Back from the dead

Sinningia helleri--photograph of white flowers and red bracts
The lovely white flowers and contrasting red bracts of Sinningia helleri

This plant has a really cool backstory.

Sinningia helleri is the type species of the genus Sinningia. That is, it is the species that forms the basis for the genus, serves as a reference for any other species to be included in the genus, and remains permanently attached to the genus name in any taxonomic revisions. It’s a little awkward when the type species of an extant genius is extinct.

S. helleri was described in 1825 and was grown in Victorian and Edwardian plant collections, but it eventually died out in cultivation. The final image of a cultivated S. helleri plant was published in 1907, and it seems likely that the last cultivated plants died during fuel shortages and bombing raids in World War I and II. All attempts to find more plants in their natural habitat near Rio de Janeiro failed, and the species was considered extinct, both in cultivation and in the wild.

Photo of Sinningia helleri flowers

Then, in 2015, a Swiss botanist decided to crowdsource one last search for the species. He posted a couple of old pictures of S. helleri to an online forum for Brazilian plant identification–the botanical equivalent of a missing person flyer. A month later, he received a response from a Brazilian botanist. She had realized that a photograph she took in 2008 of an old railway embankment included several plants that resembled S. helleri. Returning to the site, she confirmed that they were indeed the missing species.

Drama ensued. The embankment was slated to be cleared when the old railroad was converted into a bicycle park, and although endangered species receive legal protection, no one bothers to put extinct species on endangered species lists. The plants were still alive only because clearing had been briefly delayed due to a rock fall.

The plants were eventually protected, a small amount of seed was collected and distributed to growers in Brazil and the USA, and six years later, I have the opportunity to grow my own S. helleri.

I started with a small packet of seed that I scattered on the surface of a 2-inch pot filled with a 1:1 mix of commercial potting soil and perlite. In December 2020, the pot went into a sealed 10-gallon aquarium under LED grow lights, together with a mix of other gesneriad species. Two seeds germinated in late January 2021, and the seedlings grew relatively quickly. In May 2021, I repotted the seedlings, the largest into a 5-inch pot, and the smaller into a 3-inch pot. Both plants are currently flowering.

For more details on the discovery and rediscovery of S. helleri, see Gesneriads: the journal for gesneriad growers 66(1-2), 2016.

Sinningia helleri plant habit

Six on Saturday #67 (June 26, 2021)

The weather has been quite mild this summer, with relatively few days topping 90 F (32 C), but the color in the garden is certainly heating up. Our big patch of Canna ‘Flaming Kabobs’ is almost blinding in the sun, but it has a lot of competition. Here are some of the hot flowers in the garden this week.

1. Canna indica “Musifolia” (Indian Shot)

Flowers of Canna indica "Musifolia"

I grew this from seed received as Canna musifolia, but Kew says that name is a later synonym of the widespread and variable species C. indica. The mother plant was >8 feet tall, but this seedling is blooming at barely 3 feet tall. I only recently transplanted it out of a pot, so I am hoping that it will grow bigger in the ground. Many of the modern Canna hybrids have flowers that are big, shapeless blobs of color, so I really like the small, orchid-like flowers on this plant. The red-edged foliage is also lovely, but unfortunately Japanese beetles like it too. The common name of this species comes from the resemblance of its hard, round seeds to shotgun pellets or musket balls.

2. Tithonia rotundifolia (Mexican Sunflower)

Flower of Tithonia rotundifolia

We don’t grow many annuals, but who can resist this color? We started a batch of these guys from seed under lights and planted them out about a month ago.

3. Achillea “Paprika”

Flowers of Achillea Paprika

This is a very common perennial available from most garden centers in the summer, but it is well worth growing nevertheless. It has a tendency to flop over, but the stems soon start growing upwards again. It is often sold as a cultivar of Achillea millefolium (common yarrow) but is actually derived from the Galaxy series of hybrids which originate from crosses of A. millefolium and A. x Taygetea

4. Echinacea ‘Sombrero Sangrita’

Flowers of Echinacea Sombrero Sangrita

Some of the modern Echinacea hybrids are really impressive. This cultivar has intense red flowers on compact, upright stems, worlds away from the dusty purple and rangy stems of wild type E. purpurea.

5. Lilum ‘Forever Susan’

Flowers of Lilium 'Forever Susan'

This Asiatic Lily is a lot shorter than I expected; it’s less than 2 feet tall. We got a bag of bulbs this spring, and I’m glad I planted them at the front of the flowerbeds. They’d never be seen behind tall Cannas or Crinums.

6. Sinningia tubiflora

Flowers of Sinningia tubiflora

Do we need to cool off a little? Sinningia tubiflora–a gesneriad species from northern Argentina, Paraguay, and Uruguay–has surprisingly large white flowers. Their tubular shape and lemony fragrance in the evening surely point to pollination by moths. The underground tubers, like those of several other Sinningia species and hybrids, are winter hardy in the NC piedmont.

The Propagator is the host of Six on Saturday.  Head over there to see his Six for this week and find links to the blogs of other participants.

Paintbrush lily

Inflorescence of Scadoxus puniceus

This is exciting! After about six years in the ground, my Scadoxus puniceus has finally decided to flower. I was afraid that I wouldn’t get it to see it in full bloom: The day after I noticed a bud emerging from the mulch, the temperature dropped to 28 F (-2.2 C), so I surrounded it with bubble-wrap and covered it with a large plastic pot. That seemed to be sufficient insulation, because a couple of weeks later I have this beautiful orange inflorescence. The many small flowers are surrounded by petal-like spathes, giving it the appearance of a large single bloom.

Scadoxus puniceus is an African member of the Amaryllidaceae, the daffodil family, so it is not a true lily. Its range in the wild extends from Western Cape Province in South Africa northwards to Tanzania, with disjunct populations in Ethiopia [1}. Given its tropical and subtropical native habitat, it is somewhat surprising that it has done so well in my garden. It has survived temperatures as low as 5.5 F (-14.7 C) when buried under a thick layer of mulch, and despite its reported preference for a dry winter dormancy, it grows in clay that stays wet all winter long.

I suspect it took so long to flower because it is heavily shaded in summer by a large American beautyberry bush (Callicarpa americana). Last year, I planted a couple of young plants in sunnier spots. They survived the winter but are still too small to flower. Maybe next year.

Reference

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

Six on Saturday #65 (April 10, 2021)

We are currently in the middle of the annual Pollen Apocalypse week as the local pines, oaks, and hickories make the case that they, not humans, are the dominant species in the piedmont. The week’s activities have included eating cetirizine like candy, finally being glad that we can wear masks everywhere, and hoping that the person behind me in line just has allergies and not a particularly virulent case of Covid-19. Up next, the traditional reading of poems by WWI soldiers about mustard gas attacks.

It’s Saturday, so here are six things in the garden.

1. Claytonia virginica (Virginia springbeauty)

Picture of Claytonia flowers

This was totally unexpected. Claytonia virginica is a native woodland wildflower which blooms early in the spring before the deciduous trees leaf out and then quickly goes dormant. This one appeared spontaneously in the middle of one of my full-sun flowerbeds. I have never noticed the species growing in our woods, so I’m really not sure where the seed came from.

2. Tulipa turkestanica?

picture of a miniature tulip

Another surprise. Last autumn, I planted some more bulbs of Tulipa sylvestris (photo 1) and Tulipa whittallii (photo 3) to expand existing plantings. This must have been mixed in. The flowers are miniscule, barely 3 cm across. After looking at all the other tulips sold by the bulb vendor and searching the web, my best guess is that it is Tulipa turkestanica.

3. Tulipa ‘Little Beauty’

Tulipa_Little-Beauty

Another miniature tulip living up to its name. The flowers of this little plant are almost flush with the foliage. Various references disagree about whether this is a selected clone of Tulipa humilis or a hybrid with T. humilis ancestry. I planted these last year, so although it is reputed to be a good choice for warm climates, it remains to be seen whether it will perennialize as well as T. clusiana var. chrysantha (photos 5 and 6), T. whittallii, and T. sylvestris.

4. Narcissus ‘Starlight Sensation’

Starlight-sensation

Last autumn, I interspersed some of these bulbs among the existing drift of Narcissus ‘Tête-à-tête’ (photo 4) that runs along the lane at the edge of our property. I was hoping for a mix of yellow and white flowers, but I miscalculated the blooming season of the two clones. Instead, I have early yellow and later white. I suppose extending the flowering season is a different kind of success.

5. Iris bucharica

Iris_bucharica

Another recent planting. Iris bucharica is from Afghanistan and needs a dry dormancy in late summer, so I have planted the bulbs in the hottest and driest spots in the garden. It remains to be seen if it will survive our summer thunderstorms and humidity. The foliage is very odd–more like a Tradescantia or daylily than the typical sword-like leaves of the genus.

6. Narcissus ‘Golden Bells

a photo of Narcissus 'Golden Bells'

These guys get better every year.

The Propagator is the host of Six on Saturday.  Head over there to see his Six for this week and find links to the blogs of other participants.

Six on Saturday #64 (March 13, 2021)

What a difference a few weeks makes. This week has been brightly sunny, and the high temperature was about 80 F (26.5 C). The spring bulbs and hellebores are nearing their peak, the garden is perfumed by Edgeworthia chrysantha, Lonicera fragrantissima, and Osmanthus fragrans, and the fence lizards are skittering about in the leaf litter.

1. Cypripedium formosanum (Formosan lady’s slipper orchid)

Cyp_formosanum

After three years, my C. formosanum is still going strong. I think this year’s flower is the nicest so far. The plant is in an 8-inch diameter pot with a mix of composted wood chips, peat, and stalite. It lives outside under shade cloth in summer and spends the winter on the floor of the greenhouse, near the cold draught from the imperfectly sealed swamp cooler.

2. Hellebore flowers

Hellebore flowers floating in a dish

The pure white flowers at center left and 5 o’clock are Helleborus niger. The large reddish flower at 10 o’clock is Helleborus x iburgensis ‘Anna’s Red’. The others are all seed-grown Helleborus x hybridus.

3. Narcissus ‘Odoratus’

Narcissus_odoratus

This is a dwarf tazetta Narcissus. According to various web sources, it was discovered somewhere on the Isles of Scilly by the horticulturalist Alec Gray. To my nose it is only faintly fragrant, despite the cultivar name.

4. Narcissus x odorus (Campernelle)

Campernelle

Narcissus x odorus is a centuries-old hybrid of N. jonquilla x N. pseudonarcissus. It has been grown in North Carolina since the colonial period. The blue-green foliage in the foreground is Tulipa clusiana var. chrysantha (see photo 2 here).

5. Cackleberries

eggses

The tiny dinosaurs have started laying, and between the five of them, we are averaging about four eggs a day! The very pale blue-gray eggses are from Hühnchen and Kuritsa. Dark brown with darker speckles is from Pollo, large brown from Kylling, and small, light brown from Frango.

6. Vegetable seedlings

A picture of Cypripedium formosanum

I handle the ornamental perennials, but vegetables are my wife’s domain–she’ll have more than a dozen different varieties of Asian greens and kale, along with tomatoes, malabar spinach, spigariello, lettuce, and a few annual flowers ready to plant out next month. The glow from her new LED grow lights makes our house look like something out of “The Amityville Horror” at night, but the seedlings seem to love it.

The Propagator is the host of Six on Saturday.  Head over there to see his Six for this week and find links to the blogs of other participants.