Sunday, January 30, 2011

Creeping Mahonia

What’s happening: Globe willow branches look browner while upper reaches of cottonwoods look whiter.

What’s still green: Evergreens, yuccas, Japanese honeysuckle, grape hyacinth, sea pink, Jupiter’s beard, stickseed, gypsum phacelia, golden spur columbine, pink primrose, blue flax, vinca, young snakeweed, broom senecio, strap leaf aster, chrysanthemum leaves; young chamisa stems.

What’s grey, blue-grey or grey-green: Piñon, four-winged salt bush, snow-in-summer, stickleaf, winterfat, golden hairy aster leaves.

What’s red/turning red: Cholla, beardtongue, Madonna lily, heath aster leaves; rose stems.

What’s yellow/turning yellow: Globe and weeping willow branches.

What’s blooming inside: Aptenia, Christmas cactus, zonal geranium.

Animal sightings: One radio station is advertising feed for jays and woodpeckers. Unless one has large land holdings left to nature, who ever would want those birds around the house and yard?

Weather: Morning temperatures usually in the low 20's; last snow 12/30/10; 9:27 hours of daylight today.

Weekly update: Winter’s a time of discovery. Since Adam, leaves have provided privacy. When they fall, the unexpected ‘s revealed.

Two weeks ago I noticed three burgundy-colored holly leaves growing under a ramp where they’d been hidden behind a raspberry. Those leaves had disintegrated. The nearby camouflaging vegetation was gone. Creeping mahonia stood exposed to the morning sun.

The ground hugging member of the barberry family is native to shady parts of the Rocky mountains from northern México into Canada. In New Mexico, the broadleaf evergreen grows between 8,000 and 10,000' with Douglas fir and white fir, where precipitation averages 25" a year. In areas too cold for white fir, Berberis repens grows with Douglas fir and Gambel oak, where the mean annual air temperature is 41 degrees and the soil frigid. Early in the twentieth century, it was reported in the Santa Fe, Las Vegas and Sandia mountains as well as up at Chama.

The only native peoples who used the berberine containing plant were the Navajo. However, Leonora Curtin found Spanish-speaking people boiled yerba de la sangre leaves to treat anemia and induce menstruation. No one mentioned eating the blue berries, which are bitter until chilled by frost.

I doubt the single unbranched stem was a native volunteer. While an established plant can tolerate a wide range of soils, temperatures and rain levels, it seems less tolerant of drought or sun at lower altitudes, where it tends to grow only on north facing slopes, and doesn’t like the drying winds of late winter.

I’m probably responsible for its appearance. I planted four grape holly seedlings in April of 2006 in that area. Two survived the year to emerge the following March, but disappeared in May with the spring moisture. They were sold by Hardy Boys, who provide seed-grown bedding plants to local stores. I assume this yellow-wooded shrub may have come from some dormant seed in one of the pots.

In ideal laboratory conditions on wet paper, Perry Plummer’s team found seeds required 30 days at 34 degrees, 60 days at 70, and then more time at 34. After more than six months (196 days) of added cold, 62% of the seeds germinated. When temperatures were returned to 70, another 12% sprouted.

Fire may produce similar results. Buried seeds can survive cold soils for years without losing viability. Roger Kjelgren found he could germinate pips by treating them with hot water before chilling them for 60 days.

In contrast, Ken Fern was able to sprout seeds in England within six weeks when he removed them from their waxy wrappers before they were fully ripened, that is after the embryos had developed but before the seed cases had dried. In Utah, Richard Stevens and Kent Jorgensen only had 25% of their fresh seed germinate.

Black bears, which inhabit the mixed conifer forests of the Jemez and Sangre de Cristo, gulp the fruit as soon as it’s available in summer, probably before the seed ripens. The seeds pass through unbroken, but germinate better than ones given the usual warm and cold treatments. Janene Auger’s group suspects that digestion may replace the heat phase so they can sprout the following spring after the cold of winter.

Bears are mobile creatures. Some distance may exist between where they forage for food or water and where they live under or in rocks and trees. Creeping mahonia does best in dappled shade, but is often the only plant growing under mature canopies on rocky or gravelly soil where it rarely blooms. In such cases, it can reproduce from new shoots emerging from underground rhizomes or can be renewed by bear droppings.

In early spring, six-petaled yellow flowers appear in clusters towards the ends of stems which get some sun, especially those near streams where bears drink. The leathery leaves respond to the brighter light by producing more red anthocyanin pigments in their outer cells that scavenge excess oxygen radicals.

When the leaves turn color in fall, the amount of red pigment in exposed leaves doubles while the photosynthesis rate decreases and the leaves begin retaining higher levels of certain xanthophyll pigments to block light. Leaves of plants in shade remain unchanged when temperatures drop.

I don’t know if the stoloniferous roots are established enough to survive this dry winter. So far we’ve had less than three inches of snow and the morning frost has been pulled more from plants and the ground than passing clouds. Two weeks ago, the edges of the leaves were brown. Last week, the dead band had increased. Yesterday, the black spot on one was larger.

It would have been better if the raspberry had managed to keep its parasol of dead leaves and let the mahonia hide in its shady wind shadow.

Auger, Janene, Susan E. Meyer and Hal L. Black. "Are American Black Bears (Ursus Americanus) Legitimate Seed Dispersers for Fleshy-Fruited Shrubs?," American Midland Naturalist 147:352-367:2002; they saw one male bear pass nearly 60,000 creeping mahonia seeds in 24 hours.

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

Fern, Ken. "Mahonia repens - (Lindl.) G. Don.," Plants for a Future website.

Grace, Stephen C., Barry A. Logan, and William W. Adams III. "Seasonal Differences in Foliar Content of Chlorogenic Acid, a Phenylpropanoid Antioxidant, in Mahonia repens," Plant, Cell & Environment 21:513–521:May 1998.

_____, _____, _____ and Barbara Demmig-Adams. "Seasonal Differences in Xanthophyll Cycle Characteristics and Antioxidants in Mahonia repens Growing in Different Light Environments," Oecologia 116:9-17:1998.

Kjelgren, Roger. "Mahonia repens," 2003, discussed by John K. Francis, "Mahonia repens (Lindl.) G. Don.," available on-line.

Moir, W. H.. "Alpine Tundra and Coniferous Forest" in William A. Dick-Peddie, New Mexico Vegetation, 1993.

Plummer, A. Perry, Donald R. Christensen, and Stephen B. Monsen. Restoring Big-Game Range in Utah, 1968.

Stevens, Richard and Kent R. Jorgensen. "Rangeland Species Germination through 25 and up to 40 Years of Warehouse Storage," Ecology and Management of Annual Rangelands, Proceedings, 1992, published 1994.

Wooten, Elmer Otis and Paul Carpenter Standley. Flora of New Mexico, 1915; also mentions the Black Range, Tunitcha, Carrizo, Zuni, and Sacramento mountains, as well as Dulce, Ramah, and Luna.

Photograph: Creeping mahonia, 29 January 2011.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Madonna Lily

What’s happening: Pampas grass plumes have been cut down. Men beginning to prune their apples. Grey smoke from burning was visible everywhere yesterday.

What’s still green: Moss, evergreens, yuccas, Japanese honeysuckle, grape hyacinth, sea pink, stickseed, gypsum phacelia, blue flax, vinca, snakeweed, broom senecio, strap leaf aster, chrysanthemum leaves; young chamisa stems; new growth on Jupiter’s beard.

What’s grey, blue-grey or grey-green: Piñon, four-winged salt bush, snow-in-summer, stickleaf, winterfat, golden hairy aster leaves.

What’s red/turning red: Cholla, beardtongue, heath aster leaves; rose stems.

What’s yellow/turning yellow: Globe and weeping willow branches; pyracantha leaves bronzed.

What’s blooming inside: Aptenia, Christmas cactus, zonal geranium.

Animal sightings: Saw the rabbit twice at the usual time in the morning when the temperature was just above freezing; another day it came out an hour later.

Weather: Morning temperatures generally a bit warmer; last snow 12/30/10; 9:12 hours of daylight today.

Weekly update: Madonna lilies are one of those short branches towards the top of the Lilium family tree reserved for nature’s experiments. Most of their annual rites we observe are events that make them a family outcast: they go dormant in August, put out overwintering leaves in fall, produce the only white, trumpet-shaped flowers in Europe in spring.

Lilies are thought to have emerged in the Himalayas and moved from there to Asia and North America. The red Lilium martagon, with its Turk’s cap flowers, moved to Europe where it became the most widely distributed of the lilies. Later, the orange colored bulbiflorum moved into central Europe. Then, the remaining European lilies, all reddish, moved west from the Caucasus.

Somewhere on the west coast of the Balkan peninsula Madonna lilies appeared, genetically close to two others known only in Turkey, ciliatum and akkusianum. They were valued by the Minoans of Crete at least 3700 years ago, and may have been spread through their trade network to nearby Anatolia and the Levant, where they still grow wild today.

Through time and cultivation the common white lilies, with three petals and three sepals, lost their ability to produce seed and were perpetuated by bulbs dug and replanted during the short period of dormancy. More efficiently, Turks and others now produce Lilium candidum commercially by growing bulbs from scale cuttings.

Bulb scales are the modified leaves that surround the central geophyte core that contains the makings of the stem and flower. Above ground, leaves interact with the sun and carbon dioxide to produce food for the roots; below the surface they slowly release stored carbohydrates to maintain the plant during difficult times.

Since leaf cells tend to be porous, stored carbohydrates are modified to make them less water soluble. In Madonna lilies, foods are stored as waterproof starch grains in the leaf scales which dissolve when the sap chemistry changes with cold temperatures. Mannose is the form of sugar released.

The autumnal basal leaves supplement the stored reserves. Other lilies react to the cold by producing stem roots between the top of the bulb and the soil line. Madonna lilies are the only ones to use the leaves that are now turning red from the cold in my yard. They’re also the only ones that need to be planted shallowly and left alone.

The new season’s stem leaves begin forming in the bulb axis in November, while the next season’s bulb begins forming in December. The flowers begin developing in February. By April, the bulb’s reserves are exhausted, and the roots and above ground parts take over sustaining the plant.

While the cultivated plant has become sterile, some of the wild subspecies are still able to produce seed, especially salonikae found on the northern coast of the Aegean. When the seeds are ripe, they germinate as soon as they’ve undergone a cold period. The low temperature isn’t required to break dormancy, as it is with many plants, but simply is required to stimulate growth.

Both seedlings and bulb cuttings produce flowers in two years, assuming optimal conditions. When weather is less favorable, the plants spend their resources producing new bulbs, not flowers and seeds.

I bought my Madonna lilies in 2003 from a usually reliable supplier. However, something went wrong and I didn’t receive them until mid-November. The bulbs must have been kept cool enough in transit so they continued their internal development using only the stored reserves, which, of course, are always strongest in new, nursery-grown stock.

Still, nothing appeared for five years. Then, a pair of leaves broke ground in April, and two dark stems emerged with leaves in June of 2008. Naturally, they didn’t flower and I planted something else in their place that fall. Who knows what leaves grew the following June. Certainly nothing appeared this spring.

The first sign the original bulbs had survived underground was the five sets of basal rosettes I noticed this past December. Almost every one has a secondary pair of leaves near the main rosette, suggesting there is both a large bulb underground and a smaller one that hasn’t yet built up enough critical reserves to stand alone.

If sufficient cold in October is all they’ve been waiting for, this could be their year to bloom. But first, the leaves and flower buds will have to survive the treachery of a New Mexico spring. There’s a reason they throve on the moist, limestone soils of England when they finally reached that island sometime before John Gerard describe them as common in 1597, and there’s a reason they’re a marginal survivor here.

A aberrant love for cold is only part of the story.

Notes:Dafni, Amots, Dan Cohen and Imanuel Noy-Mier. "Life-Cycle Variation in Geophytes," Missouri Botanical Garden Annals 68:652-660:1981.

Gerard, John. Gerard’s Herball, 1597; reprinted as Leaves from Gerard’s Herball, 1969, from a 1929 edition by Marcus Woodward.

Ikincil, Nursel, Christoph Oberprieler and Adil Güner. "On the Origin of European Lilies: Phylogenetic Analysis of Lilium Section Liriotypus (Liliaceae) Using Sequences of the Nuclear Ribosomal Transcribed Spacers," Willdenowia 36:647-656:2006; relies on Richard William Lighty, "Evolutionary Trends in Lilies," North American Lily Society Yearbook 31, 40-44:1983, for biogeography.

McRae, Edward A. Lilies: A Guide for Growers and Collectors, 1998.

Oldfield, Sara. Bulb Propagation and Trade, 1989.

Parkin, J. "On a Reserve Carbohydrate, which Produces Mannose, from the Bulb of Lilium," Cambridge Philosophical Society Mathematical Proceedings 11:139-142:1902.

Photograph: Madonna lily leaves, possibly from a daughter bulb, 22 January 2011.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Cheese Mallow

What’s happening: To take advantage of early ordering discounts, I have to request plants before I have any idea how many will be dead by spring. Someone was burning his weeds yesterday.

What’s still green: Moss, evergreens, yuccas, Japanese honeysuckle, pyracantha, grape hyacinth, snapdragon, sea pink, cheese, stickseed, gypsum phacelia, blue flax, vinca, snakeweed, broom senecio, strap leaf aster leaves; rose and young chamisa stems.

What’s grey, blue-grey or grey-green: Piñon, four-winged salt bush, snow-in-summer, stickleaf, winterfat, golden hairy aster leaves.

What’s red/turning red: Cholla, beardtongue leaves.

What’s yellow/turning yellow: Globe and weeping willow branches.

What’s blooming inside: Aptenia, Christmas cactus, zonal geranium.

Animal sightings: Animals are staying out of sight.

Weather: The snow has disappeared, leaving plants exposed to dry cold; last snow 12/30/10; 8:47 hours of daylight today.

Weekly update: The low growing, round-leafed cheese mallow can become a great nuisance in lawns, especially those where the grass isn’t yet dense.

Malva neglecta was introduced early into New England, then followed the Yankees west through the Northwest Territory. When it reached the Rockies, the annual spread southwest, moved into the intermontane region, and flourished in the Pacific states, all very different climates.

In this area, the weed appears sporadically, but hasn’t established itself. It’s always having to be reintroduced from somewhere else in the Española valley.

I saw an occasional dark green plant in my garden between 1996 and 2001, but nothing since. They probably came in the tires of the machines that leveled the land for the house and dug septic fields.

The tiny white flowers, with each petal marked by three darkened veins, were present in my neighbor’s yard in 2006 and 2007 where he kept his horses and their hay. Some hairy stems raised a few inches, but not as high as they can grow in more favorable conditions.

Then nothing until Christmas day when I saw two plants where they’d brought in heavy equipment and rocks last summer to stabilize the walls of the near arroyo. I hadn’t seen them the last time I walked that way, ten days before. Between we had our first snow, which put some moisture back into the soil, and daily temperatures that ranged between 10 and the mid-50's.

Indian researchers tested the tough-coated brown seeds in laboratory conditions, and found their ideal germination temperature was in the upper 60's. However, they could sprout when temperatures were as low as 50.

More important, Michigan State scientists found the flat seeds had to first undergo a six-week cold period to germinate. In 2000, Frank Telewski and Jan Zeevaart planted seeds preserved by James Beal in 1879 for a long term test of viability. The only ones that still sprouted were some Verbascum and a cheese.

That one isolated plant was able to reproduce itself. The five-petaled cup encloses ten styles which curl in different directions to fertilize the shorter stamens merged into a single column. In the wild, the nectar attracts various types of bees, small flies and an occasional cabbage butterfly.

It’s assumed the small mallow was introduced and spread accidentally, but it was more valued in the past when the mucilage in the sinewy taproots and leaves was used to improve the efficacy of other medicines. Also, the fact that it’s green in winter made it a valued vegetable, even to Pythagoras and the Greeks.

Last weekend, after the mornings of near zero temperatures, the fluted core leaves were still green and probably edible. However, the outer leaves had died.

When you see something growing out of season, you wonder how. Botanists have focused on the four proteins that control photosynthesis and transfer electrons between themselves. When temperatures drop, so does the rate of electronic energy and with it the demand for the raw materials that feed the process.

The first of the proteins in the chain, the inelegantly named photosytem II, appears to be the key to winter adaption. It utilizes the yellow xanthophyll pigments which absorb light from the center of the light spectrum that chlorophyll can’t process. During the summer, it creates a variant form, zeaxanthin, which rejects light during the heat of the day. In winter, a group at the University of Colorado found zeaxanthin levels remain high on very cold nights, which has the effect of slowing the carbon fixation that feeds photosynthesis and prevents an electron flow overload.

The team also found that Malva neglecta’s return to normal photosynthesis occurred in two phases. One, typical of days during cold spells, returned some normal functions within a few hours. However, the plant’s leaves did not return to normal levels of activity until several days of warm temperatures ensured it was safe to do so.

Unfortunately, I won’t be able to watch the ruffled rosette respond to warmer temperatures this spring. Wednesday they brought back the big-wheels to install a guard rail on one side of the arroyo. The cheeses weren’t there yesterday and neither was the other guard rail.

Notes: For more on the xanthophyll cycle, see the posting on Autumn Leaves for 4 November 2007.

Barbara Demmig-Adams, William W. Adams III,, and Amy S. Verhoeven. "Close Relationship Between the State of the Xanthophyll Cycle Pigments and Photosystem II Efficiency during Recovery from Winter Stress," Physiologia Plantarum 96:567–576:1996.

_____, _____, Volker Ebbert, C. Ryan Zarter, and Todd N. Rosenstiel. "Photosynthesis and Photoprotection during Winter," American Society of Plant Biologists, 2002 meeting.

Hilty, John. "Common Mallow," Illinois Wildflowers website, on insect associations.

Kaur, Charanjeet, S. P. Mehra, and R. K. Bhatia. "Studies on the Biology of New Emerging Broadleaf Weed Malva neglecta Wallr," Indian Journal of Weed Science 40:172-177:2008.

Telewski, Frank W. and Jan A. D. Zeevaart. "The 120-yr Period for Dr. Beal's Seed Viability Experiment," American Journal of Botany 89:1285-1288:2002.

Photograph: Cheese mallow by the near arroyo, 9 January 2011.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Honey Locust

What’s happening: Extreme cold has bronzed most of the arborvitaes; some junipers look a desiccated grey.

What’s still green: Evergreens, yuccas, Japanese honeysuckle, pyracantha, grape hyacinth, snapdragon, sea pink, flax, vinca leaves; rose stems.

What’s grey, blue-grey or grey-green: Piñon, four-winged salt bush, snow-in-summer, winterfat, golden hairy aster leaves.

What’s red/turning red: Cholla, prickly pear, beardtongue leaves.

What’s yellow/turning yellow: Globe and weeping willow branches.

What’s blooming inside: Aptenia, zonal geranium.

Animal sightings: Ravens in hay fields yesterday.

Weather: Mornings still very cold; afternoons warming just enough to melt some snow; last snow 12/30/10; 8:37 hours of daylight today.

Weekly update: I rather tend to take trees for granted when I’m driving: they’re green in summer, yellow in fall, and bare in winter. The only time I actually see them is when they disturb that pattern, say when apricots bloom in spring or Russian olives produce grey leaves. After their star turns they step back into the chorus.

I noticed the honey locust down the road after the first snow of the season. Not only did it have dead leaves hanging below a mantle of snow, but those leaves were spotted with dark, curving pods. However, I didn’t see any silhouettes of the very long, sharp, hard thorns that usually sprout from the lower part of the bole.

Gleditsia triacanthos is native to the bottoms and limestone uplands of the Mississippi river valley from the Ohio to the Tennessee where the trees were never the dominant species, but instead grew in open spaces with bur oaks, willows, and American elms. There’s some suspicion native peoples may have expanded their range.

Several Cherokee settlements were called Kulsetsiyi, suggesting they were near honey locust groves. James Mooney heard one tale about a young man who went to the thunder god telling him he was his son. Thunder answered, he had been many places, had many children, and asked him to sit on a blanket of hidden kulsetsi thorns. When he wasn’t harmed, Thunder acknowledged him as a son.

Thunder asked why he had come. The young man said to be cured of skin sores. Thunder’s wife threw him into a pot of boiling water, then tossed him in the river. When he arose cleansed, she warned him to select the meanest snakes to wear and threaten the honey locust when he tired of the ball game he would be forced to play against two of Thunder’s sons. When he started to strike the tree, Thunder stopped the game. The two opponents were young thunders, but the youth was revealed to be lightening.

Mooney doesn’t identify the sores and only says Thunder "put in some roots" into the pot. The most likely skin symptoms that would have sent a man to see a god for help were measles and small pox. Paul Hamel and Mary Chiltoskey were told an infusion of the locust pod had been used for measles, while Linda Taylor heard the neighboring Creek used "sprigs, thorns and branches" in a bath to prevent smallpox."

Anetsa games between settlements, now called la crosse, were preceded by dances around fires made from the wood of a tree struck, but not killed, by lightening, and wood from a honey locust. Charcoal from the tree that had survived a storm was daubed on the dancers the day of the game. On the way to the match, each player joined the shaman down by the river where his skin was pierced by a comb of sharp turkey bones.

When the English arrived, some borrowed the use of the pods’ sweet pulp from the Cherokee. Charred seeds have been recovered from remains of slave quarters of Rich Neck plantation near Williamsburg, probably the unused debris of foraged food. Others tried to absorb the trees into their traditional world: George Washington wanted to use them for a thorn hedge at Mount Vernon and sent two bushels of seed to his overseer from Philadelphia.

With time, the Cherokee were evicted, other species were found for thorny barriers and better sources for sugar became available. The honey locust faded into obscurity, simply another obstacle to clear to open a plantation or farmstead.

After world war II, a new market emerged for small trees that could grow in the new suburban yards. Honey locusts were considered, because their divided leaves allowed enough sun to pass for grass to grow beneath them. However, their other virtues were thought liabilities, until the Siebenthaler Company of Dayton introduced a thornless, sterile cultivar, Moraine, in 1949. William Flemer III marketed Shademaster, the variety sold locally, in 1955, then promoted the legume as a quick growing replacement for the dying American elms which tolerated winter salt and summer air pollution.

Normally honey locusts produce both male and female flowers on different branches of the same tree, or both female and hermaphroditic flowers. The thornless subspecies, inermis, occurs naturally, but rarely. Podless cuttings, often made from male branches or bud wood whose sex has not yet been defined, were used to develop new cultivars which then were commercially reproduced from root cuttings grafted or budded onto the wild species.

Flemer could patent his clone and protect its DNA. He couldn’t control the root stock. Robert Blair says the northern varieties harden off early in the autumn, but that southern ones continue growing and are more likely to suffer from frost damage when moved beyond their range.

The plants that appear in our local hardware often are ones intended for warmer Albuquerque ninety miles to the south and a thousand feet lower. The prices are low and the supplier’s grafting methods are, to be charitable, cost efficient. A great many of their roses revert to their Dr. Huey rootstock, while the roots of most of my trees have sprouted their own trunks.

Some years ago, the people who own the tree that caught my attention planted saplings along the sides of their property. At least the two in front and one immediately behind are honey locusts, though only the one has returned to its ancestors. Blair says that when they’re placed in difficult situations, the branches tend to spread wide, like this tree, as their thick surface roots spread to find water, here in the run off from the pavement.

The owners don’t seem to mind the tree isn’t the one they purchased. It blends anonymously into the scenery where a tree is just a tree, not a source for food or proof of manhood.

Blair, Robert M. "Gleditsia triacanthos L. Honeylocust" in Russell M. Burns and Barbara H. Honkala, Silvics of North America, volume 2, 1990.

Franklin, Maria. An Archaeological Study of the Rich Neck Slave Quarter and Enslaved Domestic Life, 2004.

Haworth, Paul Leland. George Washington: Farmer, 2004.

Moerman, Dan. Native American Ethnobotany, 1998; summarizes data from a number of ethnographies, including Paul B. Hamel and Mary U. Chiltoskey, Cherokee Plants and Their Uses -- A 400 Year History, 1975, and Linda Averill Taylor, Plants Used As Curatives by Certain Southeastern Tribes, 1940.
Mooney, James. "The Cherokee Ball Play," The American Anthropologist 3:105-32:1890.

_____. Myths of the Cherokee, 1900.

Neson, Guy. "Honey Locust" fact sheet, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service website; not provide source for suggestion natives expanded the range of the tree.

Photograph: Honey locust growing beside the road, 2 January 2011. The first tree behind is also a honey locust.

Sunday, January 02, 2011

Aeonium Arboreum

What’s happening: A thin layer of snow still covers many things; it’ll be a few days before the effects of the dry cold become obvious.

What’s still green: Juniper and other evergreens, Apache plume, yuccas, Japanese honeysuckle, pyracantha leaves.

What’s grey, blue-grey or grey-green: Piñon, four-winged salt bush, pinks, snow-in-summer, winterfat, golden hairy aster leaves.

What’s red/turning red: Cholla, prickly pear.

What’s yellow/turning yellow: Arborvitae; globe and weeping willow branches.

What’s blooming inside: Christmas cactus, aptenia, asparagus fern.

Animal sightings: Tracks of rabbit and something small with five toes in the snow.

Weather: Snow Thursday, followed by morning temperatures close to zero, the coldest I remember here; 9:50 hours of daylight today.

Weekly update: Seed catalogs have been arriving since Thanksgiving with their promises of a Hicksian peaceable kingdom where ferns and yuccas can co-exist in the same bed.

In Wildseed’s catalog, tuber vervain, which only inhabits the south from California to Virginia, is followed by wallflowers, which live only to the north. It implies one doesn’t need to live in the narrow band of counties in Kentucky and Virginia where the two species are native to enjoy both.

For those of us who have no luck with seeds, Stokes tells nurserymen how to sow pansies and impatiens so they’ll be in the stores when we want them. They don’t promise the native of cool springs in Europe and the rain forest child of New Guinea will grow in the same environmentally controlled room, but they can be produced by the same operation and planted in the same garden.

The international bazaar isn’t just the chimera of some bright copywriter. Here in highland New Mexico in frigid January, where some plants find cold moisture and afternoons above freezing stimulating, I don’t have to settle for the moss by the garage or the western stickseed by the fence post. I can look at new growth on the snow-in-summer from the Italian Apennines and the snapdragons from northeastern Spain. If I prefer to stay in my warm enclosed porch, I can look north to the Christmas cactus from Brazil or south at new leaves on the aeonium from the Spanish Canary Islands.

If Spain and Portugal appear more often than other countries in this list of homes for the tamed exotics, it’s only because their great explorations created a new vision of the possible. The Canaries, with their relict laurel forests from the time before the Mediterranean climate developed, lay in the path of the trade winds that carried European ships to and from the new worlds.

The seven islands reside on the thin ocean crust of the African plate, just west of Morocco, which rests firmly on the continental crust. As the plate shifted north in the early Miocene, volcanoes erupted on the periphery some 21 million years ago to form the first of the islands, Fuerteventura. Other the next millenia, the plates continued to drift and volcanoes and islands continued to form farther and farther west.

Around 15 million years ago, the first ancestor of aeoniums arrived on Fuerteventura, some member of the Crassula family that had migrated north along the eastern Africa coast, then west. As the islands formed, the newly created aeonium continued to migrate, adapting to each environment, until some 36 species have evolved in the Canaries, most unique to specific islands.

Eventually the plates moved so much they shut the Mediterranean sea from the Atlantic, precipitating a period of heat and dessication about 5.9 million years ago. A few million years later, some aeonium, probably some precursor of Aeonium balsamiferum, migrated from Lanzarote or Fuertaventura to an area of limestone rocks between Ida-ou-Tanane and the mouth of oued Noun on the Moroccan coast. With time that became the Aeonium arboreum growing on my porch.

How one species managed to jump what today is at least a 70 mile gap is open to speculation. One group noticed that while arboreum has none of the morphological features that attract birds, it’s the only aeonium that attracts nectar feeding species. Debra Lee Baldwin discovered, quite accidentally, that if she left cut stems of arboreum in water, they developed roots.

How I got my aeonium is simply another episode in the globalization of our choices that began with the great navigators. No matter how rationalized the empire or trade network, there are always colonial outposts where unwanted surpluses can be dumped. I’m no longer surprised by the oddities that wash up in the local hardware store, only a bit cautious about buying the unfamiliar.

Two years ago, strange succulents were being sold off in June. Gerald Klingaman thinks arboreums were being promoted as unusual Father’s Day gifts in Arkansas that year. I wondered fleetingly if they were intended for deck pots, but figured whatever they were, they might grow in my indoor porch. I bought two.

Perceptions of the exotic change with familiarity. When Philip Barker Webb first described the green leaved rosettes that grew on woody stems in 1840, any succulent was considered a novelty. When varieties that had adapted to the intense summer sun with dark burgundy leaves were made available in the early 1980's, they were eagerly grown by desert gardeners in California.

When I grew up, there were hens and chickens in the yard, along with purple leafed barberry. I found nothing unusual about a purple succulent sold to grow in an ordinary garden. What I’ve found odd is another of its environmental adaptations, it grows in winter and rests in summer.

For the first two years the two plants did little more than provide a color contrast with the surrounding aptenia. Last January they must have put out new leaves, bright light green until they matured. For some reason, I took their picture.

Then, for the first time, these coddled plants of civilization faced the crises of their feral ancestors. I forgot to water them in February. They wilted. The porch heater got too ambitious in May. Leaves died. For some unknown reason, one collapsed in August.

Then, on Halloween, I noticed the survivor had started to grow, really grow. By mid-December, it had formed a second rosette on a thinner stem, lower on the splotchy tan stalk. Both rosettes had green centers signifying new leaves.

I hope it’s not preparing to bloom. They can put out long cones of yellow, ten petalled flowers from the centers of the rosettes in late winter, then die.

Like the lion and lamb laying together beneath a veneer of the commonplace, these plants harbor radically different ambitions from their neighbors. Arboreums may behave like woody perennials in a southern California gardens, but in their hearts they’re like annuals intent on a single chance at reproduction and I’m simply a tool for their use.

Baldwin, Debra Lee. Designing with Succulents, 2007.

Baldwin, Randy. "Aeonium arboreum 'Zwartkop'," San Marcos Growers website, on Huntington and Ruth Bancroft gardens.

Kim, Seung-Chul, Michael R. McGowen, Pesach Lubinsky, Janet C. Barber, Mark E. Mort and Arnoldo Santos-Guerra. "Timing and Tempo of Early and Successive Adaptive Radiations in Macaronesia," PLoS ONE 3(5):14 May 2008.

Klingaman, Gerald. "Black Tree Aeonium," Arkansas Home and Garden website, 27 June 2008.

Médail, Frédéric and Pierre Quézel. "The Phytogeographical Significance of S. W. Morocco Compared to the Canary Islands," Plant Ecology 140:221-244:1999.

Valido, Alfredo, Yoko L Dupont, and Jens M. Olesen. "Bird-Flower Interactions in the Macaronesian Islands," Journal of Biogeography 31:1945-1953:2004.

Webb, Philip Barker and Sabin Berthelot. Histoire Naturelle des Iles Canaries 3(2,1):185:1840.

Photograph: Aeonium arboreum from the back, where the dead leaves and new branch can clearly be seen, 1 January 2011.