No bonus points for guessing the pollinator of this plant. It has hot pink tubular flowers of heavy, waxy substance. It has to be pollinated by birds, right? If I tell you that it’s from South America, then it’s obviously hummingbird-pollinated.
Macleania–a genus in the Ericaceae, the blueberry/rhododendron/heather family–is a plant geek’s delight. Macleania species are found in central and South America, generally in high altitude cloud forest. Many are epiphytes that produce lignotubers, swollen roots or stem bases that store moisture and nutrients. Their tubular flowers come in shades of bright orange, red, and pink, highlighted with green and yellow, and their berries are often sweet and edible.
The label of the plant illustrated above, Macleania sp. aff. smithiana, indicates that it may or may not be the species M. smithiana. It generally fits the description of M. smithiana, except that its flowers are pink/yellow instead of orange-red/green. Since plant descriptions are generally based on a limited range of specimens, it may turn out to be a color variant of M. smithiana. Alternatively, it might be a closely related species. The “aff.” (affinis) in the label reflects that uncertainty. It came with an accession number from the Huntington Botanical Garden (HBG 89922), so there’s a chance I may be able to find out more someday.
I purchased this rooted cutting in autumn, 2016, because it was advertised as originating from lowland forest near Esmereldas, Ecuador. Most Macleania species in cultivation are from higher elevation and are therefore less likely to tolerate our long hot summers. So far, the plant has performed well, producing clean new growth and blooming for the first time this month. I am growing it in a mix of permatill and long-fiber sphagnum moss, outside under shade-cloth in summer and in a cool corner of the greenhouse in winter.
There’s not enough going on in the garden and greenhouse to support a “Six on Saturday” post today, but I think the first fruit on a strange little plant warrants a post all of its own.
Miracle fruit (Synsepalum dulcificum) is a nondescript little west African shrub with nondescript little white flowers. Its name and its claim to fame come from the red berries which contain a unique glycoprotein called miraculin. Miraculin binds to taste receptors that are responsible for detecting sweet substances and functions as a pH-dependent agonist . In other words, miraculin can activate sweet taste receptors, but only under acidic conditions. The result is that sour (acidic) substances temporarily taste sweet.
This sounded like a lot of fun to me, so about a year-and-a-half ago, I purchased a small. S. dulcificum plant to grow in the greenhouse. After a rocky start when it got badly sunburned, the plant has recovered nicely and recently produced two berries. My initial plan was to cut the berries in half so that all four family members could try them. However, it turned out that the berries consist of a thin layer of white pulp sticking to a large central seed that resists subdivision. In the end, my wife graciously chose to wait for the next crop (or maybe she wanted to use us as guinea pigs). I chewed on a small fragment of skin and pulp shaved off the largest berry, and the kids had one berry each.
The skin/pulp was tart and fresh but didn’t have much in the way of a distinctive taste. After chewing on the berries, the kids and I tried sucking on wedges of fresh lemon and sipping apple cider vinegar. The results were exactly as described in the literature, but it was still startling to experience the effect ourselves. The lemons tasted like wonderfully sweet fresh lemonade. The vinegar was great. I could still smell the volatile acetic acid, but the taste was sweet apple juice. The overall effect was a complex, spicy apple cider.
I see more buds forming on the plant, so hopefully we will soon have a larger crop of berries to experiment with.
 Koizumi, A., Tsuchiya, A., Kakajima, K.-I., Ito, K., Terada, T., Shimizu-Ibuka, A., Briand, L., Asakura, T., Misaka, T., and Abe, K. (2011). Human sweet taste receptor mediates acid-induced sweetness of miraculin. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA108: 16819-16824.
“Holly” generally brings to mind evergreen species like English holly (Ilex aquifolium) or American holly (Ilex opaca) which are grown for their ornamental spiny foliage as much as for their red berries, but there are also deciduous species with soft leaves that are shed in autumn. The best evergreen hollies are beautiful, stately trees, but for a punch of winter color, they can’t compete with the deciduous hollies whose heavy crop of berries are never hidden by leaves.
Two species of deciduous hollies are native to the piedmont, and I grow both of them in my garden, along with a commonly cultivated hybrid. Their leaves are falling now, so they’ll be looking their best until hungry birds eat the berries in late winter.
Ilex verticillata (Winterberry)
I. verticillata thrives best in damp, acidic soil and full sun, but it will tolerate dry soil and part shade. Dwarf clones of I. verticillata (e.g. ‘Red Sprite’) are great for small gardens, but since we have plenty of space, I planted the full-size ‘Winter Red’ and ‘Winter Gold.’ I. verticillata ‘Winter Red’ will approach 8 feet tall (~2.4 meters) and spread a similar distance with somewhat sprawling branches and root suckers. Once they have their own roots, I have found that the suckers are easy to transplant, and removing some of them helps the shrub too look a little more tidy.
I. verticillata ‘Winter Gold’ apparently originated as a mutation of ‘Winter Red,’ so apart from the berry color, the two clones are almost identical. At first, I wasn’t very impressed with ‘Winter Gold,’ finding the color somewhat anemic, but over the years it has grown on me. The golden berries of ‘Winter Gold’ look best in front of dark mulch, while those of ‘Winter Red’ are most dramatic against grass or snow.
All hollies are dioecious, with male and female flowers on separate plants. Thus, to set berries on female plants like ‘Winter Red’ and ‘Winter Gold,’ you need a male plant that blooms at the same time. For these late-blooming I. verticillata clones, the best pollinator is I. verticillata ‘Southern Gentleman.’ I have a single ‘Southern Gentleman’ tucked away at the edge of the woods, and it is sufficient to pollinate my three plants of ‘Winter Red’ and one ‘Winter Gold.’
Unfortunately, deer are very fond of the young twigs of I. verticillata which lack the spiky defenses of evergreen holly, and if the hoofed pests consistently nip off the new growth, you will end up with an awkwardly shaped bush and far fewer berries. If you are in the piedmont and don’t garden behind a deer fence, you’ll need to frequently apply repellents.
Ilex decidua (Possumhaw)
As seen in the comparison picture below, the berries of I. decidua are significantly smaller than those of I. verticillata. The I. decidua plants that I have seen in the wild have been upright shrubs, generally taller than wide, and the one in my garden has the same shape
I have not planted a male I. decidua, but my female plant sets a good crop of berries every year, probably after pollination by male I. opaca (American holly) trees that grow wild in the woods around our house. I’m not sure if I. opaca pollen can produce fertile seeds on I. decidua, but I have never found any seedlings that appear to be hybrids.
Ilex ‘Sparkleberry’ (hybrid winterberry)
I. ‘Sparkleberry’ is a hybrid of I. verticillata and a Japanese deciduous holly, I. serrata. After growing both ‘Sparkleberry’ and I. verticillata ‘Winter Red’ for about ten years, I don’t think the hybrid is an improvement over the native species. ‘Sparkleberry has a slightly more upright and elegant appearance, but its berries are smaller than those of ‘Winter Red’ (see above), and they don’t tolerate very cold weather, becoming soft and discolored when those of ‘Winter Red’ are still perfect.
In my garden, I. ‘Sparkleberry’ blooms a week or two before late-blooming I. verticillata, so I can’t depend on it being pollinated efficiently by I. ‘Southern Gentleman’. The best pollinator for I. ‘Sparkleberry’ is I. ‘Apollo,’ a male sibling from the same cross. I have a single plant of ‘Apollo,’ which I forget about for most of the year, because it is such a nondescript shrub.