Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Connecticut Cactus & Succulent Show this Weekend

Hatiora herminiae, an epiphytic cactus from Brazil.

2014 is the year of the 31st annual Connecticut Cactus and Succulent Show and Sale, to be held in its usual location at Naugatuck Valley Community College. The event will run Saturday April 5, 10:00-5:00 and Sunday April 6, 10:00-4:00. More information is available from the Connecticut Cactus and Succulent Society. Parking is abundant and admission is free.

It's always a fun time, and every year we get a large number of repeat guests coming in from all over the Northeast, to see an extensive judged show, numerous vendors, informative lectures and demonstrations, auctions filled with rare plants and rare bargains, and (primarily?) to meet and chat with other fans of unusual desert plants.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Signs of Spring

Probably the earliest indication, from the botanical world, that winter in New England is s-l-o-w-l-y on its way out, comes from the Sugar Maples. The maple sap has been flowing for about a week in my neighborhood, as indicated by the formation of sapsicles on broken twigs, and a very small harvest of icy sap from the maple I tapped last weekend. It's been too cold for any sort of significant flow, but if the temperatures get near freezing and the sun is strong, the sap does start to move. In December, even if there is a freak warm spell, a tapped maple will not yield anything: they need a certain period of cold vernalization, or perhaps they respond to the increasing day length this time of year.

The Skunk Cabbage flowers can't be too far behind, perhaps starting in three to four weeks. Right now, the Skunk Cabbage buds are buried under a foot of snow, with more snow and ice on the way tomorrow, biding their time.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Eulophia petersii

Eulophia petersii flower.
The Orchidaceae (orchid family) is the largest family of flowering plants, comprising something on the order of 25000 species. The orchids are most diverse in the tropics growing as epiphytes on the trunks and branches of trees, although even here in Connecticut we have a number of native species. Most of the epiphytic orchids are more or less succulent (unlike our native woodland and bog orchids), as an adaptation to surviving the short periods of dryness that can even afflict plants in the tropical rainforest, if they are growing attached to bark without soil.
Although they are much fewer in number of species than the tropical epiphytic orchids, there are succulent orchids that live in true desert environments. Eulophia petersii is one of the most widespread of the desert orchids, occurring over much of eastern Africa, from South Africa to Somalia. The plants grow in shallow soil over rock outcrops, or in dry sandy soil, in areas with a warm, dry climate with rain primarily in summer.
Eulophia petersii plants consist of clusters of squat, fat green stems (called pseudobulbs in orchids) that bear a small number of succulent, sharp-edged leaves. The plants are evergreen and the leaves can persist for several years, but the actual growth of the plants is highly seasonal. New pseudobulbs and foliage are produced in spring and summer, and tall racemes of flowers bloom in mid-summer. In the winter, the plants are dormant and can withstand weeks or months without water. 
Eulophia petersii plant with succulent leaves and pseudobulbs.
In cultivation, E. petersii plants are not difficult to grow in conditions similar to those favored by agaves and echeverias. It may help to use a soil that is especially coarse and free-draining, though general-purpose cactus and succulent mixes should be acceptable. In summer, a fairly generous watering and fertilizing regime produces good results, as long as the plants get plenty of sun. In winter, E. petersii should be watered lightly and infrequently and kept in a cool, sunny location. Home propagation of Eulophia is probably only practical by dividing older clusters of pseudobulbs. Cultivated plants do set seed if pollinated, but as with other orchids the seeds are minute and require exacting conditions, possibly including the presence of symbiotic fungi, in order to germinate and grow. I've never had any luck trying to start the seeds by sprinkling them in the soil around the parent plants.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Ginkgo from Seed

A few years back in October, on a trip to Japan, I picked up half a dozen Ginkgo biloba seeds that had fallen around a huge old tree at Washinomiya Shrine in Saitama. I cleaned off the pulpy, foul-smelling outer seed coats, and stuck the seeds in a plastic bag to keep them moist for the trip home. Ginkgo seeds don't remain viable if they dry out too far, and also don't germinate much at all unless they receive slightly unusual treatment.

Once back in Connecticut, I planted the Ginkgo seeds in a loose, airy soil mix, not more than a centimeter deep. The embryos inside develop for some time after they are detached from their mother tree, so Ginkgo seed pots should be kept warm and moist for a month after sowing. After their warm period, the pot went to the refrigerator for two months of stratification, a period of cold (but not quite freezing) and damp conditions that many temperate-climate plants need for proper germination. In early spring, I moved the pot out to the greenhouse, and after a fairly long wait, eventually got three healthy seedlings.

Ginkgo seedlings quickly develop a robust tap root, even while the above ground shoot is small and spindly, so I separated out the young plants early on and put them in relatively large, deep pots. All three seedlings survived and are now well-branched and waist-high. There are interesting variations in Ginkgo leaf shape and size, and the Washinomiya trees have leaves that are more deeply bilobed than the "American" Ginkgoes growing next to them in the greenhouse, derived from seeds from UConn campus trees. The three seedlings from Japan are also noticeably different from each other, with the one in the foreground in the autumn photo below having very large but classically-shaped Ginkgo biloba leaves, while a shorter plant visible in the background has small, deeply lobed and tattered leaves.

For now, the new Ginkgoes are staying in the cool greenhouse in pots, for display and use in class demonstrations. Possibly they would like to be planted out in the ground at some point, if a good spot can be found for them.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Hot Stuff

'Bhut Jolokia' or Ghost Pepper was long considered the hottest pepper in the world.
Frost has been late to arrive this fall, but the hot pepper season out in the garden is not going to last much longer. This year I experimented with growing some of the very hottest Capsicum cultivars, and using them very cautiously to spice up sauces, stir-fries and burritos.

'Bhut Jolokia' is a hybrid of Capsicum chinense that was originally cultivated in the northeastern corner of India. The ancestors of all of the chili peppers and bell peppers came from South America, but were spread to the Old World rapidly after European contact, allowing time for many unique new varieties to be selected, especially in southern Asia.

'Bhut Jolokia' rates at about one million Scoville units, at least when grown under ideal warm and sunny conditions. Ghost Peppers from Connecticut are probably not that potent, but a few finger-nail slivers of fruit are still plenty to make a dinner that's about as hot as I can tolerate. Scoville units are a measure of dilution needed before a human taster would not be able to detect any heat, i.e., a gallon of pureed 'Bhut Jolokia' would need to be diluted in a million gallons of water to make a more or less non-spicy solution. For comparison, JalapeƱo peppers rate at less than 10,000 Scoville units.

7-Pot Yellow Chili.
From the Caribbean come several strains of hot pepper known as '7-Pot' chili, so called because one pepper is enough to season seven pots of stew. Here in New England a yellow variety grew pretty slowly and set fruit late, though a couple of plants are still going to yield more than enough peppers to spice up my stews for the foreseeable future. '7-Pot' varieties have similar Scoville ratings to 'Bhut Jolokia.'

'Trinidad Scorpion Moruga Blend'
'Trinidad Scorpion' is another land race (localized, traditional variety) of chili pepper from the Caribbean. The selection 'Trinidad Scorpion Moruga Blend' tested out last year as the hottest pepper ever recorded, at 1.5 to two million Scoville units. Some new hybrids are supposedly even hotter, though any of the three varieties pictured here exist in the murky borderland between foodstuff and biochemical weapon, and demand significant caution when handling. I made some Trinidad Scorpion hot sauce (6 de-seeded fruits diluted in a cup of vinegar, a cup of cooked apples and carrots and 2 teaspoons salt), and just about had to flee the kitchen when it was cooking, even with exhaust fans going full blast. After a couple of weeks of soaking, rinses with alcohol and runs in the dishwasher, I think the food processor is decontaminated. The sauce is actually kind of nice (Trinidad Scorpions have a pleasant fruity-floral flavor under all the heat), if used a drop or two at a time.