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.

Burnsvigia namaquana flowers
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.

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.

May flowers

I love bright red flowers.  Hummingbirds also love red flowers, and I love having hummingbirds in the garden.  Therefore, I plant a lot of red flowers.  Here are a few that are blooming now:

Spigelia marilandica (Woodland Pinkroot)

Spigelia marilandica flowers
Spigelia marilandica

Spigelia marilandica is one of the most beautiful North American wildflowers, and I am trying to spread it around the garden wherever I have the morning sun/afternoon shade that it likes.  Seed is difficult to collect, because the seed capsules explode when ripe, propelling the seed some distance from the mother plant.  I carefully dig up the resulting volunteer seedlings and move them to new spots.  The flowers have the classic “red tube” appearance of hummingbird pollinated plants, and the flaring petals can be yellow or green.  S. marilandica is native to the southeastern U.S., including extreme southwestern North Carolina (Cherokee and Macon County) [1].

Silene virginica ‘Jackson Valentine’ (Fire Pink)

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Silene virginica

Silene virginica is native to the NC piedmont, although this particular clone comes from Alabama.  S. virginica is usually short lived and needs to be frequently propagated from seed, but the nursery that sells ‘Jackson Valentine’ claims it will survive for several years.  This is year two, so we shall see.

Hippeastrum ‘Red Rascal’

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Hippeastrum ‘Red Rascal,’ blowing out the sensor on my iPhone camera

Many people know Hippeastrum, because they are the “Amaryllis” bulbs sold around Christmas time, but in Zone 7 and southwards, they’re worth trying in the garden.  Hippeastrum x Johnsonii and the ‘Mead Strain’ of H. vittatum hybrids are the best known hardy varieties of Hippeastrum, and I have planted both.  However, this spring the best show was put on by this little Sonatini hybrid that I planted last year.  Supposedly, ‘Red Rascal’ has been bred for cold tolerance, so it will be interesting to see how it does long term.  I won’t be surprised it it thrives.  A surprising number of South American bulbs do well in North Carolina, as long as the bulbs are planted six or eight inches deep and well mulched.

Sprekelia formosissima (Jacobean Lily)

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Sprekelia formosissima

A native of Mexico, Sprekelia formosissima is a close relative of Hippeastrum. It  is supposedly hardy in eastern North Carolina, but I haven’t had the courage to risk my plants yet.  Instead, I grow a clump of bulbs in a 10″ diameter pot and over-winter them in the greenhouse with my other tropical amaryllids.

Stenomesson miniatum

Stenomesson miniatum flower
Stenomesson miniatum, another South American amaryllid

Stenomesson miniatum is from Peru, so I don’t think there’s any chance it would survive a winter out in the garden.  Like Sprekelia formosissima, it stays dry and warm in the greenhouse during the winter and goes outside when the danger of frost is past.  The little flowers are orange, but I like orange flowers just as well as red.  The bell shape is a clear indicator of hummingbird pollination.

Reference

[1] Weakley, A.S. (2015) Flora of the Southern and Mid Atlantic States.  University of North Carolina Herbarium, Chapel Hill, NC.  http://www.herbarium.unc.edu/flora.htm

 

Flowers of the west wind

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Zephyranthes atamasco flowering in my garden.

Now is the season for Atamasco lily, Zephyranthes atamasco, to bloom in the central NC piedmont.  The thin, grassy leaves are often lost among true grasses, so the surprisingly large flowers (~8 or 9 cm wide) seem to appear from nowhere.  Z. atamasco likes wet soil while in growth and can be found in moist deciduous woods, roadside ditches, and boggy meadows. In the woods, the plants produce their foliage while the trees are bare and bloom just as the canopy fills in, but they flower best in the open where they get  more light.  The plants below are in a meadow that I frequently drive past.

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They’re on private land, so I stood on the road and took pictures with a telephoto lens this afternoon.

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Once upon a time, Zephyranthes atamasco was a common lawn flower, but more frequent mowing and the use of herbicides to control weeds has reduced its frequency.  In our neighborhood, there’s one house with a lawn that isn’t mowed often.  Currently, it is snowy white with the flowers of bluets (Houstonia caerulea) and atamasco lilies.  It’s quite a sight.  Elsewhere in the neighborhood, plants bloom in the long grass at the side of the road:

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In nature, Z. atamasco grows in the coastal plain and piedmont from extreme southeastern Maryland and Virginia, south to northern Florida and west to Mississippi.  It could almost certainly be grown north and west of its natural range if the bulbs are protected from freezing.

Z. atamasco can be be obtained from various native plant nurseries, and seed is sometimes available from the North Carolina Botanical Garden Seed Program.  In the garden, Z. atamasco  produces new leaves in late winter and wants plenty of water while growing.  It will go dormant if the soil dries out in the heat of summer but grows best with consistent moisture.  A couple of plants that I grow in large pots sitting in a tray of water retain their leaves much longer than the plants in the ground, and they occasionally flower again in autumn.

Other Zephyranthes species are found from the Southern U.S. through central and South America as far south as Argentina.  Together with their close relatives in the genus Habranthus, the tropical and subtropical Zephyranthes are collectively known as rain lilies, because they bloom intermittently, usually after a thunderstorm.  A wide range of species and hybrids are hardy in zone 7 and may actually be easier than Z. atamasco to grow in regular garden soil.  In my garden, I grow Zephyranthes grandiflora (pink flowers, Mexico and central America), Z. flavissima (yellow, southern Brazil to Argentina), Z. candida (white, Argentina and Uruguay), Z. smallii (yellow, Texas), and Habranthus tubispathus var. texensis (orange, Texas).

For further details on rain lilies, see the very informative wiki of the Pacific Bulb society.

Anticipation…

If we don’t have a late freeze, if squirrels don’t destroy the buds, if voles don’t eat the roots, and if children playing frisbee don’t trample it, my Calanthe sieboldii will be blooming in a week or two.

Calanthe sieboldii flower buds
Plicate leaves of Calanthe sieboldii unfurling to reveal big, fleshy flower buds.

Calanthe sieboldii is a woodland orchid from southern Japan.  I obtained my plant from Montrose Garden last summer, so this is my first chance to see the flowers.  Over the winter, it easily survived 10 F (-12 C) insulated under a couple of inches of snow, but the warm weather that kick-started its growth in late February had me worried.  A lot of plants that are perfectly hardy when dormant are damaged by freezing temperatures when they have tender new shoots, and I didn’t want to lose the buds.  So, when hard freezes were forecast several times in early March, I covered the plant with a plastic tub and a couple of inches of mulch, then removed it all when the weather warmed up again.  It looks as though my efforts have paid off, but I’ll be on tenterhooks until the buds open.

If you are interested in learning more about C. sieboldii, Botany Boy has a great blog post that includes a short video of his hunt for wild plants in Fukuoka Prefecture on the island of Kyushu.

…Reward

From the greenhouse, a blooming Hippeastrum cybister:

Hippeastrum cybister flowers
Hippeastrum cybister, the spider amaryllis

Hippeastrum cybister is an unusual bulb from seasonally dry habitat in Bolivia and northern Argentina.  It’s a relative of the big “amaryllis” hybrids that are sold as seasonal decorations around Christmas time, but its flowers are much more delicate and elegant.  The narrow, twisted petals and sepals are shared with another Argentinian Hippeastrum species, H. angustifolium and with a related species, Sprekelia formosissima, the Jacobean Lily from Mexico.  The red color of these species and the tube formed by their lateral sepals and lower petal is suggestive of pollination by humminbirds.  However, Google has failed me this evening, and I haven’t been able to confirm that.