Saturday, January 15, 2011

Taking Off the Sheets

    Last week, I took off the protecting cloths that we had so arduously spread around the yard. It is like unwrapping presents all over again, with all the anticipation but little of the pleasure. The results were startling and sometimes interesting. I have never entirely understood the physics of cold and constantly wonder how one plant becomes deeply stressed and another from virtually the same part of the world sustains just a whisper of damage, often within a few feet of each other. Even more baffling is how one part of a plant is destroyed, while other parts are unmarked.
    We got home from holiday traveling just in time to prepare for this freeze. Instead of wandering around in the haze that I welcome after a long trip, we spent the day Thursday plotting, covering, arranging, moving and worrying over plants considered to be tender. Once the frost cloth ran out, we turned to sheets, and once they ran out Gary dragged out old pants and work shirts to cover up some of the columnar cacti in the front. Then we just settled down to keep warm and hope.

    It was ‘officially’ 29 in the yard (for three nights) meaning that was the temp where the thermometer resides under the African sumac. But a quick check told us that the lowest parts of the yard were down to 26. All of that is a slight improvement over the storied January 2007 freeze when it was two or three degrees lower than both of these locations.
     The Chinese lantern tree (Dichrostachys cinerea) gave us great concern. In the 07 freeze it froze to the ground, flattened like a smashed bug and took over a year to recover completely. It is now large, much too large to cover. It seems to have weathered this event better. It is clearly going to get rid of all its leaves, they get browner every day, but the stems look good and we hope it resists the dramatic flattening of the former freeze.

     The most disturbing looking plant is the firebush (Hamelia patens) that lives in one of Gary’s pot in happy congress with a small flock of birds made by the intrepid duo of Farrraday Newsome and Jeff Reich . It is the first thing you see when you come out the door, which is sad, but we are hoping that warm weather will cause it to shoot out new leaves.
     A darling, small hibiscus called ‘Itty Bitty’ is nestled right up the house, and was shrouded in frost cloth. Although many outer leaves look tired and weary, overall I judge it to be fine. Yet the equally tropical Mexican lilac (Duranta erecta) which grows more or less in the open, and was left completely uncovered shows not a speck of cold damage. Go figure, I certainly can’t.

        Down in the small wash the elephant’s food (Portulacaria afra) was covered, but it must have not been quite enough. The outer and top leaves are now a rich brown and will soon be falling off, while the lower parts are deep rich green, full of water and look like nothing happened. A newer form with larger leaves, up closer to the house and also covered shows no damaged leaves.
     Also in the wash the pink anisacanthus (Anisacanthus puberulus) which hails from the Chihuahuan desert has that diminished tired look of minor damage with blackened leaves but no tip damage. This plant is typically deciduous anyway so maybe it just a got a push to drop all its leaves faster than usual.
    The emu bush (Eremophila maculata) that grows directly across the path from both of these is unfazed, in fact it was in bloom during the entire event and even the flowers are unmarred. The same was true for it in 07.
     Down in the palapa beds, we covered the Mexican oregano (Lippia suaveolens), Mexican mint marigold (Tagetes lucida) and a chiltepin we got a couple of years ago in Tucson. The oregano has lost all the leaves that are growing on any part of the plant over one foot from the ground, the lowers leaves are unfazed. Ah those physics once again, this is a common phenomenon with plants. You see the weirdness in the agaves, those on a palette on the ground look a little worn out by it all, those on the tables are fine.
    The marigold is handsome and still has all its leaves; the pepper is a little reduced but nothing to worry about. The artichokes and rosemary actually look energized and remind me of those crazed Russians who dunk themselves in cold to keep themselves fit.
    Over in the vegetable garden which is the coldest place we have, all was pretty much as expected. A lingering basil from Oaxaca that had no damage during the light freeze at Thanksgiving is toasted, smelling delicious as I pulled it out. Peppers that were still producing and hanging around melted, although the green fruit on the pimento pepper is perfect. A little chiltepin, grown from seed collected around Baffin Bay in south Texas, took it all in stride.

     All in all, we feel lucky. Just enough cold to get your attention and keep you alert, but not enough to bring on despair. No wholesale losses, as there were three years ago, and no large, treasured plants so ruined that it takes years for them to recover. And, best of all, perhaps as a weather apology for all the trouble, there was serious rain before it all began.