First bloom: Hippeastrum calyptratum

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Hippeastrum calyptratum

It’s frigid outside, but with a little help from LP gas (OK, a lot of help), it’s the tropics in my greenhouse.  This week, the star is a seed-grown Hippeastrum calyptratum bulb, flowering for the first time four years after germination.

H. calyptratum is a very unusual amaryllid from the Atlantic Forest of southern Brazil, where it grows as an epiphyte on tree trunks. The pale green flowers are pollinated by bats and are often reported to produce a odor like burning plastic.  To my nose, they smell more like wet paint, but the fragrance is not very strong–at least not from this seedling.

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There are two (possibly three) other epiphytic Hippeastrum species.  I previously posted on H. aulicum when my plants bloomed in autumn.  The third epiphytic species, H. papilio is currently blooming a few feet away from the H. calyptratum, and a different clone bloomed earlier, at the same time as my H. aulicum.

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Hippeastrum papilio

The fourth epiphyte, H. arboricola, is rather mysterious.  It was apparently described from a single plant found growing on a fallen tree in a clear-cut forest and has not been seen since.  It is not clear if H. arboricola represents a distinct epiphytic species, possibly now extinct, or if it was a terrestrial species that was growing opportunistically on a tree.

H. aulicum and H. papilio are large, robust plants, very easy to grow in a mix of commercial potting soil and permatill (stalite).  When I tried that mix with H. calyptratum, the plants did well initially but later lost their roots.  In some cases, the entire basal plate rotted, destroying the bulb.  I now use a very open, wholly inorganic mix of scoria (red lava rock) and permatill in terracotta pots and have much better results. As befits an epiphyte, I plant the bulb high in the pot, with just a few large chunks of scoria holding it in place.  The roots are quite happy to wander around on the surface of the mix.

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Hippeastrum calyptratum (left) and Hippeastrum papilio (right)

Assuming that my blooming plant is close to full size, the bulbs of H. calyptratum seem to be significantly smaller than those of H. aulicum and H. papilio, and the leaves are proportionally shorter and narrower.   H. calyptratum shares with its larger epiphytic cousins a growth cycle that is quite different than that of the Hippeastrum (“Amaryllis”) hybrids sold for forcing in winter.  H. calyptratum has a short dormancy in mid-summer, but it retains some of its leaves and does not want to be bone dry for long periods while dormant.  As temperatures cool in autumn, my plants begin growing again, and they continue producing new leaves intermittently through the winter.

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Eucrosia mirabilis

A couple of horticultural rules of thumb:

1. If an orchid is named after the Rothschild family, it is sure to have spectacular flowers.  cf. Vanda Rothschildiana, Paphiopedilum rothschildianum, Eurychone rothschildiana, Bulbophyllum rothschildianum.

2.  If a plant’s species epithet is some variation on “mirabilis” or “mirabile,” it is probably something special.  After all, “mirabilis” means wondrous, amazing.

Eucrosia mirabilis, blooming now in my greenhouse, lives up to its name.

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Eucrosia mirabilis inflorescence

E. mirabilis is a member of the Amaryllidaceae from South America.  Its sepals and petals are fairly small and a dull yellowish green color, and if that’s all there was to the flowers, it wouldn’t be worth growing.  But as you can see, the extremely elongated stamens and pistil are what make the flower amazing.  All of the flowers on an inflorescence open at the same time, giving the appearance of a large mop or head with long white hair.  The effect is very dramatic.

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Flowers just starting to open.  The folded stamens and pistil emerge limp and wrinkled, and slowly expand over several days.

The May 1, 2006 issue Curtis’s Botanical Magazine gives a good description of the ecology of E. mirabilis and its history in cultivation [1].  The species was described 1869 with notes indicating that it was from Peru, and it seems to have remained in cultivation until the 1870s–there is an herbarium record at Kew from 1876.  It was then lost for more than 100 years, and in 1997 was declared extinct by IUCN.  Surprisingly, researchers in Ecuador (not Peru) rediscovered the species in the same year that it was declared extinct, and seed, probably originating from Ecuadorian plants, entered cultivation in the late 1990s.

In nature, E. mirabilis grows on rocky hillsides among Opuntia cactus (prickly pear), so it needs bright light and very well drained soil.  I attempt to replicate this habitat by growing the bulb in an 8″ diameter terracotta pot with a well-drained mix of sand, permatill, and a little commercial potting soil.  During the spring and summer, I grow it outdoors in full sun, and it produces a pair of large, paddle-shaped leaves.  When the leaves start to wither in early autumn, I move it into the greenhouse for several months of warm, dry dormancy.  My plant always flowers in December or January, consistent the bloominng season in the wild, but plants in England are reported to bloom in April and May [1].  It is completely leafless while flowering, and the long inflorescence emerging from an apparently empty pot adds to the bizarre appearance.

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My bulb has shown no inclination to form offsets, so I suspect it must be propagated by seed.  Luckily, the plant is self fertile, and I have several second generation seedlings coming along.  I have donated extra seed to the Pacific Bulb Society seed exchange,  and I’ll probably be sending more to the SX in a couple of months.

Reference

Matthew, B. and Lewis, G. (2006).  557. Eucrosia mirabilis (Amaryllidaceae).  Curtis’s Botanical Magazine 23:157-164.

Book Review: The Amaryllidaceae of Southern Africa

This book review was also published in the most recent issue of The Bulb Garden, the newsletter of the Pacific Bulb Society.

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Graham Duncan, Barbara Jepp, and Leigh Voigt (2017). The Amaryllidaceae of Southern Africa, Umdaus Press, Pretoria, South Africa.

When I first learned of the impending publication of The Amaryllidaceae of Southern Africa, I wondered whether it would be worth purchasing.  After all, a huge amount of information on South African amaryllids is already available without cost at web sites like the PBS wiki or PlantZAfrica.com, a site maintained by the South African National Biodiversity Institute.  However, early descriptions of the book were uniformly positive, and I have hesitated before to purchase an attractive horticulture book, only to discover that its limited print run has sold out and second hand copies are far beyond my budget.  Thus, when the book finally became available, I searched around for the best price and ordered a copy from a distributor in the United Kingdom.  I was not disappointed.

Considered first as a physical artifact, the book is an impressive specimen.  It is printed on heavy, glossy paper bound together with a satin ribbon bookmark.  The endpapers and tough dust jacket are beautifully decorated with line drawings of amaryllid inflorescences and the dust jacket also has a lovely color illustration of Brunsvigia radulosa.  Weighing nearly three kilograms, the book is almost too heavy to read comfortably unless it is placed on a table, and it would certainly not be a good field guide.  However, its physical presence gives the impression that it will outlive the purchaser.

And the content?  This is the finest botany/horticulture book I have read in a long time.  As most advertisements and descriptions indicate, the book’s main selling point is its botanical illustrations, which represent almost forty-five years of work by Barbara Jeppe and her daughter Leigh Voigt.  The book covers every single species in all of the amaryllid genera found in Southern Africa, a region encompassing both the summer- and winter-rainfall regions of South Africa, Swaziland, Lesotho, Namibia, and Botswana.  Each full-color botanical illustration shows the bulb, foliage, flowers, and fruit.  A notation at the bottom of each illustration indicates its scale as a percentage of life-size, making it easy to determine the actual size of the flowers.  In my browsing of the book, I found only a couple of species illustrated with older paintings or lacking an illustration, because no living material was available to the artists.

All species, including those few with no illustration, have a detailed description written by Graham Duncan, the curator of the indigenous bulb collection at Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden in Cape Town, South Africa.  In addition to a physical description, Duncan’s text includes a brief history of the species (including provenance of the illustrated plant), flowering period, distribution and habitat, conservation status, and cultivation notes.  This latter section will probably be of great interest to bulb enthusiasts and gardeners.  If, like me, you sometimes have trouble remembering which parts of South Africa receive winter rainfall and which months in the southern hemisphere correspond to our northern hemisphere growing season, you’ll be pleased to see that the cultivation instructions usually state exactly when a species should be watered in terms of season, not months of the year.

The various genera and species are presented in alphabetical order, making it easy to find a species of interest.  Each genus is introduced with a more general description that includes numerous color photographs, many of them showing plants in habitat. Introductory material at the front of the book includes sections on amaryllid biogeography and survival strategies.  These sections were particularly interesting to me, because I find that much of the fun of growing exotic plants lies in learning about their biology, evolution, and habitat.

The end of the book includes a key to all genera and species, a glossary, and a more detailed cultivation guide split into sections for growers in the northern and southern hemispheres.  The northern hemisphere guide includes helpful instructions for acclimatizing bulbs imported from South Africa, as well as lists of recommended species for cultivation outside.  These lists are, I think, the least useful aspect of the book for growers in North America.  The cultivation guide was clearly written with the United Kingdom in mind, and there is no obvious way to translate the “hardy” and “half-hardy” categories into USDA climate zones.  In some cases, the cultivation guide seems too conservative, stating that Nerine bowdenii is “the only fully hardy summer-rainfall amaryllid” and that Crinum bulbispermum is merely “frost-hardy.”  With these minor quibbles, though, I am still impressed by the cultivation guide and think that its information on propagation, pests and diseases, and potting media will be of great utility to North American growers.

For me, the biggest surprise in this book has been learning just how many absolutely gorgeous amaryllids there are that do not seem to be in cultivation in the United States.  Perhaps the list of seed and bulb suppliers at the end of the book will offer me the opportunity to test those instructions for acclimatizing imports.

Hippeastrum aulicum

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Hippeastrum aulicum ‘Quiririm’ — a seedling plant from parents originally collected in São Paulo State.

November is the blooming season of one of my favorite tropical plants: Hippeastrum aulicum, the Lily of the Palace*.  H. aulicum is a large amaryllid from southern Brazil and Paraguay.  It is closely related to the Hippeastrum hybrids (usually labeled “Amaryllis”) that are sold around Christmas time, but with one major difference.  The hybrids are derived primarily from Andean species that grow in the ground, while H. aulicum is an epiphyte, growing on the surface of rocks and in large trees.  The website of the Pacific Bulb Society has some pictures of H. aulicum growing on branches in its natural habitat.

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Hippeastrum aulicum ‘Benedito Novo’ — a seedling from parents originally collected in Santa Catarina State

Another difference between H. aulicum and the Andean-derived hybrids is their annual growth cycles.  Hybrids are usually purchased for forcing winter blooms, but after a couple of seasons in cultivation, they revert to an annual cycle where they bloom in early spring, grow through the spring and summer, and go dormant in autumn.  To bloom again the next year, they require a cool, dry winter rest.  In contrast, H. aulicum blooms in autumn, grows through the winter, and goes dormant in summer.  My plants spend the summer outside, so they never remain dry for long periods, even when dormant.  They are soaked by summer thunderstorms, and when there is no rain I water them once or twice a week.  When nights start getting cooler in late September or early October, they begin to grow again.  Inflorescences come first, but new leaves usually sprout before the flowers open.  Once autumn nights drop into the upper 40s (8-10 C), I move the plants into the greenhouse for the winter.

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Hippeastrum aulicum — a plant with no locality information purchased from Telos Rare Bulbs

The flowers of my H. aulicum plants differ mainly in the width of the sepals and petals.  All are a strong, bright red with darker flares extending from a green patch at the center of the flower.  The three sepals are roughly the same size, but the lower petal is generally narrower than the two upper petals, making the flower bilaterally symmetric.  The inflorescence generally carries only two flowers, but a healthy bulb can produce two inflorescences with buds that open at the same time.  When the flowers first open, the anthers are a beautiful purple until they fold to expose the pollen.

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Purple anthers of a freshly opened flower

Seed of H. aulicum is occasionally available from online vendors, and seedlings are easy to grow.  The papery seeds of H. aulicum, like those of many amaryllids, can be floated in a jar of water covered with cling film until they sprout and then planted in individual pots.  This method is particularly useful if you are uncertain what percentage of the rather short-lived seed is viable.

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Hippeastrum seeds floating

For H. aulicum, I use a very open, free-draining mix of roughly one part commercial potting soil to two parts stalite (permatill).  The roots of H. aulicum seem more tolerant of “terrestrial” mixes than those of another epiphytic Hippeastrum, H. calyptratum, but I don’t want to tempt fate.  When planting sprouted seeds, I make a hole for the root with a pencil or bamboo skewer, gently press the seed onto the soil surface, and cover it with a thin layer of gravel or permatill.  Hippeastrums are susceptible to several viruses that are common in cultivation, so I always use new pots.  Growers of hybrid Hippeastrums are often encouraged to plant the bulbs partially raised above the soil to discourage rot, but H. aulicum seedlings will naturally produce exposed bulbs.

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Four-year-old seed-grown bulbs, approximately 11 cm diameter.

The majority of my seed-grown H. aulicum have bloomed three years after germination.

 

*I haven’t been able to discover why H. aulicum received this slightly over-the-top common name. Does anyone know?

Win some, lose some

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A hybrid amaryllid, perhaps Hippeastrum x Sprekelia

When I became interested in growing bulbs, particularly tropical amaryllids, I soon learned that some species were either priced far beyond my budget or were simply unavailable from commercial vendors.  I had been growing orchids for about two decades, so it took me a little while to cotton on to the fact that most bulbs can be grown easily from seed.  Unlike orchid seeds, which require lab equipment and good sterile technique for flasking, bulb seeds only require appropriate potting soil and a modicum of patience.  Specialist nurseries sometimes offer seed of rare species at affordable prices, and bulb enthusiasts are generous with seeds from their plants, particularly through hobbyist exchanges like that run by the Pacific Bulb Society.

I have found that exchange seed is usually labeled accurately, but occasionally I get a surprise when the plants finally flower.  That’s not to say that the donor deliberately mislabeled the seed.  Most hobbyists aren’t taxonomists and may be growing mislabeled plants without realizing it.  Many amaryllids enthusiastically hybridize, and bees or other insects could cross-pollinate plants in a mixed collection.  And of course, accidental mix-ups could occur either in the donor’s greenhouse or in the seed exchange inventory.

Which brings us to the plant above (and below).

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hybrid amaryllid, side view

In July 2014, I obtained seed ostensibly from Hippeastrum stylosum, a species from northern Brazil and Guyana that is not available from bulb vendors.  Judging by photos on the web (Google), the inflorescence of H. stylosum carries multiple salmon-colored flowers with distinctively elongated stamens and pistil that protrude well beyond the petals.

A couple of weeks ago, I was excited to see an inflorescence forming on one of the seedlings.  The flower has finally opened, and as you can see, it isn’t H. stylosum.  It’s clearly a hybrid involving a Hippeastrum of some kind, but its precise parentage is unclear.  Judging by its narrow, curled petals, strong red color, narrow foliage, and the fact that it produced a single flower, I wonder if it is xHippeastrelia, a hybrid between Hippeastrum and the Mexican amaryllid Sprekelia formossisima

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Sprekelia formossisima, the Jacobean lily

I have several other seedlings, but as they all have identical foliage, I don’t hold out much hope that they’ll prove to be H. stylosum.

Oh, well. You win some, you lose some.  Anyone have the true Hippeastrum stylosum?

Want to trade?