Friday, December 21, 2018

Holiday Greetings in Wyoming Red & Green

Ever wonder why red and green are the colors of Christmas?
Back when Christmas was mainly religious, red and green represented the Holly Tree, which Christians considered symbolic of the crown of thorns worn by Jesus (others considered it a symbol of fertility, or a charm to ward off witches and bad luck).
European holly, Ilex aquifolium (source).
The Holly Tree of Christmas, Ilex aquifolium, is restricted to Europe. In Wyoming we have no hollies at all, and the nearest members of the genus Ilex grow in the southeastern United States. So we have to be creative in making homegrown botanical Christmas cards. This year I chose rich red paintbrush bracts and pale blue-green sagebrush leaves—symbolic of the sagebrush steppe that covers so much of the state.
Sagebrush steppe northwest of Daniel, Wyoming. Photo by Matt Lavin.
Photo courtesy US Fish & Wildlife Service.
Red “flowers” of paintbrush (Castilleja) are actually bracts; flowers are yellow (click image to view).
Finely-hairy drought-resistant leaves of sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata) contain camphor and other volatile oils, suggesting true sage when crushed (source).
This plant pair wasn’t just a lucky find. Paintbrush often grows next to a sagebrush, its roots penetrating the sagebrush roots to siphon off water and nutrients. Some might object to a Christmas card featuring a parasite. But wait ... the relationship may prove to be mutually beneficial.

Paintbrush is only partially parasitic; it can also photosynthesize (note green leaves). Sagebrush doesn’t appear to suffer much from this relationship unless conditions are harsh (especially drought). And in some cases, paintbrush provides benefits, like increasing nitrogen availability in poor soils. Finally, given the rate at which mutually-beneficial and even mandatory symbioses are being discovered—possibly the norm rather than the exception—further research may force us to rethink our story about paintbrush and sagebrush. They may represent the sharing spirit of Christmas after all.

Happy holidays and best wishes for the year to come!

Sunday, December 9, 2018

“Trees know when history begins”

Late afternoon. These days no direct light reaches the boxelder in the nook; the sun sets too far south.

Years ago—long before I moved to the West Side—heavy-equipment operators, concrete masons, carpenters, and laborers of all sorts constructed a large building between my house and the river. They cleared and leveled the site, poured slabs, framed structures, attached sheathing and roof, and installed doors. But the ground at the base was left bare. That’s how history begins.

Today another history: a tall inside corner, a nook unkempt and likely unnoticed, a boxelder standing in the perfect right angle above thistles, tumbleweeds and trash. Trees know when history begins, always sprouting up fresh

Shoots sucker along concrete, leaves spread green across corrugated metal, a tree now just taller than the door will reach beyond the roof.
This boxelder is adventive, well-established on a site that was barren not that long ago (1). It’s not so much of a stretch to link it to Advent, which started just last week on the fourth Sunday before Christmas. Adventive and advent both come from Latin advenire, to arrive. But here the similarity ends. Though the nook appears harsh and unforgiving, living there is hardly a form of penance. That boxelder seed landed in a sanctuary—shade, runoff, no competition. Whatever we leave empty will be filled.

I came across “Up a Gulch” in one of King’s chapbooks, In the Empty Mountains. I was only a few lines into the poem when it dawned on me—this is about the boxelder I’m following! Thanks to Lithic Press for permission to include it here (2).

Bob King was well known and appreciated by Colorado poets. He started the Colorado Poets Center, a richly annotated directory of published poets living in or with strong ties to the state. His own works include seven chapbooks, two full volumes of poetry, essays, articles, short fiction, creative non-fiction and more. King passed away in April 2017, shortly after In the Empty Mountains was published. For more about him, see this tribute.


(1) Botanists disagree on the definition of adventive. Some say only non-native species qualify as adventive. Others use the term for native or non-native species that are new to a site and do no harm. I use it similarly, but without the do-no-harm criterion (too hard to judge!).

(2) Robert King’s In the Empty Mountains is available from Lithic Press, an independent small press in Fruita, Colorado:
“… these poems reveal the joys, pains, and insights of a man long on the wisdom road. He sees daily occurrences from a very broad perspective, that leads to humility that cannot hide.”
[The description in the Lithic catalogue features “Up a Gulch” as a selected excerpt!]