Windmill palm tree

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Trachycarpus fortunei, the Chinese windmill palm

Today is Palm Sunday.  The current “stay at home” order prevented us from attending Sunday service (our church met online using Zoom instead), but I have nevertheless been thinking about palm trees.  The palm fronds that give this Sunday its name were presumably cut from Phoenix dactylifera (date palm), a middle eastern species that could not survive a North Carolina winter.  If you want to grow a palm tree in your piedmont garden–to add verisimilitude to your Palm Sunday decorations, for a tropical look, or just to impress your neighbors–there’s only really one choice.

No, not dwarf palmetto (Sabal minor).  Although that native of the coastal plain is perfectly hardy in the piedmont, its trunk is entirely subterranean.  For a palm tree, with a tall trunk, you want Trachycarpus fortunei, the Chinese windmill palm. T fortunei probably has a native range extending from the Himalayan foothills of India to Japan, but its long history of cultivation makes tracking its original habitat tricky.  It is usually rated hardy to USDA Zone 7, although there seems to be some variation in hardiness among different cultivars.

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I planted a single T. fortunei seedling about ten years ago, and the trunk is now about six feet (1.8 m) tall.  It is growing at the southeast corner of the house, so it is sheltered from the prevailing northwest winds in winter.  To the east and south are tall pines and deciduous trees, so the palm gets about four hours of direct sun and bright shade for the rest of the day. When it was very small, I sometimes insulated the trunk and crown with burlap and pine straw in winter, but it is now too tall for that to be practical.  Temperatures below about 8-10 F (-13 C) burn the tips of the fronds, but 5 F (-15 C) nights during two winters did not cause any permanent damage.

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Last year, the tree produced its first inflorescence, and this year it has multiple inflorescences with thousands of flowers.  T. fortunei is dioecious–male and female flowers occur on different trees–and my tree appears to be male.

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First snake of 2020

baby-water snake

This snake was on our lane, not in the garden, but I am counting it as the first of 2020. My daughter and I spotted it near the creek as we were returning from a walk at dusk on Friday, March 27.  It appears to be a baby northern water snake (Nerodia sipedon), the first I have seen in the neighborhood.

For scale, the sweetgum seed capsule above the snake has a diameter of about one inch.

Queen of the abyss

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One of the common names of this species makes it sound like a demon in a medieval grimoire or a villain in a fantasy novel.  The alternative, Brazilian edelweiss, is more than a little twee.  Take your pick, or just refer to it as Sinningia leucotricha.

S. leucotricha grows as a lithophyte in Paraná State, often on cliffs and steep hillsides which presumably accounts for its picturesque English name (itself apparently a translation of the Portuguese rainha do abismo). Each deciduous stem, topped with four softly felted leaves, emerges from a massive tuber that enables the plant to survive long periods without water.  The bright orange flowers are produced in the spring, as the new stems mature, and bear all the hallmarks of hummingbird pollination.

I have been growing my S. leucotricha since 2001, and it is currently in a 8-inch (20 cm) diameter pot. The tuber hasn’t grown noticeably in the last five or six years, at least not above ground, and I suspect that it is long overdue for repotting.  It is potted in gritty, fast draining soil and is grown in the brightest part of my greenhouse, together with the Pachypodiums and other succulents.  Although some tuberous Sinningias are hardy in my garden, S. leuchotricha‘s long dry dormancy and habit of growing exposed at the surface would certainly make it a poor candidate for cultivating outside. For best appearance of the furry foliage, S. leucotricha should be protected from overhead watering, grown in the brightest light possible, and not overfertilized.

S. leucotricha has a definite growing schedule that must be respected.  My plant starts to go dormant in early autumn, at which point I stop watering entirely. Once the stems are completely dry, I snap them off.  The plant stays completely dry for several months, but I give it a little water in late January or February when I see fuzzy little bumps forming at the top of the tuber.  Once the stems are in full growth, I give it a thorough watering about once a week, allowing the pot to dry between waterings.  It blooms now, March into April, and after the flowers dry it doesn’t grow again until the next year.  The leaves stay green–well, white–all summer, and I continue watering, but the plant doesn’t visibly do anything.

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Six on Saturday #52 (March 21, 2020)

For this week’s Six on Saturday, we are out of the garden and visiting the Eno River Confluence Natural Area.  The Eno River is one of the gems of this part of North Carolina.  A small river, little more than a large stream for much of its 40-mile course through Orange and Durham counties, it flows through the town of Hillsborough and city of Durham before merging with the Flat and Little Rivers to form the Neuse River.  The Eno is home to several rare species that are endemic to the Neuse River basin, and it has been aggressively protected since the late 1960s by the Eno River Association.  The Confluence Natural Area is a piece of protected land in Orange County that includes the spot where the East and West forks of the Eno flow together to form the Eno River proper.  It was opened to the public relatively recently, and this was our first visit.

When my family and I visited, we were the only people on the 200-acre preserve, so I guess that covered social distancing requirements.

1.  The Confluence

Confluence

This is the point at which east fork (left) and west fork (right) merge to form the Eno (center).

2.  Plethodon cylindraceus (white-spotted slimy salamander)

Plethodon

The kids couldn’t resist lifting a cover board that had probably been laid down for some herpetology classes.  They found a handsome pair of slimy salamanders.  To avoid crushing the salamanders, we gently moved them, laid the board back down, and then allowed the salamanders to climb underneath again.

3. Claytonia virginica (Virginia springbeauty)

Claytonia

A variety of spring ephemeral wildflowers were in bloom on the wooded slopes and rich bottomland along the riverbanks.  In North Carolina, C. virginica is a true piedmont native.  It is absent from most of the coastal plain and from the mountains, where it is replaced by Claytonia caroliniana.

4. Cardamine concatenata (cutleaf toothwort; crow’s toes)

Cardamine

I just love the name “crow’s toes.”

5. Stellaria pubera (star chickweed)

Stellaria

In addition to these three wildflowers, we also saw Hepatica americana (round-lobed Hepatica), Anemonella thalictroides (rue anemone), Sanguinaria canadensis (bloodroot), and Lindera benzoin (spicebush)  in bloom.  Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum) leaves were up, but the buds aren’t yet open.

6. Tree “footprint”

tree footprint

The heavy piedmont clay holds together so well, that the imprint of a large tree, including tunnels left by its roots, is still clearly visible after all the wood has rotted away.  The “footprint” is slowly being covered by invasive Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica).

The propagator is the host of Six on Saturday.  Head over there to see his Six and find links to the blogs of other participants.

Paphiopedilum Golddollar

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Paphiopedilum Golddollar (P. primulinum x P. armeniacum).  I bought this plant in 1996.

Paphiopedilum Golddollar is a primary hybrid of P. armeniacum, a Chinese species that is notoriously difficult to bloom, and P. primulinum, an easy sequential blooming species from Sumatra.  This cross, registered in 1988, was an inspired piece of orchid breeding.  P. armeniacum, with is bright yellow flowers and large balloon-like pouch is one of the most beautiful members of the genus, but it requires a cold, dry dormancy in winter.  In cultivation, it frequently goes for many years without flowering, if it doesn’t just drop dead.  P. primulinum, on the other hand, is easy to grow under intermediate/warm conditions (e.g. a windowsill in a centrally heated house), blooms reliably, and produces many flowers over a very long period.  However, the flowers are fairly small and at best are cute, rather than beautiful.

P. Golddollar has inherited yellow flowers from both parents, but the big, bulbous pouch with in-rolled edges comes straight from P. armeniacum. Genes from P. primulinum have narrowed the petals, but in exchange have made the plant sequential blooming.

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A second bud will open around the time that the first flower drops, and there will probably be several more flowers before the plant is finished blooming for the year.

The foliage of P. Golddollar has attractive tessellation inherited from P. armeniacum, but the hybrid has lost the habit of producing new growths at the end of long stolens which often makes P. armeniacum difficult to manage in a pot.  The growths of P. Golddollar are tightly clustered like those of P. primulinum.

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The mix of genes has made P. Golddollar very temperature tolerant, and my plant has grown equally well on a windowsill in Michigan and a greenhouse in North Carolina.  Best of all, P. Golddollar is easy to flower.  I bought my plant from the now defunct JEM Orchids in 1996, and despite being divided many times, it has flowered every year since then.