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.