Friday, April 29, 2011

by any other name.......

Rosa mysterioso

     My Mom's name is Rose. Between 1965-1995 she maintained a really nice hybrid-tea rose garden. So I grew up around roses, literally and figuratively.

     And then there's that mysterious rose tattoo that appeared on my right arm on July 04, 1976 – the day after our great nation's bicentennial – after a Hunter Thompson-esque trip to Leesville/Fort Polk, LA. I first noticed the tatto on July 05, upon waking up in my underwear on the parlor floor of my buddy Mark's grandma's house in the notorious little farming community of Point Blue, Louisiana. Wandering into his grandma's kitchen (headed for the bathroom) I quickly realized that it was not early in the morning, as I had thought. It was in fact after lunch; and I was greeted by not only Mark's grandma, but also a number of her friends – all gathered around the kitchen table, and busy playing cards, drinking whiskey-laced black coffee and smoking cigarettes rolled out of paper bags. "What's wrong, cher? You don't know where you are? What's dat on your arm?" We all had a good laugh. O but I digress. . .

     What I mean to say is that I guess I was destined to become a rose affectionado. And that really came to pass in 1990, when wife Lydia brought home our first antique rose. Now roses, modern roses included, are known for their fragrance; but for the most part, modern roses all possess a very similar fragrance. Very nice, but homogeneous. Each antique rose, on the other hand, possesses its very own unique fragrance, as well as its very own unique flower structure. The first time I sniffed an antique, I was instantly hooked. Aromatherapy is real, ya'll.

     Antique roses are divided into a number of classes, including Hybrid Musk, Multiflora, Bourbon, China, Noisette, Gallica, Moss, Tea, Hybrid Perpetual, Polyantha, and more. Think of them as fine wines, each variety and blend with its own distinctive characteristics.

     When planning for rose-gardening, almost as important as knowing individual cultivar name and classification is knowing individual cultivar bloom season. Bloom season categories include “ever-blooming” (blooms nearly year round, taking the occasional “rest” during periods of unfavorable weather), “twice-blooming” (usually during spring and fall), and “once-blooming” (usually in spring). And of course it pays to study up on old rose varieties/cultivars that do best in your particular region. One of the better resources for the lower South is Dr. William Welch's Antique Roses for the South (Taylor Publishing 1990).

     Presently, Lydia and I have about 22 “old rose” cultivars growing around our place. Here are some of our favorites:

the humble 'Old Blush'

     By 1000 B.C., the Chinese were already breeding fancy, double-flowered garden roses. The first of these everblooming China roses to reach the U.S. was 'Old Blush' in 1752. Because of its everblooming habit, because it is so sturdy, and because of its ancient lineage, I suggest that every Deep South antique rose collection should begin with this one.

uber-fragrant 'Champneys' Pink Cluster'

     'Champneys' Pink Cluster' is a noisette, introduced in the early 19th century. The noisettes were the first antique rose class to originate in the U.S.; and 'Champneys' Pink Cluster' was the first noisette to be hatched. John Champneys, a rice farmer in Charleston, S.C., crossed 'Old Blush' with a popular European Musk Rose, and BAM! Everblooming (thanks to 'Old Blush'), and perhaps the most penetratingly fragrant old rose that I know. You don't even have to lay your nose on a bloom. You'll be smelling Champneys' Pink perfume long before then. Our specimen is a willowy, 8-foot, vase-shaped shrub.

'Sombreuil' ..... saucer-sized blooms!

     The Tea Roses all originated from a native Himalayan species, Rosa gigantea, known for its superb fragrance and huge flowers; crossed with a China rose, and BAM AGAIN! You've got a heavy-flowered, heavy-perfumed, everblooming killer-rose. 'Sombreuil' (introduced 1850) is about as good as it gets – except for its bad-ass play-for-keeps thorns. It is a modest climber (8-10'), and blooms biggest/heaviest in spring, featuring saucer-sized blooms. Outside of spring, it blooms sporadically, and with flowers half or less the size of its spring offerings.

'Souvenir de la Malmasion'.....da' queen of 'em all

     Bourbon Roses arose (ahem) from a natural cross between 'Old Blush' and 'Autumn Damask' a European rose. The hybrid plant was born in a mixed rose hedge on Reunion Island (once known as Isle de Bourbon). The Bourbon class was then developed in France. The queen of this class is 'Souvenir de la Malmaison' (1843), named in honor of the empress Josephine (a' Napoleon), herself a fine rosarian, at Malmaison, her country estate outside of Paris.

Mysterious 'Maggie'

     Personally, 'Maggie' is my favorite Bourbon. In fact, it is my favorite rose, period. 'Maggie' is somewhat shrouded in mystery...sort of like my tattoo...experts believe her to be a Bourbon, but have no idea from when and where she might hail. Bill Welch is crazy about 'Maggie' too. He got his first 'Maggie' cutting (though he had no idea of her name at the time) in 1980, from a farmhouse near Mangham, LA. Welch says the flower fragrance is heavy with black pepper. Me, I get a heavy fruit scent from it. Real heavy/tangy; like maybe with a strong dash of apricot.

'Russell Cottage Rose'

     If I remember right, 'Russell Cottage Rose' was the first old rose that Lydia brought home in 1990. Originally introduced in the early 19th century, this Rosa multiflora (a Japanese native, I believe) hybrid is a once-bloomer; but oh what a once-bloomer it is! Lydia gets a raspberry vibe from its heavily fruit-perfume scent. I agree. Welch describes the scent as "intense Damask."

little Miss 'Clotilde Soupert'....petals thin as tissue paper

     Polyantha roses developed naturally, as hybrids between Rosa multiflora and China roses. During the 1860s, the French refined this class into “shrub roses” meant for use as landscape hedges. My favorite Polyantha is 'Clotilde Soupert' introduced in 1890. She's a 4' shrub. I was warned that her delicate blooms “ball” in rainy weather, but I went ahead and planted her anyway. And yes, her blooms do ball in rainy weather, but she's so damn worth it! Ultimately, she's such a prolific bloomer, especially in spring, that a set or two of balled flower clusters is no big deal. Just lop 'em off. Gorgeous.

a 25-foot wall of Rosa 'Trier' and Chinese Fringe Flower (Loropetalum sp.) protects our veggie garden from the west...................

'Trier's' medicine-y bloom cluster

     Talking about hedge roses, 'Trier' (1904) is the greatest of them all. She's got thorns as sharp and hooked as a blackberry's, but I love her anyway. She is one of the parents of the Hybrid Musk class. Welch's book lists 'Trier' as “5-7 feet” but in our blackjack clay, she morphed into a 9'x15' monster. She's a twice-bloomer, and her blooms possess a strangely medicinal scent – like maybe old-school, black cherry cough-syrup.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

tails (heh) of bird love

adult male Northern Cardinal
(photo by Beth Erwin)

“...chestnut-brown canary, ruby-throated sparrow
sing a song, don't be long, thrill me to the marrow.”

--  Stephen Stills

     Down here in the bottomland hardwoods of northeastern Lafayette parish the Northern Cardinal flock comprises the backbone of our backyard bird population. I have no real idea about how many cardinals live and/or visit our backyard on a daily basis, but on one particular day this past winter I remember counting 36 males simultaneously perched in the bare trees and shrubs around our main seed-feeder station. So it's safe to say that we've come to learn a lot about Northern Cardinals over the past 28 years. But not everything.

     On the morning of April 8, as I sat with coffee on our back porch, I was treated to a slice of cardinal behavior that I had never before witnessed.

female northern cardinal (young)
(photo by Russ Norwood

     It all started when a couple of female cardinals lit in the little double-blush althea tree at the edge of the porch, about 12-feet from me.

foolishly-young Northern Cardinal
(photo by Russ Norwood

     Directly, a young male, doubtlessly bursting with love in his heart (and loins), careened into the althea, nearly knocking one of the females over upon landing. With the offended female flitting over to the adjacent Oriental buttonbush, the young male immediately turned his attention to the remaining female. Sitting about 18” from her, and staring ardently into her eyes, he stretched his big head as tall as he could, erected his crest as vertical as he could, and began swaying from side to side as he emitted his song of love: “See-ah Chee-ah Chee-ah...Chee-Row!Chee-Row!Chee-Row!Chee-Row!”

     She waited around for one encore before flitting away to the big cypress tree, unimpressed. The male immediately jumped over the the Oriental buttonbush and the remaining female, but she didn't even let him get started before joining the other female in the big cypress.

male Prothonotary Warbler (with black cherry)
(photo by Russ Norwood )

     To add injury to insult, a local male Prothonotary Warbler – obviously miffed that the young cardinal had unknowingly interloped upon his personal performance space – shot into the buttonbush and promptly nipped the poor youngster on the tail. Astonished, but still very much preoccupied with the females in the big cypress, the young male gave a quick startled look at the Prothonotary, who nipped him again; this time chasing him up and finally off of the branch he was occupying.

     Not only had I never seen a Prothonotary Warbler assaulting a cardinal, but I had also never seen a male cardinal's courtship performance – what with the swaying and erecting and singing what I had always assumed was an “alternate” territorial song. So now I'm thinking that the abovementioned song is actually the true courtship song, whereas the more common/familiar “Cheer!-Cheer!-Cheer!...Purdy!Purdy!Purdy!Purdy!”that most of us associate with the Northern Cardinal must be its territorial song – the song it uses to let other males and females alike know where his turf is.

     I tell ya', Nature just keeps comin' at ya', you know? No matter how often and how careful of a Nature-watcher one is, there's always something new waiting around the corner.

     Speaking of which, an even-more-amazing bird-love-event recently descended upon my buddy Larry Amy, who lives on Bayou Vermilion in the city of Lafayette. Larry's got a cool digital sound system for the house as well as the patio out back. So the other day he's sitting out back and he fires up a song by the Buena Vista Social Club through the patio speakers.

young Brown Thrasher
(photo by Beth Erwin)

     Immediately, a male Brown Thrasher begins scurrying through the backyard bushes, then jets up to a bare spot at the top of an old American elm – the highest/clearest/closest perch to the patio – and begins singing his head off.

     Now, Brown Thrashers are pretty shy and discreet birds. Unlike cardinals, they are not in the habit of popping up into plain sight – except, that is, during breeding season, when males will occasionally sit up at the tops of trees (usually limited to the early morning hours) and sing their beautiful mocking-bird-like songs.

     Sufficiently amazed, Larry turned the music off. The bird immediately stopped singing. Waiting awhile, Larry turned the music back on. The bird immediately started singing again. Larry told me about this. I suggested he try the same song on a succeeding day to see what happens. He did. And so did the thrasher. I asked him if he had tried any other songs besides the Buena Vista Social Club. He did. The thrasher did not.

Friday, April 1, 2011

rainmaker, rainmaker

rainmaker, rainmaker
the sky is gray, the ground is so hard
it's been cracked by the sun
rainmaker, you know my work's never done

– Steve Winwood/Jim Capaldi

     I guess the wheels really started turning on the morning of Tuesday, March 29 when I heard Traffic's “Rainmaker” spun on the local public radio station (KRVS...give it a streams on the www; and check out Traffic's music on youtube or wherever while you're at it...they're awfully good...) by master musicologist/producer/disc jockey Cecil Doyle. We hadn't had a decent rain here for nearly a month. The local plants and animals were begging for it. Pollen had saturated the air so thickly that it was coating cars/windshields/houses/sinuses on a daily basis.

     Most people give but little notice to such things; but farmers, gardeners, outdoorsmen, nature-watchers, and others whose livelihoods are directly affected by too much or too little rain are acutely aware of them.

     “Rainmaker” became my prayer that Tuesday morning. God, please make us some rain. Many of our plants had no sooner put on leaves and already they were flagging for lack of moisture. That morning the first of “our” Prothonotary Warblers had shown up at the house. He flew right up to the deck, sat on top of the old camelia there, and sang out his joy. Directly, he flew down into the coulee to check out his brown-painted-inverted-plastic-water-bottle house I had set on a pole some years ago. Then he flew into his old drinking/bathing dish that Lydia sets out on the porch rail for him and the chickadees. Oops. Dry as bone. Hmm.

By Tuesday afternoon the forecasted “scattered thunderstorms” fired up to our north. We received no more than a spit, barely coating the leaves of the local plants. Even so, it was enough for the Prothonotary to bathe in. Even before the drizzle had stopped, he had positioned himself directly beneath a big camelia leaf, half-fluttering his wings in an effort to spread the meager moisture at the sides of the leaf over as much of himself as possible.

By evening we hadn't received any more rain. It looked to be yet another “near-miss” Pacific frontal passage. We've had a lot of them lately. By 11:00pm, storms had again fired up to our north, lighting the sky with constant flashes, but nary a drop of rain on us. Bummer, man.

Then suddenly, 'round midnight, here it came. We finally got a good soaking – over an inch anyway. Yes! We'll take it. Thanks be to the Rainmaker.

The next morning I eagerly hit the back porch to see how the local plants and birds made out. The first thing that I noticed was that all of the newly-emerging leaves of the local trees and shrubs, which previously had been sort of eeking their way out of bud – as if they dreaded emerging into the dryness – had suddenly expanded by a factor of two or maybe even three. Despite a rather chilly north-northeasterly breeze, the Prothonotary was streaking up and down the coulee like a black-lab puppy, singing his lungs out. Overhead, four or five cardinals were leaf-bathing amongst the feathery, newly-emerged, water-coated leaves of a big bald cypress.

Then I heard a song that I'd never heard before – or at least had never noted before – a long, complex, mechanical trill, somewhat like that of the Winter Wren. Suddenly, the singer plopped up into the Oriental buttonbush ten feet away and right in front of me. With his back turned to me, he launched into two or three rounds of his awesome song.

Chipping Sparrow
photo by Russ Norwood
     Wow. Not a wren, but a sparrow. A sparrow with fairly bright-rufous wings and a plain gray band below the nape of his neck. I had to see his face and breast. Borrowing from John “The Bird-whisperer” Conover's arsenal of bird-studying tricks, between pursed lips, I made two very muted, very tiny squeaking noises in quick succession, otherwise remaining motionless. The singer immediately turned to face me and fearlessly launched into another couple of rounds of song. Whoa. Clear, dull-gray breast and dark-brown crown, parted down the middle by a pale brown-gray line. A Chipping Sparrow, half-molted into breeding plumage.

     Once the sparrow departed to the big American hornbeam on the other side of the barn, I decided to follow him. I wanted to hear more. But as I approached the barn, I became distracted by the mighty bloom show put on by a wild hawthorn and a native florida-flame-type azalea that Lydia had planted many years ago. Whoa! What a difference a rain makes! Yesterday, both were still in tight bud.

left, Mystery Haw
right, Tommy Dodd's hybrid Florida Flame Azalea

detail: Tommy's Azalea

Mystery Haw

     That hawthorn presents a real mystery to me. Typically, the only wild hawthorn native to the bottomland forests of this latitude is the green hawthorn (Crataegus viridis; aka “hog haw”), but this particular tree, present since we moved here in 1982, has larger leaves and longer thorns than the green haw. Nearest I can tell, it might be a cock's-spur hawthorn (C. crus-galli) or perhaps a hybrid between green and cock's-spur. Regardless, it's a beaut.

native Swamp Privet (Forestiera acuminata)

Swamp Privet flower detail

     Heading back to the house, I noted one more rain-induced fancy-bloomer, the swamp privet (Forestiera acuminata). Not an invasive-exotic privet, the swamp privet is native to our region, but lives mostly tucked away in swamps and in very wet bottomland hardwood forests.

Water's the drink which stirs the plants which stir the animals...even the humans.