Sunday, May 25, 2008

Perky Sue

What’s blooming in the area: Roses of all kinds including Austrian copper, yellow Persian, pink shrubs, teas and miniatures; Apache plume, Russian olive, four-wing saltbush, yucca, red hot poker, oriental poppy, peony, fern-leaf globemallow, yellow sweet clover, oxalis, nits-and-lice, tumble mustard, hoary cress, Jupiter’s beard, white evening primrose, bindweed, western stickseed, goat’s beard, common and native dandelions; three-awn, rice, needle and cheat grass; lamb’s quarter germinated.
In my yard: Spirea, beauty bush, snowball, iris, flax, small-leaf soapwort, snow-in-summer, sea pink, coral bells, winecup, rock rose, golden spur columbine, pink evening primrose, Mount Atlas daisy, perky Sue, chocolate flower; buds on hollyhock, purple beardtongue, catmint, fern-leaf yarrow, anthemis, blanket flower, coreopsis, and Mexican hat.
Bedding plants: Snapdragon, sweet alyssum, petunia, French marigold, gazania.
Inside: Aptenia, kalanchoë, bougainvillea, zonal geranium.
Animal sightings: Pair of small hummingbirds; too many ants and baby grasshoppers.
Weather: Hot, dry, windy days were replaced by cold, wet, windy ones; even so, parts of my front yard were still completely dry yesterday. Last rain 5/23/08. 15:35 hours of daylight today.
Weekly update: The demand for wildflowers like perky Sue is greater than the inventory of mass producible varieties. When I bought two pots in Santa Fe in 1998, they were named Hymenoxys argenta. The rabbit ate them.

When I tried seven in 2001 the same store offered Hymenoxys scaposa. When I added five more in 2003, two were actually giant perky Sues labeled as Hymenoxys acaulis. I now have five of the first with narrow, dark-green leaves and one of the second with lance-shaped, grayer leaves. They haven’t all survived, haven’t gone to seed, haven’t naturalized. At best, two have expanded from their crowns.

I look at the yellow composites rising on bare stems from shrubby hummocks of wintergreen leaves, and wonder why they haven’t done as well as the neglected argenta plants growing in the gopher riddled median on the approach into Santa Fe.

Good Calvinist that I am, I always assume plant failure is my fault. Then, after I buy perennials year after year and treat them with different watering and transplanting techniques, I turn on the purveyors. After all, argenta is promoted for gardens in Arizona, scaposa by those in Texas and the Sandias, and acaulis for Colorado. The species whose thick taproot was converted to chewing gum by the Tewa and local Spanish-speakers in the early 20th century was richardsonii.

The last thing I consider is the possibility that nature may be the reason my natives fail. Wildflowers that are specific to a small location are inherently fussy. Apparently, the various Hymenoxys flourished on limestone soils during the dry, warm period after the Wisconsin glacier, then began adapting when the climate changed again.

At some time, the parent of the three commercially available species underwent enough genetic change that the descendants have been redefined as Tetraneuris, partly because they are the only ones that can double their sets of 30 chromosomes. One acaulis subspecies around the Great Lakes has retreated into such small, widely separated areas that the lake daisy has lost its ability to reproduce because the remaining plants are too similar to mate. Marcella Demauro found similar outcrossing, self-compatible populations in Illinois and Ohio could only breed with each other, but not within their own environments.

Another endemic in Valley Verde, Arizona, that Daniel Godec believes probably diverged from another acaulis variant, is found on only four gypsum hill tops because it has become too sensitive to soil and slope. Who knows what my particular plants need.

The local Hymenoxys, pingué, apparently was able to accept a more variable climate, for it ranges from New Mexico to Saskatchewan. It’s strongest adaptation has been the production of chemicals which poison sheep foolish enough to eat it. It apparently increased to cover vast areas when overgrazing eliminated more palatable forage.

It’s ironic that no one is offering this more forgiving species in the trade today because men have tried to grow the Colorado rubber plant commercially for the latex in the roots. Even its old uses and dangers have been forgotten since bovines replaced ovines. Michael Moore says the best many can conjure today is that it was used "to get rid of too many sheep."

The memory of yellow covered hills still leads to the desire for the long-blooming native that is satisfied by plantsmen who believe their particular offering is the true perky Sue. They look enough alike to fool all but the trained botanists, and sometimes they do actually naturalize. Just not in my garden.

Campbell, Lesley, Brian Hubbard and Michael Oldham. "Cosewic Status Report on the Lakeside Daisy, Hymenoxys herbacea in Canada," 2002, available on-line.

Demauro, Marcella M. "Relationship of Breeding System to Rarity in the Lakeside Daisy (Hymenoxys acaulis var. glabra)," Conservation Biology 7:542-550:1993.
Godec, Daniel J. "Distribution and Taxonomic Discussion of Tetraneuris verdiensis, an Apparently Rare Edaphic Endemic from the Verde Valley of Arizona," Rare and Endangered Plant Conference, 2000.Moore, Michael. Commentary in L. S. M. Curtin, Healing Herbs of the Upper Rio Grande, 1947; revised by Moore for Western Eagle Press, 1997.Robbins, William Wilfred, John Peabody Harrington and Barbara Friere-Marreco, Ethnobotany of the Tewa Indians, 1916.United States Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Range Plant Handbook, 1937; republished by Dover Publications, 1988.Photograph: Perky Sue, offered as Hymenoxys scaposa, more properly Tetraneuris scaposa, 24 May 2008.

Sunday, May 18, 2008


What’s blooming in the area: Locust, tea and miniature roses, snowball, yucca, wisteria,, yellow columbine, fern-leaf globemallow, loco weed, tansy mustard, hoary cress, white evening primrose, bindweed, western stickseed, goat’s beard, common and native dandelions; three-awn, rice, needle and cheat grass; buds on saltbush; seeds on June grass; ragweed and Russian thistle emerging. A man was discing his field on Thursday
evening after the rains; two were clearing weeds by hand from a furrowed field yesterday.

In my yard: Spirea, iris, flax, vinca, small-leaf soapwort, snow-in-summer, coral bells, winecup, pink evening primrose, Mount Atlas daisy, perky Sue; buds on beauty bush, oriental poppy, hollyhock, sea pinks, pinks, and fern-leaf yarrow; seed pods on Siberian pea tree; Illinois bungle flower, baptista, leadplant, tomatilla, and purple ice plant emerging; rugosa rose, caryopteris, Russia sage suckering.

Bedding plants: Snapdragon, sweet alyssum, petunia, marigold, gazania, Dahlberg daisy.

Inside: Aptenia, kalanchoë; bougainvillea, zonal geranium.

Animal sightings: First grasshopper of the season, bumble bee on iris, ladybug on saltbush. Small yellow bellied birds have nested in the front porch soffit and now retreat to the peach tree when I’m out to yammer about their territorial rights.

Weather: Finally some real rain on Thursday; that evening when I crested the ridge into our valley, the cottonwoods and Siberian elms were an undulating mass of brilliant emerald green hummocks along the river where they were filling out. 15:23 hours of daylight today.

Weekly update: Bees don’t work in the wind and neither does spirea. This is the second year my flowers have all been to the leeward, hidden between the blue-green leaves and the garage.

Spirea is not particularly well adapted to this climate for the notched leaves demand water. Before the drought of 2003, someone at Santa Clara had a hedge edging the road. That dry summer, the 3' bushes turned brown in July; the following year, only a few shrubs near the house had leaves. This year there are no flowers on the few green branches that poke up among the uncut dead ones.

The bare root I ordered in 1995 never broke dormancy. The potted shrub I bought locally in 1996 didn’t survive the winter, but the one I got in 1998 did so well I added four in 2000. I had put the first at the garage corner where it got some water from the roof. The new bush at the other corner has done well, but is about half the height of the first which has yet to produce branches heavy enough to flex. The ones that depend only on me show more bare ruddy branches than ones with leaves.

This rose family member’s ancestors are native to the well-watered parts of China. Spiraea trilobata sojourns near and above the Huang Ho which flows through Shaanxi with only 15" of precipitation a year to Jiangsu with an average annual 32" minimum. Spiraea cantonensis grows in northern Jiangxi along the Yangtze where winter temperatures don’t usually fall below freezing and annual rainfall ranges between 56" and 72".

The first, with its yellow-brown twigs, was introduced into Europe in 1801. The other, also called Reeve’s spirea, arrived in 1824. It probably was sent to England by John Reeves, a tea inspector and naturalist with the East India Company in Canton who purchased many of his plants from the Fa-tee nurseries. Both were grown by Joseph Breck in Boston in 1851.

Billiard et Barré offered a cross around 1862 that combined the habits and coloring of the one with the vigor of the other. Louis Van Houtte promoted it from his great nursery enterprise near Ghent. A generation later, in 1888, Burpee was advertising Van Houtte’s shrub as "the most showy of all the Spireas, and one of the very best shrubs in cultivation." By 1914, Wilhelm Miller pronounced it the most popular foundation shrub on Illinois farms.
When I lived in Michigan in the early 1980's, many of the white frame two-story houses in Ypsilanti built on high basements to accommodate coal furnaces were fronted by mature shrubs that reached above the foundation line to spill out branches lined with small heads of tiny white flowers like so many billowing layers of tulle.

Bridal wreath may have arrived in the valley with mail order catalogs, but the houses where it grows are ones built after World War II when the national lab brought prosperity to the area. One person on the farm road has a specimen sprawling near a block wall while another has a thick, upright shrub near a wooden fence. In the village, one person has four neatly pruned canisters dotted by flowers along a chain link fence and one plant too small to train.

I planted my hybrids by the garage because spirea smells - not like a hyacinth or a rose, but with a strong distinctive odor that I can detect when I’m a foot away from the five-petaled flowers. This year mine have been attracting skinny insects no more than 1/16" long that apparently don’t mind strong vapors. That’s a good thing because bees also stay home when it’s cold or wet.

Breck, Joseph. The Flower-Garden, 1851, reprinted by OPUS Publications, 1988.

Burpee. Cited by Gerald Klingaman in "Vanhoutte Spirea," 2003, available on-line., Flora of China, includes location information for cantonensis,vanhouttei, and trilobata.

Miller, Wilhelm. The "Illinois Way" of Beautifying the Farm, 1914.

Rehder, Alfred. Manual of Cultivated Trees and Shrubs, 1947, provides introduction dates,

Photograph: Spirea, 17 May 2008.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Yellow Alyssum

What’s blooming in the area: Wisteria, pink and yellow iris, Jupiter’s beard, fern-leaf globemallow, tansy mustard, hoary cress, oxalis, bindweed, western stickseed, goat’s beard, common and native dandelions, cheat grass, June grass. Snowballs in bud; rose of Sharon and skunk bush showing leaves; bigleaf globemallow coming up. Siberian elm seeds have been blowing all week, sometimes in great brown drifts.

In my yard: Siberian pea tree, spirea, tulips, purple and white iris, yellow alyssum, flax, vinca, mossy phlox, small-leaf soapwort, pink evening primrose, Mount Atlas daisy, perky Sue; pinks, coral bells, sea pinks, and fern-leaf yarrow in bud; catalpa leafing out; butterfly weed and California poppies coming up.

Inside: Aptenia, kalanchoë; bougainvillea, zonal geranium

Animal sightings: Rabbit exploring yard; more birds heard, but not seen; flies and ants

Weather: First week that morning temperatures did not reach freezing, but high winds continued. Last year the lilacs were in full bloom; this year the only one in the village that started to open has retreated. Last snow April 4, but last significant moisture March 5. 15:00 hours of daylight today.

Weekly update: My yellow alyssum is going out of bloom this dry spring, one plant, 15" high by 24" wide, in a 100 square foot bed of bare dirt and slowly emerging foliage.

It would be nice to have a larger mass of color, but my attempts to add more plants failed. In the late 90's, the plant was sold by one of the local hardware stores, and bloomed so nicely for several people near the village that I bought nine in Santa Fe in 1999. Four survived. The next year I replaced four, and ended the season with five. The number dwindled to two in 2003, and since 2005 it’s been only the one.

At the time I wondered what I was doing wrong; now I’m curious how the one plant has managed to survive so long. When I read descriptions I suspect I have a changeling. Garden writers constantly use words like compact and trailing when they recommend it for rockeries. My perennial is shrubby with stiff branches leaning out rather like a succulent fall sedum, with last year’s gray-green foliage dying beneath.

Back then, I would have blamed the usual culprits especially growers who substitute cheapers plant for named ones. This year Jelitto offers 1,000 seeds of my variety, Goldkugel, to growers for $5.56; Germania sells the more generic, even shorter Compactum for nearly a dollar less, $4.60 per 1,000. Few of Germania’s immediate customers, the ones who specialize in germinating seeds for wholesale growers, still sell yellow alyssum. Henry’s Plant Farm offers Gold Ball, the English for kugel, while Raker offers Compactum. Both, no doubt, buy seeds from more than one supplier.

Back then, I would also have suspected growers who sell plants that aren’t ready to transplant or do so when it’s too late in the season. As businessmen with bank loans to cover the season, they need to make money from their distributors who demand plants for Mother’s Day weekend. Jellito’s growth schedule for Goldkugel varies from 9 to 13 weeks. These mustard seeds don’t perform to the day like tomatoes, and planting a young seedling four weeks too early or too late could well produce disaster in this hostile environment.

Gardeners do not accept repeated failures. Allan Armitage says he could grow this native of the rocky northwestern Ottoman Empire in Michigan and Ontario, but it failed in the summer heat and clay soils of Georgia. The Missouri Botanical Garden says it can survive in humid Saint Louis, but for only a few years.

Growers notice when plants no longer sell or when they receive too many demands for refunds. This year only a few nurseries offer my Aurinia saxatilis. The store where I bought my plants in 1999 is advertising an Alyssum montanum variety. Alyssum and Aurinia are members of the same Alysseae subtribe within the Brassiceae familythat can only be distinguished by specialists. Lobularia maritinum, what we call sweet alyssum, is tentatively grouped with them, but has some anomalous DNA.

Even more quickly do growers drop plants that gardeners never buy for aesthetic reasons, no matter how hardy they may be. One would think Goldkugel’s tiny, four-petaled flowers offered everything beginning gardeners could want. The great rounded clusters cover the plant, are attractive in detail and from a great distance, open at one time, stay open, and are easily sheared off. The hairy basal leaves last all winter. Even though tonier nurseries offer paler varieties like Citrina, the strong chrome yellow is not too bright for people who love daffodils, yellow tulips, and forsythia.

Even successful plants become difficult to obtain when they prove too difficult or too expensive to grow or ship. Karl Jelitto was one of the men in the 1970's who pioneered the commercial production of cold weather perennials from seed, rather than labor-intensive cuttings. His innovation increased the complexity of seed production, while simplifying planting for his customers, especially after companies emerged who produced seedlings for the next tier of nurserymen.

Once seeds were reintroduced, nature became the most likely jester for random sports. Today Bugtussle Perennials offers what it calls a seed strain with "more compact uniform plants" that have "none of the floppiness of the other Aurinias." My plant could be a similar genetic quirk.

Every year at this time, after the cherries in the center of my main bed have bloomed and I’m waiting for perky Sue and columbine to open, I look at the lone yellow alyssum plant and wish for more, but then remember it’s all probably the result of some cosmic event that probability says I can never duplicate, an event that can only be accepted and appreciated as presented.

Armitage, Allan M. Herbaceous Perennial Plants, 1989.

Bugtussle Perennials. "Aurinia saxatilis Summit," on-line catalog.

Germania Seed Company. "Alyssum (Aurinia)," on-line catalog.

Jelitto, Klaus R. "My Recollections of 50 Years in the Seed Trade," available on-line.

Jelitto Staudensamen GmbH, "Alyssum saxatile 'Compactum Goldkugel,'" on-line catalog.

Missouri Botanical Garden. "Aurinia saxatilis," available on-line.

Photograph: Yellow alyssum, 10 May 2008.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Siberian Pea Tree

What’s blooming in the area: First lilacs, wisteria, iris, flax, tansy mustard, hoary cress, western stickseed, common and native dandelions, cheat grass. June grass is beginning to unsheath, first tahokia daisies are coming up, Virginia creeper and grape are starting to leaf out.

In my yard: Siberian pea tree, tulips, daffodils, grape hyacinth, yellow alyssum, mossy phlox, Mount Atlas daisy. Perky Sue has buds, while forsythia and sand cherries are leafing out.

Inside: Aptenia, kalanchoë; bougainvillea buds.

Animal sightings: More horses in to pasture.

Weather: Another week with temperatures ranging from the low 30's to the mid 70's that encourage plants to grow so high winds can suck the moisture from the soil, the stems and the leaves, leaving a false promise of fertility that was the talk of people in line in the post office yesterday. Forest fire danger is high with the last snow April 4 and the last significant moisture March 5. 14:44 hours of daylight today.

Weekly update: My Siberian pea tree reminds me that nature, like any good choreographer or composer, likes to take a motif and run it through all the possible positions or keys and tempos.

With Caragana aborescens, the theme is the archetypical pea flower with two lips, one hunched over the other that we’re used to seeing in red, pink and white on perennial sweet pea vines or in more varied colors on knee-high annuals. Nature tried clusters of large cream disks hanging off high branches with the catalpa tree and short spikes of tiny purple funnels for loco weed.

On this particular legume, nature spaces small, narrow flowers between clover pads so they look like dead leaves from a distance. The blossoms are so short lived that after the first few day, the shrub doesn’t look much better up close when buds and dead flowers outnumber the fully flexed ones. The narrow brown seed pods look more natural when they reach out from the limbs in late summer.

Obviously, humans don’t share nature’s fascination with the arabesque and want something more from a plant than a demonstration of what’s possible, no matter how grotesque. I bought three bare roots from an Ohio nursery in 2001 because, much as I like forsythia, I don’t like it near the pink and white flowering trees in spring and wanted another yellow to add depth to the arching branches.

Unfortunately, last year was the only year the two floral periods overlapped. Most years the pea tree starts to bloom the day after the last forsythia flower withers. This year, frost killed the one before the other could open.

In spring the bright chartreuse forsythia foliage clashes with the greyed lime-green of the pea tree. The smooth, yellow-brown bark of the one jars against the olive ridged bark of the other. However, by summer, the leaves darken on both and expand to produce the variations in color and form I’d hoped for in spring.

Most who plant Caragana do so for utilitarian reasons. On the northern great plains, the USDA suggests farmers use rows of trees and shrubs to protect their fields from drying winds. When extension experts draw up lists of survival requirements, they discover few densely-branched, long-lived, quick-growing plants can handle cold winters, high winds, and saline soils while surviving grasshoppers, repelling gophers, and tolerating modern pesticides and herbicides.

They’d also like the roots to be porous and the plants to be natives that will never escape, but they can’t have everything. They accept the pea tree for the outer edge of tree rows, where the numerous 12' vertical branches create barriers beneath the taller tree crowns.

Botanists know grasshoppers will eat pea trees bare and heat can defoliate them, but they also know the shrubs recover in fall to return fully clad the following year. They also appreciate the dense roots that reach down 16" to hold the soil and attract rhizobia bacteria to add nitrogen.

Siberian pea trees grow on the steppes of Asia from the countries bordering the Silk Road, Uzbekistan, Tajikstan, Kyrgystan, and Kazakstan, north to Siberia and Mongolia and west to Ukraine, Belarus, and the Balkans. Wayside says the Russian Imperial Botanical Gardens received a sample in 1730, and Lamarck knew about it in 1785, either from the Jardin du Roi or from his travels through Europe in 1871 and 1782 as Louis XVI’s royal botanist. They came to the United States as ornamental shrubs do, with little fanfare, but weren’t much used until the 1930's when the Soil Conservation Service promoted them.

Even though pea trees generally don’t grow well south of Nebraska, they do adapt to New Mexico. The New Mexico Botanist reports some have seeded themselves into a sandy wash near the Las Dos subdivision northwest of Santa Fe. Like anything that can survive this hostile environment, they introduce unexpected variations into the garden and, sometimes, to the consternation of environmentalists, into the wild where nature remains an inveterate experimenter with form oblivious to human aesthetics.

Lamarck, Jean Baptiste. Encyclopedie Methodique. Botanique 1:615:1785.

New Mexico State University, Range Science Herbarium. "Plant Distribution Reports," The New Mexico Botanist, 19 October 2004.

Wayside Gardens. "Caragana 'Walker'" catalog description available on-line.

Photograph: Siberian pea tree, 27 April 2008.