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. 

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Carnivorous Plant Talk

Sarracenia purpurea, the Purple Pitcher Plant, at a quaking sphagnum bog in Willington, Connecticut.
 This Saturday at 1:00, I'm going to be giving a talk at the Connecticut State Museum of Natural History in Storrs. The presentation is going to cover "Carnivorous Plants in Connecticut and Around the World," and will include a basic introduction to the concept of insect-eating vegetation, a whirlwind tour of the different genera of carnivores, and then a look at some localities in my area where some of the dozen or so species of native Connecticut carnivorous plants grow. I'll also bring along a selection of live plants for some demonstrations after the slide show portion of the talk is finished.  

Drosera rotundifolia, the Round-leaf Sundew, growing among cranberries in a sphagnum bog in Windham, Ct.
The C.P. talk has been announced in several news outlets, including the Hartford Courant and local free alternative paper Neighbors. I think that these Museum talks usually get a pretty good turnout, so it should be a fun afternoon.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Connecticut Vampires

The Jewett City Cemetery, Halloween 2015. The grand old sugar maples in the background would have been spectacular a week ago. 
Every autumn, the Last Green Valley organization runs series of "Walktober" events in northeastern Connecticut and the adjacent Sturbridge, Mass. area. I've been on a number of hikes and local history walks during Walktober in past years, but I had never been able to get into the famous reservations-only Vampire Folk Belief tour before. This time, I managed to secure a couple of spots for this Halloween tradition.

The walk takes place in Jewett City, the site of two different 19th century vampirism occurrences. Retired state archaeologist Nick Bellantoni lead the tour, which was organized by the State Museum of Natural History and the Griswold Bicentennial Comittee. Bellantoni was personally involved in unearthing the evidence of the earlier event, which took place around the year 1800, and which apparently went unrecorded at the time and is known only from the archaeological record.

Connecticut State Archaeologist (retired) Nick Bellantoni leads the Vampire Folk Belief walk.
About 25 years ago, some children playing in an active gravel pit on the weekend after a rain discovered a pair of human skulls. The police called in the state archaeologist, and Bellantoni and his students uncovered 29 graves that had been part of a forgotten farm cemetery, which was indicated on the surface only with some fieldstones set upright but without any carvings.

One of the coffins, inside of a crude stone crypt, was marked "JB 55" with brass tacks, probably indicating the age of death and initials of the otherwise unidentifiable occupant. The skeleton inside was in a very strange state, with the skull removed and turned around to face the wrong way, the rib cage forced open and the thigh bones crossed over the chest. The ribs were scarred from tuberculosis. Evidence indicated that the body was rearranged several years after its initial burial. The oddities of this grave were best explained by early 19th century New England anti-vampire practices.

At the time of the vampire panics, the germ theory of disease hadn't been fully developed, let alone filtered down to the heart of Swamp Yankee country in the quiet corner of Connecticut, and effective antibiotic treatments were more than a century off. "Consumption" (tuberculosis) was a mysterious and terrifying affliction, and on isolated farms, desperate families trying to stop its spread latched on to the idea of victims becoming undead and returning to draw the life from their relatives. Otherwise inexplicable disruptions of graves seem to have been attempts to stop corpses who had become "vampires" from creating more victims.

Lemuel Ray's headstone.
 The second Jewett City vampire event occurred relatively late, in 1854, and unlike the gravel pit crypt case was documented by nineteenth century writings and clearly marked graves. The Ray family was plagued by tuberculosis, starting with the death of Lemuel Ray in 1845, with three more victims following over the next decade. The family eventually exhumed the bodies of Lemuel and his brother Elisha, set fires in the graves and burned the corpses, in hopes of stopping what they supposed to be the depredations of the undead. All in vain of course, and there was at least one more TB death among the Rays in 1854.

Elisha Ray's headstone.
 The Jewett City vampire walk is highly recommended, if you can get yourself on the guest list. Nick Bellantoni is a wonderfully informative and entertaining speaker, who draws on decades of stories investigating tombs and cleaning up after grave robbers, as well as the polished manner that comes from his long experience as an educator. He stressed that the Connecticut vampire hunts were really a misguided public health measure born of understandable ignorance and completely rational fear, and that the familiar romantic supernatural and macabre trappings of vampire legends only took hold later in the 1800s. Bellantoni concluded with a saying among archaeologists, along the lines of "Everything that people believe in is real, because beliefs determine human behavior and human behavior creates the archaeological record," relating a more recent story of a man who was frightened of vampires, and slept every night with cloves of garlic in his mouth. One night, the man inhaled a clove and choked to death. "They got him. In the end they got him."

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Lauray of Salisbury Final Sale

Begonias and succulents at Lauray of Salisbury.
 It feels like the end of an era for the cactus and succulent community in Connecticut, with Judy Becker retiring from the business of selling plants, which she had been active in for 48 years. Judy is closing down her greenhouses, Lauray of Salisbury, and having a final open house with large discounts on the remaining material on Halloween weekend, October 30 through November 1, 10:00-5:00. Her main focus is on Euphorbia, begonias, orchids and gesneriads, but she also grows a wide range of other tropical and desert plants that are suitable for greenhouse or windowsill culture; she still had abundant stock of a lot of interesting plants as of my visit last week. The weather is still good and the autumn foliage is hanging around later than usual this year in the Litchfield Hills, so next weekend should be an excellent time for a trip to Lauray.

A bench of euphorbias, cacti, caudiciforms and other succulents at Lauray.
Judy has supported the plant hobby in New England for many years, and not just by running her nursery. She regularly hosted meeting of the Connecticut Cactus and Succulent Society and other specialist groups, sometimes giving talks and presentations to share her expertise on horticultural topics. She has also donated plants and volunteered her efforts to improve the teaching greenhouses at the University of Connecticut. Judy is planning on remaining active in plant circles, so I'm sure I'll see her around at shows and meetings in the future. 

Begonias, gesneriads and other tropicals.