Sunday, May 06, 2012

White Evening Primrose

Weather: March winds and June temperatures; the end of afternoon clouds marked the beginning of what is usually an early summer drought; last useful precipitation 4/9/12; 13:47 hours of daylight today.

What’s blooming in the area: Wild pink, Austrian Copper, Persian yellow, Dr. Huey and other hybrid roses, snowball, silver lace vine, bearded iris, muscular yuccas, red hot poker, peony, datura, donkey tail spurge, blue perennial salvia; buds on pyracantha.

Beyond the walls and fences: Apache plume, tamarix, fernleaf globemallow, western stickseed, bractless and tawny cryptanthas, alfilerillo, hoary cress, purple and tansy mustards, purple mat flower, gypsum phacelia, tufted white evening primrose, antelope horns, blue gilia, running sand verbena, bindweed, oxalis, flea bane, goat’s beard, common and native dandelion; needle, rice, June and cheat grasses; buds on cream tips, three awn grass.

In my yard: Black locust, spirea, beauty bush, skunk bush, tulip, baby blue iris, Bath pinks, snow-in-summer, small leaved soapwort, coral bells, vinca, yellow alyssum, blue flax, pink evening primrose; buds on floribunda roses, privet, Jupiter’s beard, sea pink, golden spur columbine; squash seeds up.

Bedding plants: Pansies, sweet alyssum, petunia.

What’s blooming inside: Zonal geraniums, aptenia.

Animal sightings: Chickadees, goldfinches, hummingbird, geckos, hornets, harvester and small black ants.

Ants have been taking Siberian elm seeds back to their hills. I’m not sure which is worse, the botanical problem or the zoological cure.

Weekly update: This has been a most peculiar spring. After a prolonged drought with severe winters, the year started out as one of recovery - good snow in December with more in February and tolerably low temperatures.

Then came March. The winds didn’t seem unusual in the beginning, but by the end of the month there’d been several bursts of unusually high ones with afternoon temperatures jumping from the mid 50's at the beginning to the mid 70's by the end. Then, no more rain. Weather watchers were proclaiming it the driest, hottest month in recorded history (which isn’t more than about a hundred years).

Unlike modern Cassandras who live in darkened rooms where the only information on climate comes from television, plants take their cues from so many sources it’s hard to know what’s motivating them. Take the large flowered white evening primroses, which are blooming in my yard for the first time since 2008.

At first, I assumed they had returned because of the extended warm growing season with wet soil and moisture in the winds, but my memories get a bit confused. As near as I can tell there are two species that grow around here, the ones blooming now with large flowers on low plants

and ones that bloom later in the season with small flowers on taller plants.

The one with abutting petals is probably the tufted species, Oenothera caespitosa. The one with petals separated into crosses is likely the prairie evening primrose, Oenothera albicaulis.

The small flowered annual is relatively common, especially later in the season when it grows in what seem the same places outside the fences along the orchard road. The perennial large flowered species seems to only appear this time of year and is more sporadic. The greatest florescence occurred some years ago when I was still commuting to Los Alamos and one field where cattle were grazing was filled with glowing white early in the morning.

When I didn’t see them again, I assumed the animals had eaten or trampled them before they had produced seeds. When they stopped appearing in my yard with any predictability, I blamed the primrose beetle invasion of 2003.

Then I drove to Albuquerque Saturday where I saw the four petaled flowers scattered along the west side of the road and in the median in the San Domingo area. They weren’t prolific, but they were there.

My curiosity was piqued. I drove the road to Los Alamos earlier this week to see if they were back there like they were here. The area of relatively flat Santa Clara lands between the road and the river was filled with white. The ravines were empty and the area further south where I remembered them from the past had few.

When I went back to my notes, such as they were then, all I found for 2001 was: “4/30 bloom beyond fence, bloom SI and SC.” I made no notes the next year. In 2003 all I wrote was “6/9 not see on way to work.” In 2004 I was equally cryptic, “5/15 some blooming along SL roadside, not see any yet in fields.”

I know SI refers to the San Ildefonso section of the road to Los Alamos from Española and SC to Santa Clara domain, but SL is a mystery. It’s always hard to record the absence of something, which is what I was trying to do.

I have no idea what the weather was like in 2001. It’s hard to describe the actual weather a month ago - it's more than the recorded temperatures and wind speeds. But one thing I realized is 2001 was the year after the Cerro Grande fire, and this is the first season after the Las Conchas and other fires.

Fire can affect seeds in a number of ways. Heat, smoke or chemicals can stratify long dormant seeds, but which is hard to know. Nurseries use sulfuric acid when they need to duplicate the effects of smoke.

When I was trying to learn what was in the smoke last summer, the laboratory was more concerned with telling us what wasn’t there. If I went beyond its published test results to discover the constituents of smoke in general the available information was too contradictory to help.

While smoke may be important, it’s been many months since the worst passed and ten years is a long period for seeds to survive in the soil. Potted plants are sold by some native plant nurseries who probably don’t treat the seed. Something else must have contributed to outbrust of color.

Winds can carry warmed or water soddened seeds that have been dislodged from the ground by the fire’s own wind currents or those of aerial fire fighting equipment. When I look at the general distribution of the current flowers, they spread out in a narrow area north of the Black Mesa on both sides of the river, that is, the Santa Clara land on the west, and my yard and the prairie to the south on the east side of the Río Grande along with the scattered area some miles south of last year’s Cochiti fire corridor.

The Cerro Grande fire didn’t move as far north as the Las Conchas one, and the flowers in 2001, if my memory set by the presence of those cattle is correct, were close to the path of that fire which was successfully contained before it reached far into Santa Clara land.

If fire, wind and smoke are the reason for the many flowers this year, then I probably won’t see them like this again - much of the available fuel was consumed last year. But, if they are the product of the unusual growing season, I may never see them again, or they could become a standard feature of late spring. The future is impossible to know, and its historic sources difficult to reconstruct, even when you’ve lived through them.

1. Large flowered tufted white evening primrose with western stickseed in my yard the last time they appeared, 17 May 2008.

2. Tufted white evening primrose, Santa Clara land, 2 May 2012.

3. Small flowered prairie white evening primroses on a neighbor’s land, 3 August 2008.

4. Tufted white evening primroses on Santa Clara land, 3 May 2012; the line of brighter colored trees marks the Río Grande; the Sangre de Cristo rise in the distance.

5. Tufted white evening primroses on Santa Clara land with cholla cacti, 3 May 2012.

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