Sunday, September 04, 2011

Blue Gilia

What’s blooming in the area: Hybrid tea roses, rose of Sharon, Russian sage, buddleia, trumpet creeper, silver lace vine, red yucca, datura, sweet pea, Heavenly Blue morning glories, purple phlox, cultivated sunflowers, Sensation cosmos, alfalfa, brome and pampas grasses; squash leaves turning yellow.

Beyond the walls and fences: Tamarix, Apache plume, leatherleaf globemallows, scarlet bee blossom, white and yellow evening primroses, whorled milkweed, bindweed, scarlet creeper, goat’s head, white sweet and purple clovers, stickleaf, buffalo gourd, silver leaf nightshade, toothed spurge, prostrate knotweed, lamb’s quarter, Russian thistle, amaranth, pigweed, ragweed, native sunflowers, chamisa near river, spiny lettuce, horseweed, paper flower, gumweed, Hopi tea, goldenrod, áñil del muerto, Tahoka daisy, golden hairy aster, sandburs; buds on broom senecio and heath aster; buffalo gourd gourds.

In my yard, looking east: Hosta, garlic chives, Autumn Joy sedum, hollyhock, winecup mallow, sidalcea, baby’s breath, Maltese cross, bouncing Bess, large-leaf soapwort, pied snapdragon, Jupiter’s beard, pink evening primrose, Shirley poppies, cutleaf coneflower, Maximilian sunflowers, tansy.

Looking south: Floribunda and rugosa roses, Illinois bundle flower, reseeded and new Crimson Rambler morning glories; sweet alyssum, moss rose and zinnia from seed.

Looking west: Caryopteris, calamintha, sea lavender, lead plant, perennial four o’clock, Mönch aster; buds on Silver King artemisia.

Looking north: Golden spur columbine, Mexican hat, chocolate flower, blanket flower, yellow cosmos from seed, black-eyed Susan, chrysanthemum; long green pod on butterfly weed.

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

Inside: Aptenia, asparagus fern.

Animal sightings: Hummingbirds, hummingbird moth, small bees, hornets, harvester and small black ants, hear crickets.

Weather: Rain several days, with a lot of standing water along the road late Thursday afternoon; saw smoke in the Jemez yesterday afternoon; last rain 9/3/11; 12:51 hours of daylight today.

Weekly update: The monsoon rains have finally arrived. The roadsides, prairie and arroyos are reacting, each in their own way.

The shoulders are a refuse of summer annual seeds that wait for the right conditions to germinate. Some, like sunflowers, pigweed and ragweed, seem to have missed their time. Those that emerged early were about a foot high when the rains began. They’re not much taller now, but are blooming. Toward the village, where there’s been more moisture from the ditches and river, plants are their usual selves, tall and in full bloom.

Russian thistles aren’t so easily discouraged. There were few during the summer and they too only got about a foot high before turning spiny. Since the rain, in openings here and there, dense grass is about half an inch high. Much is young cheat grass; the rest will soon push up single spears that reveal their true identity.

Goat’s heads apparently have been taking advantage of the lack of competition from overshadowing weeds. Where bright green pairs of smooth-edged, oval leaves have sprung up, the ones nearest the road are putting out plump red stems with eight tiny leaflets. The existing plants have already expanded their territory. The other seedlings still could be next year’s white sweet clover or this year’s áñil del muerto: the one has already peaked for this season, the other is still scarce.

Earlier bindweed grew luxuriantly in abandoned vegetable gardens and corn fields when the usual pigweed and Russian thistles didn’t appear. By the time the rains came, they’d already exhausted themselves. Those that weren’t cleared by the vigilant had disappeared with the unrelenting heat and dryness, leaving the usual ones blooming along the road.

The related ivy-leaved morning glories are now sprouting in the wash, while an occasional scarlet creeper is finally opening in the village. However, while toothed spurge has been up for a few weeks, it’s no where dense as usual. Purslane and clammy weed simply haven’t appeared.

The dry river beds are very different - nothing is growing. The waters rushed through with such force two weekends ago they washed everything away. The near arroyo, where Russian thistles had colonized the bases of the newly reinforced walls, is now bare. The bottom, leveled by heavy equipment and the wind, has been resculpted.

In the far arroyo, the carpet of leaves and dead plant debris that had collected under the tamarix are gone. The grasses and small chamisas are prostrate, pasted by mud. The only green leaves are on short plants hiding under the protection of the largest chamisas whose roots can resist the compulsive force of passing floods.

The waters reached both sides, with mud still caked several inches up the western bank. On the east, it was strong enough to undercut the base and collapse the wall in places. Some scurf peas are hanging by their white roots.

Downstream on the flood plain, cream tips had earlier become raised islands when the wind dislodged sand around their lower stems. Now, one that had grown near the edge of the active bottom is held prone by a thick, exposed root. The water removed the protecting inch high bank.

In between, the prairie hasn’t changed much. Some grama grass, probably blue grama, is putting up new sprouts, but needle grass is responding slowly. In my yard, where I started watering the native grasses a few weeks ago, the black grama and needle grass are turning green, but in the areas left to nature, things are still brown. Either the messages from the sun angles or the continuing alternations of moisture and evaporation are signaling restraint.

In places where forbs do exist, usually closer to the arroyo bank or the ranch road, some that went dormant are coming back, the strap-leafed asters here, a stickleaf there. The golden hairy asters, which have been blooming everywhere for weeks, are still low clumps crouched within the cages of last year’s dead stems.

The blue gilia has had one of the toughest years. The low growing shrub usually is covered with five-petaled flowers from the end of April until mid-June. Last year, two large plants were living near the base of the deep road cut just north of the arroyo. Smaller plants bloomed in a small waterway leading to an arroyo feeder to the west of the shaded parents.

This year, the smaller plants began blooming in mid-April, but I almost never saw their flowers fully open. When they did unfurl, it seemed to be just before ten in the morning. I never saw flowers on the two larger plants, just lantern-shaped buds and greyish spent blooms.

The Polemoniaceae that most resembles mossy phlox is native to the dry southwest. It’s found from Colorado, Kansas and Oklahoma down through Arizona, New Mexico and Texas into Chihuahua, Coahuila and Nuevo León.

Taxonomists can’t agree if blue bowls should be called Gilia rigidula or Giliastrum rigidulum ssp. acerosum, but do agree the genus emerged early, probably in Texas or northern Mexico when the climate was drying in the mid-tertiary period and swamps were giving way to grasslands. Leon Stuchlik believes our plants represent “the most primitive species in the genus,” with pollen very similar to its supposed Loeselia ancestor.

The response of the herbaceous perennial to cyclic droughts is to reduce its activity, to stop blooming when moisture disappears in June and maintain its fading, needle tipped leaves until the monsoons. Last year, a few brightened the end of July and bloomed the first week in August. Their leaves stayed green until temperatures fell into the low 20's last November, then fell away leaving twiggy skeletons that faded from red to white by mid December.

The central stem, with its main limbs that branch into a dense ground cover, rises from a reddish taproot that doesn’t penetrate particularly deeply into the soil. The normal equilibrium that’s maintained between the fleshy root and hairy, glandular leaves was challenged by this year’s prolonged drought. The leaves turned brown by August.

When rain finally trickled down the slopes of the road cut, the roots revived and in the past weeks new growth has developed. In the spring this happens about a month before the funnel shaped flowers appear with white-rimmed yellow centers and yellow stamens.

The color of those petals is the rich jewel shade painters seek to paint the virgin Mary’s cloak. It’s a hue more likely found here than in the lowlands. Muriel Wheldale Onslow found the purple anthocyanin pigment needs alkaline sap to turn blue, and the higher the altitude, the more intense the color. She said drought and heat also increase production of the pigment, which may be why the flowers are darkest in June, just before the summer hiatus.

Grant, Verne. “Classification of the Genus Gilia (Polemoniaceae),” Phytologia 84:69-86:1998.

Onslow, Muriel Wheldale. The Anthocyanin Pigments of Plants, 1916.

Stuchlik, L. “Pollen Morphology and Taxonomy of the Family Polemoniaceae,” Review of Palaeobotany and Palynology 4:325-333:1967.

Photograph: New blue gilia leaves on the bank of the ranch road near the arroyo, 28 August 2011.

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