Sunday, October 25, 2009

Pampas Grass

What’s still blooming somewhere: Tea roses, red hot poker, winecup, scarlet flax, drab chamisa, chocolate flower, chrysanthemum, Mexican hat, áñil del muerto, tahokia daisy, blanket flower, hairy golden and Mönch asters; yellow leaves and fallen apples litter the ground, grapes shriveling into raisins.

Inside: African aptenia and asparagus fern.

What’s turned/turning red: Lapins cherry, Bradford pear, pasture rose, spirea, raspberry, sand cherry, Virginia creeper, leadwort.

What’s turned/turning yellow: Cottonwood, globe and weeping willows, Siberian elm, tamarix, beauty bush, sour cherries, peach, rugosa rose, Apache plume, lilacs, hosta, Rumanian sage, catmint, yellow alyssum, Silver King artemisia, purple coneflower.

Animal sightings: Rabbit, large black harvester and small dark ants.

Weather: Rain Tuesday and Wednesday, followed by mornings so cold frost lay on lawn grasses and water froze in the village arroyo; 10:18 hours of daylight today.

Weekly update: There are times when I drive by someone’s yard and see something so beautiful, I wonder "how’d they do that."

Near the village someone has two magnificent clumps of pampas grass at the end of her driveway that have thrown up white plumes that wave 6' high against a backdrop of yellowed trees.

It may sound quite ordinary, except Cortaderia selloana is a zone 8 plant that can survive in zone 7 Albuquerque in favorable situations. There are some shorter cultivars like Pumila which tolerate zone 6 Santa Fe. But, Española is zone 5. The average low temperature for zone 8 is twenty degrees and, even in our mildest winters, there are mornings in the high teens.

Many western gardeners have learned the USDA system of zones is more reliable in the east than on the plains and in the Rockies. The idea of using a single variable, mean low temperature, to predict that ability of plants to survive was introduced in 1927 by Alfred Rehder, who was interested in describing the vegetation belts he saw across the country and the Appalachians.

According to Peter Del Tredici, Donald Wyman redefined Rehder’s concept to use the average minimum temperature in 1938 when he was at the Arnold Arboretum. He and other specialists continued to issue competing modifications until the USDA published the standard developed by Henry Skinner in 1960 at the National Arboretum. The agriculture department has since issued several revisions, and other groups, like Sunset magazine, continue to publish alternative guides for this part of the country.

But no matter how sensitive the tool, nothing will explain how those thriving South American plants have survived at least one winter.

The owner has done everything she could to create a favorable environment. The land around her house is surrounded by high, stone walls, that also line both sides of the sealed drive. In the winter the dark walls and paving absorb daylight, then radiate heat as they cool in the night. The surrounding microclimate is warmer than the prairie.

The owner has also been helped by her location. She lives about three-quarters of a mile from the river and about five hundred feet from a wide arroyo. A concrete-lined irrigation ditch passes near the outer wall carrying water in summer. Trees across the road help deflect the drying
winds of February.

Her natural and manmade location helps, but still can’t explain what makes her rhizomes so successful. My friend from Uruguay tells me what he calls horses’ tails grows on the sandy beaches of the eastern shore where the coldest it gets in winter is a few degrees below freezing. Tour groups advise it can be seen in its native habitat in the Costanera Sur nature reserve in Buenos Aires on the Rio de la Plata.

It also grows to the southwest at the Ernesto Tornquist Provincial Park with the 3,700' Cerro de la Ventana about 75 miles inland from the Atlantic. There, Natalia Cozzani and Sergio Zalba have found birds nesting in the tussocks of dried grass that accumulate beneath the fountains of sharp-edged foliage.

Pampas grass prefers moist winters and dry summers, but is not restricted to the coast. The perennial is also found in Brazil, Paraguay and Chile. Texas A&M has published a photograph of white heads growing like dense scrub in western Mendoza province in what looks like a tree-lined mountain meadow backed by snow-streaked peaks.

The wild species, which can reach 20', is probably not the one available in trade: nursery catalogs advertize 10' heights. Many are probably sterile cultivars that don’t shed the pollen, flowers and seeds my friend says fill the Uruguayan air. My neighbor probably has a hardier cultivar, but it’s still unique in this area for its height, width and vitality, a wonder to behold.

Cozzani, Natalia and Sergio M. Zalba. "Estructura de la Vegetación y Selección de Hábitats Reproductivos en Aves del Pastizal Pampeano," Ecologáía Austral 19:35-44:2009.

Del Tredici, Peter. "The New USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map," Arnoldia 50:16-20:1990.
Rehder, Alfred. Manual of Cultivated Trees and Shrubs, 1927.

Texas A&M University Herbarium. Vascular Plant Image Library photograph of Cortaderia selloana taken by Hugh Wilson.

Photograph: Pampas grass in the wind, 17 October 2009.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Blackberry Lily

What’s still blooming somewhere: Tea roses, California poppy, red hot poker, winecup, chamisa, chocolate flower, chrysanthemum, Mexican hat, áñil del muerto, broom senecio,
tahokia daisies, Maximilian sunflowers, purple and hairy golden asters, untouched blanket flower buds, low growing Mönch asters.

Bedding plants: Moss rose.

Inside: African aptenia and asparagus fern.

What’s turned/turning red: Pasture rose, spirea, raspberry, sand cherry, skunk bush, leadwort, pink evening primrose, Virginia creeper.

What’s turned/turning yellow: Cottonwood, globe and weeping willows, black locust, Siberian pea, Siberian elm, tamarix, beauty bush, cherries, peach, rugosa rose, lilacs, lilies, hosta, ladybells.

Animal sightings: Large black harvester and small dark ants

Weather: Tuesday’s morning’s rain followed by great squawking of birds towards the river when I was leaving for work; 10:38 hours of daylight today.

Weekly update: When Americans and the Chinese look at the same thing, say a blackberry lily, they don’t see the same thing.

When Thomas Jefferson planted what he knew as Ixia chinensis in 1807, he was probably interested in the loose clusters of six, spotted, orange petals that open late morning. Soon other flowers from other parts of the world surpassed their beauty, and the iris-shaped leaves persisted on their own in ditches, along roads, and in fields east of the Rockies.

Today, gardeners are told to grow the shorter, less garish Freckle Face cultivar for its fall and winter interest. Around September 26, the pear-shaped pods on my plants split open to reveal rows of shiny black seeds. The reflexed outer wraps have since dried a papery white.

When the Chinese look at shegan they see medicine.

Steven Foster and Yue Chongxi interpret Shi Zhen Li as having recommended it for throat cancer in 1578. When George Stuart translated Li’s work in 1911, he simply said it had "some special popularity in diseases of the throat" and reported it was used for breast cancer.

Chinese and scientists from other countries that still have some respect for traditional plant medicine have been combing reports of traditional practices looking for potentially useful plants. In the 1970's, doctors at the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences were testing the folk methods for treating bronchitis.

By the 1990's, chemists were isolating more than a dozen compounds from the rhizomes of Belamcanda chinensis, and identifying some as flavonoids. In 2000, Li Xin Zhou and Mao Lin had been able to create a synthetic form of one, and demonstrate its effectiveness against inflamation. Lin and others later showed the compound was a powerful antioxidant, and it has since attracted a great deal of interest.

Most recently, Asian scientists have been doing the necessary work to make possible the mass production of the blackberry lily compounds. They have been creating tests for the cost-efficient evaluation of extracts, verifying that cultivated plants don’t differ in efficacy from the ones used in laboratory tests, and trying to develop synthetic forms.

Meantime, European scientists associated with a German herbal medicine company, Bionorica, have identified two of the flavonoids, irigenin and tectorigenin, as phytoestrogens that could be used to counter problems caused by sex hormones, especially prostrate cancer. They took out their first patent on a blackberry lily extract in 2002.

Most Americans never look at the roots that so interest the Chinese. Gardeners can buy plants grown from seed supplied by Jelitto, and are told to let the short-lived perennials perpetuate themselves by going to seed. They wouldn’t know the dried roots are chrome yellow inside and have an acid taste when fresh.

The Chinese aren’t particularly interested in the inedible seeds. In the nineties, some Japanese chemists identified four enediones in the seeds, but none have stimulated any further research.

American’s don’t just not see the blackberry lily’s roots. They’ve been told it’s a member of the iris family and therefore should be avoided as potentially toxic. Chinese don’t just ignore the seeds. They’ve been warned that only the roots are useful and not to substitute aerial parts in their formulas. We both see what we’ve been told to see.

Bionorica AG, Wolfgang Wuttke, Hubertus Jarry, Michael A. Popp, Volker Christoffel, and Barbara Spengler. "Use of Extracts and Preparations from Iris Plants and Tectorigenin as Medicaments," patent 2002/092111, 21 November 2002.

Chang, Tzu-Ching, Chih-Liang Wang, and Hsiu-Lan Wang. "Pathogenetic and Clinical Study of Bronchiolitis," Chung-Hua I-Hsueh Tsa-Chih 12:731-73:1976.

Foster, Steven and Yue Chongxi. Herbal Emissaries: Bringing Chinese Herbs to the West: A Guide to Gardening, Herbal Wisdom, and Well-being, 1992.

Li, Shi Zhen. Ben Cao or Pen Ts'ao, 1578.

Morrissey, Colm, Jasmin Bektic, Barbara Spengler, David Galvin, Volker Christoffel, Helmut Klocker, John M. Fitzpatrick, R. William and G. Watson. "Phytoestrogens Derived from Belamcanda chinensis Have an Antiproliferative Effect on Prostate Cancer Cells in Vitro," The Journal of Urology 172:2426-2433:2004.

Seki, Katsura, Kazuo Haga and Ryohei Kaneko "Belamcandones A-D, dioxotetrahydrodibenzofurans from Belamcanda chinensis," Phytochemistry 38:703-709:1995.

Stuart, George Arthur. Chinese Materia Medica, 1911, reprinted by Gordon Press, 1977.

Wang, Qing Li, Mao Lin and Geng Tao Liu. "Antioxidative Activity of Natural Isorhapontigenin," The Japanese Journal of Pharmacology 87:61-66:2001.

Zhou, Lin Xin and Mao Lin. "Studies on the Preparation of Bioactive Oligomerstilbene by Oxidative Coupling Reaction (1)-Preparation of Shegansu B using Silver Oxide as Oxidant," Chinese Chemical Letters 11:515-516:2000.

Photograph: Blackberry lily seeds, 11 October 2009.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Broom Senecio

What’s blooming in the area: Tea roses, chamisa, áñil del muerto, broom senecio, tahokia daisies, Maximilian and native sunflowers, purple, and hairy golden asters; cottonwoods beginning to yellow.

What’s blooming in my yard: California poppy, red hot poker, snapdragon, winecup, chocolate flower, chrysanthemum, Mexican hat; leaves turning yellow on globe willow, black locust, Siberian pea, lilacs, lilies, hosta, ladybells; turning red on pasture rose, spirea; blown off roses of Sharon.

Bedding plants: Moss rose.

Inside: African aptenia and asparagus fern.

Animal sightings: Rabbit, wasp, grasshopper, large black harvester and small dark ants; large black fowl in odd places along the main road when I was leaving for work.

Weather: Rain Wednesday, frost on my car window Friday morning, fog on the river; 11:06 hours of daylight today.

Weekly update: The first hard frost, and what red or blue flowers remain lay hidden amongst cushions of seeds. It’s time for nature’s medley of yellows.

When I drive out of Santa Fe, bands of aspens loom from the distant Sangre de Cristo. When I drop down into Pojoaque, cottonwoods pick out the watercourse. Here, mossy yellow chamisa rise above the mustard snakeweeds and golden hairy asters. Clearest of all are the broom senecios.

Last weekend they peered from under chamisa shrubs in the arroyo and swayed by themselves in the sand. A few skim great mounds along the road, while the ones that have moved about my garage have clusters of six to eight skinny petaled daisies atop sparsely leaved stalks. A seed, attached to a white, dandelion-life tuft, has come up to the south by the fence that stopped its flight and a single, bright green stalk has risen from its taproot.

Broom senecios were seen by John Frémont when he was exploring the Sweet Water in Wyoming during the first part of August in 1842. One likes to imagine, when one is told someone was the first easterner to see a plant, that his report implies something about the primeval vegetation of the area.

With this groundsel, I’m not sure what past Frémont represented. Theodore Barkley suggests the plant is encountered infrequently in western South Dakota and Nebraska, and only found occasionally westward in the Great Plains, although its known in all the plains states.

The Sweet Water is the link between the South Pass through the Rocky Mountains and the river Platte that travelers followed from Missouri. A group of Astor Fur Company men had discovered the route from the west in 1812. Jedediah Smith and Thomas Fitzpatrick rediscovered what became the Oregon Trail from the east in 1823.

Soon, fur traders were using the route to bring pelts back to Saint Louis from their annual rendezvous with trappers. In 1830 the more enterprising William Sublette built a wagon road to haul his goods, a path Benjamin Bonneville used two years later to scout the area for the federal government.

By the time Frémont arrived, the trail was well established, but not yet heavily used. The valley of the Sweet Water varies from a few yards to five miles in width. He saw absinthes when he was near the mouth, and asters near the pass. Occasionally the river was bordered by "groves of willow" and nearer the pass, by aspen, beach and willow.

During his third day in the 120-mile-long valley he noted "numerous bright-colored flowers had made the river bottom look gay as a garden." Later he contrasted the occasional side valley of "deep verdure and profusion of beautiful flowers" with the "great evaporation on the sandy soil of this elevated plain, and the saline efflorescences which whiten the ground."

About the same time, he remembered seeing "many traces of beaver on the stream; remnants of dams, near which were lying trees, which they and cut down." Probably the first environmental change that favored the composites over the more valuable grasses was the death of the beavers who may have kept all those salt plains irrigated. In the mountains beyond the pass, Frémont noted both the presence of both beavers and saturated grasses.

Soon the valley would be filled with wagons in summer. The Whitmans had followed the Sweet Water in 1836, as did the wagon train of 1841 led by John Bartleson and John Bidwell and the one led by Elijah White in 1842. Fremont himself had so many men with him they needed to kill two buffalo a day to feed themselves.

Broom senecios do well in slightly disturbed soils. The only scientists I’ve read who’ve described an area dominated by the bright green subshrubs were surveying a part of the National Guard’s Camp Navajo, outside Flagstaff, that had been burned, then used for detonation exercises. The land was desolate and, no doubt, windblown, but the soil surface was not damaged the way it would have been by wagons or flocks of sheep.

In the Chihuahuan desert, others have noticed that when the soil is seriously disturbed, the thin veneer of microorganisms that sustains the grasses is destroyed and shrubs invade. The chamisas and other Chrysothamnus species protect soil nutrients while the ground between the shrubs continues to erode.

In the arroyo, the senecios growing with chamisa are taller, near 30", and have a number of stems with more clusters with more flowers crowded into the heads. The solitary plants, like those in my yard, at most have gotten 24" tall and the starry shapes of the flowers are more distinct as they overlap one another in open lattices.

In addition to its ability to survive sand and drought, Senecio spartioides was chemically prepared to protect itself from wagon train draught animals. All its parts contain pyrrolizidine alkaloids that stop most from eating them; when animals or humans do overindulge they die from liver damage.

Nature protects itself as soon as it’s disturbed. I suspect Frémont didn’t just see climax vegetation of the Great Plains, but the first response to its destruction.

Barkley, T. M. "Asteraceae Dunn., the Sunflower Family" in Great Plains Flora Association, Flora of the Great Plains, 1986.

Evans, R. D. and J. R. Ehleringer. "Water and Nitrogen Dynamics in an Arid Woodland," Oecologia 99:233-242:1994.

Frémont, John Charles. The Daring Adventures of Kit Carson and Frémont, 1885.

Young, Erin, Abe Springer and Ty Ferré. "Frost Penetration Depth and Frost Heave at Camp Navajo: Year 1," 29 October 2004.

Photograph: Broom senecio leaning out from under chamisa in the arroyo, 4 October 2009.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

White Prairie Clover

What’s blooming in the area: Tea roses, leather leaved globemallow, white prairie clover, Crimson Rambler morning glory, goats’ head, chamisa, winterfat, ragweed, snakeweed, áñil del muerto, broom senecio, tahokia daisies, purple, heath, and hairy golden asters, pampas grass; bittersweet berries; sand burs ripening; tamarix leaves turning yellow, Russian thistle and prostrate knotweed turning red; grape and Virginia creeper leaves dead; red pepper plants dead.

What’s blooming in my yard, looking north: Mexican hat, chocolate flower, chrysanthemum; Lapins cherry leaves turning orange.

Looking east: Snapdragon, large-leaved soapwort, Maximilian sunflowers.

Looking south: Sweet pea; zinnias and cosmos dead

Looking west: Russian sage, catmint, calamintha, David phlox, Mönch aster; leadwort leaves turning burgundy; skunk bush orange red.

Bedding plants: Moss rose, sweet alyssum; tomatoes dead.

Inside: African aptenia and asparagus fern; rochea leaves turned red.

Animal sightings: Brown speckled woodpecker landed on front porch post poised to attack; rabbit, geckos, large black harvester and small dark ants, cows brought in to graze in village.

Weather: Below freezing temperatures Friday and Saturday mornings; last rain 9/24; 11:36 hours of daylight today.

Weekly update: When plants die that have been around for some years, I mourn a little, as I would for someone I knew years ago. When the plants are relatively new, I shrug and remind myself it’s hard to find perennials that can survive this environment.

When the wild prairie clover disappeared last year, I wondered if it was simply short-lived. It had only been growing under the protection of a clump of June grass at the end of my drive since 2006. I knew a gopher could have gone after the deep taproot. The rabbit as easily could have eaten the sparse, light green foliage.

When a five-year-old stand of the white flowers died at the Bridger Plant Materials Center in Montana, people were less philosophical. After all, these were the scions of the Antelope seed they had collected in Stark County in 1947 and released in 2000 to growers for prairie restoration projects. Entomologists discovered the larvae of long-horned beetles had burrowed into the root crowns.

Those who were already using the kidney-shaped seeds in their restoration projects wanted to know why they failed to germinate. The most obvious answer was that the clover is a legume that needs a specific bacteria in the soil to help its roots convert soil nitrogen to feed the plant.

Some also pointed to the seed-stealing habits of rodents, while others noted the need for cold moisture or abrasion to break the seed’s dormancy, and that irrigation increases the existence of particular rust parasites.

Timothy Dickson and William Busby found a more complicated answer: a prairie is not a uniform mix of plants. Dalea candida grows better when there is less competition from warm season grasses. I’ve noticed some time ago that in this area, the only plants that live with the bunch grasses are things like snakeweed and winterfat and then only when seeds drop where the wind has loosened the soil enough and water happens to pass.

Most of the forbs are either in the arroyo, or have sprung up where off-road vehicles have killed the grass. Of course, Russian thistle is the most likely volunteer, but other annuals and perennials do emerge. Last weekend white prairie clover was growing on the north side of the arroyo plain, near the path of the water flow, and in one of the feeders.

The herbaceous perennial can grow anywhere from the prairie provinces of Canada to Chihuahua, Durango, and Sonora below 7000'. In this country, it avoids the far west and New England, but can grow in the glades and savannahs of the southwestern south. Early in the last century, Elmer Wooton and Paul Standley found it grew on open slopes throughout New Mexico.

Dan Moerman noticed the distribution of native people utilizing two subspecies is much more limited. Outside the Pawnee and Kiowa, every group lives in or near New Mexico. Going down the Rio Grande are the Santa Clara, the San Ildefonso, and San Felipe. Moving west, he read about the Laguna, Acoma, Navajo, and Hopi. No one reported a use that suggested it was common enough to be built into the material, medicinal or nutritional culture.

If a plant is this difficult to grow, I wonder why so many try. Although some give the usual answer about forage quality, I suspect for many it’s nostalgia for lost prairies. It may indeed attract a number of bees and contain chemicals that make it easier to digest, but plants like Illinois Bundle Flower are better.

The white flowers are simply something you remember in the grass, and hate to see disappear. The small flowers open at the bases of tall, narrow columns, and the rings rise through the blooming season. The modified pea flowers have a single wide banner, but the other petals are reduced to flaps amongst the stamens. When the cone is short and flowers fill the entire head, the usual tutu of lightness turns into a fairy’s wand.

Dickson, Timothy L. and William H. Busby. "Forb Species Establishment Increases with Decreased Grass Seeding Density and with Increased Forb Seeding Density in a Northeast Kansas, U.S.A., Experimental Prairie Restoration," Restoration Ecology 17:597-605:2009.

Moerman, Dan. Native American Ethnobotany, 1998.

Wooton, Elmer O. and Paul C. Standley. Flora of New Mexico, 1915, reprinted by J. Cramer, 1972.

Wynia, Richard. "White Prairie Clover," USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service Plant Guide, 2008.

Photograph: White prairie clover with grass on the bank of the arroyo, 27 September 2009.