Operculicarya again

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Operculicarya decaryi after pruning and wiring, September 2020

After posting about my seed-grown Operculicarya decaryi last January, I finally got up the nerve to prune it fairly drastically. I then wired a branch hidden behind the tree and pulled it round so that it is now visible as the lowest branch on the right of the image above. I removed that wire in May, but last weekend, I wired the uppermost branch at the left of the image.

Overall, I’m very pleased with the results. Cutting back and slightly editing the crown has reduced the overall size of the tree, making the trunk appear older and more massive in comparison. Instead of simply forking, the tree now has some directionality, as the branches draw the eye up and over to one side.

I also messed around with my other tree that came from the same batch of seed. Although it is the same age as the tree above, it’s about half the size. I have decided to plant it on a slope and expose some of the roots. Eventually, the exposed roots should develop the same silvery bark and knobbly texture as the trunk.

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Way down yonder

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Finally, finally, I have managed to collect some pawpaws from my seed-grown trees before the pesky opossums, raccoons, or squirrels got to them. As commonly described, they tasted vaguely like a mix of mango and banana but were softer and creamier than either. The photo above was taken immediately after harvesting–the pawpaws were slightly soft when pressed, but their skin was still green. They continued to ripen after picking, and over a couple of days became softer, slightly more yellowish, and more delicious.

The pawpaw tree (Asimina triloba) is a member of the mostly tropical Annonaceae which also includes the soursop, custard apple, and cherimoya. The native range of A. triloba is almost entirely within the borders of the United States, from the Mississippi valley to Atlantic coast, with only a small extension into southern Ontario. The trees have a long history of cultivation in the eastern and midwestern U.S., but fruit is almost never seen in shops. Quite apart from the problem of transporting and storing the soft and short-lived fruit, it is difficult to produce in commercial quantities. The flowers of A. triloba have color and smell that indicates pollination by flies or beetles, but because they flower early in spring when the weather is still cold, pollination is often inefficient. Supposedly some people hang road-killed animals or dead fish from the branches of their trees to attract more pollinators and increase the chance of setting fruit. Adding to the difficulty, fruit set generally requires cross-pollination between two genetically distinct trees, and A. triloba tends to spread by suckers into multi-trunk patches of a single clone.

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pawpaw flower in mid-April

Four of my trees were grown from seed that I obtained from a friend in 2007. To add more genetic diversity, I also purchased one additional seedling from the local farmers market. The trees started flowering about eight years ago, and for the past three or four years they have produced a few fruit which always vanished in late summer, shortly before I thought they were ready to harvest. This year, I watched the fruit obsessively and harvested as soon as I realized that one had disappeared.

Over the last few years, the trees have also started to sucker, so I am well on my way to having a pawpaw patch, just like in the song.

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Windmill palm tree

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Trachycarpus fortunei, the Chinese windmill palm

Today is Palm Sunday.  The current “stay at home” order prevented us from attending Sunday service (our church met online using Zoom instead), but I have nevertheless been thinking about palm trees.  The palm fronds that give this Sunday its name were presumably cut from Phoenix dactylifera (date palm), a middle eastern species that could not survive a North Carolina winter.  If you want to grow a palm tree in your piedmont garden–to add verisimilitude to your Palm Sunday decorations, for a tropical look, or just to impress your neighbors–there’s only really one choice.

No, not dwarf palmetto (Sabal minor).  Although that native of the coastal plain is perfectly hardy in the piedmont, its trunk is entirely subterranean.  For a palm tree, with a tall trunk, you want Trachycarpus fortunei, the Chinese windmill palm. T fortunei probably has a native range extending from the Himalayan foothills of India to Japan, but its long history of cultivation makes tracking its original habitat tricky.  It is usually rated hardy to USDA Zone 7, although there seems to be some variation in hardiness among different cultivars.

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I planted a single T. fortunei seedling about ten years ago, and the trunk is now about six feet (1.8 m) tall.  It is growing at the southeast corner of the house, so it is sheltered from the prevailing northwest winds in winter.  To the east and south are tall pines and deciduous trees, so the palm gets about four hours of direct sun and bright shade for the rest of the day. When it was very small, I sometimes insulated the trunk and crown with burlap and pine straw in winter, but it is now too tall for that to be practical.  Temperatures below about 8-10 F (-13 C) burn the tips of the fronds, but 5 F (-15 C) nights during two winters did not cause any permanent damage.

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Last year, the tree produced its first inflorescence, and this year it has multiple inflorescences with thousands of flowers.  T. fortunei is dioecious–male and female flowers occur on different trees–and my tree appears to be male.

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Six on Saturday #51 (January 25, 2020)

There still isn’t a lot going on in either the garden or the greenhouse, but by carefully hoarding interesting sights, I have managed to scrape together the first Six on Saturday of the year.  1-3 are in the greenhouse, 4-6 outside.

1. Paphiopedilum liemianum (mottled leaf form).

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Although I have four or five slipper orchids in bud, this is one of only two that are currently flowering.  It’s hardly surprising that  P. liemianum, from northern Sumatra, is flowering now, because it flowers almost constantly.  It’s one of the sequential flowering species of section Cochlopetalum, and it is a great choice if you have only a small orchid collection.  The inflorescences produce one flower after another, each one opening around the time that the old one drops.  By the time an inflorescence is exhausted, a new growth has usually matured and is ready to flower.

Typically, P. liemianum has plain green leaves, but this clone has an attractive mottled pattern.  Its flower is fairly small and poorly shaped compared to some of the line-bred forms that are available, making me suspect that the parent plant was selected for breeding primarily on the basis of its unusual foliage.

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The other slipper currently in bloom is Paphiopedilum villosum, which I featured in November.  Paph flowers last a looooong time.

2.  Monolena primuliflora

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This unusual plant grows as an epiphyte or terrestrial in rainforest from Costa Rica to southern Peru and adjacent Brazil.  The flowers, while pretty, last less than a day, but the seed capsules are almost as attractive as the flowers and are significantly longer lived.  The thickened rhizome suggests a plant that can tolerate some drought, but looks can be deceiving.  The plants wilt and shrivel rapidly if the soil dries out.

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I have lost track of how old this plant is.  Maybe ten or twelve years? In theory, I grow M. primuliflora in pure sphagnum moss kept constantly moist, but I think the sphagnum has all rotted away and new rhizome is just rooting into old decayed rhizome.

3. Lachenalia sp. (L. aloides?)

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I received these unlabeled bulbs as part of a trade about seven years ago.  They have been growing in a 3-inch pot for about the last five years, blooming reliably in midwinter and going dormant by late February or early March.  I think they are the South African Lachenalia aloides var aloides (cape cowslip).

4. Lentinula edodes (shiitake)

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We have harvested and eaten the first few shiitake mushrooms from the log garden that I inoculated with mycelium fourteen months ago.  No sign of the lion’s mane mushrooms yet.

5.  Phoradendron leucarpum (oak mistletoe) growing on Carya sp. (hickory)

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Although it looks a lot like European mistletoe (Viscum album), our native oak mistletoe is in a completely different genus.  I’m not sure if P. leucarpum can be substituted for European mistletoe in magic potion, but it seems to work just as well at Christmas time.  The only difficulty lies in harvesting it. This mistletoe is about 40 or 50 feet up in one of our taller hickory trees.

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6. Fuligo septica (dog vomit slime mold)

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Fuligo septica is the most common, or at least the most conspicuous, slime mold in our garden.  Its aethelia (fruiting bodies) commonly appear on the hardwood mulch that I spread on the flowerbeds.  Often they are an extremely lurid, almost fluorescent yellow color.  This aethelium is somewhat pale but quite large–63 cm diameter.

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.

Operculicarya decaryi

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Operculicarya decaryi, the Jabily or Madagascar elephant tree.  It is semi-dormant in winter and has lost most of its leaves.

In a comment on my recent post about the Winter Silhouette Bonsai Show, I mentioned that I have a few small trees that I have been crudely attempting to shape, despite my lack of training in bonsai techniques.  This is one of them, a 21-year-old Operculicarya decaryi that I grew from seed.  I’m not fully satisfied with its current shape, particularly the crown, but I ‘m having fun with it.

Operculicarya is a genus of perhaps half a dozen species, all from Madagascar, of which O. decaryi is the most common in cultivation.  It isn’t traditional bonsai material, and from the point of view of a proper bonsai artist it has several natural flaws.  Most notably, it tends to form a swollen, barrel-shaped trunk that is narrowest at the base–the dreaded reverse taper.  Here, I have hidden the worst of the reverse taper with chunks of quartz in an attempt to recreate an arid, rocky environment.  The roots are also a problem.  They are massive, like huge brown sausages, and resist cramming into a shallow pot.  On the other hand, the leaves are small, the trunk naturally has a knobbly appearance, and the branches become gnarled and twisted.  For someone attracted to weird and unusual plants, there’s a lot to like.

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O. decaryi is not frost hardy, so my tree spends summers outside and winters in the greenhouse.  New twigs are whip-like and have long internodes, but with repeated clipping they eventually thicken up and branch.  Getting a nice, fat barrel trunk is just a matter of waiting for the tree to mature.   Old trees, wider than they are tall, are sometimes available from online nurseries, but they are almost certainly collected from the wild.  It is more sustainable–and probably more fun–to start with a seedling or rooted cutting.  Even young plants have a lot of character.

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The same tree at about five years old