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.

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