Sunday, February 08, 2009

Red Hot Poker

What’s still green: Juniper and other conifers, roses, Apache plume, honeysuckle, prickly pear, yucca, red hot poker, iris, vinca, rock rose, hollyhocks, sweet pea, sea lavender, sea pink, pinks, snapdragon, yellow and blue flax, yellow evening primroses, mums, anthemis, some grasses.

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

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

What’s yellow: Globe and weeping willow branches; arborvitae.

What’s blooming inside: South African aptenia, rochea, and kalanchoë.

Animal sightings: Except for dogs, animals are staying out of sight when commuters are about.

Weather: Some snow remains on the north side of the house. Morning temperatures still drop to the 20's, afternoons are still warm, and frost still forms from moisture pulled from the ground and plants. Last rain, 1/24/09.

Weekly update: My red hot pokers have always been a step behind my neighbors.

When I moved here, people’s Kniphofia bloomed in early to mid May with grape hyacinth-types spikes on stems at least 3' high, with bright orange flowers above and older, yellow ones below. When I ordered some Pfitzer Hybrids in 1999 from Weiss Brothers they came into flower a month later, a foot shorter and with more subdued colors. One plant, at the west end of the bed, never blooms until late summer.

Sometime each May I clear dead leaves from the bank where they grow with Dutch iris. The tan iris leaves pull away, but not the pokers’. They have to be cut or left another year before the plant is willing to let go. I never see piles of debris around my neighbors’ clumps.

Some leaves stay green well into winter, under protection of the upper ones that die with the cold. In the past week or so, many of those leaves have turned red, as photosynthesis has slowed, probably because the air is still sucking water from the soil and plant tissue.

Common torch lilies, as they’re also called, are usually defined as variants of the uvaria species. When the aloe family members were first introduced into gardens after the Boers and British moved into the interior of South Africa in the early nineteenth century, they bloomed in fall and needed protection in winter, usually from ashes. As late as 1920, the Encyclopedia Americana suggested the rhizomes be planted in the shrubbery to bloom between mid-summer and frost.

Walter Pfitzer introduced his hybrids in 1893 in Stuttgart. In 1907, The Journal of Horticulture told its readers the basal clumps of sword-like green leaves bloomed in August and September. A few years later, Liberty Hyde Bailey believed they were the same as the 5' tall grandis variety then in the trade.

Somewhere something changed. Max Leichtlin, a bulb breeder in Baden-Baden, may have introduced the more refined perennials in 1881. Bailey described his carnosa variety as less than 2' tall with apricot-colored flowers. At some point my plants’ ancestors may have mixed with praecox or some other spring blooming species.

The hardiness was probably indigenous to the genus, which grows along eastern Africa from Yemen to the Cape of Good Hope. Syd Ramdhani identified four centers of diversification in South Africa and one in Madagascar, and found most species thrive in high, mountainous grasslands like the Española valley. Chloé Galley’s team believes the Drakensburg mountains were the first center for the genus.

As for the red pigments, they fade from individual flowers as they loose their ability to interest birds as pollinators, leaving the basic yellow, but apparently persist in leaves when the chlorophyl disappears this time of year.

Gradations in time are apparently endemic to the species, and not just the result of seed grown plants and the vagaries of commercial nurseries. The ability to stay in tune with changes in environment was what Ramdhani believed made it possible for the genus to survive climate changes that followed the tectonic plate movements that first precipitated the diversification, and, on a much smaller scale, allow my hybrids to survive rio arriba winters when they might fail in the north.

Being out of step with one’s neighbors is sometimes the only way to survive when the times themselves are out of joint.

Encyclopedia Americana. "Tritoma," 1920.

Galley, Chloé Galley, Benny Bytebier, Dirk U Bellstedt, and H Peter Linder. "The Cape Element in the Afrotemperate Flora: from Cape to Cairo?," Royal Society, Biological Sciences section Proceedings 22:535–543:2007.

Journal of Horticulture and Home Farmer, The. "Hardy Plant Notes" for 15 June 1907 discuss Pfitzer and tritoma.

Miller, Wilhelm and Liberty Hyde Bailey. "Kniphofia" in Liberty Hyde Bailey, The Standard Cyclopedia of Horticulture, 1914.

Ramdhani, S. Evolutionary and Biogeographic Studies in the Genus Kniphofia Moench (Asphodelaceae), 2007.

Photograph: Red hot poker stem and leaves laid low by the snow, with seed ready to drop through openings, 31 January 2009.

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