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.

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