Operculicarya decaryi

Operculicarya decaryi, the Jabily or Madagascar elephant tree.  It is semi-dormant in winter and has lost most of its leaves.

In a comment on my recent post about the Winter Silhouette Bonsai Show, I mentioned that I have a few small trees that I have been crudely attempting to shape, despite my lack of training in bonsai techniques.  This is one of them, a 21-year-old Operculicarya decaryi that I grew from seed.  I’m not fully satisfied with its current shape, particularly the crown, but I ‘m having fun with it.

Operculicarya is a genus of perhaps half a dozen species, all from Madagascar, of which O. decaryi is the most common in cultivation.  It isn’t traditional bonsai material, and from the point of view of a proper bonsai artist it has several natural flaws.  Most notably, it tends to form a swollen, barrel-shaped trunk that is narrowest at the base–the dreaded reverse taper.  Here, I have hidden the worst of the reverse taper with chunks of quartz in an attempt to recreate an arid, rocky environment.  The roots are also a problem.  They are massive, like huge brown sausages, and resist cramming into a shallow pot.  On the other hand, the leaves are small, the trunk naturally has a knobbly appearance, and the branches become gnarled and twisted.  For someone attracted to weird and unusual plants, there’s a lot to like.


O. decaryi is not frost hardy, so my tree spends summers outside and winters in the greenhouse.  New twigs are whip-like and have long internodes, but with repeated clipping they eventually thicken up and branch.  Getting a nice, fat barrel trunk is just a matter of waiting for the tree to mature.   Old trees, wider than they are tall, are sometimes available from online nurseries, but they are almost certainly collected from the wild.  It is more sustainable–and probably more fun–to start with a seedling or rooted cutting.  Even young plants have a lot of character.

The same tree at about five years old

A botanical immigrant


Zeuxine strateumatica, the lawn orchid, is native to a wide swath of Asia from Iran to New Guinea, and it was accidentally introduced into North America in the late 1920s, when it arrived as a contaminant in grass seed.  It is now widespread in central and southern Florida and has extended its range along the gulf coast to Texas.  This plant comes from my parents’ garden in Fort Bend County, southwest of Houston, indicating that it has spread beyond the two Houston area counties–Harris County and Montgomery County–for which the USDA Natural Resources Conservation service has records.

The plants in my parents’ garden seem to have arrived as seed in a load of mulch, and despite the common name, they grow as weeds in my mother’s flowerbeds, not in the lawn.  While visiting over the Christmas holiday, I collected a few specimens that were slated to be ignominiously yanked out next time the bed was weeded.  I thought they might be interesting to display on the show table at the next Triangle Orchid Society meeting, but by no stretch of the imagination can this be considered a horticulturally desirable species.  The flowers are barely visible without magnification, and the plants are reported to be short-lived.

I’ll keep them around, just to see if I can grow them, but I’m not worried about them becoming invasive here.  The species doesn’t seem to have established itself any further north than southern Georgia, and outside Florida all records are from coastal counties.  Piedmont winters are surely too cold (for now).

Winter Silhouette Bonsai Show (Six on Saturday #50, December 14, 29)

Last Saturday, we drove over to the Charlotte area to a) shop at IKEA and b) visit the Winter Silhouette Bonsai Show.  The deciduous trees looked especially good because they were naked, displaying their beautiful–or sometimes grotesque–forms without a screen of leaves.

I know almost nothing about bonsai, so I can’t claim that these are the six best trees in the show.  But they are six of my favorites.  I don’t think they need much description; these trees speak for themselves.

1. Acer buergerianum (trident maple)


This maple reminds me of the sycamores that grow on the banks of the Eno river, with their roots exposed by erosion, and their trunks sometimes leaning or horizontal where floods have washed out their support.

2. Ligustrum sp. (Privet) Carpinus sp. (hornbeam)


Update: I have been informed that this is a Ligustrum exhibited by Bonsai West. That will teach me not to post when I’m not sure.

I forgot to record the name of this tree. I’m fairly sure it’s a hornbeam, but there were four or five different species on display.

3. Crataegus phaenopyrum (Washington Hawthorn)


4. Fagus grandiflora (American beech)


5. Ilex serrata (winterberry holly) growing on a rock


6. Ulmus davidiana (Japanese elm)


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.

Update 12/15/2019: Here is a bonsai blog with many more photos from the show.

Six on Saturday #49 (November 30, 2019)

It was a bit of struggle to find six things to write about today.  There aren’t many orchids blooming in my greenhouse at this time of year, and the weather outside hasn’t been conducive to growth of much other than fungus.

1. Aplectrum hyemale (puttyroot orchid) and Lycoperdon species (puffball)


While I don’t enjoy chilly, damp weather, these two species certainly do.  The striped winter-green leaf of an Aplectrum hyemale that I planted last spring has emerged among a dense crop of young puffballs.  I am fairly sure that these are Lycoperdon pyriforme, the pear-shaped puffball. If so, they should be edible, but I’m not certain enough of my identification skills to risk it.  As they say, every mushroom is edible…once.

According to wikipedia, Lycoperdon translates as “wolf farts.”  Just thought you should know.

2. Gardenia jasminoides (hardy gardenia)


The scented flowers of this G. jasminoides featured in Six on Saturday #46.  Although not fragrant, its fruit are as almost as attractive as the flowers and make a strong argument for growing wild type plants instead of sterile double-flowered clones.  The crown-like tips of the  fruit were originally green but have been burned by frost.

3. Camellia x vernalis ‘Yuletide’


I featured this shrub in Six on Saturday #16 two years ago, but it is too good not to revisit.  When I took this photo, a few sluggish late-season bees were visiting the flowers and getting covered with pollen, but despite their attentions, I have never found fruit.  I’m not sure if this hybrid is completely sterile or just incapable of self pollination.  Flowers can be destroyed by temperatures in the mid 20s F (-3 or -4 C), but the buds mature over a fairly long period, giving me a good crop of flowers both before and after cold snaps.  In the summer, it makes an attractive dark green backdrop for warm weather flowers.

4.  Cattleya cernua


In the greenhouse, Cattleya cernua is flowering on a small slab of cork bark.  This miniature Brazilian orchid was once the type species of Sophronitis, a small genus of miniature epiphytic orchids that were distinguished from Cattleya mainly by flowers adapted for pollination by hummingbirds instead of bees.   However, DNA sequencing demonstrated that C. cernua wasn’t very closely related to the other Sophronitis species, and the whole genus has been sunk into an expanded Cattleya.

Most of the former Sophronitis are cloud forest species that are quite difficult to grow in North Carolina, but C. cernua thrives in our hot summers and brightens up the greenhouse at the dullest time of year.

5.  Zelenkoa onusta


Zelenkoa onusta is from Ecuador and Peru, where it sometimes grows on columnar cacti.  As suggested by this growth habit, it requires warm, dry conditions in cultivation.  My plant is in a small clay pot with a few chunks of scoria, but one of the best plants I have seen is at the Orchid Trail Nursery, growing on a live Pachypodium as a substitute for a cactus.

6. Paphiopedilum villosum


And finally, a recent purchase. Paphiopedilum villosum is from Indochina, where it grows as a lithophyte or epiphyte in damp highland forests.  P. villosum has been popular among orchid growers since the Victorian period and is one of the foundations of the standard complex Paphiopedilum hybrids. This particular plant came from a nursery in Hawaii and is the product of selective breeding aimed at increasing the size of the dorsal sepal and minimizing its tendency to roll back along the sides.


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.

Frost flowers

frost flower
Frozen sap extruded from a stem of Salvia elegans

Frost flowers typically occur in in late autumn when cold weather freezes plant stems but the soil is still warm enough for active roots to push sap into the stem.  As the sap freezes, ice is extruded through cracks in the stem, forming thin ribbons or spines.  In North Carolina, frost flowers are most often associated with Verbesina species, particularly Verbesina virginica (frostweed), but yesterday I found these examples on Salvia elegans (pineapple sage).  They are, perhaps, not as delicate as the frost flowers that form on Verbesina, and from a distance looked more like frost seed pods than flowers, but they seem to have been formed by the same mechanism as the classic frost flowers.

As indicated by the presence of frost flowers, the first freezes of the season occurred on Tuesday and Wednesday nights.  A few weeks ago, we were flirting with 90 F (32 C), but this morning the temperature was about 24 F (-4.5 C).  The growing season for summer perennials and sub-tropical plants is definitely over.  The cannas, bananas, and crinums have all turned black, and in a few weeks I’ll cut them back.  The only plants still flowering outside are Crocus cartwrightianus ‘Albus’, Camellia ‘Yuletide’Cyclamen hederifolium, and Abutilon megapotamicum (which continues to amaze me with its hardiness), but buds are expanding on Edgeworthia chrysantha.