Monday, November 14, 2016

Conophytum Flowers

Conophytum plants in flower. Conophytum cubicum up front with white flowers, C. burgeri pink at left, C. irmae yellow at front right, etc. etc.
  Here in New England, we're just reaching the end of the main flowering season for Conophytum (family Aizoaceae), my favorite group of dwarf succulents from South Africa (and slightly into Namibia). These plants grow during the cooler, shorter-day part of the year, and the majority of species bloom at the start of the growing season. For me, that's October, but in their native Southern Hemisphere habitat, they mostly bloom in April. A few species bloom earlier or later in the year, and a couple, like Conophytum bachelorum (purple plants at front left in the photo above), strictly flower in the late winter and spring.

More Conophytum flowers at a University of Connecticut greenhouse, October 2016.
The 100 or so species of Conophytum show a tremendous range of floral colors, but in all cases have a floral tube with a supply of nectar as a reward for pollinators. The tube is formed by the fused bases of the petals, which, technically, are thought to be modified stamens ("petaloid staminodes") in this family. The brightly colored daytime flowers that are most obvious in these photos are probably pollinated primarily by bees, long-tongued nectar drinking flies, and butterflies. They open on sunny days, close up at night, and tend to have only a faint, pleasant smell.

A number of species, like Conophytum calculus (grey-green spheres at lower left in the second photo), have nocturnal flowers that open fully after dark and produce strong sweet and spicy fragrances. Nocturnal Conophytum flowers are frequently a pale, dull yellow or straw color, but white, pale pink and dark bronze also occur. Nocturnal Conophytum flowers will only open properly at night if it has been sunny during the day. On the night after a dark, cloudy day, they remain closed, in what could be an adaptation to prevent the flowers from getting ruined by rain.

Monday, October 31, 2016

A Trip to Boston Hollow

Westford, Connecticut
I'm located in a more or less suburban neighborhood close to the University of Connecticut, which is practically a small city. The northeast quadrant of Connecticut is called the Quiet Corner for a reason, though, and if you travel just a few miles to the north and east, the landscape becomes pretty rural for the Nutmeg State. Westford, Connecticut is a tiny cluster of nineteenth and eighteenth century houses and a church within the town of Ashford. Taking the road east from Westford, the houses thin out and you enter an almost unpeopled landscape of swamps, overhanging cliffs and dark hemlock groves: Boston Hollow.

Campaign sign spotted by the road in Westford. "Sunken R'lyeh has the best leaders, tremendous, not like we have in this country. Great Cthulhu says nice things about me, folks, nice things, believe me. A strong leader, I hear him in my dreams, not like the dishonest media says. The Old Ones don't win anymore. Sad."
New England horror author H.P. Lovecraft's most famous creation is probably the invertebrate deity-whatzit Cthulhu, who is also a perpetual third party candidate for president (slogan: "Why settle for the lesser evil?"). Lovecraft was a Providence native, and his decadent hill towns with terrifying secrets were based mostly on certain backwards settlements around Springfield, Massachusetts. But he certainly was also familiar with eastern Connecticut, and parts of Ashford have a definite Lovecraft Nation feel about them.

Ashford was a prosperous farming community in the early nineteenth century, with 2661 residents in the 1830 census. It entered a steep decline in the mid-1800s, however, and was down to less than 700 residents around World War I. The region might have been very nearly abandoned in the early twentieth century, if it hadn't been for an influx of Eastern European immigrants looking for cheap farm land. The town has made a comeback since the mid-twentieth century, but as late as the 1970s, there were houses without electricity or indoor plumbing in the area, and some old-timers made a living with activities like burning piles of logs encased in earth to make charcoal, and cutting Witch Hazel branches for medicinal preparations.

Road through Boston Hollow
The history of Boston Hollow has also followed a Lovecraftian trajectory, from bustling center of activity, to nearly forgotten backwater. An important Native American route, the Old Connecticut Path, passed through the area, and the Hollow was part of the Center Turnpike, a major thoroughfare between Boston and Hartford at the peak of Ashford's first period of prosperity in the 1830s. Today Boston Hollow is part of the Yale Myers Forest, the road receives barely any traffic at all, and the Hollow is probably about just about the quietest corner of the Quiet Corner of Connecticut.

Not-quite the Old Man of the Mountain, in Boston Hollow.

Hemlock forest on the steep sides of the Hollow.
The deep, shaded ravine in the heart of Boston Hollow is cooler and damper than surrounding areas, and just about all available surfaces on the forest floor seem to be covered with ferns, mosses and lichens. Striped Maple, an understory shrub or small tree that is common in the north woods of New England, occurs all over the steep slopes of the Hollow, but is otherwise an uncommon sight this far south.

Peligera cf. canina, Dog Lichen
Umbilicaria mammulata, Smooth Rock Tripe
I noted a couple of interesting lichens on a recent foray into Boston Hollow. Rock Tripe is large and impressive (as lichens go) lichen that is not uncommon in the right sort of habitats in Connecticut: shaded and undisturbed rock faces and large boulders. It gets especially abundant and luxuriant in Boston Hollow, though, along with Rock Polypody (Polypodium virginianum), a poikilohydric or "resurrection" fern, which can dry to a crisp in drought, then rehydrate and reanimate itself when rain returns. There were also some blackish patches of Dog Lichen, with reddish sporocarps (fruiting structures), which I haven't seen very often, but which does also grow in a bare spot in my yard, for some reason.

There is a lot to explore around Boston Hollow, with close to 8,000 acres of forest preserved for research by Yale, a number of nearby state parks, and large additional parcels of forested land owned by a local timber company. But, and maybe it's just because I'm originally a New York City native, it's hard to shake the feeling that the place is just a little too far from the madding crowd, and decidedly not the sort of woods where you would want to be caught after dark on Halloween.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Albino Woodland Plants

Albino Fagus grandifolia, Meredith, NH, July 2016.
Albino plants, which have lost the ability to make the green pigment chlorophyll, show up occasionally among seedlings or as abnormal growth from an established plant. This summer, I've noted a couple of photosynthetically-challenged native plants in my travels, including the American Beech (Fagus grandifolia) above. American Beeches send up root-borne shoots as a method of vegetative reproduction; in this case something went wrong with chlorophyll synthesis in part of the root system of a normal mature beech, and there were several pale shoots like this in a small area of the forest floor. The albino shoots are supported by sugars produced by the original green, photosynthetic portions of the clonal grove of trees. The albino beeches were in a pine/maple/hemlock forest near Winnesquam Lake in New Hampshire.

 Albino Cypripedium acaule, Mansfield Center, Ct, May 2016.
Back in Connecticut, I discovered an immature Pink Lady's Slipper with a completely albino leaf. This was the first time I've seen a true albino form of this woodland orchid, though apparently others have been photographed, including one that grew to flowering size. Almost all orchids have minute seed and seedlings that cannot survive on their own at first, relying on symbiotic fungal hosts from which they absorb the nutrients they need to grow. All Pink Lady's Slipper seedlings go through a subterranean phase that can last several years, when they produce no foliage at all. Presumably, an albino Cypripedium seedling can survive for an indefinite period, by relying on its parasitic relationship with fungi long after normal green plants would be making most of their own food. 

White flowered Cypripedium acaule, Mansfield Hollow.
Back around Memorial Day I revisited the white-flowered Pink Lady's Slipper that I found two years ago in Mansfield Center, Ct. It's still doing well, although I looked last year and couldn't find it; possibly it skipped a year without blooming.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Carnivorous Plant Meeting at UConn

Carnivorous plant collection at the UConn Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Teaching and Research Greenhouses.
The New England Carnivorous Plant Society held their May 14 meeting at the University of Connecticut. Activities included a tour of the botanical teaching collections, which include a good selection of carnivores. After the business portion of the meeting was concluded, some of us headed to the Dunhamtown Forest preserve, less than a mile from the center of campus, to look for some of the local carnivorous plants and other spring wildflowers. 

Dunham Pond, Storrs, Ct.
We hiked on the trails to the bank of Dunham Pond. The pond is a natural body of water, and is probably a kettle pond dating back to the last ice age, formed as a depression left behind by the melting of a large residual mass of ice left behind by the glaciers. Dunham pond hosts several species of aquatic Utricularia (bladderworts), but it was too early to see any sign of these. Purple Pitcher Plants (Sarracenia purpurea) also grow in the preserve, but in a very difficult to access swampy thicket, so we didn't get chance to visit them this time. There is an old herbarium record of Sarracenia flava, one of the large, upright southern pitcher plants, naturalized at Dunham Pond. These must have been planted out by a local botanist, and there is no sign of them surviving today.

Arisaema triphyllum, Jack-in-the-Pulpit, in the Dunhamtown Forest.
Various spring wildflowers were in bloom along the trails, such as Canada Mayflower, Wood Anemone, and Jack-in-the-Pulpit, one of our local aroids. People often misidentify the inflorescences of Jack-in-the-Pulpit for pitcher plants, but no one from the NECPS was going to make a rookie mistake like that.

Drosera rotundifolia, the Round-leaf Sundew.
In the end, the only carnivore we saw at Dunham Pond was Drosera rotundifolia. This is the only sundew (of two potential local species) that occurs at the site. The plants were fairly abundant on Sphagnum moss tussocks, and sometimes growing directly in rotting wood on waterlogged fallen tree trunks.

Sarracenia purpurea in Willington, Ct.
A few of us took a break after the walk at the UConn Dairy Bar, and decided to head to another nearby bog, in Willington, Connecticut, to see Purple Pitcher Plants. The bog, a classic site for UConn biology field trips, is a floating Sphagnum mat with one of the most vigorous populations of S. purpurea that I know of, and also plenty of Round-leaf Sundews. It was a little early for the pitcher plants, which were just starting to produce flower buds and only had overwintered pitchers from last season. 
Rhododendron canadense, Rhodora, in early May, Willington, Ct.
Rhodora, a Rhododendron of bogs and swamps in the Northeast was in full bloom. This low shrub was growing in a couple of scattered spots on the Sphagnum mat, among the pitcher plants and a much more abundant ericaceous shrub, Chamaedaphne (Leatherleaf).

Friday, April 1, 2016

Cactus Show this Weekend

CCSS president Chris Allen setting up plants for the show. The flowering cactus is Parodia magnifica.
It's show time again for the Connecticut Cactus and Succulent Society, which is holding their annual sale and judged show at Naugatuck Valley Community College this weekend. I just got back from the setup, and as has become expected, the number and quality of plants and vendors is going to be very impressive, especially for a C&S event in the East. Stop by if you're in the area; it's free to park and enter, though what happens to your wallet when you reach the sales floor or attend the auction might be another story.

My favorite part of the show, the Conophytum class. These are all mine, but there will be contributions from other growers by the time the judges come around tomorrow morning.

The Madagascan Euphorbia class was also filling up, last I saw.

The sales area was about half way to being set up earlier this evening; some nurseries come early Saturday morning to prepare their booths.

Rick Logee of WRC Greenhouses in Danielson, Ct, is a relatively new addition to the vendor list at the CCSS Show, but he has become known for putting on an especially attractive and colorful display.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

The 2016 Sugaring Season

A short, snow-free sugaring season in southern New England.
 Back around the holidays, I was wondering if the warm winter up to that point would impact maple sugaring. The whole meteorological winter season (December-March) turned out to be very mild, with just a few cold snaps.  Sugar Maples that I tapped in mid-February did produce some good sap runs, so apparently there was enough cold to vernalize the trees and set them up for sap flow. But, the season only lasted about 2-3 weeks, finishing up last week, which is at least three weeks short of a normal season. This was because of continued warmth; we just didn't get the nightly freezes that are needed to get the sap pressurized and moving during the day. The local professionals are also complaining about a short and not very productive sugaring season. Some frosty nights predicted for the weekend might create another sap run, but plants are starting to break dormancy now, and once the maples start budding and flowering, the flow is pretty minimal regardless of the weather, and any sap that does collect is useless for making syrup because it becomes bitter.

Winter 2015-2016 temperature rankings by state, courtesy of NOAA.
It wasn't just warmer than usual this winter in Connecticut, it was the warmest winter in the 121 year  record for all of New England, and way above average for most of the US. Last winter was unusually cold, especially in second half, so the current state of global warming clearly doesn't preclude old-fashioned winters in the Northeast, though it's looking like there will be more and more years where maple sugaring operations are going to have a hard time.  

Friday, February 12, 2016

An Afternoon at Yale

Marsh Botanical Garden cactus bed.   
 Last weekend, the Connecticut Cactus and Succulent Society met at Yale University's Marsh Botanical Garden. The greenhouse complex at Yale includes a large modern structure with houses for botanical research, teaching and public displays, plus a couple of small legacy greenhouses that are mainly used for overflow space. One of the newer glass houses includes an open area with chairs and tables--used during the week for classes--where the CCSS held their meeting.

A pair of mature or nearly mature Welwitschia mirabilis plants at Marsh Botanical Garden.
 The cactus club was lucky enough to have a presentation by Dr. Michael J. Donoghue of Yale's Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. Michael Donoghue is one of the best known plant evolutionary biologists active today. His talk for the CCSS covered Welwitschia, the peculiar xerophytic gymnosperm (cone-bearing seed plant) from arid northern Namibia and southern Angola. The fascinating lecture ranged from the history of Welwitschia's introduction to botanical science, with independent discoveries in 1861 by the Austrian medical doctor Friedrich Welwitsch as well as the artist Thomas Baines, to the latest findings from molecular phylogenetics, and finds of fossil Welwitschia-like pollen and cones.

Yearling Welwitschia seedling from the UConn teaching collections.
One point of interest from the talk, appropriate for the Darwin Day (February 12) season, concerned the evolutionary relationships of Welwitschia. The plant has long been known to be part of a small group of gymnosperms called the Gnetophyta, which also includes the genera Gnetum (broad-leaved tropical trees and lianas) and Ephedra (joint-stemmed shrubs of temperate deserts, the source of the stimulant ephedrine). The Gnetophytes as a whole were of somewhat uncertain affinities; an earlier idea was that they were the closest living relatives of the Angiosperms (flowering plants), based on details of their wood anatomy and pollination/fertilization process, as well as reproductive structures that resemble modified bisexual flowers. More recent evidence, primarily from DNA sequencing but also from the reinterpretation of anatomy and reproductive biology, indicates that Welwitschia and its allies are actually more closely related to the conifers (pines, cedars and their relatives).

Michael Donoghue at the February CCSS meeting.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Conophytum Commercialism

Three Conophytum maughanii plants, and possibly a seedling of C. subfenestratum at lower right. Promotional material from Zhao Caizhu Succulents Garden.
 I recently became aware of Zhao Caizhu Succulents Garden, which claims to be the largest succulent plant nursery in China, with annual sales of US $400,000 and a mailing list of 50,000 customers. They seem to deal mostly in "living stone"-type mesembs (family Aizoaceae), like Lithops and Conophytum, which stands in contrast to the situation among collectors in the United States, where  mesembs have been something of a neglected niche market in recent decades.  Maybe we need more marketing with cute animal characters based on immaculately groomed conophytums?

More advertising illustrations from Zhao Caizhu Succulents Garden, featuring four different Conophytum species.

I like how the carefully peeled Conophytum burgeri (Burger's Onion!) is the only plant in these illustrations that doesn't require any googly eyes or bling to hype it up. The chalky gray plant in the montage above is probably Conophytum pageae, which has a fissure (the vestigial gap between the fused pair of leaves that make up the plant body) that often strikes people as resembling a mouth, even without cartoon sunglasses. Some forms of C. pageae even develop lipstick-like red markings around their fissures, naturally and with no photo editing required.

Conophytum pageae with "lipstick" pigmentation, in Steven Hammer's greenhouses in Vista, California.
It's hard to imagine Conophytum plants--temperamental winter-growers that no wholesale nursery in the west has ever generally distributed--could ever become a popular mass-market commodity. But, who knows: a quirky advertising campaign could make conophytums into a 21st century pet-rock-type fad.