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.

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