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by Walter L. Meagher

There is one Anisacanthus by the path from La Tienda to the Conservatory, easy to find; there is another, more concealed, near the canyon rim. I like Anisacanthus that lives out of the way, hermetically, its bright flowers borne on stems without leaves in January (from Janus, the Roman god who presided over beginnings …), giving hope for a season of flowers to come: early spring, then full spring, then summer. In this sense, Anisacanthus is a herald.

If you examine the easy-to-find Anisacanthus first then you will know what to look for when venturing to the edge of the canyon. We are stuck with Latin names. Most plants growing in Mexico have no English names and while they have Spanish names, those are many, vary by region, and may be as difficult as the Latin. Well, not quite! Let’s pronounce it ‘An i sa can thus’. But Mexican Flame is much easier to remember.

photo by Wayne Colony

This low scraggly shrub is worth knowing, I hope you look for it because of the technical botanical issues its nature raises. It flowers without leaves. How can it make flowers, which must be costly to produce, without leaves? Most plants that do this have a bulb, a starch-storing tuber, like Flor de Mayo, but this is not the case with Mexican Flame. The short answer is – I don’t know. To a second question we shall venture an answer.

Why does Mexican Flame bloom so early … before the rainy season, before the torrents of June, before the relief of the winter drought, before the season of abundant sunshine for making plant starches, starches that support the growth of fruit and seeds? The flower varies in length from 3 to 4.5 cm in length, a whopper by most standards. The flower is tubular and bilaterally asymmetrical, with an elegant beauty of form, inviting to the botanical artist. Red is the color of the corolla (the fused petals composing the floral tube). All that I have ever seen were red, but a reference book says they can also be orange-red. This combination of traits (tubular flower, red corolla) is a billboard attractant for one pollinator – not the bee, but the hummingbird.

Now we know why Mexican Flame flowers early. There are hummingbirds on the prowl in El Charco all winter. Their most productive shopping is in the gardens of the city – in my garden, for one, with perennially blooming bougainvillea and seasonal jasmine; they patrol the spaces of El Charco, and surely they find Mexican Flame. A red corolla is a flag for the hummingbird, a color the bee cannot see; the tubular form excludes other competitors hungry for nectar. That it flowers in winter guarantees the pollinators’ full attention; it is as if the flower had arranged its structure, over eons of time, so that the hummingbird could profit from it and so the pollination of the plant would be insured.

Mexican Flame is not common in the SMA area. In fact, according to the most important general flora for this part of Mexico (Flora fanerogámica del Valle de México by G. & J. Rzedowski), the range of Mexican Flame is restricted, growing wild from Querétaro to Puebla and Oaxaca. Our few specimens in El Charco have jumped the plants’ range restriction. They are adventurers! We wish them well in a protected wild land in San Miguel.


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