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.

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