Sunday, December 28, 2008

Winter Mysteries

What’s still green: Juniper and other conifers, roses, Apache plume, honeysuckle, prickly pear, yucca, red hot poker, vinca, rock rose, blue flax, sweet pea, sea pink, winecup, hollyhocks, pinks, bouncing Bess, snapdragon, Jupiter’s Beard, golden spur columbine, Saint John’s wort, some grasses.

What’s gray, blue or gray-green: Piñon, winterfat, saltbush, buddleia, loco, snow-in-summer.

What’s red: Cholla, coral bells, coral beardtongues, soapworts, pink evening primrose, purple aster.

What’s blooming inside: Christmas cactus, aptenia, rochea, bougainvillea, zonal geraniums.

Animal sightings: Man down the road has brought in some hogs.

Weather: Storms moved through, dropping some snow on Monday night and Thursday morning. After warm temperatures melted most of it, leaving mud sitting on frozen ground, temperatures fell this morning to their lowest so far this winter. Plants still buried under piles of snow will be OK; I’m not sure about those with shallow roots in the thawed areas. 8:24 hours of daylight today.

Weekly update: ’Tis the time for some houseplant to produce a brilliant flower to protest the soddeness that follows melting snow.

It won’t be the succulent I bought last July when the local hardware was selling off the orphans. The perennial came with a picture of bright red flowers, the names Rochea coccinea and Campfire. In fact, it has tiny white, tulip-shaped flowers in groups of nine crowded on elongating stems that are barely visible from a distance.

In the early days of the last depression, Bailey said Rochea flowers grow in dense terminal clusters, that coccinea sports bright scarlet, two-inch-long flared tubes. The only red I see appears along the edges of the pairs of elliptical leaves when temperatures fall and slowing photosynthesis drains away the green. Rochea’s ovate leaves are supposed to alternate along the stems; these form beneath the pairs of light-sensitive flower heads.

I suspect I have a South African weed that probably was grown in Estancia by McLain Greenhouse from contaminated seed. Had it been a cutting, they would have known. But then, had they known, poor Española is just the sort of place it would have been shipped to salvage the cost of potting soil.

The spring selection in the hardware associated with the smallest chain in town has been declining each year. Probably because the parent faces stiff competition from Lowe’s and Wal-mart, it’s been offering fewer plants each year, and the choices have been getting odder, as if the buyers were taking the lowest priced, remaindered lots. One year the only fruit trees the store received for its spring tent sale were peaches. Last year they got almost no tomatoes.

The more managers retrench in the belief people won’t be buying, the more they create that condition. People who walked in last spring and found half the usual shelf space devoted to annuals, and came back a week later to find nothing new had been received, didn’t return. When last year’s seeds arrived later than usual, I regretted not spending more time looking at mail order alternatives.

It was with some foreboding then that I opened the early batch of seed catalogs this week: fear they had retreated to offer less I could grow, panic that if I didn’t find everything I needed, I might have to go without. Of course my anxieties were met with higher shipping costs and the loss of some favorite varieties. The single colored larkspur had been replaced by a "new series" for "commercial cut flower growers." Jewel nasturtiums were gone from another and the Bright Lights cosmos banished to the "super sale" of the discontinued.

But then, I looked at catalogs from places I haven’t used in a while and discovered they not only had adequate substitutes and lower shipping, but tucked here and there were those elusive possibilities that tempt me to try something new: why not another variety of creeping zinnia instead of nasturtiums? why not pink baby’s breath in place of larkspur?

In the scheme of things, these alterations aren’t particularly radical, aren’t going to make much difference to any company’s bottom line. They’re just extensions of what I’ve learned works, the simplest kind of innovation. They aren’t nearly so daring as buying that weed last July, and, whilst that unknown may not be the bright spot of color I’d expected, at least it’s blooming, unfazed by the market forces that sent it my way, a quiet witness that even the lowly have a place in this winter of discontent.

Notes: Baily, Liberty Hyde and Ethel Zoe Bailey. Hortus, 1930.

Photograph: Unknown plant sold as Rochea coccinea, 23 December 2008.

Sunday, December 21, 2008


What’s still green: Juniper and other conifers, roses, Apache plume, yucca, prickly pear, honeysuckle, red hot poker, vinca, rock rose, blue flax, sweet pea, sea pink, winecup, hollyhocks, pinks, bouncing Bess, snapdragon, Jupiter’s Beard, golden spur columbine, Saint John’s wort, purple aster, some grasses; arborvitae turning brown.
What’s gray, blue or gay-green: Piñon, winterfat, saltbush, buddleia, loco, snow-in-summer.
What’s red: Cholla, coral bells, coral beardtongues, soapworts, pink evening primrose.
What’s blooming inside: Aptenia, rochea, bougainvillea; Christmas cactus close to opening.
Animal sightings: Birds were out Tuesday as soon as there was enough light to see, even though a low wind made it difficult for them to perch. Sunday the blue bird huddled above the porch post under the eave, obviously regretting the decision to winter here.
Weather: Sunday, wind and rain in the night before Monday’s fine snow that turned heavy after dark. The 7" in my drive has been compacting and evaporating ever since, but there’s still a thin covering in many places ready to turn to ice if it’s stepped on. 8:23 hours of daylight today.
Weekly update: Something still green for the solstice should not pass unnoticed.
The Vinca minor I planted in deep, dry shade in 2000 and 2001 has survived and produced a few flowers, but the trailing stems have yet to find places wet enough to root and expand. Even so, after this week’s snows the sparse, leathery leaves are green.
John Williamson noticed periwinkle in the "Unicorn in Captivity" tapestry produced in France around 1500 for François IV de La Rouchefoucauld. One group of five-petaled blue flowers appears with a carnation under the animal’s tail, where it signifies the promise of fertility. Another clump, beyond the enclosing fence near a pomegranate, is intended to ward off the evil represented by the white campion.
The unicorn hunt, shown in five tapestries in the set, climaxes when the male animal is killed on the solstice, after having been tranquilized by the attention of a young virgin. The animal’s immediate rebirth into captivity was associated by church leaders with the birth of Christ a few days after mid-winter, but has deeper roots in the annual battle, first suggested by James Frazer in The Golden Bough, between the oak, representing summer and the sun, and holly, signifying the winter that must kill the god-king so a younger, more vital man may rein.
Robert Graves noticed the same juxtaposition of periwinkle with the lure of fertility and betrayal leading to death in a French ballad from the 1100's in which a shoemaker representing Llew Llaw Gyffes is tempted by a beautiful lady into a large bed with blue pervenche flowers on the four posts. The Celtic sun god is murdered by his rival after she binds him with the runners.
Myrtle, as my mother prosaically called periwinkle, is peripheral in the iconography of these artifacts of high French culture, but its associations with death and fertility go back to those times when plants, not animals, were used to express man’s relationship with nature and the supernatural.
Around 1230, Guillaume de Lorris wrote one of the most popular romances of the period, "Roman de la Rose," which is set in May when, to quote Chaucer’s translation, "the erthe wexeth proud" and men forget the past solstice "in which that winter had it set." A young man enters a walled garden posted with warning signs of evil where he falls in love with a rose, but is imprisoned by the guardian before he can liberate her. The first flowers Lorris lists in the garden are violets and "fresshe pervinke, riche of hewe."
The thing I wonder is how a flower, for it is always the flower that is used, no matter how inappropriate the season, went from being the healing herb used by Romans for its astringent qualities to a symbol for the sorceress who lures a man to his destruction. One possibility is that when the Romans took the Apocynaceae north to places like Britain it no longer produced seed, and any sterile plant was seen with suspicion by people who relied on grain.
After the courtly culture of the troubadours passed, the plant that had been emblematic of destructive virginity became the magical tool to cure it. In London around 1525, the unknown man who published The Book of Secrets of Albertus Mangus prescribed a charm made from powdered periwinkle, houseleaks and earthworms to "induceth love between man and woman."
In 1650, Nicolas Culpepper associated periwinkle with Venus and told his English readers the French used an infusion "to stay women’s courses," the physical manifestation of barrenness and impotence. This use of tannin from the leaves persisted into the early twentieth century when homeopathists recommended lesser periwinkle for the heavy flows of menopause that signal the end of female fecundity.
Today, both pagans and papists notice the perennial: Magica D’La Luna proclaims violette des sorciers a Wiccan patron herb while Mary DeTourris Poust includes pucellage in her garden devoted to flowers sacred to the virgin Mary. The constellation of motifs found in medieval France may have dissolved, but myrtle still blesses both the solstice and Christmas with green leaves rising from the snow.
Notes:Anonymous. The Boke of Secretes of Albartus Magnus, of the Vertues of Herbes, Stones, and Certaine Beastes. Also a Boke of the Same Author of the Maruaylous Things of the World and of Certaine Effectes Caused of Certayne Beastes, 1525, edited by Michael R. Best and Frank H. Brightman as The Book of Secrets of Albertus Magnus, 1999.
Boericke, William. Materia Medica, 1901; augmented 1927 edition kept in print by B. Jahn Publishers of New Dehli; his description is "continuous flow, particularly at climacteric."

Culpeper, Nicholas. Culpeper’s Complete Herbal and English Physician, 1650's; 1826 edition republished in 1981.

D’La Luna, Magica. "Periwinkle," available on-line.

Frazer, James George. The Golden Bough, 1922 abridged edition.

Graves, Robert. The White Goddess, 1966 second edition.

Poust, Mary DeTurris. "Planting with Prayer in Mind, 7 May 2008, available on-line.

Tuckwell, William. Chaucer, 1910, grouped with early work, translations before 1373.

Williamson, John. The Oak King, the Holly King, and the Unicorn, 1986; the seven tapestries are now owned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Photograph: Vinca minor and dead June grass and iris leaves, 18 December 2008.

Sunday, December 14, 2008


What’s still green: Juniper, arborvitae and other conifers, roses, Apache plume, yucca, prickly pear, honeysuckle, red hot poker, iris, vinca, rock rose, yellow evening primrose, blue and yellow flax, oriental poppy, sea lavender, sea pink, winecup, pinks, bouncing Bess, snapdragon, golden spur columbine, Saint John’s wort, catmint, fern-leaf yarrow, tansy, senecio, Mount Atlas daisy, Mexican hat, anthemis, chrysanthemum, black-eyed Susan, purple aster, some grasses.
What’s gray, blue or gray-green: Piñon, winterfat, saltbush, buddleia, loco, snow-in-summer, yellow alyssum, Silver King artemisia.
What’s red: Cholla, coral bells, white and coral beardtongues, pink evening primrose.
What’s blooming inside: Aptenia, rochea.
Animal sightings: Bird with chalky blue back around front porch last Sunday; rabbit tracks in snow Wednesday morning.
Weather: First snow Tuesday, along with first major power outage since the Thanksgiving fiasco a few years back; 8:24 hours of daylight today.
Weekly update: The first thing my furnace man asked last week was "Did you get any fruit?" When I had someone up from Santa Fe, he noticed the catalpa, but this tradesman, like any true son of the rio arriba, saw the peach and wanted to know.
Small talk in the valley has its own rhythms. I asked after the apples and he said the only ones who’d gotten much were in Los Alamos.
This would be a hard year if we still followed the old ways that depended on dried or stored apples for food and fresh ones for cash in the fall. The spring cold spells coincided with blossoming times, and I only saw fruit on a few trees in the 24 orchards I routinely drive by.
Most of the orchards have seen better days. Belle Becker says her family sold apples on the highway to Taos to people who came from Texas to fill their trucks until "the deep freeze in the 70's." That’s back when Emilio Naranjo was at the height of his political power in the county. Now, many have gaps where trees have died and not been replaced. A few are used for parking, but some are still carefully maintained, the grounds plowed or mowed, the branches pruned, the fruit picked. One paints the trunks white, another puts plastic collars made from empty plant containers around the bases.
Commercial apples are relatively recent. When Francisco Domínguez visited the area in 1776, he noticed only peaches and apricots. But, by 1830, Josiah Gregg saw trees around Santa Fe grown from pips that had come north. The Santa Clara bought the small, thin-skinned yellow mansanà from Mexican peddlers and used them to seed small orchards. These manzanas méxicanas were growing in Chimayó when Don Unser’s grandmother, Benigna Ortega Chávez, was a child early in the twentieth century and seen in Santa Cruz in the 1930's.
Change came with the railroads. Not only did the Denver and Rio Grande open markets for local farmers, but the transcontinental lines provided a distribution network for Clarence Stark, who began promoting his Delicious in 1895 by sending free samples with mail orders. By 1900, those saplings had begun to bear, and people wanted the sweet, five-pointed fruit from his Missouri-grown bare roots.
A revived knowledge of pomology probably filtered south from Denver where Stark had been treated for tuberculosis in 1887. While there he established dryland orchards and made promotional trips, including some to Mormons, who’d brought their apple growing techniques from the east. Whipple wrote in 1914 that the apple industry was still comparatively young in New Mexico and expanding the most around Farmington. Delicious wasn’t yet among the common varieties.
The seedling Jesse Hiatt found in Iowa near his Yellow Bellflower tree around 1870 was probably just reaching the Rio Grande when Naranjo was born in Guachupangue in 1916. Mrs. Chávez remembers her father, Reyes Ortega, and Santos Ortiz brought the first manzanas americanas to Chimayó from Sombrillo. By the time Naranjo was in high school in Santa Fe in the 1930's, Red Delicious and its pollination partners, Jonathan and Winesap, had become the most important varieties in Santa Cruz.
There are no orchards left along the Taos highway at my end of town, and only a few places in the village have trees. The land in the one has turned commercial, that near the church was always too valuable for farming. Arboleroas were kept to the periphery there, like they were in Chimayó, where trees were banished to life outside the plaza.
Some of the early plantations were ambitious. The largest one today is six rows of 32 trees suggesting an original plan for 192. The other large plantings look like they were 6 by 20 and 6 by 16. More orchards are two or four rows wide and six trees deep, one to two dozen trees. When hard cash came from men like Naranjo’s father, Alejandrino, who worked the mines and smelters of Colorado, these were sizable investments.
Such abundance must have become not only a symbol of economic comfort in bad times, but also such a mark of success that people still buy a half dozen trees for their much-reduced lots. Dwarf trees a 92-year-old man can maintain without a ladder are planted in three rows in a fenced plot to the right of Naranjo’s home. When he died a few weeks ago, he may have outlived the traditional life that formed him and the political machine he built, but his trees, like all the orchards in the area, are outliving him. Next year, people may ask his heirs if they got any fruit.
Notes:Becker, Belle. Interviewed by Kevin Huelsmann for "The Villages of Española," Rio Grande Sun, 29 May 2008. Domínguez, Francisco Atansio. Republished as The Missions of New Mexico, 1776, translated and edited by Eleanor B. Adams and Angélico Chávez, 1956.Gregg, Josiah. Commerce of the Prairies: Life on the Great Plains in the 1830's and 1840's, 1844, republished by The Narrative Press, 2001.Robbins, William Wilfred, John Peabody Harrington and Barbara Friere-Marreco, Ethnobotany of the Tewa Indians, 1916.
Terry, Dickson. "The Stark Story," Missouri Historical Society, The Bulletin, Sept 1966.
US Dept of Interior, Tewa Basin Study, volume 2, 1935, reprinted by Marta Weigle as Hispanic Villages of Northern New Mexico, 1975.Usner, Don J. Sabino’s Map: Life in Chimayó’s Old Plaza, 1995.
Whipple, O. B. "Apple Growing in the Western Mountain States" in Liberty Hyde Bailey, The Standard Cyclopedia of Horticulture, 1914.

Photograph: Small apple orchard near the village, 7 December 2008.

Sunday, December 07, 2008


What’s still green: Juniper, arborvitae and other conifers, roses, yucca, prickly pear, honeysuckle, red hot poker, iris, vinca, rock rose, yellow evening primrose, blue flax, sea pink, winecup, pinks, soapworts, bouncing Bess, snapdragon, golden spur columbine, Saint John’s wort, catmint, fern-leaf yarrow, tansy, senecio, Mount Atlas daisy, Mexican hat, June and other grasses. Russian thistles breaking loose; ditch meeting this week.

What’s gray, gray-green or blue-green: Piñon, winterfat, saltbush, buddleia, loco, snow-in-summer, yellow alyssum, Silver King artemisia.

What’s red: Raspberry, cholla, privet, coral bells, white and coral beardtongues, pink evening primrose.

What’s turning yellow: Apache plume.

What’s blooming inside: Aptenia, rochea; first bud on Christmas cactus.

Animal sightings: Last Sunday migrating birds made a great din overhead, but the scattered dark specks kept disappearing into the cloudless blue sky when they changed direction and stopped reflecting the sun. The only thing I know is they weren’t geese, for they neither honked nor flew in formation.

Weather: Mornings mostly cold, nights mostly clear and starry; last rain 11/27/08; 8:31 hours of daylight today.

Weekly update: Whoever it is who decides what plants to ship to our local hardware stores always sends things that can’t survive here. Every year people buy the brilliant, cerise-flowered Salvia greggii, variously described as zone 6, 7 or 8, but are more cautious with unknowns that aren’t in flower. One woman walked away when the clerk told her the maple she was looking at needed to be taken in for the winter.

Then, at the end of the season, when these inappropriate perennials are on sale with 50% price reductions, some are willing to gamble. Two years ago, the overstocked stranger was Buddleia davidii. I bought two Monum at my local hardware that were immediately eaten by grasshoppers, then I tried two Black Knight from a Santa Fe big box that I immediately sprayed.

Someone down the road must have taken the entire remaining inventory of the plum-colored Monum, and this summer had three-foot bushes on irrigated land out by an outer wall. The butterfly bushes began producing lilac-shaped racemes at the ends of new stems in mid-July that continued into September. Mine were attacked by grasshoppers again, and grew only a foot with sporadic blooms in August.

But now my shrubs are doing something extraordinary - putting out new growth when our early morning temperatures are falling in the low twenties. Furthermore, Julie Ream says, if my tubular Black Knight florets managed to be fertilized, the seed is still maturing and will be disbursed sometime in January, while some Hungarians discovered they could root cuttings in sand in greenhouses kept as low as our daytime 45 degrees.

Seeds for these Scrophulariaceae were first sent to Kew Gardens from Yichang near the gorges on the Yangtze in western Hubei where the British had forced an open port in 1876 after the Second Opium War. The area was known for the quality of its tea leaves and oranges, and the first customs officer, Augustine Henry, was looking for new medicinal plants in 1887. Most modern varieties are derived from stock grown at the Jardin des Plantes and sent to Kew in 1895, perhaps from seed collected in the 1860's by a French missionary, Armand David.

Reginald Farrer became fascinated by plants in an abandoned quarry when he was a teenager, and, after leaving Oxford for a visit to China in 1902, returned to England to write a popular book describing his rock garden in 1907. The following year he raved about Buddleja variabilis, as it then was called, saying it was as luxuriant and gorgeous as any tropical, hardier than many lilacs, and bloomed in August.

At the same time, he converted to Buddhism, then returned to China a few years later with William Purdom to visit Gansu in the Tibetan borderlands. Among the seeds they sent back to Kew in 1914 where those for a dwarf davidii subspecies, nanhoénsis. The species is polyploidic and thus can easily produce genetic sports that may or may not survive.

The intrepid traveler visited Arras in war-ravaged France after the first World War, and came upon a Buddleia gone wild in the rubble, "exactly as I last saw it on the shingles of Tibet." Some sport of the plant naturalized on the lime debris of London during the Second World War, and many now fear it may become as invasive on the gravel edges of stream beds as it has in the kiwi plantations of New Zealand.

Before it was condemned by environmentalists and banned from gardens in Washington and Oregon, nurseries periodically introduced new cultivars by selecting mutations, including Peace in 1945. Ruy promoted the hardy Black Knight in 1959 which, coincidentally, produces less seed than most varieties. Monrovia introduced a cultivar of nanhoénsis in 1984 as Petite Plum or Monum for smaller gardens.

It’s since been the object of research by botanists trying to find better growing methods for nurserymen and by others trying to find ways to kill it. Farrer himself wondered who had planted the cherished "new rare treasure" he saw in Arras, before adding "not that it matters, or can make any difference to this scene of sordid modern ugliness in ruins." Perhaps it was a similar swing in taste that exiled this unwanted, paradoxically heat loving, cold thrifty plant to the shelves of Española. Farrer, himself, died in Burma in 1920 looking for more plants.

Farrer, Reginald John. Alpines and Bog Plants, 1908.
_____ My Rock Garden, 1907.
_____ The Void of War: Letters from Three Fronts, 1918.

Ream, Julie. Production and Invasion of Butterfly Bush (Buddleia davidii) in Oregon, 2006.

Újvári, Melinda and Gábor Schmidt. "Mini-cutting Propagation - A New Way for Propagation Semi-shrubs," no source provided, available on-line.

Photograph: New growth on Black Knight buddleia with iris in back, 30 November 2008.