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.


Julie said...

Nice info on this gorgeous plant. I like the contrast between the compact round plant, and it's large colorful flowers! Nothing bugs me more than a plant that finds it hard to reproduce by seed! Cuttings are great, but it sure makes it hard to get your hands on specimens that you would love to own! Good to see this great post! I will return and keep studying it. Thanks!

Matt said...

Thank you for the kind words! Conophytums in general are impossible to get, except through specialist nurseries (they just don't respond well to the techniques used by the wholesale growers who supply ordinary nurseries). Cono. minusculum has a double availability problem because it seems to be easiest to grow in parts of the country where there aren't many succulent plant specialists.

Julie said...

Interesting! I guess I will probably never have one! LOL. Nice to look at though!