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.

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