Sunday, November 28, 2010

Gypsum Phacelia

What’s happening: Purple aster blooming; exposed hollyhock leaves dying, leaving new green ones in core; winterfat, chamisa, and broom senecio releasing seeds; next spring’s twig buds visible on apples and cherries; new buds developing on cottonwood and lilac; most trees now bare, just in time for their leaves to protect whatever’s beneath from the cold.

What’s still green: Arborvitae, juniper and other evergreens, Lady Banks, hybrid tea and floribunda roses, prickly pear, yuccas, Japanese honeysuckle, pyracantha, red hot poker, grape hyacinth, west-facing iris, bouncing Bess, Jupiter’s beard, large-leaved soapwort, sea pink, snapdragon, catmint center, white sweet clover, sweet pea, hollyhock, oriental poppy, blue flax, Saint John’s wort, yellow evening primrose, vinca, alfilerillo, gypsum phacelia, tumble mustard, snakeweed, dandelion, anthemis, coreopsis, perky Sue, Shasta daisy, black-eyed Susan, strap leaf aster leaves; June, pampas, brome, cheat and base of needle grasses; young chamisa branches.

What’s grey, blue-grey or grey-green: Piñon, four-winged salt bush, buddleia, pinks, snow-in-summer, loco weed, yellow alyssum, stick leaf, western stickseed, winterfat, Silver King artemisia, golden hairy aster leaves.

What’s red: Purple-leafed plum, privet, barberry, cholla, small-leaved soapwort, beards tongues, hartweig and pink evening primroses, coral bells leaves.

What’s yellow/turning yellow: Apache plume, golden spur columbine leaves; globe and weeping willow branches.

What’s blooming inside: Aptenia, asparagus fern.

Animal sightings: Something has tunneled into the roots of the cholla.

Weather: Winds during week, coldest morning so far yesterday; last rain 10/21/10; 10:03 hours of daylight today.

Weekly update: It’s much easier to learn things as a child. You simply absorb impressions, year after year. By the time, you want to consciously understand or explain something, you already have a great reserve of information. No research is needed.

As an adult, you’re painfully conscious of your ignorance when you encounter an unfamiliar flower, and terribly aware it will take years of observation to know it the way you do a dandelion.

As a child, time doesn’t exist, life is perennial. You know you’ll know when you want to know. As an adult, you come to think of yourself as an annual. Any new knowledge is gained in a race against the seasons.

I may have seen a gypsum phacelia on my land in 1995. I never saw it again, and my collection of books on southwestern plants was small, the internet unavailable. The closest species in Peterson’s Southwestern and Texas Wildflowers was a salt heliotrope which is characterized by "tiny flowers in long, curved sprays."

Last May I saw something lavender blooming in a rounded cluster under a chamisa in the arroyo with five petals and darker purple stamens that extended so far they resembled whiskers. I decided it must be a type of phacelia, not because I had any idea what a phacelia was, but because it looked a little like the picture of a Phacelia tanacetifolia in the Wildseed catalog.

A month later I saw them again. The stems were longer, and the leaves dirtier. On some, the flowering stalks had branched with brown receptacles packed along one side of reddish veins rather like fuzzy, caterpillar segments. Single flowers, like antennae, were open at the tops where the stems were still uncoiling; the lower leaves yellow or brown. A small bee was mining one.

I went back to the bookshelf. This time I decided it was a Phacelia integrifolia, based on Geyata. Ajilvsgi’s guide to Texas wildflowers. She said it grew on rocky or sandy soils, especially limestone ones, in northern and western parts of the state. Others emphasize its proclivity for gypsum hills.

I wasn’t sure, of course. Her photograph showed narrow, furled leaves and darker colored flowers. The leaves in the arroyo were brighter green, undulating with scalloped edges as if they were made of humped segments joined along the sides, much like the five petals of the flowers were welded into a tube.

But it was a name, enough to label photographs. Before there was a name, there was either the meaningless "Blue E" or allusive comments like "the florets resemble the faded, artificial flower corsages I was given to wear at Easter." Many who know the name still resort to metaphors to call it scorpion tail.

The next week the plants were turning brown. No flowers were left by mid-July. I saw nothing more until late September when I spotted something that looked like a basal rosette. But again, I wasn’t sure.

This year I knew more. I knew where to look. They’d been growing in the shade between the Russian olive and some chamisa on the slightly elevated second bottom stabilized by the shrubs where the waters from the arroyo don’t usually flow.

I saw a single plant the first of March growing in the open between cracks in the sand. Again it was a bit dirty. Ajilvsgi said the leaves have glandular hairs, which make them sticky.

A child wouldn’t have needed to read that. However, when I saw the trapped grains of sand, my childhood memories warned me it could be unpleasant to touch. My accumulated knowledge inhibited direct learning, predisposed me to accept the word of others that they have a tap root; dark, uncorrugated seeds, and smell bad.

A month later there were a number of plants, some growing in the gravel that washed out from the sides of the arroyo, some among the debris under the chamisa. The thick, velvety leaves were beginning to point upward.

The first week of May stems were forming with alternating leaves. I could see some bud clusters, still green as the stalks. The first flowers were visible the next weekend, recessed into their cups like borages.

It would seem I’d returned to the point I entered the life cycle last summer, only I’d forgotten almost everything I’d seen. On return trips, I watched with amazement as the stems extended into ropes with purple eyes on their tips, then saw the candelabra turn brown and nearly disappear by the first of July.

Not all was repetition. The first of July I also saw new growth around the remains of dead plants. I began to see new, green leafed branches on plants dominated by browning, still blooming stems. The first of August, there were new plants ready to bloom.

I saw no more. I hurt my foot and couldn’t walk out to the arroyo while it healed.

Two weeks ago I saw a new seedling, much as I had last year. I suddenly realized, these plants must be annuals, and what I’d noticed this August wasn’t the revived growth of a heat-shy perennial, but another generation that had emerged later in the season than the first.

Now I needed to know more. Were integrifolia annuals, or were these lavender flowers some other plant altogether?

I doubted, became uneasy. The plant isn’t even mentioned in the standard reference on New Mexico flowers. Elmer Wooten and Paul Standley list Phacelia corrugata as the species found in Española in the early twentieth century. Researchers with the Smithsonian mentioned the same plant on Santa Clara land in the same years, only they described it as "a fern species."

Duane Atwood says confidently that corrugata has deep blue flowers with yellow anthers, and only grows in the four corners region. However, it is the one member of the waterleaf family he explicitly mentions as a winter annual that produces a small rosette in the fall that "continues to grow during the warm periods of the winter months." Integrifolia is simply described as an annual that blooms from March to mid-September, but is shown following the Rio Grande into México.

He adds that there has been "considerable confusion" over the identity of integrifolia, caused in part by herbarium specimens that change as they dry, and in part by authoritative writers who amplify the mistakes of their eminent predecessors. He suggests more fieldwork is needed.

Fieldwork’s a professional euphemism for reverting to childhood habits of watching. A team from the University of New Mexico spent nine years looking at plants in the Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge in Socorro County before noting integrifolia is primarily an early spring flower whose growth is limited by winter moisture. Another, smaller generation blooms in summer that depends on summer moisture and has a more compressed life cycle.

In southwestern Colorado in 2007, Al Schneider suggested some years produce more plants than others. He noted, "In good spring flowering years, such as 2003 and 2005, thousands of plants color rocky/sandy flats and slopes in lavender-blue."

I can’t be sure the plant growing in the arroyo is an integrifolia, but it looks like Schneider’s pictures.

I won’t know for a while if the little phacelia can only grow in that one shady, protected place in the arroyo, or if chance dropped seeds there and they will spread with the seasons. It could be what I saw this summer was the fluorescence of a good year, or it may simply have been the next year in the expansion of a colony. I won’t know until we, the plants and I, have coexisted longer.

Learning never stops. Life becomes constant fieldwork.

Ajilvsgi, Geyata. Wildflowers of Texas, 1984.

Atwood, N. Duane. "A Revision of the Phacelia Crenulatae Group (Hydrophyllaceae) for North America," The Great Basin Naturalist 35:127-190:1975.

Peterson Field Guide. Southwestern and Texas Wildflowers, by Theodore F. Niehaus with illustrations by Charles L. Ripper and Virginia Savage.

Robbins, William Wilfred, John Peabody Harrington, and Barbara Friere-Marreco. Ethnobotany of the Tewa Indians, 1916.

Schneider, Al. Southwest Colorado Wildflowers, Ferns and Trees website pages for "Hydrophyllaceae" and "Phacelia integrifolia," 2007; he has the best pictures.

Wildseed Farms. Wildflower Reference Guide and Seed Catalog, 2010.

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

Xia, Yang, Douglas I. Moore, Scott L. Collins, and Esteban H. Muldavin. "Aboveground Production and Species Richness of Annuals in Chihuahuan Desert Grassland and Shrubland Communities," Journal of Arid Environments 24:378-385:2010.

Photograph: Young gypsum phacelias, already sticky, growing in the litter near a Russian olive, 26 November 2010.

Sunday, November 21, 2010


What’s happening: Purple aster flowers still look and feel alive; some cottonwoods bare, many covered with dead leaves while mine still has some leathery, faded green ones; apple orchards nearly bare, but one branch is covered in green leaves; my Russian olive’s nearly bare, but most have dead leaves still dangling; one trunk on my neighbor’s globe willow's bare, the other’s still mantled; outer catmint leaves dead, but inner ones still green; saltbush, winterfat, chamisa, broom senecio dropping seeds.

What’s still green: Arborvitae, juniper and other evergreens, Lady Banks, hybrid tea and floribunda roses, prickly pear, yuccas, Japanese honeysuckle, pyracantha, red hot poker, grape hyacinth, west-facing iris, bouncing Bess, beardtongues, Jupiter’s beard, large-leaved soapwort, sea pink, snapdragon, salvias, catmint, alfalfa, white sweet and purple clovers, sweet pea, oxalis, hollyhock, winecup, oriental poppy, blue flax, Saint John’s wort, yellow evening primrose, vinca, alfilerillo, tumble mustard, pigweed, snakeweed, dandelion, Mexican hat, anthemis, coreopsis, perky Sue, Shasta daisy, black-eyed Susan, strap leaf aster, June, pampas, brome, needle and cheat grasses.

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

What’s red/turning red: Purple-leafed plum, raspberries, privet, barberry, cholla, small-leaved soapwort, pink evening primrose, coral bells.

What’s yellow/turning yellow: Apache plume, golden spur columbine.

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

Animal sightings: Bird bang on the house last Sunday, probably a woodpecker but it flew away before I could tell.

Weather: Morning temperatures are either around freezing or below 20; last rain 10/21/10; 10:15 hours of daylight today.

Weekly update: Societies cultivate plants that best dramatize their virtues.

One I associate with my childhood in a 1950's Michigan small town is my next-door neighbor’s privet hedge. To install it, Chuck dug a trench around the property to ensure each shrub had exactly the same root area, each would be spaced precisely on centers. Every plant was kept pruned to the same height and width; no individuality was allowed.

The great enemy of the time was the non-conformist, the parent or shrub owner too careless to pay attention, a person like my next door neighbor in Oakland County in 1985 who emphasized the Eve or evil in her name.

My first conversation with Evelyn began when I heard a voice. I was beckoned to a small, high window in a dark brick, 1920's house hidden behind an 8' tree with branches nearly to the ground. I never found out if she had lived long in the house or had inherited that protective plant. Soon after, she was bludgeoned to death by her youngest son, home on leave from the state mental institution.

I later decided the tree was a privet gone native. It bore small, white flowers, which some say have an unpleasant smell, and produced dark fruit, which birds eat, but horses shouldn’t. No flowers ever appeared on Chuck’s hedge, no deceitful beauty, no dangerous fertility.

Since no one, not even a fairy tale witch, would plant a single privet so close to a house and property line that it scraped the walls and reached for sun into the yard of the former Methodist manse, I decided the tree must have begun life as the root stock for a lilac, a closely related member of the olive family.

In the early 1930's, Kenneth Chester found that privets were stronger than the lilacs that were grafted onto them. The hope of growers was that the scions would put down their own roots and dismiss their wet nurses. However, if the graft was poorly done, then in five or so years the privet would choke the lilac to create space for itself, much like that wayward son had done.

Wild plants dulled into stupefaction by small town life provoke an atavistic urge to release them. I wanted to plant a privet and see if, indeed, it could become a tree like Evelyn’s.

The first potted ones I bought, in the local hardware, were labeled Ligustrum texanum. They failed. At first I thought it was because I’d put them in places they couldn’t survive. Then I realized that, despite the number in the store, I hadn’t seen them growing anywhere in the area. Texas is a large state: Houston gets more than twice the annual rain as Abilene, which gets twice what we receive. I supposed more people have hedges in the east.

I found a variety in a mail order catalog called Amur River, and thought that river marks the northeast boundary between China and Russia. Siberian elm, Siberian pea tree, Siberian catmint. It was worth a try.

They failed. However, it could have been the condition of the bare roots when I got them, and not the variety.

I looked in other catalogs, but all they offered was Cheyenne. I thought, Wyoming’s north of here, zone 5. Only, they turned out to be from Sarajevo, grown from seed brought back by Edgar Anderson in 1934.

Today, it might be considered politically correct to plant a refugee from the Serbian wars, but in the 1950's, it would have been treated as a displaced person, kept in a camp until it could be verified.

And, indeed that’s what happened to the seed. It was taken to the Cheyenne Horticultural Field Station where it was observed. The federal government didn’t release the grey saplings to the public until 1965, just when the children of the 50's were set to rebel. Soon after, the center became a victim of nativist environmentalism, its land redirected to the restoration of lost grasslands.

All along, I thought a privet’s a privet. But, I was wrong. Chuck and Evelyn’s shrub’s the only one that’s not exclusively from Asia. Ligustrum vulgare also has the widest distribution of the genus, ranging from the Caucasus north and west to southern Norway. The leathery, oval leaves were originally valued because they remained green during mild winters, then because they tolerated urban pollution.

In England, the dense branches go wild on gravelly, moist soils and chalk. In this country, cuttings and seedlings grow rapidly in most states east of the Mississippi and scattered points west, in some cases invading neighboring woodlands. In 2000, Brady Allred saw them along the banks of the Pecos in San Miguel county.

Texas privet’s a shorter, more compact cultivar of Ligustrum japonica, native to western Honshu, Kyushu, Shikoku, southern Korea and Taiwan. In this country, it’s not reliably hardy outside zone 7 and is primarily grown in the south. The only places the dark green, waxy leafed shrub has naturalized in Texas are Galveston, Corpus Christi and Austin.

Amurense is actually a subspecies of Ligustrum obtusifolium that grows along mountain streams and gullies of northeastern China. In this country, the bright green leaves open north of japonica, from the southern border states into New England. It can’t handle the winters of northern Nevada.

Cheyenne is a zone 4 vulgare selection that was noticed by Anderson because it grew in an unusually cold, dry location. The bitter-tasting, astringent leaves begin turning burgundy when the weather gets cold, this year just after the first freeze of late October, and eventually disappear.

Three of the five bare roots I planted in 2007 have survived, although so far they’re mainly short vertical stems of no particular character. Until they get taller, they’re free to develop as they will, their awkward age hidden by the prairie grass growing along the drive.

They don’t yet look as good as either the superintended plants of Chuck or the neglected one of Evelyn, but they have the liberty to become either, to follow their DNA where it leads.

Allred, Brady. Item in "New Plant Distribution Records," The New Mexico Botanist, 11 August 2000.

Chester, K. S. "Graft-blight; A Disease of Lilac Related to the Employment of Certain Understocks in Propagation," Arnold Arboretum Journal 12:79-146:1931, described by Karl Sax in "Rootstock for Lilacs," Arnoldia 10:57-60:1950.

Mills, Linn and Dick Post. Nevada Gardener's Guide, 2005.

Skogerboe, Scott T. "Ornamental Plantings Cross Referenced January 30, 1994," Cheyenne Botanic Gardens website, on Cheyenne field station.

Smith, W. W. "Ligustrum obtusifolium subsp. suave (Kitagawa) Kitagawa," efloras Flora of China website.

Sowerby, James and James Edward Smith. English Botany, 1800.

United States Department of Agriculture. Agricultural Research Service. Germplasm Resources Information Network. Entries for Ligustrum japonicum Thunb. and Ligustrum obtusifolium Siebold & Zucc. subsp. suave (Kitag.) Kitag., available on-line.

_____. Natural Resources Conservation Service. Plant profiles for Ligustrum amurense Carrière, Ligustrum japonica Thunb., and Ligustrum vulgare L., available on-line.

Photograph: Cheyenne Privet, 20 November 2010.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Japanese Barberry

What’s blooming: Purple aster; peach twigs have larger fuzzy, silvery buds.

What’s still green: Arborvitae, juniper and other evergreens, Siberian elms at lower level, globe willow, apples, Lady Banks, hybrid tea and floribunda roses, prickly pear, yuccas, Japanese honeysuckle, pyracantha, red hot poker, grape hyacinth, west-facing iris, bouncing Bess, beardtongues, Jupiter’s beard, large-leaved soapwort, sea pink, snapdragon, salvias, catmints, alfalfa, white sweet and purple clovers, sweet pea, oxalis, hollyhock, winecup, oriental poppy, basal blue flax leaves, baptisia has some black edges, bindweed, Saint John’s wort, yellow evening primrose, vinca, alfilerillo, stick leaf, tumble mustard, pigweed, snakeweed, dandelion, Mexican hat, purple coneflower, anthemis, coreopsis, perky Sue, Shasta daisy, black-eyed Susan, June, pampas, brome, needle and cheat grasses.

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

What’s red/turning red: Purple-leaved plum, raspberries, privet, barberry, cholla, small-leaved soapwort, pink evening primrose, coral bells, tansy.

What’s yellow/turning yellow: Cottonwood still have live leaves near bottom, weeping willow, Apache plume, Rumanian sage, golden spur columbine, lady bells.

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

Animal sightings: Small birds foraging in drive.

Weather: Morning temperatures below 20 killed whatever wasn’t winterized, leaving trees with dead brown canopies; last rain 10/21/10; 10:18 hours of daylight today.

Weekly update: Japanese barberry is one of those plants I disliked as a child.

I knew the rounded purple leaves were crisp, that if you folded them they broke cleanly, exposing light-colored edges. You could fold and refold them, and continue to get the same effect.

I also learned early if you bit into one it was bitter.

When I snapped the red-skinned berries in half, their egg shapes were filled with something that looked like hard-boiled yoke. So far as I remember, I never tasted one.

Actually, the ripe fruits were probably safer to eat than the leaves which contain berberine, an isoquinoline alkaloid used as by the Chinese as a yellow dye and a cooling agent to treat fevers. The chemical, usually extracted from the bark, can be toxic in high concentrations.

While the individual parts were worthy of exploration, the whole plant was not. My mother had two hedges, one on each side of the property, intended to keep people from taking short cuts across our corner lot. She planted prickly, purple-flowered moss phlox underneath, a color combination that sounds quite appealing in words, but wasn’t, at least to this child.

The deciduous shrubs always seemed somehow meager. The furrowed brown stalks have no leaves, only thorns. At each spine junction, a small stem curves out with one or more alternating, smooth edged leaves. In 1917, Hans Koehler told readers of Country Life the dead wood was best left alone because removing it left a "sorry, naked looking thing."

Eventually I escaped to college, to jobs, to other towns and states, and never again thought about barberry. Even though it’s been colonizing farmland that reverted to forests in New Jersey, I don’t remember seeing any shrubs there in the late 1970's.

Then I returned to Michigan, and there was Japanese barberry, waiting. This time it was a green leaved form in a hedge down the street. I don’t remember how I knew it was a barberry, perhaps the leaf texture. The plants were fuller than my mother’s, but otherwise even more nondescript. That is until fall, when they turned brilliant orange, the best of all the autumn colors.

Then, I thought there might be a reason for barberry after all. Only, the green leaved species, Berberis thunbergii, is rarely sold. It was replaced by its burgundy-leaved spawn, altapurpurea, after the Renault Nursery released it in Orleans in 1913. Now all that’s commonly sold in the local stores is a dwarf developed by Van Eyck in Boskoop in the depths of the occupation of the second world war.

One reason the red is more available, beyond the predilection of landscaper designers for plants with varied foliage, is the green is seen as more invasive. However, that may be deceptive. In greenhouse conditions, 14% of germinated altapurpurea seedlings revert to green; in the wild, 50% of the survivors have green leaves.

The light-reflecting red is a defense against bright sun and more necessary in open meadows than forests. Young leaves open green, then develop their darker color. The more light a plant receives, the better the color.

Japanese barberry tolerates soils with pH’s ranging from 5.5 to 7.2, but is mentioned more from alkaline areas. Tatemi Shimizu found reports it grows on exposed limestone or limestone soils on mountains and beneath cliffs on Honshu, on mountains and limestone plateaus on Shokoku, and on mountains on Khyshu island.

The northeast was covered by ice in the last glacial advance. The subsequent vegetation included coniferous forests and broad-leaved evergreens that thrive on acidic soil. Much of the complaint has been that, when farms were abandoned, they did not revert to that prelapsarian landscape, but instead fostered exotics.

People forget. Farming changes the land. Men use vegetation to clear the sites most likely to support crops. They add nitrogen and phosphorus. Earth worms eat dead matter, moving it from the surface into the soil where it sweetens the pH. Soil fertility’s maintained to feed people living in cities.

The mere presence of earth worms aerating the soil has been triggering anxiety since 1994 when John Reynolds noted the southern advance of the Wisconsin glacier coincided with the northern boundary of native worms. Worms were not part of that native northeast vegetation. Any worms in the north east are aliens with European ancestors who are subverting the indigenous forests.

There were calls to ban the shrub. The government had begun eradicating another barberry species, vulgaris, in 1918 because it was an alternate host to a wheat fungus. Why not this one?

It attracts foreign worms. White-tailed deer won’t eat it. It takes advantage of early spring light to do most of its growing before the leafy canopy forms. Its larger, shallow root masses can survive with fewer nutrients.

Horticulturalists rallied to defend a plant that brings in so much revenue to their constituents, some five million in retail sales in Connecticut alone. Scientists at the local ag school found little genetic evidence that altapurpurea had contributed to the feral population in southern New England in 2008. They also noted Crimson Pygmy produced fewer six-petaled yellow flowers that turned into fertile seeds, and when the rough-textured seeds did germinate, the seedlings were less vigorous than other cultivars.

And so, when I wanted to try barberry for fall color, I was stuck with Crimson Pygmy. In autumn, the green barberry slows its photosynthesis so the chlorophyll disappears, revealing the anthocyanin pigments.

Apparently, when the red leaved variety prepares for winter, the anthocyanins themselves fade away, with the lower leaves turning tangerine first, while the upper ones retain some maroon overtones. Unfortunately, all the spots and blemishes also become prominent.

This week’s cold temperatures changed nothing. Like those from my childhood, dwarf barberries are best known in their parts.

D’Appollonio, Jennifer. Regeneration Strategies of Japanese Barberry (Berberis thunbergii) in Coastal Forests of Maine, 1997, on farm land.

Koehler, Hans J. "Shrubs in the Garden Picture," Country Life in America, March 1917.

Lubell, Jessica D. and Mark H. Brand. "Germination, Growth and Survival of Berberis thunbergii DC. (Berberidaceae) and Berberis thunbergii var. atropurpurea in Five Natural Environments," accepted for publication by Biological Invasions in 2010, available on-line.

_____, _____ and Jonathan M. Lehrer, "AFLP Identification of Berberis thunbegii Cultivars, Inter-Specific Hybrids and Their Parental Species," Journal of Horticultural Science and Biotechnology 83:55-63:2008.

_____, _____, _____ and Kent E. Holsinger. "Detecting the Influence of Ornamental Berberis thunbergii var. atropurpurea in Invasive Populations of Berberis thunbergii (Berberidaceae) using AFLP," American Journal of Botany 95:700-705:2008.

Reynolds, J. W. "The Distribution of the Earthworms (Oligochaeta) of Indiana: a Case for the Post Quaternary Introduction Theory for Megadrile Migration in North America," Megadrilogica 5:13-32:1994.

Shimizu, Tatemi. "Studies on the Limestone Flora of Japan and Taiwan," Faculty of Textile Science and Technology, Shinshu University, Journal series A, 11:1-105:1963.

Stuart, George Arthur. Chinese Materia Medica, 1911, reprinted by Gordon Press, 1977; revision of Frederick Porter Smith’s 1871 translation of Pen T’sao Kan Mu, a 1578 herbal by Hubei physician and naturalist, Li Shi Zhen.

Photograph: Crimson Pygmy barberry, 7 November 2010.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Tahoka Daisy

What’s blooming: Snapdragon, large-leaf globemallow, chrysanthemums, blanket flower, áñil del muerto, tahoka daisy, gum weed, purple, heath and golden hairy asters; Virginia creeper and pyracantha still have berries; new seed head on dandelion; hollyhock capsules opening to release seeds; broom senecio and chamisa releasing seeds; black grama grass seed heads curving.

What’s still green: Arborvitae, juniper and other evergreens, Siberian elm, globe willow, apples, roses, Willamette raspberry, forsythia, privet, Japanese honeysuckle, pyracantha, cholla, prickly pear, yuccas, red hot poker, hostas, grape hyacinth, west-facing iris, hollyhock, winecup, oriental poppy, St. John’s wort, vinca, bindweed, oxalis, baptisia, purple and white sweet clovers, alfalfa, sweet pea, catmint, pink salvia, coral and red beardtongues, soapworts, Jupiter’s beard, sea pink, golden spur columbine, scarlet flax, Hartweg, yellow and pink evening primroses, tomatillo, snakeweed, perky Sue, Shasta daisy, blanket flower, coreopsis, Mexican hat, black-eyed Susan, anthemis, Mönch asters, yarrow, dandelion, pampas, brome, and cheat grasses, base of needle grass; new growth on stick leaf, alfilerillo and tumble mustard; dead leaves still on trees.

What’s grey, blue-grey or grey-green: Piñon, four-winged salt bush, buddleia, pinks, snow-in-summer, yellow alyssum, California poppies, donkey tail spurge, winterfat, chamisa, Silver King artemisia, chocolate flower; new growth on loco weed; Russian olive dropping leaves.

What’s turned/turning red: Red leaved plum, sand cherries, Bradford pear, spirea, snowball, barberry, coral bells, purple beardtongue, prostrate knotweed, lambs quarter, goldenrod leaves; Russian thistle stems.

What’s turned/turning yellow: Cottonwood, tamarix, weeping willow, apricot, rugosa and pasture roses, Apache plume, lilacs, beauty bush, garlic chives, Autumn Joy sedum, lady bells, bouncing Bess, David phlox, Rumanian sage, blue flax, purple ice plant, tansy, Maximilian sunflower, purple coneflowers, June grass; peach and caryopteris dropping leaves.

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

Animal sightings: Rabbit, cabbage and sulfur butterflies, wasps, grasshoppers, carpenter and small red ants have new hills in asphalt someone dumped around the corner.

Weather: Temperatures below freezing most mornings; snow visible in Sangre de Cristo; last rain 10/21/10; 10:34 hours of daylight today.

Weekly update: Tahoka daisies are plains wild flowers that range from Alberta down into central Mexico, with their greatest concentration in west Texas, eastern New Mexico and nearby Oklahoma.

The showy composite blooms all summer, and thus was easily noticed by men documenting the flora of North America in the nineteenth century. Their collections were often analyzed by others who recorded little about growing conditions. Aimé Bonpland collected Machaeranthera tanaecetifolia in central Mexico when he was there with Alexander von Humboldt in 1803 and 1804. He took 60,000 specimens back to Europe which Carl Kunth cataloged.

Thomas Nuttall noticed them when he was exploring the west in the 1830's, but didn’t publish his findings until 1841. John Torrey collected them on an expedition looking for the best rail route through the west in the 1850's, but they weren’t included in the list of plants by location made by Thomas Antisell. Charles Parry led two easterners on a collecting expedition in the Rockies in 1862 where they found 600 species that were described by Asa Gray the next year.

Early in the twentieth century, Elmer Wooten and Paul Standley claimed they could be found on sandy soil throughout New Mexico “at lower altitudes.” Today the USDA map shows them growing in most counties in the state except those immediately east of the northern Sangre de Cristo and those east and west of Albuquerque.

For being so widespread, they don’t seem to like this area very much. It may be too dry or too hot. Gray says the taproots like “moist ground.” Ann Reilly warns gardeners they prefer “cool climates.” The ones I saw blooming last Sunday were either growing in the bottom of the big arroyo or along the side of a road shaded by cottonwoods that leads to the narrow arroyo.

They got their common name when Mrs. Myrick persuaded an Iowa seed company to offer seeds in the 1920's. She lived in Lubbock, Texas, and associated them with nearby Tahoka, an atypical staked plains town built on the shores of a permanent lake fed by three springs.

Many say they like disturbed ground. When Effie Alley first saw them at the new Tahoka Lake Ranch in 1889, the area had already been grazed by buffalo and sheep. The ones in my yard stick to shaded areas along the edge of a gravel drive, and don’t migrate into the nearby irrigated garden soil.

According to Reilly the flat seeds, shaped like ecru-colored sunflower kernels, need two weeks of wet cold, before they can be moved into a medium that’s kept at 70 degrees for 25 to 30 days. When they meet those conditions here varies by year: in 2007 I noticed some early leaves in mid March; last year it was the middle of May.

When they first break ground, the seedlings look like tansy mustard, a bit grey with narrow leaves that appear dissected. When you look closely, you see a central corridor with narrow, smooth edged segments curving away. At the tip is a tiny spine that can only be seen, but not felt. If you try to pick the leaves to look, the stem resists and your fingers smell.

In a few weeks they turn bright green. The central stem produces multiple branches which soon form a short, rounded, bush. My largest this year grew 29" high and spread 3' at the top. The base of the primary stalk was half an inch across, while the four larger branches, which diverged about 4.5" from the soil, grew to a quarter inch across. Each branch first sprouted thin twigs that held only leaves, then branched and rebranched until buds appeared at the tips of every leafy branch, often at the end of Y’s.

Blooming is as variable as germination. I’ve seen them the middle May, and haven’t noticed them until July. However, the tight buds don’t really unfold until after the monsoons. Even then, the terminal flowers they don’t all open flat at once. More often, the plant is covered with shuttlecocks of exterior petals lost in ferny foliage.

The 15 to 25 ray flowers apparently exist only to make pollen and attract insects. Bees produce a “dark honey resembling something very much like molasses in both taste and smell” when they visit the corollas.

The tubular yellow disk flowers, with their five points, are more important. They’re the ones that survive as sandy-white feathery plumes, the pappi, above the seeds. Around September 22 this year, the bushes were covered with white balls that captured light like crystal ornaments.

Now the seeds are being released to the wind, leaving white cushions where receptacles had held the petals. Fringes of dead bracts hang down. The reddish stems have turned to wood. Last week they began breaking at the ground, further scattering the seed’s parachutes.

While the annual has signaled the completion of its life cycle with those pockmarked cushions, not all were killed by last week’s frost. Some continue to produce a few, tentative flowers to remind passers-by of what was and will be again when the weather’s as favorable as this year.

Gray, Asa. “Enumeration of the Species of Plants Collected by Dr. C. C. Parry, and Messrs. Elihu Hall and J. P. Harbour, during the Summer and Autumn of 1862, on and near the Rocky Mountains, in Colorado Territory, lat. 39°-41°,” Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia Proceedings 15:55-80:1863.

_____ and Sereno Watson. Synoptical Flora of North America: Gamopetalae, 1884; on moist ground.

Hill, Frank P. and Pat Hill Jacobs. Grassroots Upside Down: A History of Lynn County, quoted on Tahoka, Texas, website, on Tahoka daisy.

Kunth, Carl Sigismund. Nova Genera et Species Plantarum quas in Peregrinatione ad Plagam Aequinoctialem Orbis Novi Collegerunt Bonpland et Humboldt 4:95:1820.

Nuttall, Thomas. “Descriptions of New Species and Genera of Plants in the Natural Order of the Compositae, Collected in a Tour Across the Continent to the Pacific, a Residence in Oregon and a Visit to the Sandwich Islands and Upper California, During the Years 1834 and 1835,” American Philosophical Society Transactions 7:283-454:1841.

Reilly, Ann. Park’s Success with Seeds, 1978.

Scribner, David D. “Honey Bee FAQs,” Niche Development website, 2007; same words appear on other web sites.

Torrey, John. Botanical Report from the Explorations and Surveys for a Railroad Route from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean project, 1856; includes table by Thomas Antisell.

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

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

Photograph: Tahoka daisy with seed head growing along my drive on the north side of a wooden fence, 31 October 2010; a bare receptacle and bracts can be seen behind them.