Sunday, December 26, 2010

Tree Leaves

What’s happening: The snow brought moisture, and the crust responded; moss in places last Sunday; looks like snow also loosened some rocks which came down into the arroyo; new basal growth on snapdragons Thursday.

What’s still green: Moss, juniper and other evergreens, Apache plume, yuccas, Japanese honeysuckle, pyracantha, grape hyacinth, large-leaved soapwort, sea pink, hollyhock, cheese, oriental poppy, blue flax, yellow and pink evening primroses, vinca, sweet pea, gypsum phacelia, tumble mustard, snakeweed, dandelion, anthemis, coreopsis, chrysanthemum, heath and strap leaf aster leaves; pampas and cheat grasses; rose stems and young chamisa branches.

What’s grey, blue-grey or grey-green: Piñon, four-winged salt bush, buddleia, pinks, snow-in-summer, loco weed, yellow alyssum, stick leaf, western stickseed, winterfat, golden hairy aster leaves.

What’s red/turning red: Cholla, prickly pear, small-leaved soapwort, beards tongues, coral bells leaves.

What’s yellow/turning yellow: Arborvitae; globe and weeping willow branches.

What’s blooming inside: Christmas cactus, aptenia, asparagus fern; chaste tree leaves dead.

Animal sightings: Robin in cottonwood Thursday; rabbit about.

Weather: Ground wet when I got up Wednesday morning, rain Thursday night turned to frost the next morning; 9:45 hours of daylight today.

Weekly update: A week ago Friday, one of the men I work with drove in from Pecos with a great, gaping hole in his windshield where a cottonwood branch had come down during the night. Snow and small branches still rode on the roof.

Cottonwoods have relatively soft, weak wood that doesn’t tolerate bending or compression. Ron Smith, of the North Dakota state extension service, calls them "free kindling," because they drop their branches so easily. There currently is a scatter of small, maybe half-inch thick, grey-white branches on the shoulder under a male cottonwood down the road.

One of the things that’s always puzzled me is why some local trees retain their leaves into winter and why those leaves don’t cause more problems for branches when they get wet or collect snow. I remember in Michigan the ice storms of January and February were always accompanied by broken limbs and downed power lines.

When the snow fell last week, my black locusts still had half their leaves, while the catalpa had some on its lowest branch and the cottonwood had scattered leaves near the bottom. Some cottonwoods growing near arroyos kept most of their leaves, while those near the river were bare.

This year the coming of winter in the Española valley has been marked by discrete, widely spaced events. We had our first hard freeze, when temperatures dropped into the high 20's, on October 26. Before that, the leaves on all three species were turning yellow in an orderly manner, but neither the locust nor the catalpa were prepared. The leaves on the one exotic turned dead green, the others brown. The native cottonwoods continued to yellow.

Night temperatures got decidedly colder, 20 on my front porch, on November 10. The cottonwood leaves turned brown.

The first snow moved through on November 16. When I woke the temperature was hovering around 32 and water was condensed on many leaves. I don’t know if we actually got snow, or only very cold moisture. The cottonwoods and catalpas dropped many of their leaves, but the locusts remained the same.

Another storm moved through on November 28, leaving snow in the mountains. High winds stripped my locusts of many of their leaves, especially toward the top. Three days later the morning temperature fell to 10 on my front porch. The remaining locust leaves turned brown.

Last week, the snow started falling just before dark on Thursday and stopped by the time blizzard conditions moved through the open lands between Santa Fé and Albuquerque that night. Pecos was already buried. The temperature was only 32 when I got home Friday night and little had changed except the roads were dry.

Saturday the sun never really broke through the clouds, but the temperature rose into the 40's. Snow either sank into the ground or evaporated into the air. Sunday morning was foggy from the heavy moisture load in the air. By mid afternoon, it was 50 on my front porch and most of the snow was gone.

Ice and leaves behaved the way I expected. On Saturday, evaporating water condensed on my metal roof and fell towards the roses’ drip line where it cooled as it dropped. When it landed on a vertical stem, it simply slid to the ground. When water landed on a leaf on a horizontal branch, it first encased the leaf in ice, then formed icicles which coalesced into elaborate, clear structures. Many rose leaves are now turning brown.

The immediate effect of cold damp wasn’t something I’d ever noticed before. Leaves on many non-woody plants turned black, especially the baptisia, which was never covered, and the purple coneflowers, which were buried. When I walked out towards the arroyo Sunday, I had a sense things were darker, but couldn’t identify any particular plant: it could have been the general wetness or it could have been leaves and stems darkening on some, but not all, individuals of plants like golden hairy asters.

The impact of the snow was less obvious. It tended to collect on lower, horizontal branches facing the storm. Leaves happened to be present on some of those branches that collected snow in my yard, but it was probably because both the leaves and the snow responded to similar wind patterns. The trunks of the trees must deflect the winds which keep leaves in place and allow snow to accumulate.

The weight of the snow did break the final connection between the leaves and the black locusts. By Saturday afternoon, there was a great mess of leaflets lying atop the snow. On the prairie, it looks like one cottonwood branch snapped, one that still retained its leaves. All the other downed wood looked old, long ago bleached and stripped of any signs of life.

The reason the leaves survived so long seems to be related to location as much as species. Botanists tell us plants respond to water stress and lower fall temperatures by slowing photosynthesis and producing abscisic acid, a hormone that seals the joints between leaves and stems so dead leaves can fall. If those biochemical messages are absent or contradictory, the plant is less likely to adapt to the changing season.

The cottonwoods growing on the relatively dry land back from the river near the city had no leaves this week, and the ground below was littered with long dead branches no one had cleared. Nothing looked like a new fall.

The cottonwood that lost its branch was growing in a gully cut by water leaving the end of an irrigation ditch for the arroyo. The tree that still has its leaves near the village sprouted in the run off of another irrigation ditch which has since dug a trench around the tree, exposing its roots. The arroyos kept running after the natural environment began to dry last fall, apparently countermanding any stress messages.

In my yard, the cottonwood is protected by a wooden fence on two sides, north and east. The surviving leaves are below the top of the fence towards the center of the tree. The locusts are close enough to the house, that the building may slow the wind near the ground where leaves still exist, while the leafy end of catalpa branch is less than 2' above the warmer ground.

The effect of piles of snow seems less important to trees than either damp or ice, which combines the weight of snow with the cold moisture. However, species seems more important than location. The locust shrugs off loosened leaves, while the cottonwood breaks from too much pressure.

Smith, Ron. "Questions on Cottonwood," North Dakota State University extension website.

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

Photograph: Cottonwood growing in a gully carved by an irrigation ditch, with a leaf laden broken branch, 24 December 2010.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Russian Thistle

What’s happening: Ice forming on roses in the back drip line; most of the blackberry lily seeds have disappeared.

What’s still green: Juniper and other evergreens, some Apache plume, yuccas, some Japanese honeysuckle, pyracantha, red hot poker, grape hyacinth, Jupiter’s beard, large-leaved soapwort, sea pink, hollyhock, oriental poppy, blue flax, yellow and pink evening primroses, vinca, gypsum phacelia, tumble mustard, snakeweed, dandelion, anthemis, coreopsis, perky Sue, Shasta daisy, black-eyed Susan, strap leaf aster leaves; June, pampas, brome, cheat and base of needle grasses; rose stems and young chamisa branches.

What’s grey, blue-grey or grey-green: Piñon, four-winged salt bush, buddleia, pinks, snow-in-summer, loco weed, yellow alyssum, stick leaf, western stickseed, winterfat, golden hairy aster leaves.

What’s red/turning red: Privet, cholla, prickly pear, small-leaved soapwort, beards tongues, coral bells leaves.

What’s yellow/turning yellow: Arborvitae; globe and weeping willow branches.

What’s blooming inside: Aptenia, asparagus fern.

Animal sightings: The night after the snow fell a mouse was on my kitchen counter after I went to bed looking for food.

Weather: First snow Thursday; returned as fog this morning; 9:45 hours of daylight today.

Weekly update: Tuesday morning I could smell wood smoke when I walked out to my car. Across the river I could see dark smoke rising from someone burning. I’m not a good enough woodsmen to recognize the burning wood, but I can often tell when some one’s firing Russian thistle.

Most weeds produce a grey-white smoke. When Russian thistles ignite, which they do with a great whoosh, the smoke turns dark, with a touch of fatty yellow. The fumes are so acrid they attack my throat and make it difficult to breathe. My hair reeks until it’s washed.

When it grows in saline environments, Salsola tragus sequesters the salt it absorbs in vacuole sacs in its leaves. When it burns, the sodium is converted to carbonate of soda. If the soil is more normal, the alkaline ashes instead contain a carbonate of potash, itself a form of potassium.

Na2CO3, better known as washing soda, is used to bleach linen, for making soap and as the flux is manufacturing glass. The origins of glass making are lost in prehistory: Roman tradition gave credit to the Phoenicians, while the earliest evidence of a fully realized industry has been recovered from iron age Tell Amarna in Egypt dated around 1350 bc. The latter used soda from Lake Natron, while people living along the modern Syrian coast are the ones credited with discovering how to extract the compound from seaside plants.

The Romans mass produced glass, especially in Sidon in modern Lebanon where someone introduced glass blowing during the time of Augustus (31 bc–14 ad). The Romans later took glass making to Valencia and Murcia in Spain, areas conquered by the Umayyads of Syria in 714.

By the time Renaissance industrial demand increased, farmers around Cartagena in Murcia and Alacant on the Valencian coast planted barrilla, which was burned in pits covered with earth where the sodium carbonate had to be broken from the walls with hammers.

The most likely plants used by the Spanish were Salsola soda, Salsola kali, and Salsola sativa, now classed as Halogeton sativus.

The idea of burning the annual chenopods spread north to France where Salsola kali and our Russian thistle, there called soude épineuse or thorny soda, were used to produce blanquette around Montpellier, between Frontignan and Aiguemortes. The plants weren’t seeded like they were in Spain, but were burned in heaps in trenches for 8 or 9 days in late summer. The soda formed an "adhesive, almost vitreous mass" that remained red hot. When the blanquette cooled, it hardened and turned black. Water was then used to extract it from the residue.

The best always came from the Levant and was used to produce the clear cristallo glass made for Venice at Murano. The soda from Spain produced a bluish glass, while that from France was greenish.

The demand for organic sources for glass making declined after Nicolas Leblanc patented a process to produce sodium carbonate from salt, sulfuric acid, limestone and coal in 1791. In 1861, Ernest Solvay substituted ammonia for the acid. Mass production and a taste for large windows followed.

However, the need to burn weeds persisted. People here don’t burn Russian thistles because of some ties to a coastal Spain they never knew, nor have then reinvented something in the face of recurring circumstances. Instead, burning’s a relic from the time before the Phoenicians when the transformative power of fire was culturally important for both pragmatic and philosophical reasons.

Glass is a pyramid of fires. Natural glass is formed when fire heats the underlying sand to produce obsidian. The soda that lowers the melting temperature comes from burning weeds. The lime that stabilizes the soda-silica compound often comes from burning shells or limestone. Man-made glass forms when quartz granules are burned with soda and lime.

Science has demystified fire by calling it heat. Urban life and, more recently, anti-burning ordinances have done much to eliminate fire from our inherited tool kit, but it persists here in the Española valley in the varieties of smoke that greet one in the morning.

Burning is still a primordial ritual that inspires fear when thistles ignite, even if the curiosity to rake through the ashes has been lost.

Notes: Glass color doesn’t come from the soda, but from mineral impurities or additives in the mix.

Chaptal, Jean-Antoine-Claude. "Blanquette" in Chemistry Applied to Arts and Manufactures, volume 2, 1807.

Guibourt, Nicolas Jean Baptiste Gaston. Work near Cherbourg published in Journal de Chimie Medicale in March 1840 and reported as "Analysis of the Ashes of the Salsola tragus" in The London and Edinburgh Philosophical Magazine and Journal of Science, July 1840.

Kauffman, C. H. "Barilla" in The Dictionary of Merchandise, and Nomenclature in All Languages, 1805.

Nesbitt, Alexander and Henry James Powell. "History of Glass Manufacture" in Encyclopedia Britannica, 1911.

Pliny the Elder (Gaius Plinius Secundus). Naturalis Historia, translated by John F. Healy as Natural History: A Selection, 1991.

Photograph: Russian thistle just after it ignited in the gathering mist before the snow, 16 December 2010; winterfat in back is not burning; all the flame and smoke are from a single plant.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Russian Olive

What’s happening: Cold dry mornings have been killing off many leaves that remained; rose leaves, some junipers and the edges of some prickly pears bronzing; gumweed seeds disappearing.

What’s still green: Juniper and other evergreens, Apache plume, yuccas, Japanese honeysuckle, pyracantha, red hot poker, grape hyacinth, Jupiter’s beard, large-leaved soapwort, sea pink, snapdragon, hollyhock, oriental poppy, blue flax, yellow and pink evening primroses, vinca, gypsum phacelia, tumble mustard, snakeweed, dandelion, anthemis, some coreopsis, perky Sue, Shasta daisy, some black-eyed Susan, strap leaf aster leaves; June, pampas, brome, cheat and base of needle grasses; young chamisa branches.

What’s grey, blue-grey or grey-green: Piñon, four-winged salt bush, buddleia, pinks, snow-in-summer, loco weed, yellow alyssum, stick leaf, western stickseed, winterfat, Silver King artemisia, golden hairy aster leaves.

What’s red/turning red: Privet, rose, cholla, prickly pear, small-leafed soapwort, beards tongues, coral bells leaves.

What’s yellow/turning yellow: Arborvitae; globe and weeping willow branches.

What’s blooming inside: Aptenia, asparagus fern.

Animal sightings: Now that leaves have fallen, I can see several birds' nests in my neighbor’s apricot, the one near the road with a number of vertical branches that grew after it was pruned.

Weather: Cold morning temperatures are earlier than usual; last rain 10/21/10; 9:47 hours of daylight today.

Weekly update: If I took the number of volunteer plants in my yard as an indicator, then the birds in this area prefer the berries of Virginia creeper and Russian olive over all others.

Hawks Aloft found, when it monitored birds in the bosque between Rio Rancho and Los Lunas for the Corps of Engineers between 2003 and 2008, that the Russian olive, so disparaged by environmentalists for filling the void left by the disappearing cottonwoods, is actually filling a much larger hole for migrating birds whose habitats are vanishing with suburban development. The highest densities and greatest diversity of species in winter were found in pure stands of Elaeagnus angustifolia.

The native of the collision belt between the Eurasian continent and the more southerly plates begins leafing the middle of April. The four-lobed tubular flowers appear a month later on branches they have lengthened from buds formed the previous year. However, you only know because you can smell them. The small pale yellow clusters are hidden by umbrellas of narrow, grey leaves on reddish twigs covered with grey scales.

Last year I saw incised fruits on my tree the first of July. They were gone before the end of summer. The tree in the wide arroyo produced small, round grey-green olives the middle of July that were disappearing by the end of September.

Unlike many deciduous trees whose leaves turn color, then drop, Russian olive leaves seem to just dry in late September and fold into narrow pendants that won’t hold ice or snow if the weather turns bad prematurely and make the ripening berries more visible. If they’re not eaten, the polished tan berries can last until late winter, when they begin to shrivel.

Hawks Aloft found many birds ignored them in the fall, if there was a large sunflower crop. However, neo-tropical animals like Wilson’s Warbler and the Western Tanager ate the berries, as did migrating robins, hermit thrushes, and white crowned and song sparrows.

The fruit continues to age during the cold, when it’s more important for birds wintering in the bosque. For instance, Stellar’s Jay was there in 2008 when the cone crop was less plentiful at higher elevations. Eastern blue birds have become permanent residents. Others that eat the fruit in the shortened days include western and mountain blue birds, both types of sparrows, American robins, red-winged blackbirds, northern flickers, hermit thrushes, yellow-rumped warblers, spotted towhees, and dark-eyed juncos.

Russian olives continue to be important in spring, when little new has appeared in the landscape. Of the 18 vegetation communities observed by Hawks Aloft from 63 locations, the nitrogen fixing members of the oleaster family attracted the second highest density of terrestrial birds, and were particularly important to cedar waxwings. In other parts of the country, those birds eat pyracantha berries in fall.

Where I live is close enough to the river to hear migrating geese in the morning and see occasional flocks overhead, but too far away to attract visitors. Occasionally a robin will appear in late May, usually near the orchards and open fields near the village.

The orchards provide both the remains of previous crops and large swaths of non-native grasses, like smooth brome, with all the seeds, insects and worms they bring. They also have no dogs, infrequent human visitors, and cars that are a goodly distance away.

This spring was unusual. Robins seemed to have started out earlier than usual, then were forced to lay over in this less than optimal area. I saw one along the side of the main road in February, when I was also hearing water fowl. The end of the month, I saw larger numbers around the orchards.

The middle of March, some had moved two miles south to my uphill neighbor’s yard, especially the area where the previous owner had kept horses. The end of the month, two small birds were in my catalpa. The next day one was in the peach next to my house. In mid April, there was one in the cottonwood between the catalpa and the old paddock. I last saw a robin in a front yard orchard on the main road the end of May.

Meantime, I saw some unusual slate-blue colored birds with brighter, darker heads on May 2 in the still barren Russian olives that line a lot next to the other, narrower arroyo that has the remains of some kind of lawn. I don’t know if those trees still had berries - it’s much harder to see such things in someone else’s yard - but this fall they have large fruits, while my tree and the one in the wide arroyo produced nothing this summer.

The skin color has faded to bleached wood. Most still have pockmarked surfaces, but the sides of some are becoming smooth and glisten in the sun. When one’s plucked, the short stem snaps, but the fruit resists pressure. However, when it’s broken, the outer skin is as pliable as an orange peel. The layer between the rind and the large seed has begun to dessicate: the mesocarp crumbles in the fruits that have begun to turn golden, is a bit more adhesive in the less mature ones.

At this time, the fructose and glucose are concentrated in the rind, but the drying pulp still has some flavor. When Steve Brill bit into a ripe fruit, he said "it tasted great - like a sweet raisin - for the first five seconds. Then it seemed like I had a mouthful of talcum powder."

Local birds, like the smallish brown ones that moved into my eastern neighbor’s metal building, have no problems eating the mealy drupes. A tree is now growing at the corner of his barn, and I suspect that that tree is the source of all the seedlings I removed from areas near the utility line this spring.

Whether or not natural selection is purely random or has purposefully favored the trees that support symbiotic birds is a philosophical, perhaps even a theological question. What’s obvious is that the large, striped seeds obviously aren’t damaged by their middle passage.

Notes: Thanks to an anonymous friend who was willing to taste the separate parts of a berry.

Brill, Steve. Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants, 1994, with illustrations by Evelyn Dean.

Hawks Aloft, Albuquerque. Bird and Vegetation Community Relationships in the Middle Rio Grande Bosque: 2008 Interim Report, May 2009.

Photograph: Russian olive berries on a tree near the narrow arroyo, 5 December, 2010; the joint between this year’s growth and last is clear with the change in branch color; buds for next year’s growth and the dried tear drop leaves are also visible.

Sunday, December 05, 2010


What’s happening: Sunday’s winds removed most of the black locust leaves; next year’s buds forming on apricots; people are putting out their Christmas lights.

What’s still green: Juniper and other evergreens, Lady Banks, hybrid tea and floribunda roses, Apache plume, prickly pear, yuccas, Japanese honeysuckle, pyracantha, red hot poker, grape hyacinth, west-facing iris, bouncing Bess, Jupiter’s beard, large-leaved soapwort, sea pink, snapdragon, catmint center, white sweet clover, sweet pea, hollyhock, oriental poppy, blue flax, Saint John’s wort, yellow evening primrose, vinca, alfilerillo, gypsum phacelia, tumble mustard, snakeweed, dandelion, anthemis, coreopsis, perky Sue, Shasta daisy, black-eyed Susan, strap leaf aster leaves; June, pampas, brome, cheat and base of needle grasses; young chamisa branches.

What’s grey, blue-grey or grey-green: Piñon, four-winged salt bush, buddleia, pinks, snow-in-summer, loco weed, yellow alyssum, stick leaf, western stickseed, winterfat, Silver King artemisia, golden hairy aster leaves.

What’s red/turning red: Pivet, barberry, cholla, small-leaved soapwort, beards tongues, hartweig and pink evening primroses, coral bell leaves.

What’s yellow/turning yellow: Arborvitae, golden spur columbine leaves; globe and weeping willow branches.

What’s blooming inside: Aptenia, asparagus fern.

Animal sightings: When I was cleaning the irrigation timers I discovered insect webs clogging the screen filters; since no area seemed to suffer from a serious lack of water, I assume this happened late in the season.

Weather: A storm passed through last weekend, leaving snow in the Jemez that lasted as a day and cold morning temperatures for part of the week; last rain 10/21/10; 9:54 hours of daylight today.

Weekly update: Pyracanthas always look like unhappy migrants from a more southern clime, huddled against walls as they are, pulling their faded cloaks of orange about them. At this time of year, when native plants are shades of brown, they’re the only color in the landscape.

I’m not sure why I associate the exotic shrubs with the south, beyond the fact they’re natives of the Caucasus, Iranian and Turkish plates, and Baltic, Italian and Iberian peninsulas that aren’t reliably hardy beyond zone 6 without protection, especially from the wind. The evergreen leaves turn bronze, then drop in this area.

But, for some reason, they’re part of this northerner’s view of the domestic landscape from Charleston to Dallas, even though green thorn first entered England in the early 1600's as a hedge plant. The idea of a thorny barrier to protect property is so obvious it’s been invented many times, most recently with razor wire.

In the first century before Christ, Varro recommended Roman land owners plant hedges of thorn because they couldn’t be destroyed by malicious torchers. A century later Columella believed hedges lasted longer than other barriers and recommended planting seeds from plants with the largest thorns.

A few centuries later, Romans introduced thorned hedges into an area where iron age settlers had used ditches to protect their village on the Thames near Oxford. When the Romans left their botanical debris in England, the natives reverted to their usual practices and hedges were forgotten until the early years of the Stuarts, who ascended the throne with James I in 1603, when land owners began claiming common lands as their own. The idea of thorny hedges was introduced as the best means to enforce their claims against displaced tenants. They were soon paired with berms and ditches.

It was in those years, between the time John Gerard published his Herbal in 1597 and John Parkinson described his garden in 1629, that pyracantha was introduced. The first didn’t mention the shrub; the latter praised the fire thorn hedge that led to his orchard.

John Loudon believes those early hedges were mixed lots, grown from whatever was available, until stock nurseries developed. The primary requirements for shrubs were that they grew quickly, lived long, could be made dense, had lots of thorns and were cheap to produce.

The most common plants became hawthorn or white thorn (Crataegus oxyacantha), black thorn (Prunus spinosa) and buck thorn (Rhamnus catharticus). When hedges were introduced into this country, Osage orange and Cherokee rose were used in the south. If one were going to grow a thorn hedge here, one would prune Russian olive and black locust.

Although the Southern Cultivator was recommending pyracantha’s use in 1855, the shrub didn’t appear prominently in the south until George Washington Vanderbilt built his mansion on cutover land near Asheville, North Carolina, between 1889 and 1895. He told Frederick Lee Olmsted he wanted an European estate.

The landscaper interpreted that loosely, but did suggest a traditional walled garden like those associated with monasteries. Vanderbilt ruled out the utilitarian plants grown in such plots, so Olmsted espaliered Roses of Sharon and members of the rose family along the walls, including apples, pears, apricots and pyracanthas.

Biltmore became not simply a northerner’s southern retreat, but the image for many northerners of what southern plantations should be. The nursery that supplied the estate was soon telling other wholesale customers the evergreen thorn belonged "in every collection."

Olmsted’s use of Pyracantha coccinea was aided by the Lalande nursery in Nantes who had released a cultivar in 1874 that produced more berries on longer, more flexible branches that were also hardier in cold weather. They could be used in front of town houses to protect the windows from intruders while providing some aesthetic veneer.

It’s Lalande’s vertical shrubs that are growing near the village today. When people bought them years ago they probably had no particular image of the plants, and did what one does with thorns - put them near the road, far from the house, and left them alone.

The one that’s most visible, growing where a front block wall meets a side chain link fence, has one main stem that’s branched with a couple smaller glossy brown stems rising from the crown. The lower parts are bare, with the leaves concentrated on newer growth that’s splays across the fence where the five-petaled white flowers and orange berries are borne.

If one wanted them to form a barrier, one would need to constantly prune to encourage new growth at the base. Someone is maintaining such a group in the stone well in front of an empty bank by the old post office where the shrubs form deep green columns that reach nearly to the top of the building. However, the mealy fruit is concentrated at the top, because it grows on old wood that tends to be trimmed away and only survives where new growth is safe.

The thorns aren’t obvious when one drives by the drooping branches, but are felt as soon as one touches the ovate leaves. Rather than the prickles found along the stems of roses, pyracantha’s spines are sharpened, inch or longer spurs that grow from the same node as the leaves.

Without some variation in their mass, the single plants simply look dreary - the neglected ones scraggly and berry laden, the tended ones neat and colorless. In such isolated communities they look like the displaced visitors they, in fact, are.

Notes:Alexander, Bill. The Biltmore Nursery: A Botanical Legacy, 2007, reprints their catalog.

Columella, Lucius Junius Moderatus. De Re Rustica, anonymously translated in 1745 as L. Junius Moderatus Columella of Husbandry.

Gerard, John. Gerard’s Herball, 1597; Alice M. Coats notes the missing reference in Garden Shrubs and Their Histories, 1964, republished in 1992 with notes by John L. Creech.

Lambrick, George and Mark Robinson. Iron Age and Roman Riverside Settlements at Farmoor, Oxfordshire, 1979.

Loudon, John Claudius. Arboretum et Fruticetum Britannicum, volume 2, 1838.

Parkinson, John. Paradisi in Sole Paradisus Terrestris, 1629; described in Anna Parkinson, Nature's Alchemist: John Parkinson, Herbalist to Charles I, 2007.

Southern Cultivator, The. "Crataegus pyracantha, or Evergreen Thorn, for Hedging," 1855, quoted in James R. Cothran, Gardens and Historic Plants of the Antebellum South, 2003; pyracantha has had several botanical designations, including as a hawthorn.

Varro, Marcus Terentius. Rerum Rusticarum Libri III, translated by Fairfax Harrison in Roman Farm Management: The Treatises of Cato and Varro, 1913.

Photograph: Pyracantha berries growing near the village, 28 November 2010; the spine in the center is probably a spur for future growth; thorns are above the leaves, narrow and pointed, not below, but grow at a similar angle.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Gypsum Phacelia

What’s happening: Purple aster blooming; exposed hollyhock leaves dying, leaving new green ones in core; winterfat, chamisa, and broom senecio releasing seeds; next spring’s twig buds visible on apples and cherries; new buds developing on cottonwood and lilac; most trees now bare, just in time for their leaves to protect whatever’s beneath from the cold.

What’s still green: Arborvitae, juniper and other evergreens, Lady Banks, hybrid tea and floribunda roses, prickly pear, yuccas, Japanese honeysuckle, pyracantha, red hot poker, grape hyacinth, west-facing iris, bouncing Bess, Jupiter’s beard, large-leaved soapwort, sea pink, snapdragon, catmint center, white sweet clover, sweet pea, hollyhock, oriental poppy, blue flax, Saint John’s wort, yellow evening primrose, vinca, alfilerillo, gypsum phacelia, tumble mustard, snakeweed, dandelion, anthemis, coreopsis, perky Sue, Shasta daisy, black-eyed Susan, strap leaf aster leaves; June, pampas, brome, cheat and base of needle grasses; young chamisa branches.

What’s grey, blue-grey or grey-green: Piñon, four-winged salt bush, buddleia, pinks, snow-in-summer, loco weed, yellow alyssum, stick leaf, western stickseed, winterfat, Silver King artemisia, golden hairy aster leaves.

What’s red: Purple-leafed plum, privet, barberry, cholla, small-leaved soapwort, beards tongues, hartweig and pink evening primroses, coral bells leaves.

What’s yellow/turning yellow: Apache plume, golden spur columbine leaves; globe and weeping willow branches.

What’s blooming inside: Aptenia, asparagus fern.

Animal sightings: Something has tunneled into the roots of the cholla.

Weather: Winds during week, coldest morning so far yesterday; last rain 10/21/10; 10:03 hours of daylight today.

Weekly update: It’s much easier to learn things as a child. You simply absorb impressions, year after year. By the time, you want to consciously understand or explain something, you already have a great reserve of information. No research is needed.

As an adult, you’re painfully conscious of your ignorance when you encounter an unfamiliar flower, and terribly aware it will take years of observation to know it the way you do a dandelion.

As a child, time doesn’t exist, life is perennial. You know you’ll know when you want to know. As an adult, you come to think of yourself as an annual. Any new knowledge is gained in a race against the seasons.

I may have seen a gypsum phacelia on my land in 1995. I never saw it again, and my collection of books on southwestern plants was small, the internet unavailable. The closest species in Peterson’s Southwestern and Texas Wildflowers was a salt heliotrope which is characterized by "tiny flowers in long, curved sprays."

Last May I saw something lavender blooming in a rounded cluster under a chamisa in the arroyo with five petals and darker purple stamens that extended so far they resembled whiskers. I decided it must be a type of phacelia, not because I had any idea what a phacelia was, but because it looked a little like the picture of a Phacelia tanacetifolia in the Wildseed catalog.

A month later I saw them again. The stems were longer, and the leaves dirtier. On some, the flowering stalks had branched with brown receptacles packed along one side of reddish veins rather like fuzzy, caterpillar segments. Single flowers, like antennae, were open at the tops where the stems were still uncoiling; the lower leaves yellow or brown. A small bee was mining one.

I went back to the bookshelf. This time I decided it was a Phacelia integrifolia, based on Geyata. Ajilvsgi’s guide to Texas wildflowers. She said it grew on rocky or sandy soils, especially limestone ones, in northern and western parts of the state. Others emphasize its proclivity for gypsum hills.

I wasn’t sure, of course. Her photograph showed narrow, furled leaves and darker colored flowers. The leaves in the arroyo were brighter green, undulating with scalloped edges as if they were made of humped segments joined along the sides, much like the five petals of the flowers were welded into a tube.

But it was a name, enough to label photographs. Before there was a name, there was either the meaningless "Blue E" or allusive comments like "the florets resemble the faded, artificial flower corsages I was given to wear at Easter." Many who know the name still resort to metaphors to call it scorpion tail.

The next week the plants were turning brown. No flowers were left by mid-July. I saw nothing more until late September when I spotted something that looked like a basal rosette. But again, I wasn’t sure.

This year I knew more. I knew where to look. They’d been growing in the shade between the Russian olive and some chamisa on the slightly elevated second bottom stabilized by the shrubs where the waters from the arroyo don’t usually flow.

I saw a single plant the first of March growing in the open between cracks in the sand. Again it was a bit dirty. Ajilvsgi said the leaves have glandular hairs, which make them sticky.

A child wouldn’t have needed to read that. However, when I saw the trapped grains of sand, my childhood memories warned me it could be unpleasant to touch. My accumulated knowledge inhibited direct learning, predisposed me to accept the word of others that they have a tap root; dark, uncorrugated seeds, and smell bad.

A month later there were a number of plants, some growing in the gravel that washed out from the sides of the arroyo, some among the debris under the chamisa. The thick, velvety leaves were beginning to point upward.

The first week of May stems were forming with alternating leaves. I could see some bud clusters, still green as the stalks. The first flowers were visible the next weekend, recessed into their cups like borages.

It would seem I’d returned to the point I entered the life cycle last summer, only I’d forgotten almost everything I’d seen. On return trips, I watched with amazement as the stems extended into ropes with purple eyes on their tips, then saw the candelabra turn brown and nearly disappear by the first of July.

Not all was repetition. The first of July I also saw new growth around the remains of dead plants. I began to see new, green leafed branches on plants dominated by browning, still blooming stems. The first of August, there were new plants ready to bloom.

I saw no more. I hurt my foot and couldn’t walk out to the arroyo while it healed.

Two weeks ago I saw a new seedling, much as I had last year. I suddenly realized, these plants must be annuals, and what I’d noticed this August wasn’t the revived growth of a heat-shy perennial, but another generation that had emerged later in the season than the first.

Now I needed to know more. Were integrifolia annuals, or were these lavender flowers some other plant altogether?

I doubted, became uneasy. The plant isn’t even mentioned in the standard reference on New Mexico flowers. Elmer Wooten and Paul Standley list Phacelia corrugata as the species found in Española in the early twentieth century. Researchers with the Smithsonian mentioned the same plant on Santa Clara land in the same years, only they described it as "a fern species."

Duane Atwood says confidently that corrugata has deep blue flowers with yellow anthers, and only grows in the four corners region. However, it is the one member of the waterleaf family he explicitly mentions as a winter annual that produces a small rosette in the fall that "continues to grow during the warm periods of the winter months." Integrifolia is simply described as an annual that blooms from March to mid-September, but is shown following the Rio Grande into México.

He adds that there has been "considerable confusion" over the identity of integrifolia, caused in part by herbarium specimens that change as they dry, and in part by authoritative writers who amplify the mistakes of their eminent predecessors. He suggests more fieldwork is needed.

Fieldwork’s a professional euphemism for reverting to childhood habits of watching. A team from the University of New Mexico spent nine years looking at plants in the Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge in Socorro County before noting integrifolia is primarily an early spring flower whose growth is limited by winter moisture. Another, smaller generation blooms in summer that depends on summer moisture and has a more compressed life cycle.

In southwestern Colorado in 2007, Al Schneider suggested some years produce more plants than others. He noted, "In good spring flowering years, such as 2003 and 2005, thousands of plants color rocky/sandy flats and slopes in lavender-blue."

I can’t be sure the plant growing in the arroyo is an integrifolia, but it looks like Schneider’s pictures.

I won’t know for a while if the little phacelia can only grow in that one shady, protected place in the arroyo, or if chance dropped seeds there and they will spread with the seasons. It could be what I saw this summer was the fluorescence of a good year, or it may simply have been the next year in the expansion of a colony. I won’t know until we, the plants and I, have coexisted longer.

Learning never stops. Life becomes constant fieldwork.

Ajilvsgi, Geyata. Wildflowers of Texas, 1984.

Atwood, N. Duane. "A Revision of the Phacelia Crenulatae Group (Hydrophyllaceae) for North America," The Great Basin Naturalist 35:127-190:1975.

Peterson Field Guide. Southwestern and Texas Wildflowers, by Theodore F. Niehaus with illustrations by Charles L. Ripper and Virginia Savage.

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

Schneider, Al. Southwest Colorado Wildflowers, Ferns and Trees website pages for "Hydrophyllaceae" and "Phacelia integrifolia," 2007; he has the best pictures.

Wildseed Farms. Wildflower Reference Guide and Seed Catalog, 2010.

Wooten, Elmer Otis and Paul Carpenter Standley. Flora of New Mexico, 1915.

Xia, Yang, Douglas I. Moore, Scott L. Collins, and Esteban H. Muldavin. "Aboveground Production and Species Richness of Annuals in Chihuahuan Desert Grassland and Shrubland Communities," Journal of Arid Environments 24:378-385:2010.

Photograph: Young gypsum phacelias, already sticky, growing in the litter near a Russian olive, 26 November 2010.

Sunday, November 21, 2010


What’s happening: Purple aster flowers still look and feel alive; some cottonwoods bare, many covered with dead leaves while mine still has some leathery, faded green ones; apple orchards nearly bare, but one branch is covered in green leaves; my Russian olive’s nearly bare, but most have dead leaves still dangling; one trunk on my neighbor’s globe willow's bare, the other’s still mantled; outer catmint leaves dead, but inner ones still green; saltbush, winterfat, chamisa, broom senecio dropping seeds.

What’s still green: Arborvitae, juniper and other evergreens, Lady Banks, hybrid tea and floribunda roses, prickly pear, yuccas, Japanese honeysuckle, pyracantha, red hot poker, grape hyacinth, west-facing iris, bouncing Bess, beardtongues, Jupiter’s beard, large-leaved soapwort, sea pink, snapdragon, salvias, catmint, alfalfa, white sweet and purple clovers, sweet pea, oxalis, hollyhock, winecup, oriental poppy, blue flax, Saint John’s wort, yellow evening primrose, vinca, alfilerillo, tumble mustard, pigweed, snakeweed, dandelion, Mexican hat, anthemis, coreopsis, perky Sue, Shasta daisy, black-eyed Susan, strap leaf aster, June, pampas, brome, needle and cheat grasses.

What’s grey, blue-grey or grey-green: Piñon, four-winged salt bush, buddleia, pinks, snow-in-summer, loco weed, yellow alyssum, California poppies, stick leaf, winterfat, Silver King artemisia, chocolate flower, golden hairy aster.

What’s red/turning red: Purple-leafed plum, raspberries, privet, barberry, cholla, small-leaved soapwort, pink evening primrose, coral bells.

What’s yellow/turning yellow: Apache plume, golden spur columbine.

What’s blooming inside: Aptenia, asparagus fern, pomegranate, zonal geranium.

Animal sightings: Bird bang on the house last Sunday, probably a woodpecker but it flew away before I could tell.

Weather: Morning temperatures are either around freezing or below 20; last rain 10/21/10; 10:15 hours of daylight today.

Weekly update: Societies cultivate plants that best dramatize their virtues.

One I associate with my childhood in a 1950's Michigan small town is my next-door neighbor’s privet hedge. To install it, Chuck dug a trench around the property to ensure each shrub had exactly the same root area, each would be spaced precisely on centers. Every plant was kept pruned to the same height and width; no individuality was allowed.

The great enemy of the time was the non-conformist, the parent or shrub owner too careless to pay attention, a person like my next door neighbor in Oakland County in 1985 who emphasized the Eve or evil in her name.

My first conversation with Evelyn began when I heard a voice. I was beckoned to a small, high window in a dark brick, 1920's house hidden behind an 8' tree with branches nearly to the ground. I never found out if she had lived long in the house or had inherited that protective plant. Soon after, she was bludgeoned to death by her youngest son, home on leave from the state mental institution.

I later decided the tree was a privet gone native. It bore small, white flowers, which some say have an unpleasant smell, and produced dark fruit, which birds eat, but horses shouldn’t. No flowers ever appeared on Chuck’s hedge, no deceitful beauty, no dangerous fertility.

Since no one, not even a fairy tale witch, would plant a single privet so close to a house and property line that it scraped the walls and reached for sun into the yard of the former Methodist manse, I decided the tree must have begun life as the root stock for a lilac, a closely related member of the olive family.

In the early 1930's, Kenneth Chester found that privets were stronger than the lilacs that were grafted onto them. The hope of growers was that the scions would put down their own roots and dismiss their wet nurses. However, if the graft was poorly done, then in five or so years the privet would choke the lilac to create space for itself, much like that wayward son had done.

Wild plants dulled into stupefaction by small town life provoke an atavistic urge to release them. I wanted to plant a privet and see if, indeed, it could become a tree like Evelyn’s.

The first potted ones I bought, in the local hardware, were labeled Ligustrum texanum. They failed. At first I thought it was because I’d put them in places they couldn’t survive. Then I realized that, despite the number in the store, I hadn’t seen them growing anywhere in the area. Texas is a large state: Houston gets more than twice the annual rain as Abilene, which gets twice what we receive. I supposed more people have hedges in the east.

I found a variety in a mail order catalog called Amur River, and thought that river marks the northeast boundary between China and Russia. Siberian elm, Siberian pea tree, Siberian catmint. It was worth a try.

They failed. However, it could have been the condition of the bare roots when I got them, and not the variety.

I looked in other catalogs, but all they offered was Cheyenne. I thought, Wyoming’s north of here, zone 5. Only, they turned out to be from Sarajevo, grown from seed brought back by Edgar Anderson in 1934.

Today, it might be considered politically correct to plant a refugee from the Serbian wars, but in the 1950's, it would have been treated as a displaced person, kept in a camp until it could be verified.

And, indeed that’s what happened to the seed. It was taken to the Cheyenne Horticultural Field Station where it was observed. The federal government didn’t release the grey saplings to the public until 1965, just when the children of the 50's were set to rebel. Soon after, the center became a victim of nativist environmentalism, its land redirected to the restoration of lost grasslands.

All along, I thought a privet’s a privet. But, I was wrong. Chuck and Evelyn’s shrub’s the only one that’s not exclusively from Asia. Ligustrum vulgare also has the widest distribution of the genus, ranging from the Caucasus north and west to southern Norway. The leathery, oval leaves were originally valued because they remained green during mild winters, then because they tolerated urban pollution.

In England, the dense branches go wild on gravelly, moist soils and chalk. In this country, cuttings and seedlings grow rapidly in most states east of the Mississippi and scattered points west, in some cases invading neighboring woodlands. In 2000, Brady Allred saw them along the banks of the Pecos in San Miguel county.

Texas privet’s a shorter, more compact cultivar of Ligustrum japonica, native to western Honshu, Kyushu, Shikoku, southern Korea and Taiwan. In this country, it’s not reliably hardy outside zone 7 and is primarily grown in the south. The only places the dark green, waxy leafed shrub has naturalized in Texas are Galveston, Corpus Christi and Austin.

Amurense is actually a subspecies of Ligustrum obtusifolium that grows along mountain streams and gullies of northeastern China. In this country, the bright green leaves open north of japonica, from the southern border states into New England. It can’t handle the winters of northern Nevada.

Cheyenne is a zone 4 vulgare selection that was noticed by Anderson because it grew in an unusually cold, dry location. The bitter-tasting, astringent leaves begin turning burgundy when the weather gets cold, this year just after the first freeze of late October, and eventually disappear.

Three of the five bare roots I planted in 2007 have survived, although so far they’re mainly short vertical stems of no particular character. Until they get taller, they’re free to develop as they will, their awkward age hidden by the prairie grass growing along the drive.

They don’t yet look as good as either the superintended plants of Chuck or the neglected one of Evelyn, but they have the liberty to become either, to follow their DNA where it leads.

Allred, Brady. Item in "New Plant Distribution Records," The New Mexico Botanist, 11 August 2000.

Chester, K. S. "Graft-blight; A Disease of Lilac Related to the Employment of Certain Understocks in Propagation," Arnold Arboretum Journal 12:79-146:1931, described by Karl Sax in "Rootstock for Lilacs," Arnoldia 10:57-60:1950.

Mills, Linn and Dick Post. Nevada Gardener's Guide, 2005.

Skogerboe, Scott T. "Ornamental Plantings Cross Referenced January 30, 1994," Cheyenne Botanic Gardens website, on Cheyenne field station.

Smith, W. W. "Ligustrum obtusifolium subsp. suave (Kitagawa) Kitagawa," efloras Flora of China website.

Sowerby, James and James Edward Smith. English Botany, 1800.

United States Department of Agriculture. Agricultural Research Service. Germplasm Resources Information Network. Entries for Ligustrum japonicum Thunb. and Ligustrum obtusifolium Siebold & Zucc. subsp. suave (Kitag.) Kitag., available on-line.

_____. Natural Resources Conservation Service. Plant profiles for Ligustrum amurense Carrière, Ligustrum japonica Thunb., and Ligustrum vulgare L., available on-line.

Photograph: Cheyenne Privet, 20 November 2010.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Japanese Barberry

What’s blooming: Purple aster; peach twigs have larger fuzzy, silvery buds.

What’s still green: Arborvitae, juniper and other evergreens, Siberian elms at lower level, globe willow, apples, Lady Banks, hybrid tea and floribunda roses, prickly pear, yuccas, Japanese honeysuckle, pyracantha, red hot poker, grape hyacinth, west-facing iris, bouncing Bess, beardtongues, Jupiter’s beard, large-leaved soapwort, sea pink, snapdragon, salvias, catmints, alfalfa, white sweet and purple clovers, sweet pea, oxalis, hollyhock, winecup, oriental poppy, basal blue flax leaves, baptisia has some black edges, bindweed, Saint John’s wort, yellow evening primrose, vinca, alfilerillo, stick leaf, tumble mustard, pigweed, snakeweed, dandelion, Mexican hat, purple coneflower, anthemis, coreopsis, perky Sue, Shasta daisy, black-eyed Susan, June, pampas, brome, needle and cheat grasses.

What’s grey, blue-grey or grey-green: Piñon, four-winged salt bush, pinks, snow-in-summer, loco weed, yellow alyssum, California poppies, winterfat, Silver King artemisia, chocolate flower, golden hairy aster.

What’s red/turning red: Purple-leaved plum, raspberries, privet, barberry, cholla, small-leaved soapwort, pink evening primrose, coral bells, tansy.

What’s yellow/turning yellow: Cottonwood still have live leaves near bottom, weeping willow, Apache plume, Rumanian sage, golden spur columbine, lady bells.

What’s blooming inside: Aptenia, asparagus fern, pomegranate, zonal geranium..

Animal sightings: Small birds foraging in drive.

Weather: Morning temperatures below 20 killed whatever wasn’t winterized, leaving trees with dead brown canopies; last rain 10/21/10; 10:18 hours of daylight today.

Weekly update: Japanese barberry is one of those plants I disliked as a child.

I knew the rounded purple leaves were crisp, that if you folded them they broke cleanly, exposing light-colored edges. You could fold and refold them, and continue to get the same effect.

I also learned early if you bit into one it was bitter.

When I snapped the red-skinned berries in half, their egg shapes were filled with something that looked like hard-boiled yoke. So far as I remember, I never tasted one.

Actually, the ripe fruits were probably safer to eat than the leaves which contain berberine, an isoquinoline alkaloid used as by the Chinese as a yellow dye and a cooling agent to treat fevers. The chemical, usually extracted from the bark, can be toxic in high concentrations.

While the individual parts were worthy of exploration, the whole plant was not. My mother had two hedges, one on each side of the property, intended to keep people from taking short cuts across our corner lot. She planted prickly, purple-flowered moss phlox underneath, a color combination that sounds quite appealing in words, but wasn’t, at least to this child.

The deciduous shrubs always seemed somehow meager. The furrowed brown stalks have no leaves, only thorns. At each spine junction, a small stem curves out with one or more alternating, smooth edged leaves. In 1917, Hans Koehler told readers of Country Life the dead wood was best left alone because removing it left a "sorry, naked looking thing."

Eventually I escaped to college, to jobs, to other towns and states, and never again thought about barberry. Even though it’s been colonizing farmland that reverted to forests in New Jersey, I don’t remember seeing any shrubs there in the late 1970's.

Then I returned to Michigan, and there was Japanese barberry, waiting. This time it was a green leaved form in a hedge down the street. I don’t remember how I knew it was a barberry, perhaps the leaf texture. The plants were fuller than my mother’s, but otherwise even more nondescript. That is until fall, when they turned brilliant orange, the best of all the autumn colors.

Then, I thought there might be a reason for barberry after all. Only, the green leaved species, Berberis thunbergii, is rarely sold. It was replaced by its burgundy-leaved spawn, altapurpurea, after the Renault Nursery released it in Orleans in 1913. Now all that’s commonly sold in the local stores is a dwarf developed by Van Eyck in Boskoop in the depths of the occupation of the second world war.

One reason the red is more available, beyond the predilection of landscaper designers for plants with varied foliage, is the green is seen as more invasive. However, that may be deceptive. In greenhouse conditions, 14% of germinated altapurpurea seedlings revert to green; in the wild, 50% of the survivors have green leaves.

The light-reflecting red is a defense against bright sun and more necessary in open meadows than forests. Young leaves open green, then develop their darker color. The more light a plant receives, the better the color.

Japanese barberry tolerates soils with pH’s ranging from 5.5 to 7.2, but is mentioned more from alkaline areas. Tatemi Shimizu found reports it grows on exposed limestone or limestone soils on mountains and beneath cliffs on Honshu, on mountains and limestone plateaus on Shokoku, and on mountains on Khyshu island.

The northeast was covered by ice in the last glacial advance. The subsequent vegetation included coniferous forests and broad-leaved evergreens that thrive on acidic soil. Much of the complaint has been that, when farms were abandoned, they did not revert to that prelapsarian landscape, but instead fostered exotics.

People forget. Farming changes the land. Men use vegetation to clear the sites most likely to support crops. They add nitrogen and phosphorus. Earth worms eat dead matter, moving it from the surface into the soil where it sweetens the pH. Soil fertility’s maintained to feed people living in cities.

The mere presence of earth worms aerating the soil has been triggering anxiety since 1994 when John Reynolds noted the southern advance of the Wisconsin glacier coincided with the northern boundary of native worms. Worms were not part of that native northeast vegetation. Any worms in the north east are aliens with European ancestors who are subverting the indigenous forests.

There were calls to ban the shrub. The government had begun eradicating another barberry species, vulgaris, in 1918 because it was an alternate host to a wheat fungus. Why not this one?

It attracts foreign worms. White-tailed deer won’t eat it. It takes advantage of early spring light to do most of its growing before the leafy canopy forms. Its larger, shallow root masses can survive with fewer nutrients.

Horticulturalists rallied to defend a plant that brings in so much revenue to their constituents, some five million in retail sales in Connecticut alone. Scientists at the local ag school found little genetic evidence that altapurpurea had contributed to the feral population in southern New England in 2008. They also noted Crimson Pygmy produced fewer six-petaled yellow flowers that turned into fertile seeds, and when the rough-textured seeds did germinate, the seedlings were less vigorous than other cultivars.

And so, when I wanted to try barberry for fall color, I was stuck with Crimson Pygmy. In autumn, the green barberry slows its photosynthesis so the chlorophyll disappears, revealing the anthocyanin pigments.

Apparently, when the red leaved variety prepares for winter, the anthocyanins themselves fade away, with the lower leaves turning tangerine first, while the upper ones retain some maroon overtones. Unfortunately, all the spots and blemishes also become prominent.

This week’s cold temperatures changed nothing. Like those from my childhood, dwarf barberries are best known in their parts.

D’Appollonio, Jennifer. Regeneration Strategies of Japanese Barberry (Berberis thunbergii) in Coastal Forests of Maine, 1997, on farm land.

Koehler, Hans J. "Shrubs in the Garden Picture," Country Life in America, March 1917.

Lubell, Jessica D. and Mark H. Brand. "Germination, Growth and Survival of Berberis thunbergii DC. (Berberidaceae) and Berberis thunbergii var. atropurpurea in Five Natural Environments," accepted for publication by Biological Invasions in 2010, available on-line.

_____, _____ and Jonathan M. Lehrer, "AFLP Identification of Berberis thunbegii Cultivars, Inter-Specific Hybrids and Their Parental Species," Journal of Horticultural Science and Biotechnology 83:55-63:2008.

_____, _____, _____ and Kent E. Holsinger. "Detecting the Influence of Ornamental Berberis thunbergii var. atropurpurea in Invasive Populations of Berberis thunbergii (Berberidaceae) using AFLP," American Journal of Botany 95:700-705:2008.

Reynolds, J. W. "The Distribution of the Earthworms (Oligochaeta) of Indiana: a Case for the Post Quaternary Introduction Theory for Megadrile Migration in North America," Megadrilogica 5:13-32:1994.

Shimizu, Tatemi. "Studies on the Limestone Flora of Japan and Taiwan," Faculty of Textile Science and Technology, Shinshu University, Journal series A, 11:1-105:1963.

Stuart, George Arthur. Chinese Materia Medica, 1911, reprinted by Gordon Press, 1977; revision of Frederick Porter Smith’s 1871 translation of Pen T’sao Kan Mu, a 1578 herbal by Hubei physician and naturalist, Li Shi Zhen.

Photograph: Crimson Pygmy barberry, 7 November 2010.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Tahoka Daisy

What’s blooming: Snapdragon, large-leaf globemallow, chrysanthemums, blanket flower, áñil del muerto, tahoka daisy, gum weed, purple, heath and golden hairy asters; Virginia creeper and pyracantha still have berries; new seed head on dandelion; hollyhock capsules opening to release seeds; broom senecio and chamisa releasing seeds; black grama grass seed heads curving.

What’s still green: Arborvitae, juniper and other evergreens, Siberian elm, globe willow, apples, roses, Willamette raspberry, forsythia, privet, Japanese honeysuckle, pyracantha, cholla, prickly pear, yuccas, red hot poker, hostas, grape hyacinth, west-facing iris, hollyhock, winecup, oriental poppy, St. John’s wort, vinca, bindweed, oxalis, baptisia, purple and white sweet clovers, alfalfa, sweet pea, catmint, pink salvia, coral and red beardtongues, soapworts, Jupiter’s beard, sea pink, golden spur columbine, scarlet flax, Hartweg, yellow and pink evening primroses, tomatillo, snakeweed, perky Sue, Shasta daisy, blanket flower, coreopsis, Mexican hat, black-eyed Susan, anthemis, Mönch asters, yarrow, dandelion, pampas, brome, and cheat grasses, base of needle grass; new growth on stick leaf, alfilerillo and tumble mustard; dead leaves still on trees.

What’s grey, blue-grey or grey-green: Piñon, four-winged salt bush, buddleia, pinks, snow-in-summer, yellow alyssum, California poppies, donkey tail spurge, winterfat, chamisa, Silver King artemisia, chocolate flower; new growth on loco weed; Russian olive dropping leaves.

What’s turned/turning red: Red leaved plum, sand cherries, Bradford pear, spirea, snowball, barberry, coral bells, purple beardtongue, prostrate knotweed, lambs quarter, goldenrod leaves; Russian thistle stems.

What’s turned/turning yellow: Cottonwood, tamarix, weeping willow, apricot, rugosa and pasture roses, Apache plume, lilacs, beauty bush, garlic chives, Autumn Joy sedum, lady bells, bouncing Bess, David phlox, Rumanian sage, blue flax, purple ice plant, tansy, Maximilian sunflower, purple coneflowers, June grass; peach and caryopteris dropping leaves.

What’s blooming inside: Aptenia, asparagus fern, pomegranate, zonal geranium..

Animal sightings: Rabbit, cabbage and sulfur butterflies, wasps, grasshoppers, carpenter and small red ants have new hills in asphalt someone dumped around the corner.

Weather: Temperatures below freezing most mornings; snow visible in Sangre de Cristo; last rain 10/21/10; 10:34 hours of daylight today.

Weekly update: Tahoka daisies are plains wild flowers that range from Alberta down into central Mexico, with their greatest concentration in west Texas, eastern New Mexico and nearby Oklahoma.

The showy composite blooms all summer, and thus was easily noticed by men documenting the flora of North America in the nineteenth century. Their collections were often analyzed by others who recorded little about growing conditions. Aimé Bonpland collected Machaeranthera tanaecetifolia in central Mexico when he was there with Alexander von Humboldt in 1803 and 1804. He took 60,000 specimens back to Europe which Carl Kunth cataloged.

Thomas Nuttall noticed them when he was exploring the west in the 1830's, but didn’t publish his findings until 1841. John Torrey collected them on an expedition looking for the best rail route through the west in the 1850's, but they weren’t included in the list of plants by location made by Thomas Antisell. Charles Parry led two easterners on a collecting expedition in the Rockies in 1862 where they found 600 species that were described by Asa Gray the next year.

Early in the twentieth century, Elmer Wooten and Paul Standley claimed they could be found on sandy soil throughout New Mexico “at lower altitudes.” Today the USDA map shows them growing in most counties in the state except those immediately east of the northern Sangre de Cristo and those east and west of Albuquerque.

For being so widespread, they don’t seem to like this area very much. It may be too dry or too hot. Gray says the taproots like “moist ground.” Ann Reilly warns gardeners they prefer “cool climates.” The ones I saw blooming last Sunday were either growing in the bottom of the big arroyo or along the side of a road shaded by cottonwoods that leads to the narrow arroyo.

They got their common name when Mrs. Myrick persuaded an Iowa seed company to offer seeds in the 1920's. She lived in Lubbock, Texas, and associated them with nearby Tahoka, an atypical staked plains town built on the shores of a permanent lake fed by three springs.

Many say they like disturbed ground. When Effie Alley first saw them at the new Tahoka Lake Ranch in 1889, the area had already been grazed by buffalo and sheep. The ones in my yard stick to shaded areas along the edge of a gravel drive, and don’t migrate into the nearby irrigated garden soil.

According to Reilly the flat seeds, shaped like ecru-colored sunflower kernels, need two weeks of wet cold, before they can be moved into a medium that’s kept at 70 degrees for 25 to 30 days. When they meet those conditions here varies by year: in 2007 I noticed some early leaves in mid March; last year it was the middle of May.

When they first break ground, the seedlings look like tansy mustard, a bit grey with narrow leaves that appear dissected. When you look closely, you see a central corridor with narrow, smooth edged segments curving away. At the tip is a tiny spine that can only be seen, but not felt. If you try to pick the leaves to look, the stem resists and your fingers smell.

In a few weeks they turn bright green. The central stem produces multiple branches which soon form a short, rounded, bush. My largest this year grew 29" high and spread 3' at the top. The base of the primary stalk was half an inch across, while the four larger branches, which diverged about 4.5" from the soil, grew to a quarter inch across. Each branch first sprouted thin twigs that held only leaves, then branched and rebranched until buds appeared at the tips of every leafy branch, often at the end of Y’s.

Blooming is as variable as germination. I’ve seen them the middle May, and haven’t noticed them until July. However, the tight buds don’t really unfold until after the monsoons. Even then, the terminal flowers they don’t all open flat at once. More often, the plant is covered with shuttlecocks of exterior petals lost in ferny foliage.

The 15 to 25 ray flowers apparently exist only to make pollen and attract insects. Bees produce a “dark honey resembling something very much like molasses in both taste and smell” when they visit the corollas.

The tubular yellow disk flowers, with their five points, are more important. They’re the ones that survive as sandy-white feathery plumes, the pappi, above the seeds. Around September 22 this year, the bushes were covered with white balls that captured light like crystal ornaments.

Now the seeds are being released to the wind, leaving white cushions where receptacles had held the petals. Fringes of dead bracts hang down. The reddish stems have turned to wood. Last week they began breaking at the ground, further scattering the seed’s parachutes.

While the annual has signaled the completion of its life cycle with those pockmarked cushions, not all were killed by last week’s frost. Some continue to produce a few, tentative flowers to remind passers-by of what was and will be again when the weather’s as favorable as this year.

Gray, Asa. “Enumeration of the Species of Plants Collected by Dr. C. C. Parry, and Messrs. Elihu Hall and J. P. Harbour, during the Summer and Autumn of 1862, on and near the Rocky Mountains, in Colorado Territory, lat. 39°-41°,” Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia Proceedings 15:55-80:1863.

_____ and Sereno Watson. Synoptical Flora of North America: Gamopetalae, 1884; on moist ground.

Hill, Frank P. and Pat Hill Jacobs. Grassroots Upside Down: A History of Lynn County, quoted on Tahoka, Texas, website, on Tahoka daisy.

Kunth, Carl Sigismund. Nova Genera et Species Plantarum quas in Peregrinatione ad Plagam Aequinoctialem Orbis Novi Collegerunt Bonpland et Humboldt 4:95:1820.

Nuttall, Thomas. “Descriptions of New Species and Genera of Plants in the Natural Order of the Compositae, Collected in a Tour Across the Continent to the Pacific, a Residence in Oregon and a Visit to the Sandwich Islands and Upper California, During the Years 1834 and 1835,” American Philosophical Society Transactions 7:283-454:1841.

Reilly, Ann. Park’s Success with Seeds, 1978.

Scribner, David D. “Honey Bee FAQs,” Niche Development website, 2007; same words appear on other web sites.

Torrey, John. Botanical Report from the Explorations and Surveys for a Railroad Route from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean project, 1856; includes table by Thomas Antisell.

United States Department of Agriculture. Natural Resources Conservation Service. Plant profile for Machaeranthera tanaecetifolia, available on-line.

Wooten, Elmer Otis and Paul Carpenter Standley. Flora of New Mexico, 1915.

Photograph: Tahoka daisy with seed head growing along my drive on the north side of a wooden fence, 31 October 2010; a bare receptacle and bracts can be seen behind them.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Six Hills Giant Catmint

Before the freezing temperatures: Found an orobache blooming near a snakeweed; moss and biological soil crust were active on wet ground; seed heads on spiny lettuce; florist mum and tall yellow cosmos buds still hadn’t opened.

What’s blooming after the frost: Snapdragon, sweet alyssum, low growing chrysanthemums, isolated áñil del muerto and tahokia daisy, buried gum weed, golden hairy and heath asters; buds on roses and pink evening primrose, new seed heads on dandelion and goat’s beard.

What’s still green: Arborvitae, juniper and other evergreens, Siberian elm, globe willow, apples, roses, Willamette raspberry, forsythia, privet, Japanese honeysuckle, pyracantha with orange berries, cholla, prickly pear, yuccas, red hot poker, hostas, grape hyacinth, garlic chives, west-facing iris, hollyhock, winecup, oriental poppy, St. John’s wort, vinca, bindweed, oxalis, baptisia, purple and white sweet clovers, alfalfa, sweet pea, catmint, Rumanian sage, pink salvia, coral and red beardtongues, lower part of large-leaf globemallow, soapworts, David phlox, bouncing Bess, Jupiter’s beard, sea pink, golden spur columbine, blue and scarlet flaxes, yellow and pink evening primroses, tomatillo, tansy, snakeweed, perky Sue, pigweed, blanket flower, coreopsis, Mexican hat, black-eyed Susan, anthemis, Mönch asters, yarrow, dandelion, June, pampas, brome, and cheat grasses, base of needle grass.

What’s grey, blue-grey or grey-green: Piñon, four-winged salt bush, buddleia, pinks, snow-in-summer, yellow alyssum, California poppies, loco weed, winterfat, chamisa, Silver King artemisia, low chocolate flower leaves.

What’s turned/turning red: Red leaved plum, sand cherries, spirea, barberry, coral bells, purple beardtongue, prostrate knotweed, goldenrod.

What’s turned/turning yellow: Cottonwood, tamarix, weeping willow, rugosa and pasture roses, caryopteris, lilacs, beauty bush, Autumn Joy sedum, lady bells, Maximilian sunflower, purple coneflowers, tops of needle grass; peach, cherry and Siberian pea leaves dropping.

What’s blooming inside: Aptenia, asparagus fern, pomegranate, zonal geranium..

Animal sightings: Rabbit out around 8 am yesterday.

Weather: Freezing temperatures Tuesday morning killed flowers and the more tender leaves; Thursday’s cold destroyed much of the rest; last rain 10/21/10; 10:41 hours of daylight today.

Weekly update: Herbaceous perennials are like sand castles. They rise from level ground in spring, slowly adding layers and arabesques in summer. Then comes the tide, the cold temperatures. Everything’s reduced to shapeless mounds that gradually disappear until nothing’s left to show they once existed.

Six Hills Giant catmint is my most architectural perennial. In April, when it’s small, grey leaves push up between last year’s dead stalks, they resemble any other member of the mint family: pairs of folded, crenellated projections from the crown. In 2002, the young stems were 3.5 inches high and spread 9 inches the end of April

By the end of May, buds form and two-lipped purple flowers begin opening on elongating spikes. This year, the bees were there by June 6, when the plant was several feet high and covered with long, discretely spaced racemes that resembled a Russian sage in late summer. Both an occasional bumble bee and many smaller bees I don’t recognize moved from floret to floret, unmindful of my presence.

Then comes the heat and dry air. The square, reddish stems were sagging by the fourth of July, the leaves in the center dying. The browning out was particularly severe in 2007.

Only the monsoons bring relief. New stalks rise from the center, forcing existing stems to fall. In turn, the lower stems expand to reach the sun. Concentric rings pile up with blooming stalks still rising from the center. Today the plant is more than 3 feet high and covers 6 feet.

When autumn brings lower temperatures and fewer insects, the plant apparently begins accumulating raffinose sugars and produces fewer flowers. Those sugars may insulate the engraved aromatic leaves from cold. In more favorable environments, the giant catmint is evergreen.

Here in the past, the leaves have turned yellow sometime in November. Then, the taproot has lain dormant under dead leaves until spring when I’ve looked anxiously for those first furry nubs.

In 1999 the gopher got it. Nothing appeared. A gaping hole marred my western blue border until a new plant became established. But now, the nursery where I bought my small pot offers only it’s own, bluer selection. It may not be replaceable the next time.

The plant’s cutting grown, and all specimens should trace their ancestry back to the mother that volunteered in Clarence Elliott’s Six Hills Nursery in Herfordshire in the 1930's. However, gardeners report different habits for their plants that suggest not everything bearing the name bears the genes.

Many thought the original plant was related to Nepeta racemosa, a shorter catmint from the Caucasus which had been introduced into England in the nineteenth century. William Robinson thought it shouldn’t appear in "choice borders," while his friend, Gertrude Jekyll, believed it could "hardly be over-praised" as a "front-edge patch"in a purple border.

In 1950, William Thomas Stearn declared the cultivar was a form of Nepeta faassenii, a cross between racemosa and nepetella that John Bergmans had described in 1939 from a plant in the University of Copenhagen Botanical Garden. Since that species is sterile, Elliott’s plants must be an independent experiment by nature whose genetics may vary subtly.

No plant will live forever, and few I’m now growing will outlive me. As the years when I packed wet sand in a pail recede, I’m faced with a tide that never ceases. I either turn into a collector hunting for relics of my past from obscure nurseries, move on to new adventures with new plants, or face a flat future marked by the disappearance of things that once filled great spaces in my life and garden.

For the nonce, I’ll wait until spring and hunt for new growth. In its hour, a sand castle is forever.

Bergmans, John. Vaste Planten en Rotsheesters, 1939 edition.

Grodzinski, Bernard, Jirong Jiao, and Evangelos D. Leonardos. "Estimating Photosynthesis and Concurrent Export Rates in C3 and C4 Species at Ambient and Elevated CO2," Plant Physiology 117:207–215:1998.

Jekyll, Gertrude. Colour in the Flower Garden, 1908.

Lineberger, R. Daniel and Peter L. Steponkus. "Cryoprotection by Glucose, Sucrose, and Raffinose to Chloroplast Thylakoids," Plant Physiology 65:298–304:1980.

Robinson, William. The English Flower Garden, 1933 edition reprinted by Sagapress, Inc., 1984.

Stearn, W. T. "Nepeta mussinii and N. faassenii," Royal. Horticultural Society Journal 75:403-406:1950.

Photograph: Six Hills Giant catmint with dead flower stalk days after the freeze, 30 October 2010.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Fall Roses

What’s blooming in the area behind the walls and fences: Hybrid tea roses, silver lace vine, Japanese honeysuckle, sweet pea, alfalfa, Sensation cosmos, French marigolds, zinnia; trees of heaven turning yellow with cottonwoods and catalpas.

Outside the fences: Apache plume, yellow evening primrose, datura, white sweet clover, áñil del muerto, spiny lettuce, purple, heath and golden hairy asters.

In my yard looking north: Nasturtium, chocolate flower, blanket flower, Mexican hat, black-eyed Susan, yellow cosmos, chrysanthemum, Crackerjack marigold.

Looking east: Hollyhock, winecup, Jupiter’s beard, pink evening primrose.

Looking south: Blaze, floribunda and miniature roses; daylily leaves bright yellow.

Looking west: Russian sage, catmint, lady bells, calamintha, Mönch aster; yellow peach leaves beginning to accumulate.

Bedding plants: Moss rose, snapdragon, nicotiana, sweet alyssum.

Inside: Aptenia, asparagus fern, pomegranate.

Animal sightings: Rabbit, black harvester and small red ants.

Weather: Storms in area most of week; soaking rain early Thursday morning; 11:00 hours of daylight today.

Weekly update: When I was a child, roses were meant to be picked. One was told to prune to produce large, magnificent blooms like those my mother floated in clear glass globes.

Someone in the village has such a cutting garden, a bare rectangle with six roses lined in two columns. Each gets about 3' high and 2' wide and carries large, florescent flowers at the tops of its thorny stems.

At a former bank near the old post office someone else planted hybrid teas in gravel mulch that rarely seems to get pruned. Those plants grow 4' high and at least 5' across. The flowers are smaller, but their summer profusion is a joy to those who drive by.

I have yet to enjoy the luxury of choosing which style I prefer. My problem has always been to get plants to survive. No matter how early I planted, the roots rarely had time to settle before the onset of summer heat and dry air. The few times I did succeed, the green canes were destroyed by the drying winds of February. The only pruning I ever did was removing clearly dead wood.

Four years ago I built a wooden fence about 30' south of the house I hoped would break the wind, at least at ground level. The roses I put in the next spring, 2007, survived, but didn’t do particularly well. There were few flowers in June of 2008, and they tended to be deformed. Then nothing until late summer when a few, more attractive flowers opened fully.

This year began the same, except the transition from too cool to too hot was shorter than usual. Nothing grew anywhere in June, not even the iris or the usual Dr. Huey rootstock. When the monsoons arrived, I began the summer weeding. I got to the roses that grow in the drip line of the south roof the first week of August.

I’d grown tired of the golden hairy asters that were threatening to take over, and removed them. Then, because I had time, I finished laying tiles along the porch edge, a project I’d started years ago to protect the building from rain and hadn’t completed then because I’d run out of materials. Treated tiles had been sitting in the garage for years.

I bought dry fertilizer, and scattered it just as the rains stopped.

Then I began to worry perhaps the asters had acted as natural shelters for the splices where the hybrids joined their root stock. I needn’t have been concerned. At the east end of the house, tomatillos expanded their territory, while barnyard grass moved into the center. Even if they die with the frost, they’ll leave a mulch of dead leaves and a stand of old stalks to divert the winds.

Water continued to drip off the metal roof as moisture pulled from the ground in the day, condensed in the night. By the end of the August, I noticed some new red leaves on the floribundas. Then I saw new canes a foot high around one of the teas. For the past few weeks, for the first time since I’ve had this garden, the red Olympiad has been in full bloom, rivaling the neighboring Betty Prior.

Everything I did breaks the rules I was given as a child, and nothing I did was unusual. I never get around to pruning dead wood or fertilizing until August. Yet, the roses are thriving for the first time.

I wonder why roses, which are supposed to do so well in June, have such a different cycle here in the rio arriba. I can only think many of our perceptions go back to the old roses that came from the Levant, and that the introduction of genes from Chinese roses did more than allow plants to bloom all season. After all those older roses can bloom early because they flower on old stems. The newer hybrids bloom on new wood, which foreshortens their growth cycle.

The new roses we imported in the middle 1700's were originally from places like Yunnan and Sichuan, large provinces in south western China where average summer temperatures are in the 70's. Successful flower production involves both temperature and solar radiation, which is higher in mountainous areas like Yunnan and Sichuan.

When new canes first emerge, they prefer lower air temperatures which encourage photosynthesis. However, the young leaves are still too weak to send nutrients to the flower buds that are developing at the tip. If carbohydrates are not transferred from older leaves, the buds may atrophy.

During the phase when buds are developing, the quality of the light becomes more important than the air temperature. Then, when the buds begin to open, temperature again is important. However, while warm temperatures often produce more colorful and more fragrant flowers, the buds themselves prefer to open when temperatures are cooler, just before dawn. When temperatures rise, they rest until after the next dark period.

Here in the Española valley, when temperatures vary so widely and soil temperatures may remain cool, there’s no time to produce a reserve of older leaves to supply the buds of June. After the monsoons, a long enough period exists for new canes to produce flowers that draw on food from the earlier growth. While those flowers are racing against the seasonal decrease in solar radiation, the decline is less dramatic at 6000' than at sea level.

East of the Mississippi, they have long springs and hot, debilitating summers. Here, we have erratic, often abbreviated springs, and long, cool seasons after the monsoons. Roses bloom when they can, early in the east, late here.

Berninger, E. "Development Rate of Young Greenhouse Rose Plants (Rosa hybrida) Rooted from Cuttings in Relation to Temperature and Irradiance," Scientia Horticulturae 58:235-251:1994.

Evans, R. Y. Control of Rose Flower Opening, 1987, cited by Michael S. Reid, "Flower Development: From Bud to Bloom," Acta Horticulturae 669:105- 110:2005.

Khayat, Eli and Naftaly Zieslin. "Effect of Night Temperature on the Activity of Sucrose Phosphate Synthase, Acid Invertase, and Sucrose Synthase in Source and Sink Tissue of Rosa hybrida cv Golden Times," Plant Physioloogy 84:447-449:1987

Ushio, Ayuko, Tadahiko Mae and Amane Makino "Effects of Temperature on Photosynthesis and Plant Growth in the Assimilation Shoots of a Rose," Soil Science and Plant Nutrition 54:253–258:2008.

Photograph: Betty Prior, a single pink floribunda, and Olympiad, a red hybrid tea rose, 16 October 2010.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Scarlet Flax

What’s blooming in the area behind the walls and fences: Hybrid tea roses, silver lace vine, Japanese honeysuckle, morning glories, sweet pea, alfalfa, Sensation cosmos, French marigolds, zinnia; Maximilian sunflower leaves turning yellow.

Outside the fences: Apache plume, yellow evening primrose, datura, white sweet clover, chamisa, horseweed, áñil del muerto, native sunflowers, spiny lettuce, dandelion, Tahokia daisy, purple, heath and golden hairy asters; cottonwood leaves starting to turn yellow.

In my yard looking north: Nasturtium, chocolate flower, blanket flower, Mexican hat, black-eyed Susan, yellow cosmos, chrysanthemum, Crackerjack marigold.

Looking east: Hollyhock, winecup, large-leaf soapwort, scarlet flax, Jupiter’s beard, pink evening primrose, Shirley poppy.

Looking south: Blaze, floribunda and miniature roses, Cypress vine.

Looking west: Russian sage, catmint, lady bells, calamintha, purple coneflower, Mönch aster; butterfly milkweed’s pod split to release its seeds.

Bedding plants: Moss rose, snapdragon, nicotiana, sweet alyssum; Sweet 100 tomatoes still ripening.

Inside: Aptenia, asparagus fern, pomegranate.

Animal sightings: Rabbit, wasps, black harvester and small red ants.

Weather: Frost on windshield Monday and Friday mornings; last rain 10/08/10; 11:19 hours of daylight today.

Weekly update: Plants, like the people with whom they associate, sometimes develop quite undeserved reputations.

Scarlet flax is included in many wildflower mixtures sold in this country, implying, if it’s not a native, then at least, in the words of Wildseed Farms, it has "naturalized throughout the United States."

The USDA maps show the annual in one or two counties in nine, widely scattered states. In Texas, home of Wildseed, the plant has only been reported in the area of Austin, some 70 miles east of the company’s headquarters. The other company from whom I buy seeds, Lake Valley, is located in Boulder, another university town and the only area in that state where the plant has colonized.

It’s not even clear the plant is widespread in its native Algeria. René Louiche Desfontaines found Linum grandiflorum growing in the clayey fields outside Mascara, the provincial capital of an Ottoman bey, in the 1780's. Presumably the five-petaled flowers were blooming in the 300 square mile Ghriss plain, a collapsed basin that had held an ancient lake and one of the most fertile areas in the country.

After France had wrested the area from the Turks, Giles Munby moved to the new provincial capital, Oran, in 1844. He told the editors of Curtis Botanical Magazine he had seen the rose colored flowers near there.

The reason a plant from such a specialized background acquired reknown as a wildflower may arise from its similarity to the blue flax, Linum perenne, which is native to the plains of this country. While one’s an annual with 16 chromosomes, larger leaves and bigger flowers that’s blooming now and the other’s a perennial with 9 chromosomes that bloomed in early summer, the petals of both have a satiny sheen that reflects light.

Genetically, both are members of the blue-flowered Linum clade within the flax family, but within that class they are members of two distinct subgroups separated by their stigmas and sepals. However, each species produces two types of sexual organs which require members with both types to exist in a stand before it can reproduce itself. Since the flowers of each only live one day, those types need to be in bloom simultaneously.

Wikipedia says that when scarlet flax does succeed in establishing itself, it rarely persists more than a season. All in all, the morphology makes it more likely a perennial would survive as a wildflower, than one that must produce two types of flowers year after year to perpetuate itself in areas quite removed from its native habitat.

If scarlet flax isn’t an American wildflower, some think, at least, it’s an heirloom that’s been around for generations. Several small companies that specialize in such varieties offer the oily, black seeds on the web, usually repeating the same kind of information provided by Wildseed.

The French had apparently taken up the species, and probably selected for color and size. In 1850, Joseph Paxton introduced a brilliant crimson form as a border plant to English readers at the same time he was building the Crystal Palace, whose carpet beds filled with bright annuals would destroy a taste for borders among the rising classes.

Rubrum, the variety growing in my yard with a dark red center surrounded by a light band and dark edges, became available in this country in 1875. In 1902, Country Life was recommending the rose-crimson Coccineum to its readers, while the New York Botanical Garden suggested ornamental flax grew "about gardens and in fields, eastern United States" in 1907.

It may indeed have been popular then, at least with the wealthy who read Country Life, but it didn’t appear in other gardening manuals I’ve seen from that period. Denise Adams believes Coccineum was reintroduced in 1925. Today, the USDA map shows New York is the only eastern state where the red flower has escaped cultivation. The New York Flora Atlas project reports it only from Orange County, home of West Point and former grand estates of people like the Harrimans.

For some of us, heritage implies more than longevity: it brings an expectation a flower was widely grown in the past.

If scarlet flax is neither common in cultivation nor in the wild, some seed growers suggest that since it’s from western Algeria, it "can tolerate immense heat and extremely dry conditions" in this country. A website associated with American Meadows goes so far as call it a desert native.

However, Philippe Faucon tells true desert gardeners in Phoenix they should plant seeds in October and expect the branching stalks to "die before the summer heat." Someone from Queen’s Creek, southeast of the city, told Dave Witinger that she planted 1,500 seeds and had "one tall stalk to show for it," along with some stragglers. The next year, she tried again, but still "not alot of them germinated."

The people who report great successes with the plant are from warm, moist places like Oregon, Washington, and South Carolina.

The Plaine de Ghriss is not desert, but lies in the ridges that separate Algeria’s Mediterranean coast from the Sahara. The average summer high temperature is 86 degrees. The average rainfall for the past quarter century has been a little over 14," more that we average in the rio arriba.

Ali Dahmani and Mohamed Meddi note the average precipitation in Mascara was lowered by years of drought and that rainfall probably decreased 3% in the past century. I would guess, the decline has been greater since Desfontaines first wandered the ancient lake bed 230 years ago.

It’s reputation in my garden was set this summer. Each year, I’ve scattered seeds among the early blooming perennials hoping for a splash of late summer color amongst the basal greens. Some years nothing germinates, some years nothing blooms, and some years I’m rewarded with an occasional breathtakingly brilliant flower.

This year, either because of the atypical weather or the fact the perennials have been slow to recover from last winter’s cold, more seeds germinated and grew two to three times as tall as usual. However, I still only have one flower at a time, and so far they’ have only appeared days, if not weeks, a part.

Here in my part of the Española valley scarlet flax can never become a wildflower or an heirloom. It will forever be an indulgence that needs constant seeding for the most ephemeral results.

Adams, Denise W. Restoring American gardens, 2004; dates for Rubrum and Coccineum.

Country Life." In The Garden," 15 February 1902.

Curtis' Botanical Magazine. "Linum grandiflorum," plant 4956, 1856.

Dahmani, Ali and Mohamed Meddi. Climate Variability and Its Impact on Water Resources in the Catchment Area of Wadi Fekan Wilaya of Mascara (West Algeria)," European Journal of Scientific Research 36:458-472:2009; also called the Eghris and Gharis plain.

Desfontaines, René Louiche. Flora Atlantica, volume 1, 1880; he described the habitat in Latin as "arvis argillosis prope Msacar."

Faucon, Philippe. "Red Flax, Scarlet Flax," Desert Tropicals website.

Lindley, John and Joseph Paxton. Paxton's Flower Garden, volume 1, 1850-1851.

McDill, Joshua, Miriam Repplinger, Beryl B. Simpson, and Joachim W. Kadereit. "The Phylogeny of Linum and Linaceae Subfamily Linoideae, with Implications for Their Systemics, Biogeography, and Evolution of Heterostyly," Systemic Botany 34:386-405:2009.

Munby, Giles. Catalogus Plantarum in Algeria Sponte Nascentium, 1866.

New York Botanical Garden. North American Flora, volume 25, 1907.

New York Flora Association. New York Flora Atlas, available on-line.

United States Department of Agriculture. Natural Resources Conservation Service. Plant profile for Linum grandiflorum, available on-line.

Wikipedia. "Linum grandiflorum," available on-line.

Wildflower Information Organization. "Scarlet Flax;" website recommends American Meadows seeds.

Wildseed Farms. Wildflower Reference Guide and Seed Catalog, 2010; also source for quote on tolerance for poor conditions.

Whitinger, Dave. "Scarlet Flax, Red Flax, Flowering Flax," Dave’s Garden website; quotes from stephanotis.

Photograph: Scarlet flax, about 11:30 on 10 October 2010, with winecups in the background.