Madia Seeds & Other Revelations of Disturbance
August 27, 2021
n. A manuscript that has been written on more than once, with the earlier writing incompletely erased and often legible.
n. An object or area that has extensive evidence of or layers showing activity or use.
I scale the thin soil of Skinner’s Butte daily, birdsong and Leela dog my companions. I wonder what’s buried here, what’s beneath the loose duff, beneath the skin of soil. What’s the story told at the heart of my home town Eugene? What’s the palimpsest of this land?
A recent burn spread like an apron down from the flag-carrying lookout platform at the upper parking lot. Stars and stripes wave high above the blackened grass, high above the town all around. Residents linger here, take in the view, toss cigarettes. The fire scorched the big O on the hillside – pride of our university town.
I walk along one of the newest park trails made last winter – the one just a hundred yards down and parallel to the parking lot. Thankfully, it formed a fire break. Bushy native lupines stand in the grasses down slope to my right, their pods twisted like cork screws, seeds already dispersed. On the black ground to my left, I see the secrets of the past revealed.
Grass and wildflowers, poison oak even, turned to ash, their scrim of privacy removed, erased, scraped off like a layer of writing on parchment. Tins of food and glass bottles of drink to numb the suffering are revealed. Sharp things. Bits of light catch on debris from previous Eugeneans. I think about what’s come forth from fire, the stories we leave behind that become overgrown, then burn, secrets uncovered.
Nearby, where this newest trail wraps around the east side of the butte, below the road, the secrets are gifts from bees and birds, revealed by the labor of trail builders rather than fire. Where the trail was cut into the slope, I’ve been watching a tall stand of common madia (aka showy tarweed or Madia elegans) bloom for the last seven weeks.
Seeds, the hidden writing of the land, revealed with disturbance that triggers growth and bloom. Seeds, whose ancestors were tended and harvested for their oil-rich nourishment by indigenous Kalapuya people.
The bright flowers first caught my eye early in July. I wasn’t their only admirer that day. A metallic green sweat bee (Agapostemon sp.) decorated the maroon heart of those earliest blooms with its emerald body. I watched in a moment of aesthetic arrest as it gathered pollen to provision its nest. The beauty of the small and intricate calmed my anxieties, renewed my sense of well-being. This is the power of awe.
Madia are bright asterisks of gold, suns shining in the meadow of brittle grasses. Some blush rays of rust from the center. Some are colored pretty yellow alone. As far as wildflowers go, madia’s blooms are big enough to attract the eye of a non-botanically inclined passerby. The woman waving her spider web dispersing stick in front of her commented on them. As did the friendly, stocky fellow wearing heavy chains across his chest.
A flower with this kind of attention-grabbing beauty deserves to be cultivated in your garden.
Madia stands erect with showy blooms at eye level. The patch that clings to the parched clay on the verge of gravel and trailside swale welcomes your appreciation, invites you to touch its resinous buds. The scent is subtle, earth and tang, musk perfume from the sticky tar of a drought-resilient plant.
This is a native annual – growing from seed to bloom to seed again in the cycle of one year. Seeds as secrets emerge from the shadow of ground like a palimpsest of the land. When we disturb, when we cultivate, the past grows into the present.
Garden annuals have long been popular and are known to be easy to grow. Think of marigolds, nasturtiums, sunflowers and nearly all of the common garden vegetables – lettuce, tomatoes, squash and corn – these are all annuals. But what of native annuals? Why aren’t we growing these locally adapted beauties? Why don’t we even know who they are?
If you have a sunny patch of garden, it need not be fertile or even well-irrigated, start by growing common madia. Let its bright good looks charm you. Let it feed the bees with pollen, the birds with seeds, and your soul with wonder.
Once you experience how satisfying madia is to grow, you can try more native annuals. Choose seeds from local suppliers like Willamette Wildlings. A small investment of money for seeds and time to sprout them yields bouquets of joy.
More Skinner’s Butte Wonders
Spanish clover (Acmispon americanus), also a garden worthy native annual, grows in the same disturbed soil niche as the madia. This one may be a humble contributor to your garden’s beauty, but a bold one for enriching the soil with its nitrogen fixing root nodules. I want to see this, a NW native, become more popular than crimson clover as a cover crop. People complain about crimson clover weedily re-seeding. Wouldn’t it be better if Spanish clover was the “weed” covering bare ground – a native who weaves companionably with other plants? It’s not a space hog like crimson clover. Instead it’s a delicate peignoir covering the earth’s skin.
Look closely at native denseflower willowherb (Epilobium densiflorum) standing tall all along the road curving down to the north from the climbing wall, growing from the narrowest crack between asphalt and the concrete-lined stormwater trench at the base of that gorgeous old rock wall – itself a treasure trove of biodiversity. The goldback fern (Pentagramma triangularis) is one of my favorite wall dwellers. And all the hidey holes for spiders and insects, lizards and voles. Noticing these small wonders in nature, inspires me to bring more layers to the story of our gardens.
Do two things in your quiet moments at home:
- Listen, look, pay deep attention to the land that you garden. Ask what came before. Learn the stories of your home place. Wonder about what grew there before your home was built, before the early 1800’s, before white settlers. Imagine a time lapse going backward from the spot you sit with your morning coffee. Then play the reel forward in your minds eye with what you create through gardening and see the layers one on top of the other – how they blend, conceal, reveal.
- Choose at least one native annual that suits your site, that might even lay dormant in the ground beneath your feet and commit to growing it, knowing it, appreciating its role in the ecosystem of your garden.
If you take me up on this assignment, let me know what you learn from your land and what annual you’re going to grow. Comment below!