Sunday, June 24, 2012


Weather: Summer high temperatures arrived just before the solstice; last rain 5/13/12; 14:33 hours of daylight today.

What’s blooming in the area: Hybrid perpetual roses, buddleia, Japanese honey suckle, silver lace vine, trumpet creeper, Spanish broom, red yucca, red hot poker, daylily, hollyhock, datura, sweet pea, alfalfa, Russian sage, scabiosa, larkspur, yellow flowered yarrow, zinnias, brome grass; one-inch green apples visible in orchards.

We've moved into the season of bright orange daylilies and trumpet creepers that require little care; the roses only remain where they get extra attention.

Beyond the walls and fences: Tamarix, showy milkweed, leatherleaf globemallow, mullein, alfilerillo, tumble mustard, stick leaf, yellow, scarlet bee blossom, velvetweed, white and pink bindweeds, scurf peas, bush morning glory, silver leaf nightshade, buffalo gourd, Indian paintbrush next to chamisa, horse tail, prostrate knotweed, goat’s head, Hopi tea, plain’s paper flower, goat’s beard, fleabane, green Mexican hat, golden hairy asters, native dandelion, needle and rice grasses.

In my yard, looking east: Snow-in-summer, Maltese cross, bouncing Bess, white and creeping baby’s breath, coral beardtongue, Jupiter’s beard, pink evening primrose, winecup mallow, sidalcea Party Girl, California and Shirley poppies, Saint John’s wort.

Looking south: Rugosa, floribunda and miniature roses, Dutch clover, tomatillo; first ripe raspberries, but many drying from heat.

Looking west: Trumpet and oriental lilies, blue flax, Siberian and Seven Hills Giant catmints, Romanian sage, Johnson’s Blue geranium, Goodness Grows speedwell, David phlox, white spurge, white mullein, perennial four o’clock, ladybells, Shasta daisy, Mönch asters; buds on sea lavender, purple coneflowers.

Looking north: Golden spur columbine, hartweig evening primrose, butterfly weed, squash, chocolate flower, coreopsis, blanket flower, anthemis, Mexican hat; buds on chrysanthemum; fruit ripened on sand cherry.

Bedding plants: Petunia, nicotiana, moss rose, snapdragons.

What’s blooming inside: Zonal geraniums, aptenia.

Animal sightings: Hummingbirds, small brown birds, geckos, cabbage butterflies, ladybugs, bumble bees and other small bees, hornets, harvester and small black ants.

Weekly update: Asparagus is a most unusual vegetable. The member of the lily family quite naturally behaves more like a bulb than an annual green.

It grows easily from seed, but seedlings take three years to mature enough for sprouts to be harvested. Many gardeners buy year-old crowns. Once established, individual plants can last more than ten years and a bed more than twenty.

At the end of the spring cutting season you have to let the plants produce their tall, ferny branches with scale like leaves which, like tulips and daffodils, store the nutrients for next year’s crop in their underlying mass of matted roots.

The plants are either male or female. Both are edible, but the females also produce green berries which turn red later in the summer.

The seedlings go wild, and can become a nuisance in commercial beds. The Rutgers Asparagus Breeding Program has developed F1 hybrids like Jersey Knight which produce only male plants. These don’t waste energy with seed production in summer, and so the next year’s sprouts are more desired by gourmets.

While garden guides tell you anyone can grow asparagus - you only need to add lots of organic matter to your soil - most are trying to turn the improbable into the possible. Yahya ibn al Awam warned in the late 1100’s that it was “very fond of damp places.”

When I was growing up in southern Michigan, I became aware different parts of the state grew different plants. It was partly latitude, but mainly the consequence of glaciers. The southern part where I lived was good for the usual farm crops like wheat and corn, and had supported hard wood forests.

In the more glaciated north, the soils were thinner and the primary trees were white pine. Within that area there was a section between Grand Rapids and Traverse City where land just in from Lake Michigan produced good cherries and peaches because of moisture and other ecological conditions fostered by the lake. It was within one small area of the cherry belt, an area in Oceana County around Hart, where people grew asparagus for canners.

When I see asparagus growing near the village, what surprises me isn’t that it’s gone wild - it’s naturalized in most parts of the country. What surprises me is that people got asparagus to grow in the first place.

According to al Awam, Asparagus officinalis was grown in Spain for the dried roots which were used to “banish all taint from rank meat.” William Dunmire says the plant was taken to México, but there’s no evidence it ever reached this part of the empire.

The French who came with La Salle to settle around Matagora Bay on the Texas gulf coast however did plant asparagus in 1685. The plants survived longer than they did, and were recognized in their abandoned gardens by the Spanish in 1689.

Dunmire says the French who later settled New Orleans also grew the vegetable. The native Americans who are reported to have eaten asparagus were either ones associated with the French - the Iroquois - or from the southeastern part of the county - the Cherokee.

Asparagus probably came into New Mexico with either settlers descended from the French or with Presbyterian missionaries and others from New England. It wasn’t the sort of plant to appeal to cattle raising Texans who took land east of the Sangre de Cristo.

But, it definitely has naturalized here. One plant I noticed last summer is growing so close to the steel farm fence along an alfalfa field the farmer would have to dig it out - reapers and snow plows won’t dislodge it. Another colony is growing just beyond the end of a ditch along the farm road.

In 1912, Smithsonian researchers found the plant was known to local Tewa speakers, but not generally used by them. In the 1930’s, students of Edward Castetter discovered Isleta was eating wild plants in the area south of Albuquerque.

Later, Leonora Curtin was told espárrago berries were mixed with ground leaves of yerba del sapo to treat stomach problems. Ambrosia concertiflora was considered a female plant and used by men, while Ambrosia acanthicarpa was considered the male plant appropriate for use by women who did not add berries.

The gender association may be one reason local Spanish speaking men used the berries for stomach problems. The other may be that asparagus often affects the smell of urine and that may have suggested a use for the stomach.

The forms of ragweed mentioned by Curtin grow along a diagonal running southwest from Colfax County, but not in Rio Arriba county. Colfax County was the site of the Maxwell land grant owned by Charles Beaubien, a French Canadian fur trader who settled in Taos.

The local plants probably came with irrigation waters moving in the Santa Cruz river from Chimayó. Presbyterian missionaries introduced many vegetables there. Since, of course, artists and others from places like Santa Fé have settled along the river. Any could be the source of the local plants which, most likely, are a form of Mary Washington, the descendent of selections made by Jesse Norton in Massachusetts after the rust fungus, Puccinia asparagi, decimated the beds in that state in the 1890’s.

Castettler, Edward F. Uncultivated Native Plants Used as Sources of Food, 1935, draws on work done by his graduate students, including Volney H. Jones, The Ethnobotany of the Isleta Indians, 1931.

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

Dunmire, William W. Gardens of New Spain, 2004.

Ibn al Awam, Yahya. Kitab al Felaha, late 1100's, translated as A Moorish Calendar by Philip Lord, 1979.

Moerman, Dan. Native American Ethnobotany, 1998, summarizes data from a number of ethnographies including Arthur Caswell Parker, Iroquois Uses of Maize and Other Food Plants, 1910 and Paul B. Hamel and Mary U. Chiltoskey, Cherokee Plants and Their Uses -- A 400 Year History, 1975.

Robbins, William Wilfred, John Peabody Harrington, and Barbara Friere-Marreco. Ethnobotany of the Tewa Indians, 1916.

1. Asparagus growing along the farm road, 18 June 2012.

2. Base of asparagus stems growing along the farm road, 18 June 2012, with remains of previous years’ growth. The scales are the leaves.

3. Asparagus in winter along the orchard road, 18 January 2012.

4. The same asparagus plant last summer, 10 July 2011.

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