One of the common names of this species makes it sound like a demon in a medieval grimoire or a villain in a fantasy novel. The alternative, Brazilian edelweiss, is more than a little twee. Take your pick, or just refer to it as Sinningia leucotricha.
S. leucotricha grows as a lithophyte in Paraná State, often on cliffs and steep hillsides which presumably accounts for its picturesque English name (itself apparently a translation of the Portuguese rainha do abismo). Each deciduous stem, topped with four softly felted leaves, emerges from a massive tuber that enables the plant to survive long periods without water. The bright orange flowers are produced in the spring, as the new stems mature, and bear all the hallmarks of hummingbird pollination.
I have been growing my S. leucotricha since 2001, and it is currently in a 8-inch (20 cm) diameter pot. The tuber hasn’t grown noticeably in the last five or six years, at least not above ground, and I suspect that it is long overdue for repotting. It is potted in gritty, fast draining soil and is grown in the brightest part of my greenhouse, together with the Pachypodiums and other succulents. Although some tuberous Sinningias are hardy in my garden, S. leuchotricha‘s long dry dormancy and habit of growing exposed at the surface would certainly make it a poor candidate for cultivating outside. For best appearance of the furry foliage, S. leucotricha should be protected from overhead watering, grown in the brightest light possible, and not overfertilized.
S. leucotricha has a definite growing schedule that must be respected. My plant starts to go dormant in early autumn, at which point I stop watering entirely. Once the stems are completely dry, I snap them off. The plant stays completely dry for several months, but I give it a little water in late January or February when I see fuzzy little bumps forming at the top of the tuber. Once the stems are in full growth, I give it a thorough watering about once a week, allowing the pot to dry between waterings. It blooms now, March into April, and after the flowers dry it doesn’t grow again until the next year. The leaves stay green–well, white–all summer, and I continue watering, but the plant doesn’t visibly do anything.
A brief return to winter this week kept me busy covering the tender new growth of terrestrial orchids every evening to protect them from frost. Then, of course, I had to uncover them before going to work in the morning. It looks as though we may have seen the last freeze, though, and the temperature is forecast to be 80 F (26.6 C) on Monday.
Here are six plants whose flowers didn’t mind the cold (or were protected in the greenhouse)
Purchasing this plant a year ago may have been a mistake. It was labeled Ranunculus ficaria at the nursery, and I didn’t realize that the little spring ephemeral with dark purple foliage was actually a cultivar of Ficaria verna, the invasive pest with green leaves that I have seen covering river banks in Pennsylvania. However, ‘Brazen Hussy’ has thus far shown no inclination to self-pollinate, and the flowerbed in my garden lacks the moving water that helps F. verna spread so aggressively on floodplains. If it manifests any invasive inclinations, it will go straight to the landfill (won’t risk the compost heap), but until them I’m reluctant to do away with it. The shiny, almost metallic flowers go so well with the dark foliage of this cultivar.
2. Brunnera macrophylla (Siberian bugloss)
I most commonly see the variegated clone ‘Jack Frost’ for sale around here, but this seed grown plant has plain green leaves. My wife loves blue flowers, so plain leaves or not, this is an obvious plant to include in the garden.
3. Tulipa whittallii
For the last couple of years, I have been experimenting with species tulips that may prove to be more heat tolerant than most of the hybrids. Tulipa clusiana var chrysantha was recommended for our climate, and it looks as though it will do well–the bulbs I planted in 2017 have multiplied and will be flowering in a week or two. It’s still too early to know how Tulipa whittallii will do. On the strength of one bulb catalog that said this is one of the most heat tolerant species, I planted a dozen bulbs last autumn. The flowers are certainly eye catching. They close up tight each evening and only open up for a few hours in the afternoon (which doesn’t seem a very good way to attract pollinators), but the intense orange color makes the wait worthwhile. I hope they stick around for a good many years.
4. Narcissus Quail (and an enormous pile of mulch)
Narcissus ‘Quail’ is a jonquilla hybrid that produces two or three flowers per inflorescence. I’m not sure if I like it. The flowers are a somewhat squashed together, so their shape is lost in a large blob of yellow.
The mulch is 16 cubic yards of ground hardwood (with a generous proportion of eastern red cedar, judging by the smell). A couple of inches of mulch spread on the flowerbeds every other year suppresses weeds, adds organic material, and most importantly, reduces the need to water. Although I irrigate new plants until their roots are established, my goal is to have the garden survive on rain alone.
5. Euphorbia horombensis
In the greenhouse, this is the season for Euphorbia horombensis to produce its brick red cyathophylls, but its spiny armament is impressive all year round. E. horombensis is listed as endangered on the IUCN red list, primarily due to habitat degradation and over-collection, but artificially propagated seedlings are reasonably common (and reasonably priced) from a few nurseries that specialize in propagating succulent plants.
The inflorescences of E. horombensis are covered with sticky sap which traps small insects (in this case, a flying ant). I’m not sure what purpose the sap serves, but it seems odd that a plant would trap potential pollinators.
6. Paphiopedilum delenatii var. vinicolor
And finally, a first-bloom seedling of Paphiopedilum delenatii var vinicolor, a recent addition to my slipper orchid collection.
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In horticulture, a volunteer is a plant that sprouts and grows without any action by the gardener. The implication is that volunteers are desirable plants, which distinguishes them from undesirable weeds. There’s sometimes a fine line between the two. In my outdoor garden, Vernonia glauca (broadlead ironweed), Poncirus trifoliata (trifoliate orange), and Callicarpa americana are a little too enthusiastic about seeding around. When another gardener wants to trade for the seedlings, they’re volunteers. When I have to dig them out of the wrong flower bed, they’re weeds.
In my greenhouse, several species have established themselves as volunteers. They can pop up almost anywhere, but they never choke out the rightful inhabitant of the pot and are very interesting in their own right.
Dorstenia is a genus of the Moraceae, the fig family, with very interesting anatomy. Its inflorescences are basically equivalent to an open, flattened fig (or a fig is a Dorstenia inflorescence folded in on itself). The almost microscopic flowers grow in a fleshy structure that is often surrounded by finger-like extensions. After pollination, a seed is produced in a little vesicle and, when ripe, shoots out with considerable force, often landing in pots several feet away. Over the years, I have grown half a dozen different Dorstenia species, but the most frequent volunteers are D. foetida and D. barnimiana. Both species are from east Africa and Arabia. D. foetida grows thick, upright stems with star-shaped inflorescences produced throughout the year. D. barnimiana is a geophyte with a biscuit-shaped underground tuber and deciduous leaves that lie flat on the soil surface. Its inflorescences are more elongated and have fewer extensions than those of D. foetida.
The habit of shooting ripe seeds around the greenhouse is shared by Euphorbia platyclada, a truly bizarre plant from Madagascar. E. platyclada is completely leafless, and its jointed stems look half dead at the best of times. Depending on much light they receive E. platyclada stems can be mottled green, brown, or bright pink. Stems of the latter color resembles coral more than a plant. E. platyclada isn’t as prolific as the Dorstenia species, and I have been very pleased to find a few volunteers.
Instead of shooting seeds, Psilotum nudum (whisk fern) produces tiny spores which drift on the breeze of the greenhouse fans. This is the only greenhouse volunteer that I didn’t originally purchase. The first plant arrived as a stowaway in the pot of a Vachellia cornigera (bullhorn acacia) from a local botanical garden. It has since appeared in several other locations around the greenhouse, but it is so interesting that I don’t begrudge it the space. Psilotum is a genus of primitive fern-like plants that lack true leaves and roots and have a fascinating life-history similar to that of ferns. The sporophyte of P. nudum has a creeping underground rhizome that sprouts green stems tipped with yellowish spore-producing synangia. The spores hatch into a subterranean gametophyte which, when mature, releases eggs and sperm cells. Union of egg and sperm results in a new photosythetic sporophyte.
P. nudum (Matsubaran) has been cultivated in Japan for hundreds of years. See the Primitive Ferns blog for further details on the many cultivars.
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.
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