Apaches and Agave Plants Before Tequila

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Aguamiel translated from the precolumbian Nahuatl language is honey water, describing a sweet liquid secreted at the heart of the agave. It was collected and fermented into an alcoholic drink known to the Aztecs as pulque. Pulque consumption was strictly regulated. If you were under the age of 52 you could drink two cups a day. If over 52 you could enjoy three. And if you were a priest and practiced human sacrifice for the pulque goddess Mayahuel, you could down five cups. Yet anyone found drunk on pulque was put to death. Fortunately the “civilized” Spanish conquerors made it ok to get sauced on pulque no matter what age you are. Further north many agave species were known generally as mescal, used so extensively by certain Apaches they became known as Mescalero Apaches. They also utilized the fibers that run the length of agave leaves, a factor that distinguishes this genus of plants from the similar looking but fleshy aloes. Known as maguey (maw-gay) in central Mexico, these are considered the earliest fibers ever used in North America. Some believe they are among the first plants ever cultivated in these regions. With so much history, agaves belong in every ethnobotanical garden. They also make first class landscape plants that are architecturally dramatic and tough as nails. But agave does not flower every year like the aloes, yuccas and gasterias. The cycle of the agave begins with an individual “mother” plant. This produces adventurous roots that spread out in all directions and produce “pups” or new shoots all around the base of the mother. Eventually the mother will bloom with an extraordinary tall bloom spike that in some species may reach twenty feet. Sadly, she will die soon after the flowers mature and set seed. But worry not because the pups will quickly fill in the gap where she once stood. Pups make it very easy to obtain an agave by cutting them away with some root from the mother plant. In today’s garden just a few agaves are widely available and reasonably well adapted where winters are mild. The most common in the United States is Agave americana, or the century plant, a large blue fleshed species with wicked thorns hardy to 15°F.. Erroneously named because they bloom once in a century, these plants actually flower at ten to thirty years of age depending on the climate.The variegated form of this species is far more dramatic in the landscape. Its long leaves can be more irregular and striped gold. Another, variegated form with creamy white accent is sold as Agave americana media picta. It makes a superior single specimen so its color and form are appreciated in isolation. Perhaps the most widely planted agave in moist frost-free coastal regions is Agave attenuata. Its soft tipped , succulent sea green rosettes blend nicely into more traditional landscapes. They make an outstanding container plant. When this species blooms it produces a huge pendulous spike quite similar to an elephant trunk. The
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Succulent Plant Safety Tips

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Everybody in garden design is talking agaves. Retro modern folks are digging golden barrel cactus. We’re even seeing fire stick euphorbia in pots of mixed perennials. While these new ventures into old succulents are revitalizing the aesthetic of our gardens, there are some key concerns for safety among these often prickly plants.   Succulents have the market cornered on thorns and spines. Agaves produce large rosettes of leaves, each blade tipped with a wickedly sharp thorn. Smaller agaves are leg scratchers extraordinaire that will easily mar your summer tanned thigh with scratches. Larger agaves are most dangerous because their tips sit at arm or head level.   Rather than say good bye to your agaves, you can give them a trim to render the spines far less brutal without spoiling their look. Use very sharp shears or clippers to carefully nip the sharp off the end of each leaf. Cut only the fingernail-hard part, not the softer succulent flesh. Once done these will not grow back, but you may have to trim again when new leaves mature.   If you’re planning to get into cacti this year, be advised that all are not created equal.  The ever popular golden barrel with its bright yellow spines is among the most painful.  They seem to cause more irritation to the skin than other barrel species.  Avoid  placing golden barrels near active outdoor living spaces, or where kids and pets play. The prickly pear, or what most folks call paddle cactus is among the largest and most common types of cultivated cactus.  They root virtually anywhere and withstand the most brutal heat and drought.  These cacti bear large sharp spines that are readily visible.  But around the base of the big spines are near microscopic hair-like glochids.  These look like benign soft fuzz but are by far the most devastating.  Once they enter the skin these are nearly impossible to remove. Some cacti experts ban prickly pear from gardens because merely brushing against one can cause pain and dermatitis.  Even gloves are not immune.  Gloves can become infested with glochids, inadvertently introducing them into pockets and shoes.  Particularly beware of the Mickey Mouse or Teddy bear types because their quaint looks mask a brutal nature.  The bright red and very sweet prickly pear fruit can be attractive to dogs, leaving them with a mouth full of glochids as well.Firesticks, the darlings of florists and high end nurseries are red tinted varieties of the pencil tree euphorbia.  The euphorbia plant contains a caustic white latex sap, and pencil tree is one of the most toxic species.  Merely brush against it and the milk starts to flow.  Recently a friend’s husband pruned a large pencil tree and was careful to wash hands and face after the job.  But he didn’t change his tee shirt which was covered with latex splatter.  That night he took his shirt off, it rubbed it against his face and the toxic sap entered his eye.  That fellow spent the evening in the
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Garden Ivy Beware

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English ivy suffers a most profound duality.  While at once refusing to grow where we want it to, escapees can naturalize to engulf whole landscapes.  This is just one aspect of an insidious spreader that has wrecked havoc unparalleled in the annals of horticulture. Though it is commonly known as English ivy, Hedera helix is actually native to Europe, western Asia and northern Africa.  It is an evergreen that takes on various forms and behaviors depending on conditions.  On flat land it becomes a groundcover, rooting as it travels to produce dense stands of foliage. This rooting also makes it a first class erosion control plant creating seas of deep green leaves. What makes English ivy so dicey, though, is the fact that it climbs aggressively. This quality led to its long time use of cloaking ugly fences and walls with greenery.  Tendrils grow semiwoody and lined with dense modified roots that cling to any surface they contact.  The roots exude a kind of natural plant glue to help them stick tenaciously.  This substance can invade deep into porous materials such as mortar.  Once attached the runners grow ever larger in diameter.  Very old specimens produce main branches up to one foot in diameter.  Problems with this plant manifest in a variety of ways.  The clinging roots become so anchored in brick or mortar than when removed they take a good deal of the masonry with them.  This can be devastating to older structures when the plants are stripped off for restoration, painting or repair.  Residual bases of the roots can remain attached , leaving an unattractive pattern wherever they grew.  When ivy adheres to wood structures the results can be even more destructive.  The runners can invade gaps between siding boards or stretch into rafters and under roofing materials.  As these eighth inch tendrils grow woody and expand in diameter, they can literally break the structure apart. When ivy climbs into shade trees there can be devastating results.  In gardens or landscapes poorly cared for, ivy grows rampant.  It will root its way up a mature tree seeking light, wrapping its tendrils around the entire trunk.  As it spreads out onto lateral branches, the tree leaves become overwhelmed.  They eventually die out for lack of sun.  Inch by inch ivy denies the tree’s ability to carry on photosynthesis.  When enough of the foliage is compromised, the tree can no longer support itself and dies.  The weight of a severe ivy infestation can make a dead or dying tree so top heavy it becomes a severe weather hazard. Finally there is the environmental damage to consider.  Because all English ivy is imported from the Old World, those plants that have naturalized are dangerous exotics.  It will cloak a forest floor shading out grasses and wildflowers that support wildlife.  Because ivy rarely flowers it offers now direct food value.  Invasiveness has proven most significant along both coasts and selected states in between where the climate and conditions are ideal.  Ivy is a
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Plant Bold No-Brainer Perennial Garden Flowers

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If you’re a first time homeowner, listen up.  If you think you can’t grow fabulous flowers, read on.  If past failures have made you throw your hands up at gardening in general, get ready to rumble!  There’s a secret to great big bold flowers.   Forget about all that stuff you see in catalogs that brands a plant “easy”, because that’s a relative term.  For anyone who can’t find the right end of a garden hose, “easy” may be downright complex.  What you need is plants that grow even if you plant them upside down, which happens more than you think Lily family has produced two no-brainers that produce truly inspiring flowers.  They are relatively cold hardy and together you get a full range of color.  One is the best source of blue in the garden known as Agapanthus, or lily of the Nile.  The other is Hemerocallis, the daylily, so named because each huge flower opens for just a single day before it withers.  This group supplies you with virtually every color of the rainbow except blue.  So between the two of these you’ll have an incredible palette to paint your garden. Standard blue Agapanthus africanus is the more frost tender, hardy to Zone 8, which does not drop below 10 degrees in the winter.  It is a native of South Africa and can survive considerable heat and drought.  However, there are two exceptionally hardy hybrid forms which include the ‘Headbourne Hybrids’ and a variety called ‘Midknight Blue’.  These will stand winters to Zone 6, which is minus 10 degrees below zero, allowing the vivid Agapanthus blue to extend much further north.  In addition, these last two are darker blue in color than the species.   The daylilies enjoy an even wider range of climate tolerance, which makes them a bit trickier to buy.  The majority are hardy to Zone 4, which is to minus thirty degrees below zero.  But you’ll find individuals that won’t survive below zone 5 or 6, so it pays to check the labels and buy from a reputable grower.  Certain daylilies termed “evergreen” are only hardy to Zone 7. Daylily breeding exploded early in the 20th century.  Since then tens of thousands of named varieties were developed.  Every year more are being introduced including the exotic tetraploid types which feature truly complex flower colors.  The tendency is for newbies to select the common yellow and orange, but if you buy online or from a daylily grower you’ll be able to sample the hot pinks, coral, lavender and purples. To access any of the gazillion daylily growers online, log on to http://daylily.net  to start shopping and studying. Armed with your palette of Agapanthus and daylilies you can begin fall planting with a vengeance or divide and transplant those you already have.  All require full or part sun with well drained soil, although they’ve been known to do well in less than ideal clays too.  Each plant becomes a clump of strap-like leaves over thick fleshy roots, and
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Cycads For Hot Zone Gardens

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They can be found in the fossil record of virtually every continent on earth, changing little in the past 200 million years.  They came to prominence in the Mesozoic, a period known as the age of cycads and dinosaurs.  Plants known as “the cycads” are true living fossils that make fabulous garden plants.  Though they may appear fragile, most prove both beautiful and remarkably resilient.    Cycads bear a visual similarity to ferns and even enjoy the same sheltered locations, but are as tough as desert palms.  Cycad foliage may appear soft, but it’s actually quite thick and bears a tough outer cuticle that prevents moisture loss.  In hot climates, whether humid or dry, cycads in all their diversity provide the perfect care-free alternative to finicky ferns.  Their large lush looks create beautiful backgrounds or single specimens.     A tall Dioon spinulosum and unusual round leaf Zamia furfuracea illustrate the lush looks of cycads in a tropical setting. Although they look like palms, cycads are more closely related to conifers, a group which includes pine trees. Conifers are mostly needled evergreens that bear their seed in cones.  So while a cycad may look like a palm, it reproduces like a pine, with its seed in central cones produced at the very center of the plant.  Cycads can be male or female, and each type will produce either a pollen bearing or seed bearing cone.  The male cone of the most commonly grown species, Cycas revoluta, which bears pollen. The female cone of Cycas revoluta begins as a central pineapple-like form, then once pollinated and red seeds mature the cone splits and a new whorl of foliage appears out the middle. Cycads are very slow growing plants.  This makes them quite expensive to buy.  A large specimen can take up to a decade to reach its size, and you pay for those years of care at the grower.  Some cycads such as blue leaf Encephalartos lehmannii are rarely grown, and may cost double that of other species because of its scarcity.  But for gardens in challenging climates, these problem solvers contribute a unique, lush and exotic character.  And their very existence around the world attests to a remarkable ability to survive the rigors of change,

Mediterranean Style Plants Further North


Aristotle made no bones about it. Regions north of the Mediterranean Coast were not suitable for civilized life. His southern world was a warm, mild one that stretched across most of Spain and Portugal, southern France, all of Italy except the Alps, Greece and North Africa. There the moderate climate spawned a native flora of oil rich aromatic plants capable of withstanding a very long dry season in the summer.
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A Curandera’s Garden of Mexican Folk Herbs

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In the 15th century Florentine Codex of Aztec physicians, the healer is “well versed in herbs, who knows, through experience the roots, the trees, the stones.  She keeps her secrets and traditions.”  The healer is clearly female.  But where the Codex covers Aztec physician, the text indicates this role applies to the male gender.     Today the role of healer or “curandera” still exists in Hispanic culture.  It is not uncommon for a Mexican to consult a curandera for spiritual healing while under a medical doctor’s care.  For the very poor with no access to modern medicine, the curandera serves both roles blending the art of healing the mind with the administration of botanical medicines.     In the Mexican neighborhoods of most Southwestern cities you’ll find botanicas, which are herb stores that carry dried traditional plant cures of the curandera’s trade.  If she is fortunate enough to have a plot of land, the curandera would tend a garden of useful plants for her own fresh harvest.     Some of these plants are quite toxic poisons, but in her training she learned the proper dosage and preparation.  Many, such as morning glory and peyote would be divination plants handed down to her from the Aztec Nahuatl traditions.  The most common of these potent medicines is called tlapatl in Nahuatl or toloache in Spanish.  It is the wild datura of the desert and Mexico.  This nightshade contains serious medicine and may be the single most powerful plant in this garden.      The curandera’s garden would also contain New World natives and some European herbs introduced by the Spanish early on.   Maguey agave is perhaps the most ubiquitous plant in Mexico due to its use in the fermentation of an alcoholic beverage known as pulque.  Its fiber is utilized for everything from scrub brushes to weaving cloth.  The agave leaf was scraped and boiled to treat assorted venereal diseases   The many benefits of nopal or prickly pear, Opuntia ficus indica, are just now coming to light in the alternative medicine community.  Flat paddle-shaped stems of this plant are chopped and simmered down to a potent brew.  It is the main component of treating maladies of the heart such as angina and edema.  The mix is drunk on a daily basis as a preventative.    The many forms of sagebrush, genus Artemisia is known as ajenjo.  It includes both native and European species that are all strongly bitter and potentially toxic.  The herbs have been used in the Old World and the New to treat intestinal parasites.  It’s also a powerful antibacterial for treating infected wounds.  Some very long-lived woody shrubs also fall into this curandera garden pharmacoepia.  Bushy apache plume, Fallugia paradoxa, is a desert shrub known as ponil.  Aspirin-like qualities are found in its inner bark, much like that of aspen and willow.  A strong tea of the root and bark is also used for hair loss treatment.   Bright red Ocotillo blossoms from the woody Foqueria splendens are boiled, and
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