Sunday, October 02, 2011


What’s blooming in the area: Hybrid tea roses, rose of Sharon, Russian sage, silver lace vine, red yucca, datura, sweet pea, Sensation cosmos, French marigolds, alfalfa, pampas grass.

Beyond the walls and fences: Apache plume, Indian paintbrush near chamisa, leatherleaf globemallows, blue trumpets, blue gilia, clammy weed, white and yellow evening primroses, bindweed, ivy-leaf morning glory, goat’s head, white sweet clover, bush pea, stickleaf, toothed spurge, prostrate knotweed, lamb’s quarter, Russian thistle, amaranth, pigweed, ragweed, chamisa, native sunflowers, snakeweed, spiny lettuce, gumweed, Hopi tea, 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.

In my yard, looking east: Winecup mallow, sidalcea, large-leaf soapwort, pink evening primrose, Shirley and California poppies, Maximilian sunflowers, tansy.

Looking south: Floribunda roses, reseeded and new Crimson Rambler morning glories; sweet alyssum, moss rose and zinnia from seed; spirea leaves turning orange-brown.

Looking west: Calamintha, sea lavender, lead plant, Silver King artemisia; white spurge leaves turned red.

Looking north: Golden spur columbine, nasturtium from seed, Mexican hat, chocolate flower, blanket flower, yellow cosmos from seed, black-eyed Susan, chrysanthemum; lower leaves of sand cherry turning red.

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

Inside: Aptenia, asparagus fern.

Animal sightings: Bees on west side of house, hornets on east, some kind of striped black buzzing insect on flowers in arroyo, miller moths nuisance in house at night, harvester and small black ants in drive.

Weather: Needed to water because last rain fell more than two weeks ago, 9/17/11; 11:43 hours of daylight today.

Weekly update: The final race of the year has begun, the one between newly germinated seedlings and the coming freeze. Pigweed’s blooming in the drive where it’s 3" high. Everywhere áñil del muerto’s tracing water paths in 6" high yellow drifts.

Last Sunday some clammy weed I hadn’t noticed the week before at the base of the arroyo wall had vestigial flowers on plants only a few inches high. The blue gilia was still putting out dark flowers and a few balls of sand verbena were bright white.

While they’re expediting their reproductive cycles, morning temperatures are falling into the low 40's. Chlorophyll is draining from the cottonwoods, the weeping and globe willows. Soon, the underlying yellow will be all that’s seen, before those leaves drop and bare branches are left for winter.

Nature isn’t restful nor does it run with the regularity of a clock. Men who depend on it to survive are constantly living with the consequences of drought or freeze or destructive insects. No apples, too much squash, what to eat this winter.

The first gardens were luxuries invented by those who could afford to escape such caprices, literal oases in the desert where palms were always green.

A craving for predictable beauty arises among those who spend days in drab cubes where work provides no satisfaction and the results please no one. Many don’t want a garden to reproduce the variations of nature, the frosted apples, the late blooming marigolds: they want it to stand as defiant proof that here at least they can control their environment.

For such people, nature created impatiens - tropical flowers that bloom day and night in the nursery and after they’re planted anywhere there’s shade, coolish temperatures and enough water. The five petaled flowers are simple. No complex patterns of stamens disturb the flat planes of brilliant color that can, in a good year, completely cover the fat, succulent stems and sticky dark green leaves.

Of course, nature didn’t create modern impatiens. The only plant it seems to have provided that’s constantly in bloom is the dandelion, and even that has a cycle. One day’s golden flowers are the next day’s bare stalks.

Only a human weary of feckless nature could have produced such a reliable bedding plant. Claude Hope was born in Sweetwater, Texas, a city best known for its annual rattlesnake round-up. It gets more water than we do, enough to grow prickly pear, but it’s still dry and windy and brown much of the year.

In an act that could only signify a desire to escape west Texas, he went to college in Lubbock where he earned a degree in ornamental horticulture. Alas, that got him a job with the USDA developing fungus-resistant cotton in Arizona. Cotton boles catch in the barbed wire on the road from Sweetwater to Lubbock where it’s the only crop that’s grown. The plants are shorter than in the deep south, the rows more widely spaced. People I knew in nearby Abilene, who’d been raised in northern Mississippi, shuddered when they saw them.

During World War II, the army sent him to Costa Rica to oversee quinine production after the Japanese captured the Philippines. They didn’t know enough about the plant to select a good site and their attempt failed. Synthetic drugs were developed instead.

After the war Hope joined other men in the country who were organizing Pan-American Seed to supply U. S. wholesalers. Temperature and day length are so even there, Hope believed he could get four crops of seeds a year with cheaper labor. He was given the opportunity to develop better petunias, those bright colored, smelly, sticky stemmed money makers of the 50's.

Others were the ones experimenting with the tropical Impatiens walleriana, which evolved in eastern Africa in the late pleistocene when temperatures were still cool and conditions wet. The rose colored Balsaminaceae, which could get 3' tall, had been taken to London in 1896, where it was treated as a house plant.

While he spent day after day staring at light deadening, red petunias to create one given the muscular name Comanche, men at Ball Seed in Santa Paula, California and West Chicago were competing to produce the best light-shy pastel impatiens with ethereal names. Rob Reiman’s Pixie White was introduced in 1958. Two years later rival Sluis et Groot brought an F1 hybrid to market called Imp.

In 1961 Reiman and Bill Marchant gave their purified in-breed lines to Hope, who, by then, had his own farm in the highlands where he had disciplined workers mass producing F1 hybrids. He worked to make the tender perennials more compact, with more branches to carry the terminal racemes. His first plants, Elfin, were offered in 1968 in eight colors.

He later told Allen Lacy he had no time for corporate busybodies who based their decisions of sales history because the past “can't tell you what people might buy in the future, if it happened to be available.” If asked what they wanted in 1970, many gardeners would have said a better petunia. Twenty years later, they were saying better impatiens.

But someone who grew up ducking tornados knows you never get exactly what you want from what’s on offer. As Hope said, to please those growers and homeowners who seek a comforting escape from the stresses of modern life, he’s “got to take risks, to use his imagination to dream up something new, and then work his tail off trying to make it a reality.''

Howe, T. K. “Evaluation of Impatiens Cultivars for the Landscape in West-Central Florida,” Florida State Horticultural Society Proceedings 111:195-202:1998, on Reiman and Marchant.

Janssens, Steven B., Eric B. Knox, Suzy Huysmans, Erik F. Smets and Vincent S. F. T. Merckx. "Rapid Radiation of Impatiens (Balsaminaceae) during Pliocene and Pleistocene: Result of a Global Climate Change,” Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 52:806-824:2009.

Lacy, Allen. “Claude Hope, the Seed King of Costa Rica” in Farther Afield: A Gardener's Excursions, 1998.

Photograph: Impatiens growing in deep shade near a leaky hose with vinca and golden spur columbine, 1 October 2011.

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