Friday, December 16, 2016

Scadoxus nutans

Scadoxus nutans is a plant in the family Amaryllidoideae, but it isn't your grandmother's Christmas amaryllis. S. nutans is endemic to the wet, montane forests of southwestern Ethiopia. This biodiverse area is poorly known, though it is threatened by habitat destruction. It hasn't been introduced beyond this range, except in botanical gardens or private collections.

The genus Scadoxus, commonly called "blood lilies," was named by Constantine Samuel Rafinesque (1783-1840), an autodidact and eccentric natural historian who deserves an entire post of his own. The etymology isn't clear, though doxus is Greek for "glory" and there is something glorious about the large umbels of handsome vermilion flowers. All nine species of Scadoxus are native to various regions of Africa. S. nutans has two unusual features that set it apart from its congeners: first, as the specific epithet suggests (nutans means "nodding"), its inflorescence faces downward; and second, it grows most often as an epiphyte, exploiting the nutrient-rich pockets of organic matter that collect in the crotches and rough bark of trees. An epiphytic bulb?! Yes. (Well, technically it's a rhizome.) Scadoxus nutans is one of a handful of amaryllids that grow epiphytically (including some Hippeastrum, like H. auriculum iand the bat-pollinated H. calyptratum, and Pamianthe peruviana).

I acquired a seedling three years ago and this autumn it sent up its first flower stalk. The plant is reportedly slow to propagate by seed: the fruits can take many months to ripen and from seed it may take 4-5 years until the first bloom. I certainly didn't mind waiting. The plant is quite attractive: robust stems speckled with rust-colored spots and beautiful lanceolate leaves with somewhat wavy margins. The flowers are not as brightly colored as those of other Scadoxus species.

Despite its rarity, Scadoxus nutans isn't terribly difficult to cultivate. Although it comes from high-elevation forests, I've found this plant to be relatively temperature-tolerant. It summers outdoors, but benefits from afternoon shade. Overall, I treat it a bit like an orchid. A loose growing mix (I use a blend of potting soil, perlite, and mid- to large-grade orchid bark) with good drainage is a must. During the growing season (spring and summer), I water and fertilize it liberally. When growth slows down in the fall, I let it dry out a bit more. The flowering season is November through February. These aren't easy to find, but if you are interested in unusual plants I highly recommend adding one to your collection.

Further reading:
Friis, I. & Bjørnstad, I.N. (1971). "A New Species of Hamemanthus (Amarylladaceae) from Southwest Ethiopia," Norwegian Journal of Botany 18: 277-230.
Hutchinson, Jonathan. (2014) "Scadoxus of central and east Africa," The Plantsman 13 (1): 36–42. 
Hutchinson, J. and Wondafrash, M. (2011), 699. SCADOXUS NUTANS. Curtis's Botanical Magazine, 28: 23–31.  


Sunday, May 8, 2016

Nepenthes from seed update

It's been almost a year and my Nepenthes seedlings were beginning to crowd their pots, so it was time to separate them. I selected the most colorful or most robust seedlings and repotted them into seed trays where they'll have a little more room to grow. There must have been 200+ seedlings and I'll probably end up tossing the smaller, weaker ones and giving away some of the others. 

This represents a tiny fraction of the total seedlings...
We all know about the variation of seed-grown plants, but it's something else to experience it firsthand. Aside from differences in size and vigor, the seedlings are already showing variations in color. Some are bright green while neighboring plants are flushed with red. I even spotted a variegated seedling:


This is the most anxiety-inducing seedling. The variegation may not be stable and the plant could end up looking like any other as it matures. Worse, variegated plants like this are notoriously weak and there's a chance it will limp along and eventually die. With any luck, it will grow into a beautiful variegated Nepenthes. I'll be keeping a close eye on this one! 

Meanwhile, the rest of the collection is enjoying the interminably cool, rainy spring that we're experiencing here in southern New England (their human custodian would prefer to see at least a little sun and not have to wear a sweater in May). Here are two more Nepenthes that are looking good at the moment:

That is N. maxima x mira. I acquired this as a small plant and was initially unimpressed with its pitchers: the thin peristomes looked nothing like the N. rajah-esque scalloped and flared peristome of EP's cross. (You can get a sense of how thin the peristomes were on the dying pitcher in the background.) But it's starting to look better!  The newest pitchers have really jumped in size and are developing wide, cherry-red peristomes.

And that's N. veitchii x burbidgeae, one of the most beautiful Nepenthes in my collection. It seems to get its coloration, from the speckling on the pitcher to the candy-striped peristome, from its pollen parent, while the overall shape takes after the seed parent. It's a slow but steady grower and holds its pitchers for a very long time.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Tiny orchids

When someone mentions the word "orchid," the imagination conjures up images of large, colorful or even gaudy blossoms that ooze exoticism and sensuality. But Orchidaceae is one of the largest and most diverse families of flowering plants, with nearly 30,000 species. Those big, showy flowers represent only a fraction of that diversity.
I admit that my taste in orchids is peculiar. I'm not particularly attracted to the in-your-face display of, say, a Cattleya. It's the kind of flower that commands attention, a botanical prima donna. It's also the kind of flower that seems to cater to our own vanity, a flower fit for human consumption. Instead, I'm attracted to tiny, weird, and easily overlooked flowers. The kind that force us to bend, twist, and squint to get a good view. The kind that hide fascinating tales of evolution within their petals. There's something humbling about having to make a physical or intellectual effort to appreciate a tiny flower. So to satisfy my curiosity, I've developed quite a collection of miniature and "micro-miniature" orchids, mostly Pleurothallids. Many of them bloom continuously, others bloom in flushes depending on the season. Here are a few, in no particular order:

Pleurothallis alata

Barbosella dusenii

Pleurothallis palliolata. I love the way these flowers look like frogs or aliens.

Stelis microchila. These flowers are truly tiny and hard to appreciate with the naked eye.

Salpistele brunnea

Stelis argentata

Lepanthopsis astrophora

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Two Dorstenia

We usually grow plants for the beauty of their flowers or foliage. Sometimes, though, we simply cannot resist the bizarre.

This fleshy green alien belongs to Dorstenia elata, a member of the fig family (Moraceae) native to eastern Brazil. The structure is called a hypanthodium, a special type of inflorescence bearing many minute male and female flowers. In some plants, like the figs we eat, the hypanthodium forms a hollow structure with an opening. This allows a special type of wasp to enter and lay eggs. In so doing, she pollinates the fig. The process is fascinating. Anyway, the hypanthodia of Dorstenia species are like figs turned outward so they're much flatter, exposing all of the flowers.  When the seeds are ripe the plant shoots them outward several inches, a method of seed dispersal known as ballistichory.

Freaky flowers aside, the whole plant is quite attractive. There are actually three plants in that pot, which I grew from seed. Dorstenia are, in general, very easy to grow from seed. That combined with their habit of propelling their seeds everywhere make them greenhouse pests. But this one in particular makes an excellent houseplant and deserves to be more widely grown for its glossy green leaves. It is an adaptable plant, and can tolerate a wide range of soils (this one is in regular potting soil), temperatures, and light. Mine gets moved around as I make room for other plants and has done well in deep shape as well as bright light. It's very tolerant of drought, too, so if you miss a watering it will bounce right back.

Many Dorstenia hail from dry regions and so develop thick caudices that hold special appeal for succulent growers. D. elata and the other Dorstenia I grow, D. cuspidata var. humblotiana, are exceptional in this regard. (Though I do hope to obtain some of the succulent ones to round out my collection.)

D. elata is fairly common, but D. cuspidata var. humblotiana is a rarity. It is the only Dorstenia endemic to Madagascar, though other forms of D. cuspidata may be found in parts of Africa. Unlike its succulent cousins, its stems are quite thin. The leaves are lanceolate and ever so slightly pubescent; soft to the touch. Its hypanthodia are angular, with four points and little protuberances. They remind me of little green stars.

Despite its rarity, D. cuspidata var. humblotiana is surprisingly easy to care for. ("Rare" doesn't always mean "difficult" in horticulture. Conversely, "common" doesn't always mean "easy," as anyone who has tried to keep a grocery-store Cyclamen alive in household conditions knows.) It needs a winter rest, during which it should receive no fertilizer and much less water, and may or may not lose its leaves and stems. I didn't know this when I first acquired the plant and thought it had died when it dropped its leaves. Luckily, there was some Selaginella moss growing in the pot and my partner insisted we keep the pot of moss alive, because he liked it. Well, that saved this plant because later that spring it sent up a new shoot!

Although it isn't a succulent, this Dorstenia does create a thick underground tuber, which can be raised a bit above the soil level to create a nice caudex.

I water and fertilize this one regularly in the summer, when it is actively growing. I move it outside, where it gets morning sunlight and bright shade the rest of the day. When the days get shorter and the weather cooler, its leaves turn yellow and I cut back on the watering. During the winter, it sits wherever I have space for it and receives just enough water to keep the soil from going bone dry. 



Thursday, July 16, 2015

Nepenthes from seed

It's been a while since I updated this blog. I've been finishing a book manuscript (not at all related to plants, alas) and haven't had much time. But I'm back online now and have a lot of catching up to do.

First off, my inorganic media experiment failed. The kanuma simply couldn't hold moisture long enough and without daily watering the plants quickly suffered. But I've been adding it to my usual mix of LFS/perlite, which helps to cut down on the amount of LFS I use.

Back in April, I acquired some Nepenthes seeds from a cross between N. "Helen" (spathulata x spectabilis), named after Helen Mirren, and N. spectabilis.  

Those two pods yielded enough seed to fill six 4" pots! This would be my first serious attempt growing Nepenthes from seed, so I followed an ICPS growing guide. I used LFS for three of the pots and a peat/perlite mix for the other three. I placed plastic bags over the pots to keep them humid and stuck them under fluorescent lights at the bottom of my grow rack. The key to growing Nepenthes from seed is patience: in June, about two months since I sowed the seed, I began to see some germination.

spes et patientia vincunt

 The seedlings are now beginning to produce their first true leaves:

I microwaved the media before sowing the seeds, so haven't had major problems with moss or algae, although you can see some algae growing in the above picture. I hope that the seedlings can outpace it! 

On the subject of Nepenthes, I thought I'd share a few recent pictures of pitchers.

This is N. glandulifera x burbidgeae. I just cannot get enough of this hybrid. It has all the scruff and dewiness of N. glandulifera, plus the beauty of N. burbidgeae.

This is N. maxima x aristolochioides and N. spathulata x spectabilis, growing side by side. Both are extremely fast, vigorous growers and would make great plants for someone who is just getting started with Nepenthes.

Here's a little one; a seed-grown N. albomarginata from Gunung Jerai. I never really wanted to grow lowlanders, but when a plant mislabeled as N. reinwardtiana turned out to be an albo, I was hooked. This species grows quite well in my intermediate conditions and doesn't seem to mind the cooler winter temperatures, either. So when I had the chance to get this beautiful red form, I couldn't pass it up!

Finally, N. peltata. This is another small one and the first pitcher under my care. The plant itself is very attractive. The upper surface of the lamina is a deep burgundy color, while the underside is dark green.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

A few more Oeceoclades

A few months ago, I acquired a few Oeceoclades from The Huntington Botanical Gardens: O. maculata, O. peyrotii, and O. spathulifera. The really wonderful thing about these is that each came with locality data, so I know this O. maculata, an otherwise very common orchid that has become naturalized in the Caribbean and Florida, is the offspring of plants collected in Tôlanaro, Madagascar. I also acquired O. monophylla, which was described in 1976 as a distinct species, but has recently been lumped into O. maculata.

The genus Oeceoclades was revised in 1976 by Leslie Andrew Garay and Peter Taylor, who expanded it to incorporate many plants previous placed in Eulophia or Eulophidium. Those of you who grow carnivorous plants will probably recognize Peter Taylor as the author of *the* monograph on Utricularia.

As I mentioned in my post on O. gracillima, these orchids aren't especially popular. Their flowers are small, brown or green, and not particularly showy. But what they lack in the floral department they more than make up for in richly patterned and often colorful foliage. Here is O. monophylla:

O. spathulifera is perhaps my favorite species. There is something reptilian about its patterned leaves, which remind me of a reticulated python or Gaboon viper. This photo doesn't quite do the plant justice:

That one has a new growth, which you can see to the left. Oeceoclades seem to be fairly slow growing, producing only one or two new pseudobulbs each spring or summer. Around that time, they may send up a flower spike, like my O. peyrotii:

The spike is emerging next to the new growth. O. peyrotii is much greener than other species and lacks a bold pattern, but there some subtle mottling and the fibrous tunic on the pseudobulbs adds to its charm.

Like O. gracillima, I grow these rather dry, watering about once per week in the summer and much less frequently in the winter. As for the potting medium, I use a standard cactus mix that contains mostly peat and sand, and add to that fine-grade orchid bark, pumice, and lava rock to create a fast-draining but moisture-retentive substrate. I fertilize lightly in the summer and not at all during the winter. 

O. maculata is not in shape for a picture at the moment. I placed it outside with a number of other plants and the neighborhood squirrels, who love to dig into potted plants, chew Nepenthes pitchers, and otherwise wreak havoc on my plants, mauled it pretty badly. It is in recovery, though, and has new growth!

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Nepenthes in inorganic media?

Peat is ubiquitous in horticulture. A lot of gardeners turn to peat moss as an amendment to loosen up clumpy soil. Those who grow carnivorous plants often use the "standard CP mix," which is 1:1 peat and perlite, for many species. For Nepenthes, most mixes involve long-fiber sphagnum moss. LFS is popular for orchids, too. It retains moisture, allows air to get to the roots, and even has antibacterial properties. What's not to love? 

Well, for starters, sphagnum breaks down over time. The wetter the mix, the more frequently the plant will need to be repotted. Fortunately, sphagnum is readily available in most garden centers and online.

Unfortunately, sphagnum is not sustainable (see here and here). For most plants, there are a lot of more sustainable alternatives, including compost and coconut coir or coco "peat" (a byproduct of the coconut industry). Compost is out for Nepenthes, which are sensitive to nutrients in the soil and prefer an airier mix anyway. Coconut products are a better alternative. The only drawback is that they are often saturated with salts and need to be soaked and washed in pure or distilled water several times first.

I want to wean myself off sphagnum, but rinsing coconut products in pure water isn't really feasible for someone who buys his distilled water from the store. So, I'm experimenting with inorganic mixes.

There are as many soil mixes for Nepenthes as there are growers. Some will swear that there is no alternative to sphagnum, others will tell you they successfully grow their plants in floral foam. There is, of course, no perfect mix and other factors (temperature, humidity, fertilization, frequency of watering, etc.) need to be accounted for when choosing a mix.

I already grow my Nepenthes vieillardii in a mostly inorganic mix, composed of turface, perlite, laterite, lava rock, hydroton, and fine-grade orchid bark.

N. vieillardii
N. vieillardii is one that often limps along in collections, growing but never quite thriving. One grower has had success growing it in a drier, grittier mix, given that the plant grows naturally in the dry, lateritic soils of New Caledonia. After a few months growing it in long-fiber sphagnum, I decided to give the aforementioned mix a shot. Time will tell.

What about the rest of the genus? Nepenthes prefer acidic, moist, airy, nutrient-poor substrates and sphagnum fits the bill. After a lot of searching, I came across a soil called kanuma that is used for bonsai azalea and other calcifuges because it is reported to be more acidic than akadama, the usual bonsai substrate (though this is controversial).  Kanuma is a yellowish, lightweight, slightly crumbly soil from the Kanuma area in central Japan. It has great moisture retention yet allows plenty of air to get to the roots. Also, because it's soft, thin-rooted plants should have no trouble growing through it. This, I thought, might be an ideal base for an inorganic mix. Here are two N. ventricosa potted up in kanuma mixes:

The one to the left is in a mix of kanuma, perlite, and lava rock. The other is in a 50:50 mix of kanuma and perlite They haven't been in the mix very long, just a few days, but already I'm learning that it isn't easy determining how often to water. Since there is no organic material, fertilization will be necessary, too. I don't know how much, but certainly more than my other Nepenthes get. Only time will tell if this mix is suitable or not. But I do hope that this will bring me closer to a peat/sphagnum-free Nepenthes mix.