Back from the dead

Sinningia helleri--photograph of white flowers and red bracts
The lovely white flowers and contrasting red bracts of Sinningia helleri

This plant has a really cool backstory.

Sinningia helleri is the type species of the genus Sinningia. That is, it is the species that forms the basis for the genus, serves as a reference for any other species to be included in the genus, and remains permanently attached to the genus name in any taxonomic revisions. It’s a little awkward when the type species of an extant genius is extinct.

S. helleri was described in 1825 and was grown in Victorian and Edwardian plant collections, but it eventually died out in cultivation. The final image of a cultivated S. helleri plant was published in 1907, and it seems likely that the last cultivated plants died during fuel shortages and bombing raids in World War I and II. All attempts to find more plants in their natural habitat near Rio de Janeiro failed, and the species was considered extinct, both in cultivation and in the wild.

Photo of Sinningia helleri flowers

Then, in 2015, a Swiss botanist decided to crowdsource one last search for the species. He posted a couple of old pictures of S. helleri to an online forum for Brazilian plant identification–the botanical equivalent of a missing person flyer. A month later, he received a response from a Brazilian botanist. She had realized that a photograph she took in 2008 of an old railway embankment included several plants that resembled S. helleri. Returning to the site, she confirmed that they were indeed the missing species.

Drama ensued. The embankment was slated to be cleared when the old railroad was converted into a bicycle park, and although endangered species receive legal protection, no one bothers to put extinct species on endangered species lists. The plants were still alive only because clearing had been briefly delayed due to a rock fall.

The plants were eventually protected, a small amount of seed was collected and distributed to growers in Brazil and the USA, and six years later, I have the opportunity to grow my own S. helleri.

I started with a small packet of seed that I scattered on the surface of a 2-inch pot filled with a 1:1 mix of commercial potting soil and perlite. In December 2020, the pot went into a sealed 10-gallon aquarium under LED grow lights, together with a mix of other gesneriad species. Two seeds germinated in late January 2021, and the seedlings grew relatively quickly. In May 2021, I repotted the seedlings, the largest into a 5-inch pot, and the smaller into a 3-inch pot. Both plants are currently flowering.

For more details on the discovery and rediscovery of S. helleri, see Gesneriads: the journal for gesneriad growers 66(1-2), 2016.

Sinningia helleri plant habit

Six on Saturday #67 (June 26, 2021)

The weather has been quite mild this summer, with relatively few days topping 90 F (32 C), but the color in the garden is certainly heating up. Our big patch of Canna ‘Flaming Kabobs’ is almost blinding in the sun, but it has a lot of competition. Here are some of the hot flowers in the garden this week.

1. Canna indica “Musifolia” (Indian Shot)

Flowers of Canna indica "Musifolia"

I grew this from seed received as Canna musifolia, but Kew says that name is a later synonym of the widespread and variable species C. indica. The mother plant was >8 feet tall, but this seedling is blooming at barely 3 feet tall. I only recently transplanted it out of a pot, so I am hoping that it will grow bigger in the ground. Many of the modern Canna hybrids have flowers that are big, shapeless blobs of color, so I really like the small, orchid-like flowers on this plant. The red-edged foliage is also lovely, but unfortunately Japanese beetles like it too. The common name of this species comes from the resemblance of its hard, round seeds to shotgun pellets or musket balls.

2. Tithonia rotundifolia (Mexican Sunflower)

Flower of Tithonia rotundifolia

We don’t grow many annuals, but who can resist this color? We started a batch of these guys from seed under lights and planted them out about a month ago.

3. Achillea “Paprika”

Flowers of Achillea Paprika

This is a very common perennial available from most garden centers in the summer, but it is well worth growing nevertheless. It has a tendency to flop over, but the stems soon start growing upwards again. It is often sold as a cultivar of Achillea millefolium (common yarrow) but is actually derived from the Galaxy series of hybrids which originate from crosses of A. millefolium and A. x Taygetea

4. Echinacea ‘Sombrero Sangrita’

Flowers of Echinacea Sombrero Sangrita

Some of the modern Echinacea hybrids are really impressive. This cultivar has intense red flowers on compact, upright stems, worlds away from the dusty purple and rangy stems of wild type E. purpurea.

5. Lilum ‘Forever Susan’

Flowers of Lilium 'Forever Susan'

This Asiatic Lily is a lot shorter than I expected; it’s less than 2 feet tall. We got a bag of bulbs this spring, and I’m glad I planted them at the front of the flowerbeds. They’d never be seen behind tall Cannas or Crinums.

6. Sinningia tubiflora

Flowers of Sinningia tubiflora

Do we need to cool off a little? Sinningia tubiflora–a gesneriad species from northern Argentina, Paraguay, and Uruguay–has surprisingly large white flowers. Their tubular shape and lemony fragrance in the evening surely point to pollination by moths. The underground tubers, like those of several other Sinningia species and hybrids, are winter hardy in the NC piedmont.

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

Rhododendron ‘Princess Alexandra’

Rhodo_Princess-Alexandra1

Rhododendron ‘Princess Alexandra’ is a vireya (tropical rhododendron) cultivar, the result of a backcross between the very first vireya hybrid, Rhododendron ‘Princess Royal’ (R. jasminiflorum x R. javanicum), and its parent R. jasminiflorum. It was registered by the famous nursery of J. Veitch & Sons in 1865, from which we can deduce that it was named in honor of Princess Alexandra of Denmark who had married Prince Albert Edward, the future King Edward VII, two years earlier.

Some plants remain consistently popular, while others go in and out of style. Vireyas definitely fall in the latter category. R. jasminiflorum flowered in England for the first time in 1849, and over the next fifty years or so, several hundred vireya hybrids were registered, mostly by the Veitch nurseries. Along with orchids and other tropical plants, vireyas graced the conservatories of the Victorian upper class, but their popularity was eventually eclipsed by hardier Rhododendron species which didn’t need an expensive heated greenhouse. It wasn’t until the second half of the twentieth century that an influx of newly discovered species made vireyas and their hybridization popular again. This second wave of cultivation occurred in places where vireyas could be grown outside–New Zealand, Australia, coastal California, Hawaii–and hybridizers focused on species from the mountains of Malesia (the biogeographic region encompassing Peninsular Malaysia, the Malay Archipelago, and New Guinea) that thrived in cool, but not freezing, weather.

In the the years between the first and second periods of vireya popularity, two world wars and a great depression wiped out many of the old collections of tropical plants, and fewer than ten of the Victorian hybrids survive today. I find it amazing that the R. ‘Princess Alexandra’ in my greenhouse is essentially the same plant that grew in the Veitch nurseries. It has been propagated by cuttings and traded among enthusiasts for more than 150 years.

I love to grow vireyas, but unfortunately most vireyas don’t love North Carolina. Although vireyas come from the tropics, most species grow at high altitude, up to and even above the tree line. The montane species–and hybrids dominated by those species–are weakened by our long, hot summers and tend to die suddenly after a few years. I have the best long-term success with the relatively few species that grow naturally a lower altitudes, and it is exactly those species, plants like R. jasminiflorum and R. javanicum, that are the parents of the Veitch hybrids. I’d love to grow more of the old survivors, if only I could find them.

So, if anyone knows where I can obtain cuttings of Rhododendron ‘Ne Plus Ultra’ or R. ‘Triumphans’ in the United States, please let me know.

Rhodo_Princess-Alexandra2

Six on Saturday #66 (May 22, 2021)

After one of the mildest and wettest winters on record, we have had one of the driest springs. This week, the switch flipped to “summer” and with the increasing heat and humidity, we can perhaps hope for a thunderstorm or two.

Here is some of what is growing and flowering in the greenhouse and garden this week.

1. Medinilla ‘Royal Intenz’

Medinilla_Royal-Intenz

Beautiful plant, silly name. This new cultivar is apparently a hybrid, but it’s not clear what species are in its background. Definitely Medinilla magnifica, because M. ‘Royal Intenz’ looks rather like a very intensely colored, compact M. magnifica. The abstract of the plant patent simply refers to its parents by ID number, not species or cultivar names, and there doesn’t seem to be any way for me to find out exactly what I am growing. It’s somewhat annoying.

In any event, M. magnifica and related species–and by extension M. ‘Royal Intenz’–are epiphytic shrubs from the Philippines which adapt well to cultivation in a warm greenhouse or bright, humid windowsill. Logee’s offered M. ‘Royal Intenz’ briefly last year, and I’m glad I got an order in before they sold out.

I’m starting to see some fungal spotting on the foliage, perhaps due to water dripping from overhead Nepenthes plants. I think it’s time to move it to a brighter and drier spot in the greenhouse, or perhaps outside for the summer.

2. Pearcea rhodotricha

Pearcea rhodotricha flowers

Pearcea rhodotricha is a gesneriad from Ecuador with flowers that are probably the closest that I have ever seen to true black. Adding to its overall bizarre appearance, the stems and undersides of the leaves are densely covered with red hairs (hence “rhodotricha”) not unlike those of a tarantula.

A picture of the stem of Pearcea rhodotricha

3. Corytoplectus cutucuensis

A picture of the berries and foliage of Corytoplectus cutucuensis

Another Ecuadorean gesneriad, Corytoplectus cutucuensis has insignificant yellowish flowers. It’s the shiny black berries, sitting within long-lasting red bracts, and the beautifully variegated foliage that make it worth growing. Both this species and the previous are easy to grow from cuttings and appreciate a shady humid environment.

4. Encyclia Gail Nakagaki

Flowers of Encylia Orchid Jungle

Encyclia Gail Nakagaki is Encyclia cordigera x Encyclia alata (see below), and you can clearly see its parentage in its flowers. E. cordigera var. rosea gives the beautiful purple color and hooked tepals while E. alata contributes the striped lip and pale tepal bases. The fragrance of this orchid hybrid is fantastic.

enc_alata1
An old photo of an Encyclia alata in my collection

5. Tradescantia ‘Osprey’ (hybrid spiderwort)

Flowers of Tradescantia 'Osprey'

I suppose I ought to have at least one outdoor flower in my Six. ‘Osprey’ is a Tradescantia x Andersonia cultivar, but its pastel flowers are much more restful than the hot color of ‘Sweet Kate’ or ‘Concord Grape’ (see photos 2 and 3 of Six on Saturday #44). For some reason, it isn’t readily available at local nurseries, and I had to mail order this plant. It has doubled its size in a year, so maybe it will be large enough to divide and spread around the garden this autumn.

6. Ipomoea batatis (sweet potato)

sweet_potatoes

Slips from some ‘Beauregard’ sweet potatoes that we grew last year are almost ready for planting. Once the slips are about four inches long, I break them off the tuber and put them in a jar of water. They root in a few days. I only sprouted a couple of tubers for fun, but now I wish I had started more. For some reason, I haven’t been able to find slips in local garden centers yet this year.

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

Paphiopedilum Johanna Burkhardt

Paph_Johanna-Burkhardt

I have previously written about two fine old primary hybrids made with Paphiopedilum rothschildianum: the Victorian P. Lady Isobel and P. Saint Swithin. Here is a modern one, and it may well be the best.

Paphiopedilum Johanna Burkhardt is P. rothschildianum x P. adductum, and it was registered in 1994. My plant was made using P. adductum var. anitum as the pollen parent, and the results are spectacular. P. rothschildianum has contributed flower size, number, and overall form, while genes from the very dark P. adductum var. anitum have produced a dorsal sepal, petals, and pouch with dark reddish-brown markings on a yellow background. P. adductum var. anitum has also reduced the overall size of the plant, without affecting flower size; this plant has about half the leaf-span of my other P. rothschildianum hybrids, but its flowers are just as large, if not larger. A Google search for this grex will turn up pictures of other clones, many of them awarded, with huge, muscular-looking flowers and dorsal sepals that are almost black.

P. adductum var. anitum is sometimes considered a separate species, P. anitum, in which case this hybrid would be P. Wössner Black Wings (P. rothschildianum x P. anitum). From a horticultural point of view, there’s something to be said for distinguishing the dark plants made with P. adductum var anitum from those made with lighter colored P. adductum clones. However, the International Orchid Register lists P. Wössner Black Wings as a later synonym of P. Johanna Burkhardt, and both the Kew World Checklist of Selected Plant Families and a recent checklist of the genus Paphiopedilum (Koopowitz, H., 2018, Orchid Digest 82: 178-235) consider P. anitum to be a synonym of P. adductum.

Eight hybrids using P. Johanna Burkhardt as a parent have been registered, but none of the photos I have seen suggest that they are any better than–or even as good as–their parent. I’d go so far as to say that in this group of orchids, the primary hybrids are almost always better than complex hybrids. After more than 120 years, P. Lady Isobel and P. Saint Swithin are still well worth growing, and I suspect that the same will be true of P. Johanna Burkhardt in another century.