Sunday, June 26, 2011


What’s blooming in the area: Dr. Huey and hybrid tea roses, trumpet creeper, Japanese honeysuckle, silver lace vine, red yucca, daylily, Russian sage, hollyhock, datura, sweet pea, larkspur, squash, alfalfa, brome grass; fresh peas for sale.

Beyond the walls and fences: Tamarix, Apache plume, cholla cactus, Virginia creeper, showy milkweed, fernleaf and leatherleaf globemallows, cheese mallow, scarlet bee blossom, white evening primrose, velvetweed, bindweed, stickleaf, purple mat flower, goat’s head, white sweet clover, buffalo gourd, silver leaf nightshade, western goat’s beard, Hopi tea, golden hairy and strap-leaf spine asters, native dandelions; buds on prickly pear.

In my yard, looking east: Persian yellow rose, winecup mallow, sidalcea, coral bells, baby’s breath, snow-in-summer, sea pink fading, Jupiter’s Beard, Maltese cross peaked, bouncing Bess, pink evening primrose, pink salvia, Saint John’s wort.

Looking south: Floribunda and rugosa roses, oxalis, tomatilla; begin to see color on raspberries.

Looking west: Lilies, Husker Red and Rocky mountain beardtongues, blue flax, catmints, flowering spurge, sea lavender; buds on white mullein and ladybells.

Looking north: Catalpa fragrant in evening, golden spur columbine, coral beardtongue, Hartweig evening primrose, butterfly weed, Mexican hat, Moonshine and Parker’s Gold yarrows, chocolate flower fragrant in morning, coreopsis, blanket flower, anthemis, black-eyed Susan; buds on chrysanthemum.

Bedding plants: Sweet alyssum, pansy, snapdragon, moss rose, impatiens, nicotiana.

Inside: Zonal geranium, aptenia, asparagus fern.

Animal sightings: Hummingbird, house finch in four-winged saltbush, other small birds, bumble bee, smaller bees on columbine and catmint, hornet, cabbage butterfly, small flying insects, small black ants on Virginia creeper flowers, harvester ants, uncover earthworm; hear crickets.

Weather: Hot afternoons fed the Pacheco fire which could be seen from my back porch; although most of the smoke blew in other directions, some particles still filtered my way; last rain 5/19/11; 15:57 hours of daylight today.

Weekly update: God the great clockmaker has been transformed into an ergonomic engineer.

Botanists agree on the general characteristics of the Penstemon product line. They have funnel shaped flowers arranged in spikes. A pair of stamens lie under each of the two upper petals. A sterile stamen sits above the middle of the three lower lobes. The pollen bearing anther pads tend to be at the front. The luring nectar source lies at the back behind a pinched waist.

When scientists look at individual species they see design changes made to accommodate the differences in pollinators. Color, shape and nectar are the elements they use to define niche markets.

The bright coral-red Penstemon barbatus coming into bloom on the north side of the house has been adjusted for humming birds. Its long, narrow corolla tube is pointed down, its lower lobes pulled back. The stamens have no hairs to obstruct movement to the nectary filled with diluted sucrose. The birds, which feed in flight, incidentally bump the anthers and fertilize the stigmas.

The other common beards tongues are for bees. The foxglove penstemon blooming on the north side of Santa Fe, where it apparently was introduced by someone from the humid southern plains, has a much larger tube to accommodate bumble bees. The five lobes flare back, the anthers are white, but the staminode is a large, humped golden brush that forces the bee to move above it and collide with overhanging stamens.

The exterior color of the local Penstemon cobaea is pale pink, but the interior of the upper petals is purple. Darker purple stripes mark the center veins on the lower lobes. Like the coral beardtongue, the plants have tall stems and most plants growing along side the road have only one or two. They tend to be about 2' apart.

The purple colored Rocky Mountain beardtongue blooming on the west side of the house is fertilized by a variety of bees. The upper lobes are pulled back, but the lower ones, with lighter colored lines, protrude to form a landing platform. The tube itself is shorter, the nectar scarcer and more concentrated than barbatus.

Penstemon strictus anthers are dark, but covered with white hairs. The sterile stamen is white with white hairs. The shorter stems grow above clumps of green foliage that make it easier for the bees to go from stalk to stalk, spreading pollen from one flower to another.

Engineers rarely work in isolation. One of their special challenges is to alter an existing object to make it appealing to some new market. Penstemons emerged in the Rockies, and spread from there south and east.

Coral beardtongues grow in the mountains of Colorado and Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. Rocky Mountain penstemons have a slightly larger appeal, reaching a bit farther north into Wyoming. The foxglove species lives on limestone soils between the Mississippi and the mountains.

When it reached the Mississippi, the genus faced new challenges that required more tinkering. The Penstemon digitalis cultivar going out of bloom by the garage has twelve sets of four chromosomes, instead of the usual two. Although it seems to prefer glacial soils around the Great Lakes, it has spread to most parts of the eastern United States and Canada.

The latest master mechanic has been Dale Lindgren, recently retired from the University of Nebraska, where he experimented with the smooth penstemon to develop Husker Red with its maroon colored leaves. He later crossed it with Prairie Splendor, itself a cross of cobaea and triflorus, and patented the result as Dark Towers for the university.

My Husker Red has relatively small, white flowers tinged by purple hairs on the outside, near the bulbous base which contains mainly sucrose. The lower petals extend farther than the recurved upper ones, the anthers are dark, and the staminode white and hairy. In 15 years, it has expanded into a clump that produced 18 short stalks this summer.

Engineers like to reduce complexity to simple rules. Despite the number of variables they’ve used to attract consumers, they’ve learned color is the only trait they notice. Hummingbirds see more red, bees more ultraviolet. Although digitalis flowers are white, Gregg Dieringer and Leticia Cabrera found that all parts reflect UV light except the purple lines in the center of the petals.

In Missouri the species is pollinated by bumble bees, while smaller halictid bees are common visitors in Ohio. In Illinois, Gregg Dieringer and Leticia Cabrera observed mainly small and medium bees. When no bee succeeds, the flowers in Missouri are capable of fertilizing themselves.

Once a product succeeds, engineers are often tasked by their employers with reverse engineering the work of their competitors to determine how they work and how they’re made. A team led by Maria Clara Castellanos altered strictus flowers one trait at a time, until they resembled those of barbatus to see which, in fact, were important to hummingbirds and which to bees. Dieringer and Cabrera removed the fifth stamens of digitalis to see what affect they had on bees.

Both groups found evidence that supported their theories. They also found the engineering was more complex than they expected, and the customer-product relationship more malleable to changing circumstances.

Castellanos, Maria Clara, Paul Wilson and James D. Thomson. “‘Anti-Bee’ and ‘Pro-Bee’ Changes during the Evolution of Hummingbird Pollination in Penstemon Flowers,” Journal of Evolutionary Biology 17:876-885:2004.

Dieringer, Gregg and Leticia Cabrera R. “The Interaction Between Pollinator Size and the Bristle Staminode of Penstemon digitalis (Scrophulariaceae),” American Journal of Botany 89:991-997:2002.

Hubbard, John P. “Penstemon spinulosus Wooten and Standley: New Mexico Endemic, Error or Introduction?,” The New Mexico Botanist, 6 July 1999; on Penstemon cobaea around Santa Fe.

Wolfe, Andrea D., Christopher P. Randle, Shannon L. Datwyler, Jeffery J. Morawetz, Nidia Arguedas and Jose Diaz. “Phylogeny, Taxonomic Affinities, and Biogeography of Penstemon (Plantaginaceae) Based on ITS and cpDNA Sequence Data,” American Journal of Botany 93:1699-1713:2006.

Photograph: Two Rocky Mountain beardtongue flowers, one open, one spent; 25 June 2011.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Purple Mat Flower

What’s blooming in the area: Dr. Huey, hybrid tea and miniature roses, buddleia, Japanese honeysuckle, silver lace vine, red yucca, lilies, daylily, hollyhock, datura, sweet pea, Jupiter’s beard, alfalfa, brome grass; some cut hay.

Beyond the walls and fences: Tamarix, Apache plume, showy milkweed, fernleaf and leatherleaf globemallows, cheese mallow, tumble mustard, alfilerillo, scarlet bee blossom, white evening primrose, velvetweed, bindweed, woolly plantain, stickleaf, purple mat flower, goat’s head, wild licorice mainly seeds, loco, white sweet clover, western goat’s beard, Hopi tea, golden hairy and strap-leaf asters, native and common dandelions; buds on prickly pear and Virginia creeper; bush morning glory up; native yucca leaf points turning brown.

In my yard, looking east: Persian yellow rose, raspberry, winecup mallow, sidalcea, coral bells, baby’s breath, Bath pinks peaked, snow-in-summer, sea pink, Maltese cross, bouncing Bess, pink evening primrose, pink salvia.

Looking south: Pasture, floribunda and rugosa roses, oxalis, tomatilla.

Looking west: Husker red beardtongue, blue flax, catmints, Rumanian sage, flowering spurge, sea lavender; buds on white mullein; tulip leaves turning brown.

Looking north: Catalpa, golden spur columbine, coral beardtongue, Hartweig evening primrose, butterfly weed, Mexican hat, Moonshine and Parker’s Gold yarrows, chocolate flower, coreopsis, blanket flower, anthemis, black-eyed Susan; garlic leaves turned brown.

Bedding plants: Sweet alyssum, pansy, snapdragon, moss rose, impatiens, nicotiana.

Inside: Zonal geranium, aptenia, asparagus fern.

Animal sightings: Hummingbird on coral beardtongue, goldfinch on chocolate flowers, other small birds, gecko, hummingbird moth on columbine at sunset, bees, black butterfly with yellow stripe on catmint, small flying insects, grasshoppers, harvester and small black ants; hear crickets.

Weather: Smoke from a fire near Tesuque has been added to that from Arizona as temperatures stay high; last rain 5/19/11; 15:57 hours of daylight today.

Weekly update: I first saw purple mat flowers blooming in a sidewalk crack in Los Alamos.

Tiny, five-petaled flowers covered a plant that sprawled on concrete with dense narrow leaves. It rather resembled a moss phlox, only the leaves were plumper and furry. When the flowers aged, the petals curved down and the leaves collected sand.

Nama hispidum is generally considered to be a desert annual that grows from northern Arizona and south Texas down into San Luis Potosí. Early in the last century Elmer Wooten and Paul Standley said it grew on dry hills and plains west of Santa Fe, as well as in the Four Corners, the headwaters of the Pecos and other mountainous parts of New Mexico.

As an annual, it moves about, appearing in whatever congenial place its yellow seeds have landed. It appeared in my north-facing garden from 1995 to 1997, then spread east and south until 1999 when I didn’t see any plants. In 2000 they were in the drive and close to a block walk along the side of the house where they ranged until 2008. I haven’t seen any since, but they’ve been wandering along the upriver side of the road leading to the narrow arroyo since.

This year I saw the characteristic hump of greyish-green leaves in an area of the prairie left bare by ATV’s on Easter Sunday. That same day I saw a small one, more flower than plant, blooming by the road near the other arroyo.

Another three weeks passed before I saw purple mat plants again, this time in the middle of the sandy ranch road leading to the large arroyo. It was blooming two weeks later, and had flowers for another week when I also saw a few more, larger plants blooming in the other direction, along side the road.

Last week there were a half dozen plants blooming along the main road, but nothing on the prairie. The last was 13" across and piled 4" high; smaller ones were only 2" tall.

The small petals open from long yellow funnels, much like nicotiana. The Mayo of southern Sonora noticed the resemblance: they call the one goy tobaco or tobaco de coyote and call Nicotiana obtusifolia goy biba and tobaco de coyote. Leaves of the small lavender flowered plant, which smell when they’re rubbed, are scorched and, alone or in an alcohol solution, put on stiff joints. Leaves of the yellow flowered, 3' plant are boiled into a tea that’s “applied to stiff joints and drunk for rheumatism.”

Despite the floral similarity, purple mat isn’t a member of the nightshade family but of the Hydrophyllaceae. Recently, botanists have determined the waterleaf family is probably a subgroup within the borages.

Within the Nama genus, species can be distinguished by both their external and their chemical characteristics. However, hispidum is sufficiently variable that, over time, it’s acquired multiple Latin names. Wooten and Stanley gave two other names, Marilaunidium hispidum and Conanthus hispidus.

Around Tucson, Beth Kinsey says it blooms “in the springtime, and then again in the fall after the summer monsoon rains.” Closer to the border with Sonora, Tohono O’odham Community College in Sells, Arizona, says the “seedlings sprout in mid-winter” while José Jesús Sánchez Escalante says that, in Sonora, moradita “appears every year for the ‘waters’ (summer rainfall).”

Here it blooms in May and June. Blossoms may continue into July when the monsoons appear, but are usually gone by the end of the month. Only in 2006 did I see flowers in October.

Apparently, temperature is as important as water for germination. Norman Deno found the tiny seeds emerge in two to six days when temperatures are 70 or when they’re exposed to the growth hormone, gibberellic acid-3.

This year we had some rain on April 6, 18 days before I saw the first plant. Temperatures in the intervening days were in the 70's when I got home, though mornings were still below freezing. Presumably the daily bouts of heat stimulated the production of GA-3, which in turn led to sprouting.

To survive, annuals have to do more than bloom, they have to produce viable seed. The pollen is eaten by bees, who happen to fertilize the flowers while they’re foraging. Jerome Rozen has found some varieties that feed primarily on sand bells in Arizona, but researchers have observed at least twenty bee species visiting the plants in Sonora.

The mystery to me is why a native plant, left undisturbed and obviously able to reproduce, keeps dying out. Perhaps the seeds spread away from the parent, and my sources have been destroyed by neighbors who continually scrap their yards bare of any but the worse vegetation. Or maybe, the growth of grasses in my yard became too much for a species I usually see in open spots.

For now, if I want to see a purple mat, I have to walk along the shoulder with my eyes downcast, much as I did when I walked the streets of Los Alamos.

Notes:Deno, Norman C. Seed Germination Theory and Practice, supplement 1, 1996.

Escalante, José Jesús Sánchez. “Moradita (Nama hispidum),” Nuestras Plantas Sonorenses website, 15 July 2006, translated by Google from “durante ‘las aguas’ (lluvias de verano).”

Kinsey, T. Beth. “Nama hispidum – Bristly Nama,” The Firefly Forest website.

Newberry, Michael, Teresa Newberry and Ronald Geronimo. “Nama hispidum,” Tohono O’odham Community College Plant Atlas website.

Rozen, J. G. “Nesting Biology and Immature Stages of a New Species in the Bee Genus Hesperapis ( Hymenoptera : Apoidea : Melittidae : Dasypodinae),” American Museum Novitates 2887:1987.

_____. “Nesting Biologies and Immature Stages of the Rophitine Bees (Halictidae) with Notes on the Cleptoparasite Biastes (Anthophoridae) (Hymenoptera: Apoidea),” American Museum Novitates 3066, 1-28:1993.

University of Rochester. “Bees and Floral Hosts of Rancho San Bernardino,” school website.

Wooten, Elmer Otis and Paul Carpenter Standley. Flora of New Mexico, 1915.

Yetman, David and Thomas R. Van Devender. Mayo Ethnobotany, 2002.

Photograph: Purple mat flower blooming along side the road, 12 June 2011.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Showy Milkweed

What’s blooming in the area: Dr. Huey, wild pink, hybrid tea and miniature roses, buddleia, Japanese honeysuckle, silver lace vine, wide-leaved and red yuccas, lilies, daylily, red hot poker, hollyhock, datura, sweet pea, Jupiter’s beard, alfalfa, brome grass; corn about 6" high.

Beyond the walls and fences: Tamarix, Apache plume, four-wing salt bush, showy milkweed, fernleaf and leatherleaf globemallows, cheese mallow, tumble mustard, alfilerillo disappearing with heat, scarlet bee blossom, white evening primrose, velvetweed, bindweed, gypsum phacelia peaked, woolly plantain, purple mat flower, nits and lice, goat’s head, wild licorice, loco, white sweet clover, western goat’s beard, Hopi tea, native and common dandelions, rice, and three awn grasses; buds on Virginia creeper and stickleaf; needle grass only bloomed along my drive, not in the yard or on the prairie; cottonwood cotton collecting on ground.

In my yard, looking east: Persian yellow rose, raspberry, winecup mallow, coral bells, small-leaved soapwort passing, Bath pinks, snow-in-summer, sea pink, Maltese cross, bouncing Bess, pink evening primrose, pink salvia; buds on baby’s breath; oriental poppy petals had white blotches Monday from whatever blew in from Arizona.

Looking south: Pasture, floribunda and rugosa roses, oxalis, tomatilla.

Looking west: Chives, vinca, Husker red beardtongue, blue flax, catmints, Rumanian sage, flowering spurge; buds on sea lavender.

Looking north: Golden spur columbine, coral beardtongue, Hartweig evening primrose, Mexican hat, chocolate flower, coreopsis, blanket flower, anthemis; buds on butterfly weed, black-eyed Susan and fernleaf yarrow.

Bedding plants: Sweet alyssum, pansy, snapdragon, moss rose, impatiens; buds on nicotiana; peppers still struggling with the heat.

Inside: Zonal geranium, aptenia, asparagus fern.

Animal sightings: Small and large hummingbirds, house finches and other small birds, gecko, bees on catmint, cabbage butterfly, small flying insects, harvester and small black ants; hear crickets.

Weather: Air smelled of burning chemicals Monday from fires to the southwest; all week the Jemez grew slowing indistinct at sundown, sometimes disappearing altogether while the sun turned red as it entered the layer of dust and ash; some mornings temperatures fell into the 40's and others they didn’t go below 60; last rain 5/19/11; 15:55 hours of daylight today.

Weekly update: The biggest milkweed I’ve ever seen is blooming above the village ditch.

When I get on the bank, last year’s grey, furrowed pods are as high as my nose; when I stand on the road side, they’re above my head.

This year’s flowers reach my biceps. Fuzzy leaves, 7" long and 3 1/2" wide at their base, cuddle 3" balls dotted with pale pink stars. The supporting stems are about 3/8" thick.

This showy milkweed’s larger than any in the parent colony a mile away to the southeast where plants grow about two feet in a ditch bottom and along its inner banks. The difference is that water flows through the one ditch more often than it does the other. Even though this milkweed species ranges west from the great plains, it still needs water.

We’re outside any path used by migrating monarch butterflies, so this member of the milkweed family has been free to respond to the arid environment. Leaves and stems of Asclepias speciosa contains much less latex than those of the common milkweed, Asclepias syriaca, or the broadleafed Asclepias latifolia found on the edge of a monarch path in west Texas. However, they contain more than is found in the horsetail variety, Asclepias subverticillata, used by the Zuñi to the west.

While the absence of monarchs has meant a need to expend less energy to defend against predators, it has also meant the plant has to attract some other insect to fertilize its flowers. Large blossoms and great quantities of nectar are two obvious devices of allurement.

Their green centers contain consolidated reproduction units that snare the legs of unwary insects. As they free themselves, they dislodge packets of pollen which they shake off or drop when they approach the next flower.

The bee I saw land on one of the flowers was extremely cautious, approaching the cluster from the base and attacking a flower from one of its bottom points.

Unfortunately for the milkweed, the insect is likely to go to the next available flower on the plant instead of flying to another plant and a plant can’t accept its own pollen. Matthew Finer and Martin Morgan found plants they deliberately pollinated produced more pods than those in the wild where insects alone did the fertilization.

What’s surprising is that the plants they hand pollinated, but left available to insects also produced fewer pods than the ones they pollinated but covered so insects couldn’t reach them.

Susan Stone Bookman thinks the reason is showy milkweed plants have a finite ability to feed themselves and so are forced to kill off more than 95% of the flowers and potential pods. Mature pods contain two to seven times the amount of nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus as young ovaries.

From this, it’s easy to see that flowers that are pollinated first would be most likely to survive than those visited later, and that afternoon fertilizations, when the plant is more stressed, would be less successful. What’s not self-evident is that, if enough time passes, Bookman found another flower in a cluster can be successfully pollinated.

While very few pods survive to tower above the living mass of grey-green leaves, the dark flat seeds they produce are extremely viable. In one test, 95% emerged the first year, most in May, and the rest before the end of July. They can even survive some time in water and still germinate.

Young seedlings concentrate on developing what will become long taproots which allow them to survive the early summer droughts that precede the monsoons. As a result, they can be choked by surrounding vegetation before their stems rise into the sun.

The milkweeds in the village landed near a fence covered by Virginia creeper. The warm weather perennials don’t put out their leaves until after the vine, and so must shove their way through their competitors every year.

Although most are single plants rising from a crown, some specimens apparently can produce additional plants from their roots when conditions require. However, the presence of nearby clones increases a plant’s problem with endogamous pollen.

Botanists raised in a world where they’re told market forces rule supreme like to do cost-benefit analysis or energy efficiency assays for plants, hoping in the process they are finding the key to evolution. Perhaps I’m a hopeless romantic when I think the lives of milkweed are more than a series of sacrificial tradeoffs made to survive an irrational climate, that their moments of grandeur are more than feeding opportunities for bees.

I know they don’t exist for my aesthetic pleasure, that the slim chance of my noticing them as I drive by is of no concern to nature. Still, such events occur and just might also aid their survival. After all the ditch holding the parent colony is cleared every year, and the milkweeds persist.

Notes:Agrawal, Anurag A., Marc J. Lajeunesse and Mark Fishbein. “Evolution of Latex and its Constituent Defensive Chemistry in Milkweeds (Asclepias): a Test of Phylogenetic Escalation,” Entomologia Experimentalis et Applicata 128:126–38:2008; the latex levels they found were: subverticillata: .277, speciosa: .819, syriaca: 1.540, latifolia: 5.925; all by syriaca occur in northern New Mexico.

Bookman, Susan Stone. “Costs and Benefits of Flower Abscission and Fruit Abortion in Asclepias speciosa,” Ecology 64:264–273:1983.

_____. “Effects of Pollination Timing on Fruiting in Asclepias speciosa Torr. (Asclepiadaceae),” American Journal of Botany 70:897-905:1983.

Conrad, Jim. “Milkweed Flowers,” Backyard Nature website, has a clear description of milkweed flowers with good pictures.

Finer, Matthew S. and Martin T. Morgan. “Effects of Natural Rates of Geitonogamy on Fruit Set in Asclepias speciosa (Apocynaceae): Evidence Favoring the Plant's Dilemma,” American Journal of Botany 90:1746-1750:2003.

Ulev, Elena D. “Asclepias speciosa,” 2005, in United States Forest Service, Fire Effects Information System on-line database; summarizes research of others, including W. S. Chepil’s “Germination of Seeds. I. Longevity, Periodicity of Germination, and Vitality of Seeds in Cultivated Soil,” Scientific Agriculture 26: 307-346:1946.

Photograph: Showy milkweed growing with Virginia creeper outside a 4' fence atop a village ditch bank, 5 June 2011; last year’s pods rise on the brown stalks in back; a flower opened wide at the bottom left shows the green center.

Sunday, June 05, 2011

Wild Licorice

What’s blooming in the area: Catalpa, purple-flowered locust, wild pink, hybrid tea and miniature roses, Japanese honeysuckle, silver lace vine, sweet pea, wide-leaved yucca, onion, daylily, Jupiter’s beard, purple salvia; buds on lilies; datura up.

Beyond the walls and fences: Russian olive, tamarix, Apache plume, four-wing salt bush, common and showy milkweeds, fernleaf globemallow, cheese mallow, tumble mustard, alfilerillo, scarlet bee blossom, white evening primrose, velvetweed, bindweed, gypsum phacelia, woolly plantain, escaped alfalfa, wild licorice, loco, western goat’s beard, native and common dandelions, June, needle, rice, and three awn grasses; buds on Virginia creeper. Winds have dislodged salt bushes from crevices high in the arroyo walls.

In my yard: Black locust, beauty bush, privet, Dr. Huey and rugosa roses, raspberry, chives, red hot poker, oriental poppy, winecup, vinca, golden spur columbine, coral bells, oxalis, baptisia, small-leaved soapwort, Bath pinks, snow-in-summer, sea pink, Maltese cross, blue flax, Hartweig and pink evening primroses, pink salvia, catmints, Rumanian sage, chocolate flower, coreopsis; buds on hollyhock, butterfly weed, bouncing Bess, Mexican hat, fernleaf yarrow, blanket flower and anthemis; morning glory seeds breaking through; daffodil leaves turning brown.

Bedding plants: Sweet alyssum, pansy, snapdragon, moss rose; buds on nicotiana; tomatoes and peppers still wilting every afternoon.

Inside: Zonal geranium, aptenia, asparagus fern.

Animal sightings: Rabbit, hummingbird, bumble bee on baptisia and catmint, small bee on catmint, small butterfly on blue salvia, hornet on pink evening primrose, cricket, harvester and small black ants.

Weather: Winds early in week, followed by smoke from the west; everything lay in suspension as the sun turned red and futile storms foregathered; last rain 5/19/11; 15:49 hours of daylight today.

Weekly update: Is the wild licorice blooming along the ditches near the village a native plant or a weed?

In the early twentieth century, Elmer Wooten and Paul Standley described the legume with its prominent white spikes and prickly pods as a “common weed in cultivated ground and along ditch banks.” Among the places it grew were Zuni, San Juan, Ojo Caliente, Chama and Raton.

More recently, a group in Colorado wanted to know which plants were part of the natural under story for cottonwoods, willows and salt cedars, so the land could be properly restored along the Rio Dolores when tamarix was removed. They found Glycyrrhiza lepidota was an indicator for a willow canopy.

It was the same kind of quest for the remnants of the real rather than the ruderal that sent Lenora Curtin down a wagon track near La Ciruela in the late 1940' where she found a woman with ten children near a “willow-sheltered streamlet” who told her that she drank a strained extract of crushed licorice roots three times a day from the third day after giving birth to her first menses. She especially recommended it “in cases of retention of the afterbirth.”

Curtin doesn’t reveal anything more about the woman.

Angelico Chavez, however, tells us his great-great-grandfather, José Encarnación Chaves, helped found the village in former Comanche territory after the United States established Fort Union in what is now Mora County in 1851. The mountain community, originally settled by people from places like Belen, boomed in the early 1880's when it supplied ties for construction crews of the Santa Fe railroad, then withered away. Chavez’s grandfather Eugenio moved to Wagon Mound around 1885.

More interestingly, Chavez tells us José Encarnación’s grandfather, Christóbal Chaves, married a woman whose family was from Mexico City, María Josefa Núñez. His mother was appalled when he married outsiders, but his grandchildren began to call themselves los Chaves Mexicanos. Eugenio came to believe his own grandfather had come from México.

When he died, his cousin Bernardo Chaves wanted to marry the widow. His first wife had been a plains Indian servant. She refused.

It’s traditions associated with María Josefa which are important for wild licorice. Many of the plains tribes had discovered the same thing the Europeans knew, that a saponin in the root of many members of the genus was good for treating coughs and the throat in general. Only the Europeans used it as a gynecological aid.

In first century Dioscorides included licorice in his section on herbs used as abortifacients, without explicitly saying it would serve that purpose. John Riddle found it used thereafter in formulas for treating delayed periods or removing the remains of the placenta. He believed its efficacy in the first instance arose from the fact it contains estrogenic chemicals.

Recently, Finnish researchers may have discovered why it works to clear the body after labor. They found children of women who ate licorice flavored candy when they were pregnant were more likely to have impaired cognitive functions that led to behavioral problems. The group hypothesized that the active agent, glycyrrhiza, weakens the embryonic sac and thus inhibits its ability to act as a protective barrier from harmful chemicals that pass from the mother into the fetal brain.

The knowledge of wild licorice in northern New Mexico may have developed in several phases. Since lepidota is the only species growing in North America and its range doesn’t extend into México, people raised in places like Durango may well have forgotten the plant. The trait local settlers noticed was that the root foamed in water like the amole or yucca, and so it was called amollilo.

The folk knowledge derived from the Spanish Glycyrrhiza glabra could have arrived separately, and then spread. Curtin found a woman in Chimayó who mixed it with rice in water as an emmenagogue and another who used the unstrained pulp in water to produce “a good cleanser of the uterus.”

While it’s easy to think there was one group of settlers who came with Juan de Oñate and who returned after the Pueblo revolt, the histories of Angelico Chavez’s family and of Chimayó suggest that, under that seeming uniformity, there were a great many opportunities for new ideas to be introduced and enough internal migration to diffuse medicinal lore and plants.

The woman, or women, who first used the plant didn’t have to have seen the Spanish plant, only an imported root. The preparation Curtin heard described, mashing the roots in water, is much simpler than the European technique of crushing them under millstones, then boiling them and evaporating the liquid to produce sticks.

What’s not widespread is wild licorice. Its deep, fleshy taproots demand a moist environment. While the long pea-shaped flowers are fertile, the reddish-brown seeds have relatively low germination rates. To compensate, a single plant expands into a colony from creeping rhizomes which can be transplanted.

The area where the Santa Cruz flows down from Chimayó to enter the Rio Grande was once a wetland where wild licorice could easily have grown. However, after the Santa Cruz was damned and the area drained to eradicate malaria, much of the original riparian vegetation disappeared. The plants growing along the local ditches could be survivors from that past or something introduced, a potential weed in an increasingly suburbanized community.

The transition from one status to the other, from valued native to unwanted weed, may be as slow, as subtle and undeliberate as the family legends that transformed the reality of María Josefa into the romantic grandfather of Eugenio.

Chavez, Angelico. Chavez, 2009.

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

Julyan, Robert Hixson. The Place Names of New Mexico, 1996, on La Ciruela.

Korb, Julie E., Cynthia Dott and Sara Bombaci. “Understory Plant Community Variability among Tamarisk, Cottonwood, and Willow Canopy Types along a Regulated Reach of the Dolores River, Colorado - Implications for Ecological Restoration ,” Tamarix Coalition website.

Moerman, Dan. Native American Ethnobotany, 1998; summarizes ethnographies of plains and other tribes.

Räikkönen, Katri, Anu-Katriina Pesonen, Kati Heinonen, Jari Lahti, Niina Komsi, Johan G. Eriksson, Jonathan R. Seckl, Anna-Liisa Järvenpää and Timo E. Strandberg. “Maternal Licorice Consumption and Detrimental Cognitive and Psychiatric Outcomes in Children,” American Journal of Epidemiology 170: 1137-1146:2009; most candy sold in this country as licorice in fact is flavored with anise, not licorice.

Riddle, John M. Contraception and Abortion from the Ancient World to the Renaissance, 1992, discusses Dioscorides’ De Materia Medica.

_____. Eve’s Herbs: A History of Contraception and Abortion in the West, 1997.

Wooten, Elmer Otis and Paul Carpenter Standley. Flora of New Mexico, 1915.

Photograph: Wild licorice growing on a ditch bank near the village, 20 May 2011.