Sunday, September 25, 2011

Wild Bush Pea

What’s blooming in the area: Hybrid tea roses, rose of Sharon, Russian sage, buddleia peaked, silver lace vine, red yucca, datura, sweet pea, Heavenly Blue morning glories, purple phlox, Sensation cosmos, French marigolds, alfalfa, pampas grass; red apples in one orchard, others still look barren.

Beyond the walls and fences: Apache plume, Indian paintbrush, leatherleaf globemallows, blue trumpets, blue gilia, scarlet bee blossom, white and yellow evening primroses, bindweed, ivy-leaf morning glory, newly sprouted goat’s head, white sweet clover, bush pea, stickleaf, toothed spurge, prostrate knotweed, lamb’s quarter, Russian thistle, amaranth, 3" high pigweed, ragweed, native sunflowers, snakeweed, spiny lettuce, gumweed, Hopi tea, carpets of 6" high áñil del muerto, Tahoka daisy, broom senecio, golden hairy, strap-leaf, purple and heath asters, cockle bur, sand bur, black grama and muhly ring grasses, crust, green moss; gypsum phacelia up; leaves turning red on Virginia creeper and velvetweed.

In my yard, looking east: Garlic chives, Autumn Joy sedum darkened, winecup mallow, sidalcea, large-leaf soapwort, pink evening primrose, Shirley poppies, Maximilian sunflowers, tansy.

Looking south: Floribunda and rugosa roses, 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, David phlox, Silver King artemisia; peach leaves turn yellow and drop immediately.

Looking north: Golden spur columbine, Mexican hat, chocolate flower, blanket flower, yellow cosmos from seed, black-eyed Susan, chrysanthemum.

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

Inside: Aptenia, asparagus fern.

Animal sightings: Hornets, harvester and small black ants.

Weather: Morning and afternoon temperatures lower; last rain 9/17/11; 12:02 hours of daylight today.

Weekly update: It’s a pea. That’s what I said to myself when a flash of bright color stopped me from checking the juniper berries on the other side of the arroyo.

I knelt down to see better. No doubt, it was a pea. The bright rose purple flower was larger and more open than most, but it had the characteristic five petals: the wide top banner, a pair of wings that hung down like puppy ears, and the barely visible pair that makes the snout nosed keel.

There was only one flower to a stem, and the stems appeared in pairs. One bloomed before the other. In many cases, I saw a flower and the dark hammock of a bud. In other cases, one flower was open and the other was fading or tan.

It was the seed pods that most loudly shouted, “Yo! Pea here.” Flat green cases attached by reddish stems crossed by darker veins. When the light shone through, two to four round lumps were visible.

With Procrustean certainty, I know it’s a pea, but a week later I can’t tell you what kind. Botanists have reused terms and invented new ones so often, later taxonomists note the confusion and bypass it by offering their own, new definitions.

The problem began with Friedrich Pursh, who described both his work and the collection of Lewis and Clark. He called a large purple flowered pea with large pods from the Missouri river Lathyrus decaphyllus. However, no specimen survived in either the expedition’s or his herbariums, leaving a broad description that could be attached to anything, including the flower I saw last Sunday.

Thomas Nuttall thought the label really applied to Vicia stipulacea, while Nathaniel Britton used the term for a different large flowered plant from the Rocky Mountains. Frederick King Butters and Harold Saint John decided Pursh’s Missouri river plant was really Lathyrus venosa intonsus. They called the unknown species, which doesn’t reach as far east, Lathyrus eucosmus, and indicated it was partly Nuttall’s Lathyrus polymorphus, but not his decaphyllus. Their examples included some collected in Santa Fe in 1874 and 1897.

Needless to say little one reads can be trusted. No one can be more correct than his or her references. The actual distinctions are traits too minuscule to appear in normal photographs.

Elmer Wooton and Paul Standley used decaphyllus for a “rather handsome” plant with “larger flowers than most of the species” that grew in the “plains and open fields” where it “often becomes a weed in cultivated fields” and didn’t mention the other names.

Daniel Moerman standardized on polymorphus for the species eaten by the Cochiti, Acoma and Laguna and used eucosmus for the plant utilized medicinally by the Navajo. Leonora Curtin identified patito del pais as “Lathyrus decaphyllus (eucosmus" which Spanish speakers in northern New Mexico used to treat toothaches, mumps, tonsilitis, and headaches.

The only thing that says “maybe I’m not a pea, I’m only teasing” are the long, narrow leaves. They form rather shapeless grey-green masses clinging to the sides of the north facing slope of the ranch road that rather resemble some pictures Tom Chester published of Lathyrus brachycalyx zionis from the Bright Angel Trail in the Grand Canyon. That species, which Susannah Johnson and Kelly Allard says is often confused with eucosmos, has sessile pods and only appears in New Mexico around the San Juan tributary to the Colorado river.

More important, the leaves on the plants I saw don’t terminate in tendrils, a trait that separates both Lathyrus and Vicia from other legumes. However, Johnson and Allred suggest that while ecosmus has “well-developed and prehensile” vines at the end of the upper stems with leaves, the lower ones are “short and bristle-like.” No one has commented on the effects of environment on leaf variation, only quibbled on the difference between elliptic-lanceolate and oblong-elliptic.

I suppose it’s safe to call them bush peas, though they don’t all look like bushes, and simply enjoy them for what they are: bright colored pea flowers.

As for the juniper berries that led me up the road where they were blooming only a few have started to turn purple. Most are still grey-green.

Butters, Frederick King and Harold Saint John. ‘Studies in Certain North American Lathyrus,” Rhodora 19:160-163:1917.

Chester, Tom. “Plant Species of the Bright Angel Trail: Bush Peavine, Lathyrus brachycalyx ssp. zionis,” available on-line. He wasn’t sure about his identification, since eucosmus has been treated by some as another subspecies of brachycalyx, and consulted Wendy Hodgson, an expert on Grand Canyon flora.

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

Johnson, Susannah and Kelly W. Allred. “A Taxonomic Review of the Tendril-bearing Legumes (Leguminosae) in New Mexico: I. Lathyrus,” The New Mexico Botanist number 25:1-7:1 January 2003.

Moerman, Dan. Native American Ethnobotany, 1998.

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

Photograph: Pea flower in full bloom and one fading; a pair of pods on another stem, with a dark bud on another; ranch road leaving far arroyo, 18 September 2011.

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