Saturday, June 25, 2011

Corpse flower spectacular

The last few days have been exciting for plant lovers in our college town. On Thursday, a titan arum (Amorphophallus titanum) at UC Davis’ Botanical Conservatory started to bloom. This is only the 5th time a titan arum has bloomed at UC Davis, and I finally got a chance to see this extraordinary event in person. We arrived at 2pm, a few hours after the peak (around 9am this morning), but it was still an impressive sight. According to the docent at the Conservatory, they expect the flower to close by this evening, and that’s the end of it. Just four short days!

The titan arum, native to the steaming jungles of Sumatra, is considered to have the largest inflorescence of any plant in the world. The one I saw today was relatively small (maybe 4 ft. from soil level to the top of the spadix), but blooms inflorescences as tall as 9 ft. have been recorded.

The “flower” itself would be spectacular enough, but the main attraction is the smell. There is a good reason why the titan arum is nicknamed corpse flower or carrion flower. The smell is usually described as rotting meat, and it smelled exactly like that, with a fishy component to it. Very intense, sharp, nasty, and yet intriguing, considering it comes from a healthy plant, not a pile of rotting organic matter. The odor attracts flies and carrion beetles who in the process of crawling all over the spadix get covered in pollen which they then might carry to other titan arums in bloom nearby. Visit the web site of the UC Davis Botanical Conservatory for a good explanation of the process.


UC Davis’ “Ted” on 6/25/11, 2pm

Yours truly enjoying the fragrance
Outside of spathe (the sheath surrounding the spike-like spadix in the middle)
Inside of spathe; the white spike in the middle is the spadix
Bottom of inflorescence
View of the inside structures of the inflorescence. If pollination is successful, this is where the fruit stalk containing the seeds will develop. For an impressive sequence of photos showing the development of the fruit stalk, see this page on the UC Berkeley Botanical Garden site.
Corm of a smaller titan arum (not of blooming size), with my hand for size comparison.
The corm of an adult titan arum of blooming size (~15 years of age)
might weigh 30-50 lbs or more.
Stalk and leaf of another titan arum
Stalk and leaf of another titan arum behind Ted’s inflorescence

According to Wikipedia, only about 100 titan arum blooms have been recorded in cultivation. Check out this detailed list.

If you ever get a chance to see of these plants in bloom, don’t miss it. It truly is something special. And if you’re interested in having something similar in your own yard, try a much smaller relative called Amorphophallus konjac. Four years ago I was given a handful of quarter-sized corms by a botanical student at UC Davis, and I planted them in our backyard against the street-side fence. Every year they’ve put up a stalk and leaf, and I’m hoping that in another couple of years they might bloom.

Amorphophallus konjac leaf at UC Davis
My own Amorphophallus konjac in our backyard
(you can see two different plants in this photo)

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Coneflower cornucopia

When we started the perennial garden in front of our house four years ago, we wanted plants that are tough, can take the heat, are (relatively) drought-tolerant, and come back year after year. American prairie natives—think rudbeckias, liatris, not to mention the many prairie grasses—fit that bill just about perfectly. But my favorite prairie native is the echinacea, typically called “coneflower” although that name is also used for some other plants.

The good old purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) has been gracing gardens for centuries, but in the last 10 years several nurseries (especially Terra Nova Nurseries and ItSaul Plants) have been actively cross-breeding different echinacea species to develop colors and flower traits not seen in nature. Check out this interesting article on echinacea breeding.

The first of these new hybrids I bought was ‘Tiki Torch’ after seeing a blurb in Sunset Magazine. The orange color was almost too vibrant to be real. The plant I got was small and it didn’t really look like much the first year. It was better in the second year, and this year it has finally come into its own. The flowers positively glow and they retain their color beautifully. I also love the tall, strong stems that lift the flowers more than 3 ft. into the air.

Echinacea ‘Tiki Torch’
Echinacea ‘Tiki Torch’
Echinacea ‘Tiki Torch’
Echinacea ‘Tiki Torch’ with ‘Tomato Soup’ behind it (should be in bloom in another week)

After ‘Tiki Torch’ I bought a few others as liners, the ‘Tomato Soup’ in the photo above being one of them. A few didn’t make it (like ‘Pink Poodle’ but in that case it might be for the best). The survivors are now mature, including ‘Mac 'n Cheese’ in the next photo and ‘Fragrant Angel’ two photos down.

Echinacea ‘Mac ‘n Cheese’
This one is smaller than expected, not even 2 ft. tall.
Echinacea ‘Fragrant Angel’
I don’t really find it fragrant, but it does provide a nice touch of white amidst all the other colors in our perennial bed

Last year I added a rather funky looking echinacea to our collection: ‘Hot Papaya’, developed by Dutch breeder Arie Blom. Supposedly it’s the first-ever double orange/red echinacea. To me it looks a bit like a shaggy dog, but it’s definitely a striking plant on tall, sturdy stems.

Echinacea ‘Hot Papaya’

As much as I like these newer introductions with their flashy colors, my favorite echinacea is, oddly enough, a relatively short Echinacea purpurea hybrid one that’s 12 years old now. ‘Kim’s Knee High’ was developed by Kim Hawks, founder of Niche Gardens, and it combines the essence of the purple coneflower in shorter package (less than 2 ft. tall). Every summer, I fall in love with this cheery plant all over again.

Echinacea purpurea ‘Kim’s Knee High’
next to ‘Black and Blue’ sage (Salvia guaranitica ‘Black and Blue’)
Echinacea purpurea ‘Kim’s Knee High’
Echinacea purpurea ‘Kim’s Knee High’
Echinacea purpurea ‘Kim’s Knee High’, looking beautiful even in the budding stage

Note: Some flowers in the photos above have just started to open up. The petals will get thicker and, in some hybrids, will fold down so the cone sticks up into the air.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

About to bloom

Anticipation can be as exciting as the actual event you’re waiting for. That’s how I feel about flowers that are about to bloom. I love seeing the buds forming and developing, and even though green is the dominant color, there is a very special beauty inherent in this stage.

Braving the heat this morning (today is expected to be the first triple-digit day of the year), I took a few photos of plants that are getting ready to bloom. I hope you’ll enjoy this little voyage of discovery as much as I did.

Coneflower (Echinacea sp.)
Blazing star (Liatris spicata)
Propeller plant (Crassula falcata)
Sea holly (Eryngium planum ‘Sapphire Blue’)
Stoke’s aster (Stokesia laevis)
Cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis)
Brown-eyed susan (Rudbeckia triloba)
Sedum ‘Angelina’ (Sedum rupestre 'Angelina')
Key lime (Citrus aurantifolia)
Aloe ‘White Stag’

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Echeveria in bloom

Last year I put a bunch of echeveria offsets in a glazed strawberry pot, not expecting much. In fact, I never even really finished the pot by putting a feature plant in the top. Much to my surprise, the echeverias not only survived, they positively thrived, and now they are in bloom.

Glazed strawberry pot with Echeveria subsessilis.
The other succulent is Graptosedum ‘Vera Higgins’.

I had the pot in the full sun until just recently, but with the advent of summer and temperatures in the 90s, I thought it prudent to move it onto the front porch where it’s in half shade now.

Echeverias in full bloom

I love the way echeverias flower: Their flower stalks form a hook on top, which, when two stalks are side by side, often results in a heart. Weird and wonderful for sure.

Two flower stalks forming a heart
The flowers themselves are very small, less than ½" across

I recently planted offsets from our Aeonium ‘Kiwi’ in the top of the pot. Aeoniums are winter growers so they’re about to go dormant for the summer, but I expect good growth next fall. The yellow from the aeoniums will be a nice contrast against the blue of the pot.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

(Not so) lucky bamboo

After four years I’ve finally managed to kill our lucky bamboo.

What’s surprising is not that it eventually died, but rather that it lived as long as it did. It was stuck on the edge of the bath tub in our guest bathroom where it was supposed to lend an exotic note to the décor. It was in a glass vase filled with pebbled and water, so in essence it was in water all the time (the recommended way of growing it). And for four years it was actually nice and green although it never saw sunlight—in fact the light level in that spot was pretty low. I’m not bemoaning its demise, but rather I’m singing its praises. It was as care- and maintenance-free as you could ever hope for.

Which brings us to its unfortunate common name. Most people think lucky bamboo is a bamboo, but it isn’t at all. Its Latin name is Dracaena sanderiana, and it’s an understory plant native to the rainforests of Cameroon. I have no idea how an African jungle plant became associated with feng shui but millions of lucky bamboos are sold every year. Apparently, lucky bamboo is one of the most popular feng shui cures—although this article, when talking about the wonderful properties of bamboo, completely ignores the fact that lucky bamboo isn’t a bamboo at all (which proves my point).

My lucky bamboo (Dracaena sanderiana)
looking not so lucky
The shriveled skin came off as I pulled the plant out of the vase,
releasing a rather unpleasant odor of decay

When you kill a lucky bamboo, does that mean your luck runs out? I sure hope not!

Maybe I’ll get another one at IKEA to cure the bad feng shui that no doubt exists now in our house.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Tower of jewels update

2011 has been a great year in the garden so far. My personal highlight was following the miraculous development of our tower of jewels (Echium wildpretii) as it turned from a modest but attractive rosette of leaves 1 ft. high and 2 ft. across into a 5 ft. tall conical structure covered with hundreds, if not thousands, of small flowers within a space of seven months.

Check out this post to see photos taken between October 2010 and May 2011.

After the bloom peaked in mid-May, the flowers quickly dried up and fell off. By the end of May, the tower was completely bare.

110518_echium_wildpretii_02  110611_echium_wildpretii_01
May 18, 2011                                                 June 11, 2011

However, the work done by untold numbers of bees was not in vain.

In full bloom on May 5, 2011

Untold numbers of seeds, neatly arranged in pairs of two, have formed all over the tower.

Seeds on June 15, 2011

What’s particularly interesting is that the seeds aren’t protected inside some sort of structure. Instead, they’re out in the open, exposed and seemingly vulnerable. But that must be the plant’s strategy for propagation. Maybe the exposed seeds are supposed to fall off as the plant sways in the wind? Or maybe they are supposed to be eaten by birds?

Eventually, the entire tower will fall over, scattering the seeds far and wide, but I wonder what will happen in the meantime? I’ll keep my eyes open—and my camera ready.

One thing is certain: There will be plenty of seeds to go around. If you’d like some, just let me know.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Bunny ears in bloom

In February, I brought home a couple of white-spined bunny ear cacti (Opuntia microdasys 'Albata') from a trip to Southern California. They were in very small 2-inch containers which they had severely outgrown. I repotted them and then put them in planters on top of the low fence around our front yard.

Bunny ears in 2" pot on 2/27/11
In our fence-top planter box on 4/13/11

In early May they started to put out flower buds, but due to unseasonably cool weather it took them a month to open up.

Flower buds on 6/12/11

Unlike our beavertail cactus (Opuntia basilaris) whose blooms are purple, these white-spined bunny ears have light lemon yellow flowers that I find stunning.

Left flower bud open on 6/14/11
View of the flower from the top

When looking at the photos, remember that these are small plants (7 inches tall) and the flowers are only 1½ inches across. Actually, their intimate size makes them even more beautiful to me.

A word of warning: As soft and cuddly as this little plant looks, the small white spines (glochids) are nasty. They come off at the slightest touch and stick to everything, including your skin and (rumor has it) your eyeballs. Handle with extreme care.