Thursday, December 24, 2015

Mele Kalikimaka

Ornamental cherry (Prunus cv.), Storrs, Connecticut, December 24, 2015.
 It was a warm autumn, and possibly will be a record-warm December, here in Connecticut. The whole season has been unusually toasty, but today was a practically tropical Christmas Eve, with temperatures already near the old record high in the low 60's early this morning, easily making an afternoon new record high of 69° F. The forecast is not quite as sultry for tomorrow, but still likely to be a new record for Christmas Day. It's almost been like early June, except with 15 hour nights and weak winter sun when the haze and fog briefly lifts during the day.

Dandelion (Taraxicum officinale) in flower, Christmas Eve 2015.
Out in the landscape, the native vegetation is staying in a state of seasonally appropriate dormancy, but lawn grass is still green. Dandelions have been flowering and even setting seed, and some of the early-blooming flowering cherries are nearly in full bloom, four months before their usual time. It's been a strange holiday season, weather-wise. The long range forecast indicates a return to something closer to seasonable conditions in New England in the New Year. I suspect that the shortage of winter chilling is going to have an adverse effect on the maple sugaring season, which in normal circumstances would be less than two months away. 

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Carnivorous Plant Talk

Sarracenia purpurea, the Purple Pitcher Plant, at a quaking sphagnum bog in Willington, Connecticut.
 This Saturday at 1:00, I'm going to be giving a talk at the Connecticut State Museum of Natural History in Storrs. The presentation is going to cover "Carnivorous Plants in Connecticut and Around the World," and will include a basic introduction to the concept of insect-eating vegetation, a whirlwind tour of the different genera of carnivores, and then a look at some localities in my area where some of the dozen or so species of native Connecticut carnivorous plants grow. I'll also bring along a selection of live plants for some demonstrations after the slide show portion of the talk is finished.  

Drosera rotundifolia, the Round-leaf Sundew, growing among cranberries in a sphagnum bog in Windham, Ct.
The C.P. talk has been announced in several news outlets, including the Hartford Courant and local free alternative paper Neighbors. I think that these Museum talks usually get a pretty good turnout, so it should be a fun afternoon.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Connecticut Vampires

The Jewett City Cemetery, Halloween 2015. The grand old sugar maples in the background would have been spectacular a week ago. 
Every autumn, the Last Green Valley organization runs series of "Walktober" events in northeastern Connecticut and the adjacent Sturbridge, Mass. area. I've been on a number of hikes and local history walks during Walktober in past years, but I had never been able to get into the famous reservations-only Vampire Folk Belief tour before. This time, I managed to secure a couple of spots for this Halloween tradition.

The walk takes place in Jewett City, the site of two different 19th century vampirism occurrences. Retired state archaeologist Nick Bellantoni lead the tour, which was organized by the State Museum of Natural History and the Griswold Bicentennial Comittee. Bellantoni was personally involved in unearthing the evidence of the earlier event, which took place around the year 1800, and which apparently went unrecorded at the time and is known only from the archaeological record.

Connecticut State Archaeologist (retired) Nick Bellantoni leads the Vampire Folk Belief walk.
About 25 years ago, some children playing in an active gravel pit on the weekend after a rain discovered a pair of human skulls. The police called in the state archaeologist, and Bellantoni and his students uncovered 29 graves that had been part of a forgotten farm cemetery, which was indicated on the surface only with some fieldstones set upright but without any carvings.

One of the coffins, inside of a crude stone crypt, was marked "JB 55" with brass tacks, probably indicating the age of death and initials of the otherwise unidentifiable occupant. The skeleton inside was in a very strange state, with the skull removed and turned around to face the wrong way, the rib cage forced open and the thigh bones crossed over the chest. The ribs were scarred from tuberculosis. Evidence indicated that the body was rearranged several years after its initial burial. The oddities of this grave were best explained by early 19th century New England anti-vampire practices.

At the time of the vampire panics, the germ theory of disease hadn't been fully developed, let alone filtered down to the heart of Swamp Yankee country in the quiet corner of Connecticut, and effective antibiotic treatments were more than a century off. "Consumption" (tuberculosis) was a mysterious and terrifying affliction, and on isolated farms, desperate families trying to stop its spread latched on to the idea of victims becoming undead and returning to draw the life from their relatives. Otherwise inexplicable disruptions of graves seem to have been attempts to stop corpses who had become "vampires" from creating more victims.

Lemuel Ray's headstone.
 The second Jewett City vampire event occurred relatively late, in 1854, and unlike the gravel pit crypt case was documented by nineteenth century writings and clearly marked graves. The Ray family was plagued by tuberculosis, starting with the death of Lemuel Ray in 1845, with three more victims following over the next decade. The family eventually exhumed the bodies of Lemuel and his brother Elisha, set fires in the graves and burned the corpses, in hopes of stopping what they supposed to be the depredations of the undead. All in vain of course, and there was at least one more TB death among the Rays in 1854.

Elisha Ray's headstone.
 The Jewett City vampire walk is highly recommended, if you can get yourself on the guest list. Nick Bellantoni is a wonderfully informative and entertaining speaker, who draws on decades of stories investigating tombs and cleaning up after grave robbers, as well as the polished manner that comes from his long experience as an educator. He stressed that the Connecticut vampire hunts were really a misguided public health measure born of understandable ignorance and completely rational fear, and that the familiar romantic supernatural and macabre trappings of vampire legends only took hold later in the 1800s. Bellantoni concluded with a saying among archaeologists, along the lines of "Everything that people believe in is real, because beliefs determine human behavior and human behavior creates the archaeological record," relating a more recent story of a man who was frightened of vampires, and slept every night with cloves of garlic in his mouth. One night, the man inhaled a clove and choked to death. "They got him. In the end they got him."

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Lauray of Salisbury Final Sale

Begonias and succulents at Lauray of Salisbury.
 It feels like the end of an era for the cactus and succulent community in Connecticut, with Judy Becker retiring from the business of selling plants, which she had been active in for 48 years. Judy is closing down her greenhouses, Lauray of Salisbury, and having a final open house with large discounts on the remaining material on Halloween weekend, October 30 through November 1, 10:00-5:00. Her main focus is on Euphorbia, begonias, orchids and gesneriads, but she also grows a wide range of other tropical and desert plants that are suitable for greenhouse or windowsill culture; she still had abundant stock of a lot of interesting plants as of my visit last week. The weather is still good and the autumn foliage is hanging around later than usual this year in the Litchfield Hills, so next weekend should be an excellent time for a trip to Lauray.

A bench of euphorbias, cacti, caudiciforms and other succulents at Lauray.
Judy has supported the plant hobby in New England for many years, and not just by running her nursery. She regularly hosted meeting of the Connecticut Cactus and Succulent Society and other specialist groups, sometimes giving talks and presentations to share her expertise on horticultural topics. She has also donated plants and volunteered her efforts to improve the teaching greenhouses at the University of Connecticut. Judy is planning on remaining active in plant circles, so I'm sure I'll see her around at shows and meetings in the future. 

Begonias, gesneriads and other tropicals.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Autumn Miscellany

Darlingtonia californica at the NECPS Show.
Earlier this month, the New England Carnivorous Plant Society held its annual show. As usual there were plenty of superbly cultivated plants on display (and plenty more for sale), and some well known people from the carnivorous plant community in attendance. This Darlingtonia was one of the more impressive horticultural feats; I don't think I've ever seen one so large cultivated in the East. I've never been able to keep them alive for more than a year or two, myself; they definitely tend to decline in our warm, humid summers.

The venue was a new one for the NECPS: Tower Hill Botanical Garden, near Worcester, Massachusetts. Tower Hill is a beautiful location and the public turnout was quite high, with about 2200 paid guests for the weekend. The only minor issue was that space was pretty tight, with the show and most of the vendors packed into one conference room, because of some scheduling conflicts.

Part of the bladderworts of New England display.
Several of the NECPS regulars collaborated to collect fresh specimens of almost all of the dozen or so bladderwort (Utricularia) species that are native to New England. They put on a great educational display and managed to turn up some plants that are found at a limited number of sites, like U. inflata, which supports its flowers above the surface of ponds on spongy, star-shaped floats.

The bees had a good summer and a decidedly better than average fall, which was nice after a cold start to 2015 with more winter colony losses than I'd like to see. It's been on the dry side in Connecticut, but the bees have apparently been finding plenty of flowers. Most colonies have packed away enough autumn honey to get themselves through the winter without any supplemental sugar feeding, which was unexpected. Looks like I'll be holding on to the stack of warehouse club 25 pound sugar bags in the basement until next spring, at least.

I tried to photograph the supermoon lunar eclipse last Sunday, and took a few shots that turned out OK. I don't think my camera was up to the task of capturing the earth's shadow starting to cross the face of the moon. Photos of the total eclipse worked better, without the overwhelming contrast of shadowed and sunlit portions of the moon messing up the exposure.

2015 turned out to be a "mast year" for apples (and oaks, too), with all of the feral or unmanaged trees around town producing crops of fruit that are so heavy that I've seen a number of snapped branches. Mast years occur irregularly; maybe about every third autumn will have this kind of super abundance of apples. The fruits are remarkably free of worms and disease, which is what you would expect based on one idea about the adaptive significance of masting: when all the trees in an area are synchronized in a mass fruiting event, pests can't reproduce quickly enough to take advantage, and then starve during subsequent non-mast years when very few fruits are produced. There is probably a contribution from the vagaries of weather to the masting phenomenon. Pollination limitation might also be involved in synchronizing masting, with any trees that flower heavily in a non-mast year experiencing poor pollination and low fruit set due to a lack of mates, and presumably maintaining reserves that would have otherwise gone into fruit to flower strongly again the next spring.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Massachusetts Cactus and Succulent Show

Best in show for the 2015 Massachusetts Cactus and Succulent Show: a large, perfect specimen of Ariocarpus retusus.
 This weekend, the Massachusetts Cactus and Succulent Society is holding its annual Show and Sale, at the Americal Civic Center in Wakefield. There is a judged show, plant and supply vendors, and an auction; the CSSM show is pretty similar to the spring cactus show in Connecticut, although not quite as large.

The entrance to the show, which is in the main hall on the basketball court.

Conophytum and other mesembs, with ribbons after the judging. It's now the main flowering season for conophytums and some of the specimens were in bloom.

Haworthia koelmaniorum, with translucent windows on the upper surfaces of the leaves.

CSSM member Ken S., with his all-Adromischus sales table, stocked with extras from his enormous collection, which is grown under fluorescent lights in his basement.

Adenia globosa, a succulent member of the Passifloraceae (passion flower family), native to tropical East Africa.

Aloe plicatilis, the Fan Aloe, flanking the entrance to the show area and illuminated by a sun beam.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Aponogeton madagascariensis Seeds

Looking down into a large aquatic tank with a pot of Aponogeton madagascariensis.
 Aponogeton madagascariensis, the Madagascar Lace Plant, is a submerged aquatic with naturally occurring holes in its leaf blades. The leaves are like window screen, with a network of veins and photosynthetic tissue, but with gaps in the leaf between the veins. Aquatic plants have more difficulty than terrestrial plants obtaining carbon dioxide, because gas diffusion is much slower in water than in air; the lacy leaves of A. madagascariensis probably are an adaptation to create more surface area for gas exchange.

Aponogeton madagascariensis inflorescence, late summer.
As is the case with many aquatic plants, A. madagacariensis sends its flowers above water for pollination. The flowers seem to be able to self-pollinate and if conditions are right give rise to clusters of small, green, horn-shaped fruits a few weeks later.

Aponogeton madagascariensis fruiting shoot shedding floating seeds.
When ripe, the fruits split open and release seeds. The seeds are a milky violet color and have a water-repelling waxy surface, enabling them to float and disperse away from their parent plant. After floating for a day or two, the seed coat becomes clear and water-logged, and splits open to release the green embryo inside, which sinks to the bottom. I've been gathering the seeds and putting them in submerged pots of sand and soil, and hope to get some germination and Lace Plant seedlings soon.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Dicrocaulon humile

Dicrocaulon humile, J. Vlok collection from Rooiberg, north of  Vanrhynsdorp, W. Cape, S. Africa. Cultivated by Steven Hammer, Vista, Ca (early April 2011).
Dicrocaulon humile is a low-growing dwarf shrub, from the family Aizoaceae (ice plants), native to the arid Knersvlakte near the small town of Vanrhynsdorp in South Africa. Its highly succulent leaf pairs are fused into pea-like bodies, which are exposed and green only during the cooler months. This plant is very rarely cultivated, and as far as I know is represented in horticulture by a single clone derived from material collected at Rooiberg. There is a confusing abundance of hills and peaks in South Africa called "Rooiberg," but this one is the Red Mountain just northwest of Vanrhynsdorp. Dicrocaulon plants, like most mesembs, are self-infertile, so that the lonely D. humile of greenhouse collections does not set seed. However, cuttings taken early in the growing season in autumn root fairly easily, and the plant has been passed around among connoisseurs of such things to a limited extent.

Dicrocaulon humile in flower in cultivation in Connecticut, July 2015.
Dicrocaulon humile flowers right around the summer solstice, when the plants are otherwise dormant and brown. The flowers have subtle violet color, which doesn't show up very well in my photos, and a very strong sweet smell that I can detect from some distance. The odor is reminiscent of artificial grape soda. The blooms stay open day and night, but the fragrance is most pronounced during the heat of the day, suggesting pollination by bees or other daytime insects.

Dicrocaulon had long been considered part of a group of mesembs called the Mitrophyllum Group or Mitrophyllinae, consisting of about half a dozen minor genera with plants characterized by strict summer dormancy, heterophylly (producing different leaf shapes at different seasons, often with very distinct, compact summer resting leaves), and an epidermis with large, water-storing bladder cells. Recent evolutionary work (Klak et al. 2013. A phylogenetic hypothesis for the recently diversified Ruschieae) has split the former Mitrophyllum Group into two natural units that are only distantly related: the Dicrocaulon Clade comprising the genera Oophytum, Monilaria, Diplosoma and Dicrocaulon, which is basally diverging in the tribe Ruschieae, separate from a Mitrophyllum Clade consisting of Mitrophyllum and Meyerophytum, which originated more recently within the Ruschieae. The Dicrocaulon Clade plants have, in retrospect, exaggeratedly minute, shrivelled summer resting leaves that are quite different from the meaty oversummering bodies of the Mitrophyllum Clade genera.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Newport Flower Show 2015

Rosecliff Mansion, home of the Newport Flower Show.
 The Newport Flower Show is running this weekend. I was there yesterday helping out with some of the setup, and it looks like it will be another impressive summer show in a spectacular setting at Rosecliff, one of the gilded age Newport mansions that are now public museums.

 Entries for succulent plants didn't seem quite as numerous as they have been in some previous years, but there were still some nice specimens. This giant medusoid euphorbia, Euphorbia esculenta made the trip from Pennsylvania. It was one of a number of entries from the Hamilton collection; Mrs. Hamilton is a fixture at the major East Coast flower shows.

  One of the special classes for the show this year was "Little America," for miniature gardens with a theme related to famous locations in the USA. I particularly liked this succulent dish garden titled "Roswell," complete with crashed UFO, alien accident victim and scraps of tinfoil.

The path gets rough in spots in the southern half of the Newport Cliff Walk.
 After I finished up my duties inspecting succulent plant show entries, I headed out for a stroll on the famous Newport Cliff Walk. The northern parts of the walk are pretty well paved, but the southern portion, which I had never completed before because of construction closings, gets kind of hairy in spots.

Conglomerate boulders with a quartzite outcropping at right, at then end of Ruggles Ave.
 The geology of Newport is complex, and I haven't located a good guide for interested laypeople such as myself. The southern tip of the island is weathering-resistant granitic gneiss (in the photo below), which transitions to the north into a mess of ancient Precambrian and somewhat less ancient Carboniferous sedimentary and metamorphic rocks, including serpentine, slate, quartzite and conglomerate (pudding stone - photo above). The conglomerate, a fossilized mass of gravel and cobbles, might be glacial till from a "Snowball Earth" event in the late Precambrian, when most of the planet seems to have frozen, right to the equator. I don't know enough about such things to be certain, but Snowball Earth sediments do occur in southeastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

Plantago maritima at Land's End near the southern tip of Newport, RI.
One of only a handful of native New England succulent plants occurs at various points along the Cliff Walk: Plantago maritima, or Sea Plantain, is a nearly cosmopolitan inhabitant of harsh, salt-sprayed habitats. Sea Plantain has thick, water-storing leaves that are said to be edible, but quite salty; I can't imagine it would be a good idea to eat a whole salad of them.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Tillandsia usneioides Flowering

Tillandsia usneoides was in bloom in the UConn greenhouses the other week. The flowers are minute and greenish and easy to overlook, but do emit a slight sweet smell. "Spanish Moss" is indeed not a moss (nor is it from Spain), but a flowering plant in the pineapple family, the Bromeliaceae.

Greenhouse flowering of T. usneoides is unreliable; looking back, I don't see any records of Spanish Moss in flower at UConn since 2004. Intriguingly, the blooms this spring all seemed to be on the clumps of T. usneoides that I had left outside for a portion of last winter in an impromptu hardiness trial. The plants grow perfectly well, vegetatively, when kept in a tropical greenhouse year round, but it is possible that a cold vernalization period triggers flowering. I can't be sure that cold was responsible, though, since a number of other factors were different with the outdoor Spanish Moss. It spent the entire summer of 2014 outside, which means it received rain water rather than tap water, and probably less water and nutrients overall than the non-flowering greenhouse material. Maybe I'll try keeping some plants refrigerated next winter, and see if a cold period alone encourages blooming.

Friday, May 22, 2015


Myrciaria cauliflora fruits, or Jaboticaba.
 Myrciaria cauliflora (alternatively Plinia cauliflora; family Myrtaceae) is a small tropical tree with edible fruits, native to Brazil. Its species name is derived from the term "cauliflory," which describes trees which produce their flowers and fruits along their trunk and large branches, as opposed to at the ends of younger shoots. Cauliflory is mostly seen in tropical trees, although what function it might serve seems to be debatable. Possibly, flowers along trunks are more visible to pollinators (or fruits more accessible to animal dispersers) than they would be in the dense leafy canopy of the rainforest. There are no native cauliflorous trees in my area, but a little further south one shrub, the Redbud (Cercis canadensis), shows this condition to some extent.

Myrciaria in the UConn greenhouses, in about a 20 inch pot.
 Jaboticaba (sometimes spelled Jabuticaba) fruits are pretty tasty, with sweet, grape-flavored white pulp inside of rubbery, nearly black skins. The skins are a little bit tough, but also edible, with a slightly acrid flavor reminiscent of walnuts. In the greenhouse the flowers of Myrciaria self-pollinate, and set abundant fruit in spring without any special attention. 

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Spring at Last!

The last of the snow is finally gone, after a consistently cold and fairly stormy period from January into April. The ice sheet remnant in the photo was caught, about to disappear, on May 11. The snow was pretty much gone everywhere else a month ago, to be sure; this spot is on the north side of a parking garage on the UConn campus where a huge pile of snow gets dumped from cleared lots. Ice always lingers there for longer than it does elsewhere, but it's pretty unusual for it to last into May.

The cherry blossoms were out the other week, and this week the apples are in full bloom. The weather has actually been very warm recently (20 F above average temperatures on a few days), so the growing season is catching up rapidly. I'd say that the plants are only a week or so behind schedule at this point, versus a month late back in the maple sugaring season.

The bees are really taking off at this point, although they were delayed for so long that I don't think colony sizes will be large enough to really take advantage of the earlier phases of the spring nectar flow. The weather has also been unusually dry lately, which won't help nectar production, and could lead to a pretty poor year for honey in Connecticut.

The other day in Glastonbury, Ct, I ran across some nice patches of Polygala paucifolia (Fringed Polygala), on somewhat open slopes in pine/oak woods. This plant seems to be fairly rare in this area and I don't know of many localities where it occurs. The color of the flowers is unlike anything else that blooms on the forest floor, and the plants stand out from quite a distance.

Friday, April 10, 2015

32nd Connecticut Cactus and Succulent Show

 The Connecticut Cactus and Succulent Society's annual show and sale is always a fun time, and is impressive as specialist plant shows go, especially considering that it is held by a club in a small state in a part of the country that is very challenging, climatically speaking, for growers of desert plants. And I don't just say this as the president of the CCSS: if you come to Naugatuck Valley Community College for the cactus show this weekend, I can pretty much guarantee that you will see some little gems of the succulent plant world that have never been exhibited at either the elite flower and garden shows of the east coast that have been running since Victorian times, or the dedicated C&S shows run by huge western clubs. I'm sometimes not exactly sure myself how it all comes together, but by tomorrow morning there is going to be another fantastic display of exotic horticulture, incongruously placed in the drab grey of central Connecticut in early April.

Part of the vendor area, getting set up Friday evening.
Some caudiciform plants waiting to get staged in the show area, from Chris Allen's collection. Chris's greenhouse had a heating failure on a particularly cold night this past winter and froze hard, but the survivors are coming back well. 

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Mud Season '15

Crocus cultivars blooming in a warm spot; most spring bulbs are still under the snow pack.
 The weather is slowly warming up, though spring flowers are probably still a good three weeks to a month behind schedule. The bees have been out and about on quite a few sunny afternoons lately, but they're not finding much of anything to eat beyond the Domino nectar flow, as it were. The overall colony survival rate still looks like about 70%. 

A short pause in the sap flow, with the snow pack freshened up, March 28.
  Around the middle of March, the maple sugaring season really got going in earnest, again about a month late. Over the past two weeks, there has been a pretty reliable daily sap flow, and half a dozen  banner sap days when I've collected a gallon from each tap in the morning before work, then come home to find another gallon with some loss to overflow in the evening. Some of the best production has been during rainy thaws, where chilly but above freezing temps have kept the flow going 24 hours a day for several days straight.

This past week, two taps yielded a bit more than 10 gallons of sap (it's hard to tell exactly how much, since I've been skimming ice off of the sap buckets each morning). This boiled down to a quart of maple syrup, in the typical 40:1 ratio. The syrup is looking cloudy in the photo because of "sugar sand," a mineral precipitate that I will allow to settle and filter out. 

Eden the cat is very particular about not walking on snow, but with recent thaws she has been enjoying a much larger field of operations in the fenced backyard. She had been getting cabin fever, with only a couple of inches of open ground under the eaves where she could run back and forth when it was warm enough to venture outside.