Sunday, October 31, 2010

Six Hills Giant Catmint

Before the freezing temperatures: Found an orobache blooming near a snakeweed; moss and biological soil crust were active on wet ground; seed heads on spiny lettuce; florist mum and tall yellow cosmos buds still hadn’t opened.

What’s blooming after the frost: Snapdragon, sweet alyssum, low growing chrysanthemums, isolated áñil del muerto and tahokia daisy, buried gum weed, golden hairy and heath asters; buds on roses and pink evening primrose, new seed heads on dandelion and goat’s beard.

What’s still green: Arborvitae, juniper and other evergreens, Siberian elm, globe willow, apples, roses, Willamette raspberry, forsythia, privet, Japanese honeysuckle, pyracantha with orange berries, cholla, prickly pear, yuccas, red hot poker, hostas, grape hyacinth, garlic chives, west-facing iris, hollyhock, winecup, oriental poppy, St. John’s wort, vinca, bindweed, oxalis, baptisia, purple and white sweet clovers, alfalfa, sweet pea, catmint, Rumanian sage, pink salvia, coral and red beardtongues, lower part of large-leaf globemallow, soapworts, David phlox, bouncing Bess, Jupiter’s beard, sea pink, golden spur columbine, blue and scarlet flaxes, yellow and pink evening primroses, tomatillo, tansy, snakeweed, perky Sue, pigweed, blanket flower, coreopsis, Mexican hat, black-eyed Susan, anthemis, Mönch asters, yarrow, dandelion, June, pampas, brome, and cheat grasses, base of needle grass.

What’s grey, blue-grey or grey-green: Piñon, four-winged salt bush, buddleia, pinks, snow-in-summer, yellow alyssum, California poppies, loco weed, winterfat, chamisa, Silver King artemisia, low chocolate flower leaves.

What’s turned/turning red: Red leaved plum, sand cherries, spirea, barberry, coral bells, purple beardtongue, prostrate knotweed, goldenrod.

What’s turned/turning yellow: Cottonwood, tamarix, weeping willow, rugosa and pasture roses, caryopteris, lilacs, beauty bush, Autumn Joy sedum, lady bells, Maximilian sunflower, purple coneflowers, tops of needle grass; peach, cherry and Siberian pea leaves dropping.

What’s blooming inside: Aptenia, asparagus fern, pomegranate, zonal geranium..

Animal sightings: Rabbit out around 8 am yesterday.

Weather: Freezing temperatures Tuesday morning killed flowers and the more tender leaves; Thursday’s cold destroyed much of the rest; last rain 10/21/10; 10:41 hours of daylight today.

Weekly update: Herbaceous perennials are like sand castles. They rise from level ground in spring, slowly adding layers and arabesques in summer. Then comes the tide, the cold temperatures. Everything’s reduced to shapeless mounds that gradually disappear until nothing’s left to show they once existed.

Six Hills Giant catmint is my most architectural perennial. In April, when it’s small, grey leaves push up between last year’s dead stalks, they resemble any other member of the mint family: pairs of folded, crenellated projections from the crown. In 2002, the young stems were 3.5 inches high and spread 9 inches the end of April

By the end of May, buds form and two-lipped purple flowers begin opening on elongating spikes. This year, the bees were there by June 6, when the plant was several feet high and covered with long, discretely spaced racemes that resembled a Russian sage in late summer. Both an occasional bumble bee and many smaller bees I don’t recognize moved from floret to floret, unmindful of my presence.

Then comes the heat and dry air. The square, reddish stems were sagging by the fourth of July, the leaves in the center dying. The browning out was particularly severe in 2007.

Only the monsoons bring relief. New stalks rise from the center, forcing existing stems to fall. In turn, the lower stems expand to reach the sun. Concentric rings pile up with blooming stalks still rising from the center. Today the plant is more than 3 feet high and covers 6 feet.

When autumn brings lower temperatures and fewer insects, the plant apparently begins accumulating raffinose sugars and produces fewer flowers. Those sugars may insulate the engraved aromatic leaves from cold. In more favorable environments, the giant catmint is evergreen.

Here in the past, the leaves have turned yellow sometime in November. Then, the taproot has lain dormant under dead leaves until spring when I’ve looked anxiously for those first furry nubs.

In 1999 the gopher got it. Nothing appeared. A gaping hole marred my western blue border until a new plant became established. But now, the nursery where I bought my small pot offers only it’s own, bluer selection. It may not be replaceable the next time.

The plant’s cutting grown, and all specimens should trace their ancestry back to the mother that volunteered in Clarence Elliott’s Six Hills Nursery in Herfordshire in the 1930's. However, gardeners report different habits for their plants that suggest not everything bearing the name bears the genes.

Many thought the original plant was related to Nepeta racemosa, a shorter catmint from the Caucasus which had been introduced into England in the nineteenth century. William Robinson thought it shouldn’t appear in "choice borders," while his friend, Gertrude Jekyll, believed it could "hardly be over-praised" as a "front-edge patch"in a purple border.

In 1950, William Thomas Stearn declared the cultivar was a form of Nepeta faassenii, a cross between racemosa and nepetella that John Bergmans had described in 1939 from a plant in the University of Copenhagen Botanical Garden. Since that species is sterile, Elliott’s plants must be an independent experiment by nature whose genetics may vary subtly.

No plant will live forever, and few I’m now growing will outlive me. As the years when I packed wet sand in a pail recede, I’m faced with a tide that never ceases. I either turn into a collector hunting for relics of my past from obscure nurseries, move on to new adventures with new plants, or face a flat future marked by the disappearance of things that once filled great spaces in my life and garden.

For the nonce, I’ll wait until spring and hunt for new growth. In its hour, a sand castle is forever.

Bergmans, John. Vaste Planten en Rotsheesters, 1939 edition.

Grodzinski, Bernard, Jirong Jiao, and Evangelos D. Leonardos. "Estimating Photosynthesis and Concurrent Export Rates in C3 and C4 Species at Ambient and Elevated CO2," Plant Physiology 117:207–215:1998.

Jekyll, Gertrude. Colour in the Flower Garden, 1908.

Lineberger, R. Daniel and Peter L. Steponkus. "Cryoprotection by Glucose, Sucrose, and Raffinose to Chloroplast Thylakoids," Plant Physiology 65:298–304:1980.

Robinson, William. The English Flower Garden, 1933 edition reprinted by Sagapress, Inc., 1984.

Stearn, W. T. "Nepeta mussinii and N. faassenii," Royal. Horticultural Society Journal 75:403-406:1950.

Photograph: Six Hills Giant catmint with dead flower stalk days after the freeze, 30 October 2010.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Fall Roses

What’s blooming in the area behind the walls and fences: Hybrid tea roses, silver lace vine, Japanese honeysuckle, sweet pea, alfalfa, Sensation cosmos, French marigolds, zinnia; trees of heaven turning yellow with cottonwoods and catalpas.

Outside the fences: Apache plume, yellow evening primrose, datura, white sweet clover, áñil del muerto, spiny lettuce, purple, heath and golden hairy asters.

In my yard looking north: Nasturtium, chocolate flower, blanket flower, Mexican hat, black-eyed Susan, yellow cosmos, chrysanthemum, Crackerjack marigold.

Looking east: Hollyhock, winecup, Jupiter’s beard, pink evening primrose.

Looking south: Blaze, floribunda and miniature roses; daylily leaves bright yellow.

Looking west: Russian sage, catmint, lady bells, calamintha, Mönch aster; yellow peach leaves beginning to accumulate.

Bedding plants: Moss rose, snapdragon, nicotiana, sweet alyssum.

Inside: Aptenia, asparagus fern, pomegranate.

Animal sightings: Rabbit, black harvester and small red ants.

Weather: Storms in area most of week; soaking rain early Thursday morning; 11:00 hours of daylight today.

Weekly update: When I was a child, roses were meant to be picked. One was told to prune to produce large, magnificent blooms like those my mother floated in clear glass globes.

Someone in the village has such a cutting garden, a bare rectangle with six roses lined in two columns. Each gets about 3' high and 2' wide and carries large, florescent flowers at the tops of its thorny stems.

At a former bank near the old post office someone else planted hybrid teas in gravel mulch that rarely seems to get pruned. Those plants grow 4' high and at least 5' across. The flowers are smaller, but their summer profusion is a joy to those who drive by.

I have yet to enjoy the luxury of choosing which style I prefer. My problem has always been to get plants to survive. No matter how early I planted, the roots rarely had time to settle before the onset of summer heat and dry air. The few times I did succeed, the green canes were destroyed by the drying winds of February. The only pruning I ever did was removing clearly dead wood.

Four years ago I built a wooden fence about 30' south of the house I hoped would break the wind, at least at ground level. The roses I put in the next spring, 2007, survived, but didn’t do particularly well. There were few flowers in June of 2008, and they tended to be deformed. Then nothing until late summer when a few, more attractive flowers opened fully.

This year began the same, except the transition from too cool to too hot was shorter than usual. Nothing grew anywhere in June, not even the iris or the usual Dr. Huey rootstock. When the monsoons arrived, I began the summer weeding. I got to the roses that grow in the drip line of the south roof the first week of August.

I’d grown tired of the golden hairy asters that were threatening to take over, and removed them. Then, because I had time, I finished laying tiles along the porch edge, a project I’d started years ago to protect the building from rain and hadn’t completed then because I’d run out of materials. Treated tiles had been sitting in the garage for years.

I bought dry fertilizer, and scattered it just as the rains stopped.

Then I began to worry perhaps the asters had acted as natural shelters for the splices where the hybrids joined their root stock. I needn’t have been concerned. At the east end of the house, tomatillos expanded their territory, while barnyard grass moved into the center. Even if they die with the frost, they’ll leave a mulch of dead leaves and a stand of old stalks to divert the winds.

Water continued to drip off the metal roof as moisture pulled from the ground in the day, condensed in the night. By the end of the August, I noticed some new red leaves on the floribundas. Then I saw new canes a foot high around one of the teas. For the past few weeks, for the first time since I’ve had this garden, the red Olympiad has been in full bloom, rivaling the neighboring Betty Prior.

Everything I did breaks the rules I was given as a child, and nothing I did was unusual. I never get around to pruning dead wood or fertilizing until August. Yet, the roses are thriving for the first time.

I wonder why roses, which are supposed to do so well in June, have such a different cycle here in the rio arriba. I can only think many of our perceptions go back to the old roses that came from the Levant, and that the introduction of genes from Chinese roses did more than allow plants to bloom all season. After all those older roses can bloom early because they flower on old stems. The newer hybrids bloom on new wood, which foreshortens their growth cycle.

The new roses we imported in the middle 1700's were originally from places like Yunnan and Sichuan, large provinces in south western China where average summer temperatures are in the 70's. Successful flower production involves both temperature and solar radiation, which is higher in mountainous areas like Yunnan and Sichuan.

When new canes first emerge, they prefer lower air temperatures which encourage photosynthesis. However, the young leaves are still too weak to send nutrients to the flower buds that are developing at the tip. If carbohydrates are not transferred from older leaves, the buds may atrophy.

During the phase when buds are developing, the quality of the light becomes more important than the air temperature. Then, when the buds begin to open, temperature again is important. However, while warm temperatures often produce more colorful and more fragrant flowers, the buds themselves prefer to open when temperatures are cooler, just before dawn. When temperatures rise, they rest until after the next dark period.

Here in the Española valley, when temperatures vary so widely and soil temperatures may remain cool, there’s no time to produce a reserve of older leaves to supply the buds of June. After the monsoons, a long enough period exists for new canes to produce flowers that draw on food from the earlier growth. While those flowers are racing against the seasonal decrease in solar radiation, the decline is less dramatic at 6000' than at sea level.

East of the Mississippi, they have long springs and hot, debilitating summers. Here, we have erratic, often abbreviated springs, and long, cool seasons after the monsoons. Roses bloom when they can, early in the east, late here.

Berninger, E. "Development Rate of Young Greenhouse Rose Plants (Rosa hybrida) Rooted from Cuttings in Relation to Temperature and Irradiance," Scientia Horticulturae 58:235-251:1994.

Evans, R. Y. Control of Rose Flower Opening, 1987, cited by Michael S. Reid, "Flower Development: From Bud to Bloom," Acta Horticulturae 669:105- 110:2005.

Khayat, Eli and Naftaly Zieslin. "Effect of Night Temperature on the Activity of Sucrose Phosphate Synthase, Acid Invertase, and Sucrose Synthase in Source and Sink Tissue of Rosa hybrida cv Golden Times," Plant Physioloogy 84:447-449:1987

Ushio, Ayuko, Tadahiko Mae and Amane Makino "Effects of Temperature on Photosynthesis and Plant Growth in the Assimilation Shoots of a Rose," Soil Science and Plant Nutrition 54:253–258:2008.

Photograph: Betty Prior, a single pink floribunda, and Olympiad, a red hybrid tea rose, 16 October 2010.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Scarlet Flax

What’s blooming in the area behind the walls and fences: Hybrid tea roses, silver lace vine, Japanese honeysuckle, morning glories, sweet pea, alfalfa, Sensation cosmos, French marigolds, zinnia; Maximilian sunflower leaves turning yellow.

Outside the fences: Apache plume, yellow evening primrose, datura, white sweet clover, chamisa, horseweed, áñil del muerto, native sunflowers, spiny lettuce, dandelion, Tahokia daisy, purple, heath and golden hairy asters; cottonwood leaves starting to turn yellow.

In my yard looking north: Nasturtium, chocolate flower, blanket flower, Mexican hat, black-eyed Susan, yellow cosmos, chrysanthemum, Crackerjack marigold.

Looking east: Hollyhock, winecup, large-leaf soapwort, scarlet flax, Jupiter’s beard, pink evening primrose, Shirley poppy.

Looking south: Blaze, floribunda and miniature roses, Cypress vine.

Looking west: Russian sage, catmint, lady bells, calamintha, purple coneflower, Mönch aster; butterfly milkweed’s pod split to release its seeds.

Bedding plants: Moss rose, snapdragon, nicotiana, sweet alyssum; Sweet 100 tomatoes still ripening.

Inside: Aptenia, asparagus fern, pomegranate.

Animal sightings: Rabbit, wasps, black harvester and small red ants.

Weather: Frost on windshield Monday and Friday mornings; last rain 10/08/10; 11:19 hours of daylight today.

Weekly update: Plants, like the people with whom they associate, sometimes develop quite undeserved reputations.

Scarlet flax is included in many wildflower mixtures sold in this country, implying, if it’s not a native, then at least, in the words of Wildseed Farms, it has "naturalized throughout the United States."

The USDA maps show the annual in one or two counties in nine, widely scattered states. In Texas, home of Wildseed, the plant has only been reported in the area of Austin, some 70 miles east of the company’s headquarters. The other company from whom I buy seeds, Lake Valley, is located in Boulder, another university town and the only area in that state where the plant has colonized.

It’s not even clear the plant is widespread in its native Algeria. René Louiche Desfontaines found Linum grandiflorum growing in the clayey fields outside Mascara, the provincial capital of an Ottoman bey, in the 1780's. Presumably the five-petaled flowers were blooming in the 300 square mile Ghriss plain, a collapsed basin that had held an ancient lake and one of the most fertile areas in the country.

After France had wrested the area from the Turks, Giles Munby moved to the new provincial capital, Oran, in 1844. He told the editors of Curtis Botanical Magazine he had seen the rose colored flowers near there.

The reason a plant from such a specialized background acquired reknown as a wildflower may arise from its similarity to the blue flax, Linum perenne, which is native to the plains of this country. While one’s an annual with 16 chromosomes, larger leaves and bigger flowers that’s blooming now and the other’s a perennial with 9 chromosomes that bloomed in early summer, the petals of both have a satiny sheen that reflects light.

Genetically, both are members of the blue-flowered Linum clade within the flax family, but within that class they are members of two distinct subgroups separated by their stigmas and sepals. However, each species produces two types of sexual organs which require members with both types to exist in a stand before it can reproduce itself. Since the flowers of each only live one day, those types need to be in bloom simultaneously.

Wikipedia says that when scarlet flax does succeed in establishing itself, it rarely persists more than a season. All in all, the morphology makes it more likely a perennial would survive as a wildflower, than one that must produce two types of flowers year after year to perpetuate itself in areas quite removed from its native habitat.

If scarlet flax isn’t an American wildflower, some think, at least, it’s an heirloom that’s been around for generations. Several small companies that specialize in such varieties offer the oily, black seeds on the web, usually repeating the same kind of information provided by Wildseed.

The French had apparently taken up the species, and probably selected for color and size. In 1850, Joseph Paxton introduced a brilliant crimson form as a border plant to English readers at the same time he was building the Crystal Palace, whose carpet beds filled with bright annuals would destroy a taste for borders among the rising classes.

Rubrum, the variety growing in my yard with a dark red center surrounded by a light band and dark edges, became available in this country in 1875. In 1902, Country Life was recommending the rose-crimson Coccineum to its readers, while the New York Botanical Garden suggested ornamental flax grew "about gardens and in fields, eastern United States" in 1907.

It may indeed have been popular then, at least with the wealthy who read Country Life, but it didn’t appear in other gardening manuals I’ve seen from that period. Denise Adams believes Coccineum was reintroduced in 1925. Today, the USDA map shows New York is the only eastern state where the red flower has escaped cultivation. The New York Flora Atlas project reports it only from Orange County, home of West Point and former grand estates of people like the Harrimans.

For some of us, heritage implies more than longevity: it brings an expectation a flower was widely grown in the past.

If scarlet flax is neither common in cultivation nor in the wild, some seed growers suggest that since it’s from western Algeria, it "can tolerate immense heat and extremely dry conditions" in this country. A website associated with American Meadows goes so far as call it a desert native.

However, Philippe Faucon tells true desert gardeners in Phoenix they should plant seeds in October and expect the branching stalks to "die before the summer heat." Someone from Queen’s Creek, southeast of the city, told Dave Witinger that she planted 1,500 seeds and had "one tall stalk to show for it," along with some stragglers. The next year, she tried again, but still "not alot of them germinated."

The people who report great successes with the plant are from warm, moist places like Oregon, Washington, and South Carolina.

The Plaine de Ghriss is not desert, but lies in the ridges that separate Algeria’s Mediterranean coast from the Sahara. The average summer high temperature is 86 degrees. The average rainfall for the past quarter century has been a little over 14," more that we average in the rio arriba.

Ali Dahmani and Mohamed Meddi note the average precipitation in Mascara was lowered by years of drought and that rainfall probably decreased 3% in the past century. I would guess, the decline has been greater since Desfontaines first wandered the ancient lake bed 230 years ago.

It’s reputation in my garden was set this summer. Each year, I’ve scattered seeds among the early blooming perennials hoping for a splash of late summer color amongst the basal greens. Some years nothing germinates, some years nothing blooms, and some years I’m rewarded with an occasional breathtakingly brilliant flower.

This year, either because of the atypical weather or the fact the perennials have been slow to recover from last winter’s cold, more seeds germinated and grew two to three times as tall as usual. However, I still only have one flower at a time, and so far they’ have only appeared days, if not weeks, a part.

Here in my part of the Española valley scarlet flax can never become a wildflower or an heirloom. It will forever be an indulgence that needs constant seeding for the most ephemeral results.

Adams, Denise W. Restoring American gardens, 2004; dates for Rubrum and Coccineum.

Country Life." In The Garden," 15 February 1902.

Curtis' Botanical Magazine. "Linum grandiflorum," plant 4956, 1856.

Dahmani, Ali and Mohamed Meddi. Climate Variability and Its Impact on Water Resources in the Catchment Area of Wadi Fekan Wilaya of Mascara (West Algeria)," European Journal of Scientific Research 36:458-472:2009; also called the Eghris and Gharis plain.

Desfontaines, René Louiche. Flora Atlantica, volume 1, 1880; he described the habitat in Latin as "arvis argillosis prope Msacar."

Faucon, Philippe. "Red Flax, Scarlet Flax," Desert Tropicals website.

Lindley, John and Joseph Paxton. Paxton's Flower Garden, volume 1, 1850-1851.

McDill, Joshua, Miriam Repplinger, Beryl B. Simpson, and Joachim W. Kadereit. "The Phylogeny of Linum and Linaceae Subfamily Linoideae, with Implications for Their Systemics, Biogeography, and Evolution of Heterostyly," Systemic Botany 34:386-405:2009.

Munby, Giles. Catalogus Plantarum in Algeria Sponte Nascentium, 1866.

New York Botanical Garden. North American Flora, volume 25, 1907.

New York Flora Association. New York Flora Atlas, available on-line.

United States Department of Agriculture. Natural Resources Conservation Service. Plant profile for Linum grandiflorum, available on-line.

Wikipedia. "Linum grandiflorum," available on-line.

Wildflower Information Organization. "Scarlet Flax;" website recommends American Meadows seeds.

Wildseed Farms. Wildflower Reference Guide and Seed Catalog, 2010; also source for quote on tolerance for poor conditions.

Whitinger, Dave. "Scarlet Flax, Red Flax, Flowering Flax," Dave’s Garden website; quotes from stephanotis.

Photograph: Scarlet flax, about 11:30 on 10 October 2010, with winecups in the background.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Prostrate Knotweed

What’s blooming in the area behind the walls and fences: Hybrid tea roses, bird of paradise, silver lace vine, Japanese honeysuckle, trumpet creeper, Heavenly Blue morning glories nearly gone, sweet pea flourishing, Sensation cosmos, French marigolds, Maximilian sunflower; green pepper roasting done for year.

Outside the fences: Apache plume, leather-leaf globemallow, velvetweed, yellow evening primrose, datura, bindweed, scarlet creeper, ivy-leaf morning glory, older pigweed turning brown, ragweed, Russian thistle, goats’ head, chamisa, snakeweed, goat’s beard, horseweed, áñil del muerto, native sunflowers, gumweed, broom senecio, spiny lettuce, Tahokia daisy, purple, heath and golden hairy asters; milkweed leaves turning yellow, toothed spurge turning maroon.

In my yard looking north: Nasturtium, chocolate flower, blanket flower, Mexican hat, black-eyed Susan, yellow cosmos, chrysanthemum, Crackerjack marigold.

Looking east: Floribunda roses, hollyhock, winecup, large-leaf soapwort, scarlet flax, reseeded and Crimson Glory morning glories, pink evening primrose, zinnias; Autumn Joy sedum leaves losing color.

Looking south: Blaze, floribunda and miniature roses, cypress vine.

Looking west: Russian sage, catmint, lady bells, individual David phlox flowers, calamintha, sheltered purple coneflower, Mönch aster.

Bedding plants: Moss rose, snapdragon, nicotiana, sweet alyssum back.

Inside: Aptenia, asparagus fern, pomegranate.

Animal sightings: Rabbit, monarch butterfly, wasps, black harvester and small red ants.

Weather: Rain Tuesday night; short thunderstorm Friday morning; temperatures in high 30's yesterday morning; 11:29 hours of daylight today.

Weekly update: Prostrate knotweed is one of those weeds that survive because it’s no where near as noxious as its peers. It’s not poisonous, doesn’t have thorns, and doesn’t take over the best watered soil - it’s just not worth the same effort I expend to control pigweed and Siberian elms.

The dark brown seeds lie buried just beneath the surface in winter when cool temperatures and dampness revoke their dormancy, leaving them ready to germinate when conditions improve. They say the annuals first appear looking like grass, but I never notice them until a few stems a couple inches long appear with their rounded, oval leaves spaced too far apart to cover the soil.

This summer I was removing the white taproots from the zinnia bed when I was preparing it for seed in late May. Those early plants probably had four sets of chromosomes and peaked early, before the summer heat reintroduced dormancy in unsprouted seeds and sent everything else into remission.

Come the monsoons, enough moisture penetrates the warm soil for a second wave to grow, this time the ones with six sets of chromosomes. When I went out to weed in late July, I saw plants had returned in the zinnia bed and new ones were growing along the nearby fence. I haphazardly pulled some, but left many in my pursuit of other enemies.

Then, as seems to happen every year, events overtook my resolutions and things were left to grow as they would in late summer. When I went out last weekend, the knotweeds in the zinnia bed were turning brown, while the light-green ones in the shade of the fence had grow erect and lacy.

Out in the drive, in front of the garage, the thick doilies I first noted the middle of August had waxed fat, with thick blue-green leaves, some with red lines. At the leaf joints, small stems held clusters of dark rose buds, maybe a sixteenth of an inch across. Some were parting to expose their stamens, while others remain closed, shaking the pollen within to fertilize themselves.

Useful as a capacity to waste no resources on petals to attract insects or variations in chromosome counts may be to survival, I suspect an ability pass unnoticed has been more important.

No one knows where Polygonum aviculare emerged, but its fossilized seeds have been found in northern European strata dated to the Cromerian warming period during the middle ice age between 866,000 and 478,000 years ago. Jonathan Sauer believes they were "native pioneers preadapted to join in the migrations of early humans as ruderal camp followers."

With the appearance of neolithic farmers, the ground hugging plant moved into the fields from central Germany northwest to Britain. Either weeds weren’t yet seen as problems, or the red stems were tolerated.

By the time iron age people were sacrificing a man at Thor’s Grove in Jutland around 400bc, the seeds were part of the Tollund grainery, included in the gruel of his last meal. Another member of the buckwheat family, Persicaria lapathifolia, seems to have been gathered deliberately, but archaeologists debate if the inclusion of prostate knotweed was accidental or intentional.

Some 700 years later and eleven miles to the east, another man was sacrificed who’s body was found near Grauballe in 1954. His last meal contained fragments of 63 grains, including prostrate knotweed, but no spring greens or late summer fruits. From that, Peter Glob has argued he probably was killed in some late winter ritual designed to speed the arrival of spring.

The late season food fed to both men was relatively dirty, filled with hairs and ergot, a fungus that infects one of their main crops, rye. The Graballe man’s skeleton showed signs of near starvation when he was young and recent calcium deficiencies. It may be he died in a year when food supplies were particularly low, and everything non-toxic was eaten. Glob indicated the condition of his teeth showed this wasn’t his usual fare.

Prostrate knotweed moved to the compacted pathways when it was ejected by more fastidious farmers and traveled west with the first settlers to New England where John Josselyn reported in 1672 that knot grass had "sprung up since the English planted and kept cattle in New-England."

It continued moving west, annoying people who wanted perfect lawns, but otherwise dispersing by seed or contaminated nursery pots. A century ago it was considered "a common dooryard weed at middle levels in the mountains" of New Mexico.

Sometimes, people who confronted it as a new plant would test it: the Chinese tried it as a dye, the Ramah Navajo used a warm infusion to treat stomach aches. In the late nineteenth century, there was a brief fad for Hemero Tea to treat asthma and bronchitis in Austria and Germany.

But as usually happens with familiarity, most soon learned to ignore it.

In oblivion there is success for the meek.

Notes:Coward, Fiona, Stephen Shennan, Sue Colledge, James Conolly, and Mark Collard. "The Spread of Neotlithic Plant Economies from the Near East to Northwest Europe: A Phylogenetic Analysis, Journal of Archaeological Science 35:42-56:2008.

Glob. Peter Vilhelm. The Bog People: Iron-Age Man Preserved, 2004.

Josselyn, John. New England’s Rarities Discovered in Birds, Beasts, Fishes, Serpents and Plants of That Country, 1672, reprinted by University of Michigan, University Library with 1865 notes by Edward Tuckerman.

Meerts, Pierre. "An Experimental Investigation of Life History and Plasticity in Two Cytotypes of Polygonum aviculare L. Subsp. aviculare That Coexist in an Abandoned Arable Field, Oecologia 92:442-449:1992; on chromosomes.

Rafinesque, C. S. Medical Flora, volume 2, 1830; on China

Sauer, Jonathan D. Plant Migration: The Dynamics of Geographic Patterning in Seed Plant Species, 1988

Taylor, Timothy. The Buried Soul: How Humans Invented Death, 2004; on ergot.

Uphof, J. C. T. Dictionary of Economic Plants, 1968 edition; on Hemero Tea.

Vestal, Paul A. The Ethnobotany of the Ramah Navaho, 1952.

Wooten, Elmer Otis and Paul Carpenter Standley. Flora of New Mexico, 1915.

Photograph: Prostate knotweed, much enlarged, in my drive, 3 October 2010.

Sunday, October 03, 2010


What’s blooming in the area behind the walls and fences: Hybrid tea roses, rose of Sharon, bird of paradise, buddleia peaked, silver lace vine, Japanese honeysuckle, trumpet creeper, Heavenly Blue morning glories, sweet pea, Sensation cosmos, French marigolds, Maximilian sunflower.

Outside the fences: Apache plume, leather-leaf globemallow, velvetweed, yellow evening primrose, datura, bindweed, scarlet creeper, ivy-leaf morning glory, stickleaf, white sweet clover, toothed spurge, pigweed, ragweed, Russian thistle, goats’ head, chamisa, snakeweed, goat’s beard, horseweed, áñil del muerto, native sunflowers peaked, gumweed, broom senecio, Tahokia daisy, purple, heath and golden hairy asters.

In my yard looking north: Nasturtium, chocolate flower, blanket flower, Mexican hat, black-eyed Susan, yellow cosmos, chrysanthemum, Crackerjack marigold; leaves turning yellow on Lapins cherry.

Looking east: Floribunda roses, hollyhock, winecup, large-leaf soapwort waning, Shirley poppy, scarlet flax, reseeded and Crimson Glory morning glories, zinnias, tansy.

Looking south: Blaze and miniature roses, cypress vine; some orange red on spirea leaves.

Looking west: Russian sage, catmint, lady bells, David phlox bedraggled, calamintha, purple coneflower, Mönch aster; flowering spurge and skunkbush leaves turning yellow-orange.

Bedding plants: Moss rose, snapdragon, nicotiana.

Inside: Aptenia, asparagus fern, pomegranate.

Animal sightings: Rabbit, gecko, cabbage butterfly on purple asters, bee on hollyhock, wasp on blanket flower, black harvester and small red ants.

Weather: Morning temperatures in upper 40's; a little rain Friday night; 11:44 hours of daylight today.

Weekly update: I do wish, when I find something that grows, nurserymen would stop trying to improve it.

Nicotiana alata has been on the betterment list, almost since it was introduced from an area of Brazil being settled by Germans in the 1820's and described from a specimen in the Berlin botanical garden in 1830. It was fragrant, but two to three feet tall, and inclined to collapse from the weight of its greenish flowers, which only opened after sundown.

It begged for improvement. By 1912, William Setchell believed the garden flower, alternately called Nicotiana affinis or Nicotiana alata grandiflora, was a larger flowered selection. In 1916, Percy Ricker questioned if the nightshade species itself was even in cultivation.

Help had arrived when Louis Forget sent another species, found primarily in the mountainous region of Santa Catarina and Rio Grande do Sul states in southern Brazil, to Henry Sander, the well-connected German-born British orchid importer.

Italians had begun settling the Serra Gaúcha highlands in 1875, and this species, like alata, had adapted by abandoning its rocky outcrops in distant canyons for the surer environment along roads and fallow fields. They haven’t yet met in Brazil, but researchers believe that, as roads continue to expand and the plants’ ranges draw closer, the time’s approaching when some large hawkmoth will take pollen from a perennial alata and deposit it on an annual forgetiana to produce a viable hybrid.

Man couldn’t wait. Nicotiana needed immediate improvement. The influential Alice Morse Earle had complained in 1901 that spent flowers stank the morning after. A new cross was introduced in 1905 with promotions reminiscent of today’s product roll outs. The hybrid sanderae was described in William Robinson’s weekly garden journal with a testimonial by the president of the Royal Horticultural Society, Trevor Lawrence, while the species forgetiana was formally baptized by the keeper of Kew Herbarium, William Botting Hemlsey, in Curtis’s Botanical Magazine.

Sanderae was praised for its compact habit and ability to withstand drought. Unfortunately, while its parent was brilliant red, it also had no detectable fragrance. In its native habitat, forgetiana’s shorter funnels attract hummingbirds, not the hawkmoths that favor alatas.

The conflicting demands for fragrance and dwarfness in increasingly smaller, suburban gardens led to a number of varieties that came and went before I bought my first Nikki White in Michigan in 1985. My only requirement was that a bedding plant survive transplantation, and this one produced five-petaled flowers resembling small petunias all summer. Enough to want more.

I was able to buy red and white Nikkis grown from Pan American seed until 1990, when Floranova’s Domino Red became the only plant available. Thompson and Morgan claimed it was a "marked improvement over older F1" hybrids because it was neater and nearly in flower when planted out. The latter is good for growers, and Floranova claims its improvements have made nicotiana an accepted bedding plant.

Fine, but Domino didn’t do as well in my garden as had Nikki.

Ornamental tobaccos have been scarce in New Mexico. I bought some unnamed varieties from the local hardware that bloomed in 2002 and 2003. Then, in 2004 White Domino was all that was available. It didn’t last the summer. The few Hummingbirds that survived in 2006 went in and out of bloom. They were abandoned by Ball in 2009.

This year, I saw some Perfume Reds, another variety released by Floranova, in a garden store in Albuquerque. They had shrunk to 12" plants dense with large, sticky leaves and upward facing flowers that were supposed to be fragrant and require no maintenance. I have no idea if they have an aroma - I rarely bend to their level. They don’t greet me like chocolate flowers or David phlox.

However, they have bloomed all summer with a deep, alluring color. Occasionally, their throats, surrounded by lighter color circlets inherited from forgetiana, reach for the sun That’s enough.

Please, no more improvements. Let me enjoy.

Earle, Alice Morse. Old Time Gardens, 1901; she said that while affinis had a "honey sweetness" at night, "you will be glad it withholds its perfume by day."

Hemsley, William Botting. "Nicotiana forgetiana," Curtis' Botanical Magazine, plant 8006, 1905.

Ippolito, Anthony, G. Wilson Fernandes, and Timothy P. Holtsford. "Pollinator Preferences for Nicotiana alata, N. forgetiana, and Their F1 Hybrids," Evolution 58:2634-44:2004.

Link, Johann Heinrich Friedrich and Christoph Friedrich Otto. Icones Plantarum Rariorum Horti Regii Botanici Berolinensis, 1830, on

Ricker, P. L. "Nicotiana," in Liberty Hyde Bailey, The Standard Cyclopedia of Horticulture, volume 4, 1916.

Robinson, William. The Garden, 7 January 1905.

Setchell, William Albert. Studies in Nicotiana, 1912.

Thompson and Morgan. The Seed Catalogue, 1986.

Photograph: Red Perfume nicotiana, 26 September 2010, with sun illuminating the funnel and recessed stamens.