Monday, January 25, 2010

Monsonia in the Magaliesberg

Monsonia burkeana, I think, is this nice white flowered species I saw in the Magaliesberg mountains north of Pretoria in 1993. I wandered around on a farm where all kinds of neat things could be found among the rocks, more of which I will share later. Even avid gardeners generally have never heard of monsonias, though they are close relations of the much more popular genera Geranium and Pelargonium. Some are annuals with a weedy look, but others are perennials which produce flowers all summer long, like this one and the similar M. emarginata, which is occasionally available from South African seed sources. Monsonias make huge interesting seeds with a coiled structure that unwinds when wet, allowing the sharply pointed seed to dig its way into the soil. Some also have fragrant leaves as is common in Pelargoniums. The most outstanding species is Monsonia speciosa, easily grown if you live in a mediterranean climate or have a cool greenhouse, but more of a challenge to those of us who don't. It has spectacular pink veined flowers which resemble a giant dianthus. It can be grown from seed, and plants can be propagated from root cuttings as well.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Wildflowers in Botswana

I finally got a scanner so I can begin converting my extensive slide collection into digital pics, and here are the first results from my 1993 trip to Gaborone, Botswana and nearby areas. Here are four different flowers, the yellow hibiscus may be Cienfuegosia digitata, the purple creeper is Aptosimum elongatum, the yellow flower in the Kalahari sand is Bulbine (maybe B. abyssinica) and the orange red one is a Tricliceris (older generic name:Wormskioldia) longipenduculatum (or a closely related species). All of these are ornamental plants, and I have B. abyssinica in pots and have grown Tricliceras before. I have tried off and on to get the Aptosimum seeds to germinate thus far without success, I imagine they like heat and sun to do well. I'd really like to get it going, since it has stunning deep purple flowers. It was quite common right in Gaborone, along with Sanseveria aethiopica, an aAbuca species, Crinum lugarde (in wetter areas), Felicia mossambadensis, Talinum caffrum, Pterodiscus speciosus, Ipomaea bolusii, and a Portulaca species. Botswana has quite a few nice flowering plants, more of which I hope to scan and blog about later on.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Neches River Mallow

Hibiscus dasycalyx is an endangered plant in its home state of Texas, where perhaps considerably less than a thousand plants exist in the wild. Yet it makes an easily grown and long lived garden plant. I got my plant at Fairweather Gardens in NJ several years ago during one of their open house events. It has a more graceful, though vigorous, habit than most other perennial hibiscus, and the somewhat smaller flowers are more in scale with the foliage. It comes up late, though it is perfectly cold hardy despite its Texas origins. It starts flowering in July and will continue until fall. Copious seeds are set in bristly capsules, and are annoyingly painful to clean due to said bristles. I've had some volunteers from self sown seed, which I give to a friend who likes hibiscus and also intend to transplant to the school garden next spring. In its native range H. dasycalyx is a wetland plant, but it has no issues growing under normal garden conditions, so long as it gets decent sun.

Mountains and Memories

In recent years I have been able to spend a few days each summer with my uncle and aunt in my original hometown of Bluefield, West Virginia, reliving childhood memories. Its a small town with perhaps half of the population it had back in the 50's and 60's when it was a bustling small city. Though, like most of southern West Virginia, Bluefield has fallen on hard times, it is still a beautiful place. It is where my earliest memories of flowers come from, from when I remember following my great grandmother around in her rose garden. She'd go out with a jar of kerosene and knock the Japanese beetles off the rose flowers in the morning into the jar to keep them from devouring the blossoms. I also remember spending summers in Bluefield even after we moved to New York when I was five years old. I spend much of my time in West Virginia admiring the garden flowers, hunting butterflies, moths, and other insects, catching "crawdads" in the local creek, and just generally being a budding gardening/natural history geek.

One can't go many places in Bluefield without catching a glimpse of East River Mountain rising to the east of the town, and there is a popular overlook atop the mountain that is easily accessed by road from the town. Some interesting wild flowers grow there, including the introduced blue Echium vulgare, and the natives Asclepias syrica (an underappreciated plant IMO, perhaps because it spreads too easily) and Phlox paniculata. The phlox forms a sizable colony in rocky rubble by the roadside near the overlook, where careful observation finds a nice range of variation in flower color among different individual plants. I've also seen ox eye daisies there too, and once collected a form there that actually lacked ray flowers. I had it in my garden (it may still be there but I don't recall seeing it bloom this past summer) as a curiosity, it looked kind of strange with its yellow button like flowers. Coltsfoot is also common in the rubble just below the observation area, its another Eurasian species, most interesting for its very early yellow flowers, but far too vigorous to be admitted to a garden. As is the case everywhere in the area, chicory abounds, supposedly this blue flowered import is where my hometown got the name "Bluefield" from.

There is also a smaller "Bluefield" across the Virginia border to the south (it really is one more or less continuous town with a state line running through it) where you can get a really good ice cream soda at the pharmacy at an old fashioned soda fountain setting. My grandmother, Olga Mae Johnson (Yancey), worked there until the day she died at 81, literally, and they had a clipping about her passing posted in the store when I last visited there a couple of years ago. I still have a few sempervivums from the second house she lived in (and an old fashioned difficult to bloom Christmas cactus that she told me originally came from her grandmother), and some heucheras from the original house she, we, and the rest of the relatives lived in before that, which today is a parking lot. My great Aunt Thelma is the one who gave me seeds of Silene armeria, which graces both my home and school gardens today decades afterwards. Its funny how some plants can outlive their original owners, and bring back fond memories of good people and good times from the past.

Driving around the area there are some nice gardens to be seen, the cool summer nights and copious rainfall favor nice flower displays. I remember yearly displays of calendulas, larkspurs, and opium poppies in my great grandmother's gardens, where they resowed with ease and vigor. When we would arrive in late June, after school let out, I recall the powerful fragrance of regal lilies as we opened the car door. All these are still grown in the local gardens, tried and true flowers that maintain themselves with little effort.

In the local woodlands and fields all kinds of interesting native wildflowers can be found, including hepaticas, trilliums, lilies, trailing arbutus, ironweeds, and even cardinal flowers, though the latter no longer grows where I saw it as a kid. There is also a kind of biennial wild lettuce, perhaps European in origin, which grows quite tall when it flowers. In years past when there was a small (touristy) train atop the mountain (worlds smallest interstate railway line at the time) there was also a small building displaying local crafts where I remember them having a huge dried stem from one of those large wild lettuces on display. Apparently they could be used as broom handles, though I doubt they were very strong.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Talinum caffrum-an easy geophyte

I remember seeing and collecting the tuberous roots of this species years ago in Gaborone, Botswana, where it is a very common plant. The bright yellow flowers open in the sunshine, and the hard brown tuberous root is tough enough to sit dormant out of the ground for months. In fact that's what the root of this particular plant is doing right now, sitting on a table in my classroom. I planted it out in the slope garden last summer, and it grew several prostrate branches which bore yellow flowers and made quite a few seeds, despite a rainy summer quite unlike its preferred hot and sunny summer growing season in Africa. Seeds may take their time coming up, I suspect some kind of weird dormancy requirement, yet when I grew them at NYBG they sometimes self sowed in their neigbor's pots. Talinum caffrum is easy to grow and attractive enough to deserve a sunny garden spot for the summer, but it is definitely a plant geek's plant, and not something the neighbor, or the nursery down the road, is likely to have.

Poppies, Again

During the dodrums of a northern winter, its always exciting to look over photos of the garden taken during the growing season. I've posted before about Shirley poppies, they are so easy to grow and so splendid in their appearance that I can't imagine why more people don't grow them. Perhaps its because they must be grown from seed (so no I just buy things in packs/flats and pop it in the ground "gardeners" need apply) and they don't flower much past early summer. Yet the seed is cheap, easy to sow (just throw it down on bare soil in late winter or early spring in a sunny location), and readily available, and best of all they resow with cheerful abandon--I already see some self sown small winter rosettes just waiting for spring to get here to burst into growth and bloom. Such a profusion of colorful beauty from such a small investment in money and effort!

Busy Bumble Bees Among the Forget-Me-Nots

Anchusa capensis is a wonderful blue flower from South Africa, which is easy to grow here as an annual (if started early) or a biennial/short lived perennial. I've had a small colony for a couple of years in the school slope garden, and some of the plants have self sowed. They bloom in June and early July, mostly, and the bumble bees are particularly fond of them. Even though this African forget-me-not is from gentler climes, rosettes of non flowering first year plants (and occasionally offsets of a plant that finished flowering) do tend to survive whatever winter throws at them here in NY. Harvesting seed is not fun, the seedheads have irritating bristles and the dark, reasonably sized seeds are hard to separate from the chaff.

Monday, January 18, 2010

What the nose knows: Hemizygia petiolata

It seems that the sense of smell varies greatly from person to person, for example I've heard it said that some people cannot detect the fragrance of freesias (I most definitely can). There are two extraordinarily smelly plants that I grow, among many with scented foliage, among which at least some of my students and myself detect individual differences in what we smell. The first is Agathosma gonaquensis, to me it smells like garlic, to most others it smells like skunk--so strong (the oder volatizes at times into the air) that I brought the plant home, where it does not bother myself nor my wife and stepdaughter. The second one is the plant pictured, Hemizygia petiolata. The description from my source, Silverhill, says it smells like coconut, and indeed some of my students also detect a coconut or suntan lotion like smell. To me it is a most obnoxious smell, though I do detect a certain sweetness to it, it also has strongly annoying quality to it. A quick survey on the net discloses that an essential oil is made from it and marketed, and there is also research suggesting that some of the oil components resemble alarm pheromones in some aphid species, so it may have repellant qualities for some insect pests. I can certify, however, that whiteflies have no such issue with it, they consider it salad.
I continue to grow it because it is interesting, easy to grow, and deer don't touch it in the school garden. White flowers are borne on slender terminal spikes which are themselves topped with small light purple bracts. No doubt the flowers would put on more of a show in places with milder falls and winters, but here the flowers come so late that there is little time to enjoy them before frost does them in. It would make an interesting addition to a herb garden.
H. petiolata is not cold hardy, so I take cuttings or dig up the roots for overwintering under lights in my classroom. One year I had plants in pots which were brought in as they started to flower, and with hand pollination a few seeds could be set indoors.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Salvia repens

This South African salvia has been a surprise, in that it appears to be cold hardy, coming back from the roots for two winters thus far in the school garden. It also resows, so there is little chance of losing it, especially since it produces lots of seeds. It has pleasant foliage with a typical medicinal sort of salvia scent, and the small white flowers appear through the summer. It is not a tall plant, so it can be overwhelmed by larger neighbors, but it is also a pretty good competitor with plants in its own size class. Bees adore it, as they do most salvia species. I grew it out of a summer wildflowers seed mix that I got years ago from Kirstenbosch when they used to send free seeds to members of the Botanical Society of South Africa (sadly no longer the case, though you can still buy from their annual seed catalogue). I keep most seeds in the fridge, and thus they were still viable years later when I grew some of them out. Also seen in the pics is Silene armeria, a very easy to grow self sowing annual, quite pretty when it blooms en masse, though short lived. Both the salvia and the silene do best in sunny spots, and neither seems to mind less than ideal soil, so long as it is well drained.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Otacanthus sp--its a winner!

What a charming little plant this is turning out to be, even though it came up in a pot that had a different label, and I can't find a record of my ordering the seed from my source. I suspect it could be O. crenatus, a newly described species, based on the info I can find at the moment. It comes from Brazil, and is an easy grower from rather fine seeds. Leaves are pubescent and have crenate margins, and the plant grows about a foot tall. It began to flower in fall, and by now is actually looking much better as more flowers open, than these pics, taken indoors when the flowers first appeared, reveal. I anticipate that it will bloom very well though next summer when placed out in the garden, and it is small enough to use as a container plant as well. It is much more restrained than the only Otocanthus seen occasionally in cultivation, O. caeruleus, which can get lanky.

Hybanthus communis

This is a plant I've had, off and on, forever, from the time I got seeds from an outfit called Major Howell's Seed Service in the UK, when I was in college. Some years I've grown it in the garden, where it sometimes resows as an annual. I also saved and refrigerated seed, which was a good thing, since I lost it and was able to restart it this year from my stash. I have never seen it in anyone else's garden nor at a botanic garden yet, though it is a rather nice plant. The foliage is attractive as are the white spade shaped flowers. It is native to South America, and is a species in a genus of shrubs and small herbaceous plants related to, of all things, violets and pansies. This year I brought the two pots I had during the summer inside where they are continuing to grow and bloom under lights--the photos do show some glare from the lights above the specimen portrayed. I find they are susceptible to spider mites and sometimes whiteflies when brought indoors, but a good miticide does wonders in keeping them in check. The newer acaricides are prohibitedly expensive if brought from typical commercial sources in the container sizes that they sell. However only minute amounts are needed and even then only very infrequently--so luckily there are sellers on such places as ebay, who repack the stuff in small quantities more suitable for home growers. The funny thing is most of their customers are probably hydroponic dagga growers, but their products also benefit little old lady African violet growers (no offense to AV lovers, I also growsome AVs) and other plant geeks like myself!

Impatiens madagascariensis

This photo actually looks better than this species deserves to be portrayed--it is a leggy thing that is prone to powdery mildew in cool weather, and the flowers are rather small for an impatiens. It came as I. madagascariensis from Silverhill, and as impatiens sometimes do, it reappears from time to time as a self sown seedling in some other plant's pot months or years after I last grew it. This one came up late last summer in a pot of an epiphyllum species, and managed to persist until shortly after the whole pot went into my classroom for winter. It produced some seeds before it died, which I stored in the fridge should I choose to grow it out again. I also wouldn't be suprised if it reappeared anyway, no doubt I missed some of the pods, which explode when ripe to scatter the seeds elsewhere.

Dyschoriste fischeri

This rather pleasant small shrubby plant came from seed via Silverhill. In overall aspect it sort of resembles a weirdly colored salvia, though it is in a different plant family (Acanthaceae). I plant them out in the school slope garden for the summer, where they bloom all summer long, and then dig and pot them up for winter. They reside under lights, where they continue to bloom, provided spider mites and whiteflies are kept at bay. The flowers are a strange blue-mauve-grey color, the closest I've seen to the also indescribably odd color of some of the "blue" forms of Pelargonium quinquelobatum. It does set seed in small hard capsules that need to be broken open to get the flattened seeds out, after they dry. It is not frost hardy, so it must come indoors for winter, though it grows and blooms fast enough such that it could be treated as an annual if started early.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Dipcadi from Namibia

I grew this interesting bulbous plant from seeds collected by Karen Peterson, a journalist I met when I worked at the New York Botanic Garden. She collected a variety of seeds (after I gave her a short primer in how to collect seeds) while travelling around Africa, and gave them to me when she got back. Not being a botanist nor horticulturalist Karen couldn't be expected to identify everything she got, though she did try, and she wrote descriptions of what the seeds were as best as she could. Many were not viable, being too immature, but a few turned out to be both viable and interesting. Pictured above is what grew out from seeds collected near Windhoek, Namibia. The leaves in the pic are a bit chewed up from slugs, but in more sun and when better protected from predators they are a nice grey green color. The tall flower stalks rise up to 2 feet plus, displaying dainty but odd, narrow petalled greenish flowers. The flowers are wonderfully fragrant at night, and they open wider as night falls, closing up a bit the next morning. I treat it as a summer growing bulb, though I have no idea of what it does in nature, but it does seem adaptable. Cross pollination last year, when the pot flowered in fall in my classroom, produced numerous flattened black seeds which now sit in the fridge as insurance should I lose it or want to propagate more of them. This Dipcadi is not likely to become a common garden feature, but it is just the kind of plant that sophisticated plant nerds would have the good taste to appreciate!

Daphne species from Tibet

I got this Daphne from Heronswood (the real Heronswood of horticultural yore, not the current imposter in PA) as Daphne sp DJHC 98164. It was collected by Dan Hinkley near Dechen (Ch: Dequen or Deqin) in southeastern Kham, Tibet (Dechen and its surroundings were carved off from Tibet by China into a "Dequen Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture within Yunnan Province) in 1998 at an elevation of over 10,000 feet. Once it starts flowering it continues until frosts stop it, and the white flowers are fragrant, especially in evenings, but they are not as strong as other white flowered shrubs such as jasmine. It is described in the 2005 catalogue as evergreen, which I am sure it is in Washington state, but here it tries in vain to hold onto its foliage as repeated winter cold assaults usually succeed in crisping the leaves right off the plant. They do regrow them in spring though, and the plant seems none the worse from winter wear. Attractive plump red berries with a single seed inside are produced though the summer and fall. The seeds can be removed and planted immediately to get new plants, but I have found that they need to be fresh, since dried seed dies. Even with fresh seed, dampoff is a threat, but I have a half dozen young plants growing well under lights inside right now. I will plant them out next spring in new locations at home and in the school garden. I have not been able to narrow down exactly which species of Daphne it is, but that does not detract in the least from my enjoyment of this modest, easy to grow small shrub.

Cryptostephanus vansonii

Clivias have been all the craze for some time now among folks from here to China, South Africa, and Australia/New Zealand for some time now, so its only natural that their close relations would also begin to come into cultivation. The genus Cryptostephanus is close to clivia, with a similar plant habit and smaller flowers, and similar berries containing one or a few large seeds. Like clivias, the seeds need to be planted asap, so that is what I did when I got five seeds of C. vansonii from Silverhill Seeds in South Africa a few years ago. It is a forest plant from Zimbabwe and Mozambique. The seeds sprouted nicely, and three of the four plants I have flowered this past spring for the first time, The plants are smaller than clivias, and easier to manage indoors where space its limited. I can't describe the white flowers (which develop a pinkish cast as they age) as stunning, but they are nice, and the effect a blooming plant presents is very nice. I managed to get a couple of seed pods to set when I cross pollinated some flowers, and they took forever to ripen. At one point they looked like little green watermelons, with the same pale green striping pattern on them that a watermelon has. I harvested a few brownish seeds from them in late fall, and they are already are sprouting.
I also have two plants of the more challenging C. haemanthoides, a somewhat larger relative from Tanzania and adjacent Kenya with deep maroon flowers. It goes dormant in winter, and thus far puts out a few leaves in summer, but is not as vigorous as C. vansonii, and I have not gotten them to bloom yet. I hope to see them bloom one day, from photos I have seen the inflorescences are quite spectacular. I understand that it requires more heat and sun than C. vansonii when it is in active growth.

A Yellow Rose That No One Knows.....

Well, at least I don't know what it is. This rose has been in a hedge of forsythia which is at the back of my "street" garden behind my and the neighbor's house. It blooms for a brief period in June with small, perhaps a couple of inches wide, soft yellow single flowers. It is a lovely thing in bloom, but it seems out of place, did my dad's aunt plant it there before my parents inherited the house or is it the result of an errant seed dropped by a bird? I have kept the forsythias under firm control since establishing the garden, keeping them only because my mom really likes them, but I have favored the mystery rose bush, since I have never seen it elsewhere. It most closely resembles Rosa pimpinellifolia, though the flower color seems a bit out of the ordinary for this species. It does have the small leaves, numerous leaflets, profuse small thorns, and drab fruit of R. pimpellifolia, so maybe it is a yellow variant thereof. I rather like it, despite its short lived floral display.

Double Rainbow in Chappaqua

Okay, its not about plants this time, but early last fall I saw the coolest thing at my school in Chappaqua. Right before open school night, a few of us were walking back to our classrooms from a very nice dinner the PTA kindly provides us beforehand. I saw other people with cellphones out, taking pics, and this is what they were looking at--a rare double rainbow. I've seen rainbows before, but I don't remember seeing a double rainbow, plus it was rather late in the day to see a rainbow anyway. Must have been some fog or rain between the lowering sun to the west and the eastern sky where we saw the rainbow. The upper rainbow is not as bright as the lower one, but it was more obvious in real life than my photo reveals. Quite a nice site, on what turned out to be a rather nice day as well.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Deppea splendens

There are a few plants that really capture the imaginations of serious gardeners, for reasons of beauty and rarity, and Deppea splendens is one of them. I have grown it for some years, propagated from a single plant I brought from UC Berkeley BG to the NYBG years ago when I worked there. The original plant now grows in a rather inconspicuous place in the last "upland rainforest" gallery in the Conservatory, but it has done very well and it is in a good position to get unobstructed sunlight, though it is not in a prime viewing spot. It is a shrub with a sad history--one Dr. Breedlove discovered it in a Mexican forest and brought back propagation material to California, where a handful of clones survived after a frost wiped out several other clones. Even worse, the forest it grew in was cut and burned for charcoal, so it no longer exists, as far as is known, in the wild. It is not a hard to grow plant, though it is somewhat difficult to root from cuttings. It has the peculiar habit of sometimes losing much of its foliage--I have learned not to panic, just let it do its thing, don't overreact by watering it more, just wait and it will put out a new flush of foliage, often with flowers. Bugs such as spider mites, scale, and whitefly do find it to their liking, but I have been vigilant about eliminating them on this plant--it is too rare to lose to such vermin!
The flowers are borne in hanging multiple tiered chandelier like inforescences, even the reddish sepals are pretty, and the long tubed orange yellow flowers are spectacular. Unfortunately Deppea splendens is self sterile, so it will not set seeds unless another clone is used. I hope one day to obtain seed or another clone so as to set seed on my plant, since its survival as a species now depends on human intervention. I use it in my biology classes as a prime example of a species imperiled by human destruction of our planet's ecosystems, and as an example where humans can make a positive difference by conserving the plant, propagating it, and perhaps trying to reestablish it in a suitable habitat nearby its original location. Students tend to remember its name, especially when they have seen the live plant in full bloom.

Hardy Glads: Gladiolus oppositiflorus ssp salmoneus

On various garden forums, I occasionally see questions about which glads are really winter hardy. Aside from a handful of European species, some of the South African ones are hardy, as are some of the gladiolus cultivars (though they are not usually advertised as such). G. oppositiflorus ssp salmoneus is a winner in all respects--it is an attractive species with elegantly shaped flowers, it is easy to grow, propagates well from cormlets and will produce copious quantities of seed if pollinated, and is winter hardy. It has the form of the larger gladiolus hybrids but is not so tall as many of them are, thus it is more suited to smaller gardens. It will bloom in summer, though some of mine (the ones I stored inside last winter as "insurance"--turned out this was not necessary as those left in the garden did fine) bloomed late this year because I planted the corms out late. Ellen Hornig reports in her catalogue that it has survived outside for her for years in (frigid winters!) upstate NY, so its got what I consider a real seal of approval for cold hardiness in the north!