29 December 2009

The Color of Winter is In the Imagination

Or in a nice container planting.

In my rush to pack and get ready for my trip to CA for our winter break, I neglected to take photos of my winter container. I was pleased with how it came out then, while I was away, it was buried under 20" of snow and battered by high winds before I returned to capture it in pictures! Still, given the abuses cranky ol' Mother Nature hurled at it, I think it came through pretty well!

I decided to keep a few of the perennial plants in the container, such as the Muhlenbergia capillaris, Thymus citriodora argenteus variegata, and the purple Brassica oleracea.

Added to the mix are the sanguine stems of Cercis alba 'Bloodgood', and the sunny stems of Cercis cericea 'Aurea'. The Pink Muhly looked better before the Big Snow; the seed heads were denser and provided a nice feathery pink haze to blur the rigid Dogwood stems. Playing off the red and yellow theme, I added a few sprigs each of Pinus strobus 'Hillside Winter Gold' and Viburnum hupense (shamelessly scavenged from my housemate Gavin's leftovers). Toward the back I tucked in some Picea pungens glauca, compliments of the lovely tree growing next to my house, and a bit of Ilex opaca for its glossy dark green leaves. Besides, what says 'winter' more than a sprig of holly with its bright red berries?

By far the biggest surprise - and I say surprise because I've never had occasion to grow this plant in a climate where the temperature can dip well below the 20's - was the Thyme. Even after several frosts and a blizzard it still looked and smelled amazing! Granted, it's much more silver now compared to the green and gold it was in summer, so I'm curious to see how quickly the color comes back in the spring, but who knew!? I can still wander out to my garden this winter (OK, sprint!) to snip some fresh Thyme to cook with my chicken! How fabulous is that?!

As for the rest of the garden, well, you don't really want to see it. The snow pretty well smushed what was left of the Cardoon and Artichoke, but they may bounce back. Everything else is gone to its winter slumber and even the perennials that do come back may be moved to the front of my house in order to make more room for growing veggies! Since we have a few months yet before the last frost, I've got time to decide exactly what I'm going to do.

For now, when the bleak and dreary landscape get me down and I'm crazy enough to brave the chill, I can go out to look at my winter container and be cheered by its brightness.

16 December 2009

Gardening Under Glass - The Third of a Runaway Series on My Work Rotation in Indoor Display

Plants of Historic Interest in the Conservatory: Orchids

This month in Indoor Display has been full of discovery. My latest discovery has to do with orchids and the people who adore them. Specifically, I've discovered that Orchid People are Crazy! Just saying, is all.

Not that I blame them, of course! If one is going to be crazy over something, one could certainly do worse than the largest family of flowering plants with over 130,000 varieties of crossed genera. Even people who aren't die hard Orchis enthusiasts stop short and catch their breath when they enter the Orchid Room in the conservatory. I don't blame them for this, either. It's like walking into a floral jewel box. Delicate blooms of all shapes, sizes, and colors glow from the walls, batting their lashes and tempting us with their appearance and scent.

One particularly important person who was likewise entranced by orchids was Alice DuPont, Longwood's First Lady. She, along with her husband Pierre and sister-in-law Mrs. William K. DuPont, was one of the charter members of the American Orchid Society. A nearly pure white Cattleya with a pale yellow center, lightly scented, was named after her. The orchid collection she began at Longwood grew even more when Mrs. William K.'s collection was acquired after her death, along with a gardener to care for them.

Currently there are more than 3,200 orchid plants in the collection, housed in 5 different greenhouses, each with different light, temperature, humidity and environmental controls suited to the plants contained within. At any one time, 200 - 500 plants may be on display, all at the peak of bloom. Plants in the display are changed out three times weekly. First thing in the morning, the gardener goes shopping in the orchid greenhouses, looking for the best blooms. Let me just tell you - if you're a gardener, there can be no greater thrill than wandering through a greenhouse positively overflowing with blooming plants, trying to choose the best ones to show off. I'm not much of a shopper in general, but this kind of shopping I can do all day! The chosen plants are then groomed before being put on display. Those that come out of the display are taken to the potting shed where they may be divided and re-potted before heading back to the greenhouse.

Deceit and Deception

We're not the only ones who fall prey to the orchid's allurements. Orchids, by nature, are unabashed flirts. They will do almost anything to con an unsuspecting pollinator into its clutches, all in the name of procreation. Orchids are devious, too. Once the pollinator is duped into approaching the flower's treacherous embrace, they may encounter one of several tricks or booby-traps that forces them to carry the pollen out and on to the next flower.

But let me digress and paint a short history for you. In the Greek legend, Orchis is the child of a nymph and a satyr. He was a naughty boy who spied on a beautiful priestess of Dionysus (some accounts say he tried to rape her, which fits neatly with the next part of the story). The gods were quite put out about his frenzied state and decided to teach him a lesson by sending wild beasts to tear him limb from limb. Where his testicles fell, there an orchid bloomed. Due to this association, the roots of certain orchids were thought to be an aphrodisiac, the Viagra of the 16th century.

No, I'm not making this up!

One of the things I find most fascinating about orchids is that specific species rely on specific pollinators. The flowers are constructed such that only a certain insect with a certain size body - or proboscis of certain length - can get into it, or the flowers resemble the female insect in form, color, or scent in order to lure that specific male insect in to mate. The annihilation of any of these pollinators can spell extinction for the species of orchid in the wild relying on it. Even Darwin, upon viewing the 12-inch nectar spur of the Angraecum sequipedale exclaimed, "My god! What insect can suck it!?" He hypothesized that there existed a moth with a 12-inch long proboscis which was the designated pollinator for that particular species of orchid, and he was right.

Take this guy for example - this is Catasetum fimbriatum var. morrenianum. It, like most orchids, is an epiphyte which means it doesn't grow in soil. In its native South America, it can be found growing in dry lowland regions on the trunks of palm trees. It's also deciduous, a trait that one might not think to associate with such a tropical looking plant.

Let's take a look at how it manages to use an insect to get what it wants.

This cat blooms on pendant racemes. When you duck underneath and tell it to say, "Ahhhhhh" this is what you see.

The blossom is made up of parts in threes: there are three petals but the lower petal is often fused to form a pouch. Notice the little whiskers - or cross hairs - in the back? When an insect makes its approach and starts rootling around looking for nectar, the movement will trigger the hairs.

What this does is activate an ingenious mechanism by which a sticky substance is squirted onto the insect's back and then wham! the structure containing the anthers, called the column or gynostemium, is slapped onto the glue and carried away. Don't tell anyone, but I did this once with the corner of a sheet of paper and the "thwack" was clearly audible!

I'm very curious to know whether the unsuspecting arthropod realizes what just happened but, in any case, it probably is startled into exiting stage left and goes to the next flower, where the pollen sticking to its back is transferred to the column there. In orchids the male and female reproductive organs are fused together into a structure called a column and the pollen, rather than being a powder that can be carried by the wind, is bound in a waxy mass of two, four, or six pellets called pollinia. Next time you have an orchid bloom at your disposal, take it apart and see for yourself. Once this booby trap is tripped and the flower is pollinated, it begins to set fruit and seed and the flower dies.

Here's another one: the species Oncidium - commonly sold in grocery stores - has flowers that resemble a swarm of bees so that incumbent bees will hurl themselves at the flowers to drive the supposed interlopers off. In doing so, they pollinate the flowers. Or how about the Coryanthes species, aka "Bucket Orchid", with glands that secrete a viscous, sweet smelling fluid that fills the bucket. Bees fall into the bucket, splash about, and have to climb out through an escape hatch in the back where the pollinia are waiting.

They are shameless, these orchids! And while new species are being constantly discovered, it is mostly due to deforestation that they are being found. They are found and described about the same time they are rendered extinct.

Well, that about wraps it up for orchids. I hope next time you see one you will have a new appreciation for it. Some are even edible (I forgot to tell you about the vanilla many orchids, so little time) so after you dissect it, you can drop the pieces into your salad and enjoy it! For now, here are some photos of just a few of the many varieties on display here at Longwood.

14 December 2009

Everyone Loves A Good Yarn

Last week several people around the gardens stopped me and mentioned reading about the Floral Carpet scarf on my blog. At each encounter two thoughts struck me: 1) "Oh, crap! Now I really have to make it" and 2) "People are reading my blog!?"


Well, for those of you who are reading, yes, I have plans to knit a scarf in the pattern of the Floral Carpet currently on display in the conservatory Exhibition Hall. I know - crazy! "WHAT was I thinking!?" is a recurring question especially since I have a knitting queue rivaling the 85-foot floral carpet in length and Christmas is NEXT WEEK!

Double Yikes!

So, between the hats, neck warmers, and miscellaneous other projects, I started swatching to see what stitch patterns I liked for which colors on the scarf. I transferred the design to a large sheet of graph vellum to aid me in counting out the number of stitches in each element and decided that the scarf would be 100 stitches wide. That's a lot of stitches! Depending on the yarn used and the needle size, it could end up wide enough and long enough to carpet Rhode Island or it could be made into something a little more wearable. Since I'm definitely going for wearable, I decided on US 5 needles with the yarn from Michael's and started trawling stitch patterns on the web and in books.

Conveniently, there is a stitch called 'moss stitch' that I decided to use for the light green, which is the moss covered Fleur-de-lis in the design. For the red (Begonias in the real carpet), I decided on a pattern based on a seed stitch diamond. The red lines on either side of the Fleur-de-lis will be 4-stitch cables. For the white (Poinsettias) I settled on a nice smooth stockinette with a few knots for texture, called 'knot stitch' (I don't name them, I only knit them). The gold required a nice nubbly stitch to echo the painted pine cones in the real thing so I decided on a good seed stitch for that. And the dark green ivy on the edges will be done in garter stitch or maybe just a purl stitch.

In case you're not a knitter and none of what I just said makes any sense whatsoever, allow me to draw your attention to these pretty pictures:

This is what I mean when I say I've been swatching! In the closeup down on bottom, you can get a better look at the stitch detail. All I have to do now is write out the pattern and cast on (that's Knit-Speak for 'start making the darn thing already')! Lucky for me I found a chart generator on the web which will - hopefully - make my knitting life much, much easier! And with a full week of leisure at my parent's house over Christmas break I should be able to get, oh say, a couple inches done!

And so, to answer everyone's question: yes, I'm really knitting this thing, and yes, I'm absolutely certifiable! But I've already got a commission for one when it's done!
Let's hope the recipient won't have to wait until next Christmas to wear it!

09 December 2009

Gardening Under Glass - The Second of a Runaway Series on My Work Rotation in Indoor Display

Plants of Historic Interest in the Conservatory: Encephalartos woodii

When most people hear that term, their automatic response is, "Gesundheit". No, it's not a nasal condition, or any other kind of condition for that matter. Encephalartos woodii is an important plant in the collection at Longwood. It's a cycad of the family Cycadaceae, ancestors of which were probably munched by dinosaurs.

In LA, Sago Palms - also of the cycad family - are as common as traffic jams on the 405, so when I saw this one in the conservatory my first thought was, "Oh, a cycad", and went on my merry way. Little did I know that I was soon to learn this is no ordinary cycad!

It's called Wood's Cycad after a man named John Medley Wood (1827-1915) who was a curator at the botanic garden in Durban, Africa and who discovered the species in 1895. The solitary clump he found on a steep south-facing slope in KwaZulu-Natal turned out to be the only one in existence. It consisted of 4 stems with a few offsets at the base. One of the offsets collected went to Kew (naturally) with the others being planted at the garden in Durban. Two of the larger trunks were likewise transplanted to Durban in 1907. Sometime between 1907 - 1912, one of the remaining two trunks died and the last one was removed and sent to Pretoria in 1916. Since the only known plants of this species are now in cultivation and none have been found in the wild, it is considered extinct in nature.

Here's the other fascinating tid-bit: this cycad is dioecious (totally, dude) meaning there are separate male and female plants. The plants in existence today are all male. No females are to be found anywhere. This means that asexual propagation is the only way to reproduce this plant.

Now, I know what you're thinking. You're thinking those darn botanists should have left well enough alone and not removed the plant from the wild and just let it do it's thing, pop out some pups and make more plants the way nature intended. In this day of sustainability and preservation, environmental groups would have lobbied and protested and that likely would have been the case. It would also be likely that within a short period of time the plant would be completely extinct. So, moving it to cultivation probably saved it.

Isn't that splendid!?

So how many are there now, you ask? In over 100 years of propagating this plant by pups, those whose job it is to guess, estimate only about 500 plants are believed to exist in botanic gardens and private collections around the world.

Some mad plant scientists out there are playing around with tissue culture in the hopes of producing a female, but this is tricky. Remember, this plant was probably around when the dinosaurs roamed and since every offspring in the world now is a clone of the original one found in the wild, there are innumerable potential infections or diseases that could be affecting the tissue and in order for this method of propagation to be successful you must use sterile tissue.

Good luck with that, I say.

Some other lab-type people decided to try a more natural route and have begun to cross E. woodii with its closest known relative, E. natalensis. The thought here is that the hybrid generation will be 50% E. woodii. A female hybrid would be pollinated with pollen from the E. woodii to produce a second generation hybrid that is 75% E. woodii. The hope is that within five generations, they will have a plant that is genetically 97% pure E. woodii.

The plant here at Longwood was accessioned in 1969 and was acquired by the garden's first director, Dr. Russell J. Seibert (who was the director of the LA Arboretum from 1950 - 1955; what a coinkydink!), following his trip to Africa in 1963. It's believed the offset still growing here at Longwood was from the original plant brought in from the wild. There is an infamous story that some years ago, a student was sent to clean the dead fronds from the plant and succeeded in removing all the pups that had been produced, thus eliminating the immediate opportunity to propagate this plant and increase Longwood's collection. Consequently, most students are afraid to go near it!

The cones - called strobili - on this thing are massive, potentially reaching a good 47" long and 10" in diameter. Late last week one of the cones got too heavy and snapped. The broken piece was carefully removed from the nest of foliage and saved for teaching purposes.

Each of the scales, or structures composing the cones, contain the sporangia which in turn contain the spores or what those who don't give a hoot about botanical accuracy might call pollen. The lower surface looks like a sponge, with lots of tiny pores. If you were to snap one off and shake it - as I did - you'll see the yellowish powder float out.

The end of the cone where the break occurred looked like a sunflower, with all the scales arranged spirally around the axis.

You have to admit, it's pretty cool.

The lesson I took away from the bit of research I did was that sometimes extreme measures are required to save a species from extinction and that someone needs to run, not walk, over to Guest Services and get thee some signage so that the people who casually wander by this amazing plant will be able to read its history.
Lucky you, because next time you're over in the conservatory admiring this rare cycad you can stop someone and ask them if they know how unique the Encephalartos woodii is. Just don't be surprised if they hand you a Kleenex!

08 December 2009

Gardening Under Glass - The First of a Runaway Series on My Work Rotation in Indoor Display

The first snowfall of the season blanketed the landscape last weekend and it's been chilly enough to keep a fair amount of it on the ground. While many of my classmates are bundled up to the eyeballs in their quilted bib overalls and arctic coats for outdoor work rotations, I'm enjoying working in the warm, dry Conservatory. So far I've spent most of my time in the East and Orangery. You can see them on this map. And here I am caught in mid-sweep the day the Floral Carpet was finished.

I've visited many wonderful conservatories here in the US and UK, but I never really understood them until I came here. I know that might not make sense so indulge me by trying to put yourself in my steel-toed shoes for a moment: I come from LA. USDA hardiness zone 10, lovely Mediterranean climate with warm, dry summers and cool, dry winters (the 130 year average annual rainfall for LA is 15 inches, in case you were wondering). When I arrived at Longwood for my PG interview a year ago September, I spent many happy hours wandering through the 4-acre conservatory (truth be told, I got lost in it!) but the Palm House didn't do much for me, because most of the plants in it could - and many do - grow quite happily outdoors in So Cal. They were a common sight to me and therefore weren't very interesting. Learning the history of the plants in the collections has completely changed my point of view.

To really appreciate the differences in gardening under glass compared to the great outdoors, I think it's important to understand what a conservatory is meant to be. The word 'conservatory' comes from the Italian “conservato” which means 'stored, or preserved' and the Latin "ory" which means "a place". Hence, a place to preserve (my cinematic brain immediately leaped to the scene from the movie National Treasure when Ben and Riley were trying to figure out a way to steal the Declaration of Independence: Ben Gates "Do you know what the Preservation Room is for?" Riley Pool "Delicious jams and jellies?").

Most conservatories I've been in have unfortunately not contained delicious jams and jellies, thus making a stop at the tea house compulsory, but collections of plants - both rare and exotic - that otherwise would not grow in the conditions afforded beyond the glass. The first time I ever saw a Victoria amazonica water lily was in the glass house at Kew. Here, the gigantic platters have been hybridized to create the Longwood Hybrid which can and do grow in the Lily Pools outdoors in the summer but they're lifted in the fall and overwintered in a greenhouse.

Victorians built conservatories to showcase the new and unusual plants being constantly discovered in more temperate climes and taken back to England and Europe. At that time, construction of garden conservatories was a booming business as the glass tax was abolished in 1845, so now almost anyone who wasn't fortunate enough to be born to the aristocracy could afford to have one.

Longwood's conservatories are unique because Longwood is a display garden. There's some confusion about that, as well. The displays aren't static, they change. And while the admiring public comes and drags their jaws on the ground at the artistry and imagination of it all, they also cry out in horror when they see a bed being ripped out to make way for a new display. I suspect this is one tiny reason the Christmas changeover started after closing on a Sunday, and the conservatory was closed that Monday. Imagine the uproar had the public been allowed to witness the destruction!

The first conservatory at Longwood was built in 1914 by Pierre DuPont as part of an extension of the original 18th century farm house. As a boy in Philadelphia, he passed a house with a small conservatory and was drawn to press his nose to the glass to see the wonders inside. It was private and therefore closed to the public. He decided then that if he were ever to build a conservatory, he would open it to the public to enjoy. Well, he did, and they do!

DuPont was apparently so pleased with the house conservatory that he began planning a much grander one. His vision became reality and the new conservatory was opened on November 25, 1921, using the latest technology of the time to heat, water, and power the complex. Instead of the typical jungle exotics, DuPont filled his glass house with fruits and flowers, giving it the feeling of a European orangery (the name by which a section of the Main Conservatory is still referred to today). Included in the structure were a number of smaller production houses where fruit and vegetables were grown in all seasons for the estate. Today, fruit and veg are still grown in some of these spaces in horticultural displays that are aesthetic as well as functional.

In my opinion, the most ingenious part of the building is the Exhibition Hall floor. The area is sunken below the level of the main walkways and designed so that the floor can be flooded to hold several inches of water. The water can be drained in a matter of hours and the floor dried so that special events can be held there. Everything from plant and flower society shows to dinner events to special seasonal displays are presented. If you ever get a chance to attend a candlelight dinner on the fern floor, I highly recommend it. I can't think of a more romantic setting than the conservatory at night with the stars shining overhead. Sigh.

In 1926 the Azalea House was added - now called The East - and in 1966, the Palm House. The conservatory at Longwood also houses the Music Room and the Ballroom, which is home to an Aeolian organ weighing 55 tons with the pipes installed in 9 chambers measuring 63 feet wide, 23 feet deep, and 40 feet tall. It's one of the largest residences organs in the world and is nearing the end of an extensive renovation.

Yeah. Wow, right?!

And this is just the tip of the conservatory iceberg. So, while a conservatory would ordinarily be a place to preserve plants that are unique or rare, or to house a collection of some sort, the conservatory here also extends the gardening season through the winter and provides an artistic venue to showcase ordinary plants used in extraordinary ways. One day I might regale you with tales of the dark and creepy tunnels underneath or photos of the impressive boilers (because who doesn't appreciate a photograph of an impressive boiler?). For now I'll leave you with a few images of the floral artistry that never ceases to amaze me.