Tuesday, 25 October 2016

Mouse eating plant in unspectacular flower

I have little interest in rodents eating plants with unattractive* flowers, but I'm intrigued by plants that eat mice, whether or not they have showy blooms.

In this case the plant is Nepenthes truncata, one of the world's bigger pitcher plants. The mouse is a house mouse but that's not the point of this post. Let's just say the pitchers on this pitcher plant are large enough to - and have been proven to - catch a mouse. Whether the plant really wants such a large mammal in its digestive system is unclear.

We grow a single specimen of Nepenthes truncata in our dinky Tropical Glasshouse at Melbourne Gardens. It's a large plant, many years old, and in early September it was in full flower.

Not a flower to brighten a room perhaps but you might think at least we will soon have fruits, and seeds, and possibly a nursery fully of baby pitcher plants. Well, that isn't going to happen. Take a close look at these flowers and you'll notice they seems to consist mostly of a brain-like yellow sphere on a short stalk. Those yellow bits are the anthers, containing pollen.

What's missing from these flowers are the female parts. To find those you need another specimen, and the right kind of other specimen, of Nepenthes truncata. This species, like all Nepenthes, has either male or female plants, and not both. Great for cross-pollination and encouraging genetic mixing and diversity, but rubbish for horticulture.

That said, you'll find this species relatively commonly in a carnivorous plant enthusiast's collection. That's presumably because seed is readily available, even though hard to move between countries due to the constraints of CITES - the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna.

The reason for the CITES ban is (as Carlo Ballistrieri from New York reminded me when this story was first posted) because trade in an organism could lead to the species becoming rare and threatened, or more so, in its natural habitat.

This species is already rare in nature, growing naturally only in lowland (230-600 metres above sea level) forests of north-eastern Mindanao, in the Philippines, where it scrambles through jungle vegetation. It was named from two fragmentary collections and is still poorly known in the wild, supporting its listing as Endangered in the Red List of flowering plants.

Our plants are flowering well, if not attractively or successfully (in terms of the reproduction), but the mature pitchers are now fading. Once the plant has got over it's unfulfilled flowering, it can reinvest in the new pitchers just starting to form on the tendrils at the end of its younger leaves.

* I'm sure Hervé (a Parisian botanist) won't mind me repeating this short exchange we had by Twitter today (25 October 2016). He is quite correct!
.@TimEntwisle unspectacular is a big claim! These flowers look pretty amazing and very unusual to me!
@hsauquet_upsud It's amusing you should say that. Each time I look at the photo now I agree! In the glasshouse they looked rather plain...

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Wowed by weeds in shady cemetery

A few weeks ago garden historian Helen Page took my family for a walk through Boroondara General Cemetery, in Kew (Melbourne). My son and daughter-in-law were visiting from Sydney and we thought this might be a quintessential Melburnian outing - well, we'd done the coffee joints and restaurants.

Helen has been part of a revival of this first garden cemetery in Australia. Until she got there the number of trees was dropping each year, as they died or were removed. Tree numbers have now more than stablised and the 'garden' is taking over from the 'cemetery'. Soon there will be no new burials - even now it's just family plots and ashes associated with the mausoleum and rows of roses.

While the trees are impressive, including lots of mature and unusual cypresses (one being this only specimen of the Golden Funeral Cypress - Chamaecyparis funebris 'Aurea' - in Victoria), I was diverted by the weeds.

Fields of South African Gazanias and Poppies were looking good, as was Rosemary rampant over decaying tombstones and tombs. I was falling in love with the flecks of Fumary (Fumaria) flowers, and the occasional eruptions of Peruvian Bluebell (Scilla peruviana; including an occasional white-flowered variant). Helen is OK with Gazania, and the big bricks walls should contain it's spread a little, but would like to clip and contain the Rosemary. For the Peruvian Bluebell (below), she has little time.

Incidentally, I mentioned this species back in August, explained it apparently inexplicable name, given it is native to the Mediterranean, in a recent post. However I failed to mention then that it is an occasional weed of native bushland in western Victoria (persisting from old properties and spreading locally).

Apart from the misleadingly named bluebell, Helen recognises the appeal of this ragbag collection of the world's tenacious species, and if she has her way some will remain as a colourful and respectful ground cover while specific areas are returned to native grasses and others to more formal plantings.

Boroondara Public Cemetery was apparently the first garden cemetery in Australia. The first grave was dug and filled in 12 March 1859 - 13 years to the month after the Botanic Gardens began in Melbourne. In fact the Director of the Botanic Gardens, William Guilfoyle, had a hand in a small part of its landscaping.

In 1907 Dr John Springthorpe finished building the above memorial and garden to the memory of his wife Annie, who died during the birth of their fourth child. The building was designed by Harold Desbrowe Annear assisted by Springthorpe but the original landscape around it was design by Guilfoyle. That landscape has changed over time and now is little more than a few trees of mixed health. For more on the memorial and garden see this post by Janine Rizzetti.

As Rizzetti points out, Dr Springthorpe doesn't actually name his wife on the memorial but does wish us all to note that she was born on 26 January 1867, married on 26 January 1887 and buried 26 January 1897. Australia Day, or Anniversary Day as it was known at the time, defined and disrupted Annie Springthorpe's life.

Her memorial was described by the The Age (in 1933) as 'one of the most beautiful and most costly in the commonwealth'. It took ten years to build and cost between £4,500 and £10,000.

There are other noteworthy graves, gravestones, memorials ... and trees. River Red Gums (Eucalyptus camaldulensis) seeded from remnants outside the wall were some of the first trees to feature in this 12.5 hectare garden cemetery, named (as is the local Council area) after the local Aboriginal word for 'a place of shade', boroondara.

Tuesday, 11 October 2016

Native creeper attracting flies, birds and a botanist

I'm a little wary of following up a deeply taxonomic post on a local native orchid with something as equally esoteric on a native clematis. But clearly not wary enough. I was also encouraged by this species earning a Flowering Friday spot last week.

In August, the first month of spinter, the natural bushland around Melbourne (below, at St Andrews) and the bushland replanted around Long Island in Melbourne Gardens (above, next to the purple sarsaparilla), became cloaked and occasionally choked with light yellow flowering Clematis decipiens.

Back in the day, let's say 1996 when the relevant volume (3) of the Flora of Victoria was published, there were three native species of Clematis in Victoria, and one or two naturalised here and there. Neville Walsh and I edited the volume, and Neville wrote up the account for the family Ranunculaceae (which includes this genus, the buttercups - Ranunculus - and few other odd species in odd genera).

At that time, this local harbinger of sprinter with relatively small leaves was called, conveniently, Clematis microphylla (micro meaning small, phylla meaning leaves). There were two varieties, one called leptophylla in East Gippsland, and one all over the State called microphylla.

Fast forward two decades, and VicFlora (the online version of the Flora of Victoria) records five native species of Clematis recorded for Victoria. One of these is that East Gippsland variety, elevated to species level - Clematis leptophylla. That makes four. The fifth is a species called Clematis decipiens, chipped off the old Clematis microphylla variety microphylla, leaving that entity - now a full species - as something growing along the coast and drier inland west of Melbourne.

In bushland to the north-east of Melbourne, and at Long Island in the Melbourne Gardens where we have tried to introduce plants indigenous to the area, you would expect Clematis decipiens. 'Decipiens' means deceiving, and is a reference to this species being for sometime hidden within the variable Clematis microphylla.

So geographically the plant illustrated here would be Clematis decipiens, and if you key it out using

VicFlora it pretty much confirms that identification. I've extracted here the critical things to look for;
   Clematis decipiens: Adult leaves with 12–15 leaflets; margins entire or 3-lobed; terminal leaflets ovate to lanceolate, 1.2–4.5 cm long, 1.5–5 mm wide. 
   Clematis microphylla: Adult leaves with 9 leaflets; margins entire or appearing toothed on incompletely divided leaves; terminal leaflets linear to ovate, 0.8–6 cm long, 0.3–1.2 mm wide. 

You'll find counting the leaflets a little tedious and not entirely satisfying. They are even harder to photograph in any meaningful way! You'll have to take my word for them mostly having 3 groups of 4 'leaflets', or sometimes an extra lobe pinched off a the side. The size and shape of the terminal leaflet is, as you can see, not a clear distinction and can be quite variable.

Anyway, I'll stick with Clematis decipiens, the deceiving one. The Indigenous Flora and Fauna Association (IFFA) website tells me that this species is 'an attractive place for nest building' and when in flower it attracts 'a variety of insect life including small flies, a bonanza which is appreciated by small insectivorous birds at a difficult time of year'.

Plants have either male or female flowers, not both. These are male flowers in the picture above, each with a spray of stamens (topped by pollen-bearing anthers, unopened at top right). Below are female flowers, with a column of female receptive bits and between them and the petals, some dud male parts which we call staminodes flaring out at the sides. The IFFA page warns that 'if a female plant is grown, seedlings are likely to appear in various corners of the garden.' That has certainly been true around Long Island.

Tuesday, 4 October 2016

Greenhood orchid taller, greener, later

Ah, orchid taxonomy! Nothing like it to put 99.9% of readers to sleep and the other 0.1% into apoplexy correcting me (in all other circumstances I proudly include myself in this latter percentile). So here we go, and it's a rerun of an old post, but this time getting things right - or at least a little more correct.

Three years ago I returned to an old orchid hunting haunt and rediscovered some Tall or Leafy Greenhoods, all of which used to be called Pterostylis longifolia (and some include in their own genus Bunochilus). It's a tricky group, at least for me after a hiatis away from Victoria.

Don't worry too much about the names but back then in mid-August what I thought at first was Pterostylis melogramma turned out to be most probably Pterostylis smaragdyna. It was all to do with the two petals that fuse to form the hood being flanged inside so that the opening (if you look into the hood) was mostly closed.

This year I revisited the same site, Professors Hill in Warrandyte, on the outskirts of suburban Melbourne, and found one large, deep green Tall Greenhood at full maturity (and about to fade), and another nearby which was pale green, smaller, and in the early stage of its flowering. I wondered if one was melogramma and one was smaragdyna. Not a particularly important life question but I was curious.

This time I went straight to the online key to Victorian plants, which you track down through VicFlora. If you correctly interpret that flanging inside the hood - which I didn't do in 2013 - you get to a pair of species: Pterostylis chlorogamma and Pterostylis smaragdina.

They don't seem particularly distinct from one another with the diagnostic features a small difference in the length of the labellum (the fuzzy surfboard-like structure that flicks back into the hood when touched by an insect, or human hand - it's closed in the picture above), the colour of the hood ('pale transluscent green with dark green lines' v. 'dark green with darker lines') and the two fused 'sepals' dangling downwards narrow oblong or narrow elliptic.

Now if I interpret things correctly, this is Pterostylis chlorogamma (the Green-striped Leafy Greenhood).

And this is Pterostylis smaragdina (the Emerald-lip Leafy Greenhood)

I'm not super confident, but I reckon my pale, smaller, later-flowering entity is chlorogramma and the other smaragdina. If you track back to the Flora itself there is a paragraph under chlorogamma explaining that it differs from smaragdina in having small, paler flowers and a smaller labellum with less developed 'lateral lobes' (the small flange on each side of that lumpy surfboard...).

As additional support, the flowering time for chlorogamma is July to September, and for smaragdina, June to August. I read that as the former flowering later than the latter, which is exactly what I found.
So two sprinter flowering Tall Greenhoods, one early in the season, one late. That'll do me for now. All correspondence received with gratitude and great expectation. Sorry everyone else.

Images: All except the last two are, apparently, Pterostylis chlorogamma. The others are, of course, apparently, Pterostylis smaragdina. Both have leaves sticking out of the stem and no basal rosette at the time of flowering, but then so do all those other species of Tall or Leafy Greenhood they might just be.

Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Clive of Syon Park

Did you, like me, think that the popular orange-flowered bulb Clivia was named after Robert Clive, aka 'Clive of India'? I've been promulgating this lie every time I explain to someone why Clivia should be pronounced with a long, rather than short, i (as in bright rather than brilliant)

As it turns out - and thanks Michael Barrett (President of the Melbourne Clivia Group and key organiser of the Clivia Expo 2016) - the genus was named after Robert(Clive of India)'s granddaughter, Duchess Charlotte. Thankfully the pronunciation remains the same.

Lady Charlotte Florentia Clive was Duchess of Northumberland, spending her springs and summers across the Thames from Kew Gardens, in Syon House (in Syon Park).

She was Princess Victoria's State Governess, appearing with Victoria on official occasions but apparently doing little else to educate the future Queen, partly due a fear that she might subvert the young mind (to horticulture perhaps?). The Duke and Duchess had no children but Charlotte - with some help from her gardener Richard Forest - was a dab hand at keeping cliveas alive in the conservatory at Syon House.

I've featured Syon Park, the surrounds of Syon House, before, but at night. Here is what it looks like from across the Thames, standing in Kew Gardens. You can see the lion which notoriously faces its backside towards Windsor House.

Lady Charlotte grew her exotic plant material in the Great Conservatory, still there today and carefully restored 30 years ago. I captured it somewhat obscurely in this picture from my night time visit in 2011.

In their homeland - coastal and inland forests of southern Africa - the five or six species of Clivia grow mostly in cool, shaded habitats. A species discovered in only 2002, Clivia mirabilis, is the exception, frequenting semi-arid areas with winter rather than summer rain.

You can find out more about the discovery, ecology and horticulture of this genus at the Clivia Society website or in an article by Graham Duncan in the latest issue of Curtis's Botanical Magazine (including extensions to the natural range of Clivia miniata in southern Africa).

In both accounts you'll learn that James Bowie, collector and gardener at Kew Gardens, sent the first horticultural material back to England in the 1820s where it made its way across the river to Syon Park. It was there the first flowers were produced and sketched, forming the basis of two botanical papers published on exactly the same October day in 1828. John Lindley's name Clivia has been given priority over Imatophyllum, the name coined by Director of Kew Gardens, William Hooker.

That species was Clivia nobilis (or Imatophyllum aitonii in Hooker's paper), but the orange-flowered plants that feature in botanic gardens and other grand gardens across Australia today are mostly cultivars of Clivia miniata. This second species found its way to England in the 1850s, although it took a decade or so for botanists to realise it was closely related to Clivia nobilis and should therefore carry the 3rd Duchess of Northumberland's surname.

And to correct another misconception, clivia flowers are not always orange. You might have seen the occasional yellow-flowered form but they can also be creamy white, red or even green. New colours and infusions continue to be created through breeding, including picotee forms (a term used mostly for carnations and tulips with dark tipped petals) such as the sorbet coloured bloom at the top of the post - a Clivia miniata cultivar, a cross between 'Electra King' and 'Tango'. Also at the very top of this post is a clump of regular Clivia miniata doing very nicely at Burnley Gardens.

Then there are doubles, with extra petals, and to my horror, variants with variegated leaves (I have a thing about variegated plants).

Here are a few selections from Saturday's Clivia Expo, with Michael Barrett featuring in the first, along with one of the famous yellow forms of Clivia miniata (sometimes called var. citrina).

This is one of your fairly typically shaped and coloured Clivia miniata flowers.

This next flower is more typical of the genus Clivia: all but Clivia miniata have pendent flowers. It's a cross between a natural Clivia caulescens and Clivia miniata hybrid and the more arid tolerant Clivia mirabilis.

 And finally, this creamy green one is Clivia miniata 'Hirao'.

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Beautiful noxious weeds

No I'm not going to rant and rave about how weeds are 'plant' - like you and I if we were plants - or that we should embrace floral diversity and not exclude species from elsewhere. I've done that before and in any case I'm as patriotic (not nationalistic I must add) as the next botanist when it comes to our cute and curmudgeonly Australian flora.

Today I want to celebrate the beauty and personality of a few noxious species, through the beautiful paintings of Elizabeth (Betty) Conabere. Conabere was born in Mansfield in 1929, and died there in 2009. In an obituary in The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald written by Janet McKenzie, Conabere is described as 'outspoken', 'outrageous', 'larger-than-life', 'contentious', 'provocative' but also 'generous', 'passionately opposed [to] injustice' and even (second hand) 'sumptuously beautiful'.

Many of these adjectives apply equally well to her paintings, particularly those commissioned by the aggressively named Vermin and Noxious Weed Destruction Board for the series Beautiful Noxious Weeds. That set of beautiful water colours now resides in the State Botanical Collection at the Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria, after touring the State in the 1970s and then being stored at the now-no-longer Keith Turnbull Research Institute.

I've only included two images from the collection, taken in haste as the collection was sorted before cataloguing and storing. The Serrated Tussock (Nasella trichotoma) is hard to resist - hated with a passion, costing the NSW government around $40 million a year to control, but rather delicate and charming in this composition.

The image at the top was chosen for its evocative common name, Apple of Sodom. Even its botanical name, Solanum sodomeum, references that famous biblical city but due to the vagaries of botanical nomenclature it is now called Solanum linnaeanum (after Carl Linnaeus, the Swedish botanist who established this system and the rules we still use today).

Sodom was apparently home to some plants that produced very bitter apples indeed. This particular bitter apple, a member of the family that brings us deadly nightshade but also potatoes and tomatoes, is a small shrub with spiny stems and leaves. It's native to African and the Mediterranean but now weedy throughout the world, including all most parts of coastal and near coastal mainland Australia except for the far north.

Apple of Sodom was first detected near Sydney in 1802 and by 1895 it had become a noxious weed in Victoria, then two years later in South Australia. It's also now listed in Tasmania (where it is prohibited and possibly excluded or at least kept under some control) and Western Australia. We don't like it because it competes with native species, crowds out pasture grasses (it is not grazed itself), provides a home for rabbits and snails, and its fruit is toxic to 'children and sheep' (although due to its spines it is not often eaten).

That said it is a medicinal plant in South Africa, used for a ailments such as skin disorders, toothache and colds. The roots are carried, it is said, as protection against poisoning. Farmers also use the above ground parts to treat skin problems in stock and it may well be on future benefit in treating skin cancers. So it is both good and evil.

Before Conabere turned to the dark side (although I should point out Conabere was a passionate conservationist and by no means advocating the acceptance of noxious weeds), she was commissioned by the Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria to paint about 50 Victorian alpine plants, which we already hold in the State Botanical Collection. Her best known work is perhaps in Wildflowers of South-eastern Australia, published in 1974, with text provided by Ros Garnet. The originals for this publication are held in Melbourne's La Trobe Library and all subjects evolved and dispersed more or less in situunabetted by humans.

Tuesday, 13 September 2016

Don't snort the autumn-winter-sprinter daphne

This Winter Daphne has been flowering since we moved into our home in April. By my reckoning that's an Autumn, Winter and now Sprinter Daphne. You see it described as flowering in mid to late winter and early spring, which is about right, but not a great basis for a common name.

Daphne odora is an enduring plant. It survives in a dull little corner in our new backyard as it does throughout Melbourne and the greater universe. It smells, a little - we debate here about just how much perfume it produces and this seems to depend on your 'nose'. Sometimes the perfume is described as delicate, which seems about right.

Oh and most parts of the plant - particularly the bark and berries - are poisonous so take care when handling, and please sniff rather than snort. Just a few berries = death of a child.

The species is usually described as native to China, where if flowers from March to May (mid-sprinter to mid-sprummer, or just plain old spring - not winter), but in the Flora of that country it is described as being of obscure natural origin: 'probably China or Japan'. You also see Korea mentioned in dispatches.

We have one of the green-leaved, pink-tinged-flowered forms. The flowers are small but the the port-wine colour of the buds, later flushed through the petals are attractive, is nothing to be sneezed at.

The shrub is about one metre high and thrives on neglect (in a cool, sheltered, east-facing position...). You read about them turning up their roots now and then but this one was obviously well established at some time and seems to be with us forever ...  or at least the 8-10 years life span usually quoted for this species.

It's a plant for the cooler parts of Australia, and perhaps London... Many of the daphne species are actually native to the Mediterranean region. We had a local UK one, Daphne laureola, by our back door when we lived in London, inside Kew Gardens. Sadly it had been hacked back before we arrived and we ended up removing it almost entirely due to its inability to return to anything resembling an attractive habit.

Somewhat gratuitously (and you know I like doing this) here is the back of the house at Kew, and a close up of the back door. You can see the daphne stump in the second picture, surrounded by replacement plantings. I can't recall if it sprung back to life or not, but perhaps it too had life span of around a decade.