Flowering…A Reason of Their Own:  A Look at Agave Flowers, Structure and Relationships

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This is one of the lower umbels, the second peduncle from the bottom. The others contain more individual flowers. This umbel was caught in the stage where the filaments are collapsing and the styles extending. Nectar has spilled to many surfaces. The tepals have begun to shrivel as well. Coarse pollen grains show on the anthers with some ‘spilled’ to other surfaces. Individual flowers aren’t particularly pretty.

Flowers can be ‘incidentally’ beautiful.  We often selfishly view them as products of nature intended to fulfill our own hunger for beauty, failing to recognize them for what they are, living organic structures evolved over time to continue their own species, organs and tissues meant to attract the necessary attentions of pollinators, to produce the seed of generations to follow. We, as a society, have learned to view a select few of these as beautiful.  We respond to them in a way not unlike the pollinators themselves do, and by either ignoring them or focusing our attention upon them, we too alter their future form and their very existence.  Sometimes we do this more directly through choosing the plants we want around us.  Other times it is our indifference that seals the fate of a plant or landscape, especially when the flora is unable to grab our often preoccupied attention and we clear land for development wasting all of the ‘lesser’ weedy natives we’ve learned to undervalue, or, through our efforts to ‘improve’ plants by controlled breeding and hybridization, intentionally altering their form even the conditions under which they will grow.  Sometimes, in our desire, for fashion and an idealized beauty, we attempt to control and remove that which we don’t want, creating sterile flowers, the antithesis of what a plant would ‘want’.  We select for bloom size, scent and color, for period of bloom, we seek to increase the number of petals and alter the pattern they may be held in, even the lifespan of the individual flower, the height of the plant so that it doesn’t flop over, the ability to grow it in more sun or shade, the shape and color of leaves and the form of the whole plant.  We attempt to control all of this and crank out a uniform product that can be ‘plugged’ into landscapes and gardens as desired.  Plants with dependable performance characteristics, a pedigree.

We need to remember that this is what we ‘want’, not what the plants ‘want’, nor is it necessarily in their best interest as either a species or a member of a plant community.  These days most of ‘us’ aren’t gardeners.  Our relationships with nature were broken long ago.  It is difficult to see the critical connections in nature, between plants and the organisms they have evolved with, upon which they are dependent, especially if someone is not looking.  It is even more difficult to see where we ourselves fit into this in our materialistic, consumer society where so many of us measure ourselves and others by the things and property we own…and are quick to ‘take’ from others.  I’m going to paraphrase a snarky rejoinder I’ve heard these last several years, ‘Yeah, you’re special, just like everything else!’ and I mean this in the broadest sense. Continue reading

Losing Our Urban Landscapes: Sustainable Goals and Our Crisis in Leadership

The Brooklyn switching yard. These areas must be kept clear. The fence line to the right, next to the container yard, is typical, here filled with common weeds, aggressive invasives and Tree of Heaven.

The Brooklyn switching yard. This ‘landscape’, in a modern utilitarian sense, is ideal.  These areas must be kept clear. The fence line to the right, next to the container yard, is typical, here filled with common weeds, aggressive invasives and Tree of Heaven…and it doesn’t matter.  It works and that is the priority.  Whatever results elsewhere…is not.

The following is intended as a template for action or a beginning point for a discussion that is long overdue.

Landscapes are more complex than most people realize.  They can go seriously awry in a very short time.  Undisturbed native plant communities are relatively stable and are able to respond on their own, as they have for millions of years…if the disturbances they suffer are relatively small.  Unfortunately these plant communities have been decimated in urban and most rural agricultural areas severely compromising their abilities to respond in a positive and effective manner.  The addition of invasive species to the region puts even stable, undisturbed plant communities at risk.  Because we are not all ecologists, or even gardeners, what can we realistically do to stop or reverse this process of landscape degradation?  The decline of our landscapes is linked to a long history of practices that have ignored the value of both our native and contrived landscapes, a belief in a right to ‘dispose’ of the land in whatever way we so choose and our denial that this destruction matters.  We have done this through our land management practices, our designs and the uses of the land itself even those that may seem unrelated, many that have become automatic in our society and are directly related to how we live, work and play today in the modern world.  Our active threat is inherent in the way that we do business.  Our attempts at correction are, too often, limited to only slight modifications that do not put any undue ‘pressure’ on our local economy, business or the privileges that we have come to see as ours.  We are a society that has, in short, become disconnected from the realities of life at the local level and what is required to support it.  We see a limitless nature that is there for our use.  Whatever we may need, we believe that we may merely buy from elsewhere, an elsewhere that is limitless though undefined.

To turn this situation around, or to make significant improvements, requires that we examine what we are doing now, that may be working against the goals that support life and landscape,…and stop.  We have to stop doing the things that are working to continuously disrupt the ‘healthy’ functioning of the landscape.  If we don’t do that then all of our attempts at improvement, all of our tweaking of our system, will come to nothing.  We cannot ‘save the patient’ with good thoughts while they bleed out. Continue reading

Summer Tree Failure

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A failed Norway Maple on SE 49th. This picture was taken June 28th, five days after a big rain event. You can see that this tree has been struggling for some time as evidenced by the dead branches still in its crown and the stressed flagging leaves up there. The girth of the trunk is greater than the width of its planting space. It is pinched beneath the overhead lines and the requirements for street trees regarding road clearance. It’s height has been ‘controlled’ and limited over the years.

Trees fail all of the time and when they are older, this can be quite spectacular, or devastating, if your car, home or an individual have the misfortune of being in the its path.  Like most people I used to believe that most such failures happened as the result of storms, and many do, but it is relatively common for trees, or major limbs, to come crashing down with calm conditions in the Spring. The new flush of growth brings with it a great deal more tissue and water weight than a tree in active growth has previously supported or, for a tree struggling, compromised by the burden of significant rot in its core and/or limbs.  Look at any tree and look at its girth, its canopy spread and on many species, its long, often horizontal limbs and try to imagine their weight.  To help with this fill a couple of buckets with water, lift them and try to hold them horizontal away from your body.  Trees are static structures, comprised of countless overlapping fibrous layers, much of it hard and rigid with a great deal of compression and torsional strength.  The were ‘born’ for this.  Few of us would last for more than a few seconds trying to support so much of our own weight on extended arms.  We shouldn’t be surprised when they fail, even as elegant and as well ‘engineered’ as they are. Continue reading

Agaves, Hybrids and Our Role as Gardeners & Stewards

 

Sharkskin bracketed by its parents, A. scabra left and A. victorian-reginae on the right

Hybridizing is always a bit of a crap shoot!  Cross two species and the progeny will range all across the morphological map!  Hybridizers grow on their seedlings and select those that share the characteristics that they’re looking for or individuals with startling and unusual features.  They toss the rest.  They in effect are giving their selections an advantage, an advantage they would never receive in nature on their own.  In nature hybrids can only occur when the natural ranges of the two parent species overlap and their proclivities align with the possibilities.  Plant breeders are not limited by this.  Pollen can be collected and stored from anywhere and used to pollinate selected plants.  In nature, survival is a numbers game.  Seedlings must be competitive in an existing plant community with limited available niches.  They have to possess a certain robustness.  Those that survive, grow on and perpetuate themselves, possessing survival characteristics that allow them to do so and have been blessed with the conditions that favor them.  Hybrid creations of nursery people and breeding programs may be lacking in these survival features.  They are pampered, lined out in nursery rows and flats. The result of their intentions may actually put their selections at a competitive disadvantage if they were to be left on their own in nature. Continue reading

A Parry’s agave flower cluster. Nectar-feeding bats are the main pollinators. Photo by Charlie McDonald.

Flowering and Its Trigger in Genus Agave

Agave parryi with both secondary and tertiary peduncles and the elongated yellow anthers 'floating' above.

Agave parryi with both secondary and tertiary peduncles and the elongated yellow anthers ‘floating’ above, in Sedona, Arizona.  From  americansouthwest.net.

If you follow plants far enough back up their evolutionary ‘tree’ you find plants broken down into flowering plants, that produce seeds (Angiosperms have seeds encased in a ‘fruit’; Gymnosperms have naked or bare seeds) and those that pursue other strategies to propagate themselves.  Plants like Ferns have special organs that produce spores which in turn form an intermediate form, where fertilization takes place, which then grow into an adult plant.  Another step back and plants are divided into vascular or non-vascular, those with specialized cells and structures that include phloem and xylem tissues to move water, nutrients and various metabolites around the plant and those without.   Non-vascular plants are essentially single celled organisms that form colonies or ‘bodies’  with each cell the same, complete and undifferentiated.  Plants as a whole are very unique and resist easy classification.  The botanists among us, in an attempt to better understand this, study plants and their relationships.  Systematics is the study to make sense of the Plant Kingdom, giving it order: what constitutes a plant, how they relate to each other and how they evolved…whom ‘begat’ whom.  Sometimes it would seem that the only common factor shared by all plants is their utilization of chlorophyll, but even this is not universal, because their are saprophytic plants that live off of the carbohydrates and metabolites produced by other plants and some of these are relatively complex Angiosperms.  As gardeners we mostly concern ourselves with vascular plants unless we cultivate mosses, liverworts and such.  Most of us concern ourselves with the flowering plants, though we may also grow spore producers like ferns for their structure and texture.  All of these grow from seeds or spores that carry the DNA that provides a particular species with its ‘script’, a detailed growth plan organisms attempt to follow throughout their lives.  Agaves are vascular Angiosperms that share key flowering characteristics within the genera and more broadly within their family. Continue reading

Growing Agave in My Maritime NW Garden

My picture, but not my plant. Alas! I just potted my start up to a 1gal purchased from Sean at Cistus. Agave ovatifolia 'Vanzie'. Several of these big beautiful cultivars are growing in the Bancroft Garden. It is distinguished from the species by its undulating longitudinal waves across the wide guttered leaves.

My picture, but not my plant. Alas! I just potted my start up to a 1gal purchased from Sean at Cistus. Agave ovatifolia ‘Vanzie’. Several of these big beautiful cultivars are growing in the Ruth Bancroft Garden, in Walnut Creek, CA.  We visited on a nice 80F+ day last October.  It is distinguished from the species by its undulating longitudinal waves across the wide guttered leaves.  Each leaf can be over 10″ across.

When we garden in the public view, and most of us do, at least where we front along the street, or even when we invite others into its more private and inner sanctum, and we grow plants successfully, people are going to ask you: ‘What’s that?’  ‘I didn’t know you could grow those here!’ and, ‘What did you do? they always die for me!’  In short, if you’re successful, people will regard you with respect and assign to you the attributes and position of ‘expert’…when all you did was try to follow the gardening maxim of ‘Right Plant, Right Place!’  In short, you tried not to kill it.  Genuine expertise requires broader experience, study even, that the simple buying and planting of one particular plant cannot earn you.  If you’re like me such easy success and adulation, can be embarrassing and often serves as a prompt, to look through books, search the internet and ask others, that you know who have way more practical growing experience than you yourself do, and gradually, the assignation of ‘expert’ feels a bit less flimsy, maybe even ‘earned’.  I often tell gardening friends that I consider myself to be more of a dilettante, flitting from one plant or group of plants to the next.  Inquisitiveness has always been a part of me and growing one Penstemon, one Banana or one Agave, never adequately ‘grounds’ me.  Grow a few more and I feel a little more comfortable with it.  Look into some of its ‘cousins’ and the particulars of where something grows, its climate and soils particularly, and I feel ‘better’, much like I did when I was preparing for mid-terms at school.  And then I move on, my interest sated for the time being, somewhat comfortable in what I know and curious about the next group.  Over time they all start forming a bigger picture out of what once seemed like a massive, unknowable puzzle and I enjoy solving puzzles.  Having said this, I still don’t consider myself to be an expert, just an avid and focused gardener. Continue reading

Gardening at City Hall- Lessons in Reality & Frustration

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Impatiens omiense fronting a composition including: Vancouver hexandra, Podophyllum pleianthum, Aspistra elatior, Dryopteris erythrosora, Hosta ‘Sum and Substance’ and Prosartes hookeri (previously Disporum hokkerig). This is the south bed on the 5th St. side of Portland’s City Hall.

I’ll bet you thought this was going to be about the hours of meetings wherein Council pours over the issues surrounding the plantings and landscapes of which the City has responsibility…Hah!!!  No, this will be a bit more mundane, hands in the ‘dirt’, and about some of my experiences gardening in the limited ground around City Hall, as well as some observations and comments on what it’s like to garden in such a public spot.  There’s also a bit of hand wringing and hair pulling here.  I’ll be telling two short stories of gardening, one on the 4th St side, but first the 5th Street side of the building. Continue reading