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.

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