Sunday, April 27, 2008


What’s blooming in the area: Apples, fence row cherries, tulips, mossy phlox, tansy mustard, western stickseed, dandelions, and cheat grass. Bradford pears and other flowering trees have peaked while some forsythia flowers survive. Cottonwoods are beginning to leaf out. People continue to burn off last years dead matter. The local hardware stores have received their first bedding plants.

In my yard: Siberian pea tree, tart and sand cherries, daffodils, grape hyacinth, yellow alyssum and Mount Atlas daisy; first buds on iris; lilac ready to bloom; first leaves on tamarix, weiglia, privet, and snowball. Sidalcea, speedwell, purple coneflower and Maximilian sunflowers have emerged.

Inside: Aptenia, kalanchoë, zonal geranium.

Animal sightings: Fewer bee hives are visible down the road where men have been running heavy equipment. Several times, I’ve chased off a pair of pigeons trying to roost on the back porch rafters.

Weather: High winds, with some morning temperatures below freezing. Last snow April 4, but the last significant moisture was March 5. The ditches are running, and people are flooding their fields with water pumped from the aquifer. 14:29 hours of daylight today.

Weekly update: Daffodils are the one spring bulb that naturalizes here, partly because the soil and climate are similar to its native Spain, and partly because it's adapted to protect itself from external threats.

One couple put in a row against their chain-link fence in the fall of 1998 that bloomed heavily for several years, then produced fewer flowers when conditions did not promote the development of flowers. In those years, the bulbs continued to reproduce, and this year there were scattered yellow flowers on expanded clumps.

Closer to the village, a woman planted a large quantity in 2000 under her grapevines. They have had more flowers on taller stems, probably because she had done more to improve her soil and may have purchased higher quality stock. Two years ago she added more bulbs, this time ones with white flowers, and they too have been heavy bloomers.

My experience is closer to the first. I planted 100 mixed white varieties along the west side of the garage in 2003 that bloomed heavily the next spring. Then, with the dry years, the variety decreased, the stalks and narrow leaves grew shorter, and fewer flowers appeared. Last year, almost nothing bloomed, despite more leaves. So far this year, both double and single trumpets with yellow cups have appeared.

Climate is critical here even though the Dutch have been bred bulbs for varied conditions. My land is more exposed and farther away from the river than my neighbors, and my plants never come into bloom until after theirs have passed. This year my flowers appeared two weeks later than usual.

The winds have been especially brutal this spring, but Shelley Etnier and Steven Vogel have suggested Narcissus pseudonarissus stems are able to twist so the flowers that reach out sideways can lesson the impact by as much as 30% by turning with the wind. Unlike the peach, the petals have stayed in place; unlike the roses, the stems haven’t dehydrated.

Others who’ve planted these bulbous members of the amaryllis family have been less successful, probably because their growing conditions aren’t harsh enough. Daffodils need to be cold in winter. Two people whose bulbs disappeared after several years planted them in protected raised beds while my two successful neighbors planted theirs near the road.

They may have used raised beds to protect the plants from gophers, but daffodils are one bulb that has developed its own tools for defending itself. The dry, outer layers contain needle-like grooved crystals of calcium oxaltate which injure whatever that touches them. Hopefully, that discourages gophers with the first nibble.

The bulbs also contain masonin and homolycorin, which enter the cuts made by the raphide crystals to trigger an allergic response, and lycorine, which can cause vomiting, diarrhea, and convulsions by inhibiting the last step in ascorbic acid biosynthesis. Unfortunately, those toxins don’t work until they’re ingested, which means a bulb may be sacrificed to punish an offending rodent.

Daffodils do more than fail for those who try to domesticate them. They release the same raphide crystals to produce rashes when people harvest bulbs for growers or when they cut the stems. Then, the stems continue to ooze auxims that kill other flowers in the vase. The most popular varieties, like King Alfred and Carlton, are the worst.

If daffodils grow here, it’s on their own terms, and like many of my neighbors, they just want to be left alone.

Etnier, Shelley A. and Steven Vogel. "Reorientation of Daffodil (Narcissus: Amaryllidaceae) Flowers in Wind: Drag Reduction and Torsional Flexibility," American Journal of Botany 87:29-32:2000.

Hanks, Gordon R. Narcissus and Daffodil, 2002.

Photograph: Daffodils in the wind, 26 April 2008; Silver King artemisia between the clumps and winterfat in the background.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Elberta Peach

What’s growing in the area: Pink and white flowering trees, including Bradford pears, purple-leaf sand cherry and fence row cherries are blooming, along with red and yellow tulips, tansy mustard, mossy phlox, western stickseed, and dandelions. Apple buds are developing; black grama grass is greening; chamisa has leafed out; cheat grass getting dense. Smoke and scorched land from people burning more dead plant material.
In my yard: Sand cherries, daffodils and first grape hyacinth are blooming; spirea, lilac, tulips and yellow alyssum in bud; first leaves on apricot and beauty bush; pinks, snow-in-summer, and small-leaf soapwort are growing; peonies and ladybells are coming up.
What’s blooming inside: Aptenia, kalanchoë, coral honeysuckle.
Animal sightings: First cricket on the garage; more black ant hills in drive.
Weather: Friday’s frost was more destructive than last weekend’s snow; peach and forsythia flowers have darkened; first cherry flowers are gone, except those heavily shrouded by leaves. Heavy winds mid-week with a little snow Thursday morning. 13:56 hours of daylight.
Weekly update: When I first moved to New Mexico, I asked someone in the local extension office what trees would grow, and was told to try things like silver maple, catalpa, and Elberta peach.
I was confused, because I’d always been told that peaches in Michigan did well only on the sandy soils protected by Lake Michigan and otherwise, to quote MSU’s Liberty Hyde Bailey, they were a "luxury" cultivated "at great risk." Samuel Rumph developed the Elberta variety from a chance seedling he believed was a natural cross between an imported Chinese Cling given to his grandfather and a Crawford growing in a neighbor’s orchard on the Georgia fall-line in the 1870's.
Still I had neighbors who were growing peaches, so I bought the only variety available in the local hardware in 1997, an early Elberta semi-dwarf. Then the learning began, for I discovered that much as I had absorbed how to garden from my mother, I knew absolutely nothing about fruit trees.
The first thing I discovered was there is a reason horticultural manuals devote so much space to spraying regimens. In May of 2000, I noticed my leaves were deforming and coated with some sticky, crystalline stuff. It was too late to do preventive maintenance, so I started hosing down the tree. I don’t know what was attacking my tree, but there were suddenly more ladybugs in the area, so I suspected it was some insect rather than a fungus.
The problem recurred in May of 2003 and again I washed the tree. This time, I also tried the lime-sulfur spray that experts recommend be used in late winter. Then the grasshoppers hit in 2005, and stripped the tree of every leaf and potential bud.
The next year, pocket gophers started burrowing around the roots, but the only damage they seem to have done was destroy the iris growing beneath the branches. They didn’t eat the rhizomes so much as expose them to underground air. My uphill neighbor says their tree just dried up. My guess, the gophers left my yard for theirs. The rodent does love members of the rose family.
Finally, last summer on its eleven birthday, my tree produced its first crop and I learned the value of more advice I had ignored. After the grasshoppers, I had let the branches grow where they would to recover. When the fruit started to ripen, it got heavy, and branches near the house that I’d plan to cut in winter were suddenly blocking my way. Out came the branch cutters, repeatedly as the longer the fruit ripened, the more branches there were that drooped into my path.
I had one of those bumper crops that Bailey said a tree may have three or four times in its twenty fruitful years. There were too many peaches to eat, and I wasn’t interested in canning in August. I thought I could leave the excess fruit for the birds, only to discover it began to rot, started to smell, and then attracted the local stinging insects. Hastily, I picked everything.
Now the tree has reverted to its infertile state with the center still barren from the grasshoppers. The sparse flowers were killed by frost this week. There is a possibility that somewhere in the upper reaches a few blossoms were pollinated last weekend before the high winds and cold arrived, but I won’t know until summer.
Now I’m wondering what will happen in ten years? Will the tree die and need to be cut down, or will it just produce no fruit? Each time I try to start another tree or shrub in the area to take over its space, the gophers, winds or drought destroy it. If I only knew then what I know now.
Notes: Bailey, Liberty Hyde. "Peach," in Wilhelm Miller and Liberty Hyde Bailey, Cyclopedia of American Horticulture, 1901.
Photograph: Elberta peach after frost, 19 April 2008.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Siberian Elm

What’s growing in the area: Pink and white flowering trees, daffodils, tansy mustard, and dandelions are blooming; four-winged saltbush and blackbush are leafing out; loco and muhly ring grass are greening.
In my yard: Until Saturday’s snow, peach and forsythia were blooming; lilac, cherry, and sand cherry buds were showing color. Siberian pea tree and spirea leaves are opening; caryopteris leaves are forming; first red hot poker, hosta, and coreopsis are up; garden phlox and Rumanian sage have first leaves.
What’s blooming inside: Aptenia, kalanchoë, bougainvillea, coral honeysuckle.
Animal sightings: Brown birds were pecking through seeds that were exposed when I cleaned part of the north bed Sunday; yesterday afternoon, bees buzzed around the peach.
Weather: Snow before sunrise Saturday was gone as soon as the sun appeared; earlier in the week, temperatures ranged from below freezing to low 60's with occasional winds. 13:47 hours of light today.
Weekly update: Now is the season people who hate Siberian elms hate the most. Last year’s seeds are sprouting with roots already longer than the visible stalks, while the newest crop of fertile chartreuse disks is starting to gather in the cracks and corners of the post office.
The tree is detestable enough for its housekeeping habits, but many hate it on philosophical grounds. They go to the river in search of what’s unique about the bosque, and instead this water-hungry, sun lover is what they see. The realities of survival in a drying environment do not meet their images for the desert southwest.
Some scoff at those who introduced the tree, looking on the promotion of Siberian elms during the depression as another government boondoggle. But then, the agriculture department was concerned with the consequences of another confrontation between hopes and realities, between attempts to farm the plains and years of drought that produced the dust bowl. It found descendants of seeds brought from the Peking area in 1914 by Frank Meyers could survive those brutal conditions to slow erosion and put the unemployed to work.

Chuck Dunbar, an Albuquerque blogger, blames their use in the city in the 1950's on an "ecologically ignorant mayor." In those years, my parents planted Chinese elms along the street of their house in an area where the boundary separating the new subdivision from town was the oaks and maples lining streets of established neighborhoods.

At that time, the two species, Ulmus pumila and Ulmus parvifolia, were often confused, and while my mother thinks she ordered the second, she more likely received the first. She knew her trees would grow quickly, but were short-lived. The Chinese tree has stronger wood that’s less likely to crack in ice storms, stays green in winter in warm climates, and is less hardy far north.

When I sold the house some thirty years after she planted her trees, the maples were just filling out, but the elms still stood. Unlike her American elm, they had defied Dutch elm disease. They not only had met her hopes to establish a home that looked like all the others of her childhood in other tree-lined towns, but outlived her.

Of course, one did find the pipe that connected the house to the water main and irritated my father no end. But even he did not have the tree cut down; he simply paid the plumber and replanted the lawn in her memory.

Naturally I’m ambivalent about this reminder of my childhood. I certainly don’t want any tree with weak wood and strong taproots growing near the house or garage. I’ve learned the seedlings are hard to remove, and regenerate when broken off. I’ve had to cut down the same tree for several years before the root finally gave up.

Still, the dark green corduroy leaves are no where near as dangerous as those of maples or catalpas in the fall when they turn yellow. The toothed lances bending inward from central ribs are simply too small to clog eaves and downspouts, won’t suffocate what lies under them in winter, and can’t harbor other pests. They just blow away or disintegrate.

I’m perfectly content to have them in front where little grows since it was grazed decades ago. However, they won’t settle there, for the same reasons they don’t invade the prairie. The seeds prefer disturbed ground, especially along shoulders and outbuildings where extra moisture collects.

When I look at the landscape this time of year, studded with daubs of bright green against dark evergreens and still pale, leafless cottonwoods, I realize how barren this place would be without the brown-anthered flowers. I love the grandeur of the grasslands, but my mother raised me to feel uncomfortable if no trees exist to demarcate civilization. Whatever their faults, these trees do volunteer to live on alkaline soil with salty water in high winds while the preferred fruit trees huddle behind the shelter of stuccoed walls and coyote fences.

Dunbar, Chuck. "Bonsai Forest of Siberian Elm," 1 April 2007, available on-line.

Photograph: Siberian elm along the shoulder, 5 April 2008.

Sunday, April 06, 2008


What’s growing in the area: More apricots and daffodils are blooming; Siberian elms, mossy phlox, tansy mustard, and dandelions are coming into bloom; Bradford pears have buds; bittersweet has leaves; white sweet clover, heath asters, pigweed, and horseweed are back.

In my yard: Forsythia, puschkinia, and hyacinth are blooming; lilac, privet, rose, spirea, red-leaved sandcherry, barberry, Russian sage, sweet pea, soapworts, and perky Sue leaves are emerging; daylilies, daffodils, tulips, catmint, salvia, ipomopsis, hartweigii, vinca, black-eyed Susan, chocolate flower, and fern-leaved yarrow are emerging; leaf buds are more obvious on tamarix, snowball, and Siberian pea

What’s blooming inside: Aptenia, kalanchoë, bougainvillea; coral honeysuckle.

Animal sightings: Small red ants are out; horses have been brought in to pasture down the road.

Weather: Winds and daily temperature swings are threatening tea rose stems; some forsythia, hyacinth, and puschkinia flowers have been killed by cold mornings; last rain 5 March, but ground in north garden still holds water; 13:18 hours of light today.

Weekly update: The pale puschkinias blooming in the shadow of June grass on the west side of the house are true children of the enlightenment that spread through the deracinated German nobility of northern Europe in the eighteenth century.

Peter I was the first Russian czar to discover western technology, partly through contacts with German, Dutch and English merchants in cities like Yaroslavl on the river route to Archangel. He ordered his nobility adopt western manners, and founded the Saint Petersburg Academy of Sciences in 1724.

He married his daughter, Anna, to the duke of Holstein-Gottorp. His wife, Catherine I, married the grandson, Karl Peter, to the daughter of an Anhalt-Zerbst prince. Sophie became Catherine when the renamed Peter became czar in 1762. Within months, she deposed him, ostensibly for supporting the aggrandizing Prussia in the Seven Years War.

Catherine II revived Peter I’s interest in western thought by founding the Saint Petersburg School of Mines. She eventually became a patron of Denis Diderot, whose encyclopedia symbolizes the enlightenment faith that it was possible for humans to define all useful knowledge and for the leisured class to make significant contributions in several arts or sciences.

At least some of the nobility followed their German leader’s example. Aleksei Ivanovich Musin-Pushkin became an archaeologist in Yaroslavl. His contemporary, Apollo Apollossowitch Mussin-Puschkin, experimented with chromium, platinum, and carbonic acid. Although distantly connected to the poet, Alexander Pushkin, the family maintained a plot in the same Wiesbaden cemetery where the academy head, Ekaterina Dashkova, would be buried.

In Britain, Augusta of Sachen-Gosha married the son of German-speaking George II, then settled into an estate at Kew when her Hanover son rose to the throne in 1760. Her gardener, William Chambers, began gathering plants from newly discovered parts of the world as a physical manifestation of the encyclopedists’ premise that all things could be comprehended if brought together. Joseph Banks expanded the effort when he took over the gardens in 1772 by sponsoring expeditions and requesting colonial leaders cooperate with the royal effort.

The entanglement of the enlightenment with colonial aspirations was flourishing when Catherine’s son, Paul I, took over Kartli-Kakheti in eastern Georgia in 1801 as part of Russia’s ongoing dispute with Persia over its southern border. The next year, Count Apollo explored transcaucasia with a Saint Petersburg trained botanist, Johannes Michael Friedrich Adams.

Apollo Apollossowitch sent 206 Caucasian plants to Banks in 1804. The next year, Adams introduced Puschkinia scilloides, a small, subalpine bulb with five-petaled, bell-shaped flowers on 5" stalks, to readers of the Saint Petersburg academy journal. From there it moved into commerce. William Robinson and Gertrude Jekyll were growing the dark-blue veined member of the lily family by the end of the century.

I’d probably still have this plant if there had been no Russian enlightenment, if Catherine had not usurped her husband's role, if Persia had not not a threat.. My subspecies, libanotica, might still have been discovered by bulb traders in the levant. After all, new species tulips and daffodils are being introduced every few years. But, I wonder, what would I call the earliest blooming spring flower that some mistakenly refer to as striped scilla.

Photograph: Puschkinia with dead blades of June grass, 5 April 2008.