Monday, December 2, 2013

Ginkgo from Seed

A few years back in October, on a trip to Japan, I picked up half a dozen Ginkgo biloba seeds that had fallen around a huge old tree at Washinomiya Shrine in Saitama. I cleaned off the pulpy, foul-smelling outer seed coats, and stuck the seeds in a plastic bag to keep them moist for the trip home. Ginkgo seeds don't remain viable if they dry out too far, and also don't germinate much at all unless they receive slightly unusual treatment.

Once back in Connecticut, I planted the Ginkgo seeds in a loose, airy soil mix, not more than a centimeter deep. The embryos inside develop for some time after they are detached from their mother tree, so Ginkgo seed pots should be kept warm and moist for a month after sowing. After their warm period, the pot went to the refrigerator for two months of stratification, a period of cold (but not quite freezing) and damp conditions that many temperate-climate plants need for proper germination. In early spring, I moved the pot out to the greenhouse, and after a fairly long wait, eventually got three healthy seedlings.

Ginkgo seedlings quickly develop a robust tap root, even while the above ground shoot is small and spindly, so I separated out the young plants early on and put them in relatively large, deep pots. All three seedlings survived and are now well-branched and waist-high. There are interesting variations in Ginkgo leaf shape and size, and the Washinomiya trees have leaves that are more deeply bilobed than the "American" Ginkgoes growing next to them in the greenhouse, derived from seeds from UConn campus trees. The three seedlings from Japan are also noticeably different from each other, with the one in the foreground in the autumn photo below having very large but classically-shaped Ginkgo biloba leaves, while a shorter plant visible in the background has small, deeply lobed and tattered leaves.

For now, the new Ginkgoes are staying in the cool greenhouse in pots, for display and use in class demonstrations. Possibly they would like to be planted out in the ground at some point, if a good spot can be found for them.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Hot Stuff

'Bhut Jolokia' or Ghost Pepper was long considered the hottest pepper in the world.
Frost has been late to arrive this fall, but the hot pepper season out in the garden is not going to last much longer. This year I experimented with growing some of the very hottest Capsicum cultivars, and using them very cautiously to spice up sauces, stir-fries and burritos.

'Bhut Jolokia' is a hybrid of Capsicum chinense that was originally cultivated in the northeastern corner of India. The ancestors of all of the chili peppers and bell peppers came from South America, but were spread to the Old World rapidly after European contact, allowing time for many unique new varieties to be selected, especially in southern Asia.

'Bhut Jolokia' rates at about one million Scoville units, at least when grown under ideal warm and sunny conditions. Ghost Peppers from Connecticut are probably not that potent, but a few finger-nail slivers of fruit are still plenty to make a dinner that's about as hot as I can tolerate. Scoville units are a measure of dilution needed before a human taster would not be able to detect any heat, i.e., a gallon of pureed 'Bhut Jolokia' would need to be diluted in a million gallons of water to make a more or less non-spicy solution. For comparison, JalapeƱo peppers rate at less than 10,000 Scoville units.

7-Pot Yellow Chili.
From the Caribbean come several strains of hot pepper known as '7-Pot' chili, so called because one pepper is enough to season seven pots of stew. Here in New England a yellow variety grew pretty slowly and set fruit late, though a couple of plants are still going to yield more than enough peppers to spice up my stews for the foreseeable future. '7-Pot' varieties have similar Scoville ratings to 'Bhut Jolokia.'

'Trinidad Scorpion Moruga Blend'
'Trinidad Scorpion' is another land race (localized, traditional variety) of chili pepper from the Caribbean. The selection 'Trinidad Scorpion Moruga Blend' tested out last year as the hottest pepper ever recorded, at 1.5 to two million Scoville units. Some new hybrids are supposedly even hotter, though any of the three varieties pictured here exist in the murky borderland between foodstuff and biochemical weapon, and demand significant caution when handling. I made some Trinidad Scorpion hot sauce (6 de-seeded fruits diluted in a cup of vinegar, a cup of cooked apples and carrots and 2 teaspoons salt), and just about had to flee the kitchen when it was cooking, even with exhaust fans going full blast. After a couple of weeks of soaking, rinses with alcohol and runs in the dishwasher, I think the food processor is decontaminated. The sauce is actually kind of nice (Trinidad Scorpions have a pleasant fruity-floral flavor under all the heat), if used a drop or two at a time.

Friday, September 27, 2013

NECPS Annual Show

Sarracenia alata, the Pale Pitcher Plant, cultivated from a collection from Covington, Louisiana.
The New England Carnivorous Plant Society is having its 10th annual show this weekend, at Roger Williams Park in Providence. It's a nice time of year for the summer-active carnivores like Sarracenia especially; they've spent the season outdoors soaking up the sun and rain and catching insects, and are at their peak before their October decline into a winter torpor. It's always kind of amazing to see what carnivorous plant fanatics are growing in backyards, windowsills and greenhouses throughout New England, all concentrated in one spot. I suspect that this is pretty much the best show of its kind in the U.S.

More information is on the NECPS website.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Welwitschia Propagation

Female Welwitschia in cultivation at the University of Connecticut, mid-July. Note the pollination drops of sugary liquid at the tips of filaments protruding from between the cone scales.

Welwitschia mirabilis is a distant relative of the conifers, native to the Namib desert in Namibia and Angola. Welwitschia is notable for a number of reasons, most obviously its fat, stumpy trunk and the single pair of strap-like leaves that last for as long as the plant survives, which is thought to be up to 1000 years or possibly more. The trunk of a Welwitschia never produces branches (aside from ephemeral reproductive shoots) or offsets, and the only way to propagate the plants is by seed.

Welwitschia matures at around 10 years old under my conditions, although if given a more generous root run and warmer temperatures they can grow considerably more quickly. Adult plants are either male or female. From my observations, male plants seem to be more common than females, but that's based on a small sample size, and I haven't run across any surveys of sex ratios in the wild. In both cultivation and their southern hemisphere native range, Welwitschia cones are initiated in the spring and become fully formed and receptive in mid-summer.

Male Welwitschia with pollen-producing cones. Male cones are smaller that the females, only a little larger in diameter than a pencil.
Welwitschia seems to be pollinated by insects and not by wind, which is somewhat unusual for a cone-bearing plant. During the early afternoon the female cones secrete a drop of nectar from whisker-like extensions of their ovules. The male cones bear little whorls of pollen-producing microsporangia, and at the center of each whorl is a nectar gland, which may itself be a modified, vestigial ovule. The cones of cultivated plants in Connecticut attract a variety of insects collecting nectar and pollen, including flies, wasps, bumblebees and yellow jackets. In Namibia, various flies (including the common housefly, which also shows up on my greenhouse plants), bees and wasps have been observed transferring pollen from male to female plants. Neither wind-dispersed pollen nor the Welwitschia Bug (Probergrothius sexpunctatis), both of which were once suspected of being important to Welwitschia reproduction, actually seem to be involved in pollination of plants in the field (Wetschnig and Depisch, 1999).

A large wasp visiting male cones on a cultivated Welwitschia.

Successfully pollinated female cones ripen in autumn, about two months after pollination. Ripe cones shatter into a pile of papery scales and winged seeds, which seem to be adapted to wind dispersal.

Female cones in September releasing winged seeds.

I've had good luck sowing the seed right after it was shed, in September or October, in a sunny, warm spot, in a pot of well-drained soil mix for desert plants. I mostly use biodegradable fiber pots, which can be sunk into the soil of a larger pot when the seedling needs more room, minimizing root disturbance. The seed germinates well within a few weeks in moist soil. The young seedlings are very susceptible to damping off, for some reason; once they make it past their first few months they seem to become resistant to such problems. I've tried the usual cultural remedies for damping off--strong sun, allowing the soil surface to dry as much as possible--without much success, and will probably resort to the use of a fungicide the next time I sow a batch of Welwitschia.

Welwitschia seedling at a few days old. The cotyledons (seedling leaves) start out a bronzy-yellow color, and take some time to turn green.

Welwitschia seedling at age six months, with its first and only pair of true leaves emerging at right angles to the cotyledons.

Reference: Wetschnig, W. and  B. Depisch. 1999. Pollination biology of Welwitschia mirabilis Hook. f. (Welwitschiaceae, Gnetopsida). Phyton 39: 167-183.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Corpse Flower 2013

For the third summer in a row, the University of Connecticut greenhouses are going to have a flowering Amorphophallus titanum. The inflorescence has been shooting up at about 10 cm per day since it broke out of its bud scales last week, and is now 117 cm tall. The rate of growth has slowed a little bit recently and the inside of the spathe is developing some reddish color, so I suspect we'll see an open bloom in less than a week's time.

Long term readers will recall that previous Titan Arums here at UConn have had yellow spadices; this plant will be the first that I've seen in person with a purple spadix. The current inflorescence is from a different batch of seed than the previous flowerings, which were grown from seed collected in Sumatra in 1994. This one is only about 10 years old, and was started from seed produced by cross-pollinating plants from the 1990s cohort grown in California. The plant's mother actually germinated here at UConn, so the father was possibly a purple form, or our original plants were actually a mix of the purple and yellow color morphs, and it was a matter of chance that the two plants kept here at UConn happened to be the yellow form. Or possibly purple is recessive and can turn up in crosses of two yellow plants; I'm not sure how spadix color is inherited in A. titanum. In any event it will be an interesting change to have a purple-spadix plant in flower.

 Edited to add: This year's Corpse Flower was kind of a flop. Nine days after the photo above, the spathe did pull back a bit and there was some odor, but it never really fully opened. Possibly, this young plant was still too small to properly sustain a bloom. The other mature plant of A. titanum at UConn is sending up a leaf, though, and I hope that it has a nice long growing period to bulk up its tuber and put on a proper flowering event in 2015 or so.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Conophytum frutescens

Conophytum frutescens (MRO31, 9 km S. of Komaggas)
Conophytum frutescens is something of a misfit. In a genus known for compact and sometimes even largely subterranean growth, it produces stems with internodes up to several centimeters long; old plants of C. frutescens develop reliably into little shrubs. Most conophytums have autumn flowers, but C. frutescens is in full bloom at the summer solstice. The orange mid-day flowers are also quite unusual: similar coloration only otherwise occurs in conophytums with nocturnal blooms, or in hybrids between species with violet petals and species with yellow petals.

Conophytum frutescens is endemic to the quartzite hills around Komaggas, an isolated town in central Namaqualand in South Africa's Northern Cape Province. Komaggas is just on the eastern edge of the coastal plain and seems to support a fairly lush vegetation, relative to surrounding areas at least. In addition to supporting the tallest Conophytum, the geophytes of Komaggas seem to grow to unusual size. I've found populations of Massonia depressa there with twin leaves, flat to the ground, as big as dinner plates. The area is also home to a form of Eriospermum aphyllum, a tuber with photosynthetic stems branched like an old rooftop TV antenna, that is two or three times the size of the plants seen anywhere else.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Entomology-themed Trip to Central Connecticut

Magicicada septendecim
There were some interesting insect-related events going on in Hamden, Connecticut this past weekend. The Brood II 17-year cicadas are out, and the nearest location to see them in large numbers is the Connecticut River Valley. I don't think I've ever run into periodical cicadas before, so it was a new experience for me.

Adults and shed skins from nymphs on a birch tree.
As promised, in the right places there were a lot of the little guys. I went to some hiking trails near the intersection of Old Lane Road and Old Farms Road, and saw many thousands of them perched on vegetation and flying through the canopy. The humming call of the males was constant, but not overwhelming. The weather was partly overcast and the volume of the cicada song seemed to rise when the sun peeked out, only to recede into the distance when a cloud passed overhead.

Nymph emerging from the soil.

Adult shedding its skin
There was a van and a car from Canada parked in a power line right of way in the area with the cicadas and some French Canadians were out beating the bushes. The leader of the Canadian group turned out to be a freelance entomologist, Andre Desjardins, who was visiting to check out Connecticut insect life. Southern New England is apparently the closest that Magicicada gets to Quebec. He thought that the cicadas would be active well into July and was very excited to be able to see them and collect some specimens.

Tom Seeley and an artificial honeybee swarm.

The other motivation for a trip to Hamden was a visit by Thomas Seeley of Cornell University, who was invited by the Connecticut Beekeepers Association to talk about his research. I had read Tom's recent book, Honeybee Democracy, and enjoyed it quite a bit. His talks mostly covered material from the book, but with a lot more illustrations and videos. Since the 1970s, he has conducted a series of really clean, clever experiments designed to tease apart how bees decide on a new home when a colony reproduces by swarming. He's figured out in surprising detail how scout bees evaluate potential nest sites, how they integrate this information with the rest of the swarm and make a decision about which is the best site, and how at last they manage to move tens of thousands of bees and a queen to a new home, which most of the swarm has never actually visited before.

Tom also demonstrated one of his basic experimental tools, an artificial swarm with a caged queen set up in the fields at the state agricultural experiment station. We could watch the scout bees advocating for nest sites (using the famous waggle dance) on the surface of the swarm, and see how different locations at various distances and directions gained or lost popularity over the course of the day. The swarm never actually came to a decision and tried to take off (apparently, they would have returned once they realized the queen was left behind in her cage), but it was fascinating to observe the process for a while.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Queen Bee Raising

Queen cells cut off of combs and pressed onto a top bar to consolidate them. Possibly we should have sliced out a bit more surrounding comb to have more material to work with and reduce the chances of damaging the cells.
The bees have been booming (apparently, it's an unusually good spring for them, with better than average weather and nectar-producing plant flowerings). Populations built up, with the consequence that some of the hives starting making new queens, in preparation for swarming. Swarming means that half the worker bees leave with the old queen, and freshly hatched virgin queens fight it out to see who will take over the hive and/or also take off with their own swarms. The beekeeper wants to discourage swarming but still have a strong colony to make honey, and so has to try to achieve a delicate balance where the colony has just enough open space in the hive and the population hovers barely below the level where it tries to spawn a daughter colony.

Recently hatched virgin queen, soon to be added to a small, queenless "split."
Girlfriend Devan and I (well, mostly Devan) have been discovering swarm cells (queens being raised in preparation for swarming), and dealing with it by pulling out the cells, along with frames of bees. This weakens the colony a bit, discourages swarming, and also creates new colonies that can be added to the apiary or sold. The split colonies with queen cells or virgin queens have been going to various outlying locations to get established and the queens mated: bees are weirdly inflexible about the location of their hive, and if you move a split within the 2-3 mile radius where they might recognize some landmarks, most of the bees that had ever been outside of the hive will abandon their new home and fly straight back to their original colony.

The first of the new mated queens this spring.
The first successfully mated new queen actually wound up getting put back into one of our original colonies, to take the place of a queen from last year that was going downhill (laying not enough eggs, in a spotty pattern). The later splits are getting established now, and I'll know in a week or two if they worked out as well as the first one.

The main point of all this: five pounds of delicious local wildflower honey.
The strongest of the hives is producing a lot of honey, at the moment probably mainly from clover, black locust and multiflora rose. There's one medium super (hive box placed on top of the main colony) full of finished honey, capped with wax in the comb. That's about 50 pounds right there, plus a second super the bees are working on filling pretty quickly, and a couple of other supers on smaller hives that are starting to see some comb getting built and nectar processed into honey. So yeah, I already know what friends and family are getting for Christmas this year, unless they express strong, preferably medically-based objections.

Swarm about 40 feet up in a Pitch Pine.
Two swarms have gotten away from the apiary in spite of our efforts at swarm prevention. I have some bait hives up in the area to try to catch swarms, and a few scout bees showed interest in these, but in the end the swarm pictured here took off for parts unknown, only a couple of hours after leaving the hive. It was a shame to lose the bees and their queen, who was quite productive, but the hive they came from is still plenty strong, and it was fascinating to witness the swarming process.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Canarina Flowers and Fruits

Canarina canariensis fruit in April.
At this point in spring, the Canarina canariensis plants have folded up shop for the season; all of their stems and leaves have withered away and all that is left is the root tubers that will rest underground until September or so. I did get some fruits by pollinating the flowers. These are reported to be edible, so I tried them out when they ripened in early spring. The fruits aren't especially tasty: bland and mealy, with a flavor a little bit like figs.

Canarina flower in its female phase.
The Canary Bellflower seems to be self-incompatible, i.e., it needs to be cross pollinated by something that transfers pollen between two separate plants. The flowers are also strongly protandrous, meaning that they shed pollen right after opening, but the female parts only mature later. In order to get fruits and seeds in the greenhouse, I moved pollen from young flowers onto older flowers, where the stigma had opened up into a pale star-shaped structure and become receptive.

I saved some seeds from this year's Canarina fruits and may start some more in the autumn. In any event, the several pots of mature tubers that I have in the greenhouse should become active when the nights get cool and the days short, and provide another round of gaudy blooms during the depths of winter 2013-2014.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Springtime for the Bees

Hives #1-4 after the February 9 blizzard.
It was a harsh winter here in Connecticut, but I had 100% survival on my five beehives from last year, thanks in large part probably due to generous feeding of the colonies last fall. The bees received protein supplements, and were left with whatever honey they had stored over the summer in addition to enough sugar syrup to get the combs good and full of stores.

Skunk Cabbage, Symplocarpus foetidus.

In late February and early March, the Skunk Cabbage provided the first source of natural pollen for the bees. Skunk Cabbage inflorescences heat themselves up by oxidizing stored carbohydrates, possibly to keep pollinators active on chilly days as well as to melt away snow and ice. On sunny days when temperatures were well above freezing, the bees would be out patrolling the local swamps and streamsides, and coming back absolutely covered with pale yellow pollen.

Worker bee covered with skunk cabbage pollen. The blackish growth on the bark is a leafy liverwort common in New England, Frullania eboracensis.
Hive entrance in early May. Note the drones (male bees) peeking out at left.
 A little bit later the Red Maples bloomed, then Sugar and Norway Maples, providing more pollen and some nectar. Right now a lot of excellent nectar plants are flowering. Apple trees, other fruit trees and dandelions are past their peak but still pretty abundant, and Autumn Olive is just starting. The weather has been a little bit cool and cloudy lately, but my strongest hive had already just about filled one medium "super" (upper box for storing honey) with maple and apple nectar, and later this week the weather and flower conditions should be excellent for all the hives to bring in many more pounds of honey.

Nice frame of worker brood from hive #1.

The bee populations are in good shape, with the queens producing reasonably solid patterns of new brood in all of the hives. There hasn't been any loss of bees to swarming yet, although I did wind up making make two splits from hives that were starting to make new queens, probably in preparation for casting a swarm. I hear that there have been a few swarms from other hives in the area. Varroa mites are the great plague of the modern beekeeper, and while mites are definitely present in all of the hives, mite levels haven't reached the stage where harsh treatments are called for.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Sceletium tortuosum

South Africa has a rich tradition of using native plants in folk medicines. One of the most famous examples is Kougoed or Kanna, the fermented and dried leaves of Sceletium tortuosum, which is supposed to be effective against a huge range of maladies. Like various other members of the family Aizoaceae (the mesembs or ice plants), Sceletium tissues contain mesembrine and other alkaloids, which are known to have psychoactive properties. The plant has been subject to a certain amount of legitimate pharmacological research, and also--as an internet search will quickly show--a whole lot of enthusiastic amateur experimentation and attempts at commercialization.

The genus name Sceletium was inspired by the skeletal venation that is visible in old, dried leaves. The dead leaves of S. tortuosum persist for some time, and during the dry season act as protective scales over the living shoot tips. Some authors place the eight or so accepted species of Sceletium within the larger genus Mesembryanthemum.

Sceletium tortuosum at Kruisrivier, in the Little Karoo in August (late winter).

Sceletium tortuosum is very broadly distributed in the arid parts of western and southern South Africa. Its habitat is primarily in a winter-rainfall climate, but edges into summer-rain areas in the east. Cultivated plants grow most vigorously in winter, but can be tempted into a certain level of summer activity if water is available. Possibly the preferred seasonality of growth depends on the collection locality; I would expect that plants from the west in Namaqualand would be more strongly inclined towards winter growth. In cultivation, plants look best if given as much sun as possible, and quickly become thin, scraggly and unattractive if light levels are inadequate. Otherwise, Sceletium presents no particular problems in cultivation, and is easily propagated from stem cuttings.  

Chesselet, P. 2005. Sceletium tortuosum PlantZAfrica page.
Gerbaulet, M. 2001. Sceletium.  Illustrated Handbook of Succulent Plants, Aizoaceae F-Z, Springer-Verlag, Berlin, Heidelberg, New York.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

CCSS Show and Sale 2013

The Connecticut Cactus and Succulent Society is having its annual show and sale this weekend at Naugatuck Valley Community College in Waterbury, Ct. This photo was was from the show setup in a previous year, so while I can't guarantee that this particular Pachypodium will be making an appearance, I am reasonably certain that equally spectacular plants will be on display. As always, admission to the show and lectures is free of charge, and if you get there first thing in the morning, you might get a free plant, too.

We'll have our usual excellent selection of plant and supply vendors, too. One regular, Bob Smoley's Gardenworld, will unfortunately not be in attendance because Bob is recovering from an illness. However, we are adding some exciting additional plant sellers this year: Susan Amoy, Glen Lord, and Rick Logee's recently opened WRC Greenhouses. It looks like the weekend weather will be fine, so I hope to have a great turnout!

Thursday, February 28, 2013

February 28 Sugaring

The '13 sugaring season so far has been pretty good so far. There have been a few short stretches where it was too cold and the trees stayed frozen all day, and some rainy periods where it didn't freeze at night and the sap petered out, but more days with a decent flow and a number of excellent days where each tap yielded a gallon or more. The first week's production was 3.25 cups of amber syrup from 10 gallons of sap (about a 48:1 ratio). The second week's operation yielded about 2 cups of clear golden syrup; the lightening of the color was probably because of a stretch of colder weather. 

 Here's a photo of a sap icicle on a sugar maple on the UConn campus last week, forming on a wound that the tree sustained over the winter. The tan tips on the sapsicle are where freezing and sublimation of ice have concentrated the sugar solution down to something that is probably pretty close to being natural maple syrup, if only a few drops of it. You can imagine that this sort of occurrence was how the Native Americans first got the idea for maple sugaring. 

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Sugaring Season Start

I'm just getting done with shoveling out from the Blizzard of 2013 (and putting up a new mailbox, the old one having been pretty much finished off by the plows this time). The weather was very sunny and somewhat above freezing today, so I decided to try tapping the sugar maples. Success! Before the sun went down there was actually a strong flow, with an inch or two accumulating in the bottom of the buckets in the hour that the trees had between tap placement and the evening chill putting an end to the sugaring action for the day. Tomorrow is supposed to be a little warmer but rainy. Overall the forecast is for moderate temperatures and strong day/night temperature swings, so there should be some good sap runs.

In other locally-produced-sugary-substances news, the bee colonies have made it through the winter so far. I can hear faint buzzing from inside them, at any rate. They're pretty well covered in snow now, which should help keep them insulated from cold and wind.

Thursday, January 17, 2013


Canarina canariensis is a tuberous vine endemic to (the 7th grade geography students out there are probably way ahead of me) the Canary Islands, off the coast of Morocco. It's a member of the family Campanulaceae, the bellflowers. The straggly stems produced by the tuber bear one to several large and strikingly colored flowers at their tips, during the depths of winter. The flowers lack any fragrance but literally drip with sugary nectar, which together with their shape and coloration suggest that they are primarily pollinated by birds. The flowers persist for an amazingly long time, with individual blooms lasting for almost a month.

The Canaries mostly have a Mediterranean climate, and the plant life from the islands is generally adapted to a winter-rainfall regime. Canarina canariensis is a strict winter grower, with the tubers sprouting in autumn, growing for six months or so, then shedding all of their above ground parts as the days get warmer and longer in the spring. I store the Canarina pots almost dry for the summer dormant period, with just an occasional splash of water to keep a little moisture below the soil surface. During the winter, the growing plants are kept in a cool, sunny greenhouse, given a shot of balanced liquid fertilizer every few weeks and watered to keep the soil consistently moist. Canarina shoots are waxy and somewhat succulent, and the plants are fairly thrifty with water even when in full growth. 

The C. canariensis plants here at UConn derive from seed collected by Dr. Greg Anderson on the island of Tenerife. The seed packet had been sitting around an office for seven years before Greg handed it off to me, and I planted the entire batch at once in a single pot, hoping to maybe get a couple of seedlings, if I was lucky. The pot was soon a lawn of little green shoots; it seems that Canarina seed remains viable for a long time. Separated out into individual pots of loose, well-drained soil, the plants reached maturity after one or two winters.