Sunday, April 26, 2009

Golden Smoke

What’s blooming in the area: Apple, chokecherry, Bradford pear, other white and pink flowering trees, first lilacs, tulips, yellow iris, hoary cress, purple and tansy mustard, stickseed, purple mat flower, oxalis, native and common dandelion, cheat grass; heath asters up. Seeds and bare root roses picked over at local hardware stores, especially the cheaper ones; only bedding plants available are vegetables.
What’s blooming in my yard: Sour cherry, green and purple-leaved sand cherries, few peach flowers, forsythia, Siberian pea, daffodils, grape hyacinth, hyacinth, baby blue iris, vinca, mossy phlox, yellow alyssum, Mount Atlas daisy; buds on spirea, lilac, cheddar pink, coral bell, Jupiter’s beard; caryopteris and weigela leafing; buddleia, hartweig, Maximilian sunflower, Mönch aster up; perky Sue greening; sand cherries fragrant.
Inside: Brazilian bougainvillea, South African aptenia and kalanchoë.
Animal sightings: Birds, small gecko, moth, bees, ants; turkeys near orchard.
Weather: It finally stayed above freezing all week; afternoons were in the 70's when I got home; still windy. A friend in Lamy complained his radishes and lettuce didn’t germinate because it was too cold, and now it’s so warm the lettuce will bolt. Last rain, 4/17/09; 14:12 hours of daylight today.
Weekly update: It happens. I’m driving along and some flash of color catches my attention. I wonder what I missed when a truck looms in my rearview mirror. I resume speed, but promise myself a better look next time.
Last Saturday was different. I was driving my old Los Alamos commuting route through Santa Clara lands to see if any cherries were blooming on that side of the river when I saw something short and yellow that didn’t scream dandelion. This time, I drove back on the shoulder until I found the flowers, some golden smoke growing in a cut made through the rock, clay and sand thrown up by the rift.
American botanists place Corydalis aurea in the bleeding heart family, while Europeans consider it and all the Fumariaceae as part of the poppy family. Try as I might, turning books in all directions, I don’t see the connection with either. The flower looks very much like a fancy pea with two long, light yellow petals in a narrow tube that touch at the opening surrounded by two darker petals that curve open at the mouth. Bees push through the inner shell to get to the sac of nectar at the tip of the uppermost layer.
The flowers are embedded in short spikes like mints or snapdragons, that behave more like a mustard when they mature. Narrow pods replace the lower florets while the stems lengthen to hold more blossoms. When the shiny black seeds are ripe, the pods split. Ants, some nine species in Colorado, take the ejected grains to their nests where the larvae eat the lipid-filled elaiosome sacs attached to the exterior coatings. When the nutrients are gone, the ants bury the still viable remains in their trash heaps where they are more likely to germinate than if ants hadn’t intervened.
The winter annual is one of those wildflowers that’s widely distributed, from Alaska to the northern states of México, without being particularly common. It doesn’t seem to care much about altitude or soil, accepting sand and gravel, lava and limestone, from glacier-flattened northern Michigan to subalpine Colorado, but it needs something more than water, bees and ants. Some speculate ants scarify seeds or create particularly fertile environments, but Marion Blois Lobstein and Larry Rockwood weren’t been able to document the relationship.
Instead, John Zasoda’s team saw them come back the first season after white spruce had been cleared in Alaska, but they died out by the fifth. In Ottawa, another group noticed golden corydalis was one of the plants that appeared within the first hundred days after a woodland was burned, while Rebecca Shankland noticed they were particularly prolific in White Rock Canyon in 2003 when bark beetles were destroying something like 80% of the mature piñon in Los Alamos County.
I suspect the embryos for the ferny blue-green leaves I saw last weekend landed along the highway when some heavy truck picked up speed out of Española. I would guess one of the loosely covered gravel haulers from the other side of town, if only because my load of washed base coarse deposited several new species and a bunch of red ants in my drive.
As for my original quest, I saw no chokecherries. Instead, one white tree was blooming in a yard that could have been anything, cherry, plum or pear, and two cherries were growing wild in an unsettled area where someone driving through had probably thrown out seeds or bad fruit.
The littering was deliberate while the gear transition that shook off debris when a truck jolted was the consequence of physics. Both happen when a road is built. The environment changes ever so slightly. New species appear, but not everything that sprouts is a weed.
Catling, P. M., A. Sinclair, A., and D. Cuddy. "Plant Community Composition and Relationships of Disturbed and Undisturbed Alvar Woodland," Canadian Field-Naturalist 116:571-579:2002.
Hanzawa, Frances M., Andrew J. Beattie, and David C. Culver. "The Directed Dispersal: Demographic Analysis of an Ant-Seed Mutualism," American Naturalist, 131:1-13:1988.Lobstein, Marion Blois and Larry L. Rockwood, "Influence of Elaiosome Removal on Germination in Five Ant-Dispersed Plant Species," Virginia Journal of Science 44:59-72:1993.Shankland, Rebecca. "An Armchair Tour of White Rock Canyon on Earth Day," Los Alamos Monitor 23 April 2003, republished by Pajarito Environmental Education Center website.Stern, Kingsley R. "Revision of Dicentra (Fumariaceae)," Brittonia 13:1-57:1961.Zasada, John C., M. Joan Foote, Frederick J. Deneke, and R.H. Parkerson. "Case History of an Excellent, White Spruce Cone and Seed Crop in Interior Alaska: Cone and Seed Production, Germination, and Seedling Survival," USDA report, 1978.Photograph: Golden smoke, along road between Española and Los Alamos, 18 April 2009.

Sunday, April 19, 2009


What’s blooming in the area: Pink and white flowering trees, chokecherry, Bradford pear, tulips, mossy phlox, hoary cress, purple and tansy mustard, stickseed, purple mat flower, golden smoke, oxalis, and dandelion; cottonwood leaves forming; stickleaf, mullein, tumble mustard and pigweed coming up; local ditches running.
What’s blooming in my yard: Cherry, sand cherry, forsythia, daffodils, puschkinia, hyacinth, vinca, and yellow alyssum; buds on lilac and grape hyacinth; sea lavender and ladybells up; catalpa pods splitting, dropping seeds.
Inside: Brazilian bougainvillea, South African aptenia, kalanchoë and rochea weed.
Animal sightings: Rabbit, ants; rooster crowing somewhere in area; Herefords and geese near village; both bees and flies on cherries yesterday.
Weather: Winds continue with temperatures still falling below freezing, rain Friday; 13:53 hours of daylight today.
Weekly update: Now’s the time for pink and white flowering trees. When I drove through Indiana in the 1980's and saw them growing wild in wood lots under taller trees that hadn’t yet leafed out, I romantically thought they were redbud and dogwood.
Here the pink flowers are probably crab apples bought at a garden center or ordered from a catalog. The white racemes are probably some kind of cherry brought in from elsewhere. While some could be sweet Prunus avium, sour cerasus, or the mahaleb rootstock, a number most likely are the chokecherries that Leonora Curtin says were made into wine and preprandial tea by Spanish-speaking people in northern New Mexico in the 1940's.
In one farm area once dominated by a French territorial house, someone planted rows of white flowering trees that extend beside two drives on one side of the road and along the edge of a flood-irrigated field on the other. Elsewhere, scattered trees have sprouted on the outer edges of property, often near water, where seeds could have been dropped by birds.
The trees are relatively short. It’s possible many were cut, and these are suckers with thin trunks that ramble towards the light. The wood itself didn’t need to be straight to be used for bows by San Ildefonso and other Rio Grande and western pueblos: it did need to be straight-grained and flexible.
Elsewhere in the country chokecherries can grow to 30'. The local species can survive 13" of precipitation a year, but William Dunmire and Gail Tierney say it much prefers the water courses in Frijoles canyon while William Dick-Peddie classifies it as a semi-riparian component of New Mexico scrub land. The Tesuque went to the Rio en Medio valley, northeast of Santa Fe, to find fall berries, while the Laguna harvested Mount Taylor.
In the far distant past, Prunus virginiana probably grew in most parts of North America. As the climate changed, three subspecies evolved: the red-fruited virginiana east of the Mississippi; the darker, red-berried demissa in the far west and along the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi, and the still darker melanocarpa found in the drylands between.
It’s difficult to know the pre-Oñate range in northern New Mexico, because wild burros decimated the shrubs in Capulin canyon, while ranchers and sheepman may have cleared trees for firewood because the leaves contain prussic acid that can be dangerous when leaves are damaged. The hydrocyanic acid disappears in the fall and when the fruit is dried or cooked, but can still induce what one USDA group calls a "false sense of well-being."
One can only assume they were in the general area in the past. John Peabody Harrington notes the Tewa word for the shrub, abè, is one of the plant names that did not fit the naming conventions of the early twentieth century. He also notes that Tewa speakers used the word bè as a generic term for other rose family fruits like apples and peaches introduced by the Spanish.
While people everywhere have eaten the fruit fresh or cooked or dried and many have used it for gastrointestinal problems including diarrhea, it’s only the nomadic plains tribes who pounded the dried berries and seeds into small, circular cakes. The Navajo, Blackfoot, Dakota, Lakota, and others along the Missouri are the only ones who incorporated the tree and its fruit into their ceremonial life, in ways they chose not to discuss with Melvin Gilmore.
At one time, the Apache brought abebuwa cakes to San Ildefonso at Christmas. Harrington thinks Tewa speakers may once have made the buwa themselves, since there are records of someone named Abenbua in Pojoaque in 1715. If they had, and if the cakes had any spiritual effects, they may have been suppressed by the Franciscans after the reconquest and survived in the seemingly innocent form of yule offerings and the now anonymous hedgerows down the road.
Crowder, Wayne, Wayne A. Geyer, and Patrick J. Broyles. "Chokecherry," USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service plant guide, 2008.
Curtin, Leonora Scott Muse. Healing Herbs of the Upper Rio Grande, 1947, republished 1997, with revisions by Michael Moore.Dick-Peddie, William A. New Mexico Vegetation, 1993.Dunmire, William M. and Gail D. Tierney. Wild Plants of the Pueblo Province, 1995.Moerman, Dan. Native American Ethnobotany, 1998 and on-line database summarizes data from a number of ethnographies including Melvin R. Gilmore, Uses of Plants by the Indians of the Missouri River Region, 1919.Robbins, William Wilfred, John Peabody Harrington, and Barbara Friere-Marreco, Ethnobotany of the Tewa Indians, 1916.
Photograph: Chokecherries growing beside ditch near territorial farm house, 18 April 2009.

Sunday, April 12, 2009


What’s blooming in the area: Pink and white flowering trees, Bradford pear, tulips, mossy phlox, purple mustard, hoary cress, one tansy mustard 3' high, first stickseeds, dandelion; Russian olive leafing; new growth on loco, snakeweed and chamisa; ring muhly and cheat grass growing; globemallow coming up Village ditches were running last Sunday.

What’s blooming in my yard: Cherry, sand cherry, few forsythia flowers, daffodils, puschkinia, hyacinth, vinca; purple lilac buds visible; apple, spirea, rugosa rose and red barberry leafing; peach, apricot and snowball leaf buds expanding; St John’s wort, David phlox, sidalcea, speedwell, salvia, catmints, ladybells and fern-leaf yarrow up; first peony emerging red; new growth on snow-in-summer; red leaves on sea pink, soapworts and beardtongue turning green.

Inside: Brazilian bougainvillea, South African aptenia, kalanchoë and rochea weed.

Animal sightings: Miller moth on house one cold morning, more birds out when I leave for work.

Weather: Cold temperatures some mornings, high afternoon winds end of week, soaking rain yesterday; 13:34 hours of daylight today.

Weekly update: I had great plans for the garage corner, a climbing Iceberg or rose of Sharon, something tall with white blossoms I could see from the kitchen. I’ve settled for a two-foot high volunteer skunkbush with insignificant yellow flowers.

I first noticed a 2" sprout in late May of 2000, with leaves I thought might be from a white-flowered snowberry that had someone hitchhiked from Oakland County, Michigan. They have similarly lobed edges, but these members of the sumac family come in sets of three with the center leaf broken into three parts and mature into a more intense, more leathery green.

Skunkbush seeds have hard shells that don’t allow germination until they’ve been cracked or softened, often by heat or association with charred wood. The Cerro Grande fire raged for several weeks near Los Alamos in early May of that year. Ash-carrying winds may have dropped a scarified seed when they hit my garage.

In arid climates, where willows are scarce, basket weavers learned to use Rhus trilobata branches for both the upright, structural warp and the twining weft. Basket fragments made from skunkbush were found in Jemez Cave that date back more than 2,000 years. One of the remains had been dyed black. Centuries later the Navajo were still mixing the strong-scented leaves and tart scarlet berries with calcinated piñon gum to produce a black dye for baskets.

Basket making in the greater southwestern cultural area has been dated back 10,900 years with pieces found in Fishbone Cave in Nevada. Twined baskets woven between uprights date back to 8000 bc and tighter laced-together coiled baskets to 5000 bc. Before pottery, wicker ware was used for cooking and portable storage, as well as tools like nets.

Kat Anderson believes the mass production of basket work necessary to sustain a gathering society involved two technology complexes, one centered on production and the other on managing raw materials. She’s talked to people in California who remember when weavers burned their wicker sources several years before they were needed to encourage new, straighter, more supple growth that had time to cure before use.

A full size basket requires 675 new shoots. Anderson notes a mature, unmanaged skunkbush patch produces 6 usable shoots, while one that’s been burned produces 102. When seven patches of a suckering plant are required to produce one essential, easily destroyed implement, she believes burning had to have been an essential activity for hunter-gathering populations in the Sierra Nevada.

The farther one looks back into prehistory and the more perishable the artifacts, the more our knowledge is based on scant, scattered, providential discoveries. Vorsila Bohrer has described a split-twig animal figurine dating back 3,500 years made from a single six-foot strand of this sumac species which normally grows about four feet high including the upper branches. She believes the raw material could only have been produced by fire.

John Peabody Harrington found the antiquity of plant lore embedded in language itself. In the early twentieth century Tewa speakers used descriptive, compound names for plants, but they used single words for 36 species that had no known etymology. They were either very old terms, retained from an older language, or borrowed, or both. They included some of the most common plants like corn, pumpkin, yucca, piñon, and kun for skunkbush.

When any part of an integrated material culture is altered, the other parts may be lost or degenerate. Pottery began replacing baskets in the sixth century, the Forest Service started discouraging fires before World War I. By the late nineteenth century, only the Hopi maintained a strong basketry tradition integrated into their clan structure while the Zuñi were buying fine ware made with ko’se o’tsi from Apache craftsmen.

In the early twentieth century Santa Clara and Jemez pueblos were still using skunkbush for baskets, but they had probably forgotten how to manage their raw material. Mature kun growth hardens and was being used for arrow shafts by the Santa Clara and hoe handles by the Jemez. Today, the Jemez complain no wild sumac grows near their pueblo.

Relics of a pre-Pueblo past persist in the Tewa language, in the traditions of the Hopi, and in feral plants still found in prehistoric fields on the Pajarito Plateau. It’s pure chance that the repetition of the primeval interaction between fire and a refractory, fire-adapted plant dropped a skunkbush seed in my yard when one of man’s earliest tools was destroying the streets of one of science’s most advanced communities.

Anderson, M. Kat. Tending the Wild: Native American Knowledge and the Management of California's Natural Resources, 2005.

_____ and Michael J. Moratto. "Native American Land-Use Practices and Ecological Impacts" in Sierra Nevada Ecosystems Project: Final Report to Congress, volume 2, 1996.

Bohrer, Vorsila L. "New Life From Ashes: The Tale of the Burnt Bush (Rhus trilobata)," Desert Plants 5:122-125:1983, cited by Anderson, 2005.

Dunmire, William M. and Gail D. Tierney. Wild Plants of the Pueblo Province, 1995, discusses Jemez Cave and pueblo.

Robbins, William Wilfred, John Peabody Harrington, and Barbara Friere-Marreco, Ethnobotany of the Tewa Indians, 1916.

Standley, Paul C. Some Useful Native Plants of New Mexico, 1912, cited by Leonora Scott Muse Curtin, Healing Herbs of the Upper Rio Grande, 1947, republished 1997, with revisions by Michael Moore, on Navajo dye.

Stevenson, Matilda Coxe. The Zuni Indians, 1904, reprinted by The Rio Grande Press, Inc., 1985.

Photograph: Skunkbush buds in front of white stuccoed garage wall, 5 April 2009.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Snake Plant

What’s blooming in the area: Daffodils, mossy phlox, hoary cress, purple and tansy mustard, dandelion; Bradford pear leaf and flower buds opening, winterfat leafing. People cleaning ditches, plowing land, burning weeds.
What’s blooming in my yard: Puschkinia, vinca. Undamaged buds of peach and forsythia opened last Sunday, only to be killed by cold temperatures later in the week. More daffodils and tulips, grape hyacinths, Jupiter’s beard, cut-leaf coneflower coming up; pasture rose, purple-leaf sand cherry and privet leaves opening.
Inside: Brazilian bougainvillea, South African aptenia, kalanchoë and rochea weed.
Animal sightings: Bees on peach last Sunday afternoon; rabbit around.
Weather: Morning temperatures varied from low twenties to forties with high winds; last snow, 3/26/09; 13:02 hours of daylight today.
Weekly update: Snake plants are the stereotypic house plant, even given to children because they’re hard to kill. Unfortunately, the one I had was in a cute pot with no room for the roots, so while it didn’t die, it also didn’t grow.
I associated them with dim settings, like the Philadelphia Italian restaurant in my graduate school days before non-smoking areas and fern bars, where the horizontally-stripped sword-shaped leaves were used in planters that separated the two sides of the row of booths. Because the perennials were tall and had colonized, I assumed they were a different variety from the one I had as a child.
Then, a couple years ago, in my never ending quest for something tall that would grow on my enclosed porch, I stuck a three-leaved rosette in a corner. I didn’t expect much, because the direct and indirect light is intense, summer and winter, the heat high and the water variable. It’s now three foot tall, and registered its first protest a few weeks ago when it put out a new sprout, as hidden from the light as it could be, between the parent and the wall.

Apparently, dark light, smokey air, and loud, loud music aren’t the only habitat deemed acceptable by the African native. Around Homestead, Florida, on the edge of the Everglades, snake plants live in open fields in full sunlight on land reclaimed from solid limestone. In greenhouses, growers keep the temperatures between 70 and 90 degrees.

While a number of Sansevieria species have been exported from Africa, the only one that’s commercially available is the Laurentii mutation of trifasciata characterized by the yellow leaf edge which is distinctly separate tissue from the rest of the plant. If a piece of leaf is stuck in the ground, only the green section will produce roots, and the yellow band disappears. A plant can only reproduce from new sprouts from its rhizomes, and even then, some, like my new rosette, revert to the species.

The chimera was apparently noticed and nurtured by some group living along the Congo river visited by Émile Laurent in either 1903 or 1904. The agronomy professor had been looking for economically useful plants like coffee and rubber since 1893, and his activities had led Leopold II to develop the Jardin Botanique de l’État for plants from his African enterprise. Although Laurent died on the return trip, his nephew Marcel took their collections to Brussels, where Émile de Wildeman cataloged them. A specimen was sent to Kew Gardens in 1910.

How they evolved in the Congo is anyone’s guess. The Sansevieria genus is more common to the east in Kenya, and the trifasciata species is associated with Nigeria and Benin where the Hausa and Nupe use single words for several species. Many Sansevieria are valued for the fibers extracted from the leaves, and some have found medicinal uses for plants they identify as trifasciata, including the Marachi in western Kenya and people in Rwanda. European sailors or Islamic traders took them to India, Indonesia and Fiji where other uses have been reported.

Sansevieria varieties arrived in Florida, apparently when it was still administered by the Spanish, and some naturalized there. During World War II, our government began testing different species and hybrids as alternative sources for rough fibers. They found Laurentii, its parent, and hyacinthoides produced the most fiber from quick growing leaf cuttings that withstood the comparative cold temperatures of Boynton in Broward County.

After the war, nylon and rayon replaced natural fibers and real estate speculators saw better uses for land near the ocean. The war surplus plants made up 16% of the foliage plants sold by Florida growers in the Eisenhower years when my mother gave me my plant. When the glut passed, so did the taste for what one Brooklyn Botanic Garden writer called the "very common," "inelegant" upright leaves with their "entire lack of form."

It wasn’t easy to find a snake plant, and even artificial ones don’t exist now in Santa Fé’s largest craft shop. I finally tracked one down in late 2006 in a corner of Payne’s Nurseries which was probably grown in Costa Rica or China. The reliable plant of my childhood, thriving on my inhospitable porch, has become as obsolete as the war-surplus Quonset huts that were erected along the industrial fringe of my Michigan hometown, and quite possibly as lost as the factories that were built there.

Notes:Blaydes, Glenn W. "The Romance of Domesticated Plants," The Ohio Journal of Science 53:193-215:1953, on yellow leaf margin.

de Wildeman, Émile. Mission Émile Laurent (1903-1904), 1905.

Free, Montague. All About House Plants, 1946.

Henley, Richard W. "Sansevieria in Florida - Past and Present," Florida State Horticultural Society Proceedings 95:295-298:1982.

_____, A.R. Chase and L.S. Osborne. Sansevieria Production Guide, CFREC-A Foliage Plant Note RH-91-30.

Photograph: Snake plant with new rosette to left on inside porch, 4 April 2009.