First bloom: Cyrtanthus falcatus

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Unusually pale Cyrtanthus falcatus flowers. The “shepherd’s crook” curve at the top of the inflorescence is a distinctive characteristic of this species.

Cyrtanthus falcatus is a large amaryllid from South Africa. Its species name comes from its sickle-shaped leaves which recall the falcata sword favored by ancient Iberian tribes (think of a Gurkha kukri for a modern equivalent). Its flowers and its bulbs, which grow exposed at the surface, are roughly the same size and shape as those of C. obliquus which I have previously discussed, but I have found it much more difficult to flower than the latter species. After first flowering in 2017, my C. obliquus has continued to bloom every year, but this is the first inflorescence on a mature C. falcatus that I have been growing since 2014. The difference is probably due to C. obliquus being better suited to spending the winter in my heated greenhouse. C. obliquus is a lowland species, found from sea level to 1300 m in the eastern Cape northwards to KwaZulu-Natal. C. falcatus, while it also grows in KwaZulu-Natal, is a highland species found from 1100-1900 m on the Drakensberg escarpment [1]. Consequently, C. falcatus probably requires colder winter temperatures to initiate spring flowering.

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Sunbird’s-eye view of the flowers

I grow both plants outside in full sun during the summer and move them to the greenhouse in autumn. I bring the C. obliquus into the greenhouse before nights drop much below 50 F (10 C), but I leave the C. falcatus outside until the first frost is forecast. Although C. obliquus spends the winter on a greenhouse bench among tropical plants, I put the pot of C. falcatus on the floor where it is cooler. Usually, the plant has already dropped all its leaves and is dormant before it goes into the greenhouse. The pot remains dry all winter, and I start to water again only when I see new leaves sprouting, usually in March. The pot goes back outside in April, as soon as possible after the last frost. This winter, I put the pot right beside the greenhouse door to give it the coolest (but still above freezing) temperatures possible. That may be what finally induced flowering.

The large tubular flowers and sturdy inflorescence of C. falcatus probably indicate that it, like C. obliquus, is pollinated by sunbirds. Since birds generally prefer flowers in shades of orange and red, I was surprised by the green flowers of my plant. Most photos online do show orange flowers, but the species is apparently quite variable and green flowers are within the range of color reported for the species [1]. Since I already have C. obliquus and several smaller Cyrtanthus species that are orange, I am quite pleased with the unusual color of my C. falcatus.

Reference

  1. Duncan, G., Jeppe, B., and Voight, L. (2016)  The Amaryllidaceae of Southern Africa, Umdaus Press, Pretoria, South Africa.
Cyrtanthus-falcatus_whole plant
Whole plant, showing the above-ground bulbs

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. In other words, 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 genus 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

Paphiopedilum Johanna Burkhardt

Paph_Johanna-Burkhardt

I have previously written about two fine old primary hybrids made with Paphiopedilum rothschildianum: the Victorian P. Lady Isobel and P. Saint Swithin. Here is a modern one, and it may well be the best.

Paphiopedilum Johanna Burkhardt is P. rothschildianum x P. adductum, and it was registered in 1994. My plant was made using P. adductum var. anitum as the pollen parent, and the results are spectacular. P. rothschildianum has contributed flower size, number, and overall form, while genes from the very dark P. adductum var. anitum have produced a dorsal sepal, petals, and pouch with dark reddish-brown markings on a yellow background. P. adductum var. anitum has also reduced the overall size of the plant, without affecting flower size; this plant has about half the leaf-span of my other P. rothschildianum hybrids, but its flowers are just as large, if not larger. A Google search for this grex will turn up pictures of other clones, many of them awarded, with huge, muscular-looking flowers and dorsal sepals that are almost black.

P. adductum var. anitum is sometimes considered a separate species, P. anitum, in which case this hybrid would be P. Wössner Black Wings (P. rothschildianum x P. anitum). From a horticultural point of view, there’s something to be said for distinguishing the dark plants made with P. adductum var anitum from those made with lighter colored P. adductum clones. However, the International Orchid Register lists P. Wössner Black Wings as a later synonym of P. Johanna Burkhardt, and both the Kew World Checklist of Selected Plant Families and a recent checklist of the genus Paphiopedilum (Koopowitz, H., 2018, Orchid Digest 82: 178-235) consider P. anitum to be a synonym of P. adductum.

Eight hybrids using P. Johanna Burkhardt as a parent have been registered, but none of the photos I have seen suggest that they are any better than–or even as good as–their parent. I’d go so far as to say that in this group of orchids, the primary hybrids are almost always better than complex hybrids. After more than 120 years, P. Lady Isobel and P. Saint Swithin are still well worth growing, and I suspect that the same will be true of P. Johanna Burkhardt in another century.

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.

Giant Peruvian daffodil

Paramongaia1
Paramongaia weberbaueri

eBay can be a wonderful source for rare and unusual plants, but there’s always a chance you won’t get what you expect. I bought this plant in 2014, and it arrived as a small dormant bulb with no distinguishing characteristics. It could have been almost anything, and I had to wait 6 1/2 years to find out if I got an excellent deal on a very rare bulb, or paid way too much for a mislabeled Narcissus. In this case, I can breathe a sigh of relief, because the plant was as advertised.

Paramongaia weberbaueri is, despite its common name, not a daffodil. It is in the same family as daffodils, the Amaryllidaceae,, but while daffodils are native to the Mediterranean region, Paramongaia is from South America–specifically western Peru, where it grows in the rain shadow of the Andes. There are apparently two forms of the species, a high altitude form which grows and flowers in summer, and a winter-growing lowland form. My plant is obviously the winter-growing form. I keep it in a bright spot in the greenhouse year-round (minimum winter temperature 60 F, 15 C; summer maximum 93 F, 34 C). During winter I water at least once a week, or more frequently if the soil dries out. Then I leave it completely dry, no watering whatsoever, all summer long. Presumably, the humidity in the greenhouse is sufficient to keep the bulb from desiccating while dormant.

The flower bud developed relatively slowly for an Amaryllid and lasted just under a week in good condition. The fragrance was wonderful.

So far, my plant has shown no tendency to produce offsets. The anthers failed to produce pollen–or dried up prematurely, I’m not sure which. In any case, I was unable to self-pollinate the flower.

Paramongaia2
Paramongaia weberbaueri, whole plant with juvenile Homo sapiens to show scale.