Friday, July 23, 2010

A Close Look At Echeveria

Take a walk in the countryside and look closely at what grows around you.  There are botanical wonders practically beneath your feet.  The best way to study a plant closely is to sense it as an artist.  It doesn't matter whether you think you are an artist.  Take time to discover it entirely.  You'll find that when you come to really know something as it is, your appreciation will grow immeasurably.

Atanasio Echeverría y Godoy was such an artist.  A native Mexican, he accompanied the Sessé and Mociño expedition through Mexico (1787-1803) to inventory the country's flora and fauna.  Echeverría's drawings and watercolors record the minutest details of his subjects with accuracy and sensitivity.  Plant species perhaps considered common by many he rendered notable.

Robert Runyon 1881-1968) was another artist who studied his surroundings meticulously.  A native Kentuckian, he moved to Texas in 1908 after the death of his wife.  By 1910 he had established himself in Brownsville as a successful commercial photographer, devoting his work to familiar subjects, souvenir photos for tourists, and photos of sensational events such as the Mexican Revolution.  Gradually his interest began to include indigenous plants.  He became an expert on the flora of northern Mexico and southern Texas.  In the early 1930s, he began to devote his energies to his interests as a naturalist and aspiring politician.  Runyon published two botanical works, Texas Cacti (1930) and Vernacular Names of Plants Indigenous to the Lower Rio Grande Valley (1938).  J. Frank Dobie, a folklorist and friend of Runyon, said of him, "You have to admire a man like Runyon, who cuts off a little hunk of the world and dedicates a lifetime to its study."

It's fitting that plants of the region bear the names of Echeverría and Runyon.

The genus, Echeveria (pronounced ech-eh-VER-ee-ah), includes about 40 species of plants native to Mexico, Central America and parts of South America.  They are characterized by their thick, succulent leaves arranged in rosettes.  The leaves store water, so they're very drought tolerant. They grow quickly in full sun and in almost any soil type as long as it is slightly acidic or neutral and well-drained.  Sandy or rocky soil is perfect.  The common name, "Mexican Hens-and-chicks", was given because of the plants resemble Sempervivum, which is also called "Hens-and-chicks."  Smaller plants (chicks) that are produced on short side-shoots are clustered very close to the parent plant.

The species bearing Runyon's name is E. runyonii (pronounced run-YON-ee-eye), one of the more attractive and popular members of the genus.  E. runyonii 'Topsy Turvy' is a choice variety.

Echeverias thrive in difficult, dry areas.  Hardiness varies, but they are generally much less cold-hardy than Sempervivum, surviving in USDA climate zones 8 or 9 through 11.  They vary in foliage shape, color and growth height.  Tubular flowers are produced from summer to fall on succulent stems.  Hummingbirds love them.

They are are often used as edging plants, in rock gardens, and in containers.  Gardeners in colder regions can grow them successfully indoors.  Being drought-tolerant, they are excellent for xeriscaping.

Plant Echeverias about 10” to 15" apart in well-drained soil with pH ranging from 5.6 to 7.5.  To determine whether your soil is hospitable, take a sample to your nearby Cooperative Extension Service office for analysis.

Pint-sized plants usually produce a few "chicks" within the year.  They may be divided and replanted every few years to maintain compactness.  Some species benefit from light applications of a balanced fertilizer.  Let the ground dry between irrigation.

Echeverias are fascinating plants to the eye and to the touch.  With so many ways to grow them, any gardener can find a place to use and enjoy them.

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