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.

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