Permaculture Lessons, part two: Disabled Permaculture

This is a guest post by Laura-Marie River Victor Peace Nopales (see contact info below).


Hello! I made a guest post on Awkward Botany in March, introducing myself and my spouse, and talking a little about my life with permaculture. Permaculture is a way I learn about plants, love the earth, grow delicious foods, and connect with others. Permaculture has a community aspect, and respect for all beings is part of that. Permaculture is a great idea for disabled people.

Being disabled is a lot of work, and butting up against ableism all around is part of that. A default assumption many have, including many permaculture teachers, is that people are full of abundant energy and can live our values if we choose to. But being disabled means that what we want to do often isn’t the same as what we can accomplish. Disabled permaculture is a great take on permaculture that Ming and I have been doing together for 11 years of friendship and partnership.

Disabled permaculture is a valuable concept that many people can benefit from and customize to their own needs. Throughout this essay, I’ll mention many ways it helps me and Ming live a beautiful interdependent life.

how we’re disabled

My spouse Ming and I are both disabled. He has narcolepsy, so he falls asleep at unwanted times, doesn’t get restful sleep, and many aspects of life are impacted by his low energy and lack of wakeful cognition. Narcolepsy can contribute to struggles with memory, language, and reality comprehension. Ming also has a diagnosis of OCD.

Ming endures heartache trying to get his medical needs met, since a medication he uses for wakefulness is a controlled substance. The drug war plus health insurance nonsense means he has to jump through more hoops than anyone should need to, let alone a disabled person.

As for me, I have psychiatric diagnoses and hear voices, along with social differences and sensory sensitivities. Some terms that might apply to me are anxious and autistic. I like “crazy” as a reclaimed term, like queer and fat, which also apply. I have a schizoaffective disorder, bipolar type diagnosis. I was sedated on a bipolar cocktail for around 11 years.

how permaculture suits us

Permaculture is a helpful design system for disabled people such as ourselves. We have limited energy and fluctuating capabilities. Sometimes we’re not up for much. Permaculture is helpful as a realistic, forgiving, less energy intensive way of growing plants and doing community.

Permaculture is about working with the land forms and nature’s rhythms, not fighting against them. It’s observantly respectful to Mother Earth and one another.

A goal is to create food forests that are self-sustaining. We permaculturists like to take a long view, start small, design for resilience, and rest in hammocks. We create closed loop systems. It’s fun to consider the weaknesses of our systems’ interdependence and arrange backups for our backups, with layers of redundancy. Problems are seen as opportunities. We have a thing for hugelkultur. We enjoy rich diversity, especially at the edges.

image credit: wikimedia commons

Permaculturists love nourishing the land, with compost, generous mulching, water catchment in swales, and other ways of making the land more rich than the scraggly vacant lots and neglected yard space we arrived to. We like doing land justice, so inviting people in, opposing food deserts by sharing our bounty, organizing community gardens, and working together with locals.

We prefer collaboration over gentrification. Smiling, we get a lot of joy out of seed bombs, guerilla gardening wild areas, and having a lemonade party, when life gives us lemons and we make lemonade.

I’ve enjoyed gleaning fruit to share with Food Not Bombs, harvesting olives with neighbors, and lots of sheet mulching with discarded cardboard to unmake lawns. Permaculture has helped me by giving me a framework for the regenerative, earth-nourishing impulses that stirred within me already.

community and energy

If all of this sounds fun, that’s because it is. Why is permaculture especially good for people who are disabled?

Inviting people in and nourishing community means more people care about our garden, and are willing to step in when Ming and I are less out and about. Thank you to the kind community members who see what needs doing and are empowered to contribute to the thriving of garden life.

Also, permaculture is less energy intensive than other ways of growing plants. Long term solution is a relief. Food forests are like Eden. Creating and tending food forests means there can be a bit by bit accumulation of plants that work well together.

It’s not a stressful, all-at-once venture. There’s not the once or twice annual “rip everything out and start over” that I’ve seen other gardeners do. It feels relaxed and cumulative, good for a disabled pace.

When we have the energy and the weather is cooperative, we evaluate how the garden overall is doing. Do we have room for more herbs? Are enough flowers blooming to attract pollinators and keep them happy? What foods do we want to eat more of, in the next few months? Should we put sunflowers somewhere different this time? It’s unrushed, experimental, fun, and slow.

tree collards for disabled permaculture

The tree collards I mentioned last post are easier to grow than regular collards and kale. Let me tell you about these delicious leafy brassicas as a disabled permaculture example. Tree collards give tasty greens perennially, for years. We get a lot of delicious food from them!

Tree collards are easy to propagate. No need to buy or save seeds, then tend tender seedlings. Just break off a branch, stick it in the garden ground, make sure it stays moist for a few weeks, and hope for the best. It may root and start growing soon.

The tree collards we have are purple with the green. They’re gorgeous and can get lush in the winter. They’re tasty by themselves, sautéed with garlic, added to beans. We had some on our Passover Seder plate recently. When I cook rice, I might add a few tree collard leaves at the end to steam and greenly compliment my carbs.

When I make pesto, I throw in a few leaves of tree collard with the basil. When Ming is gardening, he often munches a few leaves. I smell them, pungent on his breath, when he returns indoors and kisses me.

It’s fun to give cuttings to friends and share the bounty. We talk about perennial vs annual and biennial. We talk about permaculture as an important guiding force in our disabled family. Even if the cuttings die, ideas and love were propagated. By sharing our values, we’ve inviting them into our life.

I like watching tree collards age, lean over, flower, die back, surge forth, reach for the sun. We keep them in our permaculture zone 1, right by our front door, as they are our darlings. They’re available to us all the time.

inevitable

Many people are disabled one way or another, and many people will become disabled, if lucky enough to live into old age. Disabled permaculture is a way most anyone can garden. The investment can be small and gradual.

Some people think of gardening as expensive, requiring tools and the building of raised beds, remaking the garden seasonally, and the accumulation of books and arcane knowledge. But permaculture is humble, less expensive, and becomes an intuitive part of life.

Our garden is not a separate thing that we can choose to do or not do, this spring. It’s always happening, like the other aspects of our creativity, our health, our family, and the cycles of nature.


Laura-Marie River Victor Peace Nopales is a queer trikewitch who enjoys zines, ecstatic dance, and radical mental health. Find her at listening to the noise until it makes sense.

Dispersal by Open Sesame!

In certain instances, “open sesame” might be something you exclaim to magically open the door to a cave full of treasure, but for the sesame plant, open sesame is a way of life. In sesame’s case, seeds are the treasure, which are kept inside a four-chambered capsule. In order for the next generation of plants to have a chance at life, the seeds must be set free. Sesame’s story is similar to the stories of numerous other plant species whose seeds are born in dehiscent fruits. But in this instance, the process of opening those fruits is fairly unique.

Sesamum indicum is a domesticated plant with a 5000 plus year history of cultivation. It shares a genus with about 20 other species – most of which occur in sub-Saharan Africa – and belongs to the family Pedaliaceae – the sesame family. Sesame was first domesticated in India and is now grown in many other parts of the world. It is an annual plant that is drought and heat-tolerant and can be grown in poor soils and locations where many other crops might struggle. However, the best yields are achieved on farms with fertile soils and adequate moisture.

image credit: wikimedia commons

Depending on the variety and growing conditions, sesame can reach up to 5 feet tall and can be unbranched or highly branched. Its broad lance-shaped leaves are generally arranged directly across from each other on the stem. The flowers are tubular, similar in appearance to foxglove, and are typically self-pollinated and short-lived. They come in shades of white, pink, blue, and purple and continue to open throughout the growing season as the plant grows taller, even as fruits formed earlier mature. The fruits are deeply-grooved capsules with at least four separate chambers called locules. Rows of tiny, flat, teardrop shaped seeds are produced in each chamber. The seeds are prized for their high oil content and are also used in numerous other ways, both processed and fresh. One of my favorite uses for sesame seeds is tahini, which is one of the main ingredients in hummus.

The fruits of sesame are dehiscent, which means they naturally split open upon reaching maturity. Compare this to indehiscent fruits like acorns, which must either rot or be chewed open by an animal in order to free the seeds. Dehiscence is also called shattering, and in many domesticated crop plants, shattering is something that humans have selected against. If fruits dehisce before they can be harvested, seeds fall to the ground and are lost. Selecting varieties that hold on to their seed long enough to be harvested was imperative for crops like beans, peas, and grains. In domesticated sesame, the shattering trait persists and yield losses are often high.

Most of the world’s sesame crop is harvested by hand. The plants are cut, tied into bundles, and left to dry. Once dry, they are held upside down and beaten in order to collect the seeds from their dehisced capsules. When harvested this way, naturally shattering capsules may be preferred. But in places like the United States and Australia, where mechanical harvesting is desired, it has been necessary to develop new, indehiscent varieties that can be harvested using a combine without losing all the seed in the process. Developing varieties with shatter-resistant seed pods, has been challenging. In early trials, seed pods were too tough and passed through threshers without opening. Additional threshing damaged the seeds and caused the harvest to go rancid. Mechanically harvested varieties of sesame exist today, and improvements in these non-shattering varieties continue to be made.

In order to develop these new varieties, breeders have had to gain an understanding of the mechanisms behind dehiscence and the genes involved in this process. This research has helped us appreciate the unique way that the capsules of the sesame plant dehisce. As in the seed bearing parts of many other plant species, the capsules of sesame exhibit hygroscopic movements. That is, their movements are driven by changes in humidity. The simplest form of hygroscopic movement is bending, which can be seen in the opening and closing of pine cone scales. A more complex movement can be seen in the seed pods of many species in the pea family, which both bend and twist as they split open. In both of these examples, water is evaporating from the plant part in question. As it dries it bends and/or twists, thereby releasing its contents.

dehisced capsules of sesame (Sesamum indicum); photo credit: wikimedia commons (Dinesh Valke)

The cylindrical nature and cellular composition of sesame fruits leads to an even more complex form of hygroscopic movement. Initially, the capsule splits at the top, creating an opening to each of the four locules. The walls of each locule bend outward, then split and twist as the seed falls from the capsule. In a study published in Frontiers in Plant Science (2016), researchers found that differences in the capsule’s inner endocarp layer and outer mesocarp layer are what help lead to this interesting movement. The endocarp layer is composed of both transvere (i.e. circumferential) and longitudinal fiber cells, while the mesocarp is made up of soft parenchyma cells. The thicknesses of these two layers gradually changes along the length of the capsule. As the mesocarp dries, the capsule initially splits open and starts bending outwards, but as it does, resistance from the fiber cells in the endocarp layer causes further bending and twisting (see Figure 1 in the report for an illustration). As the researchers write, “the non-uniform relative thickness of the layers promotes a graded bi-axial bending, leading to the complex capsule opening movement.”

All this considered, a rock rolling away from the entrance of a cave after giving the command, “Open sesame!” almost seems simpler than the “open sesame” experienced by the fruit of the sesame plant.

See Also: Seed Shattering Lost – The Story of Foxtail Millet

Permaculture Lessons, part one

This is a guest post by Laura-Marie River Victor Peace Nopales (see contact info below).


Hello, I’m Laura-Marie. I love plants, permaculture, and learning what grows wherever I find myself. This guest post is about the permaculture lessons I’ve learned gardening with my spouse Ming. Ming is a kind, brilliant person who enjoys interdependence, being a street medic, and helping our garden grow. He’s a long-time permaculturist with two permaculture design certificates.

I’ve studied permaculture for ten years. I enjoy it for many reasons: responsibility and interdependence of organisms, long view, appreciation of small. Thinking a lot about water storage, microclimates, and what makes sense for a particular place. That “you don’t have too many snails–you have too few ducks” mentality. Anything you have too much of to use can be pollution, even something usually considered good.

origins

Ming and I are both from California. We moved to this Las Vegas desert from Sacramento, which is at the north part of the Central Valley and inland from the Bay Area. I love Sacramento for its diversity of humans, plentiful parks, and proximity to many other wonderful places. Ming likes that it’s compact, but not too dense. Things are close together and easy to get to, but not overly scrunched up and piled on each other. 

Sacramento gets hot in the summers but cools off at night with a breeze from The Delta. There are rivers, a wet feel, many trees. We liked helping with Food Not Bombs and being part of the peace community there.

When Ming and I gardened in Sacramento, our relationship grew and changed as our plants grew. At Fremont Community Garden, I turned compost for the first time. I ate the most delicious Asian pears I’ve ever tasted and learned what espalier pruning is, for easy reach of fruits. 

I learned how to be a good garden neighbor. The man who grew long beans in the plot next to ours went on vacation and asked us to water his plot. Our reward was harvesting from his garden. I never knew green beans could grow like that, and so delicious.

In that climate and soil, the oregano we had in our herb spiral went wild, like mint does some places. It turned into a delicious weed, and we would harvest whole trays of oregano to deliver to a local restaurant in exchange for cookies and drinks. It was informative to watch the oregano choke out the tarragon, as the herb spiral spiraled out of control.

Our lavender bush got bigger and bigger–I liked my fragrant attempts to divide it, as I learned how to use a shovel. I enjoyed our basil forest, pinching its flowers, and seeing basil wood for the first time.

tree collards

Tree collards are a quintessential permaculture plant. People who want food forests do well to grow this charming perennial brassica. Ming and I grew lush, gorgeous tree collards in Sacramento. They are so productive and delicious to eat. I loved to make curried greens with beans, and I added ripped up tree collard leaves to a stir fry or any veg dish for more deliciousness. Yes, I adored those pretty leaves, whether they were green or purple.  

Our biggest, first tree collard we called Sideshow Bob. Its leaves floofed up like the hair of Sideshow Bob on the cartoon tv show The Simpsons. Sideshow Bob got infested with Harlequin bugs, and I learned how to save a tree collard from Harlequin bug infestation. Squishing around 300 Harlequin bugs between my gloved fingers and putting their bug bodies into a bucket of soapy water was a thought-provoking scene of carnage.  

What am I willing to do, to defend my favorite plant and meal ingredient? I considered what must die to keep my own body alive, what’s worth it. I miss those cute orange gardening gloves that I would never look at the same way again.

Sideshow Bob tipped over, and Ming found ways to support its “trunk” as it grew diagonally. It was fun to watch Sideshow Bob’s adjustment to sideways life, and we liked to give cuttings away.

Tree collards are easy to propagate, so we had several tree collard plants in our garden after some time. We brought one to my mom’s house and planted it at the edge of her garden. She lived in a different part of California, further south near the coast. Her tree collard flourished there. Every time we visited my mom, I felt excited to see how the tree collard had grown.

sharing

For a while we had two gardens. We had our plot at Fremont Community Garden, but we also lived in an apartment complex with shared beds.There were four beds when we got there, and then two more were added.  

We learned about sharing garden space with friends, including emotions, not wanting to encroach on someone else’s space, challenges of communication and expectations. I had a clump of rainbow chard that I loved to eat and watch grow. It got infested with aphids, but I was hoping to win that battle.  After some time, a well-meaning neighbor ripped it out, and I cried.

We learned how much space is the right amount, and which plants we like to eat grow well in Sacramento.  Tomatoes do well there.  I learned a permaculture lesson about the wave of energy: how having a high yield might not correspond to having enough energy to harvest it.  

One summer, so many cherry tomatoes grew that we couldn’t harvest them fast enough. Big changes were happening in the lives of everyone who lived in that apartment building, when the tomato plants were covered in hundreds of fruits. It was sad, not to have the capacity to share surplus with people in need.

There’s a mushroom farm in Sacramento that gave away spent substrate, which intrigued us.  We decided to try using substrate as mulch. “It could take nutrients from the soil, since it’s just sawdust.  Maybe this is a silly idea,” we wondered.  But we opened the bags and spread the sawdust on our garden beds, curious,

Then there was a rainy couple weeks in the winter, and we found ourselves with more oyster mushrooms than we could eat. They fruited out like mad. That felt magical and was a tasty experiment in trying something out just to see what happens.

promise

In future guest posts, I’d like to tell you what I’ve learned doing permaculture in the desert, and how doing permaculture as a disabled person is a great idea. Please let this post serve as an introduction to how my spouse Ming and I see plants and enjoy garden life.  

We enjoy new experiences, and we have a slow, grateful pace of loving the land. We love plants as food and sibling organisms on this beautiful earth.


Laura-Marie River Victor Peace Nopales is a queer permaculturist trikewitch who enjoys zines, ecstatic dance, and radical mental health. Find her at https://www.listeningtothenoiseuntilitmakessense.com.

Burr Tongue, or The Weed That Choked the Dog

It is said that the inspiration for Velcro came when Swiss inventor, George de Mestral, was removing the burrs of burdock from his dog’s coat, an experience we had with Kōura just days after adopting her. I knew that common burdock was found on our property, and I had made a point to remove all the plants that I could easily get to. However, during Kōura’s thorough exploration of our yard, she managed to find the one plant I had yet to pull due to its awkward location behind the chicken coop.

I knew when I saw the clump of burrs attached to her hind end that we were going to spend the evening combing them out of her fur. However, not long after that we discovered that Kōura had already started the process and in doing so had either swallowed or inhaled some. What tipped us off was her violent hacking and gagging as she moved frantically around the living room. She was clearly distraught, and so were we. Recognizing that she had probably swallowed a burr, we made a quick decision to take her to an emergency vet. This was our unfortunately timed (this happened on Christmas Eve) introduction to burr tongue and all the frightening things that can happen when a dog swallows burdock burrs.

The roots, shoots, and leaves of both greater burdock (Arctium lappa) and common burdock (Arctium minus) are edible, which I have already discussed in an Eating Weeds post. The burrs, on the other hand, are clearly not. While sticking to the fur of animals and the clothing of people is an excellent way for a plant to get their seeds dispersed, the sharp, hooked barbs that facilitate this are not something you want down your throat. When this occurs, the natural response is to try to hack them up, which Kōura was doing. Salivating heavily and vomiting can also help. In many cases, this will be enough to eliminate the barbs. However, if they manage to work their way into the soft tissues of the mouth, tongue, tonsils, or throat and remain there, serious infection can occur.

burr of common burdock (Arctium minus)

A paper published in The Canadian Veterinary Journal in 1973 describes the treatment for what is commonly known as burr tongue and technically referred to as granular stomatitis. The paper gives an account of what can happen when “long-haired breeds of dogs … run free in areas where [burdock] grows” and the hooked scales of the burrs consequently “penetrate the mucous membrane of the mouth and tongue.” Dogs with burrs imbedded in their mouths may start eating less or more slowly, drinking more water, and drooling excessively. As infection progresses, their breath can start to stink. A look inside the mouth and at the tongue will reveal lesions where the burrs have embedded themselves. Treatment involves putting the dog under anesthesia, scraping away the infected tissue, and administering antibiotics. Depending on the severity of the lesions, scar tissue can form where the barbs were attached.

To prevent infection from happening in the first place, a veterinarian can put the dog under anesthesia and use a camera inside the dog’s mouth and throat to search for pieces of the burr that may have gotten lodged. There is no guarantee that they will find them all or be able to remove them, and so the dog should be monitored over the next several days for signs and symptoms. At our veterinary visit, the vet also warned us that if any burrs were inhaled into the lungs, they could cause a lung infection, which is another thing to monitor for since it would be practically impossible for an x-ray or a camera to initially find them.

Luckily, now more than three weeks later, Kōura appears to be doing fine, and the offending burdock has been taken care of. One thing is for sure, as someone who is generally forgiving of weeds, burdock is one weed that will not be permitted to grow at Awkward Botany Headquarters.


For more adventures involving Kōura, be sure to follow her on Instagram @plantdoctordog.

Tea Time: Linden Flower Tea

Lindens make great trees for urban areas. A few species and hybrids in particular are commonly planted in parks, yards, and along the streets of cities across the northern hemisphere and have been for decades – centuries even. They cast dense shade, are tolerant of a variety of climates and soil conditions, and are generally easy to maintain. For much of the year as you move throughout the city you live in, you likely pass by dozens of lindens without thinking twice about them. They are ubiquitous, conventional, ordinary, common. Unless they’re in bloom. For a few weeks in early to mid-summer, flowering lindens produce an impossibly sweet fragrance that can’t be ignored. Along with the scent comes the sound of hundreds of buzzing bees collecting pollen and nectar from the pendulous blooms.

Lindens are trees and shrubs in the family Malvaceae and genus Tilia. Around 30 or so species are found in temperate regions across the northern hemisphere, mostly in Europe and Asia. Depending on who you ask, there are between one and three species native to North America. Tilia caroliniana and Tilia heterophylla are considered by some to be varieties of Tilia americana, or American basswood, which is distributed across central and eastern United States and north into parts of Canada. Another common name for linden is lime because words used to refer to the tree in older languages were similar to the word lime. The name basswood comes from the tree’s fibrous inner bark, known as bast.

Linden leaves are generally heart-shaped and asymmetrical with serrate margins. Small clusters of little yellow to white flowers form at the end of a slender stem attached to a narrow, ribbon-like, yellow-green bract. The bract aids in seed dispersal by helping the fruits float on the wind away from the parent tree in a manner similar to the samaras of maple trees. The fruits are small, round, hardened drupes that resemble little peas. The fragrant, nectar-rich flowers are not only favored by beekeepers for honey production, but also have a long history of being harvested for making tea (i.e. tisane). Linden flower tea is said to have a number of medicinal uses and health benefits, all of which I take with a grain of salt. This series of posts isn’t meant to be an investigation into the health claims of plants, but instead an opportunity for me – out of sheer curiosity – to try making tea out of a variety of different plants . If medicinal uses interest you, I encourage you to seek out credible, peer-reviewed sources.

I made linden flower tea from flowers I collected from Tilia cordata, commonly known as littleleaf linden. It was an easy one to find due to its popularity as an urban tree. The natural distribution of littleleaf linden extends from Britain across Europe and into western Asia. Its triangular-ovate shaped leaves are 4-10 centimeters long, glossy green on top, and pale green on the bottom with tufts of orange hairs along the leaf veins, concentrated at the base of the leaf where the leaf blade meets the petiole. The tree can reach up to 21 meters tall and has an oval or rounded-pyramidal shape, though many trees in urban areas are cultivars and can be smaller and more compact.

I harvested the flowers – bracts and all – in late June. It’s advised that they not be harvested directly after a rain (or after being hit by sprinklers), and that they are harvested when the flowers are newly opened. I presume this is because the flowers are at their freshest at this point and will be the best for making tea. I layed the flowers out to dry on a clean kitchen towel on top of a metal cake rack. It only takes 2 or 3 days for them to dry. After drying I removed and saved all the flowers and threw out the bracts and stems, but apparently you can use the entire inflorescence if you’d like.

There are several linden flower tea recipes online. I went with 3 cups of boiling water poured over 1 tablespoon dried linden flowers, covered and steeped for 15 minutes. The resulting tea was an appealing pastel yellow color. I tried it plain as well as sweetened with a little bit of honey. I preferred it sweetened, but unsweetened wasn’t too bad, just a little bitter. It has a floral taste and pleasant smell. Sierra said it tasted earthy, like something she wasn’t supposed to be drinking. Despite that odd review, she said she liked it. Since several sources discussed the calming, sleep-inducing effects of the tea, I made sure to drink it in the evening when it would be normal for me to be feeling sleepy. I suggest you do the same.

More Tea Time Posts on Awkward Botany

Drought Tolerant Plants: Blue Flax

“Lewis’s prairie flax is a pretty garden ornamental suited to hot, dry sites. Each morning delicate sky blue flowers open on slender arching stems, only to fall off in the afternoon and be replaced by others the next morning. In spite of its fragile appearance, it is quite sturdy and may put out a second flush of blossoms on new growth in late summer.”Common to the This Country: Botanical Discoveries of Lewis and Clark by Susan H. Munger


When selecting plants for a waterwise garden, it is imperative that at least a portion of the plants are easy to grow and maintain and are adapted to a wide variety of conditions. This will ensure a more successful garden, both functionally and aesthetically. Luckily, there are a number of drought-tolerant plants that pretty much anyone can grow without too much trouble. Blue flax, in my opinion, is one such plant.

You may be familiar with flax as a culinary plant, known for its edible seeds which are used to make flour (i.e. meal) and oil. Or perhaps you’ve used linseed oil, a product of flax seeds, to protect wooden, outdoor furniture or in other wood finishing projects. You may also think of linen when you think of flax; and you should, because linen is a textile made from the fibrous stems of the flax plant. All of these products generally come from a domesticated, annual flax known as Linum usitatissimum – a species that has been of benefit to humans for millenia. Various species of flax have also been planted for erosion control, fire breaks, forage for livestock, and in pollinator-friendly gardens. Flax seeds, a common ingredient in bird seed mixes, provide food for birds and other small animals. All this to say, humans and flax share a long history together, and it deserves a place in your garden.

The flax species profiled here is actually two species: Linum lewisii and Linum perenne. That’s because these two species look nearly identical and are both used as garden ornamentals and in wildflower seed mixes. They are also both known as blue flax, among myriad other common names. Due to their similiarity, L. lewisii is considered by some to be a subspecies of L. perenne.

Linum lewisii is found across western North America and received its name after being collected by a member of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. The plant collection was brought back from the expedition and determined to be new to western science. It was described and named by Frederick Pursh. Linum perenne is a European species which was introduced to North America as an ornamental and has since become widely naturalized. In 1980, a naturalized selection of L. perenne was released for use in restoration plantings under the cultivar name ‘Appar’ with the understanding that it was L. lewisii. A genetic study later revealed that the cultivar was instead L. perenne. The study also provided evidence that “North American Lewis flax and European perennial blue flax are reproductively isolated,” suggesting that they are indeed two separate species.

Despite being separate species, telling them apart can be a challenge. Blue flax plants grow from a taproot and woody base and are multistemmed, reaching two to three feet tall. The stems are thin yet stringy, wiry, and not easily torn, which helps explain why flax is such a good plant for making textiles. Short, slender leaves are alternately arranged along the length of the stems, while flower buds form at the ends of stems in loose clusters. Flowers bloom early in the day and are spent by the afternoon. They are 5-petaled, saucer-shaped, and a shade of blue – from whitish blue to deep blue – depending on the plant. Small, round, 10-chambered seed capsules form in the place of flowers, each chamber housing one or two flat, shiny, dark brown seeds. Flowers bloom daily in succession up towards the ends of stems even as the fruits of spent flowers lower on the stalk mature.

seed capsules of blue flax

A close look at their flower parts is really the only way you might be able to tell these two species apart. Blue flax flowers have five stamens topped with white anthers and five styles topped with little, yellow stigmas. The flowers of L. lewisii are homostlyous, which means their styles are all the same length and are generally taller than or about the same height as the stamens. The flowers of L. perenne are heterostylous, which means their flowers can either have styles that are much longer than their stamens or stamens that are much longer than their styles. Each plant in a population of L. perenne has either all long-styled flowers or all short-styled flowers. In a mixed population of L. perenne and L. lewisii, separating the long-styled L. perenne plants from the L. lewisii plants presents a challenge (at least for me).

long-styled blue flax flower
short-styled blue flax flower

Due to the similarity of these two species, it’s easy to see how the plants or seeds of blue flax could easily be mislabeled and sold as one species even though they are the other species. This could be a problem in a restoration planting where seed source and identity is critical, but in your garden, it’s really no big deal. Both species are great for waterwise and pollinator gardens. They are equally beautiful and easy to grow and care for. If nothing else, perhaps the challenge in identifying them will encourage you to take a closer look at your flowers and familiarize yourself with their tinier parts – an act all of us amateur botanists could stand to do more often.

The photos in this post were taken at Idaho Botanical Garden in Boise, Idaho.

More Drought Tolerant Plants Posts:

To Fruit or Not to Fruit – The Story of Mast Seeding

Perennial plants that are able to reproduce multiple times during their lifetime don’t always yield the same amount of seeds each time they reproduce. For some of these plants, there is a stark difference between high-yield years and low-yield years, with low-yield years outnumbering the occasional high-yield years. In years when yields are high, fruit production can seem excessive. This phenomenon is called masting, or mast seeding, and it takes place at the population level. That is, during a mast year, virtually all individuals in a population of a certain species synchronously produce a bumper crop of seeds.

Plants of many types can be masting species. Bitterroot milkvetch (Astragalus scaphoides) and a tussock grass known as Chionochloa pallens are masting species, for example. However, this behavior is most commonly observed in trees, notably nut producing trees like oaks, beeches, and pecans. As you might imagine, the boom and bust cycles of mast seeding plant populations can have dramatic ecological effects. Animals that eat acorns, for example, are greeted with a veritable buffet in a mast year, which can increase their rate of reproduction for a spell. Then, in years when acorns are scarce, the populations of those animals can plummet.

How and why masting happens is not well understood. It is particularly baffling because masting populations can cover considerably large geographic areas. How do trees covering several square miles all “know” that this is the year to really go for it? While a number of possible explanations have been explored, there is still much to learn, especially since so many different species growing in such varied environments exhibit this behavior.

A popular explanation for mast seeding is predator satiation. The fruits and seeds of plants are important food sources for many animals. When a population of plants produces fruit in an unusually high abundance, its predators won’t possibly be able to eat them all. At least a few seeds will be left behind and can sprout and grow into new plants. By satiating their predators they help ensure the survival of future generations. However, even if a plant species has evolved to behave this way, it still doesn’t explain how all the plants in a particular population seem to know when it’s time for another mast year.

Predator satiation is an example of an economy of scale, which essentially means that individual plants benefit when the population acts as a whole. Another economy of scale that helps explain masting is pollen coupling. This has to do with the timing of flowering in cross pollinating species. If individuals flower out of sync with one another, the opportunities for cross pollination are limited. However, if individuals in a population flower simultaneously, more flowers will be pollinated which leads to increased fruit and seed production.  For this to happen, there are at least two factors that come into play. First, the plants have to have enough resources to flower. Making flowers is expensive, and if the resources to do so (like carbon, nitrogen, and water) aren’t available, it won’t happen. Second, weather conditions have to work in their favor. Timing of flowering depends, not only on daylength, but on temperature, rainfall, and other local weather conditions. If individuals across a population aren’t experiencing similar weather, the timing of their flowering may be off.

pollen-producing (male) flowers of pecan (Carya illinoinensis) — via wikimedia commons; Clemson University

Resource matching and resource budgeting are other proposed explanations for masting. Since plants can only use the resources available to them for things like growth and reproduction, they vary each year in how much growing or reproducing they do. Theoretically, if plants in a population are all going to flower in the same year, they all have to have access to a similar amount of resources. Often, the year following a mast year, there is a significant drop in fruit production, as though the plants have used up all of their available resources for reproduction and are taking a break. Some hypothesize that masting is a result of resource storage, and that plants save up resources for several years until they have what they need for yet another big year.

Another thing to consider is how plant hormones might play a role in masting. Gene expression and environmental cues both result in hormonal responses in plants. As Bogdziewicz, et al. write in Ecology Letters (2020), “if hormones and the genes that control them are hypersensitive to an environmental signal, masting can be at least partially independent of resource- and pollen-based mechanisms.” This and other potential explanations for masting are, at this point, largely theoretical. In their paper, Bogdziewicz, et al. propose a number of ways that theoretical predictions can be experimentally tested. If the “research agenda” outlined in their paper is carried out, they believe it will “take the biology of masting from a largely observational field of ecology to one rooted in mechanistic understanding.”

In her book, Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer proposes an additional explanation for the mechanisms behind masting – the trees are talking to one another. Not in the way that you and I might converse, but rather by sending signals through the air via pheromones and underground via complex fungal networks. There is already evidence for this behavior when it comes to plants defending themselves from predators and in sharing resources, so why not in planning when to reproduce? As Kimmerer writes regarding masting, “the trees act not as individuals, but somehow as a collective.” The question now is how.

seedlings of European beech (Fagus sylvatica), a mast-seeding species — via wikimedia commons; user: Beentree

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Winter Trees and Shrubs: Northern Catalpa

The names of plants often contain clues that can either help with identification or that tell something about the plant’s history or use. The name, catalpa, is said to be derived from the Muscogee word, katałpa, meaning “winged head,” presumably referring to the tree’s winged seeds. Or maybe, as one writer speculates, it refers to the large, heart-shaped, floppy leaves that can make it look like the tree is “ready to take flight.” Or perhaps it’s a reference to the fluted, fused petals of the tree’s large, tubular flowers. I suppose it could mean any number of things, but I’m sticking with its seeds, which are packed by the dozens in the tree’s long, slender, bean-like fruits. The seeds are flat, pale brown, and equipped with paper thin, fringed appendages on either side that assist in wind dispersal – wings, in other words.

winged seeds of northern catalpa (Catalpa speciosa)

Catalpa speciosa, or northern catalpa, is a relatively fast growing, short-lived tree native to the Midwest and one of only two species in the genus Catalpa found in the United States. Its distribution prior to the arrival of Europeans appears to have been restricted to a portion of the central Mississippi River valley, extending west into Arkansas, east into Tennessee, and north into Illinois and Indiana. It has since been widely planted outside of its native range, naturalizing in areas across the Midwest and eastern US. Early colonizers planted northern catalpa for use as fence posts, railroad ties, and firewood. Its popularity as an ornamental tree is not what it once was a century ago, but it is still occasionally planted in urban areas as a shade tree. Its messiness – littering the ground below with large leaves, flowers, and seed capsules – and its tendency to spread outside of cultivation into natural areas are reasons why it has fallen out of favor with some people.

The oval to heart-shaped, 8 to 12 inch long leaves with long petioles rotting on the ground below the tree are one sure sign that you’ve encountered a catalpa in the winter time. The leaves are some of the first to fall at the end of the growing season, briefly turning an unmemorable yellow before dropping.

leaf of northern catalpa (Catalpa speciosa) in the winter with soft hairs on the underside still visible

The leaf arrangement on northern catalpa is whorled and sometimes opposite. The twigs are easy to identify due to several unique features. They are stout, round, and grayish brown with prominent lenticels. The leaf scars are large, rounded, and raised up on the twig, looking a bit like little suction cups. They are arranged in whorls of three, with one scar considerably smaller than the other two. A series of bundle traces inside the scar form an ellipse. The leaf buds are tiny compared to the scar and are protected by loose, pointed, brown bud scales. Northern catalpa twigs lack a terminal bud. In the winter, seed capsules or the stalk of an old inflorescence often remain attached to the terminal end of the twig. The pith inside of the twig is thick, white, and solid.

twig of northern catalpa (Catalpa speciosa)

pith inside twig of northern catalpa (Catalpa speciosa)

Another common name for Catalpa speciosa is cigar tree, a name that comes from its up to 18 inch long, cigar-like seed capsules that hang from the otherwise naked tree throughout the winter. The sturdy, cylindrical pod starts out green in the summer and turns dark brown by late fall. Seed pods that haven’t fallen or already split open will dehisce in the spring time, releasing their papery seeds to the wind.

fruits of northern catalpa (Catalpa speciosa) hanging from the tree in the winter

The young bark of northern catalpa is thin and easily damaged. As it matures, it becomes furrowed with either scaly ridges or blocky plates. Mature trees are generally twisted at the base but otherwise grow straight, reaching 30 to 60 feet tall (sometimes taller) with an open-rounded to narrow-oval crown.

maturing bark of northern catalpa (Catalpa speciosa)

Northern catalpa is one of the last trees to leaf out in the spring. In late spring or early summer, 10 inch long clusters of white, tubular flowers are produced at the tips of stems. Before the flowers open, they look a bit like popped popcorn, reminding me of a song from my childhood (which I will reluctantly leave right here). The margins of its trumpet-shaped petals are ruffled and there is yellow, orange, and/or purple spotting or streaking on the inside of the tubes.

flower of northern catalpa (Catalpa speciosa) just before it opens

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Winter Trees and Shrubs: Netleaf Hackberry

Boise, Idaho is frequently referred to as the City of Trees despite being located in a semiarid region of the Intermountain West known as the sagebrush steppe where few trees naturally grow. It earns this moniker partly because the name Boise is derived from the river that runs through it (the Boise River), which was named La Rivere Boisse, or The Wooded River, by early French trappers. Although it flows through a largely treeless landscape, The Wooded River was an apt name on account of the wide expanse of cottonwoods and willows that grew along its banks. The fervent efforts of early colonizers to plant trees in large numbers across their new city also helped Boise earn the title, City of Trees. Today, residents continue the legacy of planting trees, ensuring that the city will remain wooded for decades to come.

As is likely the case for most urban areas, the majority of trees being planted in Boise are not native to the region. After all, very few tree species are. However, apart from the trees that flank the Boise River, there is one tree in particular that naturally occurs in the area. Celtis reticulata, commonly known as netleaf hackberry, can be found scattered across the Boise Foothills amongst shrubs, bunchgrasses, and wildflowers, taking advantage of deep pockets of moisture found in rocky outcrops and draws.

The western edge of netleaf hackberry’s range extends to the northwest of Boise into Washington, west into Oregon, and down into California. The majority of its range is found south of Idaho, across the Southwest and into northern Mexico, then east into the prairie regions of Kansas and Oklahoma. Previously placed in the elm family, it is now considered a member of the family Cannabaceae (along with hemp and hops). It’s a relatively small, broad tree (sometimes a shrub) with a semi-rounded crown. It grows slowly, is long-lived, and generally has a gnarled, hardened, twisted look to it. It’s a tough tree that has clearly been through a lot.

The leaves of Celtis reticulata are rough, leathery, and oval to lance shaped with serrate or entire leaf margins. Their undersides have a distinct net-like pattern that gives the tree its common name. A very small insect called a hackberry psyllid lays its eggs inside the leaf buds of netleaf hackberries in the spring. Its larvae develop inside the leaf, feeding on the sugars produced during photosynthesis, and causing nipple galls to form in the leaves. It’s not uncommon to see a netleaf hackberry with warty-looking galls on just about every leaf. Luckily, the tree doesn’t seem to be bothered by this.

fallen leaves of netleaf hackberry (Celtis reticulata) with nipple galls

The fruit of netleaf hackberry is a pea-sized drupe that hangs at the end of a pedicel that is 1/4 to 1/2 inch long. Its skin is red-orange to purple-brown, and its flesh is thin with a large seed in the center. The fruits, along with a few random leaves, persist on the tree throughout the winter and provide food for dozens of species of birds and a variety of mammals.

persistent fruit of netleaf hackberry (Celtis reticulata)

Celtis reticulata is alternately branched. Its twigs are slender, zig-zagging, and often curved back towards the trunk. They are reddish-brown with several pale lenticels and have sparse, fine, short hairs that are hard to see without a hand lens. The leaf scars are small, half-round, and raised up from the twig. They have three bundle scars that form a triangle. The buds are triangle-shaped with fuzzy bud scales that are slightly lighter in color than the twig. The twigs are topped with a subterminal bud, and the pith (the inner portion of the twig) is either chambered or diaphragmed and difficult to see clearly without a hand lens. 

twigs of netleaf hackberry (Celtis reticulata)

The young bark of netleaf hackberry is generally smooth and grey, developing shallow, orange-tinged furrows as it gets older. Mature bark is warty like its cousin, Celtis occidentals, and develops thick, grey, corky ridges. Due to its slow growth, the bark can be retained long enough that it becomes habitat for extensive lichen colonies.

bark of young netleaf hackberry (Celtis reticulata)

bark of mature netleaf hackberry (Celtis reticulata)

Netleaf hackberry is one of the last trees to leaf out in the spring, presumably preserving as much moisture as possible as it prepares to enter another scorching hot, bone-dry summer typical of the western states. Its flowers open around the same time and are miniscule and without petals. Their oversized mustache-shaped, fuzzy, white stigmas provide some entertainment for those of us who take the time to lean in for a closer look.

spring flowers of netleaf hackberry (Celtis reticulata)

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Photos of netleaf hackberry taken at Idaho Botanical Garden in Boise, Idaho.

Winter Trees and Shrubs: Eastern Redbud

Botanizing doesn’t have to end when the leaves fall off the trees and the ground goes frozen. Plants may stop actively growing during this time, but they are still there. Some die back to the soil level and spend the entire winter underground, leaving behind brown, brittle shells of their former selves. Others, particularly those with woody stems, maintain their form (although many of them leafless) as they bide their time while daylength dips and rises again, bringing with it the promise of warmer weather. Plants that leave us with something to look at during the winter can still be identified. Without foliage or flowers to offer us clues, we rely instead on branches, bark, and buds to identify woody species. In some cases, such features may even be more helpful in determining a certain species than their flowers and foliage ever were. Either way, it’s a fun challenge and one worth accepting if you’re willing to brave the cold, hand lens and field guides in tow.

In this series of posts I’ll be looking closely at woody plants in winter, examining the twigs, buds, bark, and any other features I come across that can help us identify them. Species by species, I will learn the ropes of winter plant identification and then pass my findings along to you. We’ll begin with Cercis canadensis, an understory tree commonly known as eastern redbud.

Eastern redbud is distributed across central and eastern North America, south of southern Michigan and into central Mexico. It is also commonly grown as an ornamental tree outside of its native range, and a number of cultivars have been developed for this purpose. Mature trees reach up to 30 feet and have short trunks with wide, rounded crowns. Its leaves are entire, round or heart-shaped, and turn golden-yellow in the fall. Gathered below the tree in winter, the leaves maintain their shape and are a light orange-brown color.

fallen leaf of eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis)

Eastern redbud is alternately branched with slender, zig-zagging twigs that are dark reddish-brown scattered with several tiny, light-colored lenticels. Older sections of branches are more grey in color. Leaf scars (the marks left on twigs after leaves fall) are a rounded triangle shape and slightly raised with thin ridges along each side. The top edge of the leaf scar is fringed, which I found impossible to see without magnification. Leaf buds are egg-shaped and 2-3 mm in length with wine-red bud scales that are glabrous (smooth) with slightly white, ciliate margins. Descriptions say there are actually two buds – one stalked and one sessile. If the second bud is there, it’s miniscule and obscured by the leaf scar. I haven’t actually been able to see one. Twigs lack a terminal bud or have a tiny subterminal bud that points off to one side. The pith of the twigs is rounded and pale pink. Use sharp pruners or a razor blade to cut the twig in half lengthwise to see it.

twig and buds of eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis)

Bark is helpful in identifying woody plants any time of year, but is especially worth looking at during the winter when branches have gone bare. The bark of young eastern redbud is grey with orange, furrowed streaks running lengthwise along the trunk. In mature trees, the bark is gray, scaly, and peels to reveal reddish-brown below.

bark of young eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis)

bark of mature eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis)

Eastern redbud is in the bean family (Fabaceae) and its flowers and fruits are characteristic of plants in this family. Fruits can persist on the tree throughout the winter and are another way to identify the tree during the off-season. Seed pods are flat, dark red- or orange-brown, and up to 2.5 inches long with four to ten seeds inside. The seeds are flat, round, about 5 millimeters long, and ranging in color from orange-brown to black.

persistent fruits of eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis)

seeds of eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis)

Eastern redbud flowers in early spring before it has leafed out. Clusters of bright pink flowers form on old branches rather than new stems and twigs. Sometimes flowers even burst right out of the main trunk. This unique trait is called cauliflory.

cauliflory on eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis)

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Photos of eastern redbud taken at Idaho Botanical Garden in Boise, Idaho.