Monday, December 1, 2008

Japan Trip

Tougudou hall, on the grounds of Ginkakuji (the Silver Pavilion) in Kyoto: my current desktop image.

People occasionally somehow get the idea that I’m an enthusiastic and frequent traveler, but that’s pretty far from the truth. I stick close to home most of the time, though every once in a long while I scrape together enough money and enthusiasm to do something big, like my vacation in Japan this October.

I went over with a couple of friends from Connecticut, which was great for defraying costs and providing moral support. We planned out our own itinerary, which also cut expenses, in addition to providing the freedom to go where we wanted at our own pace. It worked out well, though it certainly helped that we all knew some Japanese, and had some friends over there.

I traveled in the southern part of the main island of Japan, in the Tokyo and Kyoto regions. This area has a humid subtropical climate, somewhat similar to the coastal Carolinas and Georgia, and October is considered a good time to visit: not stifling, but not frosty, either. Apparently, this October was unusually hot and hazy, and the weather was more summer-like than I had expected. It wasn’t unpleasant, but I quickly went through my supply of short-sleeved shirts.
Tokyo’s “electric town,” Akihabara. Across the street are a crane-game arcade, and infamous amateur comic shop Tora no Ana (The Tiger's Den).

Tokyo is a little overwhelming. It’s one of the largest cities in the world, with close to 13 million residents, and the urban landscape stretches out to the horizon in every direction when viewed from the top of the skyscrapers in Shinjuku (you can take the elevator up the Tokyo Metropolitan Building for free). But it isn’t too hard to get around; the train system is user friendly, and important signs usually give English translations.
Echeverias and a Peanut Cactus (Chamaecereus silvestrii) along a street in Tokyo.

Home base was a traditional inn (or ryokan) called Homeikan, close to the University of Tokyo, in a quiet residential neighborhood. I quickly felt comfortable in the area, which wasn’t nearly as hectic as the central parts of the city. There wasn’t much space for horticulture, but the inn had a small but immaculately maintained traditional garden. Around the neighborhood, people had collections of potted plants wherever they could find space, and I even spotted some aloes, echeverias and mesembs. The climate is warm enough that what would be houseplants in Connecticut stay outside year round. On plots of open ground around street trees near the inn someone had even planted Brugmansia (Angel’s Trumpet), which I usually think of as a true tropical plant.
Matt at Nandaimon, a gate near Todaiji, Nara Park

I also visited Kyoto and Nara, both former capitals of Japan that are famous for their ancient shrines, temples and gardens. Some of the most beautiful scenery, I thought, was at Ginkakuji, the Silver Pavilion, at the base of the mountains on the eastern side of Kyoto. Moss gardening is a specialty at the Silver Pavilion, and there was even a display showing which mosses were considered weeds, and which were carefully nurtured. Nara was wonderful as well, with a central park that includes numerous historic sites, including Todaiji, a Buddhist temple that is the largest wooden structure in the world. Nara Park is also home to a large number of more or less tame deer, which have the run of the place and will follow visitors around looking for handouts.
Hill east of Ginkakuji, mid-October, with maple foliage (Acer palmatum) starting to change color.

All in all, I had a fantastic time during my two weeks in Nippon. I would love to go back sometime to explore more in Tokyo, Kyoto and Nara, and maybe try to get further afield. Until then, I'm slowly putting together a longer and nerdier chronicle of the trip at my Japanese 2-D culture blog, Moetic Justice.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Talk in Philadelphia

Eriospermum armianum (Ruscaceae), from west of Springbok, Northern Cape, South Africa. Single leaf with club-shaped outgrowths called enations arising from its surface.

I'm going to be giving a presentation on "Winter Growing Geophytes of South Africa" to the Philadelphia Cactus and Succulent Society this Sunday, November 9. The meeting will be from 11-3:00 at the Fairmount Park greenhouses, and my talk itself will likely take an hour or so, starting around 1:00. It should be fun; the PCSS is one of the largest and most active groups of its kind in the country; I was a little overwhelmed by the size and enthusiasm of the audience when I gave a talk on Conophytum in Philly last year.

The presentation will be a basic introduction to what is a huge subject; a lowball estimate of the number of winter growing tuber and bulb species in South Africa, from the Color Encyclopedia of Cape Bulbs, is around 1500. I'll talk about cultivation, the ecology of the plants in the field, and a little bit about morphology and anatomy, while showing slides of a somewhat scattershot sampling of Cape bulb diversity. The genus Eriospermum will be overrepresented, because I like eriospermums and have a bunch of photos of them, but I'll touch on the usual suspects too, like the Amaryllidaceae (Amaryllis family) and Hyacinthaceae (Hyacinth family), as well as some possibly unfamiliar dicot geophytes, like the tuberous Pelargonium species (Geraniaceae - Geranium family).

Friday, September 26, 2008

Century Plant in Bloom

We have a relatively rare botanical event going on in the University of Connecticut greenhouses right now: an Agave, or Century Plant, is in bloom. This plant is probably Agave filifera ssp. schidigera, a native of Mexico, but I'm not entirely certain of the identification. The plant has been in the greenhouse at least since the staff started keeping careful records in 1985, and its origins are uncertain. It's got an impressive inflorescence, at any rate, about 12 feet high, with hundreds of greenish flowers opening sequentially from the bottom to the top. The flowers literally drip nectar, and have an odd vegetable smell, sort of like steamed artichokes.

This is the first time this plant has bloomed in its 23 plus years, but "Century Plant" is clearly an exaggeration. Agave plants are monocarpic, which means that the plants cease growth and die shortly after flowering and setting seed. Many Agave species produce vegetative offsets or runners, though, so only the individual rosette that sends up an inflorescence croaks, while a ring of clones around it survive. Our Agave filifera hasn't produced any offsets yet, so it may be gone for good after putting on its show. I'm attempting to self-pollinate it, but it isn't always possible to set seeds with only one plant.

Century Plant blooms are fairly rare in northern greenhouses: at UConn, we keep about 20 agaves, and have had only this single flowering in the past 10 years. In warmer, drier parts of the country, Century Plants--especially Agave americana--are grown as bedding plants, and flowerings are commonplace in suburban gardens and highway plantings.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Conophytum minusculum: The Minuscule Cone Plant

Conophytum minusculum in September, still in summer mode apart from the flowers. These plants are an informal cultivar named “Roseum” with particularly intense floral coloration, derived from material collected by plant explorer Frank Horwood.

Mid-September is the peak season for Conophytum flowers, and for a brief interlude my collection looks something like a very small version of the poppy fields in Oz. Cono flowers tend to be incongruously gaudy compared to the compact, often camouflaged vegetative portions of the plants. The flower/leaf mismatch is particularly extreme in Conophytum minusculum, which has succulent leaf pairs the size of match heads, which sport violet to dayglow pink flowers easily five times as large.

Conophytum minusculum hails from the southwestern parts of the range of the genus in South Africa, which means it is adapted to a relatively mild Mediterranean climate, rather than hard desert. The plants grow in crevices and among mosses and lichens on sandstone outcrops, in a scrubby vegetation type peculiar to the Cape region called fynbos. Fynbos occurs on sites with poor, acidic soil and winter rainfall. Fynbos is subject to fires every decade or two, though it seems unlikely that the rocky, barren niches that Conophytum plants favor ever burn directly.

Conophytum minusculum is a definite cool-season grower, and tends to be even more strict about seasonality that other conos. Although the plants flower in the early autumn, the new leaves often don’t take up water and emerge from their summer sheaths until it really gets cold and dreary in November or December. In cultivation, I water the plants more than usual for winter growing South African succulents, enough to keep the soil evenly moist from flowering, through the fall and winter, up until the point where the leaves yellow and dry up for the summer dormancy in April. The plants need as much sun as possible in winter. During the warmer months, I keep my C. minusculum pots in partial shade, and do not water except for a light misting every few days. Summer misting should be just enough to barely moisten the surface layers of soil, which prevents possible losses from sunburn.

The soils where C. minusculum grows in the wild are particularly thin and low in mineral nutrients, and under glass the plants do well in shallow pots, with a gritty, impoverished soil mix. If I were really on top of things, I’d water them with rainwater, though the tap water here in eastern Connecticut seems to be sufficiently clean and low in salts. The plants are well suited to cultivation in New England; famous succulent growers in the Southwest have trouble getting C. minusculum and its relatives to thrive, because of their relatively hot, dry weather and hard, salty water. But the plants thrive here in Swamp Yankee country.

Conophytum minusculum is mostly propagated by cuttings, which establish easily in fall or winter. Seed is hardly ever available: the flowers aren’t easy to pollinate, and even successful pollination tends to result in only small numbers of seeds.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Eastern Cactus Conference Mop-up

Ernst van Jaarsveld and the gang judge the Gasteria class (Ernst, literally, wrote the book on the genus).

First off, I have to thank everyone at the Cactus and Succulent Society of Massachusetts for organizing such a superb convention. They really outdid themselves, and I think everyone who attended had a wonderful time. There was one scheduling SNAFU that I noticed, but it seemed to be strictly the hotel's fault, and in any case all the affected events were accommodated the next day, with a pizza lunch thrown in to compensate for the delay.

The quality of plants at the show was outstanding, as was the quality of the plants for sale from the vendors. Somehow, my pot of Burger's Onions (pictured in the header of this blog) managed to take best in division for the succulents other than cacti, which was gratifying. The CSSM club table offered a wide selection of mesembs and haworthias, in perfect shape after being shipped in from the Sphaeroid Institute in California. The banquet was, well, hotel banquet food, but the company was excellent. The auction, which ran until nearly midnight after the banquet, was pretty spirited for a recession year, and it was nice to see some of the more obscure succulents, like Conophytum, inspire bidding wars.

For me, at least, it is the lectures that really make the convention. I missed out on a couple of talks because of conflicts: I regret not seeing Dennis Cathcart's presentation on succulent bromeliads, a subject on which I could use a refresher course, and I hear that Jerry Barad gave a fascinating talk on the early history of the New York Cactus and Succulent Society. I did catch and enjoy Fred Kattermann's talk about Chilean cacti, and two presentations by Panayoti Kelaidis about cold hardy succulents, one dealing with the cultivation of native plants in the arid Southwest, and the other a travelogue of Panayoti's botanical explorations at high altitude in Southern Africa. Mark Dimmitt's slide show about Northern Mexico included some spectacular photography, as well as a lot of solid information about the ecology of the various drought-adapted vegetation types in that part of the world.

Steve Hammer gave two talks. The first, "Snow White and the Seven Hundred Dwarfs," was an overview of the more compact mesembs, including a number of small--in terms of number of species and plant size--genera like Psammophora (which has sticky leaves that catch a protective coating of sand) that usually don't get much love from growers. At his second talk, Steve spoke about hybrid Haworthia, the economics of horticultural fads, and what he thinks of as the futility of keeping track of the pedigree of cultivars. All the while he passed around examples from his haw collection, many of which could no doubt finance a mortgage payment if sacrificed to EBay. As far as I know, all the plants made it back to lectern by the end of the talk, without a leaf missing. Steve's talks are rather similar to his writing: wide ranging but coherent, with a literary quality that is sometimes nearly Twainian, and peppered with allusions to everything from the King James Bible to Brittney Spears.

The most fascinating presentations of the weekend, for me at least, came from Ernst van Jaarsveld, curator of the conservatory at Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden, who was flown in from South Africa by a coalition of American cactus clubs; he was off to Denver after the Eastern Convention. Other speakers may have been more eloquent--Ernst's first language is Afrikaans--or had prettier photos or fancier PowerPoint presentations, but at Ernst's talks, more than the others, I felt that I was learning about things in the natural world that I wasn't aware of before, and in fact hadn't remotely suspected. There is, for example, a succulent grass that grows around Alexander Bay at the border between South Africa and Namibia. Dregeochloa pumila looks like a Peperomia or some such poking out of the sand, but it's in the same family as your lawn. I hardly would have believed it before seeing the images. And no, Dregeochloa is not in cultivation, though Kirstenbosch is trying to acquire material. Also riveting for me was Ernst's accounts of a trip to Dolphin Head in Namibia to see Jensenobotrya lossowiana, Jensen's Grape, at one of its two known localities. I had known the basics of the Jensenobotrya story before, but it was something else entirely to hear a first hand account of its nearly inaccessible habitat on a spire of rock jutting into the icy South Atlantic, surrounded to the east by a sea of shifting dunes, and to see new images of individual plants, seemingly unchanged from their appearance in black and white photographs from 30 years ago. Fortunately for those who couldn't attend the convention, Ernst has written about Jensenobotrya online, at

My own talks, one on Conophytum and one on why the names of plants sometimes change in response to new information from modern evolutionary biology, seemed to go over reasonably well. A solid majority of the audience had their eyes propped open whenever I checked, anyway.

Steve Hammer, with a very expensive lump of vegetable matter.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

16th Eastern Cactus Conference - First Day

The Cactus Con is going swimmingly, so far. Yesterday was mostly taken up by settling in and dinner at a fair-to-middling Chinese restaurant called Hong Kong ("Hong & Kong" on the menu), but there were some presentations, too. Chris Allen and Glen Lord gave a demonstration on succulent bonsai, with Chris describing cultivation techniques (from the point of view of a Conophytum grower, he waters and fertilizes the bejeezus out of his caudiciforms, at least in summer, though you can't argue with his results). Meanwhile, Glen, a grower at Bonsai West, talked about how to shear the resulting masses of vegetation.

Then, Fred Kattermann of New Jersey talked about Copiapoa, a genus of globular cacti from the extreme deserts on the coast of Chile. Fred had some really amazing photographs of the little guys clinging to rocks, sinking into clay and leaning out of the sun in habitat. Finally, Matt Mattus of the CSSM gave a charming presentation on a typical yearly cycle of growing Oxalis, Nerine, Clivia and other South African geophytes in his greenhouse.

Here are some photos from the show setup, which I should get back to...

Glen Lord, Steve Hammer, Ernst van Jaarsveld and Abby Rorer discuss plants for the show.

Show setup in progress. Judging theoretically starts in one hour.

Good stuff for sale at the CSSM table, courtesy of the Sphaeroid Institute.

The sale area.

Some of the plants assembled for the auction tonight.

Friday, August 8, 2008

One Week To Go

Next friday, the 16th Eastern Cactus and Succulent Conference starts off a weekend of desert plant-induced nirvana in Chelmsford, Massachusetts, with vendors, social events, auctions, a judged show and presentations by noted succulent plant experts from around the globe. I'll be giving two talks, as well. Every succulent plant enthusiast in the area should try to attend; the speakers list--which includes Steve Hammer from California and Ernst van Jaarsveld from Cape Town, South Africa--is reason enough to be there, and is easily the equal of what you'd get in a national convention.

The preliminary schedule of events is shaping up like this:

Friday - August 15th
  • 4:00 PM Glen Lord / Chris Allen - Succulent Bonsai
  • 5:00 PM Fred Kattermann - The Genus Copiapoa
  • 6:00 PM Matt Mattus - South African Bulbs
  • 7:30 PM Welcome Social
Saturday - August 16th
  • 8:30 Affiliates Meeting
  • 9:00 AM Dennis Cathcart - Succulent Terrestrial & Lithophytic Bromeliads
  • 10:00 AM Jerry Barad - Travelogue or Stapeliads
  • 1:00 AM Ernst van Jaarsveld - Gasterias
  • 12:00 PM Lunch
  • 1:00 PM Fred Kattermann - The Cacti of Chile
  • 2:00 PM Steve Hammer - Mesembs
  • 3:00 PM Matt Opel - Conophytum
  • 4:00 PM Panayoti Kelaidis - Succulents on Skis
  • 5:15 PM Mark Dimmitt - C&S of Northern Mexico
  • 7:00 PM Banquet social/cocktails
  • 7:30 PM Banquet
  • 9:00 PM Specimen Plant Auction
Sunday - August 17th
  • 8:00 AM Breakfast Social
  • 9:00 AM Panayoti Kelaidis - Hardy C&S in Denver OR C&S of the Rockies
  • 10:00 AM Mark Dimmitt - Adeniums
  • 11:00 AM Panel Discussion - the gang
  • 12:00 PM Lunch
  • 1:00 PM Steve Hammer - Haworthias
  • 2:00 PM Matt Opel - Nomenclature & Evolution
  • 3:00 PM Ernst van Jaarsveld - Glories of the Veld
  • 4:00 PM Conclusion ceremony
  • 5:00 PM Conference ends
Monday - August 18th
  • 9:00 AM Optional tour to Boston
My first talk will be on Conophytum, a fairly speciose (almost wrote "specious") genus of compact leaf succulents from the winter-rainfall regions of South Africa. It's quite a diverse group, and includes a number of species of "living stone"--plants that are camouflaged like the local geology--as well as taxa that are specialized for growth on mossy rocks, some that are subterranean, and even a few dwarf shrubs. I'll discuss the plants as they grow in habitat, as well as how to keep them going under glass. Conos are my area of specialization and the subject of my dissertation, but I have to say that with Steve and Ernst in the audience, I'll feel a bit like a punk kid MBA giving a talk on running a successful computer company, with Bill Gates sitting in the front row.

My second talk, on Nomenclature and Evolution, will be experimental; I've never presented anything similar before. I'll talk a bit about how plants receive their scientific names, about species concepts, and about how biologists investigate the evolutionary history of plant groups. But the meat of the presentation will be a series of case studies of situations where modern findings about the evolutionary relationships of succulent plants have forced changes that strike many hobbyists as gratuitously confusing. I will consider shocking consolidations in the mesembs, for example, and investigate the mysterious disappearance of the Asclepiadaceae (milkweed family), former home of the succulent stapeliads. Yeah, it'll probably be a good time for a Dunkin' Donuts run. I'll try to include some pretty plant photos to break up the hypnotic parade of phylogenetic trees, anyway.

Dactylopsis digitata ssp. littlewoodii (center), now sometimes considered part of the genus Phyllobolus or Mesembryanthemum. The plant in flower is Argyroderma cf. testiculare. This is a photo from July 2004, taken in a quartz field near Bitterfontein, in the northern Knersvlakte, Western Cape, South Africa.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Myrothamnus: an African Resurrection Plant

Resurrection plants—or plants that are poikilohydric, in biology-speak—are found growing in seasonally arid sites all over the world. One local Connecticut example is Rock Polypody (Polypodium virginianum), a woodland fern confined to thin to nonexistent soils, often on top of glacial erratic boulders, where it gets very dry very soon after rain. Whereas succulent plants hold onto stored water to survive drought, resurrection plants lose water readily and simply shrivel up when the going gets tough. However, they have the remarkable ability to rehydrate themselves, restart their metabolism and resume growth when moisture is available again. During a drought, a resurrection plant like Rock Polypody will get to the point where it is as crunchy as 10 year old rosemary from your spice rack, yet retain the capacity to spring back to life with the first rain.

A. Dry and seemingly expired Myrothamnus flabellifolius.

The majority of resurrection plants are mosses, ferns and other spore-bearing plants, but there are a couple of flowering plants that are poikilohydric, including Myrothamnus, which is apparently the only woody shrub that has the ability to resurrect. There are two species in the genus: Myrothamnus flabellifolius from arid mountains in Sub-Saharan Africa, and M. moschatus from Madagascar. These two species have a taxonomic family all to themselves: the Myrothamnaceae. A couple of years ago, I obtained a packet of seed of M. flabellifolius from Silverhill Seeds, and now have a good crop of plants to experiment with.

Myrothamnus seeds are tiny, so I planted them in a pot of loose peat moss and perlite mix, right on the surface. The plants come primarily from summer-rainfall areas, so spring is probably the best time of year to get them started. Germination is easy and quick in a seed pot kept in a moist, well-lit location.

Seedlings should be kept moist, in a sunny spot with good air circulation. Initial growth is slow, but as is the case with many plants, growth accelerates as the seedlings gain some size, and in two or three years Myrothamnus can become respectably shrubby. I’ve tried the plants in several types of soils, and they do fine in a range of mixes, with probably the best results achieved in the same airy, acidic mix I used for starting the seeds. Regular applications of dilute, water-soluble fertilizer (e.g., 20-20-20 at half the recommended strength, every 2-3 weeks) seem to be beneficial. The plants do best in full sun.

It’s generally not a great idea to try to test the abilities of resurrection plants in cultivation: they tend to wind up permanently dead if they are dried out too often, or possibly if they are dried out in the wrong way (weather, water quality, soil, and root run are probably quite different in a pot and in the wild, and affect the way dehydration occurs). It’s safest just to keep the plants growing, and as far as I know none actually require the growth –> pseudo-death –> resurrection cycle in order to stay healthy. Still, it’s tempting to play around with desiccating and reviving the little guys, and since I’ve wound up with quite a few Myrothamnus plants, I recently decided to experiment.

Left out in a sunny, dry greenhouse with no watering, my test Myrothamnus was thoroughly dry after about four days. The pleated leaves fold up and turn almost black as they dehydrate, and the plants look pretty sad when the process is complete. I let the plant sit out in the sun for two weeks before taking pity on it and breaking out the watering can. Overnight, the lower leaves expanded and turned green, and in subsequent days a wave of reviving shoots moved up the plant from the base to the apex. A few branch tips had not resurrected several days later, but even these perked up during an afternoon outside in a gentle rain. More extensive studies have shown that Myrothamnus can stay dry for six months with no ill effects, and still recover after nine months, although leaves are lost (Farrant & Kruger 2001). Dry plants give up the ghost for good only after a year baking in the sun. All of this raises an interesting possibility for the desert plant enthusiast with limited winter growing space: you should be able to grow Myrothamnus plants outside all summer, dry them off and toss them into the back of a closet for the winter, and revive them in spring.

B. The same plant as image A., a week after watering.

I've had some minor problems with insect pests on Myrothamnus. Mealybugs and aphids have recently been getting into the plants, so I have experimented with a new type of organic pest control, unfortunately applicable only to poikilohydric crops: let everything stay bone dry for a couple of weeks. It seems to have worked: resurrection plants spring back to life with a little water after an artificial drought; mealybugs not so much. As a bonus, some weeds in the Myrothamnus pots also croaked.

Farrant, J.M. & L.A. Kruger 2001. Longevity of dry Myrothamnus flabellifolius in simulated field conditions. Plant Growth Regulation 35: 109-120.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Amorphophallus Postscript, July 22

Two weeks after flowering, the Titan Arum is not looking so titanic any more. Actually, the stem that supported the inflorescence is still green and solid, even if the rest has collapsed. If the female florets had been pollinated and fruit was set, that stem would stick around for months, with a developing cluster of berries on top. Since we didn't try to do any pollinating, I expect everything apart from the underground corm to deteriorate in short order.

Check out the newly expanded leaf on the young A. titanum plant to the right of the former bloom. This was that skinny shoot that was poking up to the left of the bloom in many of the earlier photos.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Amorphophallus Postscript, July 12

[Double entendre redacted]

Today was apparently the day for the spadix to lose turgor. That's just four days after opening, and two days after the pollen was shed. Corpse Flowers deteriorate rapidly after they open, which is sort of a shame, since word about a bloom usually gets out to the general public only when it actually opens, and so by the time many people get around to visiting, the inflorescence is already in poor shape. For instance, the biggest crowds came to see this bloom on Wednesday, in the late morning and afternoon, by which time the spathe was pretty well closed up. The short duration of the flowering period does add to the mystique of the Titan Arum, I suppose.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Corpse Flower Finale

This year's Titan Arum is pretty much done. The spathe is starting to wither, and the spadix is pock-marked with the small pits and bumps that develop when the bloom is spent. Since the inflorescence was not pollinated, the whole aboveground structure will wither away within a few weeks, leaving a tuber that will stay dormant below the soil surface for a couple of months to a year, before sending up a leaf. If we had acquired pollen from another Corpse Flower and applied it to the female florets on the first night, a cluster of red berries containing seeds would have developed.

Just visible on the lower left side of the spathe in the photo above is a hole I cut into the side of the structure, to expose the male a female florets at the base of the spadix for visitors to see. Here's what the interior looked like yesterday afternoon (the day after opening):
The yellow bumps on top are the male florets, and the reddish flask-shaped structures below are the female florets. Pollen hasn't been shed yet, and the females are receptive on the first night, so that self-pollination is unlikely. And that's really the whole point of the giant, stinky flower: it draws in pollinators from a wide area, and some of the insects bring in pollen from other Corpse Flowers, so that the plant can produce seed that isn't inbred.

Today (two days after opening), the same flowers look like the image below:
The stringy, powdery stuff coming from the male flowers is the pollen. I've heard that in the wild, insects tend to get trapped inside of the inflorescence early on, but have an easier time escaping when the bloom starts to wilt, after the pollen has been shed. With a bit of luck, the pollen-covered sweat bees and carrion beetles will not have learned their lesson, and will be lured to another, freshly-opened Corpse Flower somewhere else in the jungle.

That's probably just about it for the Corpse Flower commentary here at Burger's Onion, though I may post a picture or two of the inflorescence's disintegration. Otherwise, plan on a return to the usual schedule of short articles, mostly about funny little South African desert plants, about one per month.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Amorphophallus Update, July 9

8:30 this morning.

The Corpse Flower is going down hill fast: the spathe is closing up, and while there is still a pretty funky smell about it, the odor is not nearly as gag-inducing as it was late last night. I stuck around until a little before 1:00 AM, at which point the visitors stopped coming. Up on the ladder, you could feel a current of steamy, fetid air coming off the top of the spadix. I couldn't actually see the evil vapors this time, but on one of the UConn flowers last year, several people reported a visible pale, steamy current drifting off the top of the spadix, around 2:00 in the morning.

We'll be open normal hours (8-4:00) today and the rest of the week. Local TV station Fox 61 had good coverage of the event last night, and NBC 30 had a crew out this morning, for a segment that will appear on their 11:00 AM news.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Titan Arum, 11 PM

The Corpse Flower is fully open, and the smell is easily detectable throughout the greenhouse complex, and even outside, in spite of the vents being closed. Sulfurous, overcooked cabbage notes predominate, like the facilities at a rustic campground at the end of August, but there are definite fishy undertones, unpleasantly reminiscent of canned tuna.

In some A. titanum plants, the spathe really opens wide and reflexes, but all three times that this individual has flowered the spathe has been more upright and funnel-shaped. There is quite a bit of variation in this species, even among the subset of plants in botanical gardens. The color of the spathe and the spadix can also vary quite a bit from plant to plant; for example, there are yellow spadices, as with both mature plants at UConn, and also dark purple ones, like this fellow at the U.S. Botanic Garden in Washington.

There's still a steady stream of students, faculty, families and plant enthusiasts coming through the greenhouse. Doors will be open for another hour or so, or you can stop by tomorrow morning and watch the bloom close. It's unlikely that it will open again, and by the end of the week it will probably have collapsed.

Titan Arum in bloom: part 2

Amorphophallus titanum plant #5, nearing fully open at 8:30 PM. The smell is tolerable, so far. The odor comes in waves, and sometimes it is hardly detectable. It's quite pungent at other times; enough to make you gag if you get close and inhale at the wrong time.

A view of the interior, though you can't quite see the individual male and female flowers (they're hidden under a bulge in the base of the spadix). Note the pale spot of variegation on the spadix.

UConn Biology Central Services professional; do not attempt.

Ray and Cherie C. on right. Ravi C. taking a break from the lab on left.

Connecticut people who can't make it in person, check out the TV news tonight. Fox 61 has already shot some footage, and some of the other stations are supposed to do live reports at 10:00 or 11:00.

Amorphophallus titanum in bloom tonight!

As of around 3:00 PM, the spathe started to show signs of pulling away from the spadix. Now it's official: the Corpse Flower is on for tonight. Those of you who are interested in seeing it in person have about eight hours to get to 75 N. Eagleville Rd., Storrs, Ct, 06269, U.S.A. (park in any student or faculty lot, since it's after hours, and make your way around behind the building to the greenhouses). We'll be open to the public until midnight (maybe later, but I promise nothing). Admission is free; B.Y.O. organic vapor respirator.

The greenhouse will be open normal hours tomorrow (8:00-4:00), but you will need to get here tonight if you want the full effect. The photograph here is current: it's early in the process of opening now, and there isn't much smell yet. It will probably be as open as it is going to get around midnight. Any time after 9:00 or 10:00 PM, and you will see the inflorescence in fine form, and be able to inhale as much of the perfume as you can stomach.

Amorphophallus Update, July 8

70.5 inches (179 cm) tall, 1.5 inches taller than yesterday.

Something I hadn't really thought about, until a visitor to the greenhouse during the 2004 Corpse Flower event pointed it out, is that the inflorescences of Amorphophallus are asymmetrical, and can be either right or left handed. That is to say, the spathe wraps around the axis of the bloom, and at the seam either overlaps itself towards the right side (viewer's right, as seen in this photo), or overlaps itself towards the left side. All of the Corpse Flower blooms at UConn (four of them, from two individuals) have been right handed, but left handed blooms do occur, as well. For example, the Smith College 2005 inflorescence and this one at Kew were left handed.

Inspection of the Amorphophallus bulbifer flowers that I posted a photo of last week shows one right handed and one left handed plant in the same pot. These inflorescences are borne on separate corms, but the corms are almost certainly clones of each other, and genetically identical (A. bulbifer reproduces prolifically from offsets, and bulbils that grow from the leaves). So it is likely that handedness is not determined genetically, for at least some Amorphophallus species. I wonder if plants can switch back and forth from year to year? In any event, handedness in Amorphophallus inflorescences seems to be a morphological oddity of little or no biological significance; development proceeds either one way or the other, and there's no functional difference in the end.

Some other instances of handedness in asymmetrical flowers are important for pollination biology. For example, in enantiostylous (Amorphophallus is "enantiospathous" ^_^) flowers, handedness differences probably function to prevent self pollination and encourage outcrossing.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Amorphophallus Update, July 7

69 inches (175 cm) tall, one inch taller than yesterday.

Looks like there won't be any further action from the Corpse Flower today, so my predicted date for the big event is no good. It could be any day now, though, so watch this space.

One of this plant's siblings that I mentioned in an earlier post, the corm that went to Smith College, is going to flower this summer. Check out their web page; they even have a webcam set up.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Amorphophallus Update, July 6

68 inches (173 cm), 1 inch taller than yesterday.

You would think that you'd need access to an institutional-scale tropical greenhouse to raise your own Amorphophallus titanum to flowering. You'd probably be right. Seedlings or small plants from tissue culture are not all that hard to come by, and seem to go for about $50 to $100. The Huntington has had them for sale in the past, for example, and caveat emptors can usually scare up some offers on EBay (OMG Ultra Rair!!11! HUGE bulbz!). But, getting a mail order seedling up to mature size is not a trivial matter. I've known a number of enthusiastic windowsill growers and hobby greenhouse owners who have tried raising their own Titan, but have yet to hear of any big stinky blooms in someone's living room. One of the smallest facilities that I'm aware of that has succeeded is just the next town over from me in Willimantic, Ct, at Eastern Connecticut State University, where Prof. Ross Koning maintains a modestly-sized hoop house style greenhouse. Fevzi Zeren of New Jersey seems to have succeeded in coaxing a flower from a specimen grown under lights in a basement (one assumes a big basement, and the sort of light setup that earns you periodic visits from the constabulary), though he apparently started with a nearly mature corm.

Corpse Flowers aren't too difficult to please, given a warm, humid, brightly-lit space of sufficient size. Space is usually going to be the limiting factor for a plant with individual leaves 15 feet across and more than one story tall. Other than that, we use a rich, well-drained soilless potting mix, with a bit of lime added, and feed fairly heavily with human blood a balanced water-soluble fertilizer. Ideally, temperatures shouldn't drop below 65 F (18 C), and humidity should stay above 50-60%, though I know for sure that conditions become less tropical than that on a regular basis here at the somewhat antiquated UConn biology greenhouses. The soil should be kept evenly moist at all times, even when the corm is dormant, and the pot should be as big as is practical (the pot for the plant at UConn is cramped, but it's the largest size that can be moved through our doors if need be). The plants need bright light, but leaves can scorch in direct, unfiltered sun. The growth of the plants seems to be only very loosely tied to the seasons: they can have leaves and be actively growing at any time of the year. At least in botanical gardens in temperate climates, though, there seems to be a strong tendency for flowers to bloom in early summer.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Amorphophallus Update, July 5

Titan Arum at 67 inches (170 cm) tall, two inches taller than yesterday. UConn EEB greenhouse manager Clint Morse for scale.

This individual plant started life as a seed in 1994, from a batch of seed that was collected in the wild in Sumatra by the late James R. Symon, and distributed to various botanical gardens. UConn originally had eight plants [see correction by Clint Morse in the comments], but given space limitations, and the fact that the leaves of Amorphophallus titanum get to be 15 or 20 feet across, all but two plants got donated to other universities (UC Santa Barbara, Washington State U. Pullman, Wellesley, Smith, Duke and Harvard all received UConn Corpse Flowers).

Plant #5, the one still here at UConn about to flower again, first bloomed in July of 2004, at not quite ten years of age, which seems to be about the average time from seed to maturity for this species under glass. Plant #5 flowered again in May 2007, and our other Corpse Flower from 1994 (#3, which has always been a bit of a runt), first flowered in June 2007. Number 3 is the plant with the leaf that's lurking in the background of the photos of the bud, though you can't see it very well in today's image; it's behaving properly and sending up foliage in between blooms. I'd expect #3 to flower again in early 2010. I have no idea when #5 is going to bloom next, after two consecutive flowers.

Friday, July 4, 2008

What's it for?

Amorphophallus titanum, immature inflorescence, with a leaf from a young plant of the same species emerging at right.

I've been giving greenhouse tours to all sorts of groups for quite a few years now, and on more than one occasion--usually prompted by some plant that is completely outside of normal experience, like the Corpse Flower pictured here--a student or garden club member has asked, in these exact words: "But, what's it for?" That's a fairly open ended metaphysical question, but I think that the answer that people are looking for is something practical and immediate, like: "Local people in Sumatra use the leaves for umbrellas." Of course, it isn't really true that anyone uses Amorphophallus titanum to keep out of the rain, as far as I know.

In the absence of known utility for humans, I imagine that it would still be reasonably satisfying for the questioner to hear that, say, elephants eat the leaves, or at least that pretty butterflies visit the flowers. But again, I don't think that anything like that is true of A. titanum: as with other members of the genus, the leaves of the Corpse Flower are probably loaded with calcium oxalate crystals and other toxins. The flowers, famously, broadcast a putrid stench that does not attract charismatic pollinators like butterflies. Even the carrion insects that are drawn by the smell of decay are hapless dupes who receive no obvious benefit from their visit: the blooms merely produce a rotten smell, and yield nothing that a carrion beetle or sweat bee could actually lay eggs in or eat.

It's a safe bet that innumerable bacteria, fungi, mites, nematodes and other tiny organisms do live in association with a Corpse Flower growing in the rain forest. But a tour group is--rightly--not going to be satisfied by: "Well, if it's like other plants that have been studied, there are microbes that live around the roots, feeding on secretions of the root cap. But nobody has ever studied the rhizosphere flora of this species, and probably nobody ever will, unless evidence turns up that something unusual is going on with it. Which it probably won't. Evidence, that is. So yeah, errr, I guess, um, nobody knows for sure." The cute way to answer the "what's it for?" question would be to say "It brings in paying visitors and increases web traffic!" But even if there were an appealing, straightforward, practical purpose for the Corpse Flower (the tubers of related species are edible when suitably processed, for example, and there's no reason to expect that A. titanum would be any different, if it could be cultivated on a large scale), such an answer would be superficial at best, and probably a bit of a dodge, too.

There is a much deeper answer to the question of what the Corpse Flower is for, an answer that yields real insights and productive, testable ideas about why the plant has such peculiar characteristics. It's the answer that Darwin and Wallace gave to the world 150 years ago, almost to the day, for living things in general, not just A. titanum. It's just not tremendously satisfying to the average greenhouse tour-goer. For that matter, because of the workings of human psychology, it probably doesn't have much in the way of purely visceral appeal as an explanation to anyone, even the scientists who have formulated it. But whatever the answer lacks in terms of surface emotional satisfaction, it more than makes up for in pure utility for those who have studied the questions. Because, as far as anyone can tell, Darwin's answer is correct.

The metabolic processes that synthesize the chemicals that give A. titanum blooms their foul odor, the metabolic short circuit that generates the heat to volatilize those chemicals, the tall but thriftily constructed spadix from which the odor wafts into the sultry night air; these and a million other characteristics are what allowed the ancestors of the plant in the University greenhouse to germinate, to grow, to out-compete other plants, to resist herbivores and disease, to exchange pollen, to set and disperse seed. These adaptations permitted the ancestors of our A. titanum, now marooned in Connecticut, to survive and reproduce, century after century, in a teeming rain forest where the competition and the environment were always changing, slowly but inexorably.

What's the Corpse Flower for? It is for making more Corpse Flowers.

Amorphophallus Update, Independence Day '08

65 inches (165 cm), a mere 1.5 inches taller than yesterday.

The Corpse Flower is looking like it's just about ready to do its thing. However,the fact that the spathe hasn't noticeably unfurled compared to its state yesterday, at this point in the middle of the afternoon, indicates that the inflorescence probably won't open up today.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Amorphophallus Update, July 3

63.5 inches (161 cm), two inches taller than yesterday. Note the flowering Amorphophallus bulbifer plants at the base of the Titan.

The Corpse Flower is getting pretty close to opening; it wouldn't particularly surprise me if it popped for Independence Day. In the closeup of the edge of the spathe at left, you can see that the coloration is getting more intense, and also that the frills are relatively loosely appressed to the spadix, compared to a few days ago. In previous years, the first sure sign that an A. titanum bloom was going to open was a more definite pulling away of the spathe, in the early to mid-afternoon before the flowering. In the closeup, you might also notice some grayish patches on the inflorescence, which is damage from thrips. We've seen this in past flowers, and while it's annoying, the level of damage hasn't been such that we've wanted to risk spraying. Usually, thrips in the UConn greenhouses are knocked down pretty quickly in warmer weather by a predatory insect, Orius, but the orii seem to be slacking off this year.

The greenhouse will be open to the public through the holiday weekend for Titan Arum viewing, until the flowering is finished. Hours are listed on the EEB Greenhouse website. On the day the bloom opens, whenever that is, we'll hang around to let people in at least until midnight. The greenhouses are located behind the Torrey Life Science building, which is 75 North Eagleville Rd, Storrs, Ct 06269.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Amorphophallus Update, July 2

61.5 inches (156 cm), two inches taller than yesterday.

There was a nasty smell in the greenhouses this morning, and I was momentarily worried that the Titan had decided to flower last night, and that I had missed it. A bit of hunting turned up the real source, though: several plants of Amorphophallus bulbifer were in bloom. These plants are much smaller than A. titanum, with blooms only about eight inches tall, but they give off a penetrating odor of outhouse, overcooked cabbage and dead animal that is actually fairly close to the smell of the Corpse Flower, qualitatively if not quantitatively. In the A. bulbifer photo below, you can make out the female florets (globose structures at the very base of the spadix, inflorescence on the right) and the male florets (pale fuzzy zone directly above the female florets).
Amorphophallus bulbifer.

The blooms of different Amorphophallus species produce quite a variety of odors. Amorphophallus titanum, A. bulbifer and A. prainii are sulfurous and cabbagey, while A. konjac and A. paeonifolius have a more straightforward dead-rat-in-the-wall smell. Amorphophallus odoratus has a funny, almost artificial smell, sort of like deodorant. These odors attract various sorts of insect pollinators, often flies or other carrion feeders, who are tricked into thinking they've found a meal. In its native Sumatra, the primary pollinators of A. titanum are apparently sweat bees.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Amorphophallus Update, July 1

59.5 inches (151 cm) tall this morning, which is three inches taller than yesterday.

Aside from a slowdown in the rate of growth, another indication that flowering is not far off in A. titanum is the development of reddish coloration on the inside (adaxial side) of the spathe. In the closeup photo, you can see some purple/red coloration where the frills at the edge of the spathe have curled over. I first noticed a little color in the spathe yesterday, and it's more obvious today. Things are looking good for a bloom early next week.

The spathe, by the way, is an often petal-like leaf that subtends the rest of the inflorescence in members of the Araceae (the Jack-in-the-Pulpit or aroid family), to which Amorphophallus belongs. As with other aroids, the "flower" of the Corpse Flower is really a highly modified flowering shoot, or inflorescence, comprising the spathe, a modified stem called the spadix (the part that puts the phallus in Amorphophallus), and numerous small male and female flowers hidden inside the spathe at the base of the spadix. The spathe/spadix structure in A. titanum does look very much like a single flower, and functions like a single flower to attract pollinators, so even a plant morphology nerd like myself doesn't have too many issues with just calling the thing a flower. If you want to get technical about it, though, A. titanum has the largest compact flower-like inflorescence in the plant kingdom. The largest simple blooms occur in a totally unrelated genus of Southeast Asian carrion flowers: Rafflesia.

Monday, June 30, 2008

Amorphophallus Update, June 30

The Corpse Flower has reached 56.5 (144 cm) inches tall, which is an increase of 6.5 inches since Saturday (the last time anyone checked). So, growth is holding steady at a little over three inches per day. That's probably going to be the maximum rate of growth for this bloom, and I'm guessing that growth will taper off in the next day or so. Larger plants have been reported to sustain growth rates around 8 inches (20 cm) per day.

Typically, the growth of A. titanum inflorescences reaches a peak, holds steady for a few days, then decelerates until flowering, with the flower opening about a week after the growth rate starts to decline. So, the smart money is still on Monday, July 7. The blooms open in late afternoon, and reach their peak stinkiness in the wee hours of the next morning. Our past flowers have lasted less than a day in prime condition, with pollen being shed from the male florets and the bloom starting to fold up the day after opening.

Readers in Connecticut might want to check out the local news on NBC 30 tonight: a camera crew was around the greenhouse today, filming the Titan Arum and other points of interest for a segment on things to do at UConn over the summer.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Friday, June 27, 2008

Amorphophallus Update, June 27

The Titan Arum put on another 3.5 inches, and now stands at 46.5 inches (118 cm) tall.

The smaller, darker bud emerging from the pot just to the left of the pot with the flowering shoot is another A. titanum. It's an immature plant, about eight years old from seed, with a tuber about the size of a cantaloupe. It's nowhere near flowering size, and that bud will undoubtedly expand into a leaf, over the course of the next couple of weeks. The two big plants at UConn are from wild collected seed started in 1994, and first blooming in 2004; the little guy is from seed produced in cultivation at UCSB, on a plant that was a sibling of our mature plants, which began its life here at UConn before heading for the Sunshine State.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Amorphophallus Update, June 26

The Corpse Flower is starting to enter the realm of "alarmingly large," at 43 inches (109 cm) tall, which is 3.5 inches taller than yesterday. Four inches per day is about the maximum growth rate we've seen on these things at UConn.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Amorphophallus Update, June 25

The Corpse Flower grew another 2.5 inches yesterday, and is now 39.5 inches (100 cm) tall. It will probably just about double in height over the next couple of weeks. Since the flowers are borne without foliage (i.e., the leaves are "hysteranthous"), most of that floral mass is coming from stored carbohydrates in the underground corm. Given the history of this plant, those carbohydrates were synthesized way back in summer 2006, the last time the plant had a leaf.

Actually, there isn't quite as much biomass in an A. titanum inflorescence as you might guess. The whole structure is quite spongy, with a lot of air spaces, and the spadix (the central pointy bit) is nearly hollow. Also, this species does grow roots when flowering, so some of the water content of the inflorescence is undoubtedly fresh from the soil. Other Amorphophallus species, like A. konjac, flower when rootless, so even the water in the bloom must be taken from stored reserves.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Amorphophallus Update June 24

The bud is 37 inches (94 cm) tall today, or two inches taller than yesterday.

The speckled green sprout behind and to the left of the flower bud is our other mature specimen of Amorphophallus titanum. That plant is behaving normally, sending up a foliage leaf to photosynthesize, after flowering last year. Corpse flowers only produce one leaf at a time, at least as adults: the speckled "trunk" is really a petiole (leaf stalk), bearing a leaf blade dissected into numerous leaflets. The whole thing will collapse into mush when the plant next goes dormant; the only part of the plant that persists long term is the underground corm.

Monday, June 23, 2008

UConn Corpse Flower Redux

Corpse Flower at the UConn Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Greenhouses. Note lens cap on pot rim for scale.

It's official: the larger of the two mature Amorphophallus titanum plants here at the University of Connecticut is going to flower again, after last stinking up the joint Mother's Day weekend 2007. Normally, it takes about three years for a Titan Arum to rebloom. In the usual post-floral sequence, the inflorescence sets any seeds that it is going to set, then withers away, leaving a dormant corm underground. The corm sits for a number of months, then sends up a titanic leaf, which lasts about a year and a half. Then the plant enters another dormant phase before finally flowering again. The plant in the photo was totally dormant for 13 months, and then started sending up what turns out to be a second flower, without an intervening vegetative phase. This is seriously peculiar behavior, and as far as I can tell the first time that two flowers in a row have been observed in an individual of this species.

The corm of this plant weighed 92 pounds after it bloomed in 2007, and no doubt quite a bit more than that before it produced a nearly six foot inflorescence. Possibly, re-flowering is normal--if seldom observed in cultivation--for large Corpse Flowers that do not set seed the first time around (we didn't even try to pollinate it last year, because of worries that producing seed would use up too much of the plant's reserves. Apparently, it still has plenty of reserves). In any case, it will be interesting to see how this year's flowering event plays out.

As of this morning, the inflorescence was 35 inches (90 cm) from soil level to tip. Based on past blooms here at UConn, I'd expect it to open in about two weeks (ca. July 7). Stay tuned for more updates.