Sunday, January 25, 2009

Chaste Tree

What’s still green: Juniper and other conifers, roses, Apache plume, honeysuckle, prickly pear, yucca, red hot poker, vinca, rock rose, sweet pea, sea pink, hollyhocks, pinks, snapdragon, golden spur columbine, some grasses. Someone down the road was pruning his apples yesterday.
What’s gray, blue or gray-green: Piñon, winterfat, saltbush, buddleia, loco, snow-in-summer.
What’s red: Cholla, coral bells, beardtongues, soapworts, pink evening primrose, purple aster.
What’s blooming inside: Brazilian Christmas cactus, South African aptenia, rochea, and kalanchoë.
Animal sightings: Small birds in the cottonwood yesterday; sounds of fowl by the river earlier in the week.
Weather: A little rain Friday night, afternoons warmer.
Weekly update: Last summer’s remaindered temptations were two blue-flowered chaste trees. It wasn’t until I got the pots home that I remembered they need protection to survive zone 6 winters.
Rather than watch them die in the western blue border, I stuck the woody shrubs on the enclosed porch with some vague hope they might grow like trees in an atrium. Instead, their buds turned to dark berries without any evidence of an intervening stage, then the leaves turned brown. Since they’d shown no tolerance for missed waterings, I assumed they needed to be kept moist. To no avail, the leaves fell. I abandoned them in December. The only reason they’re still here is the snow, ice and mud have so disrupted use of the drive that only the most critical trash has been taken to the road.
Monday I happened to look at them when I was watering the geraniums and noticed new green leaves towards the top of each. Nothing obvious had changed: they’d had no water for more than a month, temperatures had ranged between 36 and 92 since I last reset the thermometer. Only the quality of the light streaming through the southeastern windows was different.
I thought I knew what deciduous meant. By the time I was in fourth grade, I’d been told the difference between northern evergreens and Michigan hardwoods that turned color after the first frosts of fall. However, the ability to shed and regrow leaves actually appeared in the warm Early Cretaceous when swamps were widespread and flowering plants just evolving. Daniel Axelrod believes when the climate began drying, the wetland plants that survived were those that sloughed unnecessary energy drains during droughts, like my chaste trees had done last summer when I forgot to water them.
After the unknown event that killed off the dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous, temperatures rose an average 18 degrees and precipitation quadrupled for nearly a million years. Jack Wolfe found deciduous trees moved north, then became dominant towards the poles. At some latitude, the absence of winter light became more critical to sustaining photosynthesis, than temperature or water. Those plants that could respond to reduced day length by shedding leaves were the ones that survived, like my nursery-grown clones did last fall.
Vitex agnus-castus seeds have been found in Syria at Jerf el Ahmar in layers dated between 9800 and 9300 BC, where George Willcox’s group traced changes in cereal grains as people in the early villages learned the ways of food plants. It’s impossible to guess what those settlers discovered about chaste tree berries. We know now they contain chemicals that stimulate the pituitary gland to produce female hormones, and that long before they appeared in fifth century BC Greek medical texts, they were used as contraceptives.
In the second century BC, Nikainetos described the tree as "wreathing of the Carians," implying it had been brought from Anatolia to Samos where it was used to bind the cult statue of Hera to a tree during her ritual marriage to her brother Zeus. Several hundred years later, Ovid said Athenian wives participating in the Thesmophorian festival reenacting Demeter’s wait for her daughter, Persephone’s return from the underworld prepared themselves by abstention and strewing their beds with agnos branches. Later, Pausanias reported Hera was born under the lygos tree on Samos and the statue of Artemis at the temple to Orthia Artemis in Sparta was found in a basket woven from its flexible branches.
Whatever the symbolism of associating these goddesses of procreation, Hera, Demeter and Artemis, with a plant that prevents pregnancy, the use of lygos branches suggests that in these sanctuaries, near the same latitude as my enclosed porch, people may also have been struck by the wondrousness of a deciduous shrub that’s among the first to return after the solstice, the first sign of returning life and the promise of spring.
Notes: Española is at 36E00' north latitude, Jerf el Ahmar at 36E22', Sparta at 37E4', Samos at 37E45' and Athens is at 37E94'.Axelrod, Daniel I. "Origin of Deciduous and Evergreen Habits in Temperate Forests," Evolution 20:1-15:1966, abstract available on-line.O’Brien, Joan V. The Transformation of Hera: A Study of Ritual, Hero, and the Goddess in the Iliad, 1993, discusses Nikainetos.Ovid. Metamorphoses, 8 AD, cited by "Thesmophoria," Encyclopedia Britannica, 1911.Pausanius. Description of Greece, c.143-161 AD, cited by Ioannia N. Tsoulogiannia and Demetrios A. Spandidos, "Endocrinology in Ancient Sparta," Hormones 6:80-82:2007 and by O’Brien.Riddle, John M. Contraception and Abortion from the Ancient World to the Renaissance, 1992.Willcox, George, Sandra Fornite, and Linda Herveux. "Early Holocene Cultivation Before Domestication in Northern Syria," Vegetation History and Archaeobotany 17:313-325:2008, available on-line.Wolfe, Jack A. "Late Cretaceous-Cenozoic History of Deciduousness and the Terminal Cretaceous Event," Paleobiology 13:215-226:1987, abstract available on-line._____ "Palaeobotanical Evidence for a Marked Temperature Increase Following the Cretaceous/Tertiary Boundary," Nature 343:153 - 156:11 January 1990, abstract available on-line.
Photograph: New chaste tree growth with unshed leaves and berries on enclosed porch, 24 January 2009.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Sea Pink

What’s still green: Juniper and other conifers, roses, Apache plume, honeysuckle, prickly pear, yucca, red hot poker, vinca, rock rose, sweet pea, sea pink, hollyhocks, pinks, bouncing Bess, snapdragon, 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, beardtongues, soapworts, pink evening primrose, purple aster.

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

Animal sightings: Rounded birds with grayish bellies and red sides were around the front porch last Sunday morning; water fowl were still noisy the first part of the week when I left for work.

Weather: Remains of snow continued to shrink. Each day the dry air pulled more moisture from thawed mud that couldn’t sink into the frozen sublayer, then returned some in morning frosts on purple asters and the debris from cut weeds. Last snow 1/10/09.

Weekly update: The mere fact I planted something called sea pink in arid New Mexico tells you my command of the English language is not what it should be.

Sea pink. As in a plant that grows by the ocean, not the color of some exotic type of salmon or the aquatic tint that appears only when corals are forming. No, campion of the sea.

My plants’ Armeria pseudarmeria ancestors cling to the rocks of Capo de Roca, the westernmost bulge of Europe that protects Lisbon from the fury of the Atlantic. The better known Armeria maritima stretches form the Bay of Biscayne to the salt marshes along the coasts of England, Ireland, and the northern islands.

The genus first appeared within the leadwort family during the Miocene in Spain when grassy savannas were colonizing the world. Towards the end of that epoch, some 5.9 million years ago, the Mediterranean outlets to the Atlantic closed and the internal sea began evaporating. As it dried, temperatures and salt levels increased in the basin.

Sea pinks deployed several survival strategies, including glands on their narrow lance-like leaves that expelled salt. Andrew Hanson’s team believes Armerias also developed new ammonia compounds within their cells to stabilize threatened proteins and membranes. One, choline-o-sulfate, removed the sulphur that accompanied salt; the other, beta-alanine betaine, replaced the more common glycine betaine which diverted choline to other purposes.

When temperatures fell with the ensuing glaciers, Armerias ceased adapting. Species like maritima simply withdrew to the estuaries and Scottish mountains when forests returned. Farther south, beyond the direct reach of ice, Belén Gutiérrez Larena’s group found they drifted up and down the mountains of southeastern Spain. Splendens, filicaulis nevadensis and villosa bernisii flourish at different altitudes today on the Sierra Nevada massif.

Sea pinks transcended the shady cold in spite of themselves because nature had provided them with two different forms of female stigmas, one with rounded bumps, the other with hairy nipples. Each produces male pollen that can only fertilize the other. When one species’ peregrinations brought it into contact with another, they were able to mate, like pseudarmeria and welwitschii on the periphery of the Estoril coast or the parents of filicaulis nevadensis.

Such openness to outcrossing not only produced the natural hybrids of Iberia, but the garden varieties of giant thrift already common in 1874 when The Garden magazine warned readers if they planted Armeria varieties too near one another, they would indiscriminately fraternize, and only the rare white flowers on the globular heads would remain true. Even then, the Portuguese perennial was variously called formosa, pseudo-armeria and cephalotes and sometimes attributed to southern Europe and northern Africa.

Who knows the origin of the Joysticks I bought in 2005, grown from seed released by Kieft in 1999. Perhaps the Dutch breeders sent collectors to Portugal, perhaps they simply built on existing inventories. Javier Fuertes Aguilar found the source wouldn’t have affected the botanic ascription anyway When he and his partners tested the DNA of several Spanish species, they found the Armerias had hybridized so often individual endemic examples fit no predictable genetic pattern that a taxonomist could associate with a Linnaean label.

Perhaps I’m lucky I spaced the name. Joysticks have enough Messinian germplasm to withstand summer droughts in the rio arriba, unfazed by saline well water, and perhaps something from a more northern species as well to remain green this winter. Few would buy them if they were called Dead Sea pinks, but perhaps that would have warned the linguistically challenged.

Aguilar, Javier Fuertes, Josep Antoni Rosselló, and Gonazlo Nieto Feliner. "Molecular Evidence for the Compilospecies Model of Reticulate Evolution in Armeria (Plumbaginaceae)," Systemic Biology 48:735-754:1999.

Gutiérrez Larena, Belén, Javier Fuertes Aguilar, and Gonzalo Nieto Feliner. "Glacial-induced Altitudinal Migrations in Armeria (Plumbaginaceae) Inferred from Patterns of Chloroplast DNA Haplotype Sharing," Molecular Ecology 11:1965-1974:2002.

Hanson, Andrew D., Bala Rathinasabapathi, Jean Rivoal, Michael Burnet, Michael O. Dillon, and Douglas A. Gage. "Osmoprotective Compounds in the Plumbaginaceae: A Natural Experiment in Metabolic Engineering of Stress Tolerance," National Academy of Science Proceedings 91:306-310:1994.

Hickey, Michael. 100 Families of Flowering Plants, 1988 second edition, describes characteristics of stigma on Armeria maritima.

JCN. "The Great Thrift," The Garden, 3 Jan 1874, published by William Robinson.

Tauleigne Gomes, Cristina and Claude Lefèbvre. "Natural Hybridisation Between Two Coastal Endemic Species of Armeria (Plumbaginaceae) from Portugal. 1. Populational in Situ Investigations," Plant Systematics and Evolution 250:215-230:2005.

Photograph: Joystick Red Shades sea pink growing in front of a retaining wall with dead grasses, 17 January 2009.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Sweet Pea

What’s still green: Juniper and other conifers, roses, Apache plume, honeysuckle, prickly pear, yucca, red hot poker, vinca, rock rose, sweet pea, sea pink, hollyhocks, pinks, bouncing Bess, snapdragon, 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, beardtongues, soapworts, pink evening primrose, purple aster.

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

Animal sightings: Sounds of water fowl drifted up from the river yesterday morning as the sun came out after snow in the night.

Weather: Snow dustings last Sunday and Friday night; freeze and thaw between so the drive has been too muddy to drive in at night and too icy to walk out in the morning.

Weekly update: These are the times that try plant’s souls. Those whose leaves survived the killing frosts have since faced dumps of snow, then mornings below 15 degrees, and now daily freeze and thaw cycles where temperatures range between 20 and 40. Only perennials with extraordinary biochemistry can survive.

My sweet peas so far have stayed green near the base, even though leaves farther along the stems have turned to paper. Green peaks from mounds of dead leaves on vines near the village that pile on themselves in summer when there’s nothing for their tendrils to clasp.

The plants are an improbable alien in arid New Mexico. They don’t tolerate salt, they prefer a pH between 5.8 and 7.5. In their homeland, they range from Morocco and Iberia to the Balkan peninsula, then up the Danube. They quail at the deserts of Africa and Asia and haven’t scaled the Alps of Switzerland and Austria. On this continent they balk at the cold of North Dakota and the Canadian prairies, won’t grow in humid Florida, and aren’t a success in the Mexican deserts.

The rosy racemes need 14 hours of daylight, which begins here the end of April, to begin developing. If temperatures remain around 40 degrees, which they did in the mornings until the first of this past June, they take eight weeks to develop. In the best years, they come into bloom around the solstice, just as the drought season sets in.

Lathyrus latifolia needs at least 26" of rain a year. The ones that have naturalized here grow on the banks on irrigation ditches, where they keep both cool and wet. To keep mine from browning out, I dump water on them whenever the drip pan under the outside faucet fills. They stay alive with only sporadic flowers.

Then, after being babied through the summer, the yellow veined leaves surprise and stay green into winter.

Staying green means photosynthesis is continuing at some rate. For that to occur, the roots must be functioning, as must the stem. Even though the rhizomes store some nutrients, they need to extract others, including water, from the soil. In this part of New Mexico, the average frost line is 10-15". Established sweet pea roots typically reach down more than two feet, at least 9" below frozen ground.

Photosynthesis occurs in the leaves which must remain undamaged by cold temperatures which can destroy cells when the surrounding water turns to ice. Bengt Lindforss first noted evergreens in central Germany that survived the frost contained no starches, because they had converted the carbohydrates to sugar. He then established the ability of sugar to protect plants by lowering the freeze point of internal fluids.

Nikolay Maximov read his work, then injected red cabbages with some sugars (glucose, glycerol) and some alcohols to show each could increase cold defenses. Sucrose is the primary sugar in the roots of sweet peas on limestone grasslands in central Europe in summer, according to Franz Hadacek and Günther Kraus.

Polish botanists noticed sweet pea’s relatively wide, coarse pairs of leaves have large, irregularly shaped cells which would give them greater tolerance for any ice crystals that might form than smaller cells would have. They also found summer leaves contain relatively high levels of salt and calcium. If maintained all year, the first would lower the freezing point, while the second would keep cell membranes flexible enough to expand and retract with potential ice.

The leaves look the same, summer or winter, mere dark presences hiding leguminous roots that put some nitrogen in the soil. However, the external matte appearance masks their strategies for survival as completely as the snow hides their existence from the drying sun.

Fuller, Barry J., Nick Lane, and Erica E. Benson, Life in the Frozen State, 2004, describes work of Bengt Lindforrs and Nikolay Maximov.

Hadacek, Franz and Günther F. Kraus. "Plant Root Carbohydrates Affect Growth Behaviour of Endophytic Microfungi," FEMS Microbiology Ecology 41:161-170:2002.

Kartesz, John T. "Lathyrus latifolius L.," USDA National Resource Conservation Service, National Plant Data Center.

Koike, Yasuhiko, Tomoaki Inoue, Shigetoshi Suzuki, Haruzo Higuchi. "Effect of Photoperiod on the Flowering of Lathyrus latifolius L.," Journal of the Japanese Society for Horticultural Science 69:770-772:2000.

_____ N. Kouyama, A. Yoshii, S. Suzuki, and H. Imanishi. "Effect of Low Temperatures Applied to Seeds and Seedlings on Flowering of Lathyrus latifolius L," Horticultural Research 6:525-528:2007.

Krstic, Borivoj D., Pal P. Boza, Ljiljana S. Merkulov, Lana N. Krstic, Slobodanka P. Pajevic, Zivko S. Stankovic. "Morpholigcal, Anatomical, and Physiological Characteristics of Lathyrus latifolius L. (Fabaceae)," Matica Srpska Novi Sad 103:81-89:2002, in English.

Sammis, Ted. "Frost Depth in New Mexico and the United States," New Mexico Climate 6:4-6:2008.

Photograph: Dead and green perennial sweet pea leaves in light coming through crack between fence boards, 10 January 2009.

Sunday, January 04, 2009


What’s still green: Juniper and other conifers, roses, Apache plume, honeysuckle, prickly pear, yucca, red hot poker, vinca, rock rose, sweet pea, sea pink, hollyhocks, pinks, bouncing Bess, snapdragon, 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, beardtongues, soapworts, pink evening primrose, purple aster.

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

Animal sightings: A popcorn eating mouse, come in from the cold, has been leaving droppings on the kitchen floor.

Weather: Sunny afternoons with temperatures around 40 have alternated with very cold mornings to thaw and refreeze the drive each day.

Weekly update: Houseplants on my enclosed porch have a very simple contract: in return for regular water, some occasional fertilizer and heat in the winter, they’re expected to bloom in January. The flowers don’t have to be fragrant, don’t have to be exotic, but they do have to be bright.

When the remaining snow hides from the sun in northern shadows and water collects on frozen ground or seeps through a thin veneer of soft mud, I want to look up from my desk and see color. Geranium red, bougainvillea pink. Color.

In fact, the plants don’t even have to produce flowers if they promise color. Bougainvilleas are members of the four o’clock family with tiny white, five-petaled flowers perched on wasp-waisted tubes that are attached to large, brilliant bracts that resemble reflectors placed behind candles.

In the Canary Islands, the fragrance of the flowers brings hawk moths when they first open in the evening. In the Lucknow botanical gardens, butterflies come for the nectar and transfer pollen between adjoining varieties. In South America, hummingbirds flit from plant to plant. But in Florida, where single varieties abound, the woody vines are sterile and only the color could have attracted Jim Hendry in 1927 when he began hybridizing them.

His grandmother, Julia Frierson, brought the first magenta-colored Bougainvilles glabra ‘Sanderiana’ vine from Cuba in 1875. In 1919, his Everglades Nursery gave 200 ‘Crimson Lake’ cultivars to Fort Myers, and made a second gift in 1922 when Carl Fischer was promoting a highway from the midwest to his real estate investments in Miami. Local businessmen, no doubt, were lobbying to have the road come through the town where Henry Ford wintered with Thomas Edison and Harvey Firestone.

Of course, if one were wealthy enough, one could have seen them in Rio de Janiero where Philibert Commerçon first collected them in 1768 or noticed them on the way to the casinos in Havana or found them climbing the walls of an Italian villa where their thorns warned off intruders. Most Americans in the 1920's, however, probably first saw bougainvilleas growing in Fort Myers, for the western route of the Dixie Highway did indeed pass Hendry’s showroom on its way from Chicago and Chattanooga to Miami.

The eastern route, however, is the one people would have used when I was growing up, the one that connected Detroit and Knoxville with the Soo and east coast of Florida. My first sense of winter color comes from walking by the windows of the exclusive women’s clothing store in the nearest city that featured beachwear in January. Inside, clerks reminded customers it had a convenient branch in Palm Beach.

Now I’ve personally never been to Florida, and probably saw my first bougainvillea in Phoenix in the 1980's where they’re so common the peaches and pinks of the short-day flowers were muddy and mundane. Still, I know I owe my plant to Hendry because he released ‘Barbara Karst’ around 1940 and every plant in existence must trace its heritage back to a cutting from his creation.

However, the reason I bought it has nothing to do with him or Florida, and everything to do with Fischer, who made his money manufacturing headlights. For him, cars weren’t a safe trust fund. They were about racing at the Indianapolis track he built. They were about escaping midwestern winters down a smooth, broad way south. They were about providing an alternative to Ford’s monotonous black. They were about color, brilliant bougainvillea pink.


Hendry, Helen Johnson. "History of Bougainvillea," A. W. Kelley’s Gardens website, 2007.

Zadoo, S. N., R. P. Roy, and T. N. Khoshoo. "Cytogenetics of Cultivated Bougainvilleas II: Pollination Mechanism and Breeding System," Proceedings of the Indian National Science Academy 41: 498-5-3:1975.

Photograph: Two Barbara Karst bougainvillea buds and a flower, each attached to the central vein of a separate bract just below the base of the tube, 3 January 2009.