March 30, 2006

Lachenalia aloides var. vanzyliae

Lachenalia aloides var. vanzyliae
Cape Hyacinth's are rare enough, but the teal colored Lachenalia aloides var. vanzyliae is perhaps the most choice form, for collectors. 

Lachenalia aloides are by far the most popular of the genus Lachenalia, the easy to grow winter blooming South African bulb related to the Hyacinth, and found in some specialy bulb catalogs in the fall. I have a few varieties of Lachenalia aloides in bloom right now (see blog from last weekend). The most beutiful is L. aloides quadricolor, with four colors in its blossom, and then there are two all yellow varieties in blooom now, L. aloides var. aurea, and L. aloides 'Nelsonii'.

The one I am showing you now, is a much rarer variety, and one which I have been trying to find for a long time. L. aloides var. vanzyliae is not common at all, yet it was introduced to Kirstenbosch Botanic Garden in 1927. It is the most unusually colored form, with conspicuous white bracts and pendulous flowers with green segmenets, that fade into pale blue at the base. It is a highly desirable variety which I have never seen available anywhere. It seems to like full sun, and since it is one of the last Lachenalia to bloom, I find it interesting the the Lachenalia season begins with a green species, in December (L. viridiflora) and closes with this green variety of L. aloides.

Lachenalia aloides

The foliage is beautiful too, with dark maroon spots, and bluish green leaves. I should note that I still ahve one more species to bloom, which I saw well budded in the greenhouse sand bed, and that is a pot of L. matthewsii, which we're started from seed four years ago.

Amorphophallus Bulb

Repotting Amorphophallus
My largest Amorphophallus konjac bulb, is really getting big!
Any gardener who has grown to become a plant enthusiast can remember, as a child exploring encyclopedias seeing rare plant photos from the past. Gardening in the nineteenth century often meant collecting terribly exotic plants merely for the wow-factor. Remember those grainy, black and white vintage images, with perhaps a little girl standing on a giant 12 foot wide Victoria water lily pad....or bearded men with long saws, proudly posed under a felled giant Californian Sequoia log, or a very proper British dude in tweeds and bow tie, standing next to a large wooden crate in an misty conservatory, next to whom stood a giant twelve foot tall Jack-in-the-Pulpit-ish inflorescence? Well, that is what grows from this dormant bulb that I now hold, above. Now if that's not cool, what is?

The genus Amorphophallus is gaining popularity with plant collectors, once again. They're fun to grow in the summer outdoors in pots, as many of the species are quite easy, and they can be grown anywhere in the country. Although they are tropical, and native to South East Asia, Borneo and the like; they are dormant all winter long, and the tubs that you must grow them in can just be pulled into a cellar or unheated garage where they can stay, nice and dry and not freeze.

I take my eleven species out from under the greenhouse bench every March, to repot and to explore. I love seeing how big the bulbs have become, it just seems like magic, some even multiply. Not all species produce giant flower, many are smaller, with inflorescence no larger than a human hand. The only caveat is that the blooms smell like rotting animals, but I think that just adds to the whole experience.

This particularly nice bulb is Amorphophallus konjac, the most common species and easiest to obtain. (try Plant Delights Nursery or eBay). Every year I re pot the bulb, remove it's many offsets to share with friends or toss, or even eat, since the bulb is immensely popular in Japan and Korea where fields of them are an important agricultural crop for producing a starchy flour to make Soba noodles with.

Amorphophallus grow differently that other bulbs, so you must plant the bulb accordingly: the roots do not come out of the bottom, they come out of the top of the bulb, and from the stem near the bulb. To plant a bulb, Find the largest tub that you can, I use 30 gallon nursery tubs. It plant in a regular potting soil, and set your bulb down deep about four inches from the bottom, and then place a soil less mix like Promix on top, the bulb should be about 8 inches or more deep. Don't water until you see growth, around May or June. Amorphophallus bulbs produce generally just one long beautifully mottled stem with an umbrella of compound leaves at the top, like a giant Jack in the Pulpit, another relative from the Arum family. Fertilize while the plant it growing all summer, weekly, with a tomato fertilizer so the bulb will grow large. Be certain that your Tomato fertilizer has a the last of the three numbers higher than the first too on the analysis (like 18-18-30), phosphorous and potash are what bulbs need to get giant.

It does take time for Amorphophallus bulbs to build up enough energy to bloom, but they are lovely grown for the foliage alone. A bulb may not bloom for three or four years if you plant a potato sized bulb. This bulb is four years old now, and I have hopes that it may bloom this year or next. The inflorescence on A. konjac can reach 3 or 4 feet tall, but this species isn't even close to the largest that we have. That honor belongs to A. titanum, which is one of the more challenging Amorphophallus to grow since it requires a faster draining soil mixture and warmer conditions. That inflorescence can reach 12 feet tall, and only a few have been successfully raised at botanical gardens where the event is always celebrated with T-shirts and all night vigils with champagne. You can do the same when yours bloom, we will! Say tuned.

March 28, 2006

Pleione Orchids

Pleione bulb flower

Pleione orchids are a precious small orchid from western China that grow from bulbs, like a paperwhite. They are challenging to find, but are completely growable, and are as easy as paperwhites to bloom too, the first season after planting. The real skill will be getting them to bloom again, since they are terribly expensive and you won't want to throw them out. With careful cultural care and attention, success is achievable and encouraged since they are so unique and no one has them anymore, and they can get better with age and multiply.
Pots of Pleione in the greenhouse

As for finding bulbs to buy, few if any catalogs in North America sell them, and I only know of one Canadian nursery carrying them at the moment. If you do find some, they are rarely the choice new crosses that one finds in England, such as from Plione expert Ian Butterfield or Pottertons, but more likely they are species forms, and one too must be careful that they were not collected from the wild. In Europe, there are spectacular crosses and grex's available, as well as many species. The British bulb retailers carry some nice crosses, but you must order them while they are dormant, around late November until January, since by Valentines day many have started to show buds, and they will not ship them. Everything has a season, especially uncommon plants, that is why you don't see them at American retailers. Short shelf life, and you can't sell them in bloom. It's a real problem with American Garden Centers, as a reason why every one's garden looks the same, in late May, since that is the only time people go to the garden center to buy plants, and they only carry plants that are in full bloom at that season. But we hortiphiles are informed gardeners, and won't be affected by such things.

Pot of Pleione orchids

In my cold greenhouse, a few grex's as well as some species, these I received from a friend in the UK, and we're well budded when I planted them. Culturally, they require a full growing season from the first sign of blooms, until October. They prefer cooler conditions year round, which is tough in New England, since the summers are hot. Just remember that they grow at higher elevations, in cloud forests usually on mossy branches, or moss covered rocks. Cool, damp and misty as well as buoyant air, it critical.

Pleione orchid blossoms

The Plieone year: Purchase bulbs around Christmas, plant in January, in a fast draining mix of fresh sphagnum moss, some woods chips, old beach leaves and charcoal bits to keep the mix fresh. Keep cool to cold, even near freezing. Buds start to appear in late February, when you can start watering. After blooming, it is safe to place them outside on the north side of the house, or under a tree well after frost. Make sure that they don't dry out, and fertilize with a week solution of fertilizer each time that you water, rainwater is by far the best, they are sensitive to Chlorine and chemicals. Basically, I just keep them outside until the first frost, when the leaves yellow, and die back, and the pots are brought in to the Greenhouse and kept dry until buds show again.