Thursday, December 6, 2012

Discocactus Advertises

Discocactus placentiformis is a small globular cactus from Brazil that flowers on warm summer nights. While open, the flowers produce a delightful honeysuckle fragrance. In common with most (all?) other nocturnal cacti, Discocactus flowers last only a single night, and rapidly deteriorate and collapse into mush the next morning. If pollinated, the flowers are followed by white, balloon-like fruits containing a few black seeds.

This particular form of Discocactus placentiformis was formerly known as D. crystallophilus, because in the wild in Brazil it grows only on open ground covered with crystalline pieces of quartz. Like all members of its genus, D. placentiformis is uncommon and highly threatened in the wild by collection and development. Under glass, the plants aren't difficult, but appreciate milder winter temperatures and more generous summer watering than most of the other genera of compact cacti.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Starfish Flowers

The flowering season for most Stapelia species is summer and early autumn, and the plants are by this time entering a period of winter torpor. Back when the weather was warmer, though, I had some nice blooms from these African desert relatives of the roadside wildflower milkweed. 

Stapelia grandiflora
 Stapelia grandiflora has impressive flowers, the size of teacups, that are both colored and scented to attract pollinators such as carrion flies. In the greenhouse, I usually realize that the flowers have opened by the smell alone, and only after checking under the benches and not finding any actual dead squirrels. 

Stapelia flavopurpurea
 Stapelia flavopurpurea, on the other hand, has small but very cheerful-looking flowers for a stapeliad. The flower colors of different individuals of S. flavopurpurea are remarkably diverse and can include various combinations of violet, red, white, orange and chartreuse. It must be pollinated by something other than the usual carrion insects, because its fragrance is pleasant and sweet.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Autumn Sugar Maple

The fall colors are probably about as good as they're going to get this weekend, in northeastern Connecticut. As usually seems to happen, we've had a stretch of grey, stormy weather as the leaves have been changing, which dulls the colors and knocks the leaves down early, but there have been some nice displays and occasional dry afternoons on which to enjoy them. This is a fantastic open-grown sugar maple at the top of the hill in Storrs Cemetery, which is looking like it would be very productive to tap in the spring. Sugaring season is only four months away!

Monday, October 8, 2012

Bee Season Wrap-up

 Honeybee in the field gathering autumn pollen and nectar from goldenrod. 

The bees are in the middle of their final burst of autumn activity, frantically storing the honey that they'll eat to keep warm all winter. In recent weeks, if the weather has been halfway decent, they've been out in the local fields, swamps and roadside clearings working various asters and goldenrods. I've also been feeding them sugar syrup, just to be certain they have enough stores to get through the cold weather. They're not going to have enough honey surplus for me to swipe any for my own use this year, but that's not unexpected, as they were starting their colonies from scratch, without any wax combs or food. According to the local beekeepers, it was a fairly mediocre year for bees in any event.

 Inspection time in the apiary.

Nevertheless, the girls seem to have done pretty well in their first summer. By June, the three packages I started out with had built up to healthy colonies, and two were building queen cells, making new queens probably in preparation for swarming, where the old queen leaves to found a new colony. I was able to forestall swarming by splitting off some frames of brood with queen cells to start two new colonies. 

Queen bee (at center) laying eggs. 

Above is the new queen raised by one of the splits from June, after she had flown out to mate and returned to start raising more bees. This particular queen seemed to do OK at first, but then produced a fairly spotty brood pattern (missing a lot of cells when laying eggs on a comb), and I suspect that after a couple of weeks the bees gacked her and raised a replacement in a process called supersedure. One of the original colonies also seems to have undertaken a supersedure midsummer, so there was a fair amount of bee drama. They seem to have sorted everything out now, though. 

Northern-raised queen from Anarchy Apiaries.

The apiary, now with five colonies, is in good shape to make it over the winter. All of the hives have quite a few heavy frames of honey. Three of them are from hardy northern stock from an apiarist in upstate New York who breeds for productive, disease and mite-resistant bees. The other two colonies were from generic southern-raised Italian bees, but they both raised new queens over the summer and the mixed colors and patterns of their offspring indicate that they probably bred with some of the northern drones. I'm feeling pretty confident going into the cold season, and am excited to see what has survived come skunk cabbage season (the earliest pollen source) during thaws in late February.

Some of the dark northern bees coming and going from the hive.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Tropical Succulents Talk

Myrmecodia platytyrea ssp. antoinii, an epiphyte from Southeast Asia with a symbiotic relationship with ants.

At next month's meeting of the Connecticut Cactus and Succulent Society, I'll be giving at talk about "Tropical Succulents." I'll be covering plants that grow in dry microhabitats in otherwise moist tropical forests, which sometimes have well-developed water storage tissues. Most of these rainforest succulents are epiphytes that grow without soil, clinging to branches high in the treetops. I'll have examples of myrmecophytes (ant-house plants) like Hydnophytum and Myrmecodia, orchids, jungle cacti like Rhipsalis and Selenicereus wittii, some unusual peperomias and hoyas, and others.

The meeting will be at Lauray of Salisbury, which will have a wide array of interesting succulents, begonias and orchids on sale. The trip through the Litchfield hills to Lauray should be nice in early October, too; I'd expect the fall foliage to be near its peak.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Mansfield Connecticut Tornado?

The eastern end of the worst of the possible tornado damage. Photo from August 29, 2012, the day after the storm. Attention, Nipmuck Trail crews! 

I was out of town for the big thunderstorms on Tuesday morning, but when I returned in the afternoon there had been an inch or so of rain, and some boards and buckets around the yard were blown over. I didn't think much more about it until Wednesday evening, when a walk in the nearby woods revealed an area of trees that had been knocked down or had their crowns snapped off.

The worst destruction is in a more or less circular spot, perhaps 200 feet across, just west of the Lion's Club Memorial soccer field. Some very large trees were uprooted, including a really beautiful old Eastern White Pine with a trunk a good three feet in diameter. Within the circular blowdown, the trees seem to have been mainly knocked outwards from the center, and every mature tree was wrecked. The destruction continues in a more subdued fashion to the east, where some branches were down and blown out into the soccer fields, and to the northwest, where there were scattered broken branches and downed trees in a path stretching to Chaffeeville Road, about half a mile away.

 The view into the center of the windthrow.

There doesn't seem to have been any news coverage of wind damage in Mansfield. The downed trees were confined to a wooded part of town that is mostly state park land and UConn research forest, and it doesn't seem that any houses or power lines were hit. The worst of it happened out of sight of the roads. I wonder what exactly happened: was it a tornado or microburst? Or maybe a mini-Tunguska blast? ;) Where would you even report something like this?

The soccer fields got away with fairly minor disruption, although this spot is not more than 500 feet or so from the heart of the blowdown.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Epithelantha micromeris

Epithelantha micromeris ssp. micromeris in fruit in June. 

Epithelantha micromeris is a button-sized cactus clad in a dense covering of white spines and hairs, native to the southwestern U.S. and northern Mexico. Its flowers are vanishingly small and pallid, and easy to overlook. The clusters of toy-store Barbie-aisle pink fruits that follow in late spring and early summer, however, are hard to miss. In The Cactus Family, Edward Anderson relates some weird ethnobotanical lore associated with E. micromeris, including the notion held by the Tarahumara people that it can grant a long life and the ability to see sorcerers.

My four-year-old plants, grown from seed from Mesa Garden, are flowering and fruiting this year for the first time. This plant material was originally collected in Mesa Garden's home town of Belen, New Mexico, which is the northern limit of the range of E. micromeris subspecies micromeris. Epithelantha plants grow only in soil derived from limestone, in crevices and among limestone rubble, where the ghostly pale plants are well-camouflaged. I visited the Epithelantha locality in Belen in the mid-1990s, but was unable to locate any plants. Possibly they were just well-hidden, but I suspect that collectors, aggravated by cattle grazing, have seriously impacted or extirpated the population.

Monday, June 18, 2012

June 16, 2012 Corpse Flower

Here's a photo of the inflorescence at its peak of beauty around 7:00 PM on Saturday. It didn't have very much of an odor at the time, but the smell intensified later at night. The bloom has deteriorated more slowly than past blooms from the other plant, and it still looks pretty decent two days later. I wonder if there are genetic differences; the current plant (#3) has so far produced smaller inflorescences with a redder spathe that opens more widely and stays more open after the first night.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Corpse Flower Time Again

There will be another Amorphophallus titanum (Corpse Flower/Titan Arum) flowering event here at the University of Connecticut. This one caught us a bit more by surprise than usual, since it's coming from our tuber #3, which flowered once back in June 2007, but has done nothing but produce foliage since then.

The inflorescence doesn't seem like it will be especially gigantic, even after that long wait (it's at 4 feet tall and slowing down its growth now). Plant #3 produced a more colorful, more widely flared spathe than our other mature Titan Arum the last time it bloomed, though. I'll predict that it will open for the summer solstice, June 20, but keep a close eye on the UConn greenhouse webpage if you're hoping to smell it in person.

Edited to add: It looks like tonight is the big night: June 16,  just like the Corpse Flower last year. The greenhouse will be open at least until 11 PM, if anyone wants to come see it. I'll be there earlier in the evening. 

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

There's a Little Black Spot on the Sun Today

The weather in Connecticut wasn't ideal for viewing the transit of Venus, and for most of the day clouds hid the sun completely. But around 7:00 PM, when the transit was in progress but the sun hadn't set yet, the clouds broke for a bit, and I scrambled to get set up with binoculars to project an image onto a sheet of paper. The sun was just about to disappear behind the trees, and the clouds kept drifting into the way, but I did get a few minutes of good transit viewing.

I took some photos, and if anything is visible I'll add them later. Unfortunately, in the rush to get outside I forgot my good camera.

Edited to add: OK, here's my photos of the evening of the transit in Storrs, Ct, and the sun as projected through binoculars. You can see Venus in the left image of the sun, in the upper left portion of the sun's face, but half behind the clouds and in the form of a shaky picture from a camera that was obsolete at the time of the previous transit in 2004.
Viewing conditions were suboptimal.
Look closely at the upper left part of the projected sun for a small dark disc.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Beginning Beekeeping

Honeybees visiting snow crocus in March. 

For a while, I've been interested in trying beekeeping. Recently, various factors including moving to a house in a fairly rural area and my girlfriend's sister getting some hives, have provided an impetus towards actually starting a hobby apiary. So, I took the Eastern Connecticut Beekeeper's Association bee school this winter, and ordered the basic equipment.

Here's the unassembled hive, which arrived back in February and took weeks of on-and-off labor to put together and prepare. A Langstroth hive is more complex than you might imagine from looking at one from the outside, and there is a lot of internal structure. It's sort of like building a very large, very repetitive model kit.   

 The smoker test was successful. A little smoke makes bees easier to work with: they respond by loading up on honey, which makes them docile and unlikely to sting (possibly in an ancient adaptation to forest fire danger). Smoke also disrupts alarm pheromone responses.

My girlfriend bought a package of bees from a local beekeeper back in early April; here they are ready to install in the completed hive. These are ordinary Italian bees from a breeder in the South somewhere. We got two additional packages of fancy northern-adapted bees from Sam Comfort in New York just a couple of weeks ago. It will interesting to compare their comb-building, honey production, temperament and overwintering ability, though three hives is probably not a great basis for judging.  

The bees, 10 days after installing in the hive, with the covers off.

20 days after installation, the bees are drawing new comb well. I'm experimenting with using foundationless frames (without the usual wax or plastic base to guide comb building). While it is interesting to see what the bees do naturally in the absence of all but very minimal comb guides, I'm getting the impression that it might have been easier to start with foundation. During inspections, there's usually a fair amount of work to do squishing combs back into place and cutting out bits spanning the frames. 

26 days after installation, the queen is laying eggs, brood is being raised, and the first new workers are hatching out. The bees are currently, seven weeks after installation, building up their population fairly well and may be ready for a second hive body later this month. With luck, I may get some goldenrod/aster honey in August or September.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Xerophyta retinervis

Xerophyta retinervis, or “Black Stick Lily,” is a flowering plant from the high-altitude interior of eastern South Africa, with tufts of coarse leaves emerging from a clump of fat stems with a fibrous coat. The stems are often charred by fires in the veld, giving rise to the first part of Xerophyta’s common name. The “lily” part of the name comes from the large cobalt violet flowers that seem to emerge from the stems and open overnight, and always catch me by surprise when they appear in spring. I have hardly ever caught the early stages of flower development, but it is less than a week between no visible flower buds at all and full bloom.
Xerophyta is part of the family Velloziaceae, which is a small, Southern Hemisphere group of monocots (plants like palms or grasses that typically have parallel leaf venation and a single seedling leaf). The Velloziaceae are related to Pandanus, the screwpines, a genus of tropical swamp and coastal trees.
Xerophyta retinervis is poikilohydric, like Myrothamnus, which I wrote about in a previous entry.  That is, it is a “resurrection plant,” which can become completely dehydrated, then soak up water and start growing again when conditions are favorable. In the greenhouse I’ve seen this happen once, accidentally: the leaves curled up and turned yellow, and the plant looked like it was finished, but it perked up again and looked fine a few days after watering.
The desiccation and resurrection process in Xerophyta has been the subject of a certain amount of research, in part because of interest in improving the drought tolerance of crop plants, and it turns out that the leaves actually break down all of their chlorophyll when drying, then rapidly synthesize new photosynthetic pigments when water is available again. In cultivation, it’s probably safest not to test this remarkable ability too much, and keep the plants well-watered during the summer growing period, and barely moist enough to keep the plant from dehydrating in winter. No matter how I treat Xerophyta, it does tend to drop a lot of its foliage in the cooler months.
Tuba, Z. et al. 1994. Planta 192: 414-420.
Clark, W.D. et al. 1993. Annals of the Missouri Botanic Garden 80: 987-998. 

Sunday, April 8, 2012

17th Eastern Cactus and Succulent Conference

The Eastern Cactus and Succulent Conference is coming up next weekend, April 13-15, in Waterbury, Connecticut. It will be an exciting and informative time, but also extremely busy because a) I'm president of the club that is hosting the conference, and b) I'm giving two talks. Maybe I can sneak over to the indoor water park at the conference center to take a break at some point.

Diplosoma luckhoffii, a mesemb in the Mitrophyllum Group.

Talk #1, Saturday afternoon, will be "Other Mesembs." Anyone attending a cactus conference will know at least something about Lithops, the living stones, but there are about 120 (depending on your taxonomy) other genera of succulent plants in the family Aizoaceae. In this presentation I'll try to provide an overview of the succulent Aizoaceae, or mesembs, some familiar but many likely to be obscure to all but the most dedicated specialists.

Pelargonium longifolia, a tuberous species in section Hoarea.

"Succulent Pelargonium" is the topic for my Sunday morning presentation. Pelargoniums suffer form an even more extreme form of the sort of selective fame that afflicts mesembs: everyone with event the slightest knowledge of gardening knows the windowsill geraniums, which are actually hybrid pellies, but there is a whole world of succulent, desert-dwelling Pelargonium species that are little known and rarely cultivated.

I hope to see some of you at the conference! Keep in mind that, while the conference talks and events will be restricted to those who register, there is a succulent plant show and sale that is free and open to anyone, running Saturday and Sunday at the same location in Waterbury.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Caiophora chuquitensis

The Caiophora chuquitensis plant at UConn is starting to produce salmon-orange flowers, about 4 cm in diameter. The blooms are nice, if not as extravagant as the flowers on some other members of the family Loasaceae. The plant reached maturity at only a year old from seed, which leads me to suspect that, like some other plants in the family that I've tried to grow, it is naturally short lived. I'll give it some extra fertilizer and try to keep it going for as long as possible.

Closeup of Caiophora chuquitensis leaf, showing trichomes.

Apart from intricately beautiful flowers, the family Loasaceae is known for its wicked stinging hairs. I've brushed up against the Caiophora once or twice, and it's not as bad as a bee sting, but more painful than stinging nettle. As with stinging nettle, the trichomes in the Loasaceae sometimes have cell walls impregnated with silica (glass, more or less), which break on contact and act like a hypodermic needle to inject toxins.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Maple Sugaring Wrap up

This year's maple syrup harvest; from left to right: week1-2, week 3, week 4, Red Maple syrup from week 1-2.

The sugaring season is officially over; I did my final boil on Monday and pulled out the taps. The last batch was quite dark, with quite a lot of sugar sand (a silty, bitter-tasting precipitate that needs to be filtered out). The local commercial sugar shack, River's Edge Sugar House, shut down its operations this past weekend. They had a relatively short, low-productivity season too, but made enough syrup to make the effort worthwhile. Apparently, they have vacuum systems on the sap lines in some of their larger sugarbushes, which enable them to harvest decent quantities of sap even when the weather is less than ideal. Vacuum or no, the weather forecast for the next 10 days doesn't even predict any frost, and the tree buds are swelling, making any further sugaring impossible.

My experiment with tapping a Red Maple (Acer rubrum) was kind of a flop; I can see why people generally don't bother with them. Sap flows were low compared to the Sugar Maples, and just about stopped towards the end on February, two weeks before the Sugar Maples quit. The final results for the Red Maple boil were 12 cups of sap to 0.25 cups of syrup, or about 50:1 (Sugar Maples yield something closer to a 40:1 sap to syrup ratio, though some sap runs were a little more watery this year).

It's time to start thinking about this summer's outdoor, vaguely-self-sufficiency-related project: beekeeping. I've acquired and assembled most of the hardware, taken the Eastern Connecticut Beekeeper's Association bee class, and my girlfriend has a couple of packages of bees on order from Anarchy Apiaries. The bees should arrive in early May, and I'll have some updates then.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Signs of Spring

The weather the past few weeks has been pretty poor for sap flow (mostly too warm at night), and even the good days, with nights in the teens and sunny days with temperatures well above freezing, have produced mediocre sap runs. There has been nothing even approaching the one-gallon-per-tap days that were pretty frequent last year. I've gotten a few cups of maple syrup by boiling down what little the trees have produced, but it's going to be a crumby year for sugaring.

The Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) has been up and blooming for a while now, in low soggy places in the neighborhood woods. Symplocarpus is always the first native plant to show signs of activity in late winter; the inflorescences famously produce their own internal heat, and sometimes melt their way up through a fair amount of ice and snow. It's a member of the family Araceae, like the Titan Arum, another "warm-blooded" plant. This photo was taken on leap day, when we had a little slushy snow.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Maple Sugaring Begins

On Saturday I got set up with the two Sugar Maples that I tapped last year, and the sap is now flowing. It hasn't been much so far, but the weather forecast for the next week is looking OK for sap runs. I'm going to try making syrup from a Red Maple this year, too. Red Maple sap is supposed to be lower in sugar content, and the season ends earlier, but I'm curious about what the resulting syrup will be like. Red Maples are also relatively common in my neighborhood, so if they yield a tasty product, it might be worth tapping more of them.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Maple Sugaring: 2012 Mayan Apocalypse-style

Sugar Maples, Eastern Hemlocks and others on a decidedly non-wintry Connecticut day a week ago.

Here in New England, the 2011-12 winter season is most likely going to be the warmest on record. We had a freak snowstorm just before Halloween, that knocked out the power for three days at my place, and for almost two weeks in some towns to the northwest of here (a combination of high winds and heavy wet snow that stuck to trees still in full leaf due to a warm autumn, caused catastrophic damage in wooded areas). For the next three months, and continuing this week, the weather seemed to get stuck in something similar to early April conditions, with just two brief winter-like cold snaps.

The Sugar Maples weathered the October storm just fine, being tough northern trees that tend to drop their leaves early, but I have no idea what sort of maple sugaring season to expect, if any, after such a balmy winter. The sap run doesn't seem to be starting early; we're just a week away from the traditional start and I don't see any of the usual signs like sap icicles dripping from broken maple twigs. Frigid night temperatures and a thick snow pack are some of the factors usually associated with good sugaring years, and we have neither of these things now. It doesn't look good for the 2012 maple syrup harvest, but the weather has been so far outside of normal experience that I don't think anyone knows for sure what's coming. I guess I'll clean up my tapping equipment, get it into the woods this weekend, and see what happens.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Anigozanthos manglesii

Anigozanthos--or "Kangaroo Paws"--is a genus endemic to the southwestern corner of Australia, where a Mediterranean-type climate and nutrient-poor, acidic soils have lead to the development of a scrubby vegetation called Kwongan. Kwongan resembles the Fynbos vegetation of South Africa, which occurs under similar conditions, and the two vegetation types share quite a few of their characteristic plant families. Anigozanthos is part of the Haemodoracaeae or Bloodroot Family (no relation to the North American wildflower Sanguinaria, which is also called Bloodroot), which is represented in South Africa by the genera Wachendorfia, Dilatris and others. The Haemodoraceae have generally hairy inflorescences of flowers that are dorsiventrally symmetrical (can be divided into mirror images by only a single plane) or asymmetrical, and roots that are often brightly pigmented, and sometimes blood red.

The most common Kangaroo Paws in cultivation are A. flavidus and hybrids that incorporate A. flavidus, which are all relatively robust and vigorous plants. Anigozanthos manglesii is more finicky, requiring stronger sun to grow properly, and reportedly being very susceptible to a fungal infection called Ink Spot Disease, which fortunately doesn't seem to have made it into the botanical collections at UConn. The plants pictured here are flowering for the first time at UConn, at about two years old from seed collected near Perth, Australia. They do well in full sun in a cool greenhouse, in an acidic, peat-based soil that is allowed to surface-dry between waterings. Potted Anigozanthos plants grow and flower best when given a regular dose of dilute high-nitrogen fertilizer, but intense light and a cool winter growth period are probably the more critical requirements for success.