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.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Autumn Miscellany

Darlingtonia californica at the NECPS Show.
Earlier this month, the New England Carnivorous Plant Society held its annual show. As usual there were plenty of superbly cultivated plants on display (and plenty more for sale), and some well known people from the carnivorous plant community in attendance. This Darlingtonia was one of the more impressive horticultural feats; I don't think I've ever seen one so large cultivated in the East. I've never been able to keep them alive for more than a year or two, myself; they definitely tend to decline in our warm, humid summers.

The venue was a new one for the NECPS: Tower Hill Botanical Garden, near Worcester, Massachusetts. Tower Hill is a beautiful location and the public turnout was quite high, with about 2200 paid guests for the weekend. The only minor issue was that space was pretty tight, with the show and most of the vendors packed into one conference room, because of some scheduling conflicts.

Part of the bladderworts of New England display.
Several of the NECPS regulars collaborated to collect fresh specimens of almost all of the dozen or so bladderwort (Utricularia) species that are native to New England. They put on a great educational display and managed to turn up some plants that are found at a limited number of sites, like U. inflata, which supports its flowers above the surface of ponds on spongy, star-shaped floats.

The bees had a good summer and a decidedly better than average fall, which was nice after a cold start to 2015 with more winter colony losses than I'd like to see. It's been on the dry side in Connecticut, but the bees have apparently been finding plenty of flowers. Most colonies have packed away enough autumn honey to get themselves through the winter without any supplemental sugar feeding, which was unexpected. Looks like I'll be holding on to the stack of warehouse club 25 pound sugar bags in the basement until next spring, at least.

I tried to photograph the supermoon lunar eclipse last Sunday, and took a few shots that turned out OK. I don't think my camera was up to the task of capturing the earth's shadow starting to cross the face of the moon. Photos of the total eclipse worked better, without the overwhelming contrast of shadowed and sunlit portions of the moon messing up the exposure.

2015 turned out to be a "mast year" for apples (and oaks, too), with all of the feral or unmanaged trees around town producing crops of fruit that are so heavy that I've seen a number of snapped branches. Mast years occur irregularly; maybe about every third autumn will have this kind of super abundance of apples. The fruits are remarkably free of worms and disease, which is what you would expect based on one idea about the adaptive significance of masting: when all the trees in an area are synchronized in a mass fruiting event, pests can't reproduce quickly enough to take advantage, and then starve during subsequent non-mast years when very few fruits are produced. There is probably a contribution from the vagaries of weather to the masting phenomenon. Pollination limitation might also be involved in synchronizing masting, with any trees that flower heavily in a non-mast year experiencing poor pollination and low fruit set due to a lack of mates, and presumably maintaining reserves that would have otherwise gone into fruit to flower strongly again the next spring.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Massachusetts Cactus and Succulent Show

Best in show for the 2015 Massachusetts Cactus and Succulent Show: a large, perfect specimen of Ariocarpus retusus.
 This weekend, the Massachusetts Cactus and Succulent Society is holding its annual Show and Sale, at the Americal Civic Center in Wakefield. There is a judged show, plant and supply vendors, and an auction; the CSSM show is pretty similar to the spring cactus show in Connecticut, although not quite as large.

The entrance to the show, which is in the main hall on the basketball court.

Conophytum and other mesembs, with ribbons after the judging. It's now the main flowering season for conophytums and some of the specimens were in bloom.

Haworthia koelmaniorum, with translucent windows on the upper surfaces of the leaves.

CSSM member Ken S., with his all-Adromischus sales table, stocked with extras from his enormous collection, which is grown under fluorescent lights in his basement.

Adenia globosa, a succulent member of the Passifloraceae (passion flower family), native to tropical East Africa.

Aloe plicatilis, the Fan Aloe, flanking the entrance to the show area and illuminated by a sun beam.