Sunday, November 29, 2009


What’s still green: Arborvitae, juniper and other evergreens, roses, cholla, prickly pear, yuccas, red hot poker, grape hyacinth, hollyhock, winecup, oriental poppy, St. John’s wort, vinca, white sweet clover, alfalfa, catmint, beardtongue, snapdragon, Jupiter’s beard, coral bells, rock rose, sea pink, columbine, yellow evening primrose, perky Sue, Shasta daisy, tansy, coreopsis, cheat grass, bases of needle and June grasses; most trees have shed their leaves.

What’s red or turning red: Young apricot stems, pink evening primrose.

What’s grey, blue-grey or grey-green: Piñon, pinks, snow-in-summer, yellow alyssum, winterfat, Silver King artemisia.

What’s yellow or turning yellow: Bouncing Bess, flax.

What’s blooming inside: Aptenia and asparagus fern; Christmas cactus has buds; .rochea and Christmas cactus leaves tinged with red.

Animal sightings: No sane animal is out these days.

Weather: Temperatures in low teens Tuesday morning; this is as cold as it usually gets when there’s snow on the ground in December; the only insulation now is fallen leaves; rain before midnight last night; 9:02 hours of daylight today.

Weekly update: Tomatillos were grown in the valley of Tehuacán where Richard MacNeish found the first evidence of domesticated corn long before Columbus. They still grow wild in cultivated fields in the highlands of México and Guatemala, especially in areas where ash from burned stubble promotes germination. When I saw seeds for sale, I thought they might be fun to try.

I didn’t realize they were Physalis until they began to take over the garden. None of the seed packages provided a Latin name.

I planted some five-for-a-dollar seeds in the north facing garden in 1996, and they persisted until 2001. I planted more along the eastern retaining wall in 1999, which became so thick, I began pulling them out in 2004. Unfortunately, when they break ground in spring, they look like bouncing Bess and I decimated that colony, without affecting the tomatillos.

I’d grown Physalis alkekengi in Michigan for the orange-colored Chinese lanterns that enclose the fruit, and put it on my never again list. What Hortus discretely described as "long creeping, underground stems" were their most distinctive feature. The seed cases don’t turn color until the fruit is ripe, and these relatives of the tomato have a long maturation period. I rarely saw the seed cases until late in the year, but I saw the leaves and stems everywhere.

My tomatillos have whitish roots that spread underground, while the yellow flowers look like those of tomatoes. The sepals at the top of the down facing flowers extend over the ovaries to produce the lanterns. When they began to turn papery, I wondered when they were ripe enough to pick. Since members of the nightshade family, including some non-hybrid tomatoes, are allergenic, I was cautious about popping one in my mouth.

I asked women who had migrated from México if they knew anything about tomatillos, but they looked as me blankly. I certainly had enough to give away, but could find no takers.

I finally went to the local grocer that caters to people who speak Spanish to see if it carried them, and discovered the ones it imports from México don’t look anything like what I have. Their fruits are the color of unripe tomatoes and resemble golf balls that completely fill their green cases. My fruits are golden olive grapes that hang suspended inside their tan shells.

The real Mexican tomatillos are Physalis ixocarpo. The only seed package I saved that shows the annual is one Burpee marketed to Spanish-speakers in 2000 "para salsa."

The plants I have are probably husk tomatoes. The picture on the Ferry Morse seeds that colonized shows golden yellow fruits and an ecru lantern. The photograph of Lake Valley ones that didn’t germinate is more deceptive. It shows green cases and fruits, but the fruits are small like mine. The first was promoted as "excellent for Mexican salsa" and the other described as "essential for salsas."

There’s nothing actually wrong with Physalis pubescens, except their tendency to colonize. The plants are found throughout north and south America, while tomatillos are believed to have originated in central México. The fruits, which have a sweeter taste than the acidic tomatillos, have been made into pies and jams by Americans from German and British areas. When tomatillos were adopted by Spanish colonists, they made sauces.

Fortunately, husk tomatoes are more easily tamed than the Chinese lanterns. Now I wait until the bouncing Bess is clearly identifiable before pulling most of the volunteers from the irrigated garden, and let them grow where they will in the drip line with the hairy golden asters and hybrid roses. They can hardly overwhelm either, and one of these days I may dare test their edibility.

Bailey, Liberty Hyde and Ethel Zoe Bailey. Hortus, 1934.

MacNeish, Richard Stockton. Tehuacan Archaeological-Botanical Project, Annual Report, 1961.

United Nations. Food and Agriculture Organization. Neglected Crops: 1492 from a Different Perspective. Edited by J.E. Hernández Bermejo and J. León, 1994.

Photograph: Tomatillo (top), as sold locally, and husk tomato with manually broken shell, 28 November 2009.

Sunday, November 22, 2009


What’s still green: Arborvitae, juniper and other evergreens, roses, cholla, prickly pear, yuccas, red hot poker, grape hyacinth, west-facing iris, hollyhock, winecup, oriental poppy, St. John’s wort, vinca, baptista, white sweet clover, catmint, beardtongue, snapdragon, Jupiter’s beard, coral bells, rock rose, sea pink, columbine, yellow evening primrose, perky Sue, Shasta daisy, tansy, coreopsis, Mexican hat, cheat grass, bases of needle and June grasses; number of large trees still have canopies of dead leaves.

What’s red or turning red: Young apricot stem, raspberry, pink evening primrose.

What’s grey, blue-grey or grey-green: Piñon, pinks, snow-in-summer, yellow alyssum, winterfat, Silver King artemisia.

What’s yellow or turning yellow: Globe willows, apples, bouncing Bess, flax, purple ice plant.

What’s blooming inside: Aptenia and asparagus fern blooming; rochea and Christmas cactus leaves tinged with red.

Animal sightings: Rabbit hiding under car Wednesday morning; thin gray-green birds on utility line.

Weather: Cold mornings, clear starry nights, reddish new moon Thursday; last rain/attempted snow 11/15/2009; 9:05 hours of daylight today.

Weekly update: Nature never reaches an equilibrium. Something is always disrupting the balance with its demands.

Tree roots grow beyond the ability of leaves to feed them, and send messages up for more leaves. Leaves multiply beyond the ability of roots to supply them, and send help messages down. Someone cuts off parts of a tree, and new suckers emerge from hidden buds in the bark to sustain the roots.

In more temperate climates, topped trees survive on carbohydrates stored in their roots, which allow them to send out emergency branches within four to six weeks. The finer roots are sacrificed, but once some leaves are recreated, the roots return to accumulating starch in about twelve weeks. Depending on its original size, a tree can regain its original mass within a few years, although the new growth may be less securely attached to the trunk and more prone to storm damage.

Here, where dry air sucks water from the soil, trees reverse the normal process: fewer leaves mean roots’ reserves can’t be replenished. When the number of roots decreases, the branches disappear until the tree itself becomes a shadow of itself, a barely functioning trunk.

This year’s unexpected early summer rains disrupted the stasis of topped trees: roots could expand, and suddenly seemingly dead trees shot out new growth.

Down the road, someone lived under the threat of two dying cottonwoods, one directly under a utility line, one a few feet away. At some time, the tops had been removed, and the trunks had shed their bark. If there were any leaves, I never saw them from my car window.

This June they cut them to the ground, and converted the nearby garage into living space. Before they could fill the yard with a heap of foot-long slices from the trunks, new growth sprouted. By fall, the two trunks looked like shrubs.

In the village, a trailer sits behind a row of cottonwoods. Sometime in the past, one of the trees apparently died and was cut to the ground. It had sent up a new trunk that was twisted, with suckers coming from the joints in gnarled boles. When the leaves started dropping this fall, it became obvious new branches had grown from the stump this summer.

Such new growth is common for many trees, but mature cottonwoods are not known for suckering. Fires and grazing buffalo controlled their population on the prairies, and in many areas they only increased after the herds were gone.

In New Mexico, Rio Grande cottonwoods have been disappearing with artificial changes in the rivers that have reduced the amount of available water. Sprouts only survive in places where the water table is high. This summer’s rain probably made no permanent changes to the below ground water levels, but they did leave enough near-surface water to stimulate the cottonwoods to return to more active lives.

Kim Coder says, with trees, there’s "no true balance except at death’s door." This summer’s early rains were a reprieve that took the form of a great disruption of normal patterns of nature that upended expectations by homeowners who thought it finally was safe to build near the dying cottonwoods.

Chesney Patrick and Nelly Vasquez. "Dynamics of Non-structural Carbohydrate Reserves in Pruned Erythrina poeppigiana and Gliricidia sepium Trees," Agroforestry Systems 69:89-105:2007.

Coder, Kim D. "Crown Pruning Effects on Roots," European Congress of Arboriculture, 1997.

Taylor, Jennifer L. "Populus deltoides," 2001, in United States Forest Service, Fire Effects Information System, available on-line.

Wier, Stuart K. "The Plains Cottonwood of the Southern Rocky Mountains," 1998, available on-line.

Photograph: Cottonwood stump in th village, with regrown trunk in back and new growth waving in the wind at right, 15 November 2009.

Sunday, November 15, 2009


What’s green: Trees have resumed the color changes preparatory to dropping their leaves; grape hyacinth leaves have broken through.

What’s turned/turning yellow: Cottonwoods, weeping and globe willows, sour cherries, apples, peach, Apache plume, tea roses, iris, Rumanian sage, bouncing Bess, phlox, flax, yellow alyssum, purple ice plant, Mexican hat, June grass.

What’s turned/turning red: Bradford pear, choke cherry, pasture rose, spirea, raspberry, winterfat, tansy.

What’s blooming inside: Aptenia and asparagus fern blooming; rochea and Christmas cactus leaves tinged with red.

Animal sightings: Flock of black chickens down the road, dead racoon by the village road.

Weather: Rain Friday and early this morning; 9:19 hours of daylight today.

Weekly update: This summer with its oddly timed rainfall was a boon to the early blooming members of the Mallow family, but less kind to the late summer ones.

The many stalks of hollyhocks bloomed together, and the most favored continued growing with spaced out flowers until they towered overhead. Underfoot, the deeply incised leaves on winecup runners spread everywhere in early summer, but had few flowers in August.

The roses of Sharon and sidalceas were slower to grow or bloom. While I could never say they were a disappointment, I also never had one of those moments when I was suddenly struck by their great beauty.

The roses of Sharon were the first to drop their leaves with the first frost of early October. The leaves of the sidalcea have just turned brown, while some winecup and hollyhock leaves are yellowing. The last will persist through the winter while the poppy mallow will slowly disappear.

While the roses of Sharon are threatened by late frosts every spring, the winecups are impervious to all but the coldest weather. Each spring, usually in late March, new growth begins rising from taproots, and by the monsoons the hairy stems cover the barren, dry area where I planted three seedlings in 1997.

The wine-colored poppy mallows begin blooming sometime between May 14 and May 20, then continue until frost. The five petals open from their white bases each morning and close for the night, and stay shut once pollenation is complete. The petals fall away, leaving the supporting calyx that dries brown. A beaked seedcase remains.

When a stem happened to drop into the ditch that borders the winecup bed and carries water away from the house, it spread rapidly. While the perennial reproduces by seed, the only new plants in my yard have been in that ditch as water carried the seeds towards the main garden, which they promptly invaded. The past two years the runners have been putting down roots in the pinks and snows-in-summer where they are almost impossible to remove without destroying their more desirable neighbors.

Callirhoe involucrate is less vigorous in its native tall grass prairie habitat, where it’s kept to the dry margins, either by fungus, grazing, fire or competition, and tends to brown out in late summer. When the Nature Conservancy let an old pasture go fallow with little grazing in southern Nebraska in the 1970's, the winecups increased but remained insignificant except on the silty lowland where they expanded to 2% of the vegetation in 17 years.

Researchers in Farmington tested some ninety xeric plants to determine their actual water requirements. Winecups started to fail when the moisture fell below half the usual irrigation scheme. The only places the plant grows naturally in the state are the far northeast and the San Juan valley home of that New Mexico State branch.

When freed of its natural limits, especially in a monsoon climate, winecups expand. The Flora of the Great Plains said is "adventive in waste places" and the Flora of New Mexico described it as a "common weed in gardens and cultivated ground." Even the people who sold me my plants suggest it "will slowly spread if you let it."

Next year could be especially difficult, since it’s probably spreading underground right now under all the plants that had a tougher time this year during the drier late summer. The flowers may have been killed by the late October snow, but the plants are still very much alive. Winecups are adapted to challenging weather.

Nagel, Harold G. "Vegetative Changes During 17 Years of Succession on Willa Cather Prairie in Nebraska," North American Prairie Conference, Proceedings 14:25-30:1995.

Santa Fe Greenhouse and High Country Gardens, catalog, available on-line.

Smeal, Daniel, M. M. West, M. K. O’Neill, and R. N. Arnold. "A Differentially-Irrigated, Xeric Plant Demonstration Garden in Northwestern New Mexico," International Irrigation Show and Technical Conference, 2007.

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

Thompson, Jean Colette and William T. Barker. "Malvaceae Juss, the Mallow Family," including "Callirhoe involucrate" in Great Plains Flora Association, Flora of the Great Plains, 1986.

Photograph: Winecup arrested by cold with shriveled flower, dried calyxes and yellowing leaves; unaffected green leaves in back, 8 November 2009.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Bermuda Grass

What’s still blooming: Nothing.

What’s turned/turning red: Bradford pear, choke cherry, pasture rose, spirea, raspberry.

What’s turned/turning yellow: Sour cherries, apples, peach, rugosa rose, Apache plume, iris, Rumanian sage, yellow alyssum.

What’s happening inside: African aptenia and asparagus fern blooming; red tinges rochea and Christmas cactus leaves.

Animal sightings: Mice and birds testing the house’s defenses.

Weather: End of the week morning temperatures below freezing; last rain 10/28/09; 9:35 hours of daylight today.

Weekly update: When I was a child in Michigan, our winter yard was either green or white. When snow was pushed into great piles in parking lots, it turned black. Green, white and soot were the colors of winter.

When I moved to west Texas in 1982, it was late summer and the lawn was green. When temperatures fell in fall, everything turned brown, and stayed brown. Bermuda grass was grown around Abilene because it was as close as people could come to the lawns of the north in summer. However, it begins to discolor when average temperatures fall below 50 degrees and the above ground growth dies when they fall below 30. The color of winter there was papery brown.

Here bunch grasses dominate the prairie. The tops turned brown long ago, but there’s a ring of green at the bases of the clumps. The color of winter is a velvety brown.

Recently, people who live along ditches that once served hay fields have been using flood irrigation for lawns. Most have planted some grass species that’s still green, but some yards have turned tan and will remain so until late spring.

I live up hill from the old ditch that watered livestock. Most of my land is either bunch grass or scrub. However, on the east side of the house there’s some Bermuda grass that may have come in the siding when the house was moved from Texas.

It doesn’t do particularly well here. Bermuda grass likes at least 25" of water a year. In Texas, the surviving deep roots and shallow rhizomes first sent up new shoots in spring, then sent out horizontal stems to colonize new areas. Since the grass was already thickly spaced and mowed often, the vertical growth dominates and the stolons had little opportunity to survive.

Here, the plant allocates more energy to sending out stolons to find moisture than in sending up dense, long blades. There’s only one clump, between a hose and the retaining wall, that’s ever put out radiating seed spikes.

Usually when the exploring growth, with its curling tufts, ever gets near water, it also gets near other plants, which prevent it from thriving in their shade. The horizontal stems are most visible trying to cross the block walk to escape the fence and sunflowers or going over the retaining walls to get beyond the planted buffalo and blue grama grasses.

A nomad’s ability to adapt has been built into the plant’s DNA. The Cynodon genus apparently evolved in east or southeastern Africa where two species are found in the eastern tropics, one in the rift valley, one from Madagascar east, one from Transvaal to the Cape, and two elsewhere in South Africa.

The common Bermuda grass species, dactylon, is a genetic mutation with twice the number of chromosomes that spread out of Africa where it evolved into subspecies. The variety that spread through the Seleucid Empire from modern Pakistan to Turkey, and into Europe is dactylon dactylon and probably resulted from a cross between African and an Afghan subspecies.

No one knows how it got to the New World, only that it was in the colonial south before the Revolution. It may have moved first to the Carribean on some Portuguese or Dutch ship that also plied the east, then migrated from there to the south on any number of vessels that sailed between Caribbean and southern ports.

In warmer climates it stays green all year, and is used to feed cattle everywhere. Ethnologists have reported parts have been used for traditional medical cures in India, Turkey, and northwestern Iran. In this country it’s most commonly used for golf courses.

In the colder latitudes, it can still form sods. It may brown in winter, but it keeps the summers green by preventing barren soils stripped of their native bunch grasses from blowing away.

Assefa, S., C. M. Taliaferro, M. P. Anderson, D. G. de los Reyes, R. M. Edwards. "Diversity among Cyondon Accessions and Taxa Based on DNA Amplification Finerprinting," Genome 42:465-474:1999; origin chart based on J. M. J. de Wet and J. R. Harlan, "Biosystemics of Cyondon L. C. Rich (Gramminae)," Taxon 19:565-569:1970 and J. R. Harlan., J. M. J. de Wet, K. M. Rawal, M. R. Felder, and W. L. Richardson,"Cytogenetic Studies in Cynodon L. C. Rich. (Gramineae)," Crop Science 10:288-291:1970.

Harlan, J. R., J. M. J. de Wet and K. M. Rawal "Origin and Distribution of the Seleucidus Race of Cynodon dactylon (L.) Pers. var.dactylon (Gramineae)," Euphytica 19:465-469:1970.

Newman, Dara. "Cynodon dactylon," Nature Conservatory Stewardship abstract, 1 March 1992.

Photograph: Bermuda grass stolons growing over the timber retaining wall, 1 November 2009.

Sunday, November 01, 2009


What’s still blooming: Chrysanthemums still have color from a distance, but up close many of the petals are stained brown.

Inside: African aptenia and asparagus fern.

What’s turned/turning red: Bradford pear, pasture rose, spirea, raspberry.

What’s turned/turning yellow: Most of the area yellow tree leaves turned brown; sour cherries, peach, rugosa rose, Apache plume, some iris leaves, Rumanian sage, catmint, yellow alyssum, Silver King artemisia.

Animal sightings: Mice have been trying to move into the house.

Weather: First snow landed on frozen rain on low leaves and stems in Monday morning dark; rain early Wednesday, then snow late; Tuesday morning in the high 20's, Thursday down to low 20's, and mid 20's with raw wind; yesterday weather back to normal sunny 30 degree temperature swing; 10:01 hours of daylight today.

Weekly update: There are things I know, objectively, to be true, but have never experienced.

I know horseweed has tiny white flowers, although I’ve never seen one. I see buds and I see seed heads, but I never see the petals opened. The closest I’ve come was a dull day with clouds hiding a bright sun. In the special half light that extended into afternoon, I saw some flowers partly opened, almost daisies.

It’s often at such special times, like All Hallows’ eve, when conditions aren’t quite normal, that the usually invisible is revealed.

I know goldenrod is a member of the composite family, but all I’ve ever seen were yellow knobs on curving stems, usually from a distance. In Michigan in the 1970's, the rhizomes grew in large stands with white yarrow on land abandoned when I-94 was built in the early 1960's. This summer one large and at least three small patches rose from sides of irrigation ditches along the village periphery.

This year’s rain patterns were unusual. Showers continued into July, when it’s usually dry. Then, there was no rain in the usual monsoon season. There was more water than usual part of the summer, and little the other part. Few sunflowers or purple asters bloomed. We had no fall. It wasn’t their world.

My goldenrod, however, had larger flowers than usual and I could actually see the golden rays ringing flattened domes. Now the heads look like thistles. The white awns anchored to seeds are visible within the prongs of receptacle bracts that remain when the fluff has flown, like cotton bolls before the gin removes the debris.

Two weeks ago, the white balls reflected light. A week ago, after two days of rain and two days of cold, the pappus hairs that had once surrounded the florets were more dispirited, the browns more prominent. Yesterday, after more rain, more cold, and even some snow, the receptacles still clutched their remaining winged achenes.

One reason I could see my flowers so clearly this summer is they are stiff goldenrod plants I bought from Wisconsin’s Prairie Nursery in 2005. The major difference between Solidago rigida and the more common canadensis is that, while they have similar numbers of ray petals (6-13 versus 8-14), my species has 14 to 35 disc florets rather than the 3 to 6 found on the common perennial.

The sheer need for space for the disc flowers pushes the petals apart, making the center more visible. The fact the rigida disc corollas are also two to three times the size of canadensis only emphasizes the difference.

Some taxonomists have argued large flowers like mine aren’t really goldenrods and should be moved to another genus, tentatively called Oligoneuron. However, geneticists found rigida not only shares the same DNA with canadensis, but its subtribe appears to be an older, more basal member of the group.

Apparently, goldenrod began like any other composite, a daisy in a large cluster, somewhere east of the Mississippi. As conditions changed, the flowers shrank, but nature compensated by creating more to produce the same reproductive effort. However, rather than create great clusters like yarrow or horseweed to accommodate the increased number of florets, nature created the classic goldenrod form by extending the stem into a gooseneck and spreading the flowers along one edge.

Today, the USDA website has distribution maps for 75 Solidago species. Many are limited to the areas where they evolved. Of those that did spread, most live either east of the great plains, like stiff goldenrod, or in the west. Common goldenrod is the only one that has adapted almost everywhere. It can’t handle the humid southeast and, early in the twentieth century, Elmer Wooton and Paul Standley suggested in New Mexico, it only grew in Chama and on "moist ground in the upper Sonoran" that includes the Rio Grande valley.

This summer even the local goldenrod expanded with the unexpected early moisture. The peduncle stems, that hold individual flowers, grew longer, so the wands became airy plumes. Last weekend those canadensis heads, by then turned white, still maintained their form. But one, growing along a curve where its pappus of white fluff caught the morning light proudly proclaimed to any passing driver, "See I am a composite, see my glorious crown."

Nesom, G. L. "Taxonomic Infrastructure of Solidago and Oligoneuron (Asteraceae: Astereae) and Observations on Their Phylogenetic Position," Phytologia 75:1-44:1993.

Semple, John C. and Rachel E. Cook Entries on Solidago, S. canadensis, and S. rigida at efloras Flora of North America website.

US Department of Agriculture plant profile for Solidago, available on-line.

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

Photograph: Stiff goldenrod seed head, 25 October 2009, winterfat in back.