Sunday, February 28, 2010

Black Grama

What’s still green: Arborvitae, juniper and other evergreens, some rose stems, cholla, prickly pear, yuccas, grape hyacinth, faded Japanese honeysuckle, vinca, coral bells, snapdragons, beard tongues, pink and yellow evening primroses, purple asters, buried chrysanthemums, cheat grass.

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

What’s yellow: Weeping willow and forsythia branches.

What’s red: Apricot branches.

What’s blooming inside: Aptenia, bougainvillea, Christmas cactus.

Animal sightings: Robins are still around the orchard.

Weather: Monday’s snow didn't stop November’s ice from finally melting; 11:21 hours of daylight today.

Weekly update: Eliot was wrong. This is the cruelest time of year, when food supplies in traditional societies run low and people use ritualized fasting to stretch remaining stores until spring greens emerge.

Even animals have a hard time. When I walked the prairie last Sunday, the only thing green was juniper. In my yard, the January snows, that came after the days grew longer and afternoons had warmed, killed many remaining leaves.

It was into this barren landscape that Juan de Oñate wandered in 1598. At Picuris pueblo he found Jusepe, a Spanish-speaking Aztec who’d come north with one of the earlier renegade exploration parties. He told him of "deformed cows that breed upon the wide plains of Cibola." Soon after Oñate arrived in the Española valley, he sent his nephew, Vicente de Zaldívar, Jusepe, and 60 men to find the animals.

Herbert Bolton retraced Zaldívar’s route through Glorieta Pass to Pecos pueblo and from there north up the eastern side of the Sangre de Cristo. His party saw its first bull about 75 miles from Pecos. They saw 300 head after traveling another miles 25. As they moved east into the plains they saw more and more buffalo until they made an ill-advised attempt to corral some.

The Spanish were cattlemen by heritage. They didn’t report the grasses the animals were eating, only noted the plains were "a peaceful sea with no sort of valley or hill." They’d already called the grasses of the new world grama, because they resembled those they knew in Estramadura.

We now know that blue grama grows east of the mountains, while black grama dominates the lower Rio Grande valley where they began their trek. Bouteloua gracilis has roots three to six feet deep, grows 6" to 8" inches high, and readily reproduces by seed.

Black grama is adapted to arid conditions with more shallow roots that expand underground until a single plant becomes a broad circle. Bouteloua eriopoda only produces seeds in favorable years, and then those seeds germinate unpredictably. The perennial, which can grow to two feet, usually reproduces by above ground stolons that take two successive good seasons to root.

The warm season grass does best between 3500' and 5500'. At Ojo Caliente, north of Española, Carl White found it grew exclusively on the stony remains of ancient gardens. On the local prairie where needle grass predominates, I’ve only seen small scattered plants, mainly along the ranch road and the sides of arroyo feeders.

I have two patches of black grama that must have come from seeds. After ten years, they’re still three feet of concentric rings that produce 10" high stalks from 4" curving blades. They probably stay shorter here because summer temperatures don’t encourage growth as much as they do closer to the Chihuahuan desert.

When cattlemen moved into southern New Mexico in the late nineteenth century they made the same assumption as the Spanish, grass is grass. For years, they were told black grama was a "choice forage grass" that was "highly palatable and nutritious both in winter and summer."

In fact, blue grama withstands heavy grazing and annual burning, but black grama does not. While short grass prairies are being restored in places, the southern New Mexico grasslands have turned into scrub vegetation.

In the late 1940's, Wilbur Watkins and John Knox found black grama didn’t provide adequate amounts of phosphorous or carotene, especially this time of year. In summer, animals supplemented their diets with greens and shrubs.

Earlier the two New Mexico State College professors had found its levels of crude protein ranged from 8.14% in September to 4.67% in March. Blue grama averages 10% levels, with a high of 18% and a low of 8%.

More recently, Joseph Rogers confirmed blue grama had higher protein levels than black in Texas, and that the levels in the latter vary with precipitation. Crude protein begins increasing in March and April and peaks in late May and June. Levels fall whenever there’s rain, and can lose their value completely in wet winters like this. However, in good years, protein levels increase in dried blades in winter.

Spanish settlers came with a solution for variable forage: at home they’d moved their animals between winter and summer pastures. Here, in the 1930's, the interior department found people living in Santa Cruz kept 400 head of cattle near Abiquiú.

Blue grama may have been able to sustained itself and the buffalo, but the plains where they lived were controlled by hostile tribes. If the Spanish were going to settle their northern frontier, they had to stay within the protected valley with its black grama. They could only pray that during Lent they and their animals were strong enough to survive temporary dietary deficiencies that come this time of year.

Notes: Bolton, Herbert Eugene. "Relaciones que Envió Don Juan de Oñate de Algunas Jornadas" in
Spanish Exploration in the Southwest, 1542-1706, 1916.

Eliot, T. S. The Wasteland, 1922, begins "April is the cruelest month."

Rogers, Joseph Daniel. "Seasonal Protein Content of Some Important Range Grasses in Lynn County, Texas," 1966; summarizes work of Watkins and Knox.

United States Department of Agriculture, Forrest Service. Range Plant Handbook, 1937, republished by Dover Publications, 1988; source of quotations on black grama as forage.

United States Department of Interior. Tewa Basin Study, volume 2, 1935, reprinted by Marta Weigle as Hispanic Villages of Northern New Mexico, 1975.

Villagrá, Gaspar Pérez de. Historia de la Nueva México, 1610, translated and edited by Miguel Encinias, Alfred Rodrígue and Joseph P. Sánchez, 1992; source of poetic quotation.

White, Carl. Work described by William W. Dunmire and Gail D. Tierney in Wild Plants of the Pueblo Province, 1995.

Photograph: Black grama grass, 21 February 2010, with dead scrub vegetation, winterfat, in back.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

More Pigweed

What’s still green: Arborvitae, juniper and other evergreens, some rose stems, cholla, prickly pear, yuccas, grape hyacinth, Japanese honeysuckle faded, vinca, buried sweet peas, coral bells, some sea pink leaves, buried snapdragons, beard tongues, pink and yellow evening primroses, purple asters, buried chrysanthemums, cheat grass.

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

What’s yellow: Weeping willow and forsythia branches.

What’s blooming inside: Christmas cactus and aptenia.

Animal sightings: Large flock of birds by orchard Saturday.

Weather: Mornings stayed above 20; wind yesterday; last snow 02/08/09; 11:11 hours of daylight today.

Weekly update: There’s always more pigweed. The annual thrives on my neighbors’ disturbed lands, although it hasn’t penetrated the unbroken soils of the prairie grassland downhill from my house.

My first uphill neighbor had horses he let roam his already over-grazed land. In the early summer, they ate the white pigweed but later, as it grew and flowered, Charley and Missy preferred their hay and oats. At the end of the season, he’d have someone come in with a tractor and cut his weeds which he left to blow away.

The man who bought his property still uses a rider mower every couple weeks, but at least he hauls away the larger plants. Unfortunately, another pigweed defense is the ability to produce enough flowers on plants shorter than a mower blade to perpetuate the population.

Other men down the road have brought in sheep in late summer, who refused to be tempted. It’s probably just as well they didn’t bring the animals when the plants were more appetizing. Joseph DiTomaso says passage through a sheep’s digestive system increases the ability of the seed to germinate.

The Indians had a better way to control the pest. They ate it. Species didn’t matter. If it came within their range, they ate it.

The local Tewa speakers boiled and fried the leaves of redroot and mat pigweed before they could produce seeds. Jemez treated redroot leaves as greens, as did Cochiti and Isleta. The Cochiti also ate tumbleweed greens, while the Hopi ate mat and Powell leaves. Acoma and Laguna boiled young mat, smooth, and Powell plants, while the Navajo boiled, fried and canned redroot. Various Apache groups cooked redroot with meat and chile.

Later in the season, the Acoma and Laguna ground mat pigweed, smooth amaranth and redroot seeds into meal. The Zuñi used mat seeds for meal, while the Hopi turned mat and Powell seeds into mush. Outside the pueblos, the Navajo mixed mat pigweed seeds with goat milk into a gruel, chewed careless weed seeds for sugar, and turned redroot into meal. The Apache made flour of redroot and ate mat seeds.

Pigweed is part of a tropical American genus that apparently moved north during the ice-free periods of the glacial age. Scientists can’t differentiate species in samples, but Amaranthus seeds and pollens are unique enough to be identified as a group.

When Richard MacNeish excavated Coxcatlan Cave in the Tehuacán valley of México, he found evidence of domesticated foods in a layer dated between 5000 and 2000 bc. Corn and squash were the earliest to appear, followed by gourds, and then, in a higher strata, beans, pumpkins, chile and amaranth.

In the 1570's, more than three thousand years later, Bernardino de Sahagún listed five foods in the Aztec diet: corn, beans, chia, amaranth, and gourds or squashes. At that time, his native informants recognized 11 types. Of those, two were boiled, two were made into dough and one was very bitter.

One has been identified as Amaranthus hypochondriacus, which has a much larger, denser head than the local weeds, and another was planted, transplanted and threshed. Richard Ford believes the only time hypochondriacus could grow in the arid southwest was around 500 ad when the Hohokam in Arizona developed massive irrigation systems.

In 2005, tourists noticed a leather pouch near the confluence of the Colorado and Green rivers in Utah which has been dated to sometime between 770 and 970. Phil Geib and Michael Robins believe it belonged to a flintknapper looking for chert. At the time he was carrying marsh elder seeds, but the bag had previous held amaranth, goosefoot and dropseed.

Up river, local species appeared in the diet of the sedentary Basketmaker III people around 1000. By then, they had adopted corn and were more sedentary. Both crops and settlement would have brought more protein rich seeds and iron filled leaves.

Karl Reinhard analyzed fossilized feces found at several sites of their descendants on the Colorado plateau several hundred years later, after the adoption of the bow and arrow had altered their foodways, and found people still ate pigweed seeds in both places, and ate the greens at one. His team also detected pollen in some samples that suggested it was plentiful enough to be inhaled.

The Spanish were offended by the way the Aztec gave amaranth dough figures to commoners in ceremonies that appeared to mock the Eucharist, and began punishing farmers who grew the grain. However, not even the Inquisition couldn’t kill pigwwed. Amaranthus cruentus survived as a crop in Guatemala, while the Zuñi were still making a wafer bread with smooth amaranth seeds and corn that was thrown to spectators between dances in 1915.

I finally resorted to the oldest method for treating a plague, quarantine. When I built a cedar fence on my eastern border, I discovered the wide vertical boards stopped most of my neighbor’s seeds from blowing my way. I then put up a fence against the man with horses, and later against Russian thistles coming in after people with off road vehicles churned up the prairie by my south fence.

Some seeds still get by, but most land in the drive where they can be poisoned young or emerge in the shadow of a fence where they don’t get enough water or sun to grow. For the moment, complete isolation works.

Notes:Davis, Owen K. "The Late Pleistocene Development of Sagebrush Steppe in the Eastern Great Basin," American Association of Stratigraphic Palynologists meeting, 1994.

DiTomaso, Joseph M. Weeds of California and Other Western States, volume 1, 2007.

Ford, Richard I. "Gardening and Farming Before AD 1000: Patterns of Prehistoric Cultivation North of Mexico," Journal of Ethnobiology 1:6-27:1981.

Greib, Phil R. and Michael R. Robins. "Analysis and Dating of the Great Gallery Tool and Food Bag," Canyonland National Park website.

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

Moerman, Dan. Native American Ethnobotany, 1998.

Reinhard, Karl J., Sherrian Edwards, Teyona R. Damon, and Debra K. Meier. "Pollen Concentration Analysis of Ancestral Pueblo Dietary Variation," Paleogeography, Paleoclimatology, Paleoecology 237:92-109:2006.

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

Sahagún, Bernardino de. Historia Universal de las Cosas de Nueva España, c.1577, translated as Florentine Codex: General History of the Things of New Spain, Book XI - Earthly Things by Charles E. Dibble and Arthur J. O. Anderson, 1963.

Stevenson, Matilda Coxe. Ethnobotany of the Zuni Indians, 1915.

Photograph: Dead white pigweed that grew above a 4' farm fence, 7 February 2010.

Sunday, February 14, 2010


What’s still green: Arborvitae, juniper and other evergreens, some rose stems, cholla, prickly pear, yuccas, grape hyacinth, Japanese honeysuckle faded, vinca, buried sweet peas, coral bells, some sea pink leaves, buried snapdragons, beard tongues, pink and yellow evening primroses, purple asters, buried chrysanthemums, cheat grass. One man pruning his apples yesterday, another repairing a fence, a third repairing his drive.

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

What’s red: Saint John’s wort.

What’s yellow: Weeping willow and forsythia branches.

What’s blooming inside: Christmas cactus and aptenia; new leaves on chaste trees, miniature pomegranates and bougainvillea.

Animal sightings: Large robin standing by side of road; sounds of water fowl yesterday.

Weather: Snow dusting Monday; mud finally began to dry Friday; 10:52 hours of daylight today.

Weekly update: A few months ago, someone down the road cut the weeds growing by the road and left a great heap of dried Russian thistle and pigweed. That pyre of dead litter’s still there, protecting seeds that will be free to fly with the spring winds to perpetuate themselves on someone else’s land.

I eye it malevolently whenever I pass. Russian thistles not only scratch my hands when I touch them, but produce a grey yellow smoke that attacks by lungs when I get too near.

Pigweed is worse. Its male and female flowers must be pollinated by wind. Last year they began blooming around the first of August, and within four days my eyes were sticky. A week of so later, I was sneezing, had a runny nose and irritated eyes.

When I first moved here, I used an antihistamine until my ophthalmologist told me my pressure readings were reaching glaucoma levels. The readings are still high a decade after I stopped using any medication and let my nose run. When my eyes burn, I learned eye drops were more effective on the outside of my lids than in my eyes.

Pigweed is a generic term for members of the Amaranth family that share many of the same characteristics. In the early twentieth century, Elmer Wooton and Paul Standley described 13 species in the state, and indicated the most common were mat pigweed (Amaranthus blitoides), redroot (retroflexus) and powellii. At the time, smooth amaranth (hybridus) was found in the San Juan valley, while careless weed (palmeri) grew in the south.

I believe the one growing in my yard is white or tumbleweed pigweed (albus), which was also "common throughout the State" then and was "commonly seen along the fences, where they are associated with the Russian thistle and bugweed."

In summer, thin branches sprout from the upper leaf joints with inconspicuous male and female flowers that space out as the panicle extends several inches. In many places the feathery pyramidal plants form hedges against the fences that look like so many Christmas trees for sale.

Once each female has produced a seed, the extraneous parts fall away, leaving dark knobs on bare, bleached out, woody stalks. Eventually, the wrinkled skins protecting the reddish-brown seeds will split and the increasingly brittle stalks will break, leaving the wind to carry both away. If strong winds don’t appear, the seeds fall near the parent, and the plants disintegrate into mulch.

My eastern neighbor’s yard became a sanctuary when he leveled his land and put in a septic field. I first pulled out offending plants, but the roots brought out so much dirt I realized I had not only created a new place for seed, but had also just shaken some loose that now was waiting to be covered by the wind.

When pigweed emerges, it appears as a small, grey fuzzy rosette with a tiny white root. My uphill neighbor’s yard shimmers with them in the summer. I tried pulling them, but there were so many my wrist sent warnings of carpel tunnel damage.

I next decided it was time to see if the much publicized Round-up would work. I discovered that while it killed mature plants, it didn’t vaporize them. The area smelled of rotting vegetation for weeks that still had to be cut down.

The other problem with Round-up is many varieties of pigweed have developed a resistence to the active ingredient, glyphosate. The more I sprayed, the more likely I would produce survivors that were stronger than their ancestors.

Then I tried a weed-eater. When pigweed thrives it can get more than 6' tall and the stalks can be several inches in diameter. After burning out several motors, I found the brush cutters. When I would cut one down, it would rain on me. I don’t know if it was seeds, pollen, or dead leaves, but it didn’t matter to my allergic imagination.

Others use bigger machines with no more success. The men who maintain the roads mow plants when they get tall enough to obstruct drivers’ vision, but they leave the debris to protect the hidden seed bank. Some take a blade and scrape away everything on the shoulder, leaving bare ground for next year’s seeds to colonize.

Last summer, several plowed their land in late April, when pigweed was first emerging, but planted nothing. They’d probably been told, steel teeth deprive the turned-up roots of moisture and expose the seed to incandescent light that suppresses germination. However, they also buried other seeds. Heat and darkness can reverse the effects of light and recondition the newly buried seed.

Some plowed again in late July, just before it rained. New plants germinated within days. By then, the winds had returned to blow away any loosened dirt and seeds.

You can’t follow city rules and bag your weeds for trashmen to haul away: a single pigweed or Russian thistle will fill a bag. Last August I passed two pick-ups headed for the dump with uncovered beds filled with pigweed and Siberian elm saplings.

You have no choice. You have to burn. Only, you can’t burn a field of pigweed. By the time it’s dry enough to ignite, the leaves are gone and there’s too much air. You have to collect it in a pile like the one down the road. Even then, it won’t burn unless you crush it down with a shovel or pitchfork. I used to use a small piece of particle board I could walk on.

Several years ago my west side neighbor tried just lighting a match. Nothing happened. Then he tried barbeque light fluid. Still nothing happened. Try as he might, he couldn’t get the open pile to stay lit.

Pigweed has its ways, and outwits those who refuse to study its rules.

Notes:Chadoeuf-Hannel, Regine and Ray B. Taylorson. "Enhanced Phytochrome Sensitivity and Its Reversal in Amaranthus albus Seeds," Plant Physiology 78:228-231:1985.

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

Photograph: Dead pigweed hedge along a farm fence near the main road, 12 February 2010.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Yellow Evening Primrose

What’s still green: Arborvitae, juniper and other evergreens, some rose stems, cholla, prickly pear, yuccas, Japanese honeysuckle faded, sweet peas, coral bells, sea pink, snapdragons, purple aster; snow covers grape hyacinth, vinca, beardtongues, pink and yellow evening primroses, chrysanthemums, cheat grass.

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

What’s red: Saint John’s wort.

What’s yellow: Weeping willow branches.

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

Animal sightings: Rabbit tracks.

Weather: 3" of snow Wednesday; warm temperatures since, but snow remains in the northern and western beds; 10:34 hours of daylight today.

Weekly update: It’s hard to remember I once wanted to grow yellow evening primroses. I actually bought seeds, lots of them. But none germinated. Then, in 2000, one took root and by 2002 I was removing basal rosettes from any place near a hose. The next year Japanese beetles ate every member of the Onagrace family before threatening the roses. I’ve been yanking them ever since.

I’m not sure what ended up growing, but suspect it’s the local weed that can get to be six feet tall, with branches reaching out several feet. Large, four-petaled flowers, that resemble footed chalices, appear near tips of those branches late in the day beginning the end of June and peaking in late summer. They’re effective in abandoned fields, but in my garden, they’re simply too big. The biennials refuse to stay with the sunflowers on the dry periphery where I let tall plants roam.

Some of those seeds I bought were called Oenothera lamarckiana; others were listed as biennis or hookeri. They all looked alike. Indeed the same picture was used by three different seed companies for two species.

They all claimed it preferred "well-drained dry soil. The closest anyone came to warning the wildflower could become a pest was the one that said it "naturalizes in meadows and roadsides." No one admitted it was a wetland plant that was going to invade the choicest irrigated locations.

Seedsmen can be forgiven the problems in nomenclature. Botanists have been arguing ever since Hugo DeVries discovered evening primroses violated the most fundamental rule of Mendelian inheritance, that the children of a mixed marriage (the F1 generation) are all alike, and the grandchildren (the F2 generation) revert to the 1:2:1 variation pattern. The lamarkiana he found in a potato field near Hilversum, Holland, had unpredictable children and reliable grandchildren. They lead him to propose the existence of mutations.

Later biologists have kept the idea of mutants, but determined his plants were something else. Two of them, biennis and hookeri, are closely related, distinguished by the arrangement of their chromosomes. Ronald McGregor says biennis petals on the great plains are 1 to 2.5 centimeters long, while those of the other are 2 to 4 centimeters.

It’s easier to remember the first grows everywhere, but is native to the eastern part of the continent where it’s been mentioned by the Cherokee, Iroquois, Ojibwa, and Potawatomi. The other, now called Oenothera elata, grows in the west where it’s been used by the Jemez, Zuñi, Navajo, and Paiute. The smaller petals may have been an adaption as the genus spread north from central America following the retreat of the glaciers.

All anyone knows for sure about lamarkiana is that it was collected around 1796 by André Michaux somewhere on his trip from South Carolina to the Mississippi, but it’s not been found in the wild since. His notes were lost on his voyage home. Joseph Cunningham says DeVries’ specimens were introduced in commerce in 1860 from plants that had been growing in Lancashire since 1805. Taxonomists agree lamarkiana probably was some kind of hybrid, but can’t agree on the parents.

The violation of rules, of course, is what makes the yellow primroses such a nuisance. The fleshy taproots are easy enough to remove in the spring when the soil is wet. But, after the heat of summer arrives and I’ve retreated to the house, next year’s crop germinates. The reddish-brown seeds respond to long days and warm temperatures.

When the leaves first come up they look like seedlings of coreopsis and coral beardtongues. At best, I can distinguish them then by feel: they’re rougher than their neighbors. By the time the characteristic grey-green color arrives with the white veins, the roots are so long they can only be removed the next time the ground is wet. I’m reduced to chopping down stalks in the morning before the seed pods form.

Since the cold temperatures and snows of November, last summer’s seedlings have stayed green. Last week’s rain fell on saturated ground. The terraced beds, with their brick walls that prevent water erosion, turned into frozen ponds. Last Saturday the primrose plants lay under ice. This week they were buried by snow. These survivors of the ice age will still be here to bolt this summer when my favorite plants, some with warnings they don’t like cold or wet feet in winter, will have died.

I don’t care if they’re mutants or identical siblings or rugged individualists. I want them gone. Even Adolph Hecht, a man who spent thirty years studying them, admits "its principal fault in gardens, including mine, is that it often grows and reproduces only too efficiently."

Notes: Lamarkiana from Fredonia, Lake Valley (1988), Orol Ledden, and Wildseed; biennis from Seeds of Change and Territorial; hookeri from Lake Valley (1998).

Ensminger, Peter A. and Hiroshi Ikuma. "Photoinduced Seed Germination of Oenothera biennis L III. Analysis of the Postinduction Period by Means of Temperature," Plant Physiology 86:475-481:1988.

Cunningham, Joseph Thomas. Hormones and Heredity, 1921, on DeVries’ plants.

Hecht, Adolph. "The Evening Primrose Path," Plant Science Bulletin 14:1-3:1968, on DeVries’ work.

McGregor, Ronald L. "Onagraceae Juss., the Evening Primrose Family," in Great Plains Flora Association, Flora of the Great Plains, 1986.

Moerman, Dan. Native American Ethnobotany, 1998; biennis was also reported in studies of the Gosiute of Utah and the Lakota of South Dakota; elata was also identified by the Pomo of California.

Gates, R. Ruggles. "Some Phylogenetic Considerations on the Genus Oenothera, with Descriptions of Two New Species," Journal of the Linnean Society of London, Botany 49:173-198:1933.

Photograph: Yellow evening primrose under a layer of ice, 31 January 2010; a coral beardtongue, reddened by the cold, is at the bottom right; remnants of purple asters flowers landed on top.