Sunday, May 30, 2010

Rice Grass

What’s blooming in the area: Tamarix, Austrian copper and double pink shrub roses, Apache plume, snowball, silver lace vine, skunkbush, yucca, red hot poker, peony, tumble mustard, western stickseed, cryptantha, fern-leaf globemallow, oxalis, alfilerillo, white evening primrose, bindweed, alfalfa, Dutch and yellow sweet clovers, white and purple locos, sweet pea, purple salvia, native dandelion, goat’s beard; June, brome, needle, rice, and three-awn grasses; buds on milkweed; buffalo gourd up; cheat grass turning red.

In my yard: Spirea, raspberry, beauty bush, iris, winecup, oriental poppy, Jupiter’s beard, snow-in-summer, Bath’s pink, sea pink, baptista, catmint, pink salvia, blue flax, vinca, pink evening primrose, golden spur columbine, chocolate flower, blanket flower, perky Sue and Mount Atlas daisy; buds on Persian yellow and Dr. Huey roses, daylily, hollyhock, coral bells, snapdragon, anthemis and coreopsis; buddleia has new growth from root; last year’s morning glories up.

Bedding plants: Zonal geraniums, nicotiana.

Inside: Aptenia.

Animal sightings: Rabbit, hummingbird, gecko, ladybug, cricket, baby grass hopper on first blanket flower, large black harvester and small red ants.

Weather: Ice in hose Tuesday morning, near 80 when I got home at night; a little rain Friday; winds began almost every day by late morning; 14:22 hours of daylight today.

Weekly update: This is the time when needle grass is at its peak. Foot long strands of fine hair and unreleased seed ripple in streams of white light that follow ridge lines across the river and reveal the underlying shape of dissected foothills.

Here and there along the edges, an occasional clump of rice grass grows, shorter and squatter. The narrow green leaves look the same, but needle grass blades tend to open flatter. The stalks end in crisscrossing U-shaped branches with globular cases at the tips, each holding a single rounded dark seed.

I always let Achnatherum hymenoides grow from a superstitious respect for things I suspect have survived from the distant past. Today it’s found from the Nebraska sand hills to the Cascades, from lower Canada to northern México. There is a general belief that it was once grew in pure stands in areas like Utah, but that it was decimated by overgrazing beginning in the 1870's

Archaeologists think it was widely eaten in the distant past. However, when corn was adopted by the Anasazi, it became less important. Michael Brand found it reported in most of the Basketmaker and Pueblo sites he reviewed, but there appeared to be a slight decline in use through time. It appeared more often in charred remains and pollen studies, then in fossilized feces.

Anthropologists recorded its use in the recent past among the Hopi, Zuñi, White Mountain Apache and Navajo, including those near Chaco Canyon. The Hopi, however, considered it a famine food that had been eaten in the past.

I noticed that for something that was supposed to be native, it didn’t increase when left alone. Instead of producing new seedlings, the clumps grew by adding segments to the outer perimeter, and dying in the middle, creating a fire hazard. People trying to restore lost grasslands or reclaiming disturbed sites have reported it doesn’t germinate reliably, and when it does emerge, it begins to die out after five years.

Oryzopsis hymenoides, as it once was known, is so well adapted to the lands west of the Continental Divide that it doesn’t respond to modern cultivation. The dormant embryos are protected by a hard shell that doesn’t begin to disintegrate for several years so there’s seed available in those rare wet years when it can emerge.

Even though the plants are wind pollinated, the perennial bunch grass compensates for its sparse distribution by fertilizing itself. Many of the seeds are sterile and remain on the plant, while the heavier, viable seed is quickly prepared for release. During this time, the seed stalks become unpalatable to discourage grazing by rabbits and other predators.

Researchers led by Kent McAdoo discovered that rodents in the pocket mice and kangaroo rat family removed the outer shell before storing seeds for future use and that those cached seeds were the primary source for stand renewal in the area they observed. The local harvester ants and deer mice also bury the seeds, but they don’t aid germination, only themselves.

Almost as soon as the seedlings emerge, sand grains collect around the fibrous roots. Leroy Wullstein found the rhizosheaths aided nitrogen fixation and helped prevent water from escaping.

The life cycle, however, is more dependent on heat than water: it does well facing south, and doesn’t tolerate shade. In my yard, it grows in the drive and on the windy, eastern side of the house. In the area, I don’t see it in the established needle grass prairie, but along the roads near the arroyos.

Established clumps begin growing, when the soil temperature at the tips of the roots reaches 39F degrees for three or four days. Although water helps, the plant height, usually about a foot in my yard, is related to soil temperature.

Come summer, the leaves and stalks dry light brown, creating cured winter forage. During this annual drought, carbohydrates concentrate in the plant’s crown, not the roots. When the monsoons arrive, when they come, the bases green slightly for the winter and the carbohydrates decrease.

When water fails, plants may die and seeds stay buried until the weather improves. In the rio arriba, one can only be sure the current year won’t repeat the past, but not even nature can predict if it will be better.

Notes:Brand, Michael James Brand. Prehistoric Anasazi Diet: A Synthesis of Archaeological Evidence, 1994.

Bristow, Caryn E., G. S. Campbell, L. H. Wullstein and R. Neilson. "Water Uptake and Storage by Rhizosheaths of Oryzopsis hymenoides: a Numerical Simulation," Physiologia Plantarum 65:228 - 232:1985.

Jones, T. A. "A Viewpoint on Indian Ricegrass Research: Its Present Status and Future Prospects," Journal of Range Management 43:416-420:1990; summarizes research of others.

McAdoo, J. Kent, Carol C. Evans, Bruce A. Roundy, James A. Young and Raymond A. Evans. "Influence of Heteromyid Rodents on Oryzopsis hymenoides Germination," Journal of Range Management 36:61-64:1983.

Moerman, Dan. Native American Ethnobotany, 1998; summarizes data from a number of ethnographies.

Tirmenstein, D. "Achnatherum hymenoides," 1999, United States Forest Service, Fire Effects Information System, available on-line.

Wullstein, L. H. "Nitrogen Fixation Associated with Rhizosheaths of Indian Ricegrass Used in Stabilization of the Slick Rock, Colorado, Tailings Pile," Journal of Range Management 37:19-21:1980.

Photograph: Rice grass growing next to the back porch, 27 May2010.

Sunday, May 23, 2010


What’s blooming in the area: Tamarix, Austrian copper rose, snowball, skunkbush, yucca, red hot poker, tansy and tumble mustards, western stickseed, cryptantha, oriental poppy, fern-leaf globemallow, oxalis, alfilerillo, white evening primrose, bindweed, dandelion, native dandelion, goat’s beard, fleabane; June, needle, rice, three-awn and cheat grasses; buds on loco and hollyhock; grapes leafing.

What’s blooming in my yard: Spirea, beauty bush, iris, snow-in-summer, Jupiter’s beard, Bath’s pink, blue flax, vinca, pink evening primrose, golden spur columbine and Mount Atlas daisy; buds on Persian yellow and Dr. Huey roses, peony, sea pink, perky Sue, and coral bells.

What’s coming out: California poppies, butterfly weed, calamintha, morning glory, anthemis seedlings.

Bedding plants: Zonal geraniums blooming; rest waiting in pots for wind to die down.

Inside: Aptenia.

Animal sightings: Rabbit, gecko, cabbage butterfly, ladybugs on goat’s beard, large black harvester and small red ants.

Weather: Mornings around 40; afternoons hot, dry and windy; last rain 05/014/09; 14:11 hours of daylight today.

Weekly update: John James Audubon used to shoot birds so he could paint them accurately, while botanists dug up plants to include roots in their illustrations.

Cameras, with their ever more sophisticated lenses, can see birds more clearly than Audubon and reveal more to us about their lives. With plants, however, something is lost when one only sees what’s above ground.

When I do spring cleaning, I recover that lost knowledge. I learn again that goats’ beard, yellow evening primrose and white sweet clover have tough straight taproots that come out in one piece, if the ground is wet, but that horseweed and grass sit atop buried mops that bring the soil with them.

I tend to forget what I learn over the winter, and have to rediscover I need to use a trowel to remove Mexican hats because the roots branch a few inches below ground, and break if they’re pulled.

However, there are things I don’t forget, the things that were painful to learn like piñon trees and black-eyed Susans are too sharp to handle, and you always grab spiny lettuce at the base. I know there’s no point in pulling a Siberian elm seedling because the root is at least twice as long as what I see. I might as well cut it, and save abrading my finger trying to pull it.

I never forget that roses, barberry and yucca are not the least bit grateful to have the weeds removed from their bases, and remember Saint John’s wort and tansy have herbal associations that should be warnings. Try as I might, I never have long enough sleeves to pull the underground runners without getting a rash from the dead stems.

Heath asters are deceptive. When they first appeared near one bed, I naively let them go. When the dead stalks collapsed in winter and smothered the desirable plants, I started pulling them. Since the flowers themselves are fine, if one overlooks the wasps, I put some near the fence, only to have them flop across my path as soon as they started blooming.

This year I decided they had to go. They still emerge in the original bed, with white stolons that creep underground as much as a foot. I’ve learned it’s best to pull the dead stalks, which will drag out at least two sprouts through the loosened ground. If I attack the young growth, it simply breaks.

I assumed the plants by the fence would be as easy. Unfortunately, since they’ve had several years to settle, they formed strong masses of woody main roots that spread under the surface and were at least an inch thick. They were so tough, I couldn’t cut through them with a shovel, even when I was standing on it with my full 115 pounds. The only way I could remove them was to pry them from the side.

As I struggled to loosen then, all I could think of was the plow that broke the plains and wondered how tough was prairie sod when the grasses reached deep into the soil. These at least were only a few inches below the surface.

I learned long ago, nothing short of full excavation will remove a dandelion and they always go to seed next to something I don’t want to disturb.

Photograph: Mature heath aster roots excavated 19 May 2010.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Narrow-Leaved Gromwell

What’s blooming in the area: Austrian copper rose, snowball, skunkbush, red hot poker, tansy, tumble and purple mustards, hoary cress, Gordon’s bladderpod, narrow-leaved gromwell, western stickseed, cryptantha, oriental poppy, fern-leaf globemallow, oxalis, alfilerillo, scurf pea, dandelion, native dandelion, goat’s beard; June, needle, rice, three-awn and cheat grasses; buds of loco.

What’s blooming in my yard: Tulip, iris, snow-in-summer, blue flax, vinca; buds on spirea, peony and sea pink.

What’s coming out: Catalpa, butterfly weed, chocolate flower.

What’s blooming inside: Aptenia.

Animal sightings: Skinny red and tan snake, rabbit, large black harvester and small red ants.

Weather: Wind early in week; rain Friday night; 13:58 hours of daylight today.

Weekly update: Sometimes I think of spring as a festival of plant families, beginning with trees of the rose family, followed by bulbs of the lily family and now the mustard weeds.

This year I’ve become aware of another entrant in the early parade: the Boraginaceae. The western stickseeds have been blooming since mid-April, while the local cryptantha began a few weeks ago. The closely related Hydrophylloideae, the phacelia and purple mat flowers, will soon be open.

Last Sunday, I discovered another borage family member in front of a volcanic stone wall down the road, a narrow-leaved gromwell. From a distance, all I saw were the fluted five petals of yellow, spotted at the top of two 10" bushy, solid-green plants. Up close, I noticed the flowers weren’t held away from the leaf clusters by some kind of stem, but by long necks of the joined petals themselves.

These are the early flowers. As the season progresses, blossoms will move down the stems, until the lowest are so small, they never open. Unlike most plants that flaunt their beauty to attract pollinators, the closed Lithospermum incisum blooms are reproductive centers, able to fertilize themselves. That may be wise, since the yellow flowers were already being eaten by young grasshoppers yesterday.

Lithospermum is Greek for seeds of stone. Even so, the hard shelled, shiny grey incisum nutlets are eaten by plains pocket mice in Kansas and Minnesota. The rodents prefer different grains here in New Mexico.

Such unusual characteristics, along with the constant need to remove stickseeds from my socks and the cryptantha’s decision to favor only one nutlet in every capsule, makes me wonder what conditions created a family with such defensive reproductive patterns.

Niklas Wikström and his colleagues believe the family began emerging in the Late Cretaceous, 77 to 81 million years ago, when swamps still existed and limestone was being formed The waterleafs began separating from the Boraginoideae during the Paleocene, 56 to 59-56 million years ago, when volcanoes were active and the seas advancing.

A team led by Maximilian Weigend thinks the Lithospermeae appeared in the Eocene, some 43 million years ago, when mountains were being formed and water was trapped in glaciers in the highest mountain ranges. They believe the Lithosperumum have undergone a recent "island radiation" in the Americas.and that they moved to South America four times where they are now centered in the Amotape-Huancabanba zone in northern Peru.

In general, the Lithospermum seem to have developed with the formation of limey soils and higher altitudes, possibly at times when the climate was drying. Today incisum’s dark red taproots tend to be found on sweet soils on prairies, the high plains and in foothills below 7000' from Canada to northern México.

The lithosperms adopted to challenges from nature caused by drying seas and mountain formation. They responded to predators with hard shelled seeds. Incisum guards against grasshoppers with cleistogamous flowers. In geologic time, it probably hasn’t had time to confront the problems caused by humans.

No one mentions the seed, but the roots have been eaten by the Thompson Indians of British Columbia and the Blackfoot, who also used them ceremonially and for dye. The Navajo used the woody roots in the Life Chant and considered them a life medicine, while the Cheyenne used them to treat irrationality.

The rough plants may live over a large range, but aren’t common anywhere.

Notes:Moerman, Dan. Native American Ethnobotany, 1998, summarizes data from a number of ethnographies including Walter McClintock, "Medizinal - Und Nutzpflanzen Der Schwarzfuss Indianer, Zeitschriff für Ethnologie 41:273-9:1909 on the Blackfoot; George Bird Grinell, The Cheyenne Indians - Their History and Ways of Life, 1928; Jeffrey A. Hart, "The Ethnobotany of the Northern Cheyenne Indians of Montana," Journal of Ethnopharmacology 4:1-55:1981; Paul A. Vestal, The Ethnobotany of the Ramah Navaho, 1952; E. V. Steedman, "The Ethnobotany of the Thompson Indians of British Columbia, SI-BAE Annual Report 45:441-522:1928; and F. Perry, "Ethno-Botany of the Indians in the Interior of British Columbia," Museum and Art Notes 2:36-43:1952.

Monk, R. Richard and J. Knox James, Jr. "Peroganthus flavencens," Mammalian Species 525:1-4:1996.

Weigend, Maximilian, Marc Gottschling, Federico Selvi, and Hartmut H. Hilger. "Marbleseeds are Gromwells--Systematics and Evolution of Lithospermum and Allies (Boraginaceae tribe Lithospermeae) Based on Molecular and Morphological Data," Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 52:755-68:2009.

Wikström, N., V. Savolainen, and M. W. Chase. "Evolution of the Angiosperms: Calibrating the Family Tree," The Royal Society Proceedings, Biological Sciences 268:2211–2220:2001.

Photograph: Narrow-leaved gromwell still wet from Friday night’s rain in front of volcanic rock wall down the road, 15 May 2010.

Sunday, May 09, 2010

Bractless Cryptantha

What’s blooming in the area: Iris, tansy, tumble and purple mustards, hoary cress, alyssum simplex, Gordon’s bladderpod, western stickseed, cryptantha, mossy phlox, golden smoke, fern-leaf globemallow, oxalis, blue flax, alfilerillo, dandelion, goat’s beard; June, rice, three-awn and cheat grass.

What’s blooming in my yard: Lilac, tulip, grape hyacinth, baby blue iris, yellow alyssum; buds on snowball, spirea and peony.

What’s coming out: Weigela, skunkbush, hybrid lily, baptista, Maximilian sunflower, Shasta daisy.

What’s blooming inside: Aptenia.

Animal sightings: Hummingbird, quail beyond range of neighbor’s dog, geese down the road, cows in village, small red and large black ants in the drive.

Weather: Freezing temperatures early in week; high winds yesterday; plants beginning to suffer from lack of water; last attempted rain 05/02/09; 13:55 hours of daylight today.

Weekly update: In his memoirs, Ulysses S. Grant recalled the first time he crept up on a pair of wolves with trepidation, only to realize they were making a great deal of noise to scare any approachers into thinking they were a pack.

There’s a tiny flower coming into bloom now, a Cryptantha crassisepala, that looks so fierce I’ve never gotten near it. It hunkers to the ground in a dense cluster of thick leaves whose resemblance to a succulent is emphasized by ubiquitous white hairs that reflect light.

It has the most dangerous friends. Bees pollinate the tiny white flowers below ankle height. Biting harvester ants and Ord’s kangaroo rats live on the seeds. With its cousin, the well-named western stickseed, the slender taproots cover large areas of sandy, barren land this time of year.

It’s not clear it even likes itself. Robert Sivinski says that when the flower goes to seed, the annual prefers one of the nutlets, letting it grow larger and attach more firmly to the plant. The other three are allowed to atrophy.

Keres speakers consider it a "bad, poisonous weed."

This past year’s unusual weather has encouraged the first plants to expand more than usual, and it’s possible to see that they really are just members of the borage family. The alternating, narrow leaves, folded along the primary veins, are longer than usual and resemble real leaves spaced out along elongating stems.

The forget-me-not flowers, which usually appear one at a time, are in clusters that could extend into recognizable racemes.

The plant adapted to the drylands of New Mexico and surrounding states, including northern Chihuahua. The Zuni, Hopi, and Kayenta Navaho, who live in those hostile areas west of the Continental Divide, have had to overcome its defenses to test its utility.

The first, who live in McKinley and Cibola counties of northwestern New Mexico, grind the plant and soak the powder in water, then apply the infusion to tired feet and legs. The second, who live in northeastern Arizona, use it for boils or swellings, while the third, now settled in northeastern Navajo County, Arizona, make a lotion for itching.

The appearance from above is deceiving. It may resemble a normal flower at ground level and may have some uses, but until it invades my garden from the driveway margin, I’m willing to take the word of Robert Kaul that it’s "painful to touch."

Notes:Grant, Ulysses S. Personal Memoirs of U. S. Grant, 1885-1886, quoted by Ta-Nehisi Coates, "There Are Always More of Them Before They Are Counted," The Atlantic website, 15 April 2010.

Kaul, Robert B. "Boraginacese Juss, the Borage Family," in Great Plains Flora Association, Flora of the Great Plains, 1986.

Moerman, Dan. Native American Ethnobotany, 1998, summarizes data from a number of ethnographies including George R. Swank, The Ethnobotany of the Acoma and Laguna Indians, 1932; Alfred E. Whiting, Ethnobotany of the Hopi, 1939, and Leland C. Wyman and Stuart K. Harris, The Ethnobotany of the Kayenta Navaho, 1951.

Sivinski, Robert C. "The Genus Cryptantha in New Mexico," The New Mexico Botanist, 23 April 1998.

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

Photograph: Cryptantha crassisepala, in a halo of white hairs, growing on the prairie, 25 April 2010.

Sunday, May 02, 2010

Male Cottonwood

What’s blooming in the area: Cottonwood, chokecherry, wisteria, tulips, iris, tansy and purple mustards, hoary cress, alyssum simplex, western stickseed, cryptantha, mossy phlox, golden smoke, blue flax, oxalis, alfilerillo, dandelion, three-awn and cheat grass; buds on fern-leaf globemallow and June grass.

What’s coming out: Virginia creeper, scurf pea, ragweed.

What’s blooming in my yard: Sour cherry, purple-leaved and western sand cherries, lilac, forsythia, daffodil, grape hyacinth, baby blue iris, yellow alyssum; buds on spirea and peony.

What’s coming out: Lady Banks rose, Russian sage, sweet pea.

What’s blooming inside: Aptenia.

Animal sightings: Hummingbird, gecko, bees on Siberian pea, small red and large black ants.

Weather: Days too warm followed by winds and temperatures below freezing yesterday morning; last snow 04/30/09; 13:38 hours of daylight today.

Weekly update: Male animals like robins and peacocks have the more colorful plumage, but among plants it’s usually the female who has the grander flowers to attract a pollinator. An exception is the wind fertilized cottonwood. This time of year, the catkins on the female are green, while those on the male are deep maroon.

Buds form in summer in the axils where leaves attach to twigs on their tips, and winter over, protected by a layer of resin. A month ago, the flower buds began expanding into glistening layers of rouged green scales.

Two weeks ago, flowering stalks began emerging from the scales, much like cigars from tobacco-stained ivory holders. By last weekend, the outer scales were hardening and beginning to fall to the ground where they looked like discarded nutshells, too sticky to pick up.

The tongue of flowers that falls from the scale beak begins as a cluster of dark red berries that, in fact, are collections of 40 to 60 stamens attached to a disk. As the pollen blows away, the remaining skeletons dry purple.

Female flowers usually appear a week later. The male’s whitish-green stalk continues to lengthen and new flowers appear from the maw. By the time the threads of dried heads reach three inches, the leaves will begin to appear and the pendents will fall.

Catkins of both sexes are difficult to see because they tend to emerge high in the crown after a tree is at least eight years old. The one adds to the green aura surrounding the high branches, while the other resembles a triangular dreamcatcher against the sky.

The irony is that, despite the greater color of the male, it’s the female people notice because the cottony seeds land on top of dead flowers sitting on top of sticky scales on top of last year’s leaves. However, it’s the male that’s been sacrificed to produce the cottonless cottonwood sold by the local hardware.

Siouxland was released in 1955 as a clone of a single tree researchers at South Dakota State University found in a trail plot where they were testing plants for rust resistance. At the time, they believed it was a selection of Populus deltoides, the parent species of the local wislizeni subspecies. Now they think it was the sterile offspring of a canadensis hybrid, itself a spontaneous cross of the eastern cottonwood with a black cottonwood (Populus nigra) that occurred in Europe when the American tree was taken there in the 1600's.

Cottonwoods naturally interbreed and tend to be used interchangeably. When people talk about folk uses of the cottonwood buds, they rarely specify the bud type or species. When they do, it seems they mention the most familiar. Thus, it’s resin from the leaf bud the Karok use to attach feathers to arrow shafts and "gummy leaf buds" the Cheyenne and Omaha use for dye, while local Spanish-speaking settlers ate the "young green pods of the female cottonwood."

The only people who make it clear they use male flowers are the local dyers who say they gather purple catkins and boil them for an hour. Alas, the colors they produce with their mordants are the colors of the leaves, not the flowers: chrome produces something between yellow-green and dull gold, while tin makes gray-green and alum makes yellow.

All the masculine glory of spring has been replaced by the neutered Siouxland that last weekend was quietly opening its leaves, while the male down the road was parading and pollinating unseen by drivers below.

Curtin, Leonora Scott Muse. Healing Herbs of the Upper Rio Grande, 1947, republished 1997, with revisions by Michael Moore.

Demeritt, Jr., Maurice E. "Populus L.," in USDA Forest Service, Silvics of North America. Volume 2: Hardwoods, 1990.

Las Arañas Spinners and Weavers Guild, Inc. Dying with Natural Materials, 2004 edition of Vegetable Dyes of New Mexico, 1970, prepared by Jodie Aves and Janislee Wiese.

Moerman, Dan. Native American Ethnobotany, 1998, summarizes data from a number of ethnographies including C. Hart Merriam, Ethnographic Notes on California Indian Tribes, 1966; Jeffrey A. Hart, "The Ethnobotany of the Northern Cheyenne Indians of Montana," Journal of Ethnopharmacology 4:1-55:1981, and Melvin R. Gilmore, "A Study in the Ethnobotany of the Omaha Indians," Nebraska State Historical Society Collections 17:314-57:1913. The Karok used Populus balsamifera ssp. trichocarpa, the Cheyenne used Populus deltoides and the Omaha used Populus deltoides ssp. monilifera.

USDA, Soil Conservation Service. Conservation Tree and Shrub Cultivars in the United States, 1991.

Photograph: Male catkins on a cottonwood growing upland from the near arroyo, 25 April 2010.