Sunday, October 2, 2011

Succulent Gardens Extravaganza, part 1

Last Saturday, October 1st, I attended Succulents Garden’s Extravaganza in Castroville, CA. This two-day open house by what has to be the largest succulent nursery in Northern California was chock-full of talks and demonstrations. According Succulent Garden’s Facebook page, 600 people had signed up, but from the number of cars and people I saw on Saturday, the number of guests might have been even higher.

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Opuntias, echinopsis, and barrel cacti at the entrance to Succulent Gardens

I wish I’d had time to be there on both days because the schedule of events truly was special (see here if interested). Luckily, I made it in time on Saturday morning to hear Debra Lee Baldwin, author of Designing with Succulents and Succulent Container Gardens, speak about the use of succulents in residential landscaping.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Opuntia cuttings from a fellow collector

For a plant collector, there are few things more exciting than getting one of these in the mail:

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The box I received yesterday contained opuntia (prickly pear) cuttings from a fellow collector in South Carolina. Opuntia cuttings root quite reliably during the warmer months of the year, so propagation is usually as easy as it gets.

The two species I received were Opuntia cacanapa ‘Ellisiana’ and Opuntia pusilla. Both are new to me, and neither is very common here in California.

Opuntia cacanapa ‘Ellisiana’ is not only virtually spineless, it’s also one of the very few prickly pears that has practically no glochids—the bundles of hair-like spines on the areoles that tend to come off at even the slightest touch and get stuck in your skin. In the photo below you can clearly see the areoles—the darker colored round bumps—as well as the absence of glochids.

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Opuntia cacanapa ‘Ellisiana’  cuttings

Opuntia cacanapa ‘Ellisiana,’ sometimes called tiger tongue prickly pear, seems to be native to the southwestern U.S. or northern Mexico (the experts can’t seem to agree), and it’s quite cold-hardy. Some references say it can tolerate temperatures as low as 5°F. An adult clump can be up to 3 ft. high by 5-6 ft. wide (check out this beautiful photo). In late spring/early summer it produces deep yellow flowers as seen here.

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Opuntia cacanapa ‘Ellisiana’ cuttings

The most important thing to do when receiving cactus cuttings is to let the separation point callus over to prevent soil-borne bacteria from entering the cutting and causing an infection. The cuttings I received had a callus already so I stuck them in small pots filled with completely dry soil—in this case a free-draining mix of perlite, decomposed granite, and potting soil (that’s what I had on hand).

These pots will be kept dry for a month. Then I will check to see if any roots have developed; if so, I will water very sparingly. The goal is to provide only the amount of water the plant is able to take up, which isn’t very much at first when roots just begin to form. Too much moisture would inevitably lead to rot.

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Opuntia cacanapa ‘Ellisiana’ cuttings in their pots

The second cutting was from Opuntia pusilla, native to the coastal sand dunes of the Carolinas and the Gulf Coast panhandle of Florida. This is a very small prickly pear, with segments that break off very easily and attach themselves to whoever or whatever may come through its habitat, for example animals—maybe hitching a ride is its primary mode of propagation? Its growth habit appears to be creeping, rather than upright. The flowers are canary yellow, as seen here. I couldn’t find much information about cold hardiness, but it probably hardy into the high teens.

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Opuntia pusilla cutting

The Opuntia pusilla cutting went in small terracotta pot filled with the same free-draining soil mix and will receive the same treatment as the ‘Ellisiana’ cuttings.

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All three cuttings in their new homes

As a gardener, I would now figure out where to plant these prickly pears. As a collector, practical issues don’t matter.

I’m definitely a collector now!

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Fall colors in Northern Vermont

Fall colors in Vermont are nearing their peak. While I won’t be there this year to witness this incredible sight in person, I’m posting some photos I took in 2009. I visited a good friend who lives in the Northeast Kingdom; his house is less than two miles from the Canadian border. While locals said it was only a “good” year for fall foliage, I thought it was spectacular.

It’s impossible to forecast when the colors might peak—and it varies from location to location—but my timing was actually quite good. While some places were at peak, others were still a little early, as evidenced by a preponderance of green leaves.

I had a great time selecting the photos for this post, and I hope you will enjoy your armchair tour of northeastern and central Vermont—with a side trip to New Hampshire and Québec.

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Canadian border, Holland, VT
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Farm in Holland, VT
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Leaves on Holland Pond
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Lake Willoughby
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Lake Willoughby
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Near Lake Willoughby
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Near Lake Willoughby
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Near Lake Willoughby
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Corn field
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Corn field and dried up sunflowers
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Forest road in Northeastern Vermont
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Forest road in Northeastern Vermont
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Lyndonville, VT
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Lyndonville, VT
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Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge
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Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge
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Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge
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Vermont Route 105
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Vermont Route 105
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Cemetery, Pittsburg, NH
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Northern New Hampshire
                                                                                                                                                  
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They’ve got crazy roads in Québec!
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Québec Route 210
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Near East Orange, VT
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Waits River, VT
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Vermont State Route 232
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Peacham, VT
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Peacham, VT
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Forest near East Orange, VT
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Forest near East Orange, VT
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Sugar shack, Holland, VT, formerly used to make maple syrup
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The same location less than a month after my visit (photo by Mark Violette)

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Recent plant purchases

After going crazy with bamboo in 2009 and 2010, this year I’ve switched to smaller scale plants and have begun to collect cacti and other succulents. They’re much easier to manage and display than bamboos that quickly grow to 20 ft. or more.

The one downside about collecting small succulents is the fact that every nursery and garden center around here sells them. Talk about temptation! Usually they’re in a prominent place, and it’s all too easy to pick up one or two even if you swore you wouldn’t. And it’s easy to justify the purchase because they’re cheap and small.

The online gardening forums are full of stories of people who’ve gotten addicted to collecting succulents and now own 100, 200, 300 specimens or even more. While I’m still far from that point, I must curb myself otherwise I’ll join their ranks. Is there an A.A. for plant addicts?

Anyway, here are my most recent purchases.

Our local ACE store is to blame for the first set. They had a great sale on 3” succulents from Lone Pine Gardens last week and I couldn’t resist getting a few.

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Discocactus araneispinus, a small cactus from Southern Brazil with long, curly spines. Considered the easiest member of the Discocactus genus, it’s still not an easy cactus to grow. It wants to be kept at temperatures above 50°F and can rot easily if overwatered. Of course I didn’t know any of these things when I bought it, but I like a challenge, so we’ll see if I can keep it alive.
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Mammillaria huitzilopochtli. I admit, I bought it as much for its beautiful spines as for its name, Huitzilopochtli being the Aztec god of war who required human sacrifice. I wonder if this tiny ball of spines will want my blood?
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Parodia buiningii, a relatively uncommon cactus native to Southern Brazil and Uruguay. Beautiful yellow flowers similar to my Parodia magnifica that bloomed this summer. It tolerates light frost, which is good, but has a reputation for losing its roots in the winter, which increases the risk of rot when you begin to water it again in the spring after its winter rest. I guess the solution is to water very sparingly for a while to give it a chance to grow new roots. So much to learn!

The next three cacti came from Walmart. I only go there twice or three times a year, and their succulents are often overwatered and showing signs of rot. However, this time I found some nice specimens.

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Rebutia albipilosa. The label says its flowers are white, but the photos I find online
(here, for example) show orange flowers.
                                                                                                                                                   
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Left: Chamaelobivia ‘Rose Quartz,’ apparently a cross between an echinopsis and a lobivia and commonly called “peanut cactus.” This one is supposed to have pink flowers.
Right: Euphorbia mammillaria ‘Variegata.’ Its common name is “Indian corn cob.” In spite of its shape, this is not a cactus but a South African succulent which, like all euphorbias, secretes a caustic white sap when injured.

The third group of plants came from last Saturday’s plant sale at the UC Davis Arboretum. The Arboretum is celebrating its 75th anniversary, and this plant sale was the best stocked ever. All the plants I ended up buying actually came from the UC Davis Botanical Conservatory, which is part of the College of Biological Sciences. This is the same place where the corpse flower (Amorphophallus titanum) bloomed this summer.

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Echinocactus texensis. Its common name couldn’t be more descriptive: horse crippler. This Texas native is hardy to zone 7 and can tolerate moist and humid conditions.
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Aloe KG-14. This is one of the famous aloes created by Kelly Griffin, arguably the biggest superstar in the world of aloe hybridization. Some of his hybrids are crosses of three, four or maybe even more aloe species across several generations.
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This plant drew a lot of attention at the plant sale—no surprise considering its unique watermelon-red leaf margin and its turquoise coloration.
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I’ve seen small 4-5” specimens selling for $15 online. Mine is 12” across, and it was less than that at the plant sale.

The last plant I got at the UC Davis Arboretum plant sale is quite a rarity. It’s a bottle tree called Dencrosicyos socotrana, only found on the island of Socotra off the coast of Yemen. It’s common name is “cucumber tree,” alluding to the fact that botanically it’s a member of the Cucurbitaceae (or cucumber) family. In its native habitat, this succulent can grow to 18 ft.

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My Dencrosicyos socotrana is 24” tall, and its caudex (swollen base) has a diameter of 3” at ground level.
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The leaves do look a lot like cucumber or zucchini leaves.
                                                                                                                                                   
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Close up of the branches and trunks.
Dendrosicyos socotrana in its native habitat on Socotra Island
Image source: http://yemen.way-nifty.com/blog/2010/12/index.html

UC Davis played a pioneering role in propagating this rare succulent, discovering ways to get the plant to bloom and produce seeds and then successfully germinating the seeds. Apparently, this had been hard to do before. Here’s some background info for those who are interested.

I find myself fascinated not only by this cucumber tree, but by “fat plants” in general, as the group of succulents that form swollen bases are called. As I learn more, I will write a separate post.

In the meantime, I’ll make sure my small cucumber tree stays alive. I was advised that it has to be kept above 55°F (although other sources say it can take temperatures close to freezing), requires bright light 8-14 hours a day, and must not be overwatered—or underwatered. It sure sounds like this winter I’ll have a house guest living in my office!