Sunday, April 25, 2010

Western Sand Cherry

What’s blooming in the area: Apples, chokecherry, flowering quince, other pink and white trees, tulips, iris, tansy and purple mustards, hoary cress, alyssum simplex, western stickseed, mossy phlox, golden smoke, oxalis, fernleaf globemallow, dandelion, three-awn grass; buds on wisteria; people preparing their vegetable gardens.

What’s coming out: Some cottonwoods in green haze, silver lace vine, spiny lettuce.

What’s blooming in my yard: Bradford pear, Rome apple, sour cherry, purple-leaved plum, peach, purple-leaved and western sand cherries, forsythia, daffodil, grape hyacinth, hyacinth, baby blue iris, vinca, yellow alyssum; buds on spirea and lilacs.

What’s coming out: Dr. Huey rose, cherry leaves, beauty bush, snowball, privet, tamarix, hosta, sea lavender, pied snapdragon, purple ice plant, Hartweig’s primrose, purple coneflower, yarrows, Mönch aster.

What’s blooming inside: Aptenia.

Animal sightings: Small hummingbird, gecko, bees, small red and large black ants.

Weather: Storms moved through the area all week, but didn’t leave any rain until Thursday night; 13:31 hours of daylight today.

Weekly update: Fragrance is rare in my yard. The only times I smell flowers are early in the morning when the air is still damp. Then they are ones with powerful scents like sweet alyssum, chocolate flower, and hyacinth.

Some spring mornings I catch something that seems to be wafting up from the river, but I never can locate it. This year I realized the mystery plant had to be in my yard: when I walked out to the road, I could no longer smell it.

The only possibility is the clump of western sand cherries growing amongst the winterfat along the drive that have been blooming since the middle of the month. However, if I approach them there’s no sweet aroma. I can only detect it if I stand at a distance, and the wind’s blowing from the west.

The five-petaled flowers, dominated by fans of yellow-tipped stamens, never photograph well. No matter the time of day or weather conditions, my camera simply cannot see them. Last Saturday, I finally got one clear picture, and thought this is the moment. I stayed still, took another which was the usual blur. The third try was worse, a white blob.

I walked away thinking, it’s like those clusters knew I was there and deliberately sent out energy to blind my camera. Now, this is the kind of thought that comes to you, if you spend too much time around plants, but if you’ve been properly socialized, you know enough not to share it with others.

The Cheyenne used the same root word, muuh koo taa, for the red-branched shrub and for easily spooked game. They told George Grinnell, "if the scent of a human being reaches them," the taste of the dark-skinned fruits "is spoiled, hence they must always be picked from the leeward side."

The Dakota told Melvin Gilmore the half-inch cherries are sweet if you approach them against the wind, but are bitter and astringent if you move with the wind. Their name, aonyeyapi, carries the same meaning as the Cheyenne.

Kathleen Keeler wonders if the anomalous fleshy fruit surrounding an indigestible pit is some vestigial survival from the time before the glaciers when large mammals were the ones who disbursed seeds that need at least 120 days of cold, wet weather to germinate. Since they’re now extinct, we have no idea what odor or taste attracted them.

The sweet smelling flowers would normally suggest adaptions to attract bees, but last weekend the bees surrounded the peach and yesterday were on the Siberian pea. Smaller insects and a few stray bees were on the sand cherries. The identity of Pleistocene pollinators, when many bees had retreated to the tropics, is one of those lost plant-animal interactions that interest Keeler.

The members of the rose family may be too sensitive to the potential danger humans present. When settlers moved into Nebraska and South Dakota, men like Gilmore transplanted the better tasting shrubs to their gardens where they became larger and bore more fruit.

Tony Reznicek was intrigued by a patch of land near Holland Landing, Ontario, on the ancient Indian trail from modern Toronto to New Georgian Bay that was an island of prairie plants, including Prunus besseyi, surrounded by a modern forest.

He believes it might have survived from the warm period that followed the Wisconsin glacier some 7000 years ago when Lake Algonquin was receding to leave Lake Huron and groups still traveled its shores. He thinks the natives deliberately kept the area clear for camping, probably with fires.

My plants came from a nursery in glacier scraped northwestern Ohio in 2001, and have thrived despite the hostile New Mexico environment. They normally bear clusters of fruit in three years, but mine didn’t produce until 2007 and then disappeared before I could taste them. The roots have spread along the irrigation hose and produced new suckers that have reached 40", a good height for the greying trunks.

All our theories, mine, the Cheyenne and Dakota, Keller and Reznicek, are the kind that are hard to demonstrate to rational scientists who don’t ascribe malignant intent to plants. After Darwin, traits like variable taste are simply genes to be bred away and the past just that, past.

Notes:Bessey, Charles. "Some Wild Fruits Which Ought To Be Cultivated," Nebraska State Horticultural Society, Annual Report, 43:55-56:1912, on Gilmore.

Gilmore, Melvin Randolph. Uses of Plants by the Indians of the Missouri River Region, 1919.

Grinnell, George Bird. The Cheyenne Indians: Their History and Ways of Life, 1928, reprinted by Bison Books, 1972.

Grisez, Ted J. "Prunus L. Cherry, Peach, and Plum," in USDA Forest Service, Seeds of Woody Plants in the United States, 1974, on germination requirements.

Keeler, Kathleen. "Influence of Past Interactions on the Prairie Today: A Hypothesis," Great Plains Research 10:107-125:2000.

Reznicek, A. A. "Association of Relict Prairie Flora with Indian Trials in Central Ontario,"
North American Prairie Conference, Proceedings, 1982.

Photograph: Western sand cherry in front of winterfat, 17 April 2010.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Crown Imperial

What’s blooming in the area: Siberian elm, chokecherry, crab apple, tulips, daffodil, tansy and purple mustards, hoary cress, alyssum simplex, western stickseed, mossy phlox, oxalis, dandelion; local ditch running.

What’s coming out: Russian olive, stickleaf, horseweed, chamisa.

What’s blooming in my yard: Lapins cherry, Bradford pear, purple-leaved plum, peach, sand cherry, forsythia, hyacinth, puschkinia, vinca; buds on apples, grape hyacinth and yellow alyssum.

What’s coming out: Apricot leaves, purple-leaved sand cherry, pasture rose, Siberian pea, Japanese barberry, David phlox, Maltese cross, white beardtongue, Rumanian sage, catmints, pink salvia, sidalcea, ladybells, peony, Silver King artemeisa, perky Sue, goldenrod, muhly ring grass.

What’s blooming inside: Aptenia, bougainvillea.

Animal sightings: Guard bird back on my neighbor’s shop roof, small gecko in retainingwall, bees on peach.

Weather: Rain Friday night; afternoon winds all week; can still see some snow in the Jemez and Sangre de Cristo; 13:12 hours of daylight today.

Weekly update: Jules Feiffer used to draw cartoons of a young woman’s dance to spring. There are times when I think it should have been an adagio for endurance or a largo of fortitude.

There are plants that can grow here in northern New Mexico, but they simply lack the resources to bloom. They can last for years, each season putting out new growth, but they never, ever take that final step to reproduction.

I ordered three crown imperials from a middling level catalog in 1997, a red, a yellow and an orange. Two came up the next spring, and continued to emerge until 2006 when only one appeared. That plant, which could be the orange, now puts up two short stems surrounded by long narrow leaves that John Gerard said would "grow confusedly about the stalk like those of the white Lily."

In 2001 some animal, probably a gopher, dug around the area where they were planted, and they didn’t seem particularly strong that year. However, the following year, more plants emerged than had in the past.

The bulbs, indeed the whole plant, is supposed to smell "very like a fox" and that stench is supposed to rebel moles. A group of chemists have traced the odor, that is especially strong in the yellow ‘Lutea’ cultivar, to a 3-methyl-2-butene-1-thiol compound.

I’m not the only one who’s been frustrated by Fritillaria imperialis. Every garden website has tales of woe and observations on the ones that grow. Fulton noted the only successful ones in his area of New Hampshire were growing in a low area by the road, under some sumac. He guessed there had once been a house, but the clump had persisted on its own for years.

The failure to bloom or to die out after a year is more than an irritant, when people who want the stately stalks topped with clusters of spring flowers continue to replace their lost bulbs. The plant grows wild from southeast Turkey, through Iran’s Zagros mountains, east to Kashmir, but is now endangered.

In one area of Turkey where two decades of war have destroyed the livelihood of cultures that herded animals, people turned to collecting members of the lily family from the wild, even after the government banned the practice in 1974. Attempts to introduce cultivation in the region are hampered by the existence of natural predators like narcissus fly larva, as well as the fact that collection is easier than farming.

High tech solutions like bulb scaling and bulb cutting don’t work because, while the bulb is unusually large, it has only three to five scales. Experiments are now being done with cloning plants from fragments of flowers and leafy shoots.

All this makes it more critical that growers know how to get their scarce resources to reproduce. One Dutch grower, Paul van Leeuwen, found flower formation occurs in September and October, and suspects temperature is critical. His team got its best results when bulbs were grown at 48 degrees F for twelve weeks, starting in mid-October. Then, the plants needed three weeks at 41 degrees, and three more weeks at 35.5 degrees.

I never know how to apply nursery conditions to my garden. Van Leeuwen could keep his temperatures so uniform there was no difference between soil and air, no concern if the optimum temperature was the high or the low, no questions about average or minimum requirements?

Of all the variables that can affect a plant’s health like moisture, nutrients, soil type, temperature is the one I can’t control. All I know is mine were probably too cold this past year. Early morning temperatures ranged from the mid 30's to the mid-40's when van Leeuwen said they should be in the high 40's. They were below freezing from end of the October until the past week.

Spring becomes the season I welcome back the survivors when I’d rather be rejoicing in flowers.

Fulton. "Orange Crown Imperial," 21 December 2007, Gardenweb website.

Gerard, John. Herball or Generale Historie of Plants, 1597, reprinted as Leaves from Gerard’s Herball, 1969, from a 1929 edition by Marcus Woodward; description of leaves and foxy odor.

Global Environment Facility. Small Grants Programme. "Cultivation of Fritillaria imperialis Threatened in the Nature," 2009.

Helsper, J.P.F.G., M. W. Bucking, S. Muresan, J. Blaas, and W. A. Wietsma. "Identification of the Volatile Component(s) Causing the Characterisc Foxy Odor in Various Cultivars of Fritillaria imperialis L. (Liliaceae)," Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry 54:5087-5091:2006.

Kizil, Süleyman, Neset Arslan, Selime Ölmez-Bayhan, and Khalid Mahmood Khawar. "Effects of Different Planting Dates on Improving Yield of Fritillaria imperialis L. and Fritillaria persica L. Bulbs Damaged by Small Narcissus Fly (Eumerus strigatus Fallen)," African Journal of Biotechnology 7:4454-4458:2008.

Leeuwen, P. J. van, J.P.T. Trompert, and J.A. van der Weijden. "The Forcing of Fritillaria imperialis L.," Acta Horticulturae 570:165-169:2002.

Mohammadi-Dehcheshmeh, Manijeh, Ahmad Khalighi, Roohangiz Naderi, Esmaeil Ebrahimie, and Manoochehr Sardari. "Indirect Somatic Embryogenesis from Petal Explant of Endangered Wild Population of Fritillaria imperialis," Pakistan Journal of Biological Sciences 10:1875-1879:2007.

Witomska, M. and A.J. Lukaszewska. "Bulblet Regeneration in vitro from Different Explants of Fritillaria imperialis," Acta Horticulturae 430:331-338:1997.

Photograph: Crown imperial with golden spur columbine, 17 April 2010.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Alyssum simplex

What’s blooming in the area: Moss, Siberian elm, apricot, crabapple, first red tulip, daffodil, tansy and purple mustards, Alyssum simplex, dandelion; hoary cress in bud; village ditch running.

What’s coming out: Bradford pear, heath aster.

What’s blooming in my yard: Forsythia, hyacinth, puschkinia; buds on sand cherries and yellow alyssum.

What’s coming out: Apples, purple leaf plum, daffodil, large leaved soapwort, tansy, Saint John’s wort, cut-leaf coneflower; catalpa dropping its pods.

What’s blooming inside: Aptenia, bougainvillea.

Animal sightings: Birds.

Weather: Mornings still in mid-20's; high winds midweek; last rain 03/23/09; 12:53 hours of daylight today.

Weekly update: Environmentalists divide the natural world into natives and exotics. At one level, the latter includes all plants that didn’t evolve on this continent. More expansively, the aliens include any plant that arrived from another part of the country.

By these definitions, the only humans who belong are native Americans. The problem is that the rest of us, the members of the out group, recognize that we arrived in waves, and know some have been here longer than others. Xenophobes use the word alien to distinguish the newer migrants from the older ones.

When you or I look at an area of grass we damaged to lay a gas or water line, we see weeds that have invaded. To us, they are all contemporaries because they arrived on our land at the same time.

However, the purple mustard has only been expanding since the introduction of Round-up Ready seeds, and represents a major change in farming methods, while Russian thistles came in a sack of flax seed from Europe in 1886. They not only reference the migration of Mennonites from the Ukraine to South Dakota and the growth of the railroads, but signify the transformation of the northern Great Plains by winter wheat and the concomitant improvement in the American diet.

There’s a small yellow alyssum blooming near the narrow arroyo that has a similarly layered past. Something explains how it came to be growing on the shoulder in front of one house that lies below the road, while the wind or currents from passing cars explain the patch on the other side of the pavement.

Alyssum simplex is clearly not a native. It grows in the drylands from Iberia to Iran and farther east to westernmost China, and in northern Africa across the Straits of Gibralter. If one only looked at the dates on the USDA website, one would see the first report was in Wyoming in 1977, and there were reports in the 1980's from Nevada, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico. It appears to be the stereotypic invader, coming from a distant land, perhaps some Balkan or Asian military base, then disbursing rapidly to the Four Corners, then east into New Mexico.

Everything about the annual is insignificant. The four petals measure a sixteenth to an eighth inch in length, open a few weeks this time of year, and are more obvious in the afternoon than in the morning. Failure to observe the tiny flowers that first appear scattered on the rims of concave disks buried in similarly colored, clasping leaves, may be an understandable oversight.

The two to seven-inch horizontal stalks that branch from the base will die by the end of May, leaving barely a trace by the time botanists, released from school, go looking for wildflowers in summer. Field guides rarely contain the hard to see, and changing names are always a challenge. Until recently, the mustard family member was known as Alyssum minus and has never gotten a common name.

If one looked at maps, rather than publication dates, one could argue the dull, reddish-brown seeds were here before México expelled the Spanish in the 1820's, and that they arrived in something imported from that country. The current USDA map shows it growing in northwestern New Mexico in Rio Arriba county, west in San Juan, south in Sandoval and McKinley County to the southwest.

Spanish settlement spread slowly in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries from the Española valley up the Rio Grande and its major tributaries as population increased, then filled in and settled the smaller rivers. After the American military subdued the Ute in the 1850's, families moved up towards the end of the rift valley into the San Luis Valley of southern Colorado. From there, men moved east and west looking for temporary jobs.

The map John Kartesz published this year shows the dense, hairy leaves appear in the shadow of those settlers, but he also indicates that once they found places to naturalize, they followed a separate colonization path. In New Mexico, they’re now reported in all the counties that border Colorado, and Gene Jercinovic has seen them in the Manzanos near Albuquerque.

Colorado is their promised land. Writing about the Great Plains in 1986, William Barker only reported the quarter-inch flat seed pods in Huerfano County, the other end of the old Denver and Rio Grande Railroad, and two counties around Denver, Arapaho and Douglas. Today, it grows everywhere, except the central corridor that leads to Denver, and "carpets large areas of fields and roadsides in the very early spring" in the San Juan valley, the other side of the Continental Divide from the San Luis.

Wyoming, where it was first reported, is close to the northern end of its range, but the white taproots are happy as far west as the eastern edge of Utah and deep into northeastern Arizona. They skipped over more arid lands to prosper in some counties in northeastern California and contiguous part of Oregon.

The plant not only needs some minimum level of moisture, but people studying the Lastoka Prairie in Boulder County, Colorado, discovered it dies out when nitrogen and phosphorous are removed from the soil by carbon and gypsum.

If one believes the chronology, it’s an aggressive invader exploiting ecological changes like the death of the aspens and the underground diversion of water from the San Juan to the Rio Grande. If one looks at the geography, it may have lived here for centuries, invisibly entwined with Spanish-speaking settlers who may still seem exotic to Anglos, but no longer are alien.

Barker, William T. "Brassicaceae Burnett, the Mustard Family," in Great Plains Flora Association, Flora of the Great Plains, 1986.

Dewey, L. H. The Russian Thistle and Other Troublesome Weeds in the Wheat Region of Minnesota and North and South Dakota, 1893, cited by USDA Forest Service, Range Plant Handbook, 1937, republished by Dover Publications, 1988.

Jercinovic, Gene. "Alyssum minus," New Mexico Flores website.

Kartesz, John. "Alyssum simplex Rudolphi," USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, Plant Profiles website.

_____. Floristic Synthesis of North America, 2010, reprinted by Al and Betty Schneider.

LeJeune, Katherine D., Katharine N. Suding and Timothy R. Seastedt. "Nutrient Availability Does Not Explain Invasion and Dominance of a Mixed Grass Prairie by the Exotic Forb Centaurea diffusa Lam.," Applied Soil Ecology 32:98-110:2006.

Schneider, Al and Betty. "Alyssum parviflorum," Southwest Colorado Wildflowers, Ferns and Trees website.

Photograph: Alyssum simplex, covered by roadside dust, growing near the narrow arroyo, 4 April 2010.

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Jupiter's Beard

What’s blooming in the area: Moss, apricot, forsythia, daffodils, tansy and purple mustards, dandelion.

What’s coming out: Globe and weeping willows, chamisa, goats beard, strap leaf and purple asters.

What’s leafing in my yard: Hybrid roses, raspberry, spirea, coral bell, Saint John’s wort, myrtle.

What’s blooming inside: Aptenia, bougainvillea.

Animal sightings: Small red ants are back.

Weather: Below freezing Tuesday morning, 70 when I get home; cold front and winds came through for the Good Friday pilgrimage; yesterday, near 20 in the morning, mid-60's in the afternoon; last rain 03/23/09; 12:42 hours of daylight today.

Weekly update: This time of year I feel like Ariadne Oliver, the Agatha Christie character, who’s always losing things. When she looks for something, she tips or drops so many other objects, she ends up finding what she wants and misplacing more.

For me, it’s plants I can’t find, especially perennials that have only been in a year or two. They’re so new, I haven’t yet learned what they look like when they emerge.

The only reason I know Jupiter’s Beard is up is that I left dead stalks last fall. The leaves have long turned into undifferentiated brown masses, but the remaining height of the hollow stems acts as a reminder.

When they appeared last week directly from the ground, they were darker than I remembered with light veins, rather like the leaves of vinca. Since then, more pairs have emerged from the center, pushing the older leaves outward into reflexed crosses that are growing between the old stems.

One reason I forget how leaves look is that, except when I’m weeding, I look down on plants. By the time Jupiter’s Beard is blooming in mid-May, the flowering stems are rising bare above narrow, toothed pairs of leaves that clasp the stem. I have only a vague impression of grey beneath, when, in fact, the lower leaves are larger, with smooth edges, attach to the plant with short stems, and remain the entire summer.

Any fleshy leaf that emerges this early is going to be tested for edibility and, if it’s not poisonous or too bitter, is going to be eaten. William Thompson, the founder of Thompson and Morgan seeds, heard they were used raw in salads in southern Italy in the 1860's. More recent ethnobotanists have verified the use of young leaves in Sicily and the Chiavari hills near Genoa in eastern Liguria, where older leaves are also used in preboggion, a soup made from whatever greens are available.

In 1993, French chemists tested the leaves of a number of Mediterranean plants for the existence of alpha-tocopherol, better known as vitamin E, and found Jupiter’s Beard contained the antioxidant.

Centrantus ruber is a member of the valerian family, better known for the sedative properties of the valepotriates in its roots. The family arose in alpine areas of the Himalayas in the Miocene, but the nine Centranthus species adapted to the rocky shores of the Mediterranean from Turkey and the Ukraine to north Africa and out into the Azores and Madeiras. Jupiter’s Beard often grows with snapdragons on the Teno massif on Tenerife in the Canary islands, in Lombardy’s alpine Riserva Naturale Valle del Freddo, on rocky screes of Provençal and the calcareous cliffs of Greece.

They’ve naturalized elsewhere, but usually where there’s a Mediterranean climate, like our west coast, or on old walls, rail beds and other piles of lime stone or granite. John Gerard was growing them in London in the late 1500's. It’s assumed the seed’s feathery tails helps them escape their gardens and dig in.

So far, the rounded heads of red, five-petaled flowers have not produced any viable seeds, so I don’t yet know what the seedlings look like. Dorothy Bexon did discover the seed embryos often produce more than the two leaves found in flowering plants (dicots), a trait more often found in the older conifers, and that there is no clear relationship between the extra leaves and the roots.

If Jupiter’s Beard ever does reproduce, the seedlings are safe. I put the plants in a narrow, wind blown bed, where Bouncing Bess moves about. I don’t clean there until late spring, when I can separate those desirable plants from the more aggressive tomatillos that look much the same when they emerge.

My ignorance makes them safer than Ariadne’s distractedness.

Notes:Bell, Charles D. and Michael J. Donoghue. "Phylogeny and Biogeography of Valerianacea (Dipsacales) with Special Reference to South American Valerians," Organisms, Diversity and Evolution 5:147-159:2005.

Bexon, Dorothy. "Observations on the Anatomy of Some Polycotyledonous Seedlings of Centratus ruber," Annals of Botany 34:81-94:1920.

Chevolleau, S., J. F. Mallet, A. Debal and E. Ucciani "Antioxidant Activity of Mediterranean Plant Leaves: Occurrence and Antioxidative Importance of Alpha-a-tocopherol," Journal of the American Oil Chemists' Society 70:807-809:1993.

European Union Corine Project. "Inland Rocks, Screes and Sands," Corine Biotopes Manual, 2005.

Gerard, John. Herball or Generale Historie of Plants, 1597, cited by Maude Grieve, A Modern Herbal, 1931, edited by Hilda Leyel.

Lentini, Francesca and Francesca Venza. "Wild Food Plants of Popular Use in Sicily," Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine 3:15+:2007.

Ghirardini, Maria Pia, Marco Carli, Nicola del Vecchio, Ariele Rovati, Ottavia Cova, Francesco Valigi, Gaia Agnetti, Martina Macconi, Daniela Adamo, Mario Traina, Francesco Laudini, Ilaria Marcheselli, Nicolò Caruso, Tiziano Gedda, Fabio Donati, Alessandro Marzadro, Paola Russi, Caterina Spaggiari, Marcella Bianco, Riccardo Binda, Elisa Barattieri, Alice Tognacci, Martina Girardo, Luca Vaschetti, Piero Caprino, Erika Sesti, Giorgia Andreozzi, Erika Coletto, Gabriele Belzer, and Andrea Pieroni. "The Importance of a Taste. A Comparative Study on Wild Food Plant Consumption in Twenty-one Local Communities in Italy," Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine 3:22+:2007.

Thompson, William."Centranthus," in The Treasury of Botany, 1876, edited by John Lindley.

Photograph: Jupiter’s Beard leaves, 3 April 2010.