Sunday, May 20, 2012

Sweet Sand Verbena

Weather: Rain last weekend, followed by sun and winds determined to take it back; last rain 5/13/12; 14:12 hours of daylight today.

What’s blooming in the area: Catalpas,wild pink, Persian yellow, Austrian Copper, Dr. Huey and other hybrid roses, pyracantha, snowball, purple flowered locust, alfalfa, Spanish broom, silver lace vine, bearded iris, yuccas, red hot poker, peony, datura, donkey tail spurge, sweet pea, blue perennial salvia, yellow flowered yarrow.

One person’s corn is about 8" high.

Beyond the walls and fences: Apache plume, Russian olive, tamarix, four-winger saltbush, yuccas, fernleaf globemallow, western stickseed, bractless cryptantha, alfilerillo, hoary cress, tumble and purple mustards, purple mat flower, gypsum phacelia, stick leaf, tufted white evening primrose, scarlet bee blossom, blue gilia, bindweed, nits and lice, oxalis, wild licorice, scurf and bush peas, pale trumpets, sand verbena, woolly plantain, flea bane, plain’s paper flower, goat’s beard, cream tips, native dandelion; needle, rice, June, three awn and cheat grasses; moss; new growth on prickly pear.

As soon as the storms passed through and left some rain, the biological crust became active in my yard. On Monday morning, my neighbor’s yard was a silvery sheet of two inch high pigweed. Lamb’s quarter germinated soon after.

In my yard, looking east: Bath pinks, snow-in-summer, small leaved soapwort, Jupiter’s beard, sea pink, coral bells, pink evening primrose, oriental poppy, winecup mallow, pink salvia; buds on hollyhock, baby’s breath.

Looking south: Rugosa and miniature roses, raspberries, beauty bush, Dutch clover; buds on floribunda roses.

Looking west: Skunk bush, vinca, blue flax, catmints, baptisia, Johnson’s Blue geranium; buds on chives, purple beardtongue.

Perennial four o’clock broke through on Tuesday morning, a few days after rain finally reached it.

Looking north: Fragrant black locust, privet, golden spur columbine, chocolate flower; buds on blanket flower, coreopsis, Moonshine yarrow.

Bedding plants: Pansies, sweet alyssum, petunia, nicotiana, moss rose, impatiens.

What’s blooming inside: Zonal geraniums, aptenia.

Animal sightings: Rabbit, chickadees, hummingbirds, skinny tan snake with darker markings, geckos, lady bugs, bees, cabbage, black, sulfur and orange butterflies with brown paisley markings, hornets, harvester and small black ants.

Weekly update: In Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, T. S. Eliot tells us “a cat must have THREE DIFFERENT NAMES.”

“First of all, there's the name that the family use daily” and then ‘There are fancier names if you think they sound sweeter.”

For plants these correspond roughly to the Latin names used by botanists like Abronia fragrans and the commonplace ones like sweet sand verbena and prairie snowball.

But, Eliot says, there’s something far more important to keeping a cat’s “tail perpendicular” and his “whiskers spread wide” and that’s

“The name that no human research can discover—
But THE CAT HIMSELF KNOWS, and will never confess.”

I’m not enough of a new ager to devine what plants think, but I do know, for plants I’ve discovered on my own, without aid from some adult, I have private names, the ones I used before I was corrected. Even now, with sand verbena, I revert to things like allium head

or spoon leaves

when I come upon it in an unexpected location because adult onset knowledge isn’t as instantaneously recoverable as that acquired as a child.

The problem of names go much deeper, extends to every piece of a plant. I may contemplate the sand verbena’s flower cluster, but a botanist, tsk tsk, will remind me that, like bougainvillea and other members of the four o’clock family, the inflorescences have no actual petals.

Bracts form a pale pink tinged cap that opens to reveal any number of long white tubes that flare into five fluted points called limbs.

The structure’s more obvious when the flowers dry.

The fragrant night bloomer ranges through the great plains and intermontane region from Montana and North Dakota south to Chihuahua. To the west, it shades into Abronia elliptica in Utah; to the east it’s evolved into Abronia macrocarpa in Texas. Abronia bolackii, found only in San Juan County, is probably an intermediate form of elliptica.

The morphological variability that led some to classify elliptica as a form of the local wildflower exists here in its blooming habits. It seems to be closely related to the availability of moisture. When I first saw the white flowers in 2009 it was late August.

The next year, I saw them blooming in mid-May. The heads were dead by late July. After the monsoons began, new seedlings emerged in August with a few plants blooming.

Last year, the year after the drought and early May snow, the plants emerged in April, but there were no flowers. I didn’t see any new seedlings until October.

This year, the flowers began to appear the end of April, and the hillside where the biological crust is often active is now covered with flowers.

The past few weeks have seen a change in the winds from cool ones carrying moisture to hot, dry, water sucking ones. Yesterday, when I put my fingers around the rubbery, white taproot of one growing where it would be trampled in a path, there was no moisture in the top inches of sand.

When I tugged, there was some resistence from below, indicating the plant was still able to find water, but that its disappearance was probably a factor encourgaing so many to rush to seed in the past few days.

Ken Fern, who’s tried to grow the hairy perennial in England, says the long, darkly lustrous seeds are slow to germinate unless you peel their outer skin and soak them for 24 hours in warm water. Even then, it may take a month or two to see results at 59 degrees.

Such variability makes it difficult to interpret Leonora Curtin’s statement that new mothers who used it to stimulate the flow of milk gathered entire plants in August. Is that when they were green, blooming or completely dried?

She says local Spanish speaking women made a tea which was drunk every third morning, with the last dose on the ninth day, and that they rubbed some on their breasts while they were drinking the fluid. Michael Moore suggests others take it “frequently in small amounts.”

One thing they agree is the women called it lechuguilla, a term derived from sappy lettuce that Curtin said was also used for Indian hemp and Moore says was used for some agaves. The Ramah Navajo, who’ve used a cold lotion to treat sores or bathe their feet in a strong infusion, called it beetle food. The Zuñi, who eat the flowers to ease stomach pains, call it k'opwe:ah awan ak'wa:we.

Little lettuce, beetle food, stomach-ache medicine, like my spoon leaves, are clearly mnemonic names, but not likely the plant’s very own

“ineffable effable
Deep and inscrutable singular Name.”

Ackerman, Jennifer and William F. Jennings. “The Genus Abronia (Nyctaginaceae) in Colorado, with Notes on Abronia bolackii in New Mexico,” Research Institute of Texas Journal 2:419-423:2008.

Camazine, Scott and Robert A. Bye. “A Study of the Medical Ethnobotany of the Zuni Indians of New Mexico,” Journal of Ethnopharmacology 2:365-388:1980.

Curtin, L. S. M. Healing Herbs of the Upper Rio Grande, 1947, republished 1997, with revisions by Michael Moore.

Eliot, T. S. “The Naming of Cats” in Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, 1939.

Fern, Ken. “Abronia fragrans - Nutt.” Plants for a Future Database; his source is Growing from Seed, a magazine edited by G. Rice.

Moore, Michael. Los Remedios, 1990.

Vestal, Paul A. The Ethnobotany of the Ramah Navaho, 1952.

Williamson, Paula S. and Charles R. Werth. “Levels and Patterns of Genetic Variation in the Endangered Species Abronia macrocarpa (Nyctaginaceae),” American Journal of Botany 86:293-301:1999.

1. Sand verbena bud, opening bud and fully opened head, growing on rise on bank of far arroyo, 23 August 2009.

2. Sand verbena heads, with unopened buds farther along the stem to the left; same general location, 25 September 2011.

3. Sand verbena leaves growing in area of active biological crust near far arroyo, 25 April 2010.

4. Sand verbena flower and bud clusters showing the long tubes in their caps, same general location, 19 May 2012.

5. Drying sand verbena head, same general location, 20 June 2010.
6. Sand verbena growing on a hill where the biological crust is active near the far arroyo, 9 May 2012.

7. Sand verbena root, 19 May 2012.

8. Small sand verbena plants with two flower heads in the area near the far arroyo, 19 May 2012; purple mat flower at lower left.

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