Sunday, June 3, 2018

Periodical Cicada Transplant

Magicicada septendecim on a gooseberry in the UConn EEB Greenhouse garden, Storrs, Ct. June 1, 2018.
 Back in the spring of 2001, John Cooley and Dave Marshall of the Simon lab at the University of Connecticut collected some periodical cicadas in upstate New York and brought them back to the EEB department's research garden at UConn. Apparently, some of those cicadas laid eggs, and the nymphs developed on the roots of some small red oak trees in the garden, because now, 17 years later, cicadas are emerging in the garden.

Magicicada septendecim, shed exoskeleton of nymph on a raspberry bush.
These cicadas are from brood VII, from the Finger Lakes region of New York, now restricted to the Onondaga Nation but formerly with a larger range. Chris Simon reports that the New York population started emerging on May 31, the exact same day as the transplanted cicadas in the garden at UConn. Maybe 20 or so cicadas have emerged at UConn, and mostly flown off around campus. I haven't heard them calling, but I'll keep an ear out, and watch for signs that they are reproducing, like "flagging" on the branches of the local trees. It strikes me as unlikely that a new population could establish itself from maybe a few dozen insects, but I guess we'll have a better idea in 2035.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Mud Season 2K18 Astronomy + Maple Sugaring

Venus and Mercury (top center) over Mansfield Connecticut, March 6, 2018.
In between the weekly nor'easters that have been hitting New England lately, there have been some good chances to see the planet Mercury. Mercury is always fairly close in the sky to the sun and generally tricky to observe, and I don't think that I have ever spotted it before. However, this March, Mercury is not only bright and relatively high in the sky just after sunset, but also quite close to the very easy to locate planet Venus, which serves as an obvious marker of Mercury's location.

Venus and Mercury peaking out between layers of clouds.

I've now seen Mercury a couple of times, including the night before last week's snow storm, when the clouds were just barely moving in enough to create some interesting scenes, but mostly didn't block the planets. That evening I also glimpsed a really good shooting star, which lasted for a solid second or two. The planets are visible around half an hour to an hour after sunset, near the western horizon, with Venus being to the bright white one and Mercury being the dimmer (but still surprisingly bright), reddish one up and to the right of Venus. Last week they were quite close to each other, but they were further apart when I checked the other night, separated by the width of several fingers held at arm's length.

Maple sugaring, Mansfield Center, early March.
This year I made the decision to start my maple sugaring operation in mid-January, rather than the traditional Valentine's Day. There were quite a few thaws and warmer spells (the arctic outbreak around the holidays didn't last), and the early start allowed me to take advantage of some productive January sap runs. February saw warmer than average temperatures, including a couple of days in the mid-70s F that broke not only daily and monthly records, but set a new record high in the Hartford area for the entire meteorological winter (December through February). The sap flowed really well during the heat wave, but yielded a strong-tasting, almost black "cooking-grade" syrup, of the type that is usually only produced at the very tail end of the season.

Maple syrup from early February (left) and the February heat wave (right).
After the heat, temperatures settled back to more normal levels and freezing nights allowed sap flows to restart, after a bit of a hiatus. However, the flows haven't been very strong this month, and this week have almost stopped completely, so I suspect that the season is now basically over, several weeks before its typical conclusion. It was a good decision to get an early start!

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Bulbine bruynsii and its Relatives

Bulbine bruynsii, greenhouse-grown in Connecticut, January.

Bulbine is a genus of about 80 species in the family Xanthorrhoeaceae (which, as currently circumscribed, also includes aloes and Haworthia). Bulbines are a varied assemblage, including geophytic species, weedy annuals and a few small shrubs. The arid, winter-rainfall climatic zones of South Africa and Namibia are home to numerous tuberous species of Bulbine with succulent leaves; some of these are window plants or form haworthia-like rosettes, though surely the strangest and most horticulturally intriguing species is Bulbine bruynsii

Bulbine bruynsii in flower, mid-winter.
 Mature B. bruynsii plants consist of a small subterranean tuber, from which radiate thickened, yellowish roots that can sprout additional plantlets, so that a clonal colony is eventually established. The plants are totally dormant in the warmer months, with no above-ground growth. In the autumn, mature tubers send up a pair of leaves (sometimes three or four leaves in coddled cultivated plants), and then a raceme of bright yellow flowers in mid-winter. The leaves are highly succulent, more or less the size and shape of small cucumbers, supported by incongruously skinny stalks formed by the leaf bases. The foliage of B. bruynsii is marked by lumpy horizontal bands, which are red below and translucent on their upper surfaces. The translucent patches presumably allow sunlight to diffuse into the interior of the leaves for photosynthesis; B. bruynsii is sort of a multistory high rise window plant.

In its native habitat, B. bruynsii is confined to a small range on the edge of the coastal plain west of Bitterfontein, South Africa, where it grows in open areas among larger succulents and scrubby vegetation. In cultivation, it seems to be unfortunately finicky, requiring a cool winter growth period with very high light intensity, on the edge of what it is possible for me to provide in New England, even with a sunny greenhouse. Root rot is a problem, especially during the summer dormancy. A loose, completely mineral soil with lots of sharp sand, pumice and perlite seems to be beneficial.

Plants do form clumps from root-borne sprouts, but this takes years, so seed is probably the most practical method of propagation. The seeds are reluctant to sprout, though, much more so than with other bulbines that I have grown. Seeds sometimes germinate in old pots, a year or more after sowing, which suggests that the seed coat might need to be broken down. The next time I have some seed, I'll try lightly scarifying it by rubbing it around the palm of my hand with a little sand. One further complication: B. bruynsii is not self-fertile, so cross pollinating two different individuals is required for seed production.

Bulbine diphylla, material from east of Bitterfontein, Western Cape Province, RSA.
 Several other species of winter-growing Bulbine seem to be close relatives of B. bruynsii, with similar midwinter flowers and stalked gherkin leaves, though lacking the windowed bumps. Bulbine diphylla is a relatively common species around the Knersvlakte region of South Africa, from Vanrhynsdorp in the south, north to Bitterfontein. Where I have seen it, it doesn't occur in the characteristic Knersvlakte open quartz flats, but instead among more lush, scrubby vegetation on loamy soil outside of quartz patches. In the veld and under glass, B. diphylla seems to be a more vigorous plant that B. bruynsii, forming thick stands of plants from root sprouts.

Bulbine dactylopsoides, cultivated material via Lifestyle Seeds.
Bulbine dactylopsoides is another related species from the Knersvlakte area. Like its namesake, Dactylopsis, the hitchhiker plant (family Aizoaceae), it is a denizen of quartz flats. It is generally similar to B. diphylla, but with waxier, stubbier leaves; plants in habitat in particular have almost barrel-shaped foliage. Immature plants have single leaves that are rounded and lie very close to the soil, closely resembling the probably only distantly related B. mesembryanthemoides. Flowering sized specimens develop the paired leaves held up above the soil on a thin stalk that are characteristic of the B. diphylla group.