Friday, April 1, 2016

Cactus Show this Weekend

CCSS president Chris Allen setting up plants for the show. The flowering cactus is Parodia magnifica.
It's show time again for the Connecticut Cactus and Succulent Society, which is holding their annual sale and judged show at Naugatuck Valley Community College this weekend. I just got back from the setup, and as has become expected, the number and quality of plants and vendors is going to be very impressive, especially for a C&S event in the East. Stop by if you're in the area; it's free to park and enter, though what happens to your wallet when you reach the sales floor or attend the auction might be another story.

My favorite part of the show, the Conophytum class. These are all mine, but there will be contributions from other growers by the time the judges come around tomorrow morning.

The Madagascan Euphorbia class was also filling up, last I saw.

The sales area was about half way to being set up earlier this evening; some nurseries come early Saturday morning to prepare their booths.

Rick Logee of WRC Greenhouses in Danielson, Ct, is a relatively new addition to the vendor list at the CCSS Show, but he has become known for putting on an especially attractive and colorful display.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

The 2016 Sugaring Season

A short, snow-free sugaring season in southern New England.
 Back around the holidays, I was wondering if the warm winter up to that point would impact maple sugaring. The whole meteorological winter season (December-March) turned out to be very mild, with just a few cold snaps.  Sugar Maples that I tapped in mid-February did produce some good sap runs, so apparently there was enough cold to vernalize the trees and set them up for sap flow. But, the season only lasted about 2-3 weeks, finishing up last week, which is at least three weeks short of a normal season. This was because of continued warmth; we just didn't get the nightly freezes that are needed to get the sap pressurized and moving during the day. The local professionals are also complaining about a short and not very productive sugaring season. Some frosty nights predicted for the weekend might create another sap run, but plants are starting to break dormancy now, and once the maples start budding and flowering, the flow is pretty minimal regardless of the weather, and any sap that does collect is useless for making syrup because it becomes bitter.

Winter 2015-2016 temperature rankings by state, courtesy of NOAA.
It wasn't just warmer than usual this winter in Connecticut, it was the warmest winter in the 121 year  record for all of New England, and way above average for most of the US. Last winter was unusually cold, especially in second half, so the current state of global warming clearly doesn't preclude old-fashioned winters in the Northeast, though it's looking like there will be more and more years where maple sugaring operations are going to have a hard time.  

Friday, February 12, 2016

An Afternoon at Yale

Marsh Botanical Garden cactus bed.   
 Last weekend, the Connecticut Cactus and Succulent Society met at Yale University's Marsh Botanical Garden. The greenhouse complex at Yale includes a large modern structure with houses for botanical research, teaching and public displays, plus a couple of small legacy greenhouses that are mainly used for overflow space. One of the newer glass houses includes an open area with chairs and tables--used during the week for classes--where the CCSS held their meeting.

A pair of mature or nearly mature Welwitschia mirabilis plants at Marsh Botanical Garden.
 The cactus club was lucky enough to have a presentation by Dr. Michael J. Donoghue of Yale's Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. Michael Donoghue is one of the best known plant evolutionary biologists active today. His talk for the CCSS covered Welwitschia, the peculiar xerophytic gymnosperm (cone-bearing seed plant) from arid northern Namibia and southern Angola. The fascinating lecture ranged from the history of Welwitschia's introduction to botanical science, with independent discoveries in 1861 by the Austrian medical doctor Friedrich Welwitsch as well as the artist Thomas Baines, to the latest findings from molecular phylogenetics, and finds of fossil Welwitschia-like pollen and cones.

Yearling Welwitschia seedling from the UConn teaching collections.
One point of interest from the talk, appropriate for the Darwin Day (February 12) season, concerned the evolutionary relationships of Welwitschia. The plant has long been known to be part of a small group of gymnosperms called the Gnetophyta, which also includes the genera Gnetum (broad-leaved tropical trees and lianas) and Ephedra (joint-stemmed shrubs of temperate deserts, the source of the stimulant ephedrine). The Gnetophytes as a whole were of somewhat uncertain affinities; an earlier idea was that they were the closest living relatives of the Angiosperms (flowering plants), based on details of their wood anatomy and pollination/fertilization process, as well as reproductive structures that resemble modified bisexual flowers. More recent evidence, primarily from DNA sequencing but also from the reinterpretation of anatomy and reproductive biology, indicates that Welwitschia and its allies are actually more closely related to the conifers (pines, cedars and their relatives).

Michael Donoghue at the February CCSS meeting.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Conophytum Commercialism

Three Conophytum maughanii plants, and possibly a seedling of C. subfenestratum at lower right. Promotional material from Zhao Caizhu Succulents Garden.
 I recently became aware of Zhao Caizhu Succulents Garden, which claims to be the largest succulent plant nursery in China, with annual sales of US $400,000 and a mailing list of 50,000 customers. They seem to deal mostly in "living stone"-type mesembs (family Aizoaceae), like Lithops and Conophytum, which stands in contrast to the situation among collectors in the United States, where  mesembs have been something of a neglected niche market in recent decades.  Maybe we need more marketing with cute animal characters based on immaculately groomed conophytums?

More advertising illustrations from Zhao Caizhu Succulents Garden, featuring four different Conophytum species.

I like how the carefully peeled Conophytum burgeri (Burger's Onion!) is the only plant in these illustrations that doesn't require any googly eyes or bling to hype it up. The chalky gray plant in the montage above is probably Conophytum pageae, which has a fissure (the vestigial gap between the fused pair of leaves that make up the plant body) that often strikes people as resembling a mouth, even without cartoon sunglasses. Some forms of C. pageae even develop lipstick-like red markings around their fissures, naturally and with no photo editing required.

Conophytum pageae with "lipstick" pigmentation, in Steven Hammer's greenhouses in Vista, California.
It's hard to imagine Conophytum plants--temperamental winter-growers that no wholesale nursery in the west has ever generally distributed--could ever become a popular mass-market commodity. But, who knows: a quirky advertising campaign could make conophytums into a 21st century pet-rock-type fad.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Mele Kalikimaka

Ornamental cherry (Prunus cv.), Storrs, Connecticut, December 24, 2015.
 It was a warm autumn, and possibly will be a record-warm December, here in Connecticut. The whole season has been unusually toasty, but today was a practically tropical Christmas Eve, with temperatures already near the old record high in the low 60's early this morning, easily making an afternoon new record high of 69° F. The forecast is not quite as sultry for tomorrow, but still likely to be a new record for Christmas Day. It's almost been like early June, except with 15 hour nights and weak winter sun when the haze and fog briefly lifts during the day.

Dandelion (Taraxicum officinale) in flower, Christmas Eve 2015.
Out in the landscape, the native vegetation is staying in a state of seasonally appropriate dormancy, but lawn grass is still green. Dandelions have been flowering and even setting seed, and some of the early-blooming flowering cherries are nearly in full bloom, four months before their usual time. It's been a strange holiday season, weather-wise. The long range forecast indicates a return to something closer to seasonable conditions in New England in the New Year. I suspect that the shortage of winter chilling is going to have an adverse effect on the maple sugaring season, which in normal circumstances would be less than two months away.