Thursday, June 30, 2011

Roadkill cactus

Yes, that is its actual name. Whoever named it certainly had a sense of humor. It’s called roadkill cactus because the pads are so flat that it looks like they’ve been run over by a car.

I had never seen a roadkill cactus before, but when I spotted this one at Lowe’s a couple of weeks ago, I had to have it. There are actually two plants in the pot, and they do look a bit like cardboard cutouts of a cactus drawn by a child.

The current Latin name of this cactus is Consolea rubescens. From its former name, Opuntia rubescens, you can tell that it is related to the prickly pears of the American Southwest. Roadkill cactus is native to Florida and the Caribbean and can take more water than its desert-dwelling cousins. The downside is that it’s much less cold hardy (zone 9b) than the prickly pears but I think that mine will be fine in its spot on the front porch.

I just love my roadkill cactus!

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Roadkill cactus (Consolea rubescens) after I repotted it. It’s currently 18 inches tall (not counting the pot) but it has the potential to grow to 10 feet. I wonder how long I will be able to keep it in a container?
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The marks on the pads resemble tire tracks left by a car
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In this photo…
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…and in this one you can see how flat the pads are

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Sacramento Valley from the air

On Monday I had the opportunity to go flying with our friend B. who is visiting from Australia. I had flown with him several times before, and I was only too happy to do it again. The world is so different from the air—what looks familiar on the ground sometimes isn’t all that easy to identify from above.

We flew from University Airport here in Davis up to Willows, about 60 miles north, had breakfast at the airport diner (yes, there is such a thing even in Willows, population 6,000), and then flew back. It wasn’t a long flight, but I was mentally exhausted—in a good way—when we landed because I had done so much looking and photographing.

The Sacramento Valley is a major rice-growing region. The rice fields still have lots of water in them so the reflections of the sun were phenomenal. Just as impressive was seeing the geometry of fields and orchards, and the juxtaposition between irrigated areas—green and lush—and non-irrigated land—brown and parched.

Just before landing in Davis, we made two passes over our neighborhood so I could take pictures of our house. Coincidentally, my wife and daughters were in the front yard as we flew over, and they actually heard and saw our plane. In one of my photos, the three of them are visible when you magnify it enough!

While this post has absolutely nothing to do with gardening, I hope you’ll still come along on this visual journey. It’ll give you a better idea of the part of California that I call home.

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Our Cessna 172
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Interstate 80, looking west towards the Bay Area
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Rice fields off Interstate 5 north of Woodland
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Check out the patterns of the levees
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More rice fields
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Intriguing looking bodies of water—no idea what they are!
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Rice fields (top) and Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge (bottom)
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Man-made landscape vs. natural
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In some photos, the rice fields looked like they had received a dusting of snow
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Interesting patterns
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Yuba City
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Sutter Buttes, the world’s smallest mountain range
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Orchard and tilled field
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Giant orchard and fields
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I love this photo—wonder what is at the end of this road?
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Edge of a circular field—check out the saw-blade edge!
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Row of oleander bushes separating the north- and southbound lanes of Interstate 5 in Willows
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Road intersecting with an irrigation canal
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Orchard and rice fields
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Crazy pattern quilt
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Amazing contrast between irrigated parcel and the parched landscape around it
(Dunnigan Hills)
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Our neck of the woods (our house marked in yellow)
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Another view of our house
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Close-up of our house.
You can see how small our lot actually is.
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Landing at University Airport

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Our backyard in June

For me, springtime is the most active time in the garden. There’s winter cleanup to do, removing plants that either died or don’t look good in a certain spot any more, buying new plants, and in general doing what I can to make the space as beautiful as possible.

Summers in our climate are very hot and like many people, I don’t feel like doing too much work outside. A little nipping here and there is OK, but nothing major. Mostly, I just sit back and actually enjoy the garden.

While our garden continues to be a work in progress and there’s lot that remains to be done, I’m quite happy with how things look in our 8000 sq.ft. suburban lot (less than half of which is in the backyard).

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Container garden under the bay trees
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Lion’s tail (Leonotis leonurus), purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea ‘Kim’s Knee High’), and Black and Blue sage (Salvia guaranitica 'Black and Blue') in bloom
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Potted bamboo (Phyllostachys aurea ‘Koi’) and giant farfugium (Farfugium japonicum ‘Giganteum’) in the corner
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Chocolate bamboo (Borinda fungosa) providing a protective canopy over our Asian-inspired woodland garden. All the way on the right you can (barely) see new shoots on another mountain bamboo (Borinda angustissima). It has much smaller leaves than Borinda fungosa, which will create a beautiful contrast.
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Indocalamus tessellatus in one of our stock tanks. This running bamboo (well contained here) supposedly has the largest leaves of any bamboo in cultivation in the U.S. In another year it will look awesome in this spot.

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Chinese walking stick bamboo (Chimonobambusa tumidissinoda) on the left and Rufa bamboo (Fargesia dracocephala 'Rufa') on the right, with potted farfugiums, liriope and Meyer’s asparagus fern in the foreground
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Rufa bamboo (Fargesia dracocephala 'Rufa') on the left, leopard plant (Farfugium japonicum ‘Aureomaculatum’) on the right. Both are in pots.
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Check out the new culms on the pigskin bamboo (Phyllostachys viridis) in the galvanized steel tub at the end of the path. This bamboo was supposed to go to my in-laws, but the new culms are 10+ ft. tall now and it would be impossible to fit them in our van since they’re 1” in diameter and won’t bend. I may just have to get a small stock tank and find a permanent home for this bamboo in our backyard. It certainly is beautiful.

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.

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UC Davis’ “Ted” on 6/25/11, 2pm

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Yours truly enjoying the fragrance
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Outside of spathe (the sheath surrounding the spike-like spadix in the middle)
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Inside of spathe; the white spike in the middle is the spadix
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Bottom of inflorescence
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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.
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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.
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Stalk and leaf of another titan arum
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Stalk
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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.

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