February 18, 2011

Now Serving, Baboon Snacks

It is not uncommon for seed, which has been wild collected, to be miss-labeled, and alas, I am sure that this is exactly what happened with some of my South African native bulb seed that I have been growing for the past five years, such as this pot of Babiana species. It doesn't bother me, since much of this seed is collected on expeditions and harvested while bulb plants are in seed, and not in bloom. Plus, it's fun to research and try to identify, even key out, the species, as if, ( if I really push it!) I am on a safari or expedition within the safety of my own greenhouse. The only problem is when you can't find an exact match in one of the few books or journals that deal with the subject of South African bulbs.

This plant came from a packet of seed from South Africa which was labeled as Moraea pritzeliana, but a quick dive into any book on native flora of South Africa proves that firstly, this is not even a Moraea. Not an uncommon problem that many of us face who grow rarer species that come from wild collected seed, (and I share with you that I have a few of these unknown plants coming into bloom in the next few weeks as the South African bulbs in my collections begin to come into bloom).  If you know what this is, please let me know. My best guess at this point is that it is Babiana odorata, but the petals seem to be smaller on mine when compared to species I see on-line. Still, it has the blue anthers, but no fragrance. I started it from seed purchased from Silverhill seeds in South Africa.

Come on Baboons.....I dare you to eat my Babiana corms!

Babiana are members of the Iris Family ( Iridaceae) and they get their name from the Baboons which love to dig and eat their corms. Most Babiana's are restricted to growing in the winter-rainfall region of South Africa, where many, many flowering bulbs also grow. In the wild, most species are now endangered in their wild habitat ( which is why any wild collected seed, and never bulbs, must be obtained from responsible sources such as a botanic garden like Kirstenbosch, or Silverhill seeds which ensures that native populations are maintained and not exploited).

One interesting aspect within Babiana are that species are either pollinated by bees, or beetles ( Monkey Beetles), and the difference is clear to even our human eyes, since the bee pollinated forms have less contrast in the flower ( to our human eyes), and often have long tubes  which indicate that flies with long probiscus or pollen collecting bees visit them. The species that attract beetles of various species, have high contrasting floral colors such as violet and white.

Many species of Babiana are ornamental, with numerous hybrids and crosses being grown in California and other warmer places where identification becomes muddled. With 75 species known ( Goldbatt & Manning, 2002), surely my mystery species might be identified by someone more experienced.

February 16, 2011

The Experience of Forcing Bulbs

A tray of Dutch bulbs brought in from the cold frames, ready to force in the greenhouse.

Forcing bulbs. I know, just saying it sounds a bit effected (affected?). You know, in the way one may say " We're taking a tea" or "Release the hounds. Oh so very British, I suppose, and yes, that's where this all began, so we have the British to thank for forcing bulbs, hot beds, and so many fine gardening past times that makes gardening today so, well.....stylish and enjoyable.

 The very idea of 'forcing bulbs' is not new, it dates back to the 1700's when the trend began with some of the earliest glass houses, or stoves - glass growing structures that were heated, allowing people to grow plants they never could have grown before, and the timing couldn't have been better, as exotic plants were being collected and brought back by explorers sent out by Kew gardens, out to collect rare and new plants all in the name of the Queen. Plants and bulbs were arriving from Turkey and South Africa to be and ultimately, being 'collected' and 'forced' by enthusiasts into bloom in proper British glasshouses, cold frames and hot beds.

Today, we continue to 'force bulbs', but not exactly with the same passion or tools that the great British horticulturists did. But think about for a minute, if you lived in 1810, how incredible it must have seemed to have fresh pineapple, tulips in bloom and fragrant citrus in the depths of winter. Remember, this was a time when books were even rare, and of course, there was no TV, no radio, no automobiles. 

In our modern world, the idea of forcing seems rather old fashioned, like many things today, has become diluted and simplified, something that is unnecessary, yet quaint.. The art, one might say, has lost it's panache - no longer a romantic folly of the wealthy and privileged, who might have wooden coldframes, greenhouses and gardening staff who can take the time to pot up clay pots of Dutch bulbs in October, bury them in sand within the protection of a cold frame, and then, brought into the glasshouse in late winter to be forced into bloom, but rather, it is something that hipsters may try, in much the same way they may raise bees for honey. I'm not knocking it, but I will admit that it takes a certain soul to appreciate forcing bulbs, or any plant today, in our modern world.

Many garden writers offer advice and guidelines on forcing bulbs. We are advised that we can still 'force' bulbs, but often advised to take the easy route, and, the less romantic. Use plastic pots so they won't crack, buy bulbs at the supermarket on sale in the fall, pot up the bulbs in potting soil from Home Depot, bury the pots in black plastic garbage bags full of leaves that you raked up with your kids, tie it off, and stash it under the deck until mid-winter, and then, bring the pots into the house to force in a sunny window. 

Hey, it works, but it still isn't quite the same experience. May I suggest a few options, to help improve the experience? I shall.

1. Buy bulbs anywhere, but enjoy perusing the websites and catalogs, and plan a little. Planning on what bulbs to purchase is almost as pleasurable as the actual 'forcing' part.

2. Raise the Bar on the Experience Level at Every Step - Look, you are not forcing bulbs just for the flowers, you hopefully are doing it because you love gardening, so why ruin and waste the entire process just to enjoy a few days of tulips after a long day at work?   Use clay pots ( or plastic, and then bury -hide- the pot in a clay pot once brought indoors). Plastic pots won't crack if they freeze, but if you do have a real cold frame, and if the pots are buried in sand and covered with a thick layer of leaves, they will not freeze, and you can use clay. 

My best advice is to - amp up the experience at every step.  Make the experience beautiful, pay attention to every detail, and enjoy the minutia. I prefer real wooden cold frames with glass lights, real clay pots preferably hand made, nice sand, nice imported English heirloom trowels, real Haws brand copper watering cans, elegant labels.... make every touch point a pleasure. Buy interesting bulbs, experiment with odd, new or rare bulbs.

3. Lastly, exhibit the pots. I designed a bay window over my sink to function as a display window. I had lights installed, so that I can dim the halogen spot, or increase them at different levels, and every weekend, I can set up a display of pots that I bring in from the greenhouse just as a retail store  or a botanical garden might. Silly? Maybe, but I don't think so. I invest alot of time and effort, and dollars into my greenhouse, the care of my plants, and in selecting what to grow, I might as well enjoy the results!

 Lachenalia cultivars almost ready to bloom.

Tulips will tell you that they are ready to be brought into the greenhouse but how long their shoots are.

 Find the sunniest spot on a windowsill in a cool room, or in your greenhouse to allow the bulbs to slowly emerge into bloom.

These Hyacinths are ready to bring indoors where their intense fragrance will make the kitchen smell like a spring flower show.

February 13, 2011

Stenomesson pearcei, my long wait has paid off.


High in the Andes, on mountain slopes from Peru to Bolivia comes todays rare bulb which is blooming in the greenhouse as it is snowing outside. It's so reassuring that during this record breaking cold and snowy winter, that such miracles can occur. For I've tried everything to get this stubborn bulb to bloom, almost tossing it last year. Now, my precious pot of Stenomesson pearcei that I have had for ten years, has finally come into bloom with a single spike and a half dozen of bright yellow and green bells, each providing some hope that not only can I bloom something rare in the coldest and snowiest winter in history,  but that maybe this is a sign that spring will come soon. No, wait... I'm supposed to like winter, right?

As the light snow falls today, I can't even image the colonies of Stenomesson pearcei that grow and bloom in the summer, in the high in the protected alpine meadows where its bulbs can form offsets protected from animals,deep in the quick-draining alpine soils amongst the grass. Stenomesson pearcei grows at a very high elevation, between 9,000 and 13,000 feet and although there are rarer bulbs, this one is still quite uncommon in collections, even among those who collect rare bulbs.

This little bulb has caused some big controversy in the bulb world lately, since most of the species within this genus have recently been transferred to the genus Clinanthus, thanks to the hard work of one Dr. Alan Meerow, an expert on New World Amaryllidaceae (the Amaryllis Family). I met Dr. Meerow at an International Bulb Society conference in 2000, and his expertise inspired to to collect more endagered bulbs that have been rescued.  Kew has accepted the reclassification and all species have now been moved except this one single species, which remains ( for now) as Stenomesson pearcei, ( if you care about such things).

I was hoping that I had a Phaedranassa viridiflora, but alas, my label must be rewritten ( me and my labels!). Still, my Stenomesson pearcei is not something common enough to sneer at. 

The entire plant on the sand plunge bed set against the snowy exterior garden. As you can see, it is rather tall at about 3 feet.

I have pollinated the stigma, so I am hopeful that I may get some seed.