Saturday, January 14, 2012

Walleria gracilis, winter growing beauty

This is a hard plant to photograph, as it is quite delicate and this one was blooming under lights, where it weaves in and out among the pelargoniums and other South African geophytes that share the same winter home.  I grew it from seeds from Silverhill that took quite a long time to germinate.  I remember thinking it was summer growing, since it looks kind of like a mini gloriosa lily in growth, but it is in fact a winter grower, as would be expected when one realizes it comes from the Vanrhynsdorp area of the Cape.  Sprouts appear in fall and the wiry stems rise,with soft prickles on the leaf midrib undersides, and the bright white flowers marked with an inner blue ring appear sometime afterwards.  I have not been able to set seed on the plant that bloomed this year, its first, but there appear to be others in the pot that I can try crossing it with next year.  I am guessing that it is not self fertile.  Sometime in spring the plants will die down in the manner of other winter growing Cape geophytes.  Then it will be allowed to dry out and set aside along with many others that follow the same cycle until September rolls around.  At that time, my indoor garden, which keeps me sane during NY winters, will rise again from these summer sleeping pots. 

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Cleome hirta, an African cleome

I got seed of this a few years ago from JL Hudson, and it is one of my favorite annuals.  It is hard to photograph because it is an airy plant, not dense and showy in the typical sense of many garden flowers.  It grows fast in warm weather, and sets copious amounts of seed in long thin pods.  Unlike the common garden cleome, it is not annoyingly prickly stemmed.  I like the unusual yellow markings which contrast nicely with the light purple base flower color.  The flowers are great favorites of bumblebees, and C. hirta will flower for a long period of time from mid/late summer till frost. For earlier flowering in northern parts of the US, it is best to start it early indoors, as is the case with Ceratotheca triloba, another African annual worth growing. 
There are several other species of Cleome in southern Africa, but I have yet to have success in germinating the yellow flowered ones.  I assume they have some kind of inhibitor present in the seed, or they may require special treatment such as scarification.  I will keep trying to get them to germinate, as the yellow flowered African species can be quite spectacular in flower.

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.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Etched in Gold

Luezea conifera is a pretty odd and amazing plant for those of us who went so long without knowing of its existance.  These specimens were in Bob Nold's garden in Lakewood (near Denver), a writer of some excellent books and articles, including two that I have on Penstemons and Aquilegias.  I marvelled at how the seed bearing "cones" (techically it is called an involucre) appeared to be spray painted in gold.  Bob allowed me to take a few for seed, and I have to admit to being somewhat conflicted later on as I ripped them apart to harvest the seeds later on, it felt almost sacrilegeous to disassemble such beautiful works of natural art. To add to the effect, their is a mass of ever so soft fluffy fibers in the middle of the cone, which is also attractive when moisture allows the cones to open, rendering the interior fibers visible.   Leutzea conifera comes from Spain and Portugal and the Balearic Islands, so its somewhat of a surprise that is does so well despite Denver's significantly colder winters.  In fact is does well in dry situations, which is more expected for a Mediterranean plant.  From what I can find in references the flower isn't quite as spectacular as the seed heads, it basically looks like a small pale purple or lavender batchelor's button atop the ridiculously large "cone".  I will start some seeds this spring and see how they do outside in NY, it is at least a short lived perennial when happy.  I imagine that our wet winters and humid summers would be the biggest problems for it, but plants often surprise even experienced gardeners, you really don't know if something will work in your garden until you try it yourself (at least a couple of times). 

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Pelargonium endlicherianum, more Colorado dreaming!

Pelargonium endlicherianum is one of two oddball outliers in the genus that are found in Turkey or nearby, far from the center of the genus distribution in South Africa.  It is quite cold hardy, as evidenced by these exceptionally splendid specimens which I photographed in August in the display rock garden at LaPorte Avenue Nursery in Ft. Collins, Colorado.  There were many other treasures in that fine nursery too, but this was the grandest display I have ever seen of Pelargonium endlicherianum, though I did see it doing well in a few other gardens in Colorado.
This species is more difficult to grow in the eastern states, not because it can't handle the winter cold, but rather because it rots easily during hot humid weather. Success would be best in a well drained elevated spot, which is how it seems to be planted even in Colorado gardens.  I will try it in the future in the space near the wall at school, parts of that favored area get quite dry during summer, which is more like what happens to it in its native habitat.  Otherwise it can be grown as an alpine house plant, with careful attention to watering during summer.  Its bigger brother, P. quercetorum, from the Iraq/Turkish border (Kurdistan) is even more scarce in cultivation, but I hear it does well in New Mexico, and it does grow in Denver too. 

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Candy Lilies 2011

Iris x norissi 2011-a pure yellow one
Iris x norissi 2011

Iris x norissi 2011--I like this pattern

Iris x norissi 2011

Iris x norissi- a late blooming self sown seedling
Iris x norissi-2011 another nice one

Iris x norissi 2011

As time goes on in my school garden, the candy lilies (Iris x norissi, formerly Pardancanda) continue growing and and adding to their numbers by self sown seed.  This year some new color combinations appeared.  Now that I have one of the ancestors of this group reaching flowering size, Iris dichotoma, I am looking forward to even more variation in both color and flower form in the future. I tried crossing I. dichotoma onto a late flowering orange and red candy lily (third pic up from above) and seed set, but it could be selfed.  I actually did not discover the Iris dichotoma flowers until they were nearly over, it blooms very late in the day and fades early the next day.  In 2012 I will be more alert, and also bank some pollen from the candy lilies if I find that they bloom before the Iris dichotoma, as most of them did this year.  The I dichotoma plants were young and flowering for the first time, hence they might not be blooming as early as older plants might.  I like plants that show variety, and endless color combinations are possible with candy lilies, and if backcrossed to I dichotoma I should also be able to get a more iris like flower as well.  These plants are very easy to grow, and set plenty of seed, and have no pests that I have seen thus far.  The biggest issue I have is controlling their numbers, removing less interesting variations, and moving plants that get too robust for more delicate neighbors.  

Diascia rigescens

Diascia rigescens in fall
D. rigescens flowers up close

This species of diascia is the best one I have grown thus far, although there aren't any ugly diascias, to be sure.  I grew it from seed from Silverhill, and it flowered nonstop from July to October.  It did not mind our rainy summer, wild temperature swings, crazy October snowstorm, and the several frosts of recent weeks (though the weather has been oddly mild overall).  While flowers are long gone, the leaves remain green (as do some other diascias), though that will be tested when lows drop one night this comin week into the teens (F) for the first time this winter.  My plants did set some seed, and diligent searching by yours truly recovered enough to assure another generation in case it does not turn out to be winter hardy.  I do think it lacks its natural pollinator here, though, because seed set is rather low in spite of my plants being genetically different (seed grown, not cutting grown) and flowering profusely.  If started early, it can be grown as an annual, though I do hope it proves to be perennial in my garden.  I am also growing D. integerrima, which does very well in Denver, but it bloomed sparsely in my garden this summer, although it did survive the previous winter.  I think it would flower better in a more typical drier and sunnier summer than what we experienced this year. I started seeds of Diascia fetcaniensis "African Queen" from Chilterns as well, these plants make much flatter mats than D. rigescens or integerrima, and flowered later.  They did not set seed and did not make as grand a display as D. rigescens.  Perhaps if they make it through the winter I will get more substantial flowering next year.