Outside and inside

Here are two plants that have almost nothing in common, except that they both flower in late November.

Crocus cartwrightianus var. albus

Crocus cartwrightianus is a small autumn-flowering bulb that is native to mainland Greece and the Cyclades. It is a fertile diploid species and is thought to be the wild ancestor of the sterile triploid Crocus sativus, the cultivated saffron crocus. The typical color form is purple, but I love the contrast of the bright orange stigma with the sepals and petals of this white-flowered variety. C. cartwrightianus grows fairly well in this climate, but the flowers are often damaged by slugs when we have a warm, humid autumn.

Paphiopedilum fairrieanum

While C. cartwrightianus is flowering outside, Paphiopedilum fairrieanum is flowering inside my greenhouse. P. fairrieanum is native to the foothills of the Himalayas in northeast India and Bhutan, where it experiences a summer-monsoon climate. To mimic these natural conditions in cultivation, it should be kept warm and watered well in summer and then given a cooler, drier rest in winter, when temperatures can drop as low as 45-50 F (7-10 C). In my greenhouse, the thermostat is set to 60 F, and the plant probably doesn’t experience temperatures below 55 F (13 C).

With its small, slightly nodding flowers and delicately down-swept petals, P. fairrieanum has an elfin or fairy-like quality that has intrigued orchid growers since its discovery in the mid-1800s. You might think that the species name alludes in some way to the plant’s appearance, but in fact, the species was named after a Mr. Fairrie who flowered the plant that John Lindley used for his species description in 1857.

Orchids and memory

Like any object that a person keeps for a long time, plants can accumulate individual, sentimental value well beyond the value that they would have to any other person. These two orchids, currently blooming in my greenhouse, remind me of orchid growers who were a significant influence on me when I was a novice.

Bulbophyllum rothschildianum ‘Red Chimney’ FCC/AOS

‘Red Chimney’ is a magnificent clone of a particularly attractive species. It originally received an Award of Merit (AM) from the American Orchid Society in 1976, and was subsequently upgraded to a First Class Certificate (FCC) in 1991. I obtained my division of ‘Red Chimney’ in 1998 from the late Jo Levy, a well known orchid grower and Bulbophyllum expert from Memphis, Tennessee. I never met her IRL, as they say, but we exchanged emails and traded plants back and forth. She always sent me many more plants than I sent her. Most of those plants have faded away, victims of pests, change in climate when I moved from Michigan to North Carolina, or neglect during those years when young children kept me busy, but my ‘Red Chimney’ is still going strong. I am happy to have been able to pass on more divisions of Jo’s plant to other orchid growers.

B. rothschildianum has an interesting history. As documented by Bill Thoms in his book Bulbophyllums: The Incomplete Guide from A to WHY?, it originally surfaced in 1892 in a box of “nearly dead orchid plants” shipped to England from the vicinity of Darjeeling. After that initial collection, it remained in cultivation but was lost in nature for almost a century before being rediscovered in 1991 in Nagaland. Based on the date that it was awarded, ‘Red Chimney’ is presumably descended from the original Victorian collection. Currently, the online Flora of China lists the species as being present in Yunnan, so perhaps it has (or had) a wider range in the southeastern foothills of the Himalayas.

Bulbophyllums are usually pollinated by flies, and the flowers’ scents include carrion, feces, urine, fungus, and in one eye-watering case, rotten salmon (any old-school molecular biologist who remembers using tetramethylethylenediamine to make polyacrylamide sequencing gels knows exactly what Bulbophyllum cupreum smells like). In comparison, growers of B. rothschildianum get off easy. The flowers smell like mushrooms, but the scent is faint and you don’t need to worry about driving away guests if you display the plant in your living room.

Cymbidium ensifolium ‘Iron Bone’

Cymbidium ensifolium has a long history of cultivation China and Japan where it is grown as much for its foliage as its flowers. The clone ‘Iron Bone’ is an alba form that lacks the narrow red stripes on sepals and petals and reddish spots on the labellum of wild-type clones. The flowers are understated, even for a species that will never be called spectacular, but my plant is special because it came from the collection of Jack Webster, who died in 2008. When I first moved to North Carolina, Jack was a fixture of the NC orchid world. He was a member of multiple local societies in central and eastern NC, many-time president and more-or-less permanent board member of the Triangle Orchid Society, tireless organizer of shows and exhibits, and expert on almost every aspect of orchid growing. No one has been able to replace him.

If I were growing this plant according to traditional Japanese aesthetics, I would have it in a tall, narrow ceramic pot carefully chosen to complement its elegant sword-like leaves. Alas, I am an uncouth Anglo-Saxon, so it is currently languishing in a black plastic nursery pot. Maybe I’ll move it into more attractive housing, as befits its cultural and personal history, this spring.

Operculicarya again

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Operculicarya decaryi after pruning and wiring, September 2020

After posting about my seed-grown Operculicarya decaryi last January, I finally got up the nerve to prune it fairly drastically. I then wired a branch hidden behind the tree and pulled it round so that it is now visible as the lowest branch on the right of the image above. I removed that wire in May, but last weekend, I wired the uppermost branch at the left of the image.

Overall, I’m very pleased with the results. Cutting back and slightly editing the crown has reduced the overall size of the tree, making the trunk appear older and more massive in comparison. Instead of simply forking, the tree now has some directionality, as the branches draw the eye up and over to one side.

I also messed around with my other tree that came from the same batch of seed. Although it is the same age as the tree above, it’s about half the size. I have decided to plant it on a slope and expose some of the roots. Eventually, the exposed roots should develop the same silvery bark and knobbly texture as the trunk.

operculicarya6

Way down yonder

pawpaw

Finally, finally, I have managed to collect some pawpaws from my seed-grown trees before the pesky opossums, raccoons, or squirrels got to them. As commonly described, they tasted vaguely like a mix of mango and banana but were softer and creamier than either. The photo above was taken immediately after harvesting–the pawpaws were slightly soft when pressed, but their skin was still green. They continued to ripen after picking, and over a couple of days became softer, slightly more yellowish, and more delicious.

The pawpaw tree (Asimina triloba) is a member of the mostly tropical Annonaceae which also includes the soursop, custard apple, and cherimoya. The native range of A. triloba is almost entirely within the borders of the United States, from the Mississippi valley to Atlantic coast, with only a small extension into southern Ontario. The trees have a long history of cultivation in the eastern and midwestern U.S., but fruit is almost never seen in shops. Quite apart from the problem of transporting and storing the soft and short-lived fruit, it is difficult to produce in commercial quantities. The flowers of A. triloba have color and smell that indicates pollination by flies or beetles, but because they flower early in spring when the weather is still cold, pollination is often inefficient. Supposedly some people hang road-killed animals or dead fish from the branches of their trees to attract more pollinators and increase the chance of setting fruit. Adding to the difficulty, fruit set generally requires cross-pollination between two genetically distinct trees, and A. triloba tends to spread by suckers into multi-trunk patches of a single clone.

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pawpaw flower in mid-April

Four of my trees were grown from seed that I obtained from a friend in 2007. To add more genetic diversity, I also purchased one additional seedling from the local farmers market. The trees started flowering about eight years ago, and for the past three or four years they have produced a few fruit which always vanished in late summer, shortly before I thought they were ready to harvest. This year, I watched the fruit obsessively and harvested as soon as I realized that one had disappeared.

Over the last few years, the trees have also started to sucker, so I am well on my way to having a pawpaw patch, just like in the song.

pawpaw_tree

Six on Saturday #59 (August 1, 2020)

This week’s Six on Saturday includes a couple of native species, an unusual vegetable, a cute little bulb from South Africa, a classic Victorian hybrid, and a greenhouse orchid that is really very nasty.

1. Bulbophyllum phalaenopsis

Bulbophyllum-phalaenopsis

This is not an orchid for growing on your windowsill or decorating your table at a dinner party.  If you think that the flowers of Bulbophyllum phalaenopsis look a bit like rotting meat covered with yellowish maggots, I can assure you that they smell exactly the way they look.  B. phalaenopsis is pollinated by flies looking for a place to lay their eggs, but if the fly is fooled by the ersatz carrion, the maggots will starve.

2. Canna ‘Ehemannii’

canna-ehemannii

C. ‘Ehemannii’ is an old Victorian hybrid of C. iridiflora crossed with (probably) C. indica, and it has inherited its drooping inflorescence from C. iridiflora.  Several modern C. iridiflora hybrids, including Canna ‘Orange Crush’ failed to survive the winter in my garden, but this plant, which I received from Bittster of Sorta Like Suburbia fame, has survived two winters so far.  I’m glad, because I adore the intense magenta color that is so very different than any other canna in my garden.

3. Sabatia species

Sabatia

This pretty little native wildflower often shows up at the edge of my lawn (i.e. the patch of weeds and moss that survive being mowed).  I think it is Sabatia angularis (rosepink), a widespread annual, but I am not certain.

4. Eucomis vandermerwei

Eucomis-vandermerwei

E. vandermerwei, from South Africa, is one of the smallest of the pineapple lilies. Along with E. zambesiaca, it seems to be resistant to the wilting exhibited by many other Eucomis in hot sunlight, making it a good choice for a North Carolina garden.

5. Allium cernuum (nodding onion)

Allium-cernuum

The nodding onion has a very wide native range, spanning the United States from Atlantic to Pacific.  In North Carolina its distribution is spotty, and although it has been reported from this county, my plants were purchased from the North Carolina Botanical Garden.  Leaves and flowers are edible but strong tasting.  I prefer to eat garlic chives.

6. Melothria scabra (Mexican sour gherkin, cucamelon)

Melothria_scabra

First fruit from from a plant that we bought on a whim from a veggie seedling rack this spring.  The plant looks almost identical to the weedy Melothria pendula but its fruit are better tasting.  I could probably have left these to get a bit bigger, but then I’d risk losing them to the tree rats.

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.