Monday, September 23, 2013

Visiting China: Autumn Greetings, Chrysanthemum and Maple

red chrysanthemums
red chrysanthemums 
     As summer fades into fall, a different set of plants dominate the landscape.  In my garden, the chrysanthemums that were an unassuming cluster of leaves all summer are now covered in blossoms.  My fruit trees are dropping apples and haws. Burning bush (Euonymous) and maples start to turn color. 

   My garden is in Colorado but those are Chinese plants or plants also found in China. In the late 1800s and early 1900s "plant hunters" searched east Asia for garden plants. Many familiar garden plants--lilacs, peonies, ever-blooming roses, nandina, butterfly bush--are native to China, introduced to the West by the plant hunters.
Chrysanthemums along the wall, Suzhou, China
Chrysanthemums along the garden wall, 
Suzhou, China

The Chinese  Chrysanthemum

   Traditional Chinese culture noticed the progress of the seasons and cherished it. Plants were associated with seasons--plum blossoms in spring, orchid in summer, chrysanthemum with fall, bamboo in winter--to name The Four Gentlemen, also known at the Four Plants of Virtue. The right plant for the season was important. Having plants out of season brought bad luck. 

Monday, September 16, 2013

Visiting China: Chinese Landscape Painting and Chinese Landscapes

Huang Shan, Yellow Mountain, China
Huang Shan, Yellow Mountain, China
   Books on art history tell me that landscape painting as a distinctive style first appeared in Europe in the 1500's. The Chinese have a much longer history of painting landscapes. Several landscape paintings from the 11th century survive and literary sources refer to earlier works. Here are links to two 11th century examples: Guo Xi Early Spring (1072) and Fan Kuan (10th-early 11th C), Travelers Among Mountains and Streams (scroll down).

Chinese  shanshui landscape painting
Chinese landscape painting
  The landscape paintings of China look exotic. They are executed in ink with a brush and are often monochromatic.

    More familiar American and European landscapes are done in bright oil paint. (links to American landscape painters, and English landscape painters, Constable, for example).

    The shapes of the rocks, mountains and trees in traditional Chinese landscape painting seem odd to an American eye. Clouds or fog fill parts of the pictures, adding to the dream-like quality.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Plant Story: the amazing drought-tolerant buffalo grass, Buchloë dactyloides

buffalo grass, Buchloë dactyloides
buffalo grass, Buchloë dactyloides
growing in a path
   Last post (link) I talked about how buffalo grass, Buchloë dactyloides (grass family, Poaceae) spread because it was eaten and planted by bison (the American buffalo, Bison bison), and how it provides all-year nutrition for bison (and cattle). One result of this mutually beneficial relationship was that bison spread buffalo grass all over central North America.

    However, just being carried by bison isn't enough to explain the wide natural distribution of buffalo grass. The plants had to to survive in the places bison took them. And they did, very well indeed. Buffalo grass is characteristic of the North American high plains--in fact it is one of the three most abundant grasses. It is highly successful in a region of frequent droughts, long and short, mild and severe.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Plant story: the amazing buffalograss, Buchloë dactyloides

buffalo grass, Buchloë dactyloides
stand of buffalo grass, Buchloë dactyloides
grass family, Poaceae. Area is about 1 square yard.
  Buffalograss is one of my favorite plants. Grasses get walked over a lot, with people not even trying to tell them apart. One of buffalo grass's strengths might be recognizability. Once you learn what it looks like, it is easily recognized. The leaves are narrow green ribbons. The plant sends out runners which root and let it spread. It never grows more than 8-10" (20 cm) tall. You never have to mow a buffalo grass lawn.
herd of bison
herd of bison (old bad photo)
  For clarity I should state that I'm talking about Buchloë dactyloides, the buffalo grass that is native to the high plains of North America. There is a tall (3', 1 m) grass in southern Africa called foxtail buffalo grass which I have seen labelled "buffalo grass" online. I don't mean that buffalo grass. And, apparently South Africa and Australia call Stenotaphrum secundatum buffalo grass or buffalo lawn grass. In the U.S., the usual name for S. secundatum is St. Augustine grass. I don't mean that buffalo grass either. I mean the North American native buffalo grass Buchloë  dactyloides.
buffalo grass, Buchloë dactyloides
buffalo grass, Buchloë
closer view, area less than 1 square
foot. The grass blades are about 4"

  (I have no idea why there are dots, an umlaut, over the e. There are two syllables there, though: Buk lo ee).

   The "buffalo" in the name of the buffalo grass refers to the American bison, Bison bison, popularly called the buffalo. Buffalo grass, Buchloë dactyloides, apparently owes its distribution to the bison. And it contributed to the bison's success. In sum, they have a mutualistic relationship aiding both, even though they are grass and grazer.