Saturday, January 7, 2012

Pycnostachys dawei, a tale of storage and survival

I grew this east African species many years ago at the New York Botanical Garden from a plant I got from Logees.  I noted that even then the plant seemed to be afflicted by virus, but I was able to get seed set with effort, and eventually I refrigerated that small sample of seed.  Years later, Susannah Strazzera of Wave Hill, a wonderful little garden tucked away in the Riverdale area of the Bronx, told me about how hard it was getting to get this species to bloom in recent years.  I looked at the plants, which came from the same source and had been cutting propagated over many years, and it was apparent that they were afflicted even worse with virus symptoms--leaves were narrow, twisted, color uneven, growth abnormal--no wonder the poor things were but a shadow of their former glory.  So I went and resurrected my seed stash, now over 15 years old, and got a few seeds to germinate, maybe 20% if that--not surprising since I did not refrigerate the seed immediately upon harvest, in fact I am not sure how long it was stored at room temp before I got it into the fridge, but it was probably not more than a couple of years--plus it was in the fridge for well over a decade.  I brought some healthy young plants (many viruses are not seed borne and these can be cleared from infected stock by growing a new generation from seed) back to Susannah, and she propagated them and grew out the magnificent flowering specimens shown above, which were just beginning their wonderful winter show when I visited the Wave Hill conservatory around Christmas.  She will try and save seed for me to replenish my seed bank later on. 
I don't think Logees carries this species any more, and I have not come across it in cultivation in the US in many years, though I suppose it could exist in some California or Florida garden/nursery.  It is evidently still in cultivation in glasshouses in the UK, and perhaps other European nations.  It would be difficult, if not impossible with current nightmarish bureaucratic craziness to get more stock from Africa.  This is due in large part to the Convention on Biodiversity, a well meant but seriously flawed attempt to conserve the world's biodiversity.  This treaty will basically doom many plants  to extinction by making their export to other nations legally very difficult or impossible, so they will die when global climate change and habitat destruction take them out in their native ranges.  Add to this the increasing difficulty and ever more restrictive regulations coming down the pike for importing plants into the USA, and it becomes easy to see why serious horticulturalists need to make better use of their refrigerators as seed banks.  In my experience, seeds of many sorts can be stored in simple paper envelopes (I use either coin or stamp envelopes) in the refrigerator for over a decade, perhaps much longer (haven't had many more than 15 years).  I understand that seeds can also be frozen, but I worry about the kind of damage (freezer burn) that appears on frozen food that has been stored too long, though I imagine that storing them in sealed containers with desiccant might help. Plus I don't have to worry about potential damage from thawing every time I open the door or a power outage occurs, and I am not concerned with storing them centuries beyond my lifetime, after all I won't be worrying about it then!  I do wish I had realized the benefits of cold storage of seeds before, as there are a few pelargonium species I had during my research days at Cornell that I set seed on, but that I lost when the seed got too old to regenerate after a few years at room temperature. 
Another nice aspect of storing seeds is that one can grow several kinds of unusual/commercially scarce or  unavailable annuals in a limited area by skipping years, simply save the seed one year, stash it in the fridge, and grow something else in its place for a few years, then start some stored seeds of that annual again a few years later.  It also is a means of conservation on a very basic level, which is something worthwhile in my view, despite all the imperfections.  True, a botanical garden or government administered seed bank with wild collected samples is best, but that won't happen to the necessary degree it needs to happen.  Academic criticisms such as the use of garden seed that is not documented wild source, possible hybridization, and inadvertent selection for garden conditions have a degree of validity, but IMHO conservation scientists obsess over these details too much while the forests and savannas of the world burn faster and climate change accelerates more quickly they are capable of responding to in any meaningful fashion.  So lets do our part, however small, to conserve at least a few species and unusual selections of the wonderful flora our planet bequeathed us with, so that future gardeners might have a chance to enjoy some of the flowers that thrilled us in our lifetimes and that might not otherwise have continued their existence without our help.

5 comments:

Kaveh Maguire said...

Oh how funny. I just started following your blog and Susannah is a friend of mine. She just posted a picture of them on Facebook and mentioned something about them not blooming last year because they are short day bloomers and they got some artificial light. Before I started reading your thread and realized that you knew her too I was like "Wow this plant sure has become popular."

Annie's Annuals does carry it and I used it in a garden I designed a few months ago. Hopefully I'll get to go back and see that garden again soon and see how it is doing. And they have grown it in recent years at NYBG. I saw it the first time at the prop when I was a student or intern there.

Very neat plant. Interesting info about the virus and cool that the seeds stayed viable.

geranios said...

I checked the Annies annuals site,looks like the only Pycnostachys species they list is urtifolia, a much more robust species that I have also grown and collected before in Malawi. At NYBG I introduced and grew dawei, urticifolia, and reticulata during my time there in the early 90s, I am not sure what they still have, but I haven't seen any on public display in recent years. If anyone in the USA other than Wave Hill has dawei, they sure are keeping it a secret from the internet :). Glad you enjoy the blog.

Kaveh Maguire said...

Ah yes I was thinking of P. urtifolia. Didn't even realize there was more than one species. And Wave Hill always does have the most unusual treasures. :)

Acantholimon said...

This looks like a Pycnostachys well worth growing: a great tale (the stuff of garden gurus!)...I must get a cutting of this one day. It would make a great pot plant, and probably would overwinter like pellies in my cool windows (the pellies have been blooming their heads off this winter!) I think of you whenever I go in my Pelargonium "chamber"...

Mike's Flora said...

Hello Geranios, just to let you know with this update that Logee's Greenhouses in Danielson, CT does have P. Dawei again as I visited there yesterday (2/11/15) and bought a four inch blooming specimen for only $7.95. It appears quite healthy and stands about a foot high with several bud groups. Plan to save seeds after reading your advice.