Sunday, August 22, 2010

TNLA 2010

Neat little 'Gator Aloe' in an arrangement of cute little succulents

Matt's company went to the annual Texas Nurseryman and Landscaper's Association in San Antonio, and kindly allowed me to tag along.

It's always fun to see the hort industry showing off a little (this time, there were, among other things, two fountains--one a giant dolphin and the other a giant seahorse--standing about 18 feet apart and spitting great, arching streams of water into one anothers' basins. It was really... something. As Matt pointed out with an excitement that might not have been entirely genuine, People could get married under there.) Seahorses aside though, it wasn't quite as fun as last year. I couldn't decide if this was because I'd seen it all before, or if there really were slightly fewer interesting displays. Possibly a combination of the two. Still, there was much to absorb.

I was sorry not to see any of those funky green-and-purple petunias from last year (the "Petunia Sophistica"series, I think they were called), nor the unusually dark plumbago ('Imperial Blue'?) nor the yaupon holly that was meant to compete with 'Will Fleming.' (Ilex vomitoria 'Scarlet's Peak').

On the other hand, very cute Magnolia grandiflora 'Teddy Bear,' the new 'Little Gem' competitor, is still going strong. At least one grower is still pushing the nifty purple-leaved mimosa 'Summer Chocolate' (Albrizia julibrissen). And I saw a few vendors again sporting 'Summer Red' maples with their colorful new foliage, purported to grow everywhere.

Things that are new or caught my eye included:
  1. a weeping blue atlas cedar (Cedrus atlantica 'Glauca Pendula'). Totally funky architectural fun--but not sure where I could put it. We're short on alpine plantings here at Chez M. I'm pretty sure that you have to train them to look like the pic--otherwise, they grow into huge formless Snuffuluffaguses.
  2. Agave neomexicana, a grey/fern-green New Mexico century plant.
  3. a thornless paloverde (X Parkinsonia--Matt particularly liked)
  4. 'Delta Jazz,' a crape myrtle with very dark purple leaves. Looked a bit droopy though--not sure how tough it is
  5. Weird, bowl-leaved 'Maraca Portulaca' (Portulaca molokiniensis)
  6. Gator aloe--species not given
  7. Purple verbena 'Royale Chambray'--might be good for the blue-and-purple bed
  8. a bronze loquat (Eriobotrya deflexa)--stiff, serrate leaves with bronzy new growth
  9. A cute little hen-n-chicks with purple leaf tips (Sempervivum tectorum--cultivar?)
  10. A lavender star tree (Grewia occidentalis) Never heard of this one before at all. Probably wouldn't live in Austin--was standing right next to a great big jacaranda. Sigh. I would dearly love to grow my own jacaranda...
  11. A river birch purported to grow in Austin, with the graceful name of 'Dura-heat.' I am skeptical, but if it I were a small, flop-eared animal, one of my ears would have perked up hopefully.
  12. Unhidden hidden lilies--who knew?!? These curcuma flowers stood proudly erect a good foot above their foliage. Gasp! One cultivar sported the a super-stylish green-and-purple color combo ('Choco Zebra').
  13. And a bunch of David Austin roses. According to their wholesale catalog, one of their three offices is located somewhere in "Texas, America." Where? Do they have display gardens? I would totally love to see. At present, we only have 'Graham Thomas' in our yard but I'd love some more--especially the sinfully fragrant 'Abraham Darby.'
  14. Dark, broody, scab-red antherium

Martian-looking maraca portulaca in a display of succulents

The interestingly stiff, serrated leaves of the bronze loquat, Eriobotrya deflexa. Grows in Florida. Not sure about Austin. Dave's Garden claims it goes up to 8b.

Lavender star tree. Grewia occidentalis. Alas, it maxes out at 9a (so close!)

Unhidden curcumas. These may include 'Chiang Mai Pink,' 'Khmer Snow,' 'Red Lip,' 'Royal Purple,' 'Siam Pearl'

Neat dark red antherium. Unfortunately, tooth-gnashingly, not labeled.

Interesting green and white ceramic fountains from a pottery place in The Woodlands

A really meretricious fountain. There is a light in the hole, and water comes out from there. Two bowing and courtseying European children round out this perplexing ensemble.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Calling Plant Nerds

Less talk, more action? Scroll to the bottom for the bit about the petition.

The Problem
Russia is on the verge of bulldozing a major plant collection in Pavlovsk. According to the Guardian (initial story| follow-up), which has been following the story, this is the world's oldest germplasm collection, with the world's largest fruit collection. They claim, moreover, that over 90% of the plants in the collection are not found in any other plant collection. There are 100 varieties of gooseberries, of raspberries, and of cherries, 1,000 varieties of strawberries from 40 countries, apples from 35 countries, 893 varieties of blackcurrants from 30 countries, and plums from 12 countries (BBC,, Nature).

The Pavlovsk station--from the BBC, who got it from Cary Fowler of the Global Crop Diversity Trust

Why It Matters
One summer during college, I interned at a research center in Oregon that was affiliated with a germplasm collection center. When I was there, a couple of researchers had just returned from a major plant collection trip to China, where they gathered scores of rare and unusual species and varieties of Rubus (the blackberry and raspberry genus). There were thornless specimens, specimens with giant simple palmate leaves, and many other oddities, often unrecognizable to my eyes as a Rubus at all.

Why is this significant? Because about 30% of China's landmass is affected by desertification, and 36% of its virgin forests are under pressure. This is what plant germplasm collections do: perserve fragments of diversity in the form of seeds, tissue, and whole plants. They include ancestors or near-ancestors of cultivated crops as well a far-flung wild cousins.

This would be valuable even in a world rich with healthy, robust ecosystems that act as natural seed banks: from these strange relatives we can get new flavors, colors (like purple carrots), desirable traits (like thornlessness), hardiness, and disease resistance, among other qualities. The National Clonal Germplasm Repository in Corvallis made interesting and promising specimens available to the small fruit breeders at my research station, who worked on/funded research that would be useful to Oregon's farmers (mostly for freezing--the big money in fruit is in processing. If you want a good strawberry, choose a variety that was grown for freezing, not for fresh sale. Fresh fruit are bred for storage first; flavor is an ancillary consideration. Flavor and color are much more important to the processing industry.)

In our world, though, with its besieged wild places, germplasm collections are even more important as a hedge against extinction. This is why the uniqueness of the Pavlovsk collection makes its potential loss so alarming. It is impossible to know what challenges future generations will face--what diseases will threaten their crops, what meteorological catastrophes may occur, what technologies may require changes in how we raise plants or the kinds of plants we raise, or what new medical uses may be discovered for rare and wild plants. Germplasm is a sort of global nest egg--an insurance policy against the unknown.

For all of these reasons, the potential destruction of the Pavlovsk center (which apparently cannot readily be moved owing to the volume of live specimens) would be a catastrophe--things that are unique or extremely rare would be irrevocably lost--so that a bunch of robber baron oligarchs can have pool parties behind the closed gates of a new private housing development. (That last bit may be unfair. I don't actually know the income bracket of the prospective new homeowners--only that it is a private housing development.)

Do Something
To this end, the Global Crop Diversity Trust (an international organization that promotes crop diversity and food security) has put together a petition that you can sign to be submitted to the Russian government. There is also, for the tweeters among us, a movement afoot on Twitter to do... whatever it is Twitter does. This is described at the petition link above and in the second Guardian article.

Plant nerds and all people who like eating, please consider signing, tweeting, and generally making a rumpus for a worthwhile strawberry-lovin' cause.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Back to the Pond

We've pretty well let the pond sit for most of July and early August. Come to think of it, we haven't put a lot of effort into the rest of the house/yard either. It, as Ella Fitzgerald so justly observed, is too damn hot. Plus, it's been the season of niecephews: the first of the next generation of both my and my husband's nuclear families were born during the past month (Hello to little Delilah (b. Jul 11) and Andrew (b. Aug 13)!)

But various friends and family members keep threatening to come and see the pond, even in its present, tattered, unfinished, and semi-functional state. So. Time for the next big push: time to buy some stones.

We went to a number of different stone suppliers in town, trying to match the flat, orangey rocks that came with the property and that now partially encircle the pond. After some initial disappointment, we found a good match at Jacobs and Son way out on 620: apparently, we've got something called "Texas Bronze cotton rock," which comes from the San Saba region. So we measured the remaining exposed bits of pond liner and the terrace in front of the pond, and we bought (yeek!) 4 tons of rock, to be delivered this Tuesday. So moving that into place will no doubt be a breeze.

A pallet of Texas Bronze; pic from the Jacobs & Son site. We ordered 3 of these.

A note on the geology: Jacobs and Son lists this as a "cotton rock." The internet draws a blank on "Texas Bronze cotton rock," but cotton rock in general is supposed to be a whitish limestone. So here's the question: have we rimmed our pond in limestone (which would explain the pH problems)? If so, why is it such a brittle and crumbly rock? And what to make of the fact that it's not remotely cotton colored? All are mysteries.

And speaking of pH, I mentioned an entry or two ago that the pond plants looked like hell--even more tip burn and general poutiness than usual, plus the waterlilies were sadly puny and diminished. So it was clearly time to undertake a late summer cleaning of the pond. Bother. So I removed dead leaves and flowers, fertilized the prima donnas (which I really didn't want to do, but they were looking so depressed), and once again tackled the pH.

This time I followed the advice of the Emerald Gardens guy, who said to pump out the top 10 or so inches and replace with fresh water. He also recommended stuffing pantyhose with peat moss and sinking them into the pond for a gentler, long-term buffering action. So I used 1 complete pair of pantyhose (the last in the house--if there's one thing I love about the aughts, it's the demise of pantyhose as a fashion accessory. Lemme tell you, the genie is never going back in that bottle.) I chopped each leg into thirds and made a seventh bundle out of the torso, and I put a piece of broken pavestone into each bundle. Then I deployed them around the pond. Some sank, and some floated for a while, looking like corpses that had been imperfectly hidden; we took to calling the little bundles jimmy hoffas. Eventually, they all sank to the bottom. Not sure it wouldn't have been just as effective to empty the peat bale directly into the pond and let the peat float loose, but the jimmy hoffas are at least a little tidier, if creepy.

And good news! As of this morning, the pH was down from a piping hot 9 or more acceptable solid 8. Let's see if it lasts. The fish continue to endure my experiments with admirable sang froid.

Meanwhile, we're also reshaping the prospective terrace (to bring it closer to the baby Burr oak so as to be able to lounge in shade, once it's big enough to make any), pounding in metal edging to shape the beds around the pond, and making some necessary and long-deferred extensions to the irrigation system (linking the primrose jasmine to the automated system and adding a sprinkler head for a particularly parched abelia in the shade bed).

We didn't finish anything--by 11, I could barely drag my braised and dripping carcass from one end of the yard to the other--but we made noble beginnings.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Lois, Belatedly

A couple of weeks ago, Matt & I went to Houston to visit my brother & sister-in-law, who are expecting (shout-out to my small prospective nephew!).

As luck would have it, the day of our visit was also the second-to-last day when the Houston Museum of Natural Science's corpse flower (Amorphophallus titanum) would be on display. Naturally, as plant nerds, it was our clear duty to truck down there at 9:45 at night on a Sunday to take a gander.

Sadly, "Lois" was well past her prime by the time we got there. Even so, she was an impressive--if somewhat obscene--sight. (All arum lilies are at least a little obscene, from the flagrantly rampant antherium to the more modest calla lily, but Lois kicks it up a notch or two.)

You've all probably heard this on the news, but Lois is only the 2nd corpse flower to bloom in Texas, and only the 20-somethingth to bloom in the US (the 1st in Texas was at Stephen F Austin's arboretum in 2004--which we completely missed, much to my chagrin. Theirs is named "Big Jack," apparently). They're rare, ginormous (Lois is just a little adolescent), and unpredictable in their blooming.

There was no noticeable stench coming from Lois when we saw her, though it was hot, humid, and packed with people, so it's possible that her smell was drowned out by the people-smell.

In addition to an impressive--if now deflated--spadix (the central flower spike that puts the phallus in Amorphophallus--the name means "misshapen penis"), Lois also has a very nifty Elizabethan ruff in mottled Goth purple.

HMNS says Lois got close to 6 feet tall. You can see on the measuring stick above that by the time we got there, she'd wilted down to three.

For a nifty graphic of the growth stages of the corpse flower, see this pic from the Huntington Gardens (home of another corpse flower, named Stinky).

The HMNS opted not to fertilize Lois this go round:
This is Lois’s first time to bloom. She is young and small (7 yrs old, 30 pound tuber). Often the first blooms are not even fertile. Flowering uses a lot of the tuber’s stored reserves, and fruiting uses even more. We were advised by the head of the arboretum at Berkeley (they have several titan arums) not to pollinate her the first time around. When she has a much larger tuber, perhaps next time she blooms, we may attempt to pollinate her (we will have to get pollen from another botanical garden – it can be frozen apparently. Artificial insemination for plants!)

Lois pretty well stole the show, but we were also impressed by this disgusted-looking iguana in the butterfly center. He clearly thinks all the brouhaha is a complete crock.

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