ground, below the level of the machine’s nylon line.

Finally I let nature handle the mess it created. Even though the seedlings aggressively put down taproots before they start to grow, they can’t handle competition. When too many seeds sprout, each grows only a few inches high. Since it’s an annual, this meant if I let other, less noxious weeds grow, they eventually would squeeze it out.

All I do now is make sure flying bushes stay on the other side of my fences and let my neighbors keep the problem they perpetuate.

Notes:California Department of Food and Agriculture. "Russianthistle or Common Russianthistle," Encycloweedia website, edited by B.Ohlendorf.

Dewey, L. H. The Russian Thistle and Other Troublesome Weeds in the Wheat Region of Minnesota and North and South Dakota, 1893.

Forbes, Adam C. and Kelly W. Allred. "An Investigation of Salsola L. (Chenopodiaceae) in New Mexico," The New Mexico Botanist, 6 July 1999.

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

Young, James A. and Raymond A. Evans. "Germination and Establishment of Salsola in Relation to Seedbed Environment. I. Temperature, Afterripening, and Moisture Relations of Salsola Seeds as Determined by Laboratory Studies," Agronomy Journal 64:214-218:1972.

Photograph: Russian Thistles clustered at a barbed wire fence, 14 March 2008.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Rio Grande Cottonwood

What’s green: Conifers, rose stems, yuccas, rockrose, coral bell, sea pink, sea lavender, snapdragon, Saint John’s wort, Mount Atlas daisy, chrysanthemum, anthemis, 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, zonal geranium, kalanchoë, Christmas cactus.

Animal sightings: White geese in a village farm yard; quail tracks in the snow.

Weather: Heavy snow Wednesday night still covered the ground Friday when temperatures fell to 10 degrees on my front porch; most of the 8" has melted or sunk back into the just dried layer of mud above the freeze line. 11:49 hours of daylight today are not enough to justify daylight savings time.

Weekly update: When snows fall and leave behind mud and clumps of brown hugging the ground, cottonwoods silhouetted against the gray sky are all that attract the eye.

The oldest trees line roads at the far end of the village, maimed by age, relics of a land now gone. At some time, that area had to have been wetter than it is now because cottonwoods only germinate if the ground is moist when the seed falls in mid-summer. The seed has little viability, and if it doesn’t settle within two weeks, it’s lost. To survive, the shallow roots have to reach the water table.

During the depression, the Interior department reported Rio Arriba county had the highest malaria rate of any county in the country. The Federal Emergency Relief Administration, the precursor of the WPA, hired some 30 local men to drain wetlands east of the river between 1934 and 1935 to control the mosquito population.

The general population of Rio Grande cottonwoods has been declining ever since, partly from droughts of the 1930's and 1950's, and partly from projects like the 1935 El Vado dam, the 1963 Abique dam, and the 1971 Heron dam, all on the Chama tributary, which eliminated floods that deposited the silts that nurtured seeds.

The short-lived trees were always endangered. Wood was still the primary source for heat for many when I moved here in 1991. My closest neighbors still have wood hauled in every season from the mountains, even though natural gas has been available since 2000. Some of these trees may have begun life as green fence posts that put down roots.

Still, until the wetlands disappeared, the trees apparently were able to maintain themselves. Our wislizeni subspecies of the eastern cottonwood, Populus deltoides, adapts to subtle changes in environment. In the middle 1990's, Diane Rowland found 120 genotypes from four river locations that varied from one another in how they handled light through photosynthesis and moisture through transpiration. Ours bloom late in spring so the seed ripens just as the monsoons return.

She and Nancy Johnson also found that while the ratio of male to female trees did not change during droughts, the females stopped producing their fluffy catkins to conserve resources. Cottonwoods also drop their triangular leaves and smaller branches under stress, paring the winter structure.

Cottonwoods do still sprout, especially in the low channels down from roads near arroyos, where water collects during summer rains beyond the reach of mowing machines. Unlike the tall sentinels, younger members of the willow family still have many limbs branching a few feet from the ground and fully rounded heads of twigs that are indistinguishable from other trees in the band of dark grays on the winter horizon.

Since the trees don’t tolerate shade, each limb has to grow outward to survive. The straight-grained light-weight wood is notoriously weak, and, with time, the branches fall from their own weight, often during high winds or heavy snows like we had Thursday morning. Every one of the older village trees has had at least one limb amputated, often back to the main trunk.

Their silhouettes do more than soothe the spirit on dreary days. The shadows towering above one-story homes speak of resilience in the face of life-threatening changes that transform my boredom with continuing dreary weather into a hope that all this late winter moisture will help native plants recover from the recent dry seasons.

Rowland, Diane L. "Diversity in Physiological and Morphological Characteristics of Four Cottonwood (Populus deltoides var. wislizenii) Populations in New Mexico: Evidence for a Genetic Component of Variation," Canadian Journal of Forest Research 31: 845–853:2001.

_____ and N. C. Johnson. "Sexual Demographics of Riparian Populations of Populus deltoides: Can Mortality Be Predicted from a Change in Reproductive Status?," Canadian Journal of Botany, 79:702-710:2001.

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

Photograph: Village cottonwoods, 8 March 2008.

Sunday, March 02, 2008


What’s green: Conifers, rose stems, yuccas, rockrose, coral bell, sea pink, sea lavender, snapdragon, Saint John’s wort, yellow evening primrose, Mount Atlas daisy, chrysanthemum, anthemis, 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, zonal geranium, kalanchoë, Christmas cactus.
Animal sightings: Three horses feeding down the road.
Weather: Rain last Sunday followed by feathery frost on my windshield the next morning; the daily hoar formations suggest the waterlogged ground above the freeze line has been drying into the air. 11:40 hours of daylight forecast today.
Weekly update: We’re tired of winter here in the valley. Yesterday morning when the temperatures were already in the 40's, one man was trimming a fruit tree and another was pruning his rose of Sharon hedge. Down the road, people at two places were out with rakes while brown smoke rose beyond the arroyo.
Last Sunday I went looking for signs of spring and noticed the lilac and peach buds were fatter, while some snapdragons had new leaves. Yesterday, the anthemis looked greener. I went back to old pictures and found chrysanthemum leaves that had appeared the first part of February were now twice as large; I hadn’t notice them last year until mid-March.
I planted those particular mums in 2006 as one more attempt to add height to a bed leveled by high winds. The usual cushion mums had disappeared from local stores and the only available pots contained five skinny cuttings grown to produce flowers as quickly as possible, even if the roots were too weak to survive transplantation.
I was pleased three made it through the first winter and excited when they started to bud last September. Then came the winds and the thick woody stems listed to the north. The flowers never opened. Ever since Wrightman Garner and Harry Allard announced the existence of photoperiodism in 1920, botanists would simply say the cultivar didn’t have enough time to bloom between the time when there were nine hours necessary to stimulate the reproductive phase and a killing frost.
The composites have been cultivated for centuries. Archaeologists found them used to flavor fermented beverages buried with the wealthy in Anyang and Changzikou along the Yellow river during the Shang and Western Zhou dynasties (ca. 1250-1000 B.C.). The flowers became associated with Confucius’ qualities of a gentleman. Buddhists took kiku to Japan from Korea. The Dutch brought them from China.
Each change in world view or scientific theory has altered how they were bred, but each change was added to the existing stock of Chrysanthemum morifolium. Currently, botanists are experimenting with introducing new traits, especially obliviousness to light, from wild species while growers are seeking cheaper ways to mass produce plants that can take 6 to 16 weeks to bloom after they are artificially put into the dark at temperatures between 62 and 70 degrees.
In 1950, W. W. Schwab found mums not only need darkness to prosper, but also at least three weeks of cold weather. Brian Capon suggests that right now, while those new leaves are coming up from the perennial crown, the first stage of flower development is underway, but will soon yield to vegetative growth until darkness returns the first of August. When temperatures are warm enough in the south to support flowers before the days have lengthened, Allan Armitage has seen them skip that suspension and bloom in April.
My florist cultivars may never bloom, their buds may never have enough time to open. However, those flowers are a long way away and demands for cold and darkness are tiresome when the quality of light is changing and early morning temperatures are creeping to the upper 20's. Right now those new leaves, and with them the promise of spring, are worth any future disappointment.
Notes:Armitage, Allan M. Herbaceous Perennial Plants, 1989.Capon, Brian. Botany for Gardeners, revised 2005.Garner, W. W. and H. A. Allard. "Effect of the Relative Length of Day and Night and Other Factors of the Environment on Growth and Reproduction in Plants," Journal of Agricultural Research 4:553-606:1920.Schwabe,W. W. "Factors Controlling Flowering of the Chrysanthemum. I. the Effects of Photoperiod and Temporary Chilling," Journal of Experimental Botany 1:329-343:1950.University Of Pennsylvania. "9,000-year History Of Chinese Fermented Beverages Confirmed," ScienceDaily 7 December 2004.
Photograph: Florist chrysanthemum leaves with remains of last year’s woody stalk, 1 March 2008; pinks in background.