Six on Saturday #65 (April 10, 2021)

We are currently in the middle of the annual Pollen Apocalypse week as the local pines, oaks, and hickories make the case that they, not humans, are the dominant species in the piedmont. The week’s activities have included eating cetirizine like candy, finally being glad that we can wear masks everywhere, and hoping that the person behind me in line just has allergies and not a particularly virulent case of Covid-19. Up next, the traditional reading of poems by WWI soldiers about mustard gas attacks.

It’s Saturday, so here are six things in the garden.

1. Claytonia virginica (Virginia springbeauty)

Picture of Claytonia flowers

This was totally unexpected. Claytonia virginica is a native woodland wildflower which blooms early in the spring before the deciduous trees leaf out and then quickly goes dormant. This one appeared spontaneously in the middle of one of my full-sun flowerbeds. I have never noticed the species growing in our woods, so I’m really not sure where the seed came from.

2. Tulipa turkestanica?

picture of a miniature tulip

Another surprise. Last autumn, I planted some more bulbs of Tulipa sylvestris (photo 1) and Tulipa whittallii (photo 3) to expand existing plantings. This must have been mixed in. The flowers are miniscule, barely 3 cm across. After looking at all the other tulips sold by the bulb vendor and searching the web, my best guess is that it is Tulipa turkestanica.

3. Tulipa ‘Little Beauty’

Tulipa_Little-Beauty

Another miniature tulip living up to its name. The flowers of this little plant are almost flush with the foliage. Various references disagree about whether this is a selected clone of Tulipa humilis or a hybrid with T. humilis ancestry. I planted these last year, so although it is reputed to be a good choice for warm climates, it remains to be seen whether it will perennialize as well as T. clusiana var. chrysantha (photos 5 and 6), T. whittallii, and T. sylvestris.

4. Narcissus ‘Starlight Sensation’

Starlight-sensation

Last autumn, I interspersed some of these bulbs among the existing drift of Narcissus ‘Tête-à-tête’ (photo 4) that runs along the lane at the edge of our property. I was hoping for a mix of yellow and white flowers, but I miscalculated the blooming season of the two clones. Instead, I have early yellow and later white. I suppose extending the flowering season is a different kind of success.

5. Iris bucharica

Iris_bucharica

Another recent planting. Iris bucharica is from Afghanistan and needs a dry dormancy in late summer, so I have planted the bulbs in the hottest and driest spots in the garden. It remains to be seen if it will survive our summer thunderstorms and humidity. The foliage is very odd–more like a Tradescantia or daylily than the typical sword-like leaves of the genus.

6. Narcissus ‘Golden Bells

a photo of Narcissus 'Golden Bells'

These guys get better every year.

The Propagator is the host of Six on Saturday.  Head over there to see his Six for this week and find links to the blogs of other participants.

Six on Saturday #64 (March 13, 2021)

What a difference a few weeks makes. This week has been brightly sunny, and the high temperature was about 80 F (26.5 C). The spring bulbs and hellebores are nearing their peak, the garden is perfumed by Edgeworthia chrysantha, Lonicera fragrantissima, and Osmanthus fragrans, and the fence lizards are skittering about in the leaf litter.

1. Cypripedium formosanum (Formosan lady’s slipper orchid)

Cyp_formosanum

After three years, my C. formosanum is still going strong. I think this year’s flower is the nicest so far. The plant is in an 8-inch diameter pot with a mix of composted wood chips, peat, and stalite. It lives outside under shade cloth in summer and spends the winter on the floor of the greenhouse, near the cold draught from the imperfectly sealed swamp cooler.

2. Hellebore flowers

Hellebore flowers floating in a dish

The pure white flowers at center left and 5 o’clock are Helleborus niger. The large reddish flower at 10 o’clock is Helleborus x iburgensis ‘Anna’s Red’. The others are all seed-grown Helleborus x hybridus.

3. Narcissus ‘Odoratus’

Narcissus_odoratus

This is a dwarf tazetta Narcissus. According to various web sources, it was discovered somewhere on the Isles of Scilly by the horticulturalist Alec Gray. To my nose it is only faintly fragrant, despite the cultivar name.

4. Narcissus x odorus (Campernelle)

Campernelle

Narcissus x odorus is a centuries-old hybrid of N. jonquilla x N. pseudonarcissus. It has been grown in North Carolina since the colonial period. The blue-green foliage in the foreground is Tulipa clusiana var. chrysantha (see photo 2 here).

5. Cackleberries

eggses

The tiny dinosaurs have started laying, and between the five of them, we are averaging about four eggs a day! The very pale blue-gray eggses are from Hühnchen and Kuritsa. Dark brown with darker speckles is from Pollo, large brown from Kylling, and small, light brown from Frango.

6. Vegetable seedlings

A picture of Cypripedium formosanum

I handle the ornamental perennials, but vegetables are my wife’s domain–she’ll have more than a dozen different varieties of Asian greens and kale, along with tomatoes, malabar spinach, spigariello, lettuce, and a few annual flowers ready to plant out next month. The glow from her new LED grow lights makes our house look like something out of “The Amityville Horror” at night, but the seedlings seem to love it.

The Propagator is the host of Six on Saturday.  Head over there to see his Six for this week and find links to the blogs of other participants.

Six science fiction and fantasy novels with important plants (SoS #63)

It’s Saturday, and ordinarily I’d think about a Six on Saturday post of plants in the garden or greenhouse. But the weather has been grotty for the past few days, with near constant cold rain mixed with occasional freezing rain, and although a few optimistic spring bulbs are sprouting, there’s hardly anything in bloom. The situation is a bit better in the greenhouse, but the dull gray weather isn’t the best for photographs, and honestly, it’s kind of cold and gloomy out there even with the propane heater.

So, I’m going to try something different. When not obsessing over orchid catalogs, I like to read science fiction novels, and although SF authors spend more time thinking about alien animals, they do occasionally pay attention to plants. Since it is Saturday, I have decided to limit this post to six novels–science fiction or fantasy–in which plants are significant to the plot, not just window dressing.

1. The Day of the Triffids, John Wyndham

John Wyndham’s novels and short stories were some of the first SF that I swiped from Dad’s bookshelf. The Chrysalids is definitely my favorite, but I also enjoyed Wyndham’s novel about motile carnivorous plants, The Day of the Triffids. If you have seen the 1962 movie, you’ll recall that the Triffids are alien in origin, arriving as spores in a meteor shower which blinds anyone who views it, leaving them easy prey. In the book, however, triffids predate the meteor shower and are widely farmed for their oil. The protagonist thinks they were probably bioengineered behind the iron curtain. The mass blinding event is unrelated to triffids and simply allows the plants to escape cultivation and act as a particularly nasty invasive species.

closest real-world analogue: Thankfully there aren’t any carnivorous plants that can kill humans with a venomous whip and then tear off gobbets of decomposing flesh. However, the sticky substance that allows the triffids to also trap insects reminds me of the flypaper traps of sundews (Drosera species).

Picture of a sundew growing in a bog
Drosera intermedia growing in a bog, Quoddy Head State Park, eastern Maine.
IMG_3437-crop
The same species in Vestfold og Telemark, Norway. These guys get around.

2. The Integral Trees, Larry Niven

The eponymous integral trees grow in the Smoke Ring, a torus of breathable air orbiting a neutron star. Since they live in free fall, they don’t have massive roots, and instead have a tuft of foliage at each end of the trunk. Unequal stresses on each end pull the tufts in opposite directions and cause the tree to take on the shape of the integral symbol in calculus. The plot of the novel is kicked off by a feature of an integral tree’s life cycle that has unfortunate consequences for the human colonists who live in its tufts, but like some of Niven’s other novels (most notably Ringworld) this is a book where the setting is more interesting than the characters or plot.

closest real-world analogue: Bromeliads like Tillandsia species, I suppose. Tillandsias use their roots primarily as holdfasts and can be grown with no substrate at all. It’s not difficult to imagine one growing successfully in free fall.

tillandsia
This seems to be the only picture of Tillandsias that I have: a twenty-year-old low-resolution image of Tillandsia caput-medusae (top) and Tillandia bulbosa.

3. Great North Road, Peter F. Hamilton

In Great North Road, artificial wormhole portals have allowed travel to a number of extra-solar planets. One of them, St. Libra, has a complex vegetable ecosystem and no animals at all. The novel is a typical Peter Hamilton doorstop with a huge cast and interleaved subplots that include a murder mystery and a war against an alien menace that looks like it will be a long defeat. All of the subplots involve the plants of St. Libra in one way or another.

closest real-world analogue: This is a spoiler, so I’ll transform it by rot13. Gur cynagf ner gur ovbybtvpny pbzcbaragf bs n cynargnel pbafpvbhfarff, onfvpnyyl gur Tnvn ulcbgurfvf eha nzhpx, fb gur pybfrfg erny-jbeyq nanybthr zvtug or sbhaq va gur erprag erfrnepu fubjvat gung gerrf bs qvssrerag fcrpvrf pna fjnc ahgevragf ivn zlpbeeuvmny pbaarpgvbaf orgjrra gurve ebbgf–n fbeg bs fybj pbzzhavpngvba.

4. The Serpent Sea, Martha Wells

Wells’s Raksura novels take place in a complex fantasy world inhabited by dozens of races, none of them human. The style is more swords-and-sorcery than epic fantasy, but the books also have an oddly science fictional quality; magic is treated like technology, and some of the characters are basically scientists. The main characters, the Raksura, are humanoids who can shape-shift into winged reptilian forms, but more interesting than that, they are eusocial. Although they are as intelligent as humans, they have biologically specialized castes rather like hive insects. Raksura colonies (courts) are mostly located in a rainforest region where they inhabit gigantic “mountain trees.” The Serpent Sea is the book in which mountain trees are introduced, and their biology drives the plot. But you should start reading with the first book in the series, The Cloud Roads. I can’t think of anything else quite like these novels.

Closest real-world analogue: The way that the eusocial raksura inhabit mountain trees parallels the way eusocial ants inhabit the galleries and tunnels of ant-house plants like Myrmecodia and Hydnophytum.

platytyrea-mossman
Myrmecodia platytyrea

5. World Without End, Sean Russell

It has been about twenty-five years since I first read World Without End. At the time, I had never read a fantasy novel inspired by Georgian/Victorian natural science and exploration, so World Without End and its sequel, Sea Without a Shore, scratched an itch I hadn’t known I had. The protagonist is a young empiricist (i.e. scientist) who bears a more than coincidental resemblance to a young Charles Darwin, and his voyage in the story is more than a little like the voyage of the Beagle or the expeditions of Captain Cook. The plot hinges on the mysterious characteristics of Spuriverna regis, a plant collected by a previous expedition to that world’s equivalent of Polynesia.

closest real-world analogue: any herb that has, or is purported to have, medicinal qualities. Spuriverna regis is a member of the Verbenaceae, as is the Lantana in my garden.

L_camara
Lantana ‘Miss Huff’

6. The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien

Of course The Lord of the Rings. Along with everything else, LotR is an extended celebration of Tolkien’s love for trees. It’s largely the detailed description of trees throughout the story that make it feel so real, so grounded in places that are entirely believable. There are the willows in the Old Forest, the hollies outside Moria, the mallorns in Lothlorien, and the sad, dead tree in Minas Tirith. And the ents, of course. At the other end of the size scale, there’s Athelas. The outcome of the war of the ring would have been quite different without that little herb’s medicinal qualities.

closest real-world analogue: With their smooth silvery bark and golden leaves that don’t fall until spring, I suspect that mallorns look a lot like fancier versions of beech trees.

Fagus_grandiflora
Do you think the elves grew bonsai mallorns? (Photo shows an American beech, Fagus grandifolia, at the 2019 Winter Silhouette Bonsai Show)

If this weren’t supposed to be a Six on Saturday post, I could go on…and on. There’s Brian Aldiss’s Hothouse (aka The Long Afternoon of Earth). Ursula Vernon’s “The Tomato Thief” and “Sun, Moon, Dust” and Robert Silverberg’s “The Fangs of the Trees” are short stories, not novels, but otherwise fit the criteria. I’m tempted to mention Gerald Durrell’s satirical novel The Mockery Bird (so I will mention it). Its plot depends on the ecological relationships between a fictional bird, a fictional moth, and two fictional tree species, so I’ll consider it honorary science fiction (emphasis on the science).

What other novels and stories have very important plants?

Cover boards for wildlife (Six on Saturday #61–December 12, 2020)

Six on Saturday today is another garden project. This one adds wildlife habitat to your garden and provides the opportunity to see animals that are usually hidden from view.

1. Cover boards

coverboard

A cover board is exactly what it sounds like: a wooden board or piece of sheet metal that is placed on the ground to provide habitat for small animals. They’re often used by herpetologists to attract reptiles and amphibians, but they also attract insects, spiders, and small mammals.

This past spring, the kids and I placed three cover boards–two wooden boards and one piece of corrugated metal siding–in likely spots around our property. Over the summer and autumn, we have checked the boards once every two weeks, which we think is a decent compromise between checking so often that animals are frightened away, and checking so infrequently that we miss things.

If you live in a place with venomous snakes, it’s a good idea to use a rake or snake hook to lift cover boards. Pull the board towards you, so that you will have the upright board between you and any disturbed snakes. If you find a small animal, take a few pictures and then carefully lower the cover board again. Gently move the little creature to one side first, and let it crawl back underneath after you have lowered the board. You don’t want to find its squashed corpse the next time you lift the board Wait a reasonable amount of time and then repeat. That’s all there is to it

The rest of my photos today are animals that we found under the boards.

2. Eastern narrowmouth toad (Gastrophryne carolinensis)

narrow-mouth

The first time we looked under the boards, we found a pair of eastern narrowmouth toads. These guys spend most of their lives hidden, and I have only seen a handful in the past twenty years. I previously posted about this species here.

3. Wolf spider (Genus? species?)

wolf-spider
Maybe a Hogna species?

4. Eastern worm snake (Carphophis amoenus)

worm-snake1

I have written about eastern worm snakes here.

worm-snake2

5. Another worm snake ready to shed its skin

earth-snake1

6. Marbled salamander (Ambystoma opacum)

marbled-salamander

See this old post for more about marbled salamanders.

As always, the Propagator is the host of Six on Saturday.  Head over there to see his Six for this week and find links to the blogs of other participants.

Tiny Dinosaurs (Six on Saturday #60–October 17, 2020)

Pollo and Kylling 2
Kylling and Pollo look for grubs in a rotten log.

For the past two years, Youngest Offspring has been arguing in favor of backyard chickens, and her long campaign has finally been successful. My garden project this summer was building a coop and run next to my greenhouse, and on September 24, three pullets from a local farm moved in.

1. The coop

Coop-front
The chicken “barn quilt” was painted by my wife. Access port for the nest box is visible at right.

Since we have never kept chickens before, it took us a long time to decide exactly what to do about a coop. We considered various prefabricated coops but eventually decided to build our own. I purchased plans for the Basic Coop from TheGardenCoop.com but modified them to make the coop slightly taller and 3′ x 4′ instead of 3′ x 3′. This made the materials somewhat more expensive, but should allow us to keep up to five birds.

Coop-back

2. The run

run

The run is about 10’ x 20’, half covered with transparent corrugated polycarbonate and half open to the elements. I built a rough perch from the trunk of a young black tupelo tree (Nyssa sylvatica) and threw in some rotten logs for scratching and grub hunting purposes.

3. Security

apron
anti-predator apron around the perimeter of the run.

We decided not to allow the chickens free range in the garden, because of the danger from predators. The birds are basically Youngest Offspring’s pets, so we want to protect them as well as we can. Raccoons are probably the biggest threat, but other predators in our area include foxes, coyotes, dogs, cats, skunks, opossums, hawks, and owls. There’s an outside chance of weasels or bobcats, or perhaps a mink following the creek up from the Eno River. Rat snakes probably aren’t a threat to adult chickens, so I’m not worried about excluding them—we’ll just remove any egg raiders we find.

At night, the chickens are confined to the coop, which will hopefully exclude nocturnal predators. For maximum ventilation without sacrificing security, the coop has a ceiling of heavy galvanized hardware cloth topped with corrugated polycarbonate. The large cleanout door and small door connecting to the coop are both secured with swivel hasps. I use carabiners to “lock” the hasps at night, because they’re easier to remove than padlocks but hopefully will be too difficult for dexterous little raccoon paws

The sides of the run are welded wire fence, and the part that doesn’t have a roof is covered with chicken wire to keep out hawks. Around the perimeter, we placed a horizontal apron of the same fencing material. When hidden beneath mulch it will hopefully slow down any dogs or other diurnal predators that try to dig under the fence.

So, fingers crossed. I hope we haven’t set up a buffet with free chicken dinners.

4-6. The girls

 

Hanchen
Hühnchen

 

Pollo_and_Kylling
Pollo (left) and Kylling

Hühnchen is supposed to be an Ameraucana, but the farm said it is possible she is an “Easter Egger” (Ameraucana hybrid). Pollo is a cuckoo Marans. Kylling is a Red Star. In November they will be joined by a barred Plymouth Rock and an Easter Egger. Youngest Offspring has reserved the names Frango and Kuritsa.

The Propagator is the host of Six on Saturday.  Head over there to see his Six for this week and find links to the blogs of other participants.