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SENECIO SALIGNUS (Groundsel Willow)
by Walter L. Meagher
Photographs by Wayne Colony

This Senecio, a member of the Aster family, cousin to Sunflower, Tagetes and Zinnia, is ubiquitous on the roadsides in February. There is one, and bounteous it is, on the northwest side of the Conservatory. Once, Freddie (when he was fifteen) and I went to look at a Senecio – busy, vigorous, full of blossom – on the stony edge of a baldío adjoining a building site within the urban area of San Miguel. Stonemasons and their helpers were at work on the scaffolding. I had my ten-power magnifying glass and was looking at the ligulate flowers, counting them. ‘Dad,’ Freddie said. ‘Dad, they’re looking at us. And laughing.’ Without assuaging a teenager’s agony, I said, ‘That happens in any country.’

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Some Senecio salignus bloom as early as mid-January.  It is the most conspicuous roadside flower on the way to León in February. Wayne and I drove along that road, stopping to look at the plant. A particularly well-known floral guide had said there should be five ligulate flowers. We had found one plant with three, another with four, more with four than three, and as many with four as with five. Why did it matter? It didn’t matter to Senecio, that was clear, a point the plant was making. Nevertheless there was a limit to variability: none had ten ligulate flowers and none had one.

        I bring this up (and it does seem obscure) because leaf shape and size may vary greatly on one plant, much more than flowers vary in shape and size and, especially, in the number and size of their sexual organs: stamens, style, ovary and ovules. It is more costly, in some sense, for flowers to vary widely in their sexual parts; less costly for leaves to vary, or for branching patterns to vary, or the network of roots to twist and turn in different ways.

        The day Wayne and I wanted to see Senecio growing along the road to León, yellow had become the floral color of the season as blue was of the sky. Where we stopped at one plant, and counted ligulate flowers on a few heads, a man on a donkey came our way. He drove a single cow before him and with the cow walked a young boy, his grandson. This was their work, moving one cow along an open roadside pasture. He stopped, but stayed mounted. Were we collecting flowers for medicinal use? he asked, and maintained an exemplary curiosity in our interest, as if we had only to ask and he would reveal secrets about the plant we might not know, secrets no norte would know, but which he knew. Can you smell them, he asked? We had not noticed the smell. It’s for flies, he said. Flies? Yes, flies are pollinators attracted by a bad odor. Senecio was a story of two Mexicos. In the country we had found a teacher. 

senecio willow

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