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.

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