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
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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
The Basic Code of the Universe: The Science of the Invisible in Physics, Medicine and Spirituality, is not an ‘easy’ read…such should be expected when a book challenges not just our understanding of the world, but even the accuracy of our perceptions of itI This is leading edge thought in the sciences today coming at a time when the basic precepts of science are being called into question by the political and religious right. The last several decades have seen an accelerating rate of scientific advancement at the same time that the general public’s understanding of it is dropping ever further behind. Today while advocates press to re-emphasize STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) in public education, another segment has been working in opposition demanding a return of public education to the ‘3 R’s’, in keeping with the ‘fundamentals’ of Christian conservatism. This vocal minority rails against our acceptance of a science that questions their ‘world view’ arguing that science’s ‘valueless’ methods poison our ways of thinking raising doubt, putting people in conflict with their basic beliefs and the dogma they espouse. These people question science’s relevance and wish to look no further than the fundamentalist thought of their religion. Such doubt and rejection should be raising red flags around the world as people, drawn to their own ‘righteous’ paths, find themselves increasingly in conflict with others on their own separate path.
I, myself, have always been drawn in many directions, fascinated by one topic then another, but over time forming a rather comprehensive overall interest in the world…more wholistic. I will never become ‘expert’ in one thing, finding life and our place in the universe endlessly a wonder! So, I find myself drawn into such topics as evolution, quantum biology and the physics of life, fleshing it out with studies into the particularity of place, places like South Africa, Chile, the Canary Islands and our own Pacific Coast region of North America, with their particular geologies and living communities. I find the ‘big questions’ the most interesting and will sometimes put considerable energy into trying to understand their possible ‘answers’. I ‘intuit’ and combine, finding that our world has been so committed to the narrow and fractured views of our countless experts that our understanding of the world and our place in it has become ever more ‘confused’…so again, I am drawn to this and books like this. Continue reading
Gardeners find inspiration and support from all over, from nature’s expansive landscapes to the very personal and intricate jewels of fellow gardeners, to botanic gardens and the nurseries that often fuel our ardor. We visit gardens locally, and travel when we can, seeing and experiencing what other regions and countries offer. Sometimes it is the human culture and its exuberance which seems to drive a place’s horticulture and gardens in directions and extremes different from ours, while our growing conditions are very close…in other gardens site conditions can be very different than our own pushing the palette far from that possible in our own. By traveling we are ‘opened’, taken out of the familiar and our senses ‘sensitized’, as we take in the new and see the familiar in new ways. Travel can make us more receptive. After a Fall trip to New York, followed by one to McCall, Idaho, this Spring we visited parts of central and coastal California, later taking a couple weeks driving up across the Olympic Peninsula to Vancouver Island, peppering it with gardens new and familiar, adding another island, Salt Spring, on our return.
Like our gardens, we gardeners ‘grow’ over time, learning and changing our practice, our experiences ever evolving. Important to this process are those others we meet along the way who take the time to share their knowledge and experience with us, perhaps including plants or seeds, but more often simply their enthusiasm for what they do, and the sharing of their gardens. This is important to us because the practice of gardening can be a ‘lonely’ art and the world of plants is far bigger and more complex than any one of us….If we are to do it well we must seek out the aid and friendship of others. The emotional connection to what we do, creates a ‘tension’, that can be a source for the energy that drives us…and the addition of a little supplemental ‘fuel’ along the way can go a long way. Continue reading
Unlike the Irish, who embrace and celebrate their poets, or the Japanese with their several centuries long history of haiku, we Americans embrace the rational, the utilitarian and too often jot our observations down in reductionist, artless lines….I know that is not always true, but face it, we scoff at poetry, unless it is dressed in the postures of hip-hop or pop culture, ambient lyrics vying for our attention in the ‘battle’ to attract customers. Poets take as a given the mystery and beauty of life. They do not shy away from the sharp edges and risks. Like visual artists, whose eyes cause them to see the world in a multiplicity of ways, poets describe a mutable, ineffable world, that is different from moment to moment, whose ‘boundaries’ shift and transform that which they appear to contain…as if the world were an experiment in the shifting perspective of quantum physics….Poets ‘paint’ with swaths and scrawls of letters across the page, measured and rhythmic, a code, an illumination, a pathway they’ve scribed across a page, from heart to heart across the beating Earth. We Americans crave solidity, a stable world where being and life are fixed and knowable…we leave the rest for God and the egg-heads as if these things don’t really matter to us…as they are beyond our ken and responsibility. The world of the poet raises too many questions for us and questions can undermine the investment we’ve put into our fixed world image upon which we’ve staked our lives. Americans are blindered gamblers and most of us have placed our bets on the same outcome.
I do read poetry…even attempt to write it sometimes. I read science and history, politics and about the social ways of my fellows. I garden and often agonize over what is ‘wrong’ in this world…what we can do to heal it. Poetry teaches us that connection is often not found in a straight line. Solution is not found in the old ways of thinking, ways that can only lead us down this path we seem to be fatally connected to. Poetry is opening and inclusive, it speaks to what we share, what we stand to lose. To read it requires something different of us, that we exercise and strengthen long neglected muscles, muscles that once moved us through our childhood worlds of wonder and awe. The adult world has largely banished this, stripped life of wonder, and with it, the value integral to the heart of all things. We scoff at those who speak of this, call them childish and dismiss them….This is what we’ve lost and the world so desperately needs today. Continue reading