Wednesday, May 11, 2022

Pine Tree Down!

Knock, knock.
 

It's been terribly windy in eastern Connecticut for the past few days, apparently because of a powerful offshore storm. The worst of the wind was Sunday (May 8 2022), when a good sized Eastern White Pine (Pinus strobus) was blown over in the woods next to my house, falling uncomfortably close to structures, with the tree's top coming right down a stair case and grazing my side door. There wasn't any significant damage, fortunately, though my old pallet-wood compost bin is no longer with us. I wasn't around at the time, but my sweetie says the noise was terrifying and that it briefly looked and sounded like a tornado was going by outside. Strangely, the sky was clear and the sun was out for the whole event. The local weather station recorded 30 mph gusts that day, but this must have been stronger. I'm not even sure what this sort of weather would be called... is a blue-sky microburst a thing?

The compost bin has received a major new contribution.

 The tree was actually half of a pine with a forked trunk, which was clearly a weak point. The downed portion has a diameter of about 12 inches. The tree was about 50 years old. It's actually easy to get a more or less exact age for a youngish pine tree like this, without taking a core or cutting a clean section of the base to count rings. A pine branch that is actively growing produces exactly one whorl of new branches at its tip each year. So, you can pick a healthy branch and start counting whorls from the tip back to the trunk, then count whorls of branches down the trunk as far as you can go, and you have the age in years. In older pines the lower, overtopped branches eventually die, fall off, heal over and disappear, but this takes quite a while to happen. For this tree I couldn't find any sign of branch whorls only for the 2-3 feet at the very base, which I would guesstimate took the then-young pine seedling about 5 years to achieve back in the 1970s. (The scars from branch whorls that I can see low on the trunk are far apart, indicating that the tree was growing quickly and the environment must have been much more open and sunny.)

Two years worth of growth from one of the upper branches of the pine. The tip and whorl of branches at the lower part of the photo is from 2021, and the stem and branches above are from 2020.

 I'm not sure if the remaining half of the pine will survive; possibly not after losing so much of itself and with a big open wound in its trunk. It would probably be a good idea to take the rest of it down, especially if it seems to be in decline this summer.

Monday, April 11, 2022

The Cactus Show Returns

Euphorbias at the judged show, CCSS 2022.

The Connecticut Cactus & Succulent Society's annual show and sale was held this weekend, for the first time in three years. It was great to see everyone in person again! This was the first convention-type large public event that I've participated in for a while. People generally seemed to be acting responsibly and respectfully, and the two-day show proceeded without any notable hiccups.

Rick Logee's Rare Plants in the vendor area.

 The 2022 show was a bit scaled back in most respects, with a rough estimate of visitor numbers being about half of the attendance achieved at shows in the mid-2010s. There weren't as many entries in the judged show, either, and some of the usual volunteers running the show were mostly or entirely absent for various reasons (this last deficit was partially offset by some newer CCSS members stepping up to help). I for one was OK with the 2022 show being a lower-key affair than some of the more hectic pre-pandemic shows; it was a good way to ease back into the show routine.

 The former cactus show regular whose absence was most missed this year was John Spain, a founding member of the CCSS who passed away at age 100 this winter. John was a pioneer in growing winter-hardy cacti and succulents in cold, humid climates. There was a tribute to John set up in one corner of the show, with photos, newspaper articles and awards from his decades in the cactus club.

Guilio Sista came out of retirement as auctioneer for one of the plant auctions.

 

Saturday, March 12, 2022

Maple Sugaring 2022


 The winter freeze-up was pretty late this year in southern New England, with the real cold holding off until January, but it was actually too cold for much sap flow for a few weeks after the traditional start of maple sugaring season on Valentine's Day, which is a rare occurrence these days. Since the beginning of March temperatures have been more seasonable, with some warm sunny days, some rain and some snow, and the sugar maples have been quite productive. Last week my lone tap produced about 12 gallons of sap, which boiled down to one quart of syrup, for a 48:1 ratio (the ideal ratio usually cited is 40:1). 

There is a big winter storm moving through today, with a bit of cold rain, snow and a lot of wind, and the next day or so will provide a good solid freeze to reset the sap flow. Next week is set to be much warmer, with barely any chances for even a light frost at night, so it is possible that the sugaring season will be coming to an end soon. If there are too many days this time of year without frost, or the temperatures get too high, the sap flow stops and the season ends. If that does happen, it will have been a rather poor maple syrup year, starting more slowly due to cold and ending a week or two earlier than usual because of early spring warmth.

Wednesday, March 9, 2022

Remembering the Nut Museum

The Benton Museum of Art at UConn, March 2022.

For just about 30 years, beginning in April 1972, Connecticut was home to perhaps the world's only museum dedicated to nuts (as in, large, usually edible seeds, with a tough outer shell usually derived from fruit tissue). The Nut Museum was the life's work of eccentric artist Elizabeth Tashjian, who operated it by herself out of the first floor of her home in Old Lyme. Ms Tashjian was hospitalized, comatose, in 2002, and her estate was liquidated on the assumption that she would never recover. That normally would have been the end of a small private museum with a one-person curatorial staff and board, but Connecticut College professor Christopher Steiner managed to acquire and preserve the Nut Museum collection, and has put on occasional public displays of the nuts, artworks and related material in the 20 years since. 

Painting by Elizabeth Tashjian, with the first line of the Nut Anthem.

 The Benton Museum at the University of Connecticut has been hosting the 50th anniversary Nut Museum revival this winter, with an extensive display of Ms Tashjian's paintings, sculpture, ceramics and nut-themed music. Botanical specimens include several Coco de Mer nuts (Lodoicea maldivica, family Arecacae), the largest seeds of any plant, which were apparently a special favorite that appeared repeatedly in her artwork. The current display also includes a re-creation of the main gallery of the Nut Museum, as it appeared at its zenith in the 1970s.

2022 reconstruction of the Nut Museum at UConn.

The Benton Nut Museum exhibit, along with associated talks and films, give a sense of the strangeness, gentle spookiness and humor of the original museum and its proprietor. One strong theme of the display is the experience of a certain generation and class of American women who were emphatically not brought up to be independent, but who nonetheless made a place for themselves in the world on their own. Another theme is the failure of society to compassionately deal with elderly people with no family and little means of support. The story of the Nut Museum ends on a hopeful note: Elizabeth Tashjian made an unexpected recovery from her medical crisis, and lived another five years at an eldercare facility where she seemed reasonably happy. Although she never returned to her house, she was grateful that the contents of the Nut Museum had been saved, and she was able to preside over several of the early post-Museum exhibits of the collection.


Elizabeth Tashjian's nut-themed masks.
 

Prof. Steiner is currently researching and writing a book about Elizabeth Tashjian and the Nut Museum. Publication sounds like it may be a couple of years off.

Anthropomorphic Horse Chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum, family Sapindaceae) and Walnut (Juglans regia, Juglandaceae) paintings by Elizabeth Tashjian.

 

Friday, September 24, 2021

Growing Hartford Fern from Spores


Lygodium palmatum sporeling at five months old.

In a previous post I talked about the biology and ecology of the Hartford Fern, Lygodium palmatum, America's lone native species of climbing fern. In this post I will discuss the process of growing this rare and botanically interesting plant from spores, which turns out to be relatively quick and unproblematic, as fern propagation goes. 

Spores: Plant material of Lygodium palmatum is occasionally available from mail order nurseries, but the only regular source of spores that I am aware of is the American Fern Society's spore exchange, currently meticulously curated by Brian Aikins in Washington state. Spores could also be collected from mature plants in late autumn, if one happens to already have access to cultivated plants.

Lygodium palmatum, gametophyte (dark green) with one-leaved sporophyte emerging (light green).

Soil: Hartford Fern grows in acidic soil, so I have used a light, acidic mixture of sphagnum peat moss and perlite for starting spores. I pasteurize small batches of soil in a microwave (on high for about five minutes), which helps to prevent or at least delay contamination of spore pots by algae and moss. 

Sowing Spore: Lygodium spores are as fine as dust and must be sown on the surface of pots of soil, where they will be exposed to light. Temperate zone ferns like L. palmatum are best started in spring; no special pre-treatment, such as cold stratification, is needed. Ideally, spores should be sown thinly, so that the sporelings will have a little space between them, but this is difficult to accomplish. The soil is kept moist to wet by watering from below or with gentle misting, and the whole pot should be kept in a humid, closed environment in a plastic bag or terrarium. Bright but indirect light is best (such as in an east-facing window, or at the periphery of a grow light setup). 

Germination and Sporeling Care: Lygodium spores germinate within a month or so, giving rise to crinkly, dark-green gametophytes. Gametophytes are the haploid (only one set of chromosomes), gamete-producing phase of the plant alternation of generations. The spore sowing mix has very little nutrient content on its own, so misting several times a month with half-strength water-soluble houseplant fertilizer is needed from germination on. 

The gametophytes take several months to mature, at which point they produce sperm and eggs, fertilization takes place, and tiny, light-green leaves start to emerge from the undersides of the gametophytes. These light-green leaves are the young sporophytes, the diploid, spore-producing phase of the life cycle. In ferns, the sporophyte is the large, long-lived phase of the life cycle; what we typically think of as a fern plant. 

The sporelings can be transplanted out to individual pots when the sporophytes have one or two fully expanded leaves and are about a centimeter or two across; this will probably be in summer, about four months after sowing. Transplants should be gradually adjusted to brighter sun and lower humidity, in preparation for overwintering the young plants in a cold greenhouse or sheltered position outdoors.

Lygodium palmatum, 6 month sporeling starting to put out dissected leaves.