Category Archives: Botany

Cottonwood Canyon on the John Day River: Place, Plants and Experience

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Cottonwood Canyon State Park, near the campground, looking upstream toward the old Murtha barn and common buildings, the evening sun climbing the worn canyon sides. The Park retained some of the old ranch equipment.

Massive lava flows pushed around the lower John Day and Deschutes rivers over the course of several million years leaving them to find and carve new routes, often next to the very ‘plugs’ that filled their former canyons!  Today, deep below the layers of hardened basalt that form the palisades and ramparts projecting out in tiers from the smooth full curves that rise above us, we look through 15 million years of accumulated history.  The fine grained basalt shatters and fractures in line with their mineral structure under the forces of water, weather and gravity.  Sagebrush and grasses dominate revealing an oddly ‘netted’ pattern across the sloping canyon hillsides, lit by the often harsh sunlight, illuminating some kind of subsurface movement of the thin soils that soften the slopes.  The ‘net’ looks as if it had been draped across the land then stretched sideways catching and snagging on what lies beneath in a never the same, but consistent repeating pattern.  It shows best when the angle of the sun comes across the pattern, not when it hits it head on or when clouds make it too diffuse.  Coarse falls of shattered basalt spill down to the canyon’s bottom always seeking their angle of repose.  The sagebrush steppe plant communities cover the surface and in their richness and vigor speak to the soils beneath.  Along seeps and drainages cutting verticallly down the canyon’s face, spring lasts weeks longer, and species crowd in that you won’t see other than near the river.  The surface botanical palette in this way reveals what lies beneath…if one knows what to look for.  Cottonwood Canyon State Park is a great place to observe this. Continue reading

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Podophyllum and the Sometime Quixotic Life of Plants in My Garden

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Podophyllum x ‘Spotty Dotty’ emerging this Spring.  Remember that these leaves aren’t small.  When they open to their mature size, at about 18″ across,  they’ll absolutely dwarf the vari-colored leaves of your Pelargoniums.

People will often ask me how I grow something, generally when its something they’ve killed, when our conditions, exposure etc, seem pretty close. I’ll shrug, because I may not have done anything special for my plants beyond, hopefully siting them appropriately. Then, there are all of the plants I’ve killed, sometimes repeatedly, that others seem to have success with while doing little more than ‘dropping’ them in the dirt.

I have a bit of a thing for the members of the Podophyllum…and almost everyone I know, who grows them, does so more successfully.  I do have a very ‘happy’ clump of P. pleianthum, and I’ve grown it in Park beds very successfully downtown, but until now I’ve had very little success with any of the others.  Most have lead short, tragic lives….P. delavayi…dead; an unnamed P. delavayi hybrid…dead; P. versipelle…dead; P. x ‘Kaleidoscope’…dead; P.(Sinopodophyllum) hexandrum…dead; P. x ‘Spotty Dotty’…dead; even P. peltatum...dead.  Some of these I’ve killed more than once.  These are usually relatively costly plants to acquire and their loss is more than emotional.  Sometimes I’ve grown them on in their pots for a year before I’ve thrown them into my garden to their deaths.  I’ve lost several other plants from the Barberry family as well, having consistent success only with the shrub forming species and Epimedium spp..  I’ve lost both NW species of Vancouveria as well as Achlys triphylla, one of my favorite ground covers, all of which I’ve grown successfully when I worked in Parks. These shouldn’t be hard.  I’ve grown quite a few different Epimedium spp. and varieties at home and several in Parks, all of which have been consistent and dependable performers.  For a long time, my failures with Podophyllum and assorted woodlanders,  was an embarrassment.  I couldn’t figure out why I kept losing them.  I have a hard time with many Himalayan plants in my garden and a lot of woodlanders in general, I think because it may just get too soggy over the winter.  They’ve taught me to shrug when they fail to emerge in spring.

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A cluster of flowers on Epimedium x ‘Lilifee’

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Evolution, Speciation and What it Means to the New Phylogeny: A Primer for Gardeners

 

 

Understanding the New Phylogeny of Angiosperms, part 2

We tend to think of evolution as a historical process, something that occurred in the past which has resulted in life today, with us at the pinnacle.  Humans with our opposable thumbs, our relatively high ratio of brain to body mass, our consciousness…our souls, we often argue, are the ultimate life form.  We have a hard time imagining that this is not the case, that we as a species, are a part of a continuing process, that some day will fade from the Earth, as other species, more evolved and complex, develop.  This is what happens to organisms over seemingly impossible long periods of time. It has happened and is still happening to plants.   It won’t happen today or tomorrow and this doesn’t mean that what we are or what we do doesn’t matter…because in evolution…’everything’ matters. Continue reading

Life Inside the Cell: Waking Up to the Miracle, part 1

Understanding the New Phylogeny of Angiosperms, part 1

[This is the first in a 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.  While trying to understand the later, I found it necessary to better understand the others, what was behind this reorganization of how we look at plants.  To do that requires going back in time and scale to see what we are really taking about when we consider plants and the life within them.]

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I begin here with the cell.  I will not spend time discussing its structure and various parts, the differences between those of plants, animals, fungi and bacteria.  That has been done by many others, elsewhere.  Instead I want to present here what I’ve learned about what makes the cell, its existence and life within it, so amazing, something that 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, many of which are now long extinct, to understand their relationships with other organisms, they have a purpose.  They are 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 of life in effect on our little pieces of ground and the Earth.  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

The Opposite of Freezing: Plants Have Upper Limits Too

It’s Sunday, July 30, and 87º outside, our forecasted high.  We’re at the front end of a forecast that is calling for two days over our record highest temperature ever recorded in Portland.  I’m looking at it now, Monday, the 31st calls for 92º, August 1 for 99º, 108º, a record, on the 2nd, 110º, another record, on the 3rd, before ‘cooling’ to 105º on the 4th and 95º the next day.  Our average high for this time of year is 82º.  The current record is 107º set on Aug. 8, ’81 and matched on Aug. 10, ’81.  That may not seem that high to people in the SW, but it is here and here is what matters.  Temperature is a local phenomenon.  It’s okay if we whine about it.  It’s hotter than we’re used to.  Hotter than what the local native flora and fauna are ‘used’ to.  For native species it’s not just about preferences, though we may use that word when we talk about their requirements and limits.   Continue reading

Bromeliaceae and Dangerous Plants: Adaptation, Climate Change and Gardening in Portland

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I don’t know what this Bromeliad is, but it is statuesque, the inflorescence reaching well above my head. I took this shot next to Burl’s ‘chateau’ at Rare Plant Research just south of Oregon City. He moves a lot of tropical exotics in and out of his greenhouses every year. This is what a lot of people think of when they picture a Bromeliad.

I awaken and come down stairs at about 7:00 am…it’s a warm 66ºF outside.  I was up late last night, until after 12:00 am, keeping the air flowing through downstairs in an attempt to cool the house.  This is on the warm side for us here in the summer.  On rare occasions our lows can drop to as high as the low 70’s…such temps tend to occur more frequently in more recent years when ‘heat lows’ settle in around us and we suffer through ‘heat alerts’, whenthe air stagnates and turns ‘brown’ and we can become caught in one of those cycles of days where our highs remain in the upper 90’s and low 100’s.  Our all time record high of 107º, in August of 1981, was during such a cycle that I had the privilege of experiencing as I was here in Portland visiting a friend and attending my brother’s wedding.  On the 6th it hit 99º.   The high rose the next day to 102º, 105º on the 8th, 104º the next, 107º on the 10th, the humidity at 15%, then cooling to 97º on the 11th.  I remember taking turns trying to cool ourselves, without any air conditioning, submerging in a tub of tepid bath water, Continue reading

What is a Species?

Specious (?) Speculations on Species 

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Iris x pacifica ‘Tanus’.  This is a hybrid Iris of species know collectively as series ‘californicae’, a group of Iris endemic to the Pacific coast of the US, primarily California, some very localized, with several occurring north through Oregon, and one, I. tenax, all of the way to the Puget Sound area of Washington.  These species obviously can be crossed.  Their form shows the distinctive tri-partite structure of a classic Monocot, in Genus Iris taking this particular form with 3 ‘falls’, 3 stamen and stigma structures angling out from the ovary at center, across the brightly colored ‘signal’ on each fall and the 3 more upright ‘standards’.

I do not recall from high school biology how an individual species was defined to us in our text or class, nor do I in my college Zoology 200 series.  All that I have is a general understanding that it is a select population with a shared, narrow, range of physical characteristics, in the case of plants, best determined by their floral or reproductive parts, that is able to reproduce stable offspring with the same range of characteristics.  Webster’s defines species as:

“a category of biological classification ranking immediately below the genus or subgenus, comprising related organisms or populations potentially capable of interbreeding, and being designated by a binomial that consists of the name of a genus followed by a Latin or latinized uncapitalized noun or adjective agreeing grammatically with the genus name” Continue reading