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.

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