It’s a bright sunny morning here in Portland…in January, not a real common occurrence in a place where we typically have some kind of cloud cover due to our climate with its strong maritime influences…but today it is sunny, and I’m thinking about the annual cycle of changing day length as we move from our shortest day, on the winter solstice, toward our longest day, on the summer solstice. The solstice result from the tilt of Earth’s axis, which remains more or less fixed, though there is a bit of a ‘wobble’, as the Earth follows its annual orbital path around the Sun, spinning like a top, effectively changing the surface it presents along the way. Continue reading
In this time of political chaos and environmental threats it is difficult to keep my mind only on plants….Nothing in the living world is easily separable from the whole, its context. The following is reflective of my interest in people. My first degree was in sociology.
Work is what we do with our lives. It is what we ‘spend’ our lives doing, whether we are paid or compensated well or not, whether it is a joy or drudgery. Through our ‘work’ we give our lives purpose and meaning, or we don’t. When we speak of it, it is as an expression of our lives…one’s ‘life’ work.
Work is a reflection of our place in our community and society, our role. It is through ‘work’ that the needs of the community are met. What compensation we receive is in proportion to how our community and society values us as individuals as well as the work that we do. When work is not this, when our work itself is demeaned, so are we who do it. When this happens to us we search for other ways to find value in our own lives…or for distraction. When we receive only monetary remuneration for our work, when even we ourselves, fail to recognize the value of the work that we do, when it isn’t ‘fulfilling’, we have a huge hole to fill in our lives.
It is difficult, but doable, to retain one’s dignity in one’s work when those around us recognize neither the value of our work nor our lives. Sadly, we have fallen into the trap set by the larger economy and owners for us, measuring value by the dollars that they are willing to pay. We are raising a generation who sees little value in the necessity of manual work, of hand labor…even the construction trades, historically valued and well compensated, is attracting fewer of our young people. We are learning not to seek satisfaction in paid work, that pay should be enough and that fulfillment, satisfaction, should be found in our shrinking free time, in recreational pursuits, which are defined very narrowly and separately from work.
Work today is, by and large, not creative. It has been reduced to a narrow Protestant, even Calvinistic definition, as a kind of servitude, even a punishment, something we must do to attain our reward and salvation. We have demeaned not only work, but our own value as human beings in the process. Because we spend so much of our lives doing it, work should be creative, fulfilling and satisfying, in multiple ways. We should pursue it because it is satisfying allowing us to contribute to our communities and the support of our families. We are not interchangeable cogs.
There is nothing ‘fair’ about the vast range of pay, the chasm, between those who ‘labor’ and create the product or service and those who own it and decide who gets what. We are all taught that life is not fair, though we have a base understanding that it should be. We have learned that those in positions of power will take what they can and that we will be left with what remains…and, many of us, were our positions switched, would do the same…and very few of us see how simple and just the solution is. We have been taught that money and wealth is adequate compensation for unfulfilling work and we play and recreate very hard to make up for what we’ve given up. We do not live our lives as we do because we must, we do it out of choice, informed or not. Right or wrong.
How we value work reflects how we value our own lives and those of others, how we structure jobs, our relationship with work, our relationships with one another. We need to redefine our idea of work, set it in proper relationship with our lives, make it mean more than a paycheck. All work, if worth doing, should afford those who do it adequate and just compensation so that they can live healthy and secure lives. Work should be important in and of itself. Work should add value to our own lives while it does the same for the world around us…instead of a disconnected opportunity to take for ourselves. It should emphasize and build the relationships between us instead of set us against one another as it does in today’s world in which we literally consume the Earth while diminishing the lives of others at the same time. Ultimately, the result of our work must make the world a better place, because to set the standard lower is to compromise our lives and the Earth. Our work, in this sense, is our ‘contribution’ to the planet and as is true in all things, our impacts are both individual and accumulative. We build or destroy through our combined efforts. This is something we must understand if the human ‘experiment’ is to continue.
EVERY, let me say that again, every, single individual organism, plant, animal, fungi and bacteria…is directly linked, in an unbroken line, to previous organisms. An organism is not created singularly and anew within a Frankensteinian lab, whether of our own hand or nature’s. Life is an extremely rare occurrence. Genesis did not happen, in the biblical sense, but on extremely rare occasions, arguably only once in Earth’s several billion years. The conditions it requires are unique, precise and stable. Just as individuals are linked directly to their parents, entire species are to their predecessors. So called ‘spontaneous generation’ does not happen. The idea that organic matter can be manipulated and ‘sparked’ into life is naive. It can only be more or less manipulaed as we’ve demonstrated time and again in a heavy handed way. Science, especially over the last one hundred years, has made great strides in understanding just what life is, what it requires and how it most likely evolved, but it still cannot ‘create’ it. Even in its most simple forms, such as bacteria, life requires the ability to conduct thousands of biochemical processes within each cell in a very precise way, something that not even a series of highly coordinated human operated laboratories, using standard of the art equipment, can do in anywhere near the amounts and efficiencies that a single living cell can. We are far too clumsy. Doing this for a complex multicellular organism with highly specialized cells, tissues and organs would seem impossible. As we continue to study organisms, their processes and growth, we are learning just how complex and astounding they are. Continue reading
It’s October in Portland and my Agave montana is in the process of flowering…I know, we’re heading toward winter, with its rain and average low down into the mid-30’s with potentially sudden damaging temperature swings from mid-November into March dropping below freezing to the low twenties, with extremes some years, generally limited to the upper teens, though historically, some areas have dropped into the single digits, those Arctic blasts from the interior….Winter temps here can be extremely unsupportive of Agave’s from ‘low desert’ and tropical regions. Combined with these cool/cold temperatures are our seasonal reduction in daylight hours and its intensity (day length and angle of incidence varies much more widely here at 45º north) and the rain, ranging from 2.5″ to 6″+ each month here Nov.- Mar., resulting in a ‘trifecta’ of negative factors which can compromise an Agave, even when in its long rosette producing stage. Any Agave here requires thoughtful siting with special consideration for drainage, exposure and aspect. For an Agave, conditions common to the maritime Pacific Northwest are generally marginal, yet I am far from alone in my attempts to grow them here. Previously, in April of 2016 I had an Agave x ‘Sharkskin’ flower, a process that spanned the summer months, taking 7 until mid-October to produce ripe seed. I was initially a little pessimistic this time about A. montana’s prospects. Why, I wonder, if plants are driven to reproduce themselves would this one be starting the process now? Continue reading
I know, politics again! Gardening affords us all an escape from the mess of politics…but that ‘mess’ promises to take even that from us.
I’ve heard it argued that there is no point in having money and power if you do not use them. It certainly seems to be a popular or even dominant view in the US today. In a country where many of us feel relatively powerless to affect change or even have some degree of control to keep our own lives from falling to pieces, many of us would seem to identify with the man who today epitomizes the extreme of this position, our president, Donald Trump. His standard places winning above all else and it doesn’t matter what’s at stake, if he simply says he wants something, that is the only thing that matters. He must win! Nothing and no one can matter more. To compromise is losing. To take others and their position into consideration, is weakness….Whether there are other legitimate positions on something does not matter, once a position is taken, game on and there is no retreat, because this narrow idea of one’s honor matters far more than what might be best, or fair, or ethical, legal or moral. Making these choices is a personal selfish matter. There is no point in making an informed decision because being correct, or accurate, making the best decision based on our best scientific understanding of a problem or the most considered decision based on the consequences that will follow…doesn’t enter the ‘thought’ process at any point. What matters is being in control and showing others that you are the most powerful. To do this you are willing to use every tool at your disposal. Continue reading
interest, their leaf color, substance and sculptural qualities, the margins of its broad, thick leaves, with their rhythmic rounded ripples, each tipped with a prominent ‘teat’ and spine. This is not a large plant, typically growing 23″- 47″ in diameter and my plan was always to keep it in a pot as it is from coastal areas of the Mexican state of Sonora, found sporadically in a narrow ‘band’ south into Sinaloa. Agave colorata is very rare and uncommon in nature and growing on steep slopes of the volcanic mountains in the coastal region in Sinaloan thornscrub. It often emerges from apparently solid rock cliffs sometimes clinging high above the water below.
Growing in Sonora and at Home
It is poorly adapted to our wet winter conditions though it is reputedly hardy into USDA zn 8, or as low as 10ºF. Its natural northern limit is thought not due to cold, but by excessive aridity in the northern parts of Sonora. I didn’t test it, leaving it outside under the porch roof, bringing it in when forecasts called for below 20ºF, as any plant is more susceptible to cold with its root zone subject to freezing. With perfect drainage and overhead protection, you might be able to get away with this in the ground, but the combination of significant wet with our cold is likely too much…still if someone wanted to try….At best I suspect this one would still suffer from fungal leaf diseases, disfiguring the foliage.
This is usually solitary, but it can be found occasionally in small clumps/colonies up to nearly 10′ across, pushing up against each other on their slowly growing and short ‘trunks’ to 4′ high. My plant produced just a few pups over the first third of its life.
Sonora has three distinct geographic areas all running along a ‘line’ from the northwest toward the southeast, the Gulf of California and its associated coastal landscape paralleling the Sierra Madre Occidental, sandwiching plains and rolling hills in the middle. The coast and plains/rolling hills are arid to semi-arid, desert and grasslands, while only the higher elevation of the easterly mountains receive enough rain to support more diverse and woody plant communities, scrub and Pine-Oak forests.
This region also varies north to south, the climate drying as you go north into the Sonoran Desert. Moving south on down into Sinaloa, and further, is the some what wetter ‘dry deciduous forest’ biome with an array of woody leugumes, including several Acacia. Agave colorata resides in the transition zone in between, in the portion of ‘thornscrub’ near the Sonoran/Sinaloan border. North and south the Thornscrub itself changes in composition. The Sinaloan Thornscrub serves as a transition zone between the desert and the slightly wetter, taller growing, Tropical Deciduous Forest that continues the south. All along this band running north on into Arizona’s Sonoran Desert are various columnar cactus a food source for Mexico’s migrating nectarivorous bat species. It is a unique flora community, containing species from bordering floral regions and other species unique or endemic to this transition zone itself. The area continues to be under threat, primarily by cattle ranching that moved into the region in the ’70’s and ’90’s bringing with it clearing and the introduction of non-native and invasive Bufflegrass, Pennisetum ciliare, also known under its syn. Cenchrus ciliaris, for pasture. Bufflegrass is also a serious problem north into Arizona. In Sonora many of the cleared woody species have since begun moving back in, while the smaller, more sensitive species have not. Climate change promises to further squeeze it. (The World Wildlife Fund maintains a website with good descriptions of many eco-regions I sometimes find it very helpful when trying to understand the conditions of a plant I’m less familiar with.)
When growing plants like this, one should keep in mind the concept of heat zones. The American Horticultural Society has created a map of the US delineating its ‘heat zones’. It is based on the average number of days an area experiences temperatures over 86ºF. At that temperature most plants begin to shut down their metabolic processes…they slow their growth. Check out the AHS map (AHS US Heat Zones pdf.) and keep in mind that we are warming up! The AHS map has us, Portland, OR, in zone 4, meaning we experience 14-30 days with highs over 86ºF each year. Last summer, ’18, we actually had a record 31 days over 90ºF! Now consider that the coastal/plains region of Sonora likely experiences between 180-210 such days! Agave colorata may not need this, but it is certainly adapted to such a level of heat stress. Something to think about, especially when you consider that we receive the bulk of our rain over the winter when our daily highs and lows average for Nov. 40º-53º, Dec. 35º-46º, Jan. 36º-47º, Feb. 36º-51º and Mar. 40º-57º…keeping in mind that we could freeze on most any of those dates. The Sonoran Desert receives its minimal rainfall in a summer/monsoonal pattern….This is why bringing such ‘low desert’ plants to the Pacific Northwest can add another degree or two of difficulty to your success!
Growing this in a pot made perfect sense to me, but every decision carries consequences, not all of which I anticipated. Most Agave don’t form a ‘trunk’ growing its leaves, in a tight spiral, crowded along a very abbreviated stem, which adds little to its length to separate each consecutive leaf., but Agave colorata adds a little ‘extra’ slightly separating its leaves, resulting in a weak and kind of puny stem. If you’ve ever shuffled pots containing Agave more than a few years old, you understand that their crown, their substantial top growth, is relatively heavy, A. colorata is no exception, in fact their leaves each seem more substantial than leaves on many other similarly sized Agave. This results in a plant that as it grows begins to lean over, eventually, laying flat across the ground. As a Monocot the stems of Agave don’t caliper up over the years as does wood. These have no cambial meristem which would add secondary growth, and diameter, to the stem and as I said, with its relatively massive and heavy crown, it leans. This is the same characteristic that gives their small colonies their height.
[This is the first in an extended series of three posts, this one on life within the cell, the second, on the evolution of plants, and the third on the New Phylogeny and Eudicots. Some time ago I began this ‘theme’ with an extensive post on Monocots. This first ‘installment’, concerning life within the cell, is divided into two parts, the first, with the ‘a’ in its title, covers the growth and function of the cell itself and, importantly, the role of water within it. The second, with the ‘b’ in its title,, will examine the concept of quantum biology and its explanative necessity for life beyond the ‘simple’ construct of cells, tissues and organisms. While trying to understand the ongoing reorganization and classification of plants, I found it necessary to better understand these other topics, what it is that we are ‘messing’ with! ]
I begin here with the cell, what I’ve learned about what makes the cell, its existence and life within it, so amazing, something which should give us all pause, when we consider our own lives and what we do. When scientists ‘split hairs’ in their arguments on which group to assign a species, when they attempt to link them to their ancestors, so many of which are now long extinct, to understand their relationships with other organisms, they have a purpose. They are often looking much deeper into what a plant is, what constitutes life and how it evolved. Phylogeny, the science that attempts to establish relationships between different organisms, different species, to link one to the other across time, is about both the history and the continuing journey of life on this planet. It promises to tell us much about our own place as well as that of the hundred’s of thousands of other species with which we share it. Ultimately, if we choose to understand this, it will change the way we garden and our relationship with the many landscapes that cover the Earth. Our gardens are our own personal expressions, works of ‘art’, and must live within the parameters life has set for them on our little pieces of ground. They reflect our understanding of the limits and possibilities at work here. The better that we understand this the ‘better’ our gardens will be, the more in synch they will be with life. Continue reading
Warning!!! This is a rant! It’s political, economic, ecological and, most definitely, covers all of the connections between with climate change, these things and our future as a species. I hope you choose to read it, but be forewarned!!
I woke up yesterday at 4:30am, unable to go back to sleep, so I got up and began writing this. The state of the world, the absolute idiocy, meanness and short sightedness of politics today, the undeniable enormity of climate change and its inevitable impacts for every organism on the planet, drives me from paralyzing frustration, to near rage, to profound sadness and despair. Most days all I can do is seek escape and I do this through gardening, reading eclectically, trying to follow some kind of routine, going for walks, a swim or a hike, sharing time with friends or delving into research on plants and the everyday miracles within them and their wondrously choreographed lives here on this planet….I spent my entire morning writing and rewriting this (and returned to it the following day, now today). It is me ‘sharing’. Yes, it’s a rant, it’s a bit of analysis, it’s a window into the world as I see it and it contains a hope I have…that I have to cling to most days, for this world and all that lives upon it, because what we have done, what we continue to do, is so profoundly destructive and disheartening to me. Continue reading
Clades and Cladograms: Helpful Concepts to Understanding Phylogeny and the Hereditary Links Between Plant Groups
Cladistics is a system of classification…of course it is…that relates species to one another based on heredity and lines of inheritance. Before you dismiss this as a totally boring topic, consider that these are tools, that with a little study, can go a long way in clearing up the murky waters of taxonomy and systematic botany. Cladograms are a diagrammatic, graphic devices to visually display the relationships of closely related organisms, like the one below, and can be helpful to us in our efforts to understand the phylogeny and evolution of plants. The ‘branches’ of a Cladogram represent clades, all of the descendants are of a chosen ‘root’ species. Each clade must be monophyletic, complete, including all of the descendants of the root or ‘stem’ ancestor. The APG demands precision.
While working on a blog posting over the spring of ’17, Palms, Bananas, All Monocots…Oh My! Their Similarities and the Differences that Distinguish Them From Dicots…and why this should matter to you! discussing Monocots, I necessarily said much about Dicots, those vascular, seed producing, Angiosperms (flowering plants) with two cotyledons or ‘seed leaves’. These were the two major groups of Angiosperms that I grew up with in the gardening world…but, while I was working in my career, this began to change, beginning some 25 years ago. I’d been aware of the term Eudicots, or ‘true’ dicots, and knew that all Eudicots also fit within the older category of Dicots, while a small portion of the latter, are left outside. I was unsure how these differentiated and so, ignorantly (not a bad word), blurred the two together as many have been doing since the concept of Eudicots was first put forward. The differences between these two for me seemed very ‘arcane’ and fussy, focusing on the tiny pores or furrows, colpi, on pollen grains. But it is more than just that. To really understand what is going on in the esoteric world of taxonomy, the naming and organizing of plants and their relationships to one another, you need to look at the genetics, the DNA ‘fingerprints’ of a plant which allows us to follow evolutionary paths back from the plants of today through their ancestors to the earliest forms of life on Earth. It is about the phylogeny, the ‘history’ and relationships that tie plants together. Continue reading