Sunday, July 11, 2010

Santa Fé Thistle

What’s blooming in the area behind the walls and fences: Tea roses, hybrid daylilies, tall yucca bending, Spanish broom, silver lace vine, honeysuckle, trumpet creeper, Russian sage, purple phlox, larkspur, datura, Shasta daisies, Sensation cosmos, zinnia, alfalfa.

Outside the fences: Tamarix, Apache plume, four-winged saltbush, winterfat, cholla, Queen Anne’s lace, fern-leaf and leather-leaf globemallows, velvetweed, scarlet beeblossom, white evening primrose, milkweed, bindweed, bush morning glory, Dutch, white prairie, and white sweet clovers, buffalo gourd, goat’s head, alfilerillo, silver-leaf nightshade, dandelion, goat’s beard, hawkweed, paper flower, spiny lettuce, strap-leaf and golden hairy asters; buds on prickly pear and horseweed.

In my yard looking north: Miniature roses, daylily, golden spur columbine, last year’s snapdragon, Harweig evening primrose, butterfly weed, chocolate flower, blanket flower, coreopsis, Parker’s Gold yarrow, Mexican hat, black-eyed Susan, anthemis, orange coneflower; bud on blackberry lily; beans forming on catalpa.

Looking east: Dr. Huey and floribunda roses, hollyhock, winecup, sidalcea, Jupiter’s beard, baby’s breath, snow-in-summer, bouncing Bess, coral beardtongue, sea pink, large-leaf soapwort, Maltese cross, pink salvia, pink evening primrose, Saint John’s wort, reseeded morning glory; buds on garlic chives, tomatillo and Autumn Joy sedum.

Looking south: Blaze and rugosa roses, Illinois bundle flower, sweet peas; ripe raspberries.

Looking west: Lilies, catmint, lady bells, blue speedwell, spurge, blue flax, sea lavender; buds on purple coneflower.

Bedding plants: Moss rose, snapdragon, nicotiana, tomato.

Inside: Aptenia, zonal geraniums, asparagus fern.

Animal sightings: Rabbit, hummingbird on coral beardtongue, goldfinshes on chocolate flower, geckos, cabbage butterfly, hummingbird moths on bouncing Bess, large bees on catmint, smaller ones on Mexican hat, grasshoppers, cricket, large black harvester and small red ants, worms.

Weather: Rain Thursday night; 14:24 hours of daylight today.

Weekly update: There’s no mistaking a thistle.

They begin as pineapple shaped buds that open wide enough to push up rosy purple bristles that fan out before turning into white down to carry away brown seeds. Some years along the road through San Ildefonso, the flowers of bull thistles tip majestic green plants that can grow more than six feet, covered with bristly leaves that can reach out a foot.

The ones I saw last Sunday were only a foot high, but weren’t miniaturized bull thistles. The stems were gray white and looked smooth from a distance, though I’ve since read they were covered with fine hairs. The leaves were narrow and proportionally longer, with a yellowish thorn at the end of each long lobe. Instead of reaching out, they curved and twisted down to armor the plant.

Unlike the bull thistles that came from Europe, the Santa Fe thistles I saw are local, ranging from the central plains of Wyoming and Colorado down through the northern Mexican states of Chihuahua, Coahuila, Durango, and Sonora.

Eva Häffner and Frank Hellwig believe the Cirsium genus of thistles evolved in the Mediterranean, while Dean Kelch and Bruce Baldwin have found a single species crossed into North America to quickly diverge into the many species found today, abetted by the movements of the great glaciers. Indeed, the USDA reports at least ten species growing in Rio Arriba county: Cirsium arvense (Canada), calcareum, neomexicanum, ochrocentrum (yellow-spine or Santa Fe), pallidum, parryi, scariosum, undulatum (wavy leaf), vulgare (bull) and wheeleri.

Some resemble one another more than others, but they all have the characteristic bulb and brush flowers. The similarities have led people to substitute one for another, and ochrocentrum can hybridize with undulatum, adding to the sense that thistles exist on a continuum.

Among the Zuñi, yellow-spined ko’wakätsi plants were used to treat syphilis, a disease Matilda Coxe Stevenson noted had become more widespread since she first visited in 1879. Lenora Curtin found Spanish speakers of northern New Mexico used wavy-leaved cardo santo flowers for gonorrhea, a use also reported by the Comanche who menaced the area between 1746 and 1786, then traded with the surviving settlers.

More recently, Scott Camazine and Robert Bye found the Zuñi were using fresh or dried roots of Santa Fe thistles to treat diabetes. Interestingly, thistles are one of the plants southwestern tribes tested when confronted with diseases brought by the Spanish and Americans: the Navajo used calcareum to treat malaria and rothrockii for smallpox.

While thistles are common in the west, they’re not particularly wide spread in this immediate area. The Santa Fe thistles take two years to flower and may survive to become perennials or die out after blooming.

The three I saw were growing on the side of an arroyo which had cut its path through the gravely dirt of Santa Fe composites formed before the Rio Grande flowed. It had just rained after more than a month of heat and high winds, and they were quickly moving from flowering to reproduction.

Two were probably linked by underground roots, and the one to the east may have been connected or may come from another seed. The plants are self-fertile, so the white down I saw could plant itself and perpetuate the colony, or blow far away to land in the inhospitable prairie or friendlier, disturbed steppe.

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

Häffner, Eva and Frank H. Hellwig. "Phylogeny of the Tribe Carueae (Compositae) with Emphasis on the Subtribe Carduinae: An Anlysis Based on ITS Sequence Data," Willdenowia 29:27-39:1999.

Keil, David J. "Cirsium Miller," efloras website on glaciers.

Kelch, Dean G. and Bruce G. Baldwin "Phylogeny and Ecological Radiation of New World Thistles (Cirsium, Cardueae - Compositae) Based on ITS and ETS rDNA Sequence Data," Molecular Ecology 12:141-151:2003.

Moerman, Dan. Native American Ethnobotany, 1998, summarizes data from a number of ethnographies including; Gustav G. Carlson and Volney H. Jones," Some Notes on Uses of Plants by the Comanche Indians," Michigan Academy of Science, Arts and Letters Papers 25:517-542:1940; Scott Camazine and Robert A. Bye, "A Study Of The Medical Ethnobotany of the Zuni Indians of New Mexico," Journal of Ethnopharmacology 2:365-388:1980; Francis H. Elmore, Ethnobotany of the Navajo, 1944, and Leland C. Wyman and Stuart K. Harris, The Ethnobotany of the Kayenta Navaho, 1951.

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

United States Department of Agriculture, Natural Resources Conservation Service. New Mexico county distribution maps for Cirsium species.

Photograph: Santa Fe thistle growing in bank of Santa Fe composites, 7 July 2010.

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