Outside and inside

Here are two plants that have almost nothing in common, except that they both flower in late November.

Crocus cartwrightianus var. albus

Crocus cartwrightianus is a small autumn-flowering bulb that is native to mainland Greece and the Cyclades. It is a fertile diploid species and is thought to be the wild ancestor of the sterile triploid Crocus sativus, the cultivated saffron crocus. The typical color form is purple, but I love the contrast of the bright orange stigma with the sepals and petals of this white-flowered variety. C. cartwrightianus grows fairly well in this climate, but the flowers are often damaged by slugs when we have a warm, humid autumn.

Paphiopedilum fairrieanum

While C. cartwrightianus is flowering outside, Paphiopedilum fairrieanum is flowering inside my greenhouse. P. fairrieanum is native to the foothills of the Himalayas in northeast India and Bhutan, where it experiences a summer-monsoon climate. To mimic these natural conditions in cultivation, it should be kept warm and watered well in summer and then given a cooler, drier rest in winter, when temperatures can drop as low as 45-50 F (7-10 C). In my greenhouse, the thermostat is set to 60 F, and the plant probably doesn’t experience temperatures below 55 F (13 C).

With its small, slightly nodding flowers and delicately down-swept petals, P. fairrieanum has an elfin or fairy-like quality that has intrigued orchid growers since its discovery in the mid-1800s. You might think that the species name alludes in some way to the plant’s appearance, but in fact, the species was named after a Mr. Fairrie who flowered the plant that John Lindley used for his species description in 1857.

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.

Lady Hooker and Mr. Stone

Paph_hookerae1
Paphiopedilum hookerae

Currently blooming in my greenhouse: two slipper orchids from Borneo whose specific epithets are closely tied to the world of Victorian botany and horticulture.

Paph_hookerae2
P. hookerae foliage

Paphiopedilum hookerae is noted for the striking beauty of its tessellated foliage and extremely long inflorescence bearing a single glossy flower in rich purple and cool green. Scientific names that end in “ae” often commemorate women, and in this case the woman was Maria Hooker (née Turner).  As far as I can tell, Lady Hooker was not noted for direct botanical contributions, but she was the daughter, wife, and mother of botanists.  Her husband, Sir William Jackson Hooker was Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew from 1841 until his death in 1865, two years after P. hookerae was described.  Her son, Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker, was a close friend of Charles Darwin.  He served on HMS Erebus during the Ross expedition to Antarctica, collected plants in the Himalayas and western United States, and succeeded his father as Director of RBG Kew in 1865.

Paph_stonei
Paphiopedilum stonei.  Sadly, by the time the third bud finished opening, these flowers had been disfigured by an infestation of aphids

Paphiopedilum stonei is a much larger species than P. hookerae.  It has unmarked leaves that can be up to 2 feet long, and an inflorescence bearing 3-5 large flowers with strap-like petals.  P. stonei is notoriously slow-growing and it is one of the Paphiopedilum species that never seem to show their best in photographs.  In life, the flowers are impressive and elegant, while in pictures they often appear awkward and a little grotesque.

P. stonei was described by William Jackson Hooker, and he named it in honor of a gardener–but not just any gardener.  Robert Stone was the gardener who maintained the collection of John Day, an orchid enthusiast most famous for his thousands of paintings illustrating orchid species.  John Day owned the first plants of P. stonei imported into England, and those plants, cared for by Robert Stone, served as the basis for the species description published by Hooker in 1862.

In addition to its own considerable horticultural merits, P. stonei is noteworthy as a parent of the beautiful hybrid Paphiopedilum Lady Isobel, whose name and history I have previously discussed.

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.