Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Erythina zeyheri, the Ploegbreker (Plowbreaker)

Erythrina zeyheri

Erythrina x bidwellii

Erythrina is a genus of mostly trees of tropical climates.   Some of our native species do produce a thickened lignotuber from which they can resprout after fire or frost, but in South Africa there is a species which never produces persistent stems above ground.  This species, E. zeyheri, is known in Afrikaans as ploegbreker, the plow breaker, on account of the massive sizes the lignotuber  can achieve.   I saw this species from a distance during a trip to South Africa in 1993 when I was travelling with the late Charles Craib, an extremely knowledgeable person who produced many detailed descriptions of the habitats for a large number of rare and localized South African plants.  He also wrote some books which are hard to get a hold of now, including one on tuberous pelargonium species which I now wish I had acquired when it was first published. We were driving through the Free State on our way to the midlands of Natal where we were to stay overnight with an expert grower of South African streptocarpus, Martin Kunhardt.  As we drove by the dry fields of grass I spied some bright red flowers popping above the grass.  They reminded me of bright red lupines, but we didnt have time to stop and look closer.  Later on Charles sent me seeds of E. zeyheri, and I grew several plants for the NYBG where I worked at the timee.  Some are still there, years later and from what I hear none have flowered in pots.   When grown in pots they need plenty of water during their growing season and they can be dried off for winter.  The enormous prickly leaves and short stems turn yellow and dehisce as the plant enters dormancy.  New shoots arise from the surface of the lignotuber in spring.   In pots it its also prone to spider mites.  
So when I was growing three more of them in pots at home, I did some research and noted they grow in the highveld which would experience freezing temperatures during winters.  I also found out that they tend to grow in wet areas like ditches or near water.  So I decided to experiment with one plant, placing it near the front wall of our house and covering it with dried grass and plastic for winter.   We had a very cold winter, and despite the plastic the tuber was definitely wet during winter as the plastic did not stop water flowing downslope past the spot where it is planted.  I saw a flower spike appear when the plant emerged but it aborted.  Yet I did get to see the enormous leaves grow even larger and there were no spider mites to contend with.  Inspired, I planted my two remaining plants in an area that has become my South African garden.  While I have South African plants in every garden, this area is exclusively for African plants with rare exceptions (such as a Goodenia that was recently given to me and that has some cold hardiness but is from Australia).   One of the plants flowered soon after planting and produced one large seed in a bean like pod.  All three plants were planted so that the top of the lignotuber is several inches below the ground and a foot or more of bark chips were placed over them for this winter.  I find that they can take lots of cold and wet but I am not sure if they can take deep freezing so I protect them in a way that should protect the lignotubers from deep frost.   This spring all three came up, but only the one in front of the house decided to flower.  It produced numerous spikes of vivid red flowers and, with hand pollination, is currently producing several pods of seeds.  
More experience is needed growing this species outside of South Africa, and perhaps even in its native land.  I wonder what exactly regulates flowering in this species.  How much cold can it take during winter?  I have heard that it did not survive in Raleigh North Carolina which has much milder winters than we do, but I imagine the extremely hot summers there might be too much for it.   As far as I know no one else other than the person who tried it in NC is growing it in the eastern US and on a recent short trip to California it appears to either not be common or cultivated at all on the west coast.  It is worth growing even for its foliage alone, and when the flowers do appear it is a visual treat.  I have read that there are albino forms and hope that seed of these variations might one day become available.
I also grow another Erythrina right next to the wall, E. x bidwellii.  This is a cross of two American species and it can die back to the root during cold.  It needs a very protected spot and some mulch over it for winter in order to survive in NY.  It produces long whip like stems with rather wicked thorns and long spikes of red flowers during the summer rather than right after it comes up as does E. zeyheri.  It is also fairly brittle so the stems do break easily and are a bit unruly, at least for me.  But in spite of these faults it does produce some really pretty flowers and is not particularly difficult to grow.  I understand that it can become a small tree or large shrub in places like Texas and Florida where it does not die back to the roots.

Taiwan Part III Taipei Flower Market and Hualian, then Taroko Gorge to Hehuanshan

Paphiopedilium charlesworthii or hybrid at Orchid show in Taipei Flower Market

Jamesbrittenia bergae from Taipei flower market

Isotoma longiflora

Native species of land snail
Running from T rex

Riding a Triceratops baby

With our driver in Taroko Gorge

In Taroko Gorge with my wife

Steep walls of Taroko Gorge

Taroko Gorge

Very old tree above the gorge

Gets colder above the gorge

Amazing clouds

Well above the gorge 

Potentilla sp

Tiny fern in pine forests

Dianthus superbus ssp taiwanensis

Gentiana sp among bamboo, Huehuanshan

Sibbaldia cf proumbens

Ice on Huehuashan

Seed pod of Lilium formosanum var pricei and Rubrus calycinoides

Have to look this one up, it has dimorphic leaves and red berries

Utricularia sp at base of Taroko Gorge

Ferns, Taroko Gorge

Maybe Polydactylia sp. 

Fern sp

Crassocephalum rubens

Aster taiwanensis

Corydalis sp

No idea but it is pretty

Begonia sp

Early Plum tree blossoms

Cheilanthus argentea



Mazus sp?

Viola formosana

Viola formosana

V. formosana

V. formosana

Adiantum sp


Fern with hirsute foliage

Viola sp. 

Adenophora sp. 

Pratia nummularia

Rhododendron sp

Geranium robertianum

Anaphalis sp.

I do need to reorder these photos so they are in sequence but it is tedious to do so from what I know of how to use blogger.  Nonetheless I wanted to get this post published so I can post many more about the current year in my garden so forgive the lack of precise identifications on some photos and the somewhat mixed sequence they are in.   I might come back at some point in the future with more specific identifications and perhaps more photos.  
The Taipei flower market was a neat place to visit, plants of all kinds were there including some lovely orchids, both for sale and in a small but high quality paphiopedilium show exhibition.  I was able to find some native cymbidium cultivars for sale at about 5 for 20 US dollars which is a steal.   Phaleonopsis cvs went for about 3 dollars US and paphs for around 10 dollars but because they are on Appendix 1 (I think that might include hybrids too, but not sure) I didnt get any of them.  I was able to get the appropriate CITES paperwork for the few things I did buy but I also knew not to be tempted by the paphs because they require additional paperwork from the country they are going to, which is basically impossible to get.  So I had to be content to just look and photograph the paphs.   I also found a very rare South African species, the vivid red Jamesbrittenia bergeae, a stunning species discovered in a particular location not far from the Limpopo River after my last visit to SA in 1993.   Unfortunately it had no seeds and although I did bring back cuttings after getting the phyto for them, they did not survive.   I would really like to acquire seed of this species, and that can only come from somewhere where more than one clone is in cultivation as most Jamesbrittenia are self infertile.   I dont know if the material in Taiwan is one clone that is propagated asexually or if there are other clones there.   If any reader knows of a source for seed, please contact me, I would love to put this species into my South African garden which I will blog about in a later post.  
We then went to the eastern coastal town of Hualien.  Its a place for tourists, and so we took a bus with our friends Yi and Yen and their 2 kids who were also with us for part of the trip to a weird sort of park to the south.  It featured a collection of exotic birds including many gorgeous pheasant species, and also a cast of giant dinosaur replicas, which I had some fun with as you can see.  There were other animals too, including an ostrich that was in a pen where some Isotoma longiflora were growing.  The ostrich had eaten all the grass in its pen but didnt touch the isotoma which is toxic and which bore some nice fat seed pods I was intent on getting.  But every time I tried to reach through the fence I had to step back as the angry ostrich came for me.  So after some thought Grace and I had the brilliant idea of throwing some fresh grass we gathered outside its pen to it at one end to keep it focused while I snatched some seed pods.  It worked, the ostrich was evidently quite hungry, and I got some seeds of this lovely plant.  There are some pink and blue seed strains of this species or something close to it in cultivation in the US and probably the straight species as I saw it also grows in tropical places like Florida but I dont know for sure so I wanted to take some seeds back to plant in my garden one day.   
We then hired an excellent driver who spoke only Mandarin (well maybe Taiwanese too), to take us up thru the Taroko Gorge near sea level to about 10,000 feet elevation at the top of Huehuanshan, one of the tall mountains in central Taiwan. The road is fine in the lower parts of the gorge but it gets scary as one ascends in elevation.  These hillsides slide easily during the frequent typhoons and earthquakes that hit Taiwan, and they drop rocks even when neither event is occurring, Tourists have infrequently been killed by falling rocks in the gorge and most likely above it so it required a bit of courage to do this trek.   But I am glad we did, it was the best view I got of the native flora and there were spectacular vistas on the way as well.  In the lower gorge area I found a rather pretty species of utricularia and some very interesting small ferns growing on a vertical wall with a thin layer of mud and seepage.   As we went up it got cooler and we stopped for lunch at a restaurant that had the usual excellent food we got in Taiwan.  Near the roadside a very nice pink flower grew, I have no identification on it but was able to collect some material as I also did of a native begonia I  that I also could not identify.  Both are growing well in pots now.  We saw a very old native Taiwanese conifer that is another tourist stop, apparently many such trees were logged out earlier in the past century but this giant old one remains.   Plum trees that were planted along the road were beginning to flower on naked branches, and a variety of wildflowers including an indigenous aster not unlike our wood aster was frequent at relatively low elavations.   Once we cleared the main gorge area, the road got more narrow and at one point we saw workers attaching what looked like a giant chain link fence to the slope above the road, presumably to reduce rock falls.   We climbed higher into a pine forest, where many choice wildflowers could be found,and with some careful inspection, seeds as well.   Dianthus superbus ssp taiwanensis was a relatively common sight in this area and on one slope we found the exquisite Viola formosana, the most beautiful of the three Taiwanese violas I saw.   Even the leaves were exquisitely marked.  One can only hope it might be hardy in the US, as a number of Taiwan's higher altitude flora has proven to be reasonably cold hardy here.  A contoneaster species with abundant orange berries grew in one location as a flat mat which adhered to the rocks and ground it flowed over.  A yellow corydalis and potentilla were also in this area as were some low growing rubus species.   I even found a European plant, Geranium robertianum, which apparently has naturalized in the cooler areas of Taiwan just as it has done here in the US.   Ferns, probably Taiwan's most diverse group of plants, were to be found at every stop in a variety of forms.   One that I found lower down in the gorge had very hirsute leaves, others resembled species I have seen elsewhere but not being a fern expert I was not familiar with most.  I did collect some spores and after a careful reading of my import permit regulations and information on the site concerned with such things, learned that fern spores do not require a written permit to be imported into the US.   That was a surprise but I suppose the reasoning is sound in that pest organisms are highly unlikely to be travelling on and persist with tiny fern spores, which also can theoretically travel via wind around the world too.   As we got into the high alpine areas I was thrilled to find on the slopes of Huehuanshan seeds of Lilium formosanum var pricei, the dwarf Taiwan lily.  It is sometimes grown in rock gardens and it is hardy and quick from seed.  All the stems I saw bore only one upright capsule and the wind had long scattered most of the seeds but I did find a few capsules with abundant seed trapped inside.   A couple of Gentian species were also present in these high altitude areas, including one were I found a late season flower.   It had imbricate leaves sort of like a heather or juniper, the other species had rosettes of foliage.  Again careful examination of the plants revealed seed capsules which had tiny seeds in them.   I have a lot of experience finding and gathering seeds from my gardens as well as in the wild, so I know most of the "tricks" to find them.  The imbricate foliaged gentian bore them on the ends of stems whereas the rosulate gentian had thm among dead leaves right at ground level.  
We left our hotel at about 7 in the morning and by the time we got around to heading back it was already getting dark.  Fog rolled in and it was pretty frightening going down the mountain, thru the pine forests and back down the gorge.  We saw that a few rocks had fallen on the road in a couple of places, and large trucks that bring cabbage down from the highlands were barreling there way back up the road.  Although the road had a rail at its edge, we knew that in the event of a crash there was no way a vehicle would escape a long plunge into the ravine in many locations.  But our driver had taken many others up this road before and his confidence was reassuring.  Still I wish I had taken a video of the ride thru the front window as we went down through the fog in the darkness.  Not for the faint of heart, and I am not a particularly brave person to be truthful.  We arrived safely back at our hotel later that evening and when we returned to Taipei I had to sort out and clean all seeds and propagation material and prepare it for inspection by the Taiwanese authorities that deal with such things. 
There were many other flowers to be seen even at this late time of the year and this was for me the highlight of the trip.  I was able to collect seed and propagation material and had no problems at all getting them inspected so I could get the necessary phytosanitary certificate and, in the case of the few orchids I purchased, the CITES certificate, to bring them back to the US with my plant import permit.  I had heard from experienced plant hunters that obtaining the paperwork in Taiwan could be difficult but my experience was frankly wonderful.  Perhaps it helped that my wife speaks Mandarin, or maybe I just was in luck, but I have to say that in all of my travels I have never found more helpful people than the folks who did the necessary inspections and provided the paperwork.   It didnt even cost anything, and I was impressed with both their efficiency and willingness to be helpful.   
I came away from Taiwan with a deeper understanding of the island's culture and flora, and would heartily recommend a visit there for anyone wanting to experience an Asian country that is very safe, genuinely friendly, and very accommodating to tourists.