Friday, December 25, 2009

Diplosoma luckhoffii

Diplosoma luckhoffii (MRO209, east of Bitterfontein, Western Cape), a little over a year old from seed. Flower about 1 cm wide.

Diplosoma luckhoffii is a tiny winter-growing succulent from South Africa. The plants are completely dormant for much of the year, persisting as button-like bodies at or just below the soil surface, protected by a layer of dried up leaf tissue. When rain and heavy dew wet the soil in the cooler months, Diplosoma cracks out of its shell and sends up a pair of mushy green leaves, covered with sparkling, bubbly water-storage cells ("bladder cells"). Flowers are produced in mid- or late winter. The flowers often don't open very well, at least in cultivation, but set seed easily, and even self-pollinate sometimes.

Quartz flats in the northern Knersvlakte, where I collected Diplosoma seed in 2004.

Diplosoma luckhoffii is endemic to the Knersvlakte, a very clearly defined patch of desert only a few hours drive north of Cape Town. The Knersvlakte is characterized by low, rolling topography with frequent patches of snow-white quartz gravel. Not all of that quartz is entirely natural, and one occasionally runs across pieces that were shaped into blades by stone age people. Diplosoma, along with a diverse assemblage of other dwarf succulents in the Aizoaceae (mesemb family) and other families, lives only on soil with a dense cover of quartz rubble; the quartz moderates the temperature at ground level, and makes it possible for stubby little plants to survive the summer without cooking.

The cultivation of D. luckhoffii is fairly difficult. The plants are short lived, not usually surviving for more than three or four years even under ideal conditions, and as a consequence are never available except as seed, as far as I have seen. Diplosoma seed is almost as fine as dust, and should be sown in autumn on the surface of a mineral soil (sandy loam leavened with perlite, vermiculite and course sand) in the pot where they will stay permanently. Seedlings and mature plants alike demand brilliant sunshine, cool night temperatures and careful watering when active. The soil should dry out slightly at the surface between waterings, but remain slightly moist below ground at all times. During the warm-weather dormancy, pots of Diplosoma can be left dry, aside from an occasional misting on sunny days. When happy, Diplosoma sometimes flowers at the end of its first season, though more often the plants rot or terminally desiccate while still pinhead-size.

I have never heard of Diplosoma being successfully cultivated outside of a cool, airy and brightly-lit greenhouse, but I know someone who is trying it under fluorescent lights (right next to the tubes, for maximum illumination). It will be interesting if she succeeds!

Monday, December 21, 2009

The Shortest Day

Happy (northern winter) solstice! The day will be 1 second longer tomorrow, in my neck of the woods. This photograph is actually of a minor snow event earlier this month, not the Christmas air travel schedule crusher from this past weekend. The current snow pack is much more impressive, but not as pretty.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Epiphyte Tree at UConn Greenhouses

One of the big events this past fall here at the University of Connecticut greenhouses has been the completion of an epiphyte tree in the entryway, which had previously been somewhat cramped and lacking in focus. The new entryway provides space for tours to assemble, and a point of interest to draw visitors in.

Epiphytes are plants that live on the surface of other plants, using their hosts for support but not acting as parasites. About the only epiphytes that occur naturally here in Connecticut are tiny mosses and liverworts that grow on tree trunks, but in tropical climates trees may be festooned with diverse communities of orchids, bromeliads, ferns and others.

The UConn epiphyte tree was put together over the summer, with many hours of volunteer help from the Connecticut Orchid Society. It is constructed around a skeleton of steel pipes clamped together into a hexagonal trunk, with additional pipes jutting out above head level to create branches. The trunk is covered with panels of expanded metal, which do a good job of rounding out the angular underlying structure. All of the basic structural materials were recycled from old bench parts from the greenhouses.

Clint Morse and members of the C.O.S. assemble the epiphyte tree's internal skeleton.

Probably the most time-consuming part of the construction of the epiphyte tree was covering it with bark. We used natural cork oak bark, which is harvested—sustainably, without killing the trees—in the western Mediterranean region. The C.O.S. and greenhouse manager Clint Morse laboriously fit pieces of bark together, sometimes cutting them to fit or softening them with steam in a large autoclave to mold them into the right shape, then wired them in place. Gaps were filled in with slivers of bark glued in place, or clumps of coconut fiber. The branches of the epiphyte tree were covered with special ordered bark tubes (taken whole from smaller cork oak trunks).

Some of the initial plantings were done as the bark was being fit into place, using epiphytes already established on pieces of cork. More plants were wired or glued into place later, and these should anchor themselves and spread with time. We’re still working on fine-tuning the tree and its plantings, but stop in and check it out if you’re in the area!

Monday, November 23, 2009

Elizabeth Park C&S Display

Putnam Greenhouse at Elizabeth Park, Hartford.

I was over at Elizabeth Park in Hartford this weekend, to drop off some plants and fliers for an educational display of cactus and succulent plants put together by the Connecticut Cactus and Succulent Society. I met Lisa Silvestri of the Friends of Elizabeth Park there, and we got the plants to a favorable place in the public greenhouse, then talked for a while about plants and the park. The F.o.E.P. even provided lunch at the Pond House, which was a treat.

The display is mostly basic stuff, but maybe it will get people interested in succulent plants or attract some new members to the CCSS. Stop in and check it out: the display will be there until March or so. Next year, I'd like to get the cactus club to Elizabeth Park for one of our official meetings, so it was nice to make some contacts with the Friends.

Friday, October 30, 2009

The Tale of the Red Hand

The Old English Cemetery, Sutherland. Photo via Kambrokind Guest House.

One of the few “true” ghost stories that I know happens to have a botanical and succulent plant theme. As with all true ghost stories, it happened to a friend of a friend who shall remain nameless, many years ago, and has certainly changed with each telling, probably in significant ways, to turn it into a satisfying narrative, and to make it more frightening and inexplicable. I don’t for a moment think that the cold, high veld around Sutherland is really haunted by a shambling lich or some other, less describable terror from beyond. But still, I will be tempted to double-check the windows the next time I park my car to take a nap after a long drive.

Sutherland is far back in the mountains to the northeast of Cape Town, South Africa. I recall flying over the area on the way to the Fairest Cape one July—at the height of the southern winter—and glimpsing a dimly lit, snow-covered landscape through a break in the clouds. The sight was unsettling, ghosts or no, for someone fresh from summer in New England and contemplating a month of camping in the desert. Sutherland is one of the coldest places in Africa, with rocky plains in every direction sparsely vegetated with low scrub and hardy little succulents.

A certain respected South African botanist was doing fieldwork around Sutherland in the middle of winter. At the end of a long day of driving, hiking and collecting specimens, he found himself on a little-used road, miles from nowhere, and decided to park, get some rest and continue plant hunting in the morning. After supper out of a can, heated on a camp stove by the side of the road, he decided that the weather was going to be too frosty for sleeping under the stars. So, he got into the car, reclined the seat, and got settled in his sleeping bag.

The temperature was bitterly cold that night, by African standards if not by the standards here in Connecticut, and the botanist closed the windows tight, and wore his jacket inside of the sleeping bag. The chill was still uncomfortable, and he was awake for some time before falling into an uneasy sleep.

Some time after midnight, he awoke with the feeling that he was no longer alone. Nervously, he looked around the car, and saw a disembodied hand—emaciated, deep bloody red and faintly internally phosphorescent—reaching for him from out of the dark, right inside of the cab with him. He just about leapt out of his sleeping bag in a panicked attempt to escape the hand, but the spectral visitor vanished almost as soon as it was seen.

There are a number of possible explanations for the Red Hand: certainly, people commonly experience strange and sometimes realistic hallucinations when emerging from troubled sleep. One can’t entirely rule out the actions of living humans, though the area was very remote, and the blasted, treeless landscape didn’t offer many places where a thief could have hid when the frightened botanist searched the area around his car. Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the incident was this: the night was frigid and the botanist was certain that he had closed the windows to keep out the wind before going to sleep. But afterwards, he found that the window in the direction from which the hand had approached was rolled down part of the way.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Autumn in New England

It's been sort of a dreary summer in Connecticut, and the fall foliage isn't really the best this year. Still, the view from Spring Hill in Storrs isn't too shabby.

A uniform silver haze in the sky the other day gave rise to some unusual light effects: note the ring around the sun, with bright spots at 9:00, 12:00 (and presumably 3:00 behind the low clouds). Was this a portent of bad weather?

Yes, as a matter of fact, it was a portent of bad weather. Wet snow flurries fell yesterday afternoon through this morning, on and off. Snow before the leaves fall is pretty rare, and it was fortunate that it wasn't cold or heavy enough for much accumulation: heavy snow sticking on the leaves of deciduous trees can cause serious damage. There weren't any downed branches or power outages that I noticed, and the snow is gone now.

Talk in Massachusetts

Pelargonium oblongatum (section Hoarea), a tuberous caudiciform from Namaqualand in South Africa's Northern Cape, in flower in late spring.

I've got a talk coming up this Saturday, at the Cactus and Succulent Society of Massachusetts, at Tower Hill Botanical Garden near Worcester. The meeting runs 1:00 to 4:00, and I'll probably start yakking at around 2:30.

My topic is going to be "Succulent Pelargonium." Pelargoniums are members of the geranium family, primarily native to South Africa. The usual garden center geraniums are hybrid Pelargonium, but the genus also includes probably 150+ species from arid habitats with succulent stems, succulent roots, or even somewhat succulent leaves. My talk will be a basic introduction to the group, covering a range of succulent species, with diversions into cultivation and propagation. I'll bring along some extra seedlings for people to try at home, too.

I'll be doing a similar talk for the Philadelphia Cactus and Succulent Society in November.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Anacampseros hillii

Anacampseros hillii is flowering for me right now. This plant was only described in 2008, and is hardly cultivated anywhere, so I've been trying to produce some seed to spread around. It hasn't been easy to propagate: the flowers only open for a few hours starting around 2:00-3:00 in the afternoon, and they are self incompatible (pollen from a different individual is needed to make seed). My two plants never seem to synchronize properly, though I did manage to succeed once by saving some pollen from plant A in the fridge, and applying it to plant B when it bloomed a week later. I think I managed the same trick this year; we'll see in a few weeks. Oddly, the original description (Williamson, G. 2008. Aloe 45) has the plants as being self-fertile. It may be that there is variation in the presence of incompatibility.

Anacampseros hillii is truly minute, which probably explains why it eluded detection for so long while growing on rather well-botanized quartz flats in the Knersvlakte north of the relatively major town of Vanrhynsdorp. The flowers are about 1 cm across, and the plant is normally represented above ground by just one or two tiny blackish green leaves and a nub of hairy stem. The spindle-shaped tuber underground has about the bulk of a peanut or two, sans shell.

The plant is probably related to the similarly dwarf Anacampseros comptonii, which grows fairly close by, though in quite a different habitat on cooler, wetter elevations. Anacampseros is part of the Portulacaceae (purslane family), better known for the garden annual portulaca.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Hondebal in Flower

Larryleachia cf. marlothii, the Hondebal, in cultivation at the University of Connecticut, September 2009.

The Hondebal ("dog ball" in Afrikaans...) is a stem-succulent in the Apocynaceae (milkweed family) with a fairly wide distribution in the arid parts of Namibia and western South Africa. The taxonomy of the Hondebals is about as convoluted as it could be for a group with probably just two species, which have been assigned to seven different genera at various times. The name "Trichocaulon," which is how I originally learned them, is a sentimental favorite, but I think they're more properly placed in the genus Larryleachia. For now. I grew the plants in the photo from seed that was labeled at L. cactiformis, but I suspect that they are really the other species, L. marlothii, based on the pale, speckled flowers.

Hondebals can be finicky, but can also grow rapidly if they are kept happy. These plants are flowering at only about a year and a half old. I use a sandy soil with very little organic content, and keep the plants in a really dry, sunny spot right next to the Lithops. So far, Larryleachia has been doing better than many of the other stapeliads in the UConn greenhouse, possibly because the plants are relatively tolerant of winter chills.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Welwitschia Cones

Welwitschia mirabilis at the University of Connecticut.

Welwitschia mirabilis is a gymnosperm (cone bearing, non-flowering seed plant) endemic to the Namib Desert in southwestern Africa. Welwitschia is in a category of its own in the plant kingdom, morphologically speaking: seedlings produce exactly two foliage leaves before the shoot apex aborts. The resulting stubby trunk with pair of strap-like leaves can live for centuries, gradually expanding by growing from the region where the leaves are attached.

There is an extensive mythology surrounding the cultivation of Welwitschia, but the plants aren’t as difficult as one might be led to believe. They don’t actually need to be grown in tall, skinny drainpipes, and may in fact benefit from planting in a wide container (or in a ground bed in a greenhouse), which allows room for an extensive network of surface roots to develop. It is possible to transplant them, though Welwitschia roots are a bit on the delicate side. They can also grow fairly quickly: the large mature plants at the University of Connecticut in the photos are only about 12 years old. For the past several summers, these plants have produced cones.

plants are either male or female (i.e., they are dioecious). So far here at UConn, we only have had fully formed cones on male plants like the one in the photo above, but the production of seed should be possible, eventually, as more of our plants reach maturity.

Certain aspects of the reproductive biology of Welwitschia and its relatives in the plant order Gnetales are similar to reproduction in flowering plants, and for a time Welwitschia and the flowering plants were considered to be fairly closely related. More recent information on the evolutionary biology of the vegetable kingdom has pretty well sunk this idea, though, placing Welwitschia and friends much closer to pines and other conifers. Likely fossil relatives of Welwitschia, with similar leaves and reproductive structures, are known from North and South America. Some of the fossil species were apparently tree-like, with branches.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Organic Pest Control, the Mad Botany Way

So, there was an outbreak of fruit flies in the kitchen last week. The place looked like an introductory genetics lab in May, when the students start to get lazy about disposing of their old Drosophila cultures. After more prosaic control options--such as cleaning out the compost bucket--were exhausted, I starting thinking about the possibilities for mopping up the abundant fruit fly stragglers. If only I had something sticky like flypaper, with a sweet smell to draw the insect pests to their doom...

Then I remembered that I have access to Drosphyllum lusitanicum, the Portuguese Sundew or Dewy Pine, a large carnivorous plant from the western Mediterranean with leaves that drip with mucilaginous goo and smell strongly of honey.

Drosophyllum turns out to be brutally efficient at offing Drosophila. The first flies were caught before I even set the plant down by the sink, and within an hour it looked like the majority of the infestation was glued to the leaves and in the process of being digested. I brought the Drosophyllum back to its greenhouse lair after a couple of days: it's not the sort of plant that would survive in typical kitchen conditions for long. Besides, there wasn't anything left for it to eat.

For those tempted to try growing their own Drosophyllum, there are cultural notes at the ICPS website.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Hail to the King, Baby

Drosera regia in cultivation in Connecticut, June 2009. Leaves about 40 cm (16 inches) long.

Drosera regia, the King Sundew, is one of the giants among carnivorous plants, apparently growing close to a meter tall in some situations. Its natural range is a small patch of mountainous terrain north of Cape Town, South Africa, and it occupies an evolutionarily isolated branch of the sundew family tree, being the only surviving representative of a very early-diverging lineage. King Sundews are uncommon in cultivation, having a reputation for being slow-growing and temperamental. These plants at the University of Connecticut were started from seed collected in Bainskloof, South Africa, and are flowering for the first time at age 4.

Drosera regia flower.

I had several individual King Sundews flowering at the same time, so I cross-pollinated them. Six weeks later, the first seed capsules have started to ripen, and it looks like pollination was successful. Even seeds are big in D. regia: about the size of poppyseed, which is gigantic by Drosera standards.

Drosera regia, ripe capsule and seeds (pencil tip for scale).

Monday, July 13, 2009

Jerry Barad's 53rd Open House

Jerry Barad discusses salvaging plantlets from a favorite variegated Agave potatorum, which was in the process of dying after it flowered.

For more than half a century, Jerry and Bea Barad have been hosting an annual open house at their spectacular private collection of cacti and succulents in New Jersey. This year, the Massachusetts and Connecticut cactus clubs decided to work together to charter a bus down to Jerry's place for the big event.

Dr. Barad made a living as a gynecologist before his retirement, but in his free time he is also a serious student of succulent plants who has traveled extensively in the Americas, Africa, the Middle East and the Canary Islands, and published his findings in national and international journals. His area of specialization is stapeliads (succulents in the Apocynaceae, or milkweed family), but he grows pretty much everything. Outside of stapeliads, his collections of Haworthia and Echeveria are especially impressive.

Stapeliad festival.

Stapelia vetula, which has dropped some of its milkweed-like seeds to the left of the flower.

Jerry has two greenhouses. The smaller one is devoted mainly to the Crassulaceae: Echeveria, Crassula, and other members of the stonecrop family. The larger, older greenhouse is divided into halves, with a warm section given over to stapeliads, pachypodiums and other more tropical plants, and a cooler section with cacti, Haworthia, mesembs and more.

Variegated Haworthia truncata. Nothing that a little 2, 4-D wouldn't clear up. I'm not a fan of variegates, but actually, that is impressive.

Outside of the greenhouse, the grounds are like a miniature botanical garden/zoo, with hardy cactus and succulent rockeries, koi pond, bamboo grove, orchards, sheep pasture, a giant vegetable garden and carefully tended borders with annuals and dozens of large Brugmansia (Angel's Trumpet) plants that are planted out every spring, then dug out and stored in a cool garage all winter. It must be an enormous job to take care of it all, but Jerry does have hired help.

The view from the house. The greenhouses are behind the clump of bamboo (Phyllostachys aureosulcata?) at left.

The trip went smoothly, and I think everyone had a great day photographing plants, meeting fellow enthusiasts from all over the region, and just lounging by the pool. I'll be looking forward to visiting the Barads again some time!

Connecticut visitors Martha B., Bill B. and Ken M. between the koi pond and the swimming pool.

Echeveria and other Mexican Crassulaceae in the smaller greenhouse.

Impatiens mirabilis, a semi-succulent lithophyte (plant that grows on rocks) from tropical Southeast Asia.

Euphorbia piscidermis, a remarkable example of evolutionary convergence with the unrelated cactus genus Pelecyphora.

Me next to a giant Adenia (A. fruticosa?), which apparently grew from a piece of stem that Jerry left by the post many decades ago.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Carnivorous Plants at Tolland Marsh Pond

Tolland Marsh Pond, May 31, 2009. Sarracenia flower at lower center.

Tolland Marsh Pond is a rather large (half a mile north to south) wetland, located in my neighborhood in the northeastern corner of Connecticut. The waters of the pond itself are acidic and dark, and ringed with a wide swampy margin of sedges, sphagnum moss, and thickets of blueberry and buttonbush. This is the kind of place where carnivorous plants grow, and in a recent trip to the pond I managed to find several different species of insect-eating greenery.

Sarracenia purpurea ssp. purpurea. Note mosquitoes in lower left pitcher; these may be Wyeomia smithii, a pitcher plant commensal.

The most impressive carnivorous plant native to New England is the Purple Pitcher Plant, Sarracenia purpurea. The pitcher plants were in full bloom when I checked them in late May. The dark maroon flowers attract pollinating bees, and are held well above the modified, water-filled leaves.

Sarracenia purpurea flower, about 2 inches across.

The leaves are the business end of the plant; the part that actually traps and kills insects, then breaks them down in order to obtain nitrogen and other nutrients that are in short supply in bogs. Unlike some carnivorous plants, Sarracenia purpurea does not move. Prey is attracted by the coloration of the leaf and nectar that it secretes. Unlucky critters slide into the pool of liquid inside, drown and are digested by bacterial action.

Pitcher plants and cranberries. The fruit must have come through the winter, but it was still edible, if a bit mushy.

At Tolland Marsh Pond, pitcher plants are present in a few open, boggy areas, but don’t seem to be tremendously abundant. I’ve seen a few dozen plants, but there are large areas of potential habitat that I haven’t checked.

Drosera rotundifolia. A few plants of this species are visible in the cranberry photo above, too.

Drosera intermedia favors wetter, muckier parts of the bog.

The pond is also home to both of the species of sundew that occur in inland Connecticut, Drosera rotundifolia and D. intermedia. Sundews have glandular tentacles on their leaves that secrete sticky mucilage, and trap small insects. The tentacles and leaves slowly fold around and digest their prey. Drosera rotundifolia grows all around the pond in sphagnum moss, or on half submerged waterlogged wood. Drosera intermedia isn’t as widespread, and I saw just a few patches of it in mucky peat in open areas on floating mats of moss and vegetation.

Tolland Marsh Pond: edge of the marshy parts of the area viewed through laurel thicket, White Oak and Red Maple. There is a pond out there, but you can't see it from here.

Tolland Marsh Pond isn’t easily accessible, which does have the beneficial effect of limiting the number of visitors to a fairly fragile habitat. There are a few informal trails around the pond, but my botanizing has involved a good deal of bushwhacking through laurel thicket (Mountain Laurel is pretty, but it is a slow and scratchy process to cross a dense stand of it). The marshes where the carnivorous plants occur are treacherous as well, with floating hummocks and sphagnum mats providing doubtful footing over sunless water and peat slurry of indeterminate depth. Tolland Marsh Pond also has Poison Sumac (Toxicodendron vernix), which is a bit like Poison Ivy, but twice as toxic and as tall as a lilac. Nasty, nasty stuff, which normal people will fortunately never run into, since it is almost entirely confined to bogs.

Tolland Marsh Pond, January 2009.

Sarracenia purpurea is evergreen, and although the leaves are low to the ground and can be hidden by even a little snow, the old seed heads are distinctive and fairly tall. So, winter is a good time to explore bogs for Purple Pitcher Plant populations. Places that are inaccessible in summer--too solid to be navigable by boat, but too unstable to negotiate safely on foot--can be reached by an easy walk after a long cold spell has frozen the landscape solid. And, there are no leaves on the Poison Sumac to worry about brushing up against.

Two Sarracenia purpurea flower stalks sticking above the snow (lower left and center).

I first found pitcher plants at Tolland Marsh Pond by taking advantage of good conditions for frozen bog walks this past winter. It would have been easier to find the plants if there hadn't been so much snow, but the old seed heads are fairly easy to spot, and seem to persist well into the cold season. There were even seeds still present in the capsules in January.

A little digging reveals the rest of the plant. Sarracenia purpurea leaves tend to turn solid red in winter, possibly to protect against light damage while the plants are dormant. The pitcher plants that I've seen in winter at Tolland Marsh Pond were close to open water in the center of the wetland, while the ones that I've been able to check on in summer were near solid land around the edge. In between, there is a stretch of possible habitat where I haven't looked. Time to think about another expedition!

Monday, June 1, 2009

Aloe dichotoma: the Quiver Tree

An Aloe dichotoma forest east of Ratelpoort, Northern Cape, South Africa (August, 2004).

In Namaqualand, in the arid northwestern corner of South Africa, about the closest thing to a forest that a traveler in search of shade will find are groves of Quiver Trees—Aloe dichotoma, or Kokerboom in Afrikaans—growing on rocky slopes. At about 10 to 20 feet high, Quiver Trees are giants of the succulent plant world, if on the small side by ordinary tree standards.

The forest of Aloe dichotoma in the photo is located near Ratelpoort in central Namaqualand, where some of the finest stands of this species that I have seen occur. Quiver Trees are widespread in the arid parts of southern Africa, growing naturally throughout much of the Northern Cape Province in the RSA, and north well into Namibia. There is quite a bit of variation in the form of the plants, and a short, highly branched form found in the northern part of the species’ range is sometimes recognized as a separate entity, Aloe ramosissima.

The common names Quiver Tree and Kokerboom both refer to the former usage of hollowed-out A. dichotoma stems as containers for arrows, by Khoisan people. Aloe dichotoma has been put to other ethnobotanical uses, as well. In the not too distant past in the hinterlands of South Africa, farmers without electricity would fashion A. dichotoma wood into boxes that served as crude refrigerators. The wood is very light and porous, and if kept wet by a drip of water a Kokerboom container apparently stays quite cool from evaporation. I actually saw a Kokerboom refrigerator outside of a farmhouse in Bushmanland, years ago, though the device had been idle for some time.

Aloe dichotoma seedling, about a foot high at four years of age.

The homeland of the Quiver Tree receives its rain in winter, for the most part, but cultivated A. dichotoma plants pretty much seem to grow whenever water is available. Ordinary cactus and succulent soil mixes and watering regimes seem to work well with the Kokerboom, though it is not nearly as tolerant of poor light as its houseplant cousin, Aloe vera. Seed is usually available from Silverhill Seeds, and can quickly yield nice little plants, especially if the seedlings are given plenty of root run. I started my seedlings in the autumn, though I wouldn’t be overly surprised if it was possible to germinate seed in other seasons.

Aloe dichotoma with Connecticut Yankee for scale. The landscape, with domes of red gneiss/granite, is typical of Namaqualand. This is the farm Namaras, southeast of Springbok (July, 2004).

Monday, May 25, 2009

Lady's Slippers at Mansfield Hollow

Memorial Day is usually flowering time for Cypripedium acaule (Pink Lady's Slipper), a native orchid that occurs here and there in northeastern Connecticut. Last weekend, I checked out a few local populations that I knew from previous years, and didn't see much in the way of flowers or buds, so I figured it was going to be a bad year for Lady's Slippers. However, poking around Mansfield Hollow State Park today, I ran across some really impressive stands of this somewhat uncommon wildflower. There was a little evidence of damage from deer and two-legged vermin (one plant pulled up and left by a trail), but also many dozens of plants at the peak of bloom.

The Mansfield Hollow and Mansfield Center region is underlain by thick layers of rough, nutrient-poor sand and gravel left over from the glaciers. The trees are mostly White Pine and various oaks, and there are blasted heaths of bare sand where vegetation has never managed to recolonize old roads or gravel pits. There's a neat overview of the local geology here. However, areas with exceptionally poor soil like this are always home to interesting plants.

Dry, acidic woods like these are the typical home of Cypripedium acaule. The plants seem to favor somewhat open sites in the forest, and patches of Lady's Slippers tend to come and go over the years as old sites get overgrown and new gaps open up. The long, toothy leaves in the background are an American Chestnut sprout, another frequent component of the flora in this type of habitat.

In the harshest spots where the orchids hang on, they're shorter than the plants deeper in the woods. This was a population under some stunted pines near an open gravel slope; the canopy was thin enough and the soil dry and poor enough that there were also patches of Reindeer Lichen (Cladonia rangiferina).

Pink Lady's Slipper is protected in Connecticut (doubly so in state parks), so visitors should tread lightly around the plants, and not pick or dig them under any circumstances. In any event, the plants need very specialized conditions to grow and are nearly impossible to transplant (gardeners should not take that as challenge! Seriously, it is cruel and wrong to swipe these plants from the wild), and are best enjoyed in situ.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

CSSM Show at Tower Hill

The third annual Cactus and Succulent Society of Massachusetts Show is going on this weekend, at the Tower Hill Botanic Garden in Boylston, Mass. I was there early this morning for judging duties, and was impressed by the quality of the plants on display and the enthusiasm of the CSSM membership.

The sales area included about half a dozen vendors selling C&S, rock garden plants, pottery and even Amorphophallus corms.

The oranges were moved outside of the Orangerie for the summer, wrapped in fabric temporarily until they acclimate to the sun, I assume.

The territory freed up inside of the Orangerie was used for the judged cactus and succulent show. The Tower Hill greenhouse was one of the best settings I've ever seen for a plant show; natural lighting and an airy space really make a difference.

The grounds at Tower Hill are beautiful, if you need a break from cacti. The lilacs are just a little past their peak this weekend.