While visiting a local home improvement store today, I took a look at the garden section to see what grotesqueries the plant wholesalers have cooked up lately. They did not disappoint. I am, by now, inured to things like paper flowers glued to cacti or Phalaenopsis orchids with dyed blooms–If you desperately need a cheap grafted cactus, you can pick off the fake flowers, and when the garish dye fades, you’ll have a reasonably nice white-flowered Phal hybrid.
But today’s offerings…Shudder.
How about a Hippeastrum bulb dipped in wax? Judging by the label, the flower is a big red tetraploid, probably ‘Red Lion,’ and someone has obviously thought, “Hmm, that’s a very striking flower, how can we make it look worse?” The answer was to dip the bulb in wax even more brightly colored than the flower, so that the inflorescence will emerge from something the right size and color to choke Snow White. And speaking of snow, what goes better with a subtropical flower than a coating of fake snow?
According to the label, the wax means that you don’t have to water the bulb at all. It also means that the bulb won’t be able to grow roots, and is doomed to the trash can as soon as the flowers fade.
What’s that you say? “A waxed bulb the color of Rudolph’s nose is pretty bad, but this is the land of inflatable snowmen and nativity scenes with Santa Claus adoring the baby Jesus. A certain lack of taste is expected during the holidays. Don’t you have anything worse?”
I actually picked up a couple of these to see if they were made of plastic. Nope, they’re real. Someone has dipped a variety of cacti and some Gasteraloe hybrids in paint. You can choose fluorescent red, blue, or a particularly nasty shade of blue-green. The painted leaf tips of the Gasteraloes are already shriveling, but the plants might eventually recover as new leaves emerge. The cacti are surely doomed. They’ve been completely covered, and I’m reminded of that scene in Goldfinger where Bond’s latest amour dies after being coated with gold paint.
This week, I traveled to San Diego, California for a scientific conference. It was my first trip to San Diego–my first trip to anywhere in California, actually–so it was exciting to see a new part of the country. Even the flower beds around my hotel and the convention center were full of new and interesting things.
The meeting didn’t leave much time for sightseeing, but I managed to slip away one morning and take a bus up to Balboa Park, which houses the San Diego Zoo and a variety of gardens. I considered just wandering around the free areas of the park but eventually decided that I couldn’t miss the world famous zoo. That turned out to be the correct choice. In addition to being an amazing collection of endangered species (the zoo is famous for its captive breeding successes), the grounds are also a very fine botanical garden. The weather was cool, so the animals were active, and there were hardly any visitors. I had a good long visit with the pandas (red and giant), koalas, Tasmanian devils, komodo dragon, giant tortoises, okapis, elephants, jaguars, and many other animals, but I took more pictures of the plants.
Today being Saturday, here are six things that caught my eye in San Diego–garden related, of course.
1. Flowering trees.
November is clearly not the best time of year for blooming trees, but nevertheless, I saw some beautiful tropical and subtropical flowers.
2. Bird of Paradise flowers
Strelitzia reginae (bird of paradise) and Strelitzia nicolai (white bird of paradise) were growing (and blooming) all over town. S. reginae is my wife’s favorite flower, so when we were first married I tried growing some from seed. After fifteen years, I managed to get a only single flower from an enormous clump that took up a lot of real estate in the greenhouse, so I gave up. Clearly, flowering is not a problem when they are grown outside in San Diego.
3. The Botanical Building
The Botanical Building is a Balboa Park landmark that was originally built for the 1915-1916 Panama-California Exposition. Before seeing it, I had assumed it was some sort of greenhouse or conservatory, but there is no glass involved. Instead, the Botanical Building is a giant lathe house, built of wooden strips that provide the perfect amount of shade and wind protection for palms, tree ferns, and other tropical/subtropical understory plants.
4. Australian plants
Callistemon ‘Woodlanders Hardy’ and one or two eucalyptus are the only Australian plants I know of that can be grown in North Carolina, and even those are marginal outside of the coastal plain. The climate of southern California is more similar to parts of Australia, so I wasn’t surprised to see a wider variety of plants from Down Under.
5. African and Malagasy plants
The zoo has a really impressive collection of succulents from Madagascar and southern Africa.
6. Hawaiian plants
I suppose the climate of Hawaii, particularly on the drier leeward side of the islands, must be not entirely unlike that of coastal San Diego County.
For more Six on Saturday, click over to The Propagator, where you will find his Six and links to other participants.
Here are some more plants on their way to my greenhouse for the winter. I previously photographed some of my Pachypodium plants and gave cultural suggestions in Six on Saturday #3. Those photos, taken in July of last year, showed leafy plants. Here in October, most of my pachypodiums have already shed their leaves and are dormant. Flower buds will start to emerge in late winter to early spring, and fresh new leaves will follow.
All of the species shown here are from Madagascar
1. Pachypodium eburneum
Pachypodium eburneum is a very compact species with strongly compressed branches and relatively short inflorescences. In that sense, it is somewhat like a less extreme version of P. brevicaule. While P. brevicaule has soft spines, however, the thick spines of P. eburneum are hard and sharp. Very old P. eburneum have a lumpy, irregular form, but this plant (eleven years old, grown from seed) is still nicely symmetrical. The flowers of P. eburneum are white or pale yellow.
2. Pachypodium rosulatum var. gracilius
Pachypodium rosulatum is a very variable species that some botanists (and many horticulturalists) split into a complex of several closely related species. Here, I’ll follow Dylan Burge  in considering this and the following plants to be variants of one species.
P. rosulatum gracilus is distinguished by its dense, very fine spines. It generally has a bottle-shaped or globular trunk. Flowers are small and bright yellow. This is a seventeen-year old plant, grown from seed.
3. Pachypodium rosulatum (near Tôlanaro)
This P. rosulatum variant, which appears to be undescribed, supposedly comes from the vicinity of Tôlanaro (Ft. Dauphin) in southern Madagascar. It has large yellow flowers and very sharp spines that are stronger than those of var. gracilius. This plant was purchased as a small artificially propagated seedling in 2008.
4. Pachypodium rosulatum var. makayense
Like Pachypodum rosulatum var. bicolor, P. rosulatum var. makayense has bicolored yellow and white flowers. At least under greenhouse conditions, var. makayense seems to be more compact than var. bicolor. It is also more difficult to grow, and I have lost a number of seedlings to root rot. This plant is eleven years old, grown from seed.
5. Pachypodium rosulatum var. cactipes
Pachypodium rosulatum var cactipes has fine, acicular spines, rather like those of var. gracilus, but in var. cactipes they are more widely spaced on long branches. The plant shown above was purchased as a small seedling from Arid Lands in 1999. It has the longest flowering season of any of my pachypodiums, producing yellow flowers successively over more than a month in mid to late spring.
The plant shown below also seems to be var. cactipes. It is the “super branching form” sold for many year by Highland Succulents in Ohio. I bought this plant in 2000.
6. Pachypodium windsorii
Pachypodum windsorii has bright red flowers in the spring. The plant above, a 1997 purchase from Glasshouse Works nursery, is the parent of the seedling below. Shortly after germination, I deliberately damaged the apical meristem of this seedling, and it responded by branching. Usually pachypodiums branch after flowering for the first time, and the trunk is expanded only below the first branch. In this seedling, each of the four basal branches is developing a swollen base, giving it the appearance of four plants fused together. I think it will make a really nice specimen in ten or fifteen years.
The nights have started cooling off, so it is time move my tropical plants back into the greenhouse before we have our first frost. I thought I’d snap some pictures of a few interesting specimens before I put them away for the winter.
At first glance Adenia globosa looks distinctly alien–definitely more so than the hybrid Paphiopedilums that they invariably seemed to use as stand-ins for alien flora on old Star Trek The Next Generation episodes. When examined more closely, however, its anatomy starts to make sense. Adenia is a genus in the Passifloraceae, the passion flower family, and like our native Passiflora incarnata (maypop), many Adenia species are leafy vines with tendrils that help them to climb other plants. A. globosa has evolved in the arid savannas of east Africa, so its features reflect that history.
The base of the plant is swollen into a more or less globular trunk to store water.
With no need to climb other plants, the stems are rigidly erect or arching, and the tendrils have been modified into stout thorns to protect the plant (and its stored water) from herbivores. New stems have a single, tiny leaf under each thorn. The leaves soon fall, so the majority of photosynthesis is carried out by the stems, which are less subject to water loss than large leaves would be.
Old stems develop a glaucous coating that probably serves to further protect them from sunburn and water loss.
A. globosa seems reasonably easy to maintain, given warm temperatures, bright light, and very well drained potting media, but growth is very slow. My plant has just about doubled in size over the past seventeen years. Some succulents (e.g. Pachypodium) develop the best form and character when underpotted, but Adenia seem to grow fastest when somewhat overpotted. Some growers have had good luck using large tubs or raised beds to get plants to the desired size before moving them to smaller display pots, but great care must be taken not to over-water when using large pots.
A. globosa is dioecious, so separate male and female plants are required for seed production. My plant has never flowered, so even if I had a second specimen, seeds would be entirely hypothetical. Cuttings will root relatively easily and slooooowly produce a swollen trunk. Patience is definitely required for all aspects of A. globosa cultivation.
It’s already Sunday across the Atlantic where the host of “Six on Saturday” lives, but it’s still Saturday evening here. I guess it isn’t too late to participate. And regardless of whether it’s Saturday or Sunday where you live, you can still head over to The Propagator’s blog to see his Six and links to those of other participants.
It’s still well below freezing most nights, but there are tentative signs of life in the garden…
1. Cyclamen coum
Cyclamen coum isn’t as vigorous and well adapted to our climate as C. hederifolium, but a couple of tiny plants are hanging on under the pines. Every year, they bloom in the dead of winter, and every year I almost step on them.
2. Helleborus niger (Christmas rose)
The foliage of Helleborus niger has been flattened by the snow and cold, but at least it isn’t hiding the flowers on their very short stems. Some people trim off the old leaves of hellebores just before they bloom. That would certainly make the flowers of this species more visible, but I worry that removing leaves from a slow-growing evergreen species would be detrimental.
3. Lonicera fragrantissima (Winter honeysuckle)
The flowers of Lonicera fragrantissima certainly aren’t spectacular, but the fragrance is absolutely wonderful. I planted a row of the shrubs at the top of our driveway, at the northwestern edge of our property, so the prevailing west winds of winter spread the perfume down towards our front door. I’d be quite proud of myself if it wasn’t completely fortuitous. The direction of winter breezes was the furthest thing from my mind when I was deciding where to plant them.
L. fragrantissima is frequently found on lists of invasive plants, but luckily I very rarely see any fruit and have never found a volunteer seedling. All of my plants are a single clone, and I wonder if they are not very self-compatible.
4. Epidendrum stamfordianum
In my greenhouse, this pretty little central American orchid is blooming for the first time. It is still a fairly small seedling, so I expect to see longer inflorescence with more flowers in subsequent years.
5. Rauhia decora
This is the first year that my Rauhia decora bulb has produced two leaves instead of just one, so I am cautiously optimistic that it may be approaching blooming size. If it doesn’t bloom this year, then maybe in 2019.
6. Pachypodium brevicaule
I can see inflorescences starting on several of the spring-blooming Pachypodiums, but P. brevicaule is always the first to flower.