February 6, 2013

Evaluating Clivia Crosses

Selected Clivia x Cyrtanthiflora Group crosses, long, tubular blossoms from crosses made between two distinct species
of Clivia - C. miniata, the common srping - blooming species, and C. caulescens, a fall blooming species. Once
removed from the plant and set against their kin, the differences can be amazing. 

I will assume that most of you are familiar with the typical large-flowers orange Clivia ( C. miniata) and it's many selections one sees sold, often for exorbitant prices in plant catalogs (especially if they are yellow flowered forms), but there are six of so distinct species of this amaryllis relative available, and many, many crosses between the species. I encourage you to seek them out on Internet sites, Yahoo groups and on eBay ( be careful though with Chinese sellers!), for even seeds of these more unusual forms will grow easily into flowering sized plants within 4 or 5 years - yeah, it's an investment in time and sometimes money, but so worth it.

Right now, you probably are thinking "Heck, I've had a clivia for 6 years and it has yet to bloom- what am I doing wrong?". The truth is, when I kept cliva indoors, I too enjoyed their long, leathery dark green leaves and ease of care, but often found that getting them to bloom, at least on time in March, was challenging. Those of you who live in warmer areas, such as southern California where one can grow these South African natives outdoors, are wondering "what do you mean? Ours bloom every year, on time?".

Simply said, clivia respond to two things - daylength, day and night temperatures. The idea that they need no water is not true, although it rarely will hurt them, it is doubtful that it will stimulate flowering. Once we moved out clivia outside into the greenhouse, where they experience the sun rising and setting each day, they bloom on a schedule, and they have never missed a year - which leads me to advise that if you cannot get your clivia to bloom, that you should move it to a cool, if not unheated room, where there are not lamps after the sun sets. My plants are wet year round, but I don't advise that you ever keep your plants wet in the winter, for rot can occur. I will say, take your plants outside for the summer and place them in a shady place, so that they can enjoy the rain, and then forget about them until fall. Indoors, place plants under a bright window in the winter ( sun is OK in the winter, if not essential), and be wary of throwing off their schedule with light after hours.

A dark pinkish orange form with 4 inch long blossoms.

If you want to try getting some of these more unusual forms, you can breed your own, for clivia are easy-peasy from seeds. The berries will ripen over a years time, and once soft, you can squish out the large seeds ( they look like macadamia nuts), sow them, and in a month or so, a root will emerge and you are off. Clivia are sturdy plants, slow growing - only a leaf or two a year, and plants will begin blooming after 4 or 5 years.

  You don't have to be Luther Burbank to practice breeding your own plants, and the genus Cliva offer an easy and fun way to experiment with amateur genetics and flower breeding. For the past 15 years I've been working on the genus Clivia - not really in a serious way ( although it may look like it to some), as I don't keep records nor really name any of my crosses, but the results have been fund and really interesting to watch bloom. I am an amateur plant breeder, only dabbling here and there with a paint brush, but the results are just as impressive, I believe as the serious breeders get.

Clivia x Cyrtanthiflora Group, lighter because this plant was being grown in a darker setting, under the benches.

Ten years ago, Cliva were very expensive, almost prohibitively so, with some plants selling for over $1000 US. Today, with EBay and seed exchanges on-line, obtaining an interesting Clivia cross is much easier. Sure, there are expensive clones, and since all good clones can only be properly propagated by division ( as micropropagation has remained problematic), the finest forms will remain costly and rare. Most of my plants are either my crosses, or those made in Japan by Mr. Nakamura, whom we visited ten years ago. As many of you know, we once have over a thousand plants. Thankfully, I've been able to cull the collection down to about 200 plants (without Joe even knowing that the boring orange forms get tossed into to dumpster each year).

The trick to crossing spring flowered species with autumnal blooming species? Save the pollens in empty vitamin capsules in the freezer. A little home cryogenetics never hurt anyone.

I try to photograph all of them, as the naked eye seems to miss many of the nuances in each flower. I am amazed at how different each flower can be. Just check out the differences in this weeks installation of mid-season blooming plants. These slender, tubular flowers are a form known as Cyrtanthiflora Group, or Clivia x Cyrtanthiflora, and they are the result of crossing autumnal blooming species such as C. gardenii, C. caulescens and C. nobilis with the more common orange wide petaled forms of C. miniata. I find it interesting that these clivia bloom half way between the autumn blooming species ( C. caulescens) and the spring blooming species, mainly, C. miniata.

Close-up photos allow one to examine details such as anthers that extend beyond the petals, or greenish tips on petals.

Evaluating crosses gets difficult, especially when one does not have room to keep them all. This orange sherbet colored
clivia has a solid throat ) with no green. 
A darker orange form of Clivia x cyrtanthiflora

This plant is gigantic, in a 36 inch pot, the flowers are almost as thin as pencils, and very red in the winter sun.

A lovely yellow throated flower reminiscent of some 19th Century varieties.
 Here are a few of last year's crosses blooming, worth looking at again, as when they bloomed all together, It was difficult to identify what was different between the forms. Now, with a clear mind, I can see amazing and significant differences. Some of these, I feel, are worth naming and perhaps introducing. But I really have no idea how to do that, and really, will anyone care besides me? Still, with some catalogs selling 'named' clones for $750. I still believe that many of these are far nicer.

An ordinary looking flower, but nice variegated foliage and did I mention that this is a dwarf plant with very
wide leaves, with some as wide as 5 inches.

This is it - the most expensive clivia ( valuable, I mean), that I own. It's yellow and variegated. Did I mention that
it is fragrant too? Last time I checked, variegated yellow clivia's were selling for $1500.

My finest yellow, an un-named seedling we call Lady Margaret. The flowers have an wide spread, each one wider than 5 inches, and the head is enourmous, nearly a foot in diameter. Best of all, this clone is as fragrant as an Easter Lily.

February 3, 2013

Podophyllum Madness and Desire

Podophyllum 'Spotty Dotty', on my wish list for a year now, suddenly, I am discovering that I should have bought more when I had the chance.

I can hear my brothers now. 'It's Super Bowl Sunday and where is Matt? He's at a crazy Podophyllum lecture eating cookies and sipping tea". Actually, I was. Our local North American Rock Garden Society has a quiet little sub-group called the Hardy Plant Group which meets monthly in the winter at various locations where members show and share either plants, or share images. Each meeting has a theme, and everyone who attends is encouraged to share and participate. Yes, tis a bit geeky, but then again, that's really what this is all about. And although not for everyone, the themes are often challenging and always very interesting. In the past themes have been Cruciferae, or early spring bulbs, or even our favorite winter blooming shrubs. Today, the subject was Podophyllum, along with a discussion on other plants within the Family Berberidaceae.

 I was disheartended to learn that Chinese wild collected plants make up most of the nursery trade for these plants in the US, and even though nurseries won't admit that they are carrying such plants, the rhyzomes don't lie. Un pot a plant and most likely, you will see rhyzomes with not one or two eyes, but ones with 7, 10 or 14 eyes, each one representing a years growth in the wild.

I can admit here that I do indeed have an obsession with Podophyllum. Today's talk was lead by long-time Friend Darrell Probst, who shared with us his many images of his own seed collections, crosses and new species which he collected on expeditions to China along with Daniel Hinkley way back  in the 1990's. We are very fortunate here in the Boston suburbs, as our members are passionate and even included some well known names in the plant world.  Members today included Ellen Hornig - past proprietor of the now closed Seneca Hill nursery, of course, Darrell Probst, noted epimedium and now coreopsis breeder. Our audience also included Roy Herald and Helen Herold ( Roy, Hosta breeder and active member of the Pacific Bulb Society, NARGS and the Cactus and Succulent Society, and his wife Helen, past president of the N.E. NARGS chapter). Oh yes, and the Onion Man himself - Mark McDonough  I really can't think of a nicer group of friends.

Choice Asian Podophyllum may always be rare, even as plants are sometiems micro propagated,  this form of propagation is still not productive. In those few times when it has worked, named selections appear one year, and then disappear the next. Vegetative division remains difficult, and wild collected plants, while still appearing at some nurseries,  seem to be all that one can find. It makes one wonder about the future of this genus -  what will be depleted first, nursery stock, or wild collections?

Best thing of all? The talk today was not held at a library or in a conference room - today, it was held in a home - the cozy home of another well known plant couple - Jan Sacks and Marty Schafer, owners of Joe Pye Weed gardens, the well know iris breeders and nursery. We just kicked our snowy boots off on their cold, glassed in porch which housed an amazing collection of sassanqua camellias, citrus and pelargoniums, and grabbed a steaming cup of coffee from the stove, a comfy chair in their living room and watched the power point presentation as the snow fell in huge, fluffy flakes. It was perfectly set, and perfectly cast. Interesting friends, great talk and fascinating inspiration. It reminded me of when I was a child, and would go to a friends house to play while their parents perhaps watched a football game.

Our native Mayapple, Podophyllum peltatum, one of three selections we've collected in our woodland and in the nearby forests of Northboro, MA where Joe was raised.  I learned
today that there are many selections even in wild colonies of this species, some even have pink flowers.

At the end of our long walk, near the woods, two selections of P. peltatum have spread nicely ( which it tends to do), forming dense colonies where it is happy, and in this moist area, we allow it to fight-it-out with other aggressive spreaders such as this variegated Petasites japonica. 

I left with a new, and even more enhanced knowledge about the genus Podophyllum, and...a little sad ( if not crazy) since many of the great selections and clones that have appeared in the market over the past couple of years, are now gone, with little hope of new ones coming in since the genus is notoriously challenging to micropropagate and division is slow. In the wild, populations are being depleted in China as Chinese nurseries are raping the woodlands, stripping out every clone they can find, and now that medical researchers are looking at the genus as a possible cancer treatment, new plants being imported is even less likely.

Last year I planted 5 pots of Podophyllum pleianthum, a Chinese species which is still quite variable, depending on where you get them from. Watch out for white stemmed forms, green stemmed forms, and the number of blossoms. All are choice, and worthy additions to a woodland garden, especially when they mature into 3 foot tall clumps.

And now, off on my mission to find out more about this genus. I have a few plants already, perhaps one of each species available in most catalogs in the past, but now that I know that there are different populations, and different secections as well as crosses between Chinese species and American species, as well as this deficit of some very choice plants such as Podophyllum delavyi 'Spotty Dotty' which Terra Nova introduced last year, but which is impossible to find today, as well as some fine Heronswood selections from the past ( Damn - if only I had money then!). Some other selections such as P. ' Kaleidoscope' are equally scarce today in the trade. So, I am on a mission to find and collect them all. ( Oh, jeesh - another plant to collect more of), and who knows - if I don't heat my greenhouse next year, maybe I will dump my Clivia collection and start breeding Podophyllum. Or better yet, take a trip to western China.

February 2, 2013

Antique Fragrance Under Glass

It smells like 1810. A short-lived shrub, the tender Daphne odora is worth it's space in the cold greenhouse. It's a shrub that has scented conservatories and greenhouses in the north since 1800, as it makes a fine container specimen, and treasured for it's fragrant blossoms in mid-winter. It's the first thing ones smells upon entering my greenhouse.

I always wanted a winter garden under glass, like the one mentioned in one of my favorite gardening books, A YEAR AT NORTH HILL by Joe Eck and Wayne Winterrowd, and I suppose I sort-of have one. A proper winter garden in the north, would have tender shrubs planted into the soil ( which I have, but most are in containers), and the plantings would mimic those of outdoor gardens, and that is something I do not have. In the future, when I cannot afford to heat the greenhouse anymore, I shall convert the space into a winter garden, or at least, into an alpine house ( maybe both?), but until then, my very 'winter gardeny plants' will have to survive in containers - and here's we were start -

Daphne odora blossoms smell exactly like you took sun tan lotion and mixed it with lemon Pledge furniture polish.

Sarcococca hookeriana var. digyna, the Himalayan Sweet Boxwood begins to open its tiny, fringed blossoms which are intensely sweet smelling. 

Go ahead, Laugh - my Californian friends, (or even you northern Pacific gardeners in Seattle and Vancouver), but here in New England, if we want to enjoy to enjoy the sweet scent of Sarcococca and the even sweeter scent of the winter-blooming Daphne odora, we must grow them under cold glass - i pots. It's not particularly unusual to grow these shrubs in containers, as for nearly three hundred years, they have been grown in conservatories this way, as they only survive in gardens in USDA Zone 8 and up. Here in the Boston area, these were common greenhouse shrubs, and they marked the first sign of spring as they bloomed in late January and February along with specimens of camellias and acacia trees, often hidden behind their showier kin in conservatory displays in the Victorian era, to share their rich scent ever so secretly. Sarcococca is a valuable ground-cover shrub in areas where it can live such as North Carolina and south, or San Francisco to Seattle where it is a choice winter-interest plant.

The Sarcococca sits in a smaller pot which sits in a larger lemon, lifting the pot to nose level. The blossoms are small, but they be mighty.

In the early morning, just as the sun hits the greenhouse at 8:00 am, the snow that fell the night before still clings to the glass. In an hour, it will melt from the radiant heat produced by the sun. This white camellia enjoys a morning sunbeam.

I have one fragrant camellia called 'HIgh Fragrance', and indeed, it is 'highly fragrant, especially when the sun warms the blossoms up. For some reason, I only have a few buds on my shrub this year, so I will only be able to enjoy about four of these yummy blooms.

These Chinese shrubs were early imports to the United States, as they began appearing in many greenhouse collections on estates and in private homes in the early 1800's, just after being introduced to Kew in the late 1700's. Just a couple of many important garden plants collected on expeditions sponsored by Kew, and arriving on ships arriving from China.

On these first two days of February, the sun already feels stronger under glass ( not outside!). I run from the house to the greenhouse in summer clothes, hoping not to be distracted by early hellebores or loose turkeys, but once I am in the greenhouse, everything changes. The air is damp and rich with the scents of early blooming plants, particularly the Sarcococca hookeriana var. digyna and the Daphne odora var. marginata, as well as my Primula forbesii which is so fragrant, one would think that I spilled baby powder everywhere ( and a double strength bottle of imported vanilla extract).

Seeds of many  perennials which have been pre-chilled have been sown. This lot includes Crambe maritima, the sea kale, Rodgersia pinnatifolia, many Primula species and others. Starting perennials from seed is very cost effective, but stick to those that are worth growing from seed, and not new introductions. 

Each week I am starting seeds, orchestrating them from secret areas around the house where I can offer them the temperatures and/or light requirements that each species needs. The red-leaved Bishop series of Dahlias need light to germinate - the celery needs warmer temperatures than the leeks, but both want to have soil temperatures that remain above 70 degrees. Other seeds are laying around in poly envelopes in damp sand, where they will sit for two weeks, damp and warm at 75º F and then be exposed to near freezing temperatures for 4 weeks, this treatment works well for many Himalayan primroses, as well as for Rodgersia, Pulmonaria and European Primroses. I know, it may all seem like alot of work, but on pod of Pulmonaria will give me about 200 plants, and that sure beats buying one for $12.00.

I ran out of my black labels, so as I wait for my package to arrive, I am doing the ol' stick-the-seed-packet-into-the-pot-thingy. Come on, you know you've done it too! As you can see, my Lachenalia bulbs are almost ready to bloom.

Some seeds I purchased pre-chilled, which makes it all easier, and others, I  buy from Germany from Jelitto because the varieties are ones that I want ( such as their Aquilegia Bird Series, that I saw in Switzerland. Sure, the seed costs $25, but I will get a few hundred plants. Not all home raised perennials are worth growing from seed, as patented forms and top performers are all micro propagated, or grown commercially. For this reason alone, I would never, ever, save my own seed from, well let's say Echinacea or other perennials that are names varieties. They would be a waste of time and space, as their offspring will only result in weedy, lesser forms of their parents.

A rare lily seedling emerges after spending a year and a half in a pot. Another collection of seed from Tibet, one often only gets 5 seeds of some rare species, and even if one germinates after time, it's worth it.

I only grow wild species from seed, or known selections that come true to type. For instance, the Pulmonaria I grow is Pulmonaria officinalis, the wild European form with blue flowers, but if I wanted a find spotted leaved form, or a selection with silver leaves, I will pay for a premium selection.

A rarely seen view of the north east corner of the greenhouse, where the ferns live. Now that February has arrived, the sun is beginning to get stronger, and most of these will need to be relocated to shadier places. The windows are steamed up because I had just watered everything with the hose, and the temperature outside is near 18º F.

This is the time of year when space becomes a problem in the greenhouse, as seed flats are produced from the house. As seeds germinate under light units, I begin relocating them to the cooler greenhouse where they continue. Still, many remain in the house under lights until I can ensure that temperatures ini the greenhouse say near 65º. which will happen by the end of the month. Under lights I have snapdragons started, Dahlia, Impatiens, Calibrachoa and Nemesia. All need early sowing, and as I despise growth regulators which all growers use to keep their annuals short and stout, I try to grow everything myself. Of course, this goes for vegetables as most growers spray their peppers, tomatoes and lettuce with so many growth regulators starting with root stimulants to hormones to initiate early blooms, to hormones that keep lettuce and tomato plants thick and strong looking, that I am trying to grow all of my veggies this year from seed.