Sunday, November 9, 2008

The Cranes Have Arrived

For some weeks now I've seen Canadian geese in the fields up and down the North Valley. Of course, some are year-round residents, but their numbers and the size of the flocks jumped up markedly since mid-Oct. But today, while working in the yard, I heard the unmistakable trumpeting of the sandhill cranes.

It took me awhile to find them--they were circling low over the bosque to the west, perhaps 50 of them. Its times like these that I feel sorry for the folks living in the Heights with their wonderful views, up close to the foothills. They never hear the singing of the cranes.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Fall into Winter

Thursday morning was quite cold here in the Near North Valley with the first freeze of the season. Being forewarned by the weather service, Caro and Baldo spent a lot of effort potting up tender plants and I helped cart them inside. Shelves in the back hallway and in Frances' room are now green and lush while outside the garden starts to wind down. The tropical bonsai are all inside and the hardier ones have been moved into the garage. Only the larger pots with the Ponderosa pines and largest bonsai will remain outside over winter.

Even after the cold snap butterflies, grasshoppers, and a few fugitive snails are seen. But the hummingbirds have flown south and Terrance has burrowed in somewhere. He's elusive this year and I don't know where he's tucked in, so we'll have to be careful about any digging until he surfaces next April.

Last Sunday I took a last swim in the pool, super-chlorinated it, and shut the cover for the season. Time to tidy up the jacuzzi for winter now.

I voted early at the Ranchitos polling place yesterday. With the real likelihood of an Obama presidency, this is yet one more indication that things are changing.

Next Friday will be Samhain and Halloween, when the world moves from the light half of the year into the dark half. Seems to make more sense to me than having the fall season begin on the equinox. By the time winter officially arrives on the solstice we in NM have been in the grips of cold and dark for weeks. Usually the first big storm of winter comes within two weeks of Samhain. Some neopagans associate the non-solstice/equinox dates with the moon, making Oct. 29, the fall new moon, the date of Samhain this year.

Either way with the change of seasons its fitting to think back about Aunt Frances. Life is returning to its usual rhythms for us. Kathie was over on Wednesday to pick up most of the scrap booking materials and some odds and ends from the garage. For now Frances' room is a quite place of reflection with her favorite possessions and art works still on the shelves or hanging on the walls. The cats seem drawn to the place, which is not surprising. They always liked that particular room and that goes back all the way back to the original four old cats who now rest together beneath a flagstone outside the Hidden Garden door.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Sun News Obituary

The following obituary will appear in the Thursday October 16 issue of the Myrtle Beach Sun News:

Frances "Shorty" Duckworth, 75, passed away on October 8, 2008, at the home of her niece and nephew-in-law, Carolyn Beaty and Karl Horak, in Albuquerque, NM.

Ms. Duckworth was born and raised in Hallsboro, NC; spent most of her adult life in Miami, Florida; and relocated to Myrtle Beach, SC, in 2002.

She is survived by her sister, Christilla Kefalas of Myrtle Beach, SC; her daughter and son-in-law, Katherine Blackmon and Blake Learmouth of Albuquerque, NM; and her two nieces and their husbands; Carolyn Beaty and Karl Horak of Albuquerque, NM, and Athena and Vito Finizio of Waterford, NJ.

Ms. Duckworth requested that no formal services occur. If you would like to honor her with a contribution, she so loved her dogs and all animals, and always supported the Animal Humane Society. Also, contributions to the American Cancer Society or to your local hospice would be in keeping with her wishes.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Sad News

It is with great sadness that I tell you all that Frances took her last breath at 4:30 p.m. today. With the assistance of our wonderful Hospice friends, we were able to keep Frances sedated and comfortable after her condition worsened last night. She seemed very peaceful and still today. We were with her throughout and stayed with her for a long time afterward.

We are very grateful for the time we shared with Frances and so glad she was able to come here and enjoy so many lovely moments with us, despite her illness. She was one tough lady, who kept her humor and spunk no matter what happened.

Thank you all for your support and love. Frances knew she was loved and enjoyed your cards and emails and prayers. I know she especially missed her Myrtle Beach friends and neighbors, who were so very, very important to her. She often told us that the last five years, after she moved to her home in Myrtle Beach, were the best years of her life.

We are also so glad that her beloved partner, Bill, was able to share good times with Frances in Myrtle Beach and that they had the opportunity to travel together to visit family and friends in New Mexico.

Frances did not want any type of formal services on her passing. If you wish to honor her with a contribution, she so loved her dogs and all animals, and always wanted to support the Animal Humane Society. Also, contributions to the American Cancer Society would be in keeping with her wishes.

May lovingkindness enfold us all during this sad time.

Kathy & Blake
Carolyn & Karl
Athena & Vito

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Monday Update on a Tuesday

I'm in Washington, DC for training and a conference on web technologies. In fact, its for Plone the stuff we used for Paul Chilcote's liver transplant follow-up website. This site just uses Blogger because Aunt Frances isn't using the computer directly and we can handle updates, photos, and comments with this quick and simple system.

I spoke with Carolyn last night around 5:30 PM MDT. Kathy was still there--she had worked on organizing Frances' scrapbooking materials. Caro was working on one of several high priority projects for various lawyers.

Shortie had pretty much slept all day after a small breakfast. She was resting comfortably and Caro was expecting to give her a light meal sometime later.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Late Balloon Fiesta Update

Its a cool, rainy evening here in Albuquerque. We can use the rain and it will help set the plants and trees up for winter. I'm sure Terrance is hunkered down somewhere after a warm day--perhaps behind the rosemary in the Bodhisattva garden or in the west end of the Vinca, right under the electrical breaker box.

The Balloon Fiesta was a stunning success, although both Frances and I took long naps this afternoon. Its so wonderful that the weather held off for just 6 hours.

Here's a balloon burning its propane as it flew directly overhead. Schlepp was there as well and, as always, was mugging for a photo. Lots of good stuff for his calendar next year.

I've uploaded all the photos to the laptop I'll be taking to DC, so I should be able to make updates and additions every evening plus include whatever info Kathy and Caro get to me via Skype. Stay tuna'd....

Balloon Fiesta

Well... we had one of those rare, magical days. Although the forecast was for cloudy, we had plenty of blue sky between the clouds to let the sun shine in. Click on the pictures for a full-size view.

Our friend Debbie had invited us over to her backyard, which is only a mile or so from the balloon field, for easy access balloon watching. As it turned out, the winds were out of the south and sent all the balloons towards Bernalillo. So after checking the TV at Debbie's, we abandoned her (she needed to pack for her trip to Pagosa Springs anyway) and headed north through Corrales.

On the north edge of the village we began to intersect the stream of balloons going slightly west of north from the take-off field. We noticed a likely side road heading east but were past it too quickly. Being forewarned, we took the next turn, which conveniently was a paved drive.

It was great--easy parking (at least for us early arrivals), pavement for easy wheelchair wheeling, and surrounded by what turned out to be excellent landing areas. The sky was filled with balloons, but soon one came bearing down on us. I began to think I should move the car. Instead it landed a short distance away. I had to stop shooting video to run over with Blake and add weight to the basket so the balloon wouldn't run into a fence. The kindly balloonists of the Fleur de Tucson even volunteered to take Frances for a ride :-)))

Soon after the pace quickened and we had balloons coming in one after another. They landed in the empty lot across the street, in the cornfield behind us, and, most sought after, the large patch of open green lawn up the road. We took zillions of photos and will have more to come... but first a nap!

Friday, October 3, 2008

Friday AM Update

We've had a cable TV problem in Frances' room since late Wednesday. Normally this wouldn't be much of deal, since she doesn't watch it much. But last night was the vice-presidential candidates debate. I did manage to hook up our laptop to the TV and rig some speakers to the computer, but Frances pretty much faded out after dinner even though we had the debate running on CNN's website.

When I got home, Caro was making a sauteed shrimp and asparagus pasta. Frances finished off a fairly large portion and Caro had it for dinner, too. Kent and Ric were over for the usual Thursday boy's gaming night and we worked on left-over Rudy's BBQ. While Frances napped, we ate and watched the Palin-Biden debate.

Now its 5:00 AM and all's quiet after a non-eventful night. Looks like the weather will hold for the Balloon Fiesta. Best option is to go over to Debbie's house on Saturday for the 7:00 AM mass ascension. We'll have a good view from about a mile away and the famous Albuquerque box (the special winds we have here) should just about guarantee that some will come close by overhead.

I want to thank all the family and well-wishers who have left comments. We print them and read them to Frances every day. We want to especially thank Inez for making this site accessible to Tilla back in Myrtle Beach.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

New Bed--Not So New Photo

Cousin Kathy took this shot of Aunt Frances last Friday in the Hidden Garden. Frances was taking the airs, enjoying the fall flowers. Most prominently, our hibiscus has been blooming promiscuously since early September and seems content to continue until first frost.

Today the AmberCare folks decided her bed wasn't comfortable enough and gave her an upgrade. They delivered a super-duper $5000 foam and air mattress to replace the standard pillow top. With individually controlled air bladders, it cushions feet and legs differently than hips, differently than shoulders. Frances reports that it is much nicer.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Another Vote for Obama

As you can see, even Frances in her wheelchair is putting out the word for Obama. She's now registered to vote in NM and we're just waiting for her absentee ballot.

The bumper sticker came from a little old fellow full of energy who came into the Eye Associates waiting room during mom's two-hour wait for the doctor last Friday. He waved a handful of stickers, asking if anyone wanted one. No one spoke up. Then he walked around the room and first one person then another took one. In the end he had given half of them away.

I would have to say that Obama bumper stickers outnumber McCain maybe 8 to 1 in Albuquerque. Frances' social worker, who lives a half mile from us, thinks that McCain yard signs outnumber Obama ones. Perhaps its a supply problem. An Obama-Biden sign is now up in a neighbor's yard, but I haven't seen a McCain one in the entire neighborhood.

Meanwhile, Frances was awake when I got home, ate a reasonable dinner (heavy on the mashed potatoes), and then stayed up to watch all two hours of Dancing with the Stars. Kathy has been going through the boxes shipped out from Myrtle Beach. Buddha lamps, Lion King dolls, Fido, and Cousin Middle Schlepp have all come to light.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

A Pleasant Sunday

Cousin Kathy got the day off as Caro and I stayed home. I mostly worked on podcasts for my CSF class while Caro got a rare opportunity to putter around in her garden. Terrance was out in the Hidden Garden in the AM but disappeared, probably into the Vinca in the PM.

Frances ate a goodly sized bowl of Cream of Wheat for breakfast, napped a bit, and then was energetic enough to take the airs on the back porch for a late lunch. She wolfed down three of these delectible salmon pinwheels from the Co-op, which is a pretty good meal for her these days.

For dinner we finished off last Monday's turkey, dressing, gravy, and cranberry sauce. The highlight was fresh green beans cooked with Greek spices. Frances ate all of hers.

Today she has been engaged and spoke to me of the odd feeling of packing up in Myrtle Beach--leaving clothes and possessions behind that she would never see again. She's had no pain and only used a minimum of drugs today.

Saturday, September 27, 2008


The day before yesterday, at the nurse's suggestion, we used a 1/2 dose of Ativan to deal with Frances' late night coughing spell. That plus another early in the morning did make it easier for her to breath, but even at those low doses, she slept completely through the day, didn't eat, and barely took any water. She never got up, only moved with lots of assistance, was unresponsive to questions, and didn't take part in any conversations. Basically, Ativan just gorked her out for an entire day and a night.

The bottom line is that for palliative care, someone with low body weight and depressed appetite, ativan may be too much of a downer, especially with its synergistic effects when combined with narcotics. Frances is using a low dose of morphine and this may be contributing to the significant effects that Ativan is having on her.

Today, 24 hours post-Ativan, she woke at a normal hour and ate a home-made ham-and-egg biscuit plus one of the koulourakia I baked last night. She's napped much of the afternoon, but this is an improvement over yesterday.

Around 3:00 she woke up, had a big cup of decaf and another of my koulourakia. The photo above shows the three-C's: coffee, cat, and koulourakia (well, two C's and a K).

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Voter Registration

Today Frances was up for a hearty breakfast of and even sampled my Chocolate Malto-Meal. Later the AmberCare nurses assistant came and help Miss Frances with a shower, dressing, and all. Then the nurse stopped in around noon. Finally, the social worker came over to give her her voter registration and absentee ballot forms.

In addition, there was a harp serenade. I continue to be impressed by AmberCare's thoroughness and professionalism.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Frances Update

Today was a better day. Social worker came from AmberCare first thing. She's going to try to get us special passes for access to the Balloon Fiesta, one of Frances' dreams.

Frances spent some time out in the garden today and had more appetite than yesterday. She was up and alert when I got home from teaching my evening class at the College of Santa Fe.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Circle of Life

Its the autumnal equinox, a time when I am reminded of the cycles of nature. This year as summer gives way to fall, I am very acutely aware of the cycles--we're hospicing Caro's Aunt Frances. She is in the end stages of pancreatic cancer.

For the last month, Caro and her cousin Kathie (Frances' daughter) have been in Myrtle Beach, caring for her. To our surprise, after a fairly energetic walk in the neighborhood, Frances' said she'd like to go to NM.

After much discussion with the hospice people at both ends and a frantic weekend of modifying the back bedroom to accommodate our new guest, Kathie and Frances flew out (first class with 1-stop in ATL). She arrived last Wednesday (the night I have to teach at CSF) and since then we've been dealing with all the myriad details of her care. From the photo you can see that she has her good moments.

On Thursday my cousin Hank and Norma stopped by for dinner. They'd been in Denver to visit his brothers and then toured CO before touching base with all the relatives in NM. Being a doctor and a nurse, they had excellent advice for Frances care.

Last night she was moving well, walking just with the walker, and ate a fair bit of a turkey dinner. Today she is breathing shallow and fast after having a coughing problem in the night. Unlike yesterday, she hasn't gotten up for breakfast. She had a similar coughing episode on Saturday, but it passed by noon before the hospice nurse arrived. Hope this passes soon.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

S&T in the 2008 Campaign

Scientists and Engineers for America just announced that Barack Obama has responded to their technology policy questionnaire. Take a look at their site for a very detailed look at how Obama would approach science and technology under his administration.

John McCain has so far not responded to SEA's questionnaire. However, recent items on the web point out that Palin is in favor of teaching creationism in schools and does not favor Federal funding for stem cell research.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Valle Grande Crop Circles

Kent, Ric, and I went up to the Valles Caldera National Preserve yesterday (23 Aug) and had a splendid time.

While circumnavigating Cerro la Jara, we came across indisputable evidence of extraterrestrial visitations: crop circles. See photo above. About 4' in diameter, we came across these three first. Within a hundred yards we found dozens more.

Actually, these are elk "beds," areas where elk have bedded down for the night. During our visit there was a large herd of perhaps 200 elk further out in the middle of the caldera. With binoculars or Kent's 600 mm lens one could see the big bulls acting as guards around the perimeter of the herd.

The Valle Grande and its surrounding smaller valleys are the remnants of a volcanic uplift that collapsed a million or so years ago. The dramatic grasslands outline what was once a lake, much like Crater Lake in Oregon. 11,000 years ago the East Fork of the Jemez River cut into the lake via headwall erosion and drained the caldera.

Until 2000, the Valle Grande was within Baca Location Number One, a large private ranch. Cattle and lumber industries took their toll on the land. But at the turn of the millenium, it came into government hands for everyone to enjoy.

Today the Valles Caldera is an experiment in land-use management. As a "National Preserve" it is unlike any other BLM, Forest Service, or Park Service unit. Their aim is to be economically self-sufficient by 2015. At the moment they are at 20%.

So if you're in northern NM, take the time to drive up into the beautiful Jemez Mountains and visit this unique and special place. Many of the remote hikes require advanced reservations and a scheduled van will take hikers to and from the trail head. Although that seems an awkward restriction on the freedom hikers and anglers typically enjoy, its worth the effort. There are at least three short hikes that don't require reservations and they are very worthwhile.

The Valles Caldera website needs reworking for usability, but if you persist with it, you'll be able to make your reservation. One drawback is the online maps that show the locations of the hikes--they don't show the larger context within the entire preserve. Unless you're a local, you won't have much of an idea of what you are signing up for. This may improve when they get their dynamic maps up and running. Contact this blogger if you would like more details on specific areas.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Running Down a Roadrunner

This morning on my way to do some errands, I saw our neighborhood roadrunner (Geococcyx californianus) making his rounds. I'm fairly sure this is a young bird; I've only seen him around for the last few months. Unfortunately, he was hopping awkwardly and holding one foot oddly. I grabbed the handy phone and called my sister-in-law the founder of and veterinarian at the New Mexico Wildlife Center for advice.

From there I was referred to Shirley Kendall the resident Albuquerque roadrunner paramedic. Basically, the trick is to take a sheet, throw it over the bird, go in under the sheet with your hands and grab the beast. Then put it in box with a lid for transport to the wildlife medical experts.

For those of you who have never met a roadrunner, they are fascinating birds--extremely fleet of feet and, somewhat like a pheasant, capable of bursts of flight. They also have a 2" beak that can dispatch rattle snakes. I was more than a little hesitant to go mano-a-mano with the bird and its bill until Jack Kendall reassured me that they only used them on lizards and snakes, not humans.

The neighbor's boy Connor volunteered to help and we set off with a blue sheet and a banker's box. We found the bird straight away just at the end of the cul de sac and implemented our strategy. That strategy consisted primarily of keeping the bird from getting into someone's backyard where it would be almost impossible to follow.

The first thing we learned is that a road runner with one broken leg can hop faster than a human, even a very fit 14 year old, can run. He literally left us in the dust. Our only hope was to come at him from two directions and surround him.

It led us across the street into a Euonymus hedge, up into a Ponderosa pine, across an 8" courtyard wall, and very nearly over a fence. Connor deftly out flanked the bird and chased him back into the front yards. Whenever we thought we had him cornered, he'd escape using some narrow gap in our two-man perimeter.

It was only when Connor's father Joe arrived that we started to make better progress. Essentially, we wore the fellow out. It led us on a merry chase (I'm sure that with an injured leg, it wasn't merry for him). At one point it dashed into a sotol (Dasylirion wheeleri) and Joe was able to throw the sheet over the entire plant. The three of us anchored the edges and then I blindly groped under the edge to find the poor guy.

He or she weighed almost nothing, maybe 8-12 oz. I didn't want to further traumatize the bird by inspecting the leg, so we just placed him carefully in our box, where I allowed myself one photo. Connor and I drove up to the Taco Bell on 4th St and did the handoff to Jack, today's on-call animal ambulance driver.

By now our roadrunner is Shirley's capable hands and with luck the leg can be repaired. After all, the road runner is our state bird.

Stay tuned for further medical updates.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Humming in the Morning

Its 6:21 AM, the sky is opalescent, and its 63 degrees. Despite clear skies, its windy--15 mph with stiff gusts probably up to 30. So what is that hummingbird doing trying to get a sip of nectar from a wildly waving Agastache?

Here in Albuquerque we're at 35 N and 106 W. Its the 35 degrees north latitude that is making the difference. We're about 35 days from the autumnal equinox and the sun is almost 14 degrees north of the equator. That means we have 13 hours and 25 minutes of daylight today.

More importantly to our friendly hummingbird outside my window, we have 10:35 of darkness. That's down from 14:31 or more than 27% since the solstice. And that's 10:35 hours without food for a metabolism that's running 100 miles per hour.

Now of that 10+ hours of darkness, not all of it is really dark. Geoclock, the little program that does such a splendid job of charting and mapping the movement of the sun and move over the Earth, lets me set a variable for twilight. Why, do you ask, is twilight a variable?

There are three definitions of twilight: civil, nautical, and astronomical. Civil twilight is defined as the sun being less than 6 degrees below the horizon. Nautical twilight has the sun less than 12 degrees down and astronomical twilight has the sun less than 18 degrees beneath the horizon. That means there's still a good bit of light around although the sun might be well below the horizon.

The chart above shows civil twilight as a function of date and latitude. On August 16 at 35 N we have almost 15 minutes of twilight. That's an extra 5% of flight time each day for our hungry hummer, who has spent the night in a torpor to reduce metabolism.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Hibiscus Synchronism

This month has seen the Crocosmia come and go, the Agastache kick into overdrive, and the beginning of the Hibiscus blooms. The Hibiscus blossums are huge--over 20 cm (8") in diameter. Over the past two weeks they've grown more numerous but somewhat smaller.

Interestingly, there are three plants--one in full sun, one in partial shade, and one of a different variety. None-the-less, all three opened their first blooms within 24 hours of each other on July 24-25.

At first one would think photoperiod or other external driver, but a neighbor about a half mile away had his (in full sun) open a couple weeks ago. I'm thinking that these three plants are sharing signals, possibly airborne but more likely subterranean. The moist mulch of this garden has had its share of mushrooms and other fungi this season, including a slime mold. I am suspicious of mycchorizal interconnections and the inter-plant transmission of a blooming trigger.

Below you can see the odd man out, the different variety with its more rugous petals and purplish leaves. Compare with the bright green leaves in the background. This is almost certainly due to more anthocyanins adding a purple tint to the leaves and even a bit to the flowers themselves.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Terrance Weigh-In

I nabbed Terrance this weekend and together with my nephew David, we weighed him again. His weight is bouncing around but is not as high as last year at this time. I would have expected him to be 15 g heavier.

I want to fatten him up for hibernation. We've got until October for that.

Today he took to some cantaloupe, which I've never seen him eat before. He pretty much sticks to shrimp, strawberries, earthworms, and various insects.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Terrance the Turtle

Its time to weigh in with Terrance, my western ornate box turtle. He's been living in the backyard ever since I found him on a blistering hot August afternoon strolling across the center of the cul de sac. Silly turtle could have been fried out there on that hot asphalt.

That was two year's ago and I've been weighing him regularly since last summer. Here's the latest datum: July 3, 360 grams (12.7 oz) . There's been a tad of a weight loss since June and we'll see what August brings. He's been regularly snacking on strawberries and shrimp, his two favorite foods. That's a turtle with discriminating tastes. One final bit of data, the surface temperatures in his favorite burrow have ranged from 15 to 34 C (60 to 94 F).

Sunday, June 22, 2008

How Bonsai Grow: Secondary Growth

Its been a busy week at the day job, dealing with a quick turn-around database job, reviewing Iraq S&T proposals, keeping the Plone sites spinning along, and handling some political issues surrounding WACSI. Somewhere in there were repairmen all over the house, keeping an eye on Terrance, watching the new transplants in the gardens what with 97 F weather, and the usual groceries and laundry. No matter, I still had time to update the Travel Schlepp website, moving all the podcasts onto a Comcast filespace and fixing the permalinks and xml.

So here it is 1:30 AM and what better time to continue our discussion of secondary growth in woody dicots. Since the last installment, I came across an excellent PowerPoint reference for those who would like a well illustrated, basic explanation of how plants grow.

On a more technical side, Groove and Robischon at the USFS have published a detailed review of the current state of knowledge. Three key areas are identified plus the interactions among them:
  • Transcriptional regulation (microRNAs, differential gene activity, etc.)
  • Phytohormones (auxins, cytokinins, and gibberellins)
  • Cell wall regulation (hydrolysis, Xylogen induction, etc.)
Cytokinin is primarily produced in the roots, although probably all meristems generate some. From tissue culture experiments we know that low cytokinin to auxin ratios promote root growth; high C/A ratios promote shoot and lateral meristem growth. Considering that auxins are produced in the apices, this makes perfect sense. One important observation is that over-expressing a cytokinin gene reduces xylem formation.

From the point of view of growing a thick trunk on a bonsai, one would probably want to keep cytokinin production relatively low. However, to enhance the above ground portion of the tree, we would like to see a high C/A ratio. That means reducing the auxin supply as well.

When you consider that managing a bonsai involves tip pruning as well as root pruning, this begins to come together. When I keep the rootball small and vigorously nip the apices of my junipers, I not only am reducing apical dominance and getting a bushier tree, I am probably controlling the C/A ratio to enhance secondary thickening. By maintaining the plant in a shallow pot, we further spread out the surface roots and develop the much sought after nebari.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Bonsai as Ecology

It occurs to me that a useful start to my ecological/botanical blog would be to take a systematic look at some convenient microcosm and discuss it thoroughly. My bonsai trees seem tailor-made for this. So here we go with a series of essays on "How Bonsai Grow."

In the front courtyard under the shade of an old Photinia tree along the portal, I display my ragged little collection of mostly temperate bonsai during the spring, summer and fall. In winter they all get packed away in the back of the garage underneath a friendly skylight. Right now they're all doing well except a Ponderosa pine I harvested from the wild two months ago and a Taxus that has been struggling to hold on in New Mexico's low humidity for more than a year.

The tropicals usually find them selves on the back porch where they get higher temperatures, a good shot of morning sun, and some dappled sunlight in the afternoons. In the winter they must come all the way indoors, being secreted all over the house.

Bonsai means "growing in a tray," referring to the generally low profile of the traditional pots. Some styles, notably cascades and semi-cascades, use pots with higher aspect ratios, but by and large one is looking for a pot that is roughly the same height as the thickness of the tree's trunk.

Meanwhile, the volume of the pot is going to be approximately 1/3 of the volume of the tree's canopy. The pot's proportions are dictated by traditional formulae for esthetics and their relationship to the height and width of the branches. As you can guess, this doesn't leave us much room to work with.

So, back to the topic at hand, how do bonsai grow? Fortunately, there are only four mechanisms in plants and one of those is restricted to monocots, which are rare in bonsai. These are:
  1. Primary apical shoot meristems -- the growing tips of the branches, producing new shoots, flowers, and leaves (some would count floral meristems separately)
  2. Primary apical root meristems -- the growing tips of roots
  3. Intercalary meristems and primary thickening -- the means of increasing height and diameter in horsetails and monocots; primary thickening meristems are found in arborescent monocots, palms and such
  4. Secondary thickening meristems -- lateral meristems or cambium that increase the diameter of the plant (these produce xylem and phloem as well as bark)
Of course, the object of growing bonsai is, as an art form, to evoke an emotion in the viewer. Usually the bonsai artist attempts to capture the age and grace of a vast and ancient forest dweller in miniature.

This in turn usually means that we want relatively short trees (typically under 3 or 4 feet) with very wide trunks. The Japanese term that describes a desirable wide flaring of the trunk into obvious surface roots is nebari.

To grow trees with these characteristics, one has two choices: harvest a naturally formed beauty from the wild or to carefully cultivate nursery stock to develop the desired form. Therefore, we must control growth such that secondary thickening of the trunk is encouraged and primary apical growth is limited.

We'll continue in a later posting on the topic of the control of meristematic activity, what stimulates them and what suppresses them. This will lead us to shoot-root balance, control of primary vs secondary growth, and plant nutrition.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Introducing Yet Another Blog

I've been developing for the Web since '94 and blogging since '99 (although I didn't know it by that name then). At the moment I've got two blogs going:
  1. Plone Metrics for my Plone advocacy and marketing thoughts, and
  2. Travel Schlepp's Dispatches for my travel and children's tales.
That has left a gap that is now being filled by this series. Here I want to address things biological, horticultural, ecological, and systematic. This is where I'll be posting my thoughts on backyard biology, urban gardening, NM high desert ecology, and systematics of society and culture. I'll even be able to tie in botany, plant anatomy, plant physiology, and growing bonsai.

Stay tuned for items on how Terrance, my resident ornate western box turtle, is doing, how I'm reducing water use in a typical yard in Albuquerque, which birds are passing through, how the bees are bouncing back, and what ecology and systematic biology can tell us about the presidential election process.