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.

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.

Renanthera Jenny Wren

Renanthera_Jenny-Wren

‘Tis the season for Renanthera flowers.  My R. imschootiana is still blooming, and this week the buds on my R. Jenny Wren started to open.  Renanthera Jenny Wren is a complex hybrid whose ancestry incorporates R. storiei, R. philippinensis, R. monachica, and R. imschootiana.   The mix of lowland (R. philippinensis, R. monachica) and higher elevation species (R. imschootiana, R. storiei) has produced a fairly adaptable grex.  Although it has several doses of genes from the giant R. storiei, the other parent species are smaller, resulting in a more manageable plant. Flowers seem to be somewhat variable.  My plant has rich, red flowers with darker red spots, but here is a plant with red spots on an orange background, more reminiscent of R. monachica.

The cross was made by Carter and Holmes Orchids, but I requested, and was granted, permission to register the grex when I first bloomed it in 2004. I named it for my wife, Jennifer.

Renanthera imschootiana

Ren_imschootiana1

Depending on how I do the math, I have been waiting to see these flowers for eight years, or just over twenty five years.  Back in the mid 1990s, when I first started growing orchids, I purchased a seedling of Renanthera imschootiana ‘Saigon’ x self to grow under fluorescent lights in my student apartment in Michigan.  Orchid growers will recognize that it was a poor choice for my growing area; Renanthera species and hybrids require high humidity and very bright light–up to full tropical sun.  After a few years, I came to the same realization and sold the plant to make room for something I had a chance of flowering.

Fast forward to about 2005.  I now lived in North Carolina and had a greenhouse where I could give large orchids much brighter light and higher humidity.  I still loved red flowers, and the very rare R. imschootiana has a certain mystique. I decided to try growing the species again

But I couldn’t find a plant to buy.  This isn’t uncommon if you go searching for one particular orchid.  There are about 28,000 orchid species and hundreds of thousands of registered hybrids, so only a tiny fraction are in commercial production at any time.  Someone flasks a batch of seedlings, and that species is available for sale until they run out.  Then, the species may be virtually unobtainable, unless you know a grower who will give you a division, until someone else produces a new batch of seedlings.

Finally, in 2012, I purchased a seedling of R. imschootiana ‘Newberry’ x ‘Saigon’ from Carter and Holmes Orchids.  That one of the parents of the new seedling was the same as the parent of my old seedling probably speaks to the small gene pool of cultivated plants in the U.S. (Carter and Holmes doesn’t seem to have plants for sale any more, but I see that seedlings are available from Santa Barbara Orchid Estate).

So, about the plant:  R. imschootiana is a relatively small species in terms of leaf-span, although it can grow tall with time.  It is basically a slow-motion vine, taking ten years to grow the distance that a honeysuckle vine could grow in a week, but it eventually grows long enough to need support.  The main stem occasionally branches, and the roots and inflorescences grow from leaf axils at random intervals.  My plant is potted in a 4″ terracotta pot filled with large chunks of scoria (red lava rock).  When it got top heavy, I put the 4″ pot in a 6″ pot, and roots have filled the space between the pots.  The vining stems are supported by several stiff wires.

Ren_imschootiana3

After a few years in my greenhouse, the plant sprouted a stem that resembled an inflorescence, but instead of flowers it produced a single terminal keiki (plantlet).  The next year, the same thing happened, and the year after.  Many of the Renanthera species and hybrids more common in cultivation are lowland tropicals that grow well in a warm greenhouse, but R. imschootiana is from higher elevation (Assam, northern Indochina, Yunnan) and is noted for tolerating winter temperatures near freezing. Suspecting that the plant was too comfortable with a minimum temperature of 60 F in my greenhouse, I left it outside during the autumn of 2018 until temperatures dropped to near freezing.  I then put the plant on the floor of the greenhouse near the door and reduced watering so that it stayed cool and dry for much of the winter.  Whenever the weather was dry and above freezing, I put it back outside again.  Result: nothing.  Last winter, I just left the plant on a bench in a sunny part of the greenhouse and watered it along with all the other orchids.  Result:  four inflorescences.

So, ~1995-2020 = 25 years.  2012-2020 = 8 years.  Either span is a long time to wait.  I just wish I knew what induced the plant to flower this year.

Ren_imschootiana2

Six on Saturday #53 (April 18, 2020)

This week started with the screech of a tornado warning emanating from every iphone in the house. We scrambled out of bed, turned on the TV, and saw that the putative tornado was a few miles southwest of us, tracking northeast.  Deciding that discretion is the better part of valor, we got the kids up and took shelter with the spiders in the crawl space.   Luckily, the storm broke apart before reaching us, so after a few minutes we were able to go back in for breakfast, a little soggy from the rain but otherwise unscathed.  Strong winds the rest of the day stripped most of the remaining flowers off the dogwoods but did no other damage to the garden.

After the storm on Monday, the rest of the week has been sunny and dry, though cool–we flirted with frost on Wednesday and Thursday morning, but even the volunteer tomato seedlings that are sprouting in the vegetable beds were unaffected.

1. Myrmecocattleya Memoria Louise Fuchs

M_mem_Louise_Fuchs

In the greenhouse, Myrmecocattleya Memoria Louise Fuchs is perfuming the air.  This orchid is a primary hybrid of Myrmecophila tibicinis, famous for its hollow pseudobulbs inhabited by ant colonies, and Cattleya bicolor, a very tall and spindly Brazilian biofoliate species.  This particular plant is actually the product of self-pollinating a first generation Myc. Memoria Louise Fuchs, but under the rules of orchid nomenclature, it retains the same grex name. Its pseudobulbs are relatively short and stout, like those of its Myrmecophila parent, while genes from C. bicolor have shortened the inflorescence.  Both species tend to have clustered flowers, but this plant has inherited fragrance and rich purple color from C. bicolor, and nicely crisped petals from M. tibicinis.  All in all, a good result of hybridizer’s efforts.

M_mem_Louise_Fuchs2

2. Rhododendron cf. periclymenoides

R_periclymenoides

I featured this deciduous azalea in a Six on Saturday last April, but the flowers then were not at their best.  I am almost sure that it is R. periclymenoides, the native pinxter flower.  I now have a second plant on the other side of the house–an R. alabamense that I purchased from a reputable source last autumn has also bloomed out as R. periclymenoides.

3. Rhododendron austrinum (Florida flame azalea)

R_austrinum1

Another North American deciduous azalea. This plant was in one of my earliest blog postings, but it is so lovely I couldn’t resist showing it again. The early butterflies love it.

R_austrinum 2

4. red azaleas

Wolfpack Red

Next up, two evergreen azalea hybrids.  Above is Rhododendron ‘Wolfpack Red’, one of the CarLa hybrids resulting from a collaboration between horticulture departments at North Carolina State University and Louisiana State University.  This clone is named for the NC State Wolfpack, whose colors are red, white, and black (but predominantly red).

Below is an unlabeled hybrid that I bought several years ago at Costco.  I really like the color of this plant–its red is at the orange end of the spectrum, unlike most red azaleas which have hints of pink or magenta.  I may try propagating it this year, but my success rate with Rhododendron cuttings is not high.  Maybe air layering would be better?

Red_Azalea

5. Narcissus ‘Thalia’

Narcissus_Thalia

Narcissus ‘Thalia’ is a century-old hybrid that was recommended by Scott Ogden in Garden Bulbs for the South (Timber Press).  This is my first year growing it, but I really like the gently nodding white flowers.  I hope it comes back next year.

6. Epimedium ‘Stoplights’

Epimedium_stoplights

I keep falling for pictures of spidery Epimediums in garden catalogs, and when they bloom I am always surprised by how tiny they are and how brief the flowering season is.  This one is no exception.

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.