Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Queen of the Night goes out with a bang

The big news this week has been the flowering of our Queen of the night cactus (Cereus hildmannianus subsp.hildmannianus).

On Monday, the first of four blossoms opened up. See this post for photos.

Last night, the remaining three blossoms unfurled, providing a magnificent finale to what has been one of the most beautiful spectacles of nature I’ve seen. Maybe next year I’ll be more blasé about it, but for now I’m still basking in the glory of this event, as fleeting as it was.


Tonight the flowers look like the first photo, but I expect them to dry up quickly. Time will tell if pollination occurred. I spotted bees again this morning, and I transferred some pollen using a soft brush. I have no idea if that works but nothing ventured, nothing gained.

A big thank you to my wonderful wife for illuminating the flowers in the after-dark photos above!

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Queen of the Night for one night only

Just yesterday I wrote about our Queen of the Night cactus (Cereus hildmannianus subsp. hildmannianus) getting ready to bloom. At that point I wasn’t sure when it would happen. However, when I checked yesterday afternoon, it became clear that the largest bud was going to open up very soon.

What then unfolded within a matter of hours was unlike anything I had ever witnessed. I had seen photos of cereus flowers, but this one was even more beautiful. The fact that this was going to be a one-night performance gave it a bittersweet note.

Here is a chronological photo diary of this special event:


By 8pm, the flower was completely open. It was huge, 7 in. across.


I checked again at 10pm, and the flower looked the same as in the last photo above...

…and it looked that way at 7:25am this morning. I wonder who visited it during the night?


When I checked again at 8:40am (it had warmed up into the mid-60s by then), I finally saw some insect activity: small striped bees that are native to our area, as well as some fat carpenter bees. While the flower didn’t smell all that attractive to me (more vegetal instead of floral), it must have smelled and tasted just fine to the bees.


By 11:00am, the flower had closed completely.


There are three buds left on this cactus segment, and they appear to be equally far along in their development. They may open up tonight, but tomorrow night is more likely.

Many people think that columnar cacti like this one are plain and uninteresting. Yes, they do look unassuming, but when they produce flowers, they outdo just about any other plant out there!

Monday, August 15, 2011

Queen of the Night getting ready to flower

In March, I found four cactus segments that had been thrown in the yard waste by a neighbor a few blocks away. Never one to walk by a plant that looks like it could be rescued, I schlepped them home (read post) and later put them in pots with free-draining soil mix (read post).

Three were kept in the backyard in a spot where they get only morning sun. The fourth was moved to the front of the house where it gets full sun from early afternoon to evening. I didn’t water the segments at all for couple of months. After that, I began to water very sparingly, once a week or so. While I didn’t see any signs of new growth, the segments didn’t rot either, so I figured I was on the right track.1

July 30

Since there were no external signs of progress to get me excited, I mostly ignored them. However, at the end of June I noticed something completely surprising on the tallest segment: flower buds! Never in a million years would I have expected of any of them to bloom this year; I wasn’t even 100% sure that they had rooted properly.

Now that I had something to focus on, I began to keep a close eye on the buds. As you can see in the next two photos, the growth has been quite rapid.

Left: July 30                                                                Right: August 5

In the week between August 5 and 11, when the next set of photos was taken, the flower stalks (if that’s would you call them on a cactus) doubled in length. Today, on August 14, they are 7 in. long. The bulging part at the tip that will become the flower is oddly beautiful. It reminds me of an elongated purple artichoke in miniature.

August 11
August 11
August 11
August 11
August 11
August 11

I have no idea when the flowers will open up, but I will be ready with my camera!

Some background:

The cactus is a Queen of the Night (Cereus hildmannianus subsp. hildmannianus), sometimes also called Peruvian apple cactus because of the shape of the fruit, or hedge cactus because in its native habitat (Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil) it forms thick hedges. Its flowers are white, about 6 in. across (that’s huge!), and they are as ephemeral as they are beautiful. They open at sunset and begin to wilt by the next morning.

If the flowers are successfully pollinated during this extremely short time window (the main pollinators being moths and bees, although some sources mention bats), the cactus will produce edible fruit. Check out this short blog post.

1Out of curiosity, I just measured the tallest segment, and it has actually grown about 7 in. since I potted it!

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Robert Young bamboo growing poolside

The other day I had lunch at a friend’s house in the East Bay, and I couldn’t help but admire her row of Robert Young bamboo (Phyllostachys viridis ‘Robert Young’) planted against the fence behind her swimming pool. The small leaves provide a tropical backdrop for the entire backyard, and the yellow culms contrast wonderfully with the blue tile of the pool.


Since Robert Young is a running bamboo, the entire planting bed is contained with rhizome barrier to prevent the spread of rhizomes under the fence into the neighboring yard and under the concrete walkway into the planting strip right next to the pool.


Robert Young is said to be a strong grower, especially in warmer climates. However, my friend’s plants are acting more like clumping bamboos, with very little “running” taking place so far. Lewis Bamboo says that this behavior is typical for Seattle, but my friend’s location near Walnut Creek is a far cry from Seattle, considering temperatures regularly climb to 90°F and above in the summer.


These plants have been in the ground for five years, and I would have thought they’d have reached their mature dimensions (40 ft. in height, with a culm diameter of 3 in.) by now. But like so many plants, bamboos have a mind of their own, doing what they want whenever they want it. In addition, homeowners typically don’t care about statistics the way bamboo geeks like us do. All they want is a plant that looks attractive and fulfills its intended purpose. And using those yardsticks, my friend’s Robert Young bamboos are an unqualified success.


Friday, August 12, 2011

Clumping bamboos going great guns

Spring is the time when most running bamboos, like black bamboo and its siblings from the genus Phyllostachys, produce new shoots. By summer, the new culms have reached their final height and have branched out. Running bamboos now pump their energy into growth underground—this is the time of year when the rhizomes “run” horizontally.

In contrast, summer is the peak shooting time for subtropical and tropical clumping bamboos. In their native habitat, this coincides with the onset of the rainy season. While in our climate summers are bone dry, supplemental irrigation ensures that our bamboos’ water needs are met as they send up one new culm after another.

Even though we live in a climate with mild winters where temperatures rarely drop below 25°F, we’re still limited as to what kind of tropical clumpers we can grow. Quite a few of the most spectacular bamboos don’t survive below 30°F, so I will forever lust after the famed Timor black bamboo (Bambusa lako) or Sacred Bali bamboo (Schizostachyum brachycladum).

Nevertheless, many Bambusa species do very well in our climate. In fact, we have five different Bambusa growing in our front yard. All of them are in the midst of their annual shooting cycle, and it’s exciting checking on their progress every day.

Bambusa oldhamii (left), Bambusa chungii ‘Barbellata’ (middle),
Bambusa multiplex ‘Alphonse Karr’ (right, behind gate)


Oldham’s bamboo (Bambusa oldhamii)

Bambusa oldhamii is the largest clumping bamboo we can grow in our climate zone. It has the potential to grow to 50 ft. with a culm diameter of 4 in. I don’t know if it will get quite that tall here, but I’m hoping for 35-40 ft. This would give us the tree-like effect we’re looking for in front of our house. In fact, this Bambusa oldhamii replaced a tree that had to be removed due to mistletoe damage.

Bambusa oldhamii in front of our house

Bambusa oldhamii forms a tight clump, so even a mature specimen has a relatively compact footprint (check out these photos I took in Sydney, Australia). This makes it a great choice for smaller suburban lots like ours.

Our oldhamii was planted just 1½ years ago as a 5-gallon plant, and its development has been nothing short of phenomenal. The fattest of this year’s culms is over 2 in. in diameter.

The tallest of this year’s culms…
…and the fattest (2 in.)


Baby Blue bamboo (Bambusa chungii ‘Barbellata’)

As speedy as Bambusa oldhamii’s growth has been, Bambusa chungii ‘Barbellata’ has been equally impressive. Check out these posts to see its explosive development: October 2010, March 2011, July 2011.

New culms on Bambusa chungii ‘Barbellata’

New culms are covered with a white powder which gives them a bluish coloration. In my book, this is one of the most attractive of all the tropical clumpers that can be grown outside of the tropics.

The downside about Bambusa chungii ‘Barbellata’ is its availability, or lack thereof. In our neck of the woods, it grows as well as any of the common clumpers like Alphonse Karr, and yet none of the Northern California bamboo nurseries carry it. I hope this will change soon; with its gorgeous culms and its elegant leaves, this could become a very popular landscaping plant.

110810_bambusa_chungii_barbellata_02  110810_bambusa_chungii_barbellata_07

Bambusa chungii  ‘Barbellata’ is called Baby Blue Bamboo because of the bluish coloring of the new culms…
…but it could also be called Hairy Bamboo! The hairy culm sheath will fall as soon as branches begin to emerge.


Alphonse Karr bamboo (Bambusa multiplex ‘Alphonse Karr’)

Bambusa multiplex ‘Alphonse Karr’ is probably the most common clumping bamboo planted in our area. It is widely available, matures quickly, and has an attractive overall look. It is also hardy to 15°F so it can be grown in more places than other tropical clumpers. (Bambusa oldhamii and Bambusa chungii, for instance, are only rated to 21°F.)

We have two Alphonse Karrs. The one in the front yard, right behind the gate, was a large division from a local homeowner; it has been in the ground for 1½ years. The one in the backyard was bought as a 5-gallon plant from Madman Bamboo; it has been in the ground for 2 years. Both specimens are a couple of years away from their mature size when they should reach a height of 20 ft. and a culm diameter of 1½ in.

Bambusa multiplex ‘Alphonse Karr’ in the front yard…
…and in the back yard where its vicinity to the clothesline is an issue


Asian Lemon bamboo (Bambusa eutuldoides ‘Viridividatta’)

Asian Lemon bamboo is a relatively recent introduction, and its availability in California is quite limited. I was lucky to find a 15-gallon plant last year and I’m happy to see that this year’s culms are bigger than last year’s. I think this specimen is still a few years away from maturing, but according to the American Bamboo Society’s Species Source List, it should reach a height of 25 ft. with a culm diameter of 1 in. (the new culms are ¾ in. already).

This is a beautiful bamboo, and the yellow coloration of the culms is much more vibrant than that of Alphonse Karr. In terms of hardiness, it’s rated to 21°F. If you come across a specimen in a nursery, grab it. You won’t be disappointed.

Bambusa eutuldoides ‘Viridividatta’

110810_bambusa_eutuldoides_viridividatta_05  110810_bambusa_eutuldoides_viridividatta_01

It’s easy to see why its common name is “Asian Lemon Bamboo”


Emerald bamboo (Bambusa textilis ‘Mutabilis’)

The final clumping bamboo in front of our house is Bambusa textilis ‘Mutabilis’. It’s a form of weaver’s bamboo (Bambusa textilis) and experts are still debating as to how different it really is. In Florida, it’s being sold as emerald bamboo because of the deep green color of its culms. It’s one of the hardier Bambusa varieties, rated 18°F by the American Bamboo Society.

Emerald bamboo is also a fairly tall bamboo (to 40 ft.) with a mature culm diameter of 2½ in. It forms a very tight clump with a small footprint which allows it to be planted in relatively small spaces—like the spot between our fence and the street light (see photo below). However, I’m already planning on removing the large maidenhair grass this winter because there isn’t enough room for both of them.

Bambusa textilis ‘Mutabilis’ behind the street light

I bought our emerald bamboo last winter from Bamboo Sourcery, which at the time was having a going-out-of-business sale (they reopened this spring). I only paid $40 for a 15-gallon plant, which is a very good deal.

This year’s culms are not only twice the diameter of the old ones, they are also remarkably beautiful. They have have whitish pinstripes—not common for emerald bamboo but I’m not complaining!

110811_bambusa_textilis_mutabilis_01  110811_bambusa_textilis_mutabilis_13

Pretty impressive new culms, and beautiful striping on the culm sheaths and the actual culms.