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
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
[I wrote this originally about 2 years ago as part of what turned out to be a too long look into the Bromeliad Family. Here I present only the genus Puya spp. in an edited form with the addition of the species Puya berteroniana. Go to the original article to read about the shared evolution of the several genera and families that comprise the family, why these are not considered succulents and a look at the armed defenses of many plants. My plan is to breakout at least some of the other genera as well as I think the length of the original post may have put some readers off.]
Puya: one of the Xeric Genera of Terrestrial Bromeliaceae
The name “Puya” comes from the Mapuche Indian word meaning “point” (The Mapuche people are indigenous to Chile and Argentina. They constitute approximately 10% (more than 1.000.000 people) of the Chilean population. Half of them live in the south of Chile from the river Bío Bío to Chiloé Island. The other half is found in and around the capital, Santiago and were mostly forced to the city after Pinochet privatized their lands giving them to the wealthy.)…the assignation is clear and the pointed, spiky, nature of this genus is immediately obvious to anyone. But there is something easy and comfortable about the sound of the word in your mouth when you speak it…poo-‘yah. Puya are native to the arid portions of the Andes and South American western coastal mountains. (Oddly, two species are found in dry areas of Costa Rica.)
Puya spp., populate arid western regions of the Andes Mountains up into southern Central America. These are terrestrial plants, relying on their roots to find the moisture that they need. They possess the same basic rosette structure common to all members of the Bromeliad family to which they belong, including their petiole-less leaves, which clasp directly to a compact stem structure, funnelling the infrequent, and seasonal, precipitation they get into their crowns and root structures where they can take it up, a strategy very similar to Agave and Aloe which grow under similar conditions. Continue reading
It’s 41ºF at 5:30am on Mar. 12 as I begin to write this. We appear to have come out of the longest sustained ‘cold’ period of the winter of ’18-’19 which began on February 4 and continued through Mar. 11, a period of 36 days. Over those days we had freezing minimum temps at PDX, the official NOAA reporting station for the Portland area, on 26 of them. On two of those days, Feb. 6 and 7, PDX recorded the winter’s lowest temp, 23ºF, making it a zn 9a winter, mild for us historically and especially so for the temperate US as a whole, much of which was experiencing its own much colder temps. It’s mid-March and our high temps have climbed well above what they were and our forecasts call for milder, more ‘normal’ highs and lows now locally. It looks likely that not only are we going to be on the ‘warm side’ of normal, but that our lows have shifted into a pattern well out of the freezing range. (State ODF meteorologist, Pete Parsons, calls for a pattern of slightly warmer and drier weather than normal over March, April and May with the highest chance of this during May.)
While weather consists of moments, recorded data points, we attempt to make sense of it in its patterns over time…our experience of it. In this we are much like our plants. Plants too have their ‘expectations’ of the weather and those conditions that take them outside of them, outside their familiar patterns, the relatively quick changes and perturbations, as well as the longer sustained patterns, and extremes, are ‘noticed’ and make a difference. How does this winter compare? Continue reading
Another Jimi Blake plant. I have history with this choice of Jimi’s…and the NW has a history with Bananas as well!
There’s an old hand colored postcard floating around the Washington Park office of bananas as part of an elaborate bedding out scheme around the ‘Chiming’ Fountain, near the Sacajawea statue. If memory serves, it is Ensete ventricosum, which have a uniquely identifiable form. Back in the day, Ensete v. seems to have been a thing. It is a non-suckering species, unlike the spreading, mat forming Musa spp. and cultivars, and is commonly grown from seed. It is interesting to me that they were available prior to the 1900’s and relatively common, probably up to 1929 and the stock market crash…at least for the more horticulturally involved, as specimen in annual display beds. Gardeners must have dug them out in the fall and hauled them to greenhouses to ‘protect’ them for use in the following year. I did some research in the early ’00’s of catalogs and area nurseries to get an idea what was available in the 19 teens, and of a few Park’s planting plans of this period, influenced by the Olmsted’s and under the direction of Emanuel Mische…. Compared to typical planting plans of more recent years these were relatively adventurous, especially given that acquiring such plants was often a much bigger deal in the nineteens and twenties than it is today. Back then if you weren’t wedded to a particular clone and you could find seed for it, exotic bananas were a possibility. There was an excitement around the novel and exotic that had spilled over from Europe. Local inventories also included a wide array of bulbs which could be more easily shipped than grown plants widening the range of choices. They often times had choices that you would have to spend some time searching for even today. With the economic collapse of ’29 it is no surprise that tastes and possibilities became much more conservative. There were those who clung to the use of some of the old exotics, but you would have to look hard for them in public places and gardens. Botanical gardens became refuges for the forgotten and newly collected. It took many years before enough of the gardening population reclaimed their sense of wonder and awe enough to create a new market for the plant’s of the world. We experienced a similar contraction of the nursery industry in the Fall of 2008 when the real estate boom stalled and demand for plants collapsed causing the closure of many nurseries and a reduction in the selection available from local garden centers. Locally gardeners have become increasingly interested in such plants and have continued to support the many small specialty nurseries that provide them Continue reading