First bloom: Brunsvigia namaquana

Brunsvigia namaquana inflorescence
Brunsvigia namaquana

If you aren’t a plant geek, these little flowers probably don’t seem very exciting.  They’re small, not very brightly colored, and sort of an odd shape.  But I was surprised and delighted to see them in my greenhouse this week, the first flowers produced by half a dozen Brunsvigia namaquana bulbs that I have been growing since 2013.  For those of you who aren’t obsessed with amaryllids, I’ll try to explain why I was so thrilled.

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The same inflorescence from a slightly different angle

The genus Brunsvigia is, as I indicated above, part of the Amaryllidaceae, the amaryllis family.  There are seventeen Brunsvigia species, all growing as deciduous bulbs and all from southern Africa.  The largest species like B. josephinae have 50-60-cm diameter umbels of deep red flowers on stout stems that can support the sunbirds that pollinate them.  B. namaquana, at the opposite end of the scale, is the smallest species, with leaves about 4 cm long growing from a bulb only 2-3 cm in diameter.  The inflorescence is about 10 cm tall.

If you are interested in bulbs or succulent plants, the species epithet “namaquana” is highly evocative.  It refers to Namaqualand, an arid region in northwestern South Africa and southern Namibia that is famous for its flora.  The most spectacular endemic plant species is the Halfmens, Pachypodium namaquanum, but per Wikipedia, almost one third of the plants that grow in Namaqualand are found nowhere else.

Like most Namaqualand plants, B. namaquana is a winter grower, producing its foliage after autumn rains and going dormant in spring.  The prostrate leaves of B. namaquana have odd yellowish bristles on their upper surfaces and are almost more interesting than the flowers.

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The leaves of my B. namaquana bulbs last November

My plants should be deep in their summer dormancy, so I was very surprised to see these flowers.   The pot containing the bulbs, along with the pots of various other winter growers, was shoved into the back corner of the greenhouse where they can stay warm and dry, and where I am unlikely to accidentally water them.  Ordinarily I don’t pay them much attention during the summer, but I happened to glance over at just the right time.  I would have been annoyed if I had found the mummified remains of the inflorescence when I pull the pot out this autumn.

I would have expected the plants to flower–if they were going to flower–in early autumn, just before the leaves emerge.  However, according to Graham Duncan [1], B. namaquana in its natural habitat flowers erratically any time from November to May (early summer to late autumn), usually in response to brief, sporadic rain showers.  I am fairly sure I didn’t accidentally water the dormant bulbs, but the past several weeks have been very rainy.  Possibly the consistently high humidity was enough to wake up one of the bulbs.

B. namaquana is not common in cultivation, at least not in the United States, but if you are lucky enough to obtain some bulbs, I’d suggest growing them in a well drained mix in an unglazed terracotta pot so that they dry rapidly after watering.  I use a mix of roughly equal parts commercial potting soil, coarse silica sand, and stalite (permatill).  In a plastic pot, I’d cut way back on the potting soil and use a mostly inorganic mix.  I usually start watering in mid September and keep the pot outside during dry weather until the first frosts threaten.  Then I bring the plants inside and continue watering weekly or biweekly depending on how sunny the weather is.  The plants usually start to go dormant in late February or early March, and I leave the pot completely dry all summer.  Humidity is fairly high in the greenhouse, though, and that probably helps to prevent too much desiccation of the bulbs.  Minimum temperature in the greenhouse is 60 F (15.5C) in winter, and maximum temperature is 90 F (32 C) in summer.

It will be interesting to see if any more of the bulbs bloom this autumn.

Reference

  1. Duncan, G., Jeppe, B., and Voight, L. (2016)  The Amaryllidaceae of Southern Africa, Umdaus Press, Pretoria, South Africa.

Plants can’t read

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Cyclamen hederifolium

The books all say that Cyclamen hederifolium (ivy-leafed cyclamen) blooms late summer into autumn, but most of my plants started flowering just before the solstice.  At this time of year, there’s so much else going on in the garden that it’s easy to overlook these little pink flowers in the darkest spots under the deciduous canopy.

Six on Saturday

After a week of rain, June 24 has dawned sunny, hot, and very very humid.  The Propagator regularly blogs “Six on Saturday,” six things that are worth looking at in the garden on that particular day.  I thought it might be fun to join in and discovered that it is a good way to notice things.  Once I started trying to decide what to photograph, I discovered that there was a lot going on in the garden.

(I should mention that I discovered “Six on Saturday” via the Rivendell Garden Blog.  Check it out.)

1. Gloriosa superba

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Gloriosa superba climbing our deer fence

These seed-grown Gloriosa are in a large tub that I drag into the crawl space of the house and store dry over the winter.  I also have several plants that overwinter in the ground, but they are a couple of weeks behind the tubbed plants and are still in bud.  This is such a cool plant.  Probably needs a blog post all of its own sometime soon.

2.  Lilium lancifolium

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Lilium lancifolium, tiger lily

This tiger lily is about six feet tall, but in just a few weeks it will be dwarfed by the clump of Silphium perfoliatum that is growing behind it.

3. Hemerocallis hybrid

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Hemerocallis hybrid

This unlabeled daylily came from the sale rack of a local Home Depot.  Not bad.

4. Tigridia pavonia

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Tigridia pavonia, yellow form

I had heard that Tigridia pavonia doesn’t like hot, humid summers and wet winters, so when I bought a bag of mixed-color corms last year, I expected them to give me a few interesting flowers and then disappear.  Instead, it seems that virtually all of them survived the winter and many are producing inflorescences for a second year.  This is the first flower to open this year.

5.  Prosthechea mariae

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Prosthechea mariae

In the greenhouse, an epiphytic orchid from dry woodland in northern Mexico.  The pendant flowers are best appreciated from below, and their color suggests that they are moth pollinated.

6.  Paphiopedilum Lynleigh Koopowitz

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Paphiopedilum Lynleigh Koopowitz (P. delenatii x P. malipoense)

Another greenhouse orchid.  This is a primary hybrid of two ladyslipper orchid species from southern China and Vietnam.

Flowers from a lost garden

Virtually all of the woodland in the eastern U.S. is secondary forest that has grown up in fields left fallow when the focus of agriculture moved west in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  The eastern deciduous forest grows back rapidly, but if you look closely, you can still see traces of the former inhabitants: the sunken course of an abandoned road, old trees whose shape indicates that they first grew in open fields, the remains of a stone foundation or chimney.  Occasionally, plants from abandoned gardens will persist in the shade of the new trees long after buildings have rotted away.

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White oaks in winter, surrounded by young loblolly pines

At the bottom of our property and extending onto our neighbors’ land is a grove of eight mature white oaks (Quercus alba) with broad, spreading branches.  And at the center of the oaks, surrounded by weedy young pine trees, is the remains of an abandoned homestead.  The crumbling stone and brick chimney sits on our neighbors’ land, and on the edge of our property is an odd square of bricks filled with very dark soil.  I wonder if it might be the foundation of the old outhouse.

old chimney in the snow
Sic transit gloria mundi.

In early spring, the ground around the chimney and under the oaks is carpeted with thousands of bright yellow daffodils.  They must have been planted by someone who lived in the house, and I’m sure they will still be there long after the chimney has crumbled.  Later in the spring, as the daffodil foliage fades, a few clumps of sword-shaped leaves grow up.  These are gladiolus, but they rarely bloom in the shade of the oaks.  Those few inflorescences that do appear are often nipped off by deer.

About five years ago, I dug up a couple of the gladiolus corms and moved them to a sunny flower bed beside our driveway.  In the richer soil, protected from deer by the fence, they have thrived, multiplying rapidly and forming large clumps topped with bright orange flowers in June.

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As you can see, the plants are very different from modern gladiolus hybrids.  They appear to be a very tall (up to 6 ft) form of the South African species Gladiolus dalenii, or perhaps a very early hybrid with a lot of G. dalenii in its makeup.  To help keep track of them when I give away excess corms to other local gardeners, I have given them the informal cultivar name Gladiolus ‘Eno Orange,’ referring to their color and the place where they were found:  Orange County near the Eno River.

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The nodding flowers, seen from below

So how long have these plants been hiding in the woods?  Gladiolus dalenii is one of the foundation species in the ancestry of the large-flowered hybrids, and breeding was well under way by the second half of the nineteenth century.  Once those improved hybrids became available, I can’t imagine that something like Gladiolus ‘Eno Orange’, with its rather ungainly spikes and widely spaced flowers, would have been tremendously popular with the average gardener.  On the other hand, I like it, so maybe other gardeners did too.  I wonder if it is an old “pass-along” plant that has been traded among gardeners since the early days of gladiolus cultivation.

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Thriving in the sun after who knows how many years hidden in the shade.

To see if I could learn anything more, I wrote to the niece of the woman who was the last inhabitant of the abandoned house.  She replied that her late aunt could have obtained the corms from her mother, my correspondent’s grandmother.  The family has lived in Orange County since before the civil war–the family patriarch was a former slave who became a successful farmer and land owner after emancipation–so is it possible that this Gladiolus was passed down from parent to child for a century or more before it finally ended up in the woods near our house?

I suppose I’ll never know for sure, but whenever I see the bright orange flowers, I’m reminded of the people who lived here before us.

Crinum

The heat and humidity are cranking up, and we are entering Crinum season in the garden.  Crinum are classic southern garden plants, something you just won’t see in gardens in the U.S. northeast or midwest.  They are large bulbs (some softball-sized or bigger) that produce masses of foliage and large, intensely fragrant flowers during the hottest part of the year.  The bulbs are very long lived, and many hybrids are “heirlooms” that have been passed down from gardener to gardener for the last century or two.  However, as interest in these plants wanes and waxes, interesting new hybrids are still being made.

Crinum is a pan-tropical genus of the Amaryllidaceae, the amaryllis family.  Most of the showy hybrids are derived from South African species, with occasional crosses to a few South American or Asian plants.  The most hardy and suitable for growing in Zone 7 tend to be crosses with the African Crinum bulbispermum.  The majority of plants that I see in gardens around here seem to be the old hybrid Crinum x powellii ( C. bulbispermum x C. moorei), in either its pink- or white-flowered incarnation.  I planted my first Crinum x powellii ‘Alba’ bulb this spring, so I don’t expect flowers from it this year.  Several other hybrids are blooming now, though:

Crinum ‘Pat’s Herbertia’

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Crinum ‘Pat’s Herbertia’. A “milk and wine lily”

This one is supposedly Crinum bulbispermum x (scabrum x bulbispermum).  It has 4-ft long arching leaves and large, fragrant tubular flowers on an inflorescence about 4-ft tall.

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Crinum ‘Pat’s Herbertia’ foliage

The individual flowers only last a day or two, but they’re produced successively over the course of a week to ten days.  Multiple inflorescences are produced over the summer months; my plant is currently blooming on inflorescence number three for the year, and two more are growing rapidly.

Crinum ‘Mrs. James Hendry’

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Crinum ‘Mrs. James Hendry’

This is a hybrid of unknown parentage dating from the early 1900s.  Scott Ogden in Garden Bulbs for the South (Timber Press) writes that Crinum ‘Mrs. James Hendry’ is one of the “most beautiful and rewarding of southern perennials.”  I can’t disagree.  Unlike C. bulbispermum hybrids that can look messy when their foliage gets whipped around by the wind, Crinum ‘Mrs. James Hendry’ has neat, upright, sword-shaped leaves about 3-3.5 ft long.  The flowers open pink and fade to white, and they have the most amazing fragrance, particularly in the evening.

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Crinum Mrs. James Hendry, plant habit

Crinum ‘Ellen Bosanquet’ — Maybe

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Mislabeled plant. Maybe Crinum ‘Ellen Bosanquet’

This plant was supposed to be a striped hybrid but was clearly was mislabeled.  I am fairly sure that it is  Crinum ‘Ellen Bosanquet,’ a hybrid dating from around 1915 that is generally considered to be one of the best ‘red’ (i.e. reddish purple -there are no true reds) Crinum hybrids.

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The buds of Crinum macowanii (Zambia form) were attacked by slugs this year, but I hope it will produce another inflorescence later in the summer.  I’m also hoping that this will be the year that some seed-grown Crinum bulbispermum ‘Jumbo’ plants finally bloom.  I also have a couple of small Crinum buphanoides seedlings that are still in pots.  They will remain in the greenhouse for a couple more years, until I can be sure that the bulbs are large enough to survive the rigors of a North Carolina winter.