Sunday, May 29, 2011

Glasswort (Horse Tail)

What’s blooming in the area: Wild pink, hybrid tea and miniature roses, silver lace vine, iris, red hot poker, onion, Jupiter’s beard, purple salvia, sweet pea; buds on daylilies. People have been planting.

Beyond the walls and fences: Russian olive, tamarix, fernleaf globemallow, cheese mallow, western stickseed, tumble mustard, alfilerillo, scarlet bee blossom, white evening primrose, bindweed, gypsum phacelia, woolly plantain, escaped alfalfa, wild licorice, loco, yellow sweet clover, perky Sue, western goat’s beard, native and common dandelions, June, needle, rice, and three awn grasses; buds on Virginia creeper.

In my yard: Beauty bush, privet, skunkbush, peony, oriental poppy, winecup, vinca, golden spur columbine, coral bells, oxalis, baptisia, small-leaved soapwort, Bath pinks, snow-in-summer, blue flax, pink evening primrose, pink salvia, catmint, chocolate flower; buds on chives, hollyhock, sea pink, Rumanian sage, coreopsis and anthemis; cosmos and zinnia seedlings breaking through.

Bedding plants: Sweet alyssum, pansy, snapdragon; buds on nicotiana; recent transplants began having problems with the heat on Wednesday.

Inside: Zonal geranium, aptenia, asparagus fern.

Animal sightings: Gecko, bumble and small bees, hornet, harvester and small black ants.

Weather: Summer began this week with warmer days and nights that changed my comfort level in the house; wind never stop for long; last rain 5/19/11; 15:40 hours of daylight today.

Weekly update: Aquatic plants represent an alien world to this land lubber. I discovered cattails and water lilies when I went to summer camp, but paid no attention to whatever else was growing in and around the lake.

Now, when I see something unusual growing near a river, I only know it comes from the watery world, but have no idea what it is and or how to find out.

Last May I noticed some leafless green stems about a foot high along the sides of the village ditch. The branchless stalks grew in clumps of two to six, apparently from a common base, and were crowned with dark pointed cones. Last weekend I saw them again.

They look like thin onions until you see the hollow stalk is divided into segments about an inch and half long which can be pulled apart. The main part of each section is yellow green. The areas at the slightly swollen joints are more yellow and the part just before the yellow at the top of each piece is a darker shadow of the vertical grooves.

Each ridge appears to end in a piece of dark brown fringe which merges into eight picots, usually composed of one tall central thread and two shorter, curving ones. Last week the dark tip looked like a compressed group of segments waiting to elongate. Yesterday the stems were taller and the tips much smaller.

When I put one in water, it started to smell after a few days: although it remained firm, the injured area, where it was picked, was rotting rather than putting out a root. When I left it on the counter, the round stalk dried into a rectangle. The two wide sides had deep indentations. Internally, the stem is composed of eight vascular bundles, two of which become leaves. The deep grooves may represent those critical bundles.

The nearest drawing I could find is one of the upper part of a slender glasswort in Roger Peterson’s wildflower guide for northeastern North America. He says Salicornia europeana’s found along the coast from Nova Scotia south and occasionally in the Great Lakes states.

Peterson’s drawing doesn’t look at all like the one in the guide for this area, which says slender pickleweed is found in the southwest and Texas, nor does it look like the photographs of any of the glassworts found in the United States. It’s least like the dwarf species, Salicornia bigelovii, reported in Chavez County which has shorter, plumper sections.

It doesn’t help my identification when experts say “because of the succulence of the plants and the highly reduced morphology, it has been difficult to develop a satisfactory taxonomy of the genus” or that the term europeana has been used as a synonym for “I don’t know.”

Glassworts are commonly associated with saline waters. Indeed, a group led by Gudrun Kaderit believes it diverged from a perennial Salcocornia during the Miocene in the area between the Mediterranean and Tethys seas, and that the genus proliferated as the glaciers were forming. They believe it became an annual to survive the cold. Salt moderates freezing temperatures, and the tolerance to salinity may have arisen from the same need to survive where it was slightly warmer.

Another group, this led by Anthony Davis, found glassworts tend to live in coastal salt marshes where they’re doused daily with sea water, but live on saline or alkaline soils fed by fresh groundwater.

Their life cycle is closely tied to variations in water. Different species germinate at different time between February and May when tides are less active and they can live in truncated, that is branchless, forms without enough sodium chloride. In late summer the uppermost segments produce two clusters of three flowers arranged in triangles close to the joint. Each bisexual flower produces one yellowish-brown seed which winters over near the parent.

I don’t remember what happened to the plants last June, if they disappeared with the heat, drought and competition from other plants, or if I simply didn’t notice them later. The fact the seeds are only viable for a year implies they either were able to reproduce or their population was replenished.

The local ditch was originally dug by Spanish-speaking settlers to divert the Santa Cruz river. It became part of a network of inland waterways when the river was damned below Chimayó in the 1920's to better capture the snow melt and provide more reliable irrigation all summer. As it is, the ditch is relatively dry in winter and alternates between being full and draining during the summer in ways similar to coastal tides.

In southeastern Alberta, Lloyd Keith discovered that when fresh water was impounded it raised the level of the water table and permitted water from the saltier aquifer to flow into man-made lakes. As the water became more saline, the surrounding vegetation began to change, with glassworts appearing in some places.

I don’t know anything about the groundwater in Chimayó, but I know my well had 78 milligrams of sodium per liter in 2002. While that’s below the 1,900 found in standard sea water, it’s above the one to two percent solution found optimal for many species by Davy.

It’s actually easier to understand how such an obscure member of the goosefoot family could arrive in the local acequia than it is to name it. The reservoir is now managed by the Bureau of Land Management, who has turned it into a recreation area and stocked it with trout.

Boats are promiscuous. Texas fishermen may stop in Chavez County on their way to Lake Mead. Some locals go from lake to lake within the state. Any seed can hitch a ride on the bottom, on a trailer tire, or in a can of muddy water.

As often happens with wild flowers too insignificant to be included in field guides, I’m left to call this anything I choose, until someone corrects me, even if the name is fanciful or wrong. As Gertrude Stein suggested, the name doesn’t matter if its thereness is there. And glasswort* is definitely there.

Correction, 6/5/11: Vicki (see comment) recognized this as Equistem hyemale, commonly known as scouring rush, a member of the only surviving genus of a group of very ancient, primitive vascular plants. It is mentioned by Wooten and Standley, but is not in Peterson or the other field guides for the region.

The only thing above that is specific to glasswort is the description of the vascular bundles. The rest is based on observation or are comments on the locale.

In the last week the plants have grown at least another foot.

Notes: Water test done by National Testing Laboratories of Cleveland.

Ball, Peter W. “Salicornia Linnaeus” on eFloras’ Flora of North America website; includes the quotation.

Davy, A. J., G. F. Bishop and C. S. B. Costa. “Salicornia L. (Salicornia pusilla J. Woods, S. ramosissima J. Woods, S. europaea L., S. obscura P.W. Ball & Tutin, S. nitens P.W. Ball & Tutin, S. fragilis P.W. Ball & Tutin and S. dolichostachya Moss),” Journal of Ecology 89:681-707:2001.

Kadereit, Gudrun, Peter Ball, Svetlana Beer, Ladislav Mucina, Dmitry Sokoloff, Patrick Teege, Ahmet E. Yaprak and Helmut Freitag. “A Taxonomic Nightmare Comes True: Phylogeny and Biogeography of Glassworts (Salicornia L., Chenopodiaceae),” Taxon 56:1143-1170:2007.

Keith Lloyd B. “Some Effects of Increasing Soil Salinity on Plant Communities,” Canadian Journal of Botany 36:79-89:1958:

Peterson Field Guide. A Field Guide to Wildflowers of Northestern and North-central North America, by Roger Tory Peterson and Margaret McKenny with illustrations by Peterson, 1968.

_____. Southwestern and Texas Wildflowers, by Theodore F. Niehaus with illustrations by Charles L. Ripper and Virginia Savage, 1984.

Photograph: Glasswort picked from village ditch bank, 22 May 2011; photographed the same day.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Woolly Plantain

What’s blooming in the area: Snowball, Persian yellow, pink shrub, hybrid tea and miniature roses, pyracantha flowers above last year’s dark berries, wisteria, silver lace vine, iris, peony, oriental poppy, Jupiter’s beard, purple salvia; grapes killed by cold and those that hadn’t broken dormancy both leafing; buds on daylilies.

Beyond the walls and fences: Tamarix, fernleaf globemallow, cheese mallow, western stickseed, purple and tumble mustards, alfilerillo, scarlet bee blossom, white evening primrose, bindweed, gypsum phacelia, woolly plantain, escaped alfalfa, American licorice, western goat’s beard, native and common dandelions, June, needle, rice, and three awn grasses; cheat grass turning red; buds of Russian olive and loco; Virginia creeper seedlings and tree of heaven suckers coming up.

In my yard: Beauty bush, privet, skunkbush, winecup, vinca, yellow alyssum peaked, golden spur columbine, oxalis, baptisia, small-leaved saponaria, Bath pinks, snow-in-summer, blue flax, pink evening primrose, pink salvia, catmint, perky Sue and chocolate flower; buds on hollyhock, sea pink and coral bell; seed pods appearing on Siberian pea tree; rose of Sharon developing new leaf buds after existing ones killed by cold; put in tomatoes and warm weather seeds.

Bedding plants: Sweet alyssum, pansy; buds on snapdragon.

Inside: Zonal geranium, aptenia, asparagus fern.

Animal sightings: Cows brought into village pasture; hummingbird around Bath pinks, gecko, white spider crawled out of iris flower, hornet tried to land on snowball in the wind; harvester and small black ants, earth worm.

Weather: Some rain late Tuesday, followed by near freezing temperatures Thursday morning that punished some plants and flowers; winds most afternoons; 15:17 hours of daylight today.

Weekly update: The most amazing thing about woolly plantain is where it grows. While it’s interesting the little annual has bloomed at least three years along the road, it’s astounding the only place it grows outside the arid west is Patagonia in southern Argentina and Chile.

Nina Rønsted’s team believes Plantago diverged within the Plantagina family a little over seven million years ago in the Miocene when grasslands developed and that the genus began spreading about 5.47 million years ago. Most of the subgenera existed before the formation of the great glaciers two million years ago.

Some species of Plantago emerged in the historic record in Patagonia some 17,000 years ago when the glaciers were receding. Vera Markgraf’s team found pollen in cores that suggest the area around Coyhaique in the Aisén province of Chile was drying into an open ground shrub-steppe. The genus increased between 13,700 and 11,000 years ago when grasses dominated the steppe and fire activity declined. The pollen then disappeared from their soil samples when the amount of charcoal increased.

Farther south Rodrigo Villa-Martínez and Patricio Moreno found Plantago pollen in soil cores from 12,600 years ago drilled in the Torres del Paine National Park. It was disappearing from the strata by 10,800 years ago when the westerly winds began moving and moisture levels began changing.

Today the South America range of woolly plantain extends from Patagonia into the pampas north of Buenos Aires, but stops at the Amazon drainage. In Chile, it doesn’t reach as far west as the coast.

One would guess Plantago patagonica began as a grassland species that survived in refuges during the glaciers to reemerge when conditions dried. The grasslands would never have had to be contiguous for it to spread between the tip of South America and New Mexico, just close enough for migrating animals to spread the reddish-tan seeds.

Today, the short plant is primarily found on the western plains and in the intermountane region from Baja and Sonora north into the prairie provinces of Canada with scattered populations through the upper midwestern areas freed late from the ice. In Ohio, the only known population grows on “an old beach ridge associated with pre-glacial Lake Warren” in Williams County, which borders Michigan. In Michigan, the taprooted annual’s been found in the band of counties north of the glacial hills separating the state from Ohio and near Lake Michigan.

Rønsted’s group implies the fires that came with a changing climate and forest vegetation is what reduced its range. A team led by Todd Esque found that recent burning caused a significant decline in the number of Plantago species seeds in the ground in the Mojave, and the loss was greater for plants that grew under shrubs than in the open. While a single fire wasn’t enough to exterminate the plants, the repeated fires east of the Mississippi could certainly have had that effect, if they had once grown there.

In the areas that remained grasslands, grazing may have limited woolly plantain’s population. It’s eaten by guanaco and sheep in South America, and cattle and prairie dogs in this country. All those mammals prefer grasses, but the winter annual is eaten because it’s there when other vegetation’s scarce and it’s neither poisonous nor prickly.

If the plants are able to survive long enough to reproduce, the seeds are collected by harvester ants. However, if the seeds survive, they can last some time in dry soil to germinate when conditions are right.

In my yard, the narrow spikes appear for a few years, then disappear. They bloomed in my north-facing garden from the middle 1990's until about 2001. In 1999 they emerged along the east side of the house where they grew until grasses took over in 2004. By then, some seeds had settled in back where they were last seen in 2008. They can survive competition in the desert, but perhaps not in wetter areas where plants become more muscular.

If patagonica is a species that once had a much larger range and has been forced to retreat to disconnected environments hostile to other plants, it has persisted because it modified itself into a winter annual rather than a perennial. Unlike the common plantain I knew as a child, which had broad leaves that lay on the ground, this has narrow leaves that stand erect to collect the sun without being overly exposed.

Most important, the plant has developed an ability for a single seed to germinate and reestablish a colony. The tiny, four-petaled flowers appear in dense, short stalks covered with white hairs that isolate each flower. They fertilize themselves by activating the male anthers when the female stigmas are receptive. Most plantains are out-breeders.

Edward Voss thought woolly plantain probably wasn’t native to Michigan because the earliest report was from Washtenaw County in 1928. Judging from the plants in my yard and growing down the road, it seems to be a native plant that’s constantly being reintroduced back into its historic range, perhaps by vehicle and heavy equipment tires since the 1920's. Then, it dies out for the same old reasons, because nothing really important changed in its absence.

Esque, Todd C., James A. Young and C. Richard Tracy. “Short-term Effects of Experimental Fires on a Mojave Desert Seed Bank,” Journal of Arid Environments 74:1302-1308:2010.

Kartesz, John T. Floristic Synthesis of North America range map, available on John Hilty’s Illinois Wildflowers website for “Plantago patagonica (Woolly Plantain).”

Markgraf, Vera, Cathy Whitlock and Simon Haberle. “Vegetation and Fire History During the Last 18,000 cal yr B.P. in Southern Patagonia: Mallín Pollux, Coyhaique, Province Aisén (45°41'30¢ S, 71°50'30¢ W, 640 m Elevation),” Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology 254:492-507:2007.

Ohio Department of Natural Resources. Division of Natural Areas and Preserves. “Plantago patagonica Jacq., Woolly Plantain,” available on-line.

Rønsted, Nina, Mark W. Chase, Dirk C. Albach and Maria Angelica Bello. “Phylogenetic Relationships within Plantago (Plantaginaceae): Evidence from Nuclear Ribosomal ITS and Plastid trnL-F Sequence Data,” Linnean Society Botanical Journal 139:323-338:2002.

Sharma, Namrata, Pushpa Koul and Awtar Krishan Koul. “Pollination Biology of Some Species of Genus Plantago L.,” Linnean Society Botanical Journal 111:129-138:1993.

Villa-Martínez , Rodrigo and Patricio I. Moreno. “Pollen Evidence for Variations in the Southern Margin of the Westerly Winds in SW Patagonia over the Last 12,600 Years,” Quaternary Research 68:400-409:2007.

Voss, Edward G. Michigan Flora, volume 3, 1996.

Photograph: Woolly plantain growing along the shoulder, its spike shrouded in white hairs, 15 May 2011.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Western Goat's Beard

What’s blooming in the area: Snowball, Persian yellow, tea and miniature roses, peony, oriental poppy, Jupiter’s beard, golden spur columbine, moss phlox fading, donkey tail spurge darkening; people set out pepper plants.

Beyond the walls and fences: Fernleaf globemallow, cheese mallow, western stickseed, bractless crypthanka, tansy and tumble mustard, alfilerillo, bindweed, gypsum phacelia, western goat’s beard, native and common dandelions, rice, three awn and cheat grasses; June grass shedding seed; tree of heaven coming back from cold; goat’s head coming up through road paving; buffalo gourd and goldenrod up.

In my yard: Spirea, Siberian pea tree nearly gone, skunkbush, iris, vinca, yellow alyssum peaked, oxalis, small-leaved saponaria, Bath pinks, snow-in-summer, blue flax, pink evening primrose, pink salvia, chocolate flower; buds on privet, catmint, sea pink and baptisia; black locust recovering from cold; butterfly weed, white spurge, calamintha and lead plant emerged; creeping mahonia has new leaves; wind blew petals off tulips early.

Bedding plants: Sweet alyssum, pansy.

Inside: Zonal geranium, aptenia, asparagus fern.

Animal sightings: Hummingbird and small brown birds, gecko, small dark butterfly with orange spots, harvester and small black ants, earth worms.

Weather: Wind relentless as temperatures creep higher; last snow 5/01/11; 15:03 hours of daylight today.

Weekly update: Flowers on western goat’s beard remind me of those imitation crystal snowflakes sold in December to put in the window or on a tree. The thick, clear plastic doesn’t reflect or refract light, nor does it let it pass through. The ornaments are visible simply because they block light.

Tragopogon dubius flowers are concentric rings of long, narrow straps. The outermost are pointed, light-green bracts, usually 13 in number. Inside there’s a shorter row of light yellow, five-pointed petals, sometimes offset from the bracts, sometimes overlapping, that gives them their unique sunburst character.

Each afternoon, the bracts fold, shutting the flowers for the night. The following morning, usually about the time I go to the post office on Saturdays, they reopen facing the sun. While the flowers respond only to light, they don’t have to be directly in the sun to open, only close enough to sense it. I have several growing in back that open a little after nine before the sun actually reaches them.

Each day, the center of the inch and a half wide inflorescence expands. The mound of ray florets - for this composite has no disks - has a central core of still unopened flat yellow envelopes that are narrow at the base and pulled tight at the top. Inside each is a brown tube that leads to a white threadlike ovary and black anthers, which John Hilty says, are pressed against the dark style.

The outer row of unopened petals pulls away from the tip, elongates and opens in the center to form a protective tent around the reproductive organs. Narrow yellow tubes at the tops of the styles lengthen, then branch into lighter colored Y’s to capture the darker yellow pollen spread by insects from this or neighboring plants.

Later, the stigmas darken and fall away, sometimes caught like corn silk when the bracts close and trap the pollen. When the next row of petals begins to swell, the already opened ones are pushed against the previously opened florets and eventually lie against the frame.

When all the florets have opened, the ovaries harden into seeds and the receptacle, that sits on a hollow cone, reflexes. The white hairy sepals surrounding each floret elongate into winged parachutes that form a ball, like that found on the closely related dandelion, only much larger, usually two to three inches across, and tawny.

The outer seeds, the ones formed first, are darker and heavier because they contain more phenolic compounds. When a wind comes, they fall closer to the parent plant than the lighter, younger ones. The larger seeds germinate later and produce larger, taller seedlings.

The waxy leaves are as fustian as the flowers. Many describe them as grass-like, because they’re long and narrow. However, they’re immediately identifiable along my drive, because they don’t look anything at all like the surrounding bunch grasses. They’re darker green, taller, and curve inward into claws. It’s obvious they surround a single stalk and are not so many independent blades rising from a crown.

The basal rosette emerges in late summer when newly ripened seed has fallen and temperatures are still between 59 and 72 degrees. The biennial doesn’t bolt until the root crown expands beyond .11 centimeters, and is most likely to bloom when its about quarter inch across and the plant has undergone some period of coolness.

Although an urn of leaves and its supporting root may store carbohydrates for years before conditions are right for it to flower, a stalk usually rises the following spring. The spaces between the original leaves lengthen into a mop.

At the current stage of many in my yard, the conical bud at the tip of the stem peaks up from the nest of leaves. As it pushes from its skirt, new leaves will open from swollen joints on the stem, each wide at the base, then narrowing into a folded blade like the lower ones.

As the stalk grows, it may branch, with each subordinate stem also pointing upwards. The plant will continue producing terminal heads as long as conditions are favorable. Although they usually peter out by late summer, last year there were flowers until frost in late October.

When they die, the hollow stems harden into inverted wooden umbrellas one to two feet high. The plants that grow in the drive become dangerous to the car and must be removed. Undisturbed plants break away in winter and join the tumbleweeds.

I usually pull them after the monsoons when the ground is throughly wet. The taproot is deep, thick, and strong enough to come out in one piece. When the ground is dry, like it is now, the stem snaps and a white milky sap is released. The only way they can be controlled early in the season is by cutting them before they go to seed.

Even then, western goat’s beard puts up new stalks, sometimes shorter ones, and continues to produce flowers so out of scale with their surroundings they draw attention to themselves. Like the plastic snowflake that doesn’t deliver the promised light, my fascination with the flower shape is deadened by the sheer size and rigidity of its internal and external parts.

Enlargement destroys delicacy when it makes things too visible.

Clements, David R., Mahesh K. Upadhyaya and Shelley J. Bos. “The Biology of Canadian Weeds. 110. Tragopogon dubius Scop., Tragopogon pratensis L., and Tragopogon porrifolius L.," Canadian Journal of Plant Science 79:153-163:1999.

Gross, Katherine L. “Predictions of Fate from Rosette Size in Four "Biennial" Plant Species: Verbascum thapsus, Oenothera biennis, Daucus carota, and Tragopogon dubius,” Oecologia 48: 209-213:1981.

Hilty, John. “Western Goat's Beard,” Illinois Wildflowers website.

Maxwell, Christine D., Alicja Zobel and David Woodfine. “Somatic Polymorphism in the Achenes of Tragopogon dubius,” Canadian Journal of Botany 72:1282-1288:1994.

Photograph: Western goat’s beard, picture taken while plant was still in shade around 10:35 on 8 May 2011 and old enough to have a reduced core but no so old that the outer petals are flattened yet.

Sunday, May 08, 2011


What’s blooming in the area: Late apples, lower branches on snowballs, first pink peony, first bright orange oriental poppy, Jupiter’s beard, moss phlox, purple salvia, donkey tail spurge; grape leaves killed by cold. There’s a lot of bare stems in rose bushes from winter kill.

Beyond the walls and fences: Fernleaf globemallow, western stickseed, tansy and tumble mustard, alfilerillo, bindweed, gypsum phacelia, goat’s beard, native and common dandelions, June, rice and cheat grasses; Virginia creeper and tree of heaven leaves killed by snow and subsequent frost; Virginia creeper already recovering.

In my yard: Sour cherry, Siberian pea tree, tulips, iris, vinca, yellow alyssum, oxalis, small-leaved saponaria, Bath pinks, snow-in-summer, blue flax; spirea and lilacs were having a wonderful year until the frost killed the flowers; catalpa and black locust leaves destroyed by snow and cold temperatures; sweet alyssum, California and Shirley poppy seeds germinating; leaves emerging on wisteria; flower buds on Persian yellow rose and perky Sue.

Bedding plants: Sweet alyssum, pansy.

Inside: Zonal geranium, aptenia, asparagus fern.

Animal sightings: Rabbit, house finches and other small brown birds, harvester and small black ants.

Weather: Snow Sunday that turn into ice on plant surfaces before it melted; cold temperatures Tuesday morning formed frost on plants; snow remains in Sangre de Cristo; 14:49 hours of daylight today.

Weekly update: If peonies didn’t bloom every year in the village I never would have planted them. I associate the large, voluptuous flowers with the humid midwest where a friend of my parents in Michigan had a row growing in the narrow strip between the foundation of the house and the concrete drive that got the runoff from 35" of precipitation a year. Every June we’d admire her border.

Until this year nothing happened to challenge my childhood perceptions. I planted bare roots of Festiva Maxima in the fall of 2003, knowing, in the best of places, the rhizomes would take at least three years to become established. Mine struggled along on an average 10" of natural water a year, supplemented by hoses. They only bloomed in 2006 and 2009, while the ones in the village flowered each year, bathed in the moist air that rises from the river and the ditches.

Mine finally grew dramatically last spring after our unusually wet winter. They were covered with buds that simply stopped developing when conditions suddenly changed the end of May from cool and wet to hot and dry. When they’d bloomed in the past, it’d been the first week of June.

This winter was unusually dry. I expected nothing. After all, the daffodils didn’t bloom. I was surprised when the plants emerged in early April as vigorously as they had last year. I finally realized it was last year’s cold that had been important, not last year’s moisture.

The life of the peony is governed by temperature, not water or sun angles.

After they finish blooming in June, the plants begin developing buds at the bases of their stems that will be next year’s stems and flowers. The existing verdancy doesn’t increase, but continues supporting the underground activity which changes from bud to root formation in late summer. Before the first frost, the current year’s vegetation turns tan and sere.

During winter, the underground buds need more than 900 hours of cool temperatures to produce flowers. Once the quota is filled, nothing more happens until the soil warms in spring. Then the eyes push up red stalks that rise to carry the season’s complement of compound green leaves and terminal round buds. The flowers open soon after, so long as temperatures remain moderate.

I’m sure my perception that peonies require a warm, moist climate can be traced to the fact the plants come from China and entered the midwest after they’d been hybridized by Europeans. Festiva Maxima was released in 1851 by Auguste Miellez, a rose breeder in Esquermes-les-Lille, an area that gets 25" of rain a year and average January temperatures only fall to 32.

Nothing in their early Chinese history would have disabused me of my beliefs. They were first described by Zhang Zhong Jing of Changsha in modern Hunan province and by Hua Tuo of Bozhou in modern Anhui. The first averages 52" of rain a year and a January low of 43 degrees. The other has 31” of annual precipitation and a January average low of 33.

What’s extraordinary about the two men is not that they lived in areas with similar climates, but that they lived at the same time, when the Chinese civilization was first developing as a civilization. For centuries past, peasants had endured the wars between men who were trying to centralize power and those who resisted.

The Han dynasty had been founded by Liu Bang in 202 BC, and been disrupted by wars, before being reestablished by Liu Xiu in 25 AD. There followed years of prosperity, when trade was opened along what would become the Silk Road to the west, and knowledge began to be valued: Hua could study with a man trained in Ayurvedic medicine, while Zhang learned from Zhang Bozu.

When Cai Lui improved the methods for producing paper in 105 AD, he not only freed silk for trade, but also gave the sons of bureaucratic families a way to record their work.

When Hua and Zhang were living late in the dynasty, war fare and epidemics were threatening again. Instead of turning to traditional remedies or superstitions to treat the sick and injured, as people had in the past, the two applied what we recognize today as scientific principals.

Hua grew every plant reputed to be efficacious, and tested them. He found peony plants and flowers to be worthless, until he had a vision of them as a woman. Popular tradition says he’s the one who then discovered the roots were useful for treating gynecological problems.

Zhang classified plants into three groups, those that could be taken in any quantity, those that should be taken carefully and those that were dangerous. He mixed white peony root from the second category with the safer cinnamon, Chinese licorice, and Chinese jujube into a broth to treat fevers.

Chinese medical theory defines diseases as hot (yang) or cold (yin), and prescribes medicines with the opposite attribute to restore balance within the body. The stripped white root of the herbaceous peony is considered cold while the red root still encased in bark is considered cool.

The healing properties of shao yao must already have been known by Zhang’s and Hua’s ancestors because the species isn’t native to either Hunan or Anhui. Paeonia lactiflora grows in the woods and grasslands of the more northern and western provinces and beyond into Mongolia and Siberia where the climate is both colder and dryer. It was deliberately brought to their areas.

My plants have had their requisite period of cold, and now await the opportunity to bloom. Last Sunday night the buds were covered with snow that turned to ice when the sun rose the next morning. Tuesday, temperatures again fell below freezing and frost developed on any warm, organic surface. The spirea and lilac flowers that survived the snow were dead Wednesday afternoon.

The peony buds were still covered by their calyxes, which may have insulated them, but on Wednesday the buds had expanded enough to begin to split that protective coating. Now, I’m reduced to that state before Hua Tuo and Zhang Zhong Jing when men were helpless in the face of fate and could only watch things unfold, unable to influence events in any way.

The peony buds will either open or not. The flowers will either be magnificent or deformed. This will either be the year of the peony or it won’t.

It all depends on tomorrow’s weather in northern New Mexico.

Hong, Deyuan, Kai-yu Pan and Nicholas J. Turland. “Paeonia lactiflora Pallas,” efloras Flora of China website.

Hua, Tuo. Texts destroyed.

Rodrigo-Lopez, Maria Jose. Floriculture as a Diversification Option for the Rural Economy of Northern Ireland, 2010.

Zhang, Zhong Jing. Shanghan Zabing Lun; text lost and reconstructed by Wang Shuhe.

Wang, Guangyao. “The History of Chinese Herbal Medicine,” available on line, on Zhang.

Photograph: Festiva Maxima peony about 8:00 AM Monday morning, 2 May 2011, as the snow was turning to ice before melting completely.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Tree of Heaven

What’s blooming in the area: Apples, iris, moss phlox, donkey tail spurge; lawns and hay fields beginning to green near road where water flows from ditches.

Beyond the walls and fences: Choke cherry, fernleaf globemallow, cheese mallow, western stickseed, bractless cryptantha, hoary cress, tansy and tumble mustard, alfilerillo, bindweed, gypsum phacelia, purple mat flower, goat’s beard, native and common dandelions, June and cheat grass; buds on Virginia creeper; milkweed and ragweed coming up.

In my yard: Sour cherry, spirea, Siberian pea tree, lilacs, tulips, grape hyacinth, baby blue iris, vinca, yellow alyssum, oxalis, small-leaved saponaria, blue flax; buds on snowball, peonies and Bath pinks; tomatillos coming up.

Bedding plants: Pansy, sweet alyssum.

Inside: Pomegranate, zonal geranium, aptenia, asparagus fern.

Animal sightings: Hummingbird and bumble bee on Siberian pea; smaller bees around lilac; harvester and small black ants.

Weather: Rain early Monday and Tuesday mornings, followed by cooler nights and more winds; snow remains in Sangre de Cristo; 14:32 hours of daylight today.

Weekly update: There’s something worse than a Siberian elm. Trees of heaven not only produce viable seeds and resprout when pruned like elms, but they also sucker from their roots into copses and exude chemicals that keep other plants from their territory.

The team writing the environmental impact statement for widening the road from Española to Los Alamos on the other side of the river found Alianthus altissima growing around Santa Clara creek and recommended it be eradicated as a class B pest. Siberian elms are only class C nuisances and so not proscribed by the state. They can, however, be destroyed during construction without penalty.

Trees of heaven have gotten started along one of the village ditches at the northern end where water from the Santa Cruz enters the acequias. In one area, they’re competing with Siberian elms between the ditch and the pavement. This past winter both were cut back to keep the narrow road clear, but neither was fazed. One is bright green with new leaves. With last week’s warm weather, the other was beginning to leaf at its branch tips.

Ch’un shu is known in China as the spring tree because it’s one of the last to break dormancy, and thus signifies the end of winter famine. According to Shiu Ying Hu, it was primarily used for cooking fuel. However, the dried bark removed from felled trees could also be sold in markets for medicinal purposes as ch’un-po-pi.

The tree entered the western world under false pretenses. A French Jesuit priest, Pierre d'Incarville, thought he was sending back seeds of the tree the Chinese used to make lacquer. When they germinated in Paris, the saplings were mistaken for sumac, because the long leaves broken into pairs of smaller leaflets were similar.

William Prince introduced it commercially in this country as Sicilian Tanner’s Sumac, after Archibald Thompson sent him plants under that name from his West End nursery outside London. Once Prince realized the confusion and offered it as Chinese Ailanthus in the 1820's, the tree began to sell so well his Flushing nursery had problems meeting the demand because he only had male trees. They’re more floriferous than the females and the taller form was considered more aesthetically pleasing.

The market had already been created in Paris where American visitors saw Grand Vernis du Japon growing along the boulevards, especially on the left bank in the fifth arrondissement of Montparnasse. In those years of early industrial life, when coal was burned to produce steam and heat homes, the air was polluted with soot that killed many species. Insects attacked others. The fact the five-petaled male flowers smelled didn’t matter when horses were used for transport.

By the 1840's, Andrew Jackson Downing, the primary popularizer of romantic landscapes in this country, noted the Celestial Tree was “much planted in the streets and public squares” of New York and Philadelphia and that it was especially picturesque on lawns where “the foliage catches the light well, and contrasts strikingly with that of round-leaved trees.”

The tree grows rapidly its first years, concentrating its efforts on height. After about five years it begins to branch. After ten to twenty years, the females produce seeds. Then, home owners discover the problems with seeds, suckers and the smells they released when gardeners try to remove them. By 1851, Downing had turned against the grey barked tree and was recommending “graceful elms and salubrious maples” for street use.

However, a hundred years later Rosalie Doolittle was still telling Albuquerque gardeners that, despite its “reputation for being untidy,” a tree of heaven was “really attractive when the sprays of pods turn brilliant red and yellow as falls approaches.” Even a few years ago Baker Morrow advised New Mexicans the much maligned tree “can make a very pleasant shade or street tree in the right setting.”

They’re correct the tree is attractive when allowed to grow naturally into a wide, low canopy. Both males and females are covered with yellow-green flowers at their branch tips in late spring. Then, in late summer, pink seed heads appear above the leaves, resembling mimosa from a distance.

In Santa Fe, I’ve seen trees growing in courtyards shading working class homes built in the 1950's. Although they tolerate a wide variety of soils, the strong tap roots prefer the lime rich soil of the area. Unfortunately, they need more water than the arid west provides, a minimum of 14" a year, and so they send out suckers to the water conserving yard walls and foundations. Seeds, and possibly discarded suckers, found their way into the nearby ditch, neglected since it was no longer used for irrigation.

Here, trees of heaven not only are growing along the ditches and road sides, but it looks like the member of the tropical simaroubace family has been planted deliberately by a few people, probably from free suckers. In one place down the road, a mature tree shading a double-wide deflected a flying seed, and now has a Siberian elm sapling amongst its suckers.

Doolittle, Rosalie. Southwest Gardening, 1953, revised 1967.

Downing, Andrew Jackson. A Treatise of the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening, 1841.

_____. “How to Popularize the Taste for Planting,” The Horiculturalist 7:297-301:1852, quoted by Behula Shah in “The Checkered Career of Alianthus altissima,” Arnoldia 53(3):21-27:1997.

Gannett Fleming West, Inc. NM 30 Improvement Project, Environmental Assessment, January 2011.

Hu, Shiu Ying. “Alianthus,” Arnoldia 39(2):29-50:1979 .

Morrow, Baker H. Best Plants for New Mexico Gardens and Landscapes, 1995.

Murrill, William A. Shade Trees, 1902; on use in Paris.

Prince, W. R. “Introduction of Lombardy Poplar,” The Gardener's Monthly and Horticultural Advertiser 3:80:1861; on his father’s activities.

Photograph: Tree of heaven leafing along a ditch near the village already colonized by bright green Siberian elms, 24 April 2011.