Friday, November 11, 2011

Talk in Philly

Ferocactus viridescens var. viridescens, Dudleya edulis.

This Sunday I'm giving a talk at the Philadelphia Cactus and Succulent Society, titled "Succulents of Southern California." The presentation will include elements from my blog posts on the subject earlier this year, but greatly expanded.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Tylecodon opelii

There's big excitement (for me, at least) in the latest issue of the Cactus and Succulent Journal: Ernst van Jaarsveld of Kirstenbosch and Steve Hammer of the Sphaeroid Institute have named a new species of Tylecodon in my honor. Tylecodon opelii is a winter-growing geophyte, with dark marble-sized and marble-shaped leaves, endemic to fields of broken quartz in the northern Knersvlakte in South Africa's Western Cape.

Tylecodon opelii in cultivation, late winter.

The new Tylecodon is set apart from its relatives by spheroid leaves that are dark green to nearly black and almost glabrous, with just a few fine hairs. It's probably most closely related to T. occultans, though that species has more flattened leaves and less elongated tubers.

The quartz field habitat of Tylecodon opelii.

The corner of the Knersvlakte where I first ran into what is now T. opelii back in the austral winter of 2000 is loaded with little geophytes and succulents. The white quartz covering the ground reflects and disperses sunlight, creating a microhabitat where dwarf vegetation can thrive. In places without the quartz, darker soils absorb light and heat up to the point where small plants at ground level get cooked. I have fond memories of hiking through this strange landscape, scanning the ground for interesting plants, finding round black leaves coming up between the pebbles and thinking: "Hmm, what Tylecodon is this? I've never seen it before." I'm very grateful that it wound up getting named after me, years later.

van Jaarsveld, E.J. and S. Hammer 2011. Tylecodon opelii, a new obligatory quartz-gravel species from the Northern Knersvlakte (Western Cape, South Africa). Cactus and Succulent Journal (US) 83: 140-145.

There's a short blurb on Tylecodon opelii on the University of Connecticut website, too.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Welwitschia seeds!

The Welwitschia mirabilis plants at UConn produced abundant fully-formed cones for the first time, this past summer. On warm afternoons in midsummer, the mature female cones produced "pollination drops," or droplets of nectar at the end of hair-like extensions of the ovules. The male cones have nectaries, as well, which probably attract insect pollinators in the wild in Namibia.

I placed pollen from the males into the pollination drops of female cones for several days running back in July, and two months later the seeds are starting to mature. Some of the seeds are very light and thin, and are probably duds, but quite a few look like viable Welwitschia seed. I may plant a few now to see what happens, though it probably isn't the best time of year.

Female cones with pollination drops, back in midsummer.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Succulents of Coastal Southern California 2: Cacti etc.

Ferocactus viridescens var. viridescens overlooking the Pacific at Torrey Pines State Reserve.

Apart from the Crassulaceae (stonecrop family), the Cactaceae (cactus family) is probably the group of succulent plants that is most prominent in the flora of the San Diego area. The most frequently encountered cacti are Opuntia and Cylindropuntia species, the prickly pears and chollas. There are several species of each genus in the area, ready to stick unwary hikers with barbed spines and glochids. Some, like Opuntia littoralis, form impressive spiky clumps.

Opuntia littoralis among spring wildflowers at Torrey Pines.

Ferocactus viridescens looks a little out of place in the chaparral of the coastal regions; the genus is much more widespread in true desert, inland. This small barrel cactus grows mostly on open gravelly slopes, though I spotted a few plants under the scrubby vegetation that dominates the area. Ferocactus viridescens seems to be relatively rare, and getting more so: a botanist told me about a large population in downtown San Diego that persisted for many years on a steep slope amid the parking lots and hotel complexes, which was just recently wiped out by development.

The cactus genera Mammillaria and Bergerocactus are also represented in coastal SoCal, though I’ve never spotted them in the wild. The local climate is almost entirely winter-rainfall, and it seems like the native cacti in the area grow and flower mainly in the cooler part of spring. I suspect that they would do most of their growing in the summer sun if cultivated in a greenhouse in the Northeast, but it would be worth experimenting with keeping them active in the winter.

Yucca shidigera at Torrey Pines.

Yucca and related genera Hesperoyucca and Agave (family Agavaceae) are also encountered in the patchy remnants of the wilds of greater San Diego. Yucca schidigera, Spanish Dagger, is widespread in the Sonoran and Mohave deserts, as well as the chaparral. It branches from the base and grows into a good-sized shrub, often taller than a person.

Marah macrocarpus in a weedy hedgerow on the agricultural outskirts of Vista, Ca.

Marah macrocarpus, California Manroot, is a caudiciform plant in the squash family (Cucurbitaceae). Marah produces scrambling, leafy vines in the winter and spring, but the interesting part of the plant, from the perspective of the succulent-plant fan, is the massive tuber. In the wild, the tuber stays unseen deep underground, but caudiciform growers can raise their Manroots partially above ground for viewing. So to speak.

Mesembryanthemum crystallinum on the beach. Invasive, but pretty.

Finally, the beaches and freeway medians of Southern California are host to a wide variety of ice plants (family Aizoaceae). Most of these are introduced from South Africa, but at least one species—Carpobrotus aequilaterus (Sour Fig)—is most likely native. Some of the exotic ice plants, including Mesembryanthemum and other species of Carpobrotus, have become invasive weeds, sometimes even encountered in wild areas.

The alien Carpobrotus edulis, grown as a groundcover in Vista, California. The native C. aequilaterus is similar, but with violet flowers.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Succulents of Coastal Southern California: Dudleya

Dudleya pulverulenta on granitic rock in Vista, California, April 2011.

The San Diego area experiences some of the most agreeable weather in the world. It has a mild Mediterranean climate where frost is a rarity and unpleasant heat is almost as uncommon; for months on end the forecast is “morning fog in coastal areas, then sunny with a high near 80.” Given a little irrigation, a huge range of tropical and subtropical flowers and fruits will grow like mad. A breakfast of the most delicious oranges and avocados can be obtained by merely reaching up and plucking it from the trees. Southwestern California is a land of milk and honey.

All of this is common knowledge, and as a result there is hardly an acre of land in coastal Southern California that hasn’t been converted to houses, strip malls, roads and farms. But here and there, one can find remnants of the original scrubby chaparral vegetation, which includes some interesting succulent plants.

Plants from the genus Dudleya are the characteristic succulents of the coastal chaparral. Dudleyas are rosette plants with succulent leaves, which often resemble Echeveria. In some ways, Dudleya is the winter-rainfall climate equivalent of Echeveria (which are summer-growing plants), although the two genera are not closely related, with Dudleya falling out near Sedum in recent evolutionary studies of the family Crassulaceae.

Dudleya edulis (left) and D. pulverulenta (right) on the beach at Torrey Pines.

The most common Dudleya in the vicinity of San Diego is D. pulverulenta, the Chalk Rose, which favors rocky slopes and can occasionally be found growing in road cuts. Chalk Roses can be stunningly beautiful plants, waxy white and bigger than dinner plates, with tall racemes of red tubular flowers that are pollinated by hummingbirds.

Dudleya edulis, or Fingertips Live-forever, is a more strictly coastal species with upright cylindrical leaves, like handfuls of string beans. Supposedly, the leaves can be eaten as a raw or cooked vegetable. Another species that seems to be most frequent on the coast, though it can occur inland on mountains, is D. lanceolata, which looks a lot like a greenish, pointy-leaved Echeveria.

Dudleya lanceolata at Torrey Pines. The Martian weed around the Dudleya is Crassula connata, a tiny winter annual.

The rarest Dudleya of San Diego County is D. blochmaniae ssp. brevifolia, which is found on a handful of sites near the ocean, growing on patches of open ground among pebbly, iron-rich concretions. It is a tiny plant, with globular leaves only a centimeter or so long, which blend in well with the dark concretions. It only grows in the winter and spring, and dies back to a subterranean tuber in warm weather. Fortunately, the primary population of D. blochmaniae ssp. brevifolia is protected within Torrey Pines State Park.

Dudleya blochmaniae ssp. brevifolia, getting ready to flower in April at Torrey Pines.

Dudleyas hardly seem to be cultivated at all by C&S people on the eastern seaboard, possibly because they are strict winter-growers, which can be tricky to accommodate outside of Mediterranean climes. They don’t seem to be too difficult, though, if they can be given plenty of sun and a fair amount of water in the cooler months, and a warm, dry summer rest. Water can accumulate among the waxy leaves of species like D. pulverulenta, and this should be drained off in order to avoid rot. In the wild, the rosettes are often held near vertically against cliff faces, so pooling rain is not an issue.

I’ll have more on the cacti and succulents of Southern California in a future post.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Heterotroph Invasion

This summer has been a good one for mushrooms and other non-photosynthetic, non-motile denizens of my yard, possibly because of unusually wet weather up until a couple of weeks ago. First up, two species of Monotropa, a genus the Ericaceae (heath family), that look superficially like fungi, but which are actually flowering plants that rely on a more or less parasitic relationship with real fungi for their organic nutrient needs.

Monotropa uniflora, Indian Pipe.

Monotropa hypopithys, Pinesap. This species is relatively uncommon, and is associated with pine trees. Presumably, it parasitizes fungi that have a symbiotic relationship with pine roots.

Next up, three things from the fungal kingdom. I don't know from mushrooms, so if anybody has ideas on identifications, leave a comment.

This one is probably Boletus chrysenteron. It's alarmingly large, about 20 cm across.

Boletus sp.? This one is growing under Eastern Hemlock trees, if that tells you mycologists anything. [Edited to add: possibly Leccinum sp.]

This thing has pores on the underside of its cap, like the boletes, and is growing under White Oaks. I'm coming up empty on possible names with my mushroom book. [edited to add: probably Strobilomyces floccopus, the Old Man of the Woods.]

I've also had these hanging around the neighborhood, mostly at dusk in pine trees. I'm no zoologist, but I checked some books, and they are probably some kind of chordate. Definitely metazoans, at any rate.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Titan Arum in Full Bloom

The Corpse Flower is fully open and producing waves of cabbage-y, fishy odor right now, near 11:00 PM. These photos are from just before sunset, when the lighting was better, and the smell was potent but not quite as overpowering as it is at the moment. The weather has been pretty warm lately, and I think that has encouraged a strong flowering event this time, even if the inflorescence is a little on the short side (~5 feet). The spathe is further reflexed than in previous blooms, and the colors seem a bit brighter.

Titan Arum Bloom - June 16, 2011

3:00 PM

I just checked the Amorphophallus titanum plant, and the spathe had completely pulled away from the spadix in the two hours since I last looked at it. Tonight will be the night! I would expect it to be fully open by 8:00-10:00, and at the peak of fragrance around 12:00. By tomorrow morning it will be partially closed up, and not nearly as smelly.

The greenhouse will be open until late (1:00 AM), and then open again bright and early tomorrow at our usual time.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Corpse Flower: Reloaded

One of the Amorphophallus titanum plants at the UConn greenhouses is preparing to flower again. This is the Titan Arum or Corpse Flower, or what visitors tend to ask about as "that big stinky plant." The last time we had a bloom was in 2008, and I did a fair amount of blogging about it, which I won't try to repeat, though there are some points worth noting.

The individual Titan Arum in question is UConn's plant #5, which was the first of its kind to bloom in New England, back in 2004, and which bloomed again in 2007. Strangely, the plant bloomed again in 2008, without first going through the normal period of vegetative growth. It had foliage over most of the past 3 years, and seems to be back on a proper growth cycle now: dormancy--leaf--dormancy--flowering--dormancy--leaf--etc.

As with the previous three inflorescences on Titan #5, the petal-like spathe is right-handed (i.e., it wraps around itself towards the viewer's right). Left-handed inflorescences are also possible with this species, from what I've seen in photos.

The frilly edge of the spathe is starting to look a little loose, and its interior has changed from greenish to purple-black over the past week or so, so the opening of the bloom is getting close. The growth of the spadix (central poke-y bit) has slowed down to about 3-4 cm per day, which is another indication that the inflorescence is nearly mature. I predicted a couple of weeks ago that the big stink would be on June 20th, and I'll stand by that guess for now, but it could easily be tomorrow. The exact day is difficult to judge, but on that day we'll know by mid-afternoon. There will be announcements on the greenhouse website as soon as we know, so you can rush to campus. The flowers last for only a day or two, and are really only in peak condition for a few hours the night they open.

Other distractions in the Asian tropical room include fruit on the banana plant (Musa, unknown seedless cultivar). I've eaten fruits from this plant before, and they seem more or less identical to the usual supermarket Cavendish.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Memorial Day Bog Walk

Iris versicolor, Northern Blue Flag.

Memorial Day is usually a good time to catch some of the more impressive native wildflowers here in New England. This year, I checked out an unnamed bog at an undisclosed location in Willington, Connecticut. Walking to the bog there were some richer swampy spots where the wild geraniums and blue flag iris were in full bloom.

Cyprepedium acuale, Pink Lady-slipper (this photo actually from Mansfield Hollow State Park).

Closer to the bog, the vegetation changed to indicate the presence of nutrient-poor, acidic, bog-friendly soil. Sugar Maples and White Ash were replaced by pines and oaks as the dominant trees, and the understory started to include Pink Lady-slipper orchids in flower, and one little patch of Epigea repens (Trailing Arbutus).

Ledum groenlandicum, Labrador Tea, in the Willington bog.

After a short but slightly hairy time navigating the inevitable marginal ring of open water and peaty muck at the edge, I emerged into a sunny sphagnum bog. This is a floating bog, though the open parts are mostly dense enough with moss and scrub to provide secure footing. It is still irresistible to bounce up and down a little bit, and watch the dwarf trees within a 20 foot radius sway back and forth.

Ledum, or Labrador Tea, was in full bloom. Labrador Tea is mainly a boreal plant, though it hangs on here and there in bogs in the more temperate parts of the eastern US. The leaves have a distinctive brown fuzzy underside, and can in fact be used to make a somewhat wintergreen-tasting tea. The Willington bog is the only local spot I know of where it grows, and I had never caught it in flower before.

Sarracenia purpurea var. purpurea, the Purple Pitcher Plant.

The pitcher plant flowers weren't quite open yet for the most part. There aren't a huge number of Sarracenia in this bog, though the population seems pretty stable. There aren't any sundews in this bog at all, which is strange; it looks perfect for Round-leaved Sundews at least, and the other area bogs have one or both of the local Drosera species. It's doubly odd because there is an area of seeps not half a mile away where both sundews grow in large numbers.

Picea mariana, Black Spruce, about 1 m tall, with female cones.

Another interesting feature of this bog is a large population of Black Spruce trees, stunted into natural bonsai. Black Spruce, like Ledum, is primarily a boreal plant, which persists in boggy spots and the occasional cold mountain slope in southern New England. There is a tiny mistletoe, Arceuthobium pusillum, that grows on the spruce trees in the Willington bog, but I couldn't find it this time. I seem to recall seeing it once before, years ago when I first visited this location, in later summer, but that time the mistletoe was pointed out by the late Les Mehrhoff, who knew the local flora twice as well as anyone else. It is a shame that Les won't be guiding any more bog walks.

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

Ferocactus cylindraceus on the hills around Mountain Palm Springs.

One of the highlights of this April’s Cactus and Succulent Society of America convention, in San Diego, was the mid-week field trip. There were various options, including garden and nursery tours, but I chose to explore the Anza-Borrego Desert by bus and on foot, with expert guides Andrew Wilson and Dr. Juergen Menzel. There was an Anza-Borrego off-road trip, as well, though it seems to have involved less walking, and more bouncing around on crumby roads, with attendant vehicle breakdowns, so I feel that I chose wisely.

Mammillaria dioica (female plant) at Box Canyon.

Anza-Borrego is about a two-hour drive east from San Diego. We started out in coastal Mediterranean scrub (or what was left of it) near the hotel, then headed into the Cuyamaca Mountains, which are sparsely forested with oaks and poplars, with fields of yellow wildflowers on valley floors. Then came a long descent through increasingly scorched, arid landscapes to the town of Ocotillo, on the desert floor, below sea level.

Bursera microphylla at Mountain Palm Springs.

Our longest hike was to Mountain Palm Springs, near the southern edge of the park. There we saw hundreds of chollas (Cylindropuntia bigelovii and others) and barrel cacti (Ferocactus cylindraceus), including some remarkable multi-headed and crested specimens. There were also a few desert iguanas, but the lizards were about the only creatures out and about on a hot and blazingly sunny day. The reward at the end of the hike was a stop at a genuine desert oasis, where water seeps out of the ground and a grove of California Fan Palms (Washingtonia filifera) provides a shady spot for contemplating a giant old Elephant Tree (Bursera microphylla).

Agave deserti and Echinocereus engelmanii at Box Canyon.

The next stop was Box Canyon, site of the first wagon road into Southern California. The vegetation here was slightly lusher, dominated by flowering shrubs like Brittlebush (Encelia farinosa). There were impenetrable thickets of Century Plant (Agave deserti), and clusters of Strawberry Hedgehog Cactus (Echinocereus engelmannii) in full bloom.

Nolina parryi.

Other shorter stops included lunch at Tamarisk Grove, where a short nature trail featured abundant flowering specimens of California Fishhook Cactus (Mammillaria dioica) and Ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens). We admired a huge plant of the locally rare beargrass, Nolina parryi, by the side of the road, and spent some time in the town of Borrego Springs, shopping for fresh organic desert grapefruit and checking out the park visitor center. I was parched and tired by the end of the day, but it was an unforgettable trip!

Fouquieria splendens and friends, nature trail at Tamarisk Grove.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Trailing Arbutus

It's more or less peak season for spring ephemerals and woodland wildflowers here in southern New England. This clump of Epigea repens (Trailing Arbutus - family Ericaceae) was growing on a seep on an open slope on Wachusett Mountain in west-central Massachusetts. There was quite a bit of variation in flower color, with most being pure white, and this individual being about the darkest violet I could find. Trailing Arbutus flowers have a strong sweet smell, which is difficult to compare with other flowers. I think it's a little like rubber cement, but I haven't met anyone who agreed with that assessment with any real enthusiasm. It's pretty close to the fragrance of Conophytum hammeri flowers, not that that comparison is going to be of much use to most people.

Epigea is rare in my traditional stomping grounds in Connecticut and the NY metro area; I can think of maybe half a dozen spots where a few plants grew, and some of those have disappeared since the '80s. It still seems to be fairly common in woods up in the greater Worcester area, though.

Monday, May 2, 2011

San Diego Trip

Washingtonia filifera, Mountain Palm Springs, Anza Borrego State Park.

I'm back from Southern California, and mostly recovered from a long but exciting week of plant talks, desert walks and generally eating a lot of avocados and oranges. My presentations at the CSSA Conference went over pretty well, it seemed. The one on nomenclatural changes (the breakup of the portulaca family, the disappearance of the genus Monadenium etc.) got a bigger audience response than my Conophytum show, weirdly enough. I attended a lot of great talks, too, and was especially interested in the presentations by the two South African speakers, Gideon Smith and Andrew Hankey.

I went on one of the CSSA field trips to Anza Borrego State Park, which was spectacular, with thousands of barrel cacti (Ferocactus cylindraceus), ocotillos (Fouquieria splendens), and a walk out to a refreshingly cool palm oasis. I also spent some time at Balboa Park in San Diego, visiting with Steve Hammer in Vista, and exploring beautiful Torrey Pines State Reserve on the coast. I'll write more later, and maybe try to work some of my better photos together into some kind of slide show for the Connecticut CSS.

Monday, April 18, 2011

National Cactus Con '11

Conophytum maughanii (material from Smorenskadu, Northern Cape)

The Cactus and Succulent Society of America Convention is coming up next week in San Diego. I'll be flying out later this week to attend, and to spend a few days hanging out with plant people in Southern California. I hope to get out to the beach too, and maybe see some spring wildflowers at Anza-Borrego State Park.

I'll be giving two presentations at the Con. One will be more of a soft and squishy natural history and cultivation talk, about a generally soft and squishy genus of plants, Conophytum. The other will probably be a bit more of a hard slog, dealing with higher-level taxonomic changes in various succulent plant groups, and the new research results from evolutionary biology that have been forcing the changes. We'll see how well the talks go over with a national-level audience.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Maple Sugaring II

Homemade maple syrup (light early season and cloudy, unfiltered mid-season).

The maple sugaring operation has been fairly successful. Earlier on in the season, back in late February, the syrup was very light in color, with a delicate flavor, whereas more recent batches have been darker and stronger. This pattern is apparently caused by the fact that the earliest sap is richer in sugar, and needs less cooking and concentrating, and by increased microbial activity with warmer weather later on.

Record high temperatures at the end of last week could have put an end to the sap flow, but my trees started producing again after a refreeze on Saturday. The coming week looks like it might have some good sugaring conditions, with lows below freezing and highs in the low 40s (~7 C). We'll see what happens; I don't expect the season to last too much longer in any event.

The evaporation process produces a cloudy precipitate called "sugar sand," which has a slightly bitter taste. Mostly I've just been waiting for it to settle, then pouring off the clear syrup, but I've also salvaged some additional syrup by reheating the dregs and putting it through a coffee filter, which was an annoyingly slow, messy process. It would be great to have a home centrifuge, or at least a vacuum filtration system to speed things up!

My costs so far have been less than $10 for electricity for boiling, $7 for spiles (taps), and $2 for filters, which has yielded about 2 quarts of syrup. That works out to less than half the retail cost of local maple syrup, which is better than I had expected. The economics look a lot less favorable if I count the cost of my time (probably 10 minutes a day for four weeks collecting sap, and maybe 15-20 hours total for boiling, though that didn't need continuous supervision).

River's Edge Sugar House.

Last weekend I visited an actual commercial sugar shack, River's Edge Sugar House on Connecticut Route 89 in the wilds of Ashford. They have around 2000 taps, and use a reverse osmosis system and a large wood-fired evaporator to make syrup. The folks who run it were happy to chat about their setup, and I bought some really good maple candy and honey from them.

Commercial evaporator, with fresh sap starting at left, and the late stages to finished syrup in the lower divided pan.

Stop in at River's Edge if you're in the Quiet Corner of Connecticut; it was a fun and informative trip. You can also order syrup and other sweet stuff from them through the mail.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Maple Sugaring

My new late-winter entertainment is maple sugaring. I've got two good-sized Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum) trees in back of my house, and bought a couple of taps for them the other week. Sap production has been pretty good, with half a dozen days over the past two weeks having just the right sort of weather (freezing at night, but sunny and warmish during the day).

The snow pack is still hanging in there. Today the temperatures have been too cold for anything to flow, but the sugaring weather outlook for the weekend is promising. I've been storing the collected sap in buckets in a hole in a snowbank.

On a good day, each tap produces more than a gallon of sap. The raw liquid is very slightly sweet (and makes an interesting basis for a cup of tea), but needs to be reduced about 40:1 to make syrup.

I've been boiling the sap down on my stove, which is probably the most inefficient and expensive possible way of making maple syrup. It makes the house warm and humidified, at least, and judicious exhaust fan use keeps moisture from building up to the point where the wallpaper peels. Maybe next year I'll set up a propane or wood-fired evaporating pan outdoors. It is useful to let the sap freeze outside, and discard the ice, before boiling: the ice is almost pure water, and the sugar is concentrated in the remaining liquid, at no cost.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Pinguicula ehlersiae

This neat little Mexican butterwort is flowering in the UConn greenhouses right now. Mexico is a hotspot of butterwort diversity, with about 25 different species. Pinguicula ehlersiae, like the majority of Mexican species in the genus, shows strongly seasonal growth. During the summer, when it tends to be rainy and humid in its habitat, it produces large, flat leaves that catch small insects in sticky secretions. In winter, P. ehlersiae grows the stubby, succulent leaves seen here, and can withstand a certain amount of drought. One usually thinks of carnivorous plants like the butterworts as being denizens of bogs and other wet places, but some Mexican Pinguicula grow right next to cacti, agaves, and other familiar succulent plants.