Abies balsamea 'Nana'

Abies balsamea 'Nana'

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

A long awaited package

Just before moving to my current residence, about a month ago already, I had a box arrive. This was a very special box, all the way from the Rhododendron Species Foundation in Federal Way, Washington. I ordered several plants from their fall catalog this summer and had been eagerly anticipating the arrival of my new plants.

Oh that feeling when a box of plants arrives at your doorstep!

Here they are all unpacked and taking in some light and fresh air, or at least fresher air than what was in the box. Five of the eight plants I ordered are vireyas, my obsession with these tropical rhododendrons only inflamed by my visit to the Rutherford Conservatory earlier in the summer. In addition to the several rare and unusual vireyas, I also ordered a Rhododendron dalhousiae var. rhabdotum, a tender species with some of the largest and most beautiful flowers in the entire genus. You can see a picture of the trumpet-shaped white flowers with red stripes here.

The remaining two plants rounding out my order are a couple of exciting unknowns. The descriptions in the catalog said they were either species of Agapetes or Vaccinium, both closely related. This first unknown has not even flowered yet, meaning that if I can get it to flower it's pretty much guaranteed that I'll be the first one on my block, and probably Wisconsin, to see its flowers. I do love the fuzzy stems and the 1 to 1.5-inch blue-green leaves. It dropped a few leaves the other day, from underwatering, I think. As these plants are so unfamiliar to me, there's a steep learning curve as to their care.

The second unknown Agapetes/Vaccinium species has much smaller leaves, only about half an inch long, but they are a rich, dark green. They are very thick and textured with deeply impressed veins. The description of this plant at least included information on the flowers, urn-shaped, pure white bells with red corolla margins. These are followed by translucent white berries. I'm picturing flowers similar in shape to Agapetes serpens or 'Ludgvan Cross' but with the colors listed in the description above. I can tell that it will be a sprawling spider of a plant, as I cut two long shoots back by about two thirds after removing it from the box. In the last couple days I've noticed a bud starting to swell on the shoot pictured here (this is an older picture, so no swelling bud to be seen) so at least this one seems to be happy, or close to it.

Now to highlight the vireyas that arrived with the order. The three pictured in the front row here are, left to right, Rhododendron gracilentum, Rhododendron superbum, and Rhododendron acrophilum. What you unfortunately can't see in this picture are the coppery/rusty scales coating the leaves of Rhododendron superbum. The large white flowers are also fragrant.

And finally, perhaps the plants I am most excited about, the two plants with the most gorgeous foliage. The first, Rhododendron rushforthii, with leaves of pure silver held by chartreuse petioles. Unlike most vireyas, this species can even handle a little frost. I saw it planted outside at the RSBG, where it is rated as hardy to about 10 degrees Fahrenheit. This is unfortunately the kind of plant that is lost in the recent erratic and cold winters experienced in the PNW.

And last, but most definitely not least, Rhododendron himantodes. I fell hard for this species after seeing it in the Rutherford Conservatory (see earlier link). The needle-like leaves are almost unreal. Starting out an old-gold color, the leaves change color as they mature to a metallic blue-green. I have seen shiny and even iridescent leaves, but I have seen very few examples of plants with leaves that literally look like metal. The metallic illusion is further enhanced by a certain unevenness and shallow bumps that create a texture reminiscent of natural ingots of metal. The entire surface, from the leaves to the stems, even to the backs of the white satellite-dish flowers, is covered in brown scales. If I should be lucky enough to get this plant to bloom, I'll share the flowers with you, along with the large, pineapple-esque buds.



Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Adventures in hybridizing

A couple weeks ago, I decided on a whim to try cross-pollinating my two Phragmipedium orchids. One is the species, Phrag. pearcei. The other is a hybrid between that species and Phrag. besseae, called Olaf Gruss. By putting pollen from Phrag. pearcei on Phrag. Olaf Gruss and vice versa, I hoped to get seed from at least one of them. And from that seed I hoped to get a plant that would have more of the Phrag. pearcei shape, but retain the color of Phrag. Olaf Gruss inherited from its other parent.

Here are both flowers, before the procedure:


The tools for pollinating slipper orchids include a sharp pair of pruners and a toothpick, q-tip, or other implement on which you can catch the pollinia, a structure composed of many pollen grains stuck together with wax.

Now to prepare the flowers. The stigma in slipper orchids is concealed by the pouch. Although not necessary, it is much, much easier for humans to pollinate slipper orchids after the pouch is removed. Luckily we are not their natural pollinators. In nature, insects crawl in the front of the pouch and can only escape by climbing up the back. In the process, they brush against the stigma and then the pollinia, which adhere to the insects until taken through another slipper orchid flower. Below is a picture of the pouch, or slipper, of Phrag. pearcei after cutting it from the rest of the flower.

Slipper orchids already have an odd, almost alien appearance. With the pouch removed, they look even stranger! The central structure, which in Phrag. pearcei has two furry little "eyebrows" is called the staminode. Under and behind this structure is the stigma. On each side, just under the outside ends of each "eyebrow" in this flower, are the two pollinia.

Phrag. Olaf Gruss received the same treatment.

Detached from the flowers, you can really see how these orchids and their relatives the Paphiopedilums and Cypripediums got their shared common name of lady slippers. Somewhere there is a tiny fairy lady missing a partner from two sets of shoes. It's a little-known fact that fairies, being rather contrary to their larger counterparts, invented the open-heeled shoe. 


 You can just see one of the pollinia, at the tip of the green arrow, within the bend of the staminode.

Unfortunately, I was a little preoccupied during these next few steps to think about taking pictures. For a good picture of collecting the pollinia, follow this link.  For some really good close-up pictures of the various flower parts, with labels, click here.

To collect the pollinia, I simply maneuvered my tool, a wooden skewer in this case, under the pollinia and carefully lifted it away from the flower. The waxy pollinia sticks fairly easily to the wooden skewer, though it requires a steady hand so that they don't fall off. I then transferred the pollinia from one flower to the stigma of another, and repeated the process with pollinia from the second flower on the stigma of the first. 

A few days after attempting the pollination, the pollinated Olaf Gruss flower fell off, which is supposed to happen. The ovary, which becomes the seed capsule, is behind the flower attached to the flower stem. Another few days later, the pollinated Phrag. pearcei bloom also fell. Theoretically, when an orchid is pollinated the flower falls off so that it isn't bothered by any more pollinators. I say theoretically because both of these flowers were a little on the old side and also cutting off the pouches (damaging the flowers) can also cause them to drop. So I had no way to know yet if I had been successful. 

Unfortunately, yesterday I noticed the ovary from the pollinated Olaf Gruss flower was shriveled a bit on the end and it came off quite easily. That one was a bust, but what about the pollinated Phrag. pearcei?  Thin as the day they were wed. If the pollination had been successful, I would have expected the ovary to start to swell by now. However, it hasn't fallen off and doesn't appear to be shriveling yet, so I will simply wait and watch. 

On the plus side, I have the plants now, so I can try again with future blooms. In fact, I had thought my Phrag. pearcei had only one more bloom for this round, but looking at the end of the flower stalk today I noticed it has another one after that! I wonder how long it will keep going. It's had three flowers so far, meaning a total of five if this newest "last" flower is the finale. But perhaps it will have yet another after that. This is the fun of sequential-blooming orchids. Some of them can keep going almost indefinitely. Meanwhile, Olaf Gruss is being a show-off with four flowers open at once. 


Thursday, October 23, 2014

Milwaukee Orchid Show, Part 3 The Domes

Now that you've been inundated with orchids, how about a little variety? The domes provide a beautiful venue for events like the Milwaukee Orchid Show, but they are spectacular in their own right from an architectural perspective.

The domes also hold an extensive collection of permanent and seasonal displays. While the domes and the plants within are beautiful, it pained me a little to see Osmanthus heterophyllus 'Goshiki' growing in a conservatory. Milwaukee is zone 5b and this shrub is only hardy to zone 6a, although given some of the other plants I've seen so far growing outside, I wouldn't be surprised if this plant were growing in some local zone-pusher's garden.

Surprisingly, there were some gorgeously-variegated Clivia miniata in the Exhibit Dome. While lacking the mass plantings of Longwood's clivia plantings in their conservatory, The Domes have a more impressive show of variegated selections. Here are a couple, just to provide a some examples. The smaller plant with white veins and rose colored flowers in the top picture is Porphyrocoma pohliana, or rose pinecones. I've grown this adorable little weed myself. It tolerates low light and has attractive flowers occasionally punctuated by the rosy cones with purple flowers. It does reseed in greenhouses and even in neighboring containers in the house, thus my classifying it as a weed.


This begonia was used extensively throughout the exhibit dome. I am seriously craving one of my own. The gift shop sells plants a few plants. I'll have to check next time I visit.

For a moment I was petrified that these dwarf conifers were growing permanently in the dome. Are even these not hardy here? But I was reassured that this is merely a seasonal display. I may still be a bit suspicious, but I'm going to hope I was told the truth.

Magnolia grandiflora, however, is resigned to living in the conservatory year-round, not being hardy enough to survive outdoors in winter.

This should look familiar to most Pacific Northwest gardeners, a Phormium tenax, or New Zealand flax. Borderline in all but the mildest gardens back home, this plant is certainly not venturing outdoors in Milwaukee.

Leaving the Exhibition House, we made our way into the Tropical House. This house is subject to themes which get switched out at some interval which I am not aware of. Can you guess what the current theme is?

How about now? Careful, if you don't guess soon, you're likely to get eaten. Ok, I don't want anyone to become dinner, so I'll tell you. The theme is dinosaurs! There were dinosaurs roaming all around the conservatory. This velociraptor (which my spell check wants to correct to "velocipede," great job there), was guarding a lush display of various tropical foliage plants.


Vibrant tropical flowers punctuated the lush foliage. This one is, I believe, Alpinia purpurata.

A long-leaved Anthurium vittarifolium drapes itself over the rock wall of the jungle, dripping into a pool below.

Vines like this philodendron are allowed to grow naturally up the trunks of the many full-sized trees in this house of the conservatory. I love the rib-cage appearance of the philodendron roots wrapping around the trunk.

Here a ficus tree provides interest with its own aerial roots, which come down from branches above and find soil, gradually providing more support for the branches, which in the jungle can be very wide-spreading. The spaces created by the roots also provide many homes for animals and other plants.

This pewter-leaved beauty is some relative of the genus Alocasia. Actually, it may be a member of that genus, but I want to say it's something else. Either way, I want one!


The aroid above pairs wonderfully with this narrow-leaved croton (Codiaeum variegatum cv.)

So many colors! And I love the narrow, dagger-like leaves. Anyone have any idea as to the cultivar?

The height of the domes (85 feet at the apex) allows for some truly impressive trees to be grown, such as this Canary Island date palm (Phoenix canariensis), which still had a fair amount of headroom. And nearly all the way up its trunk is a huge vining aroid, whether a Philodendron or Rhaphidophora, I'm not sure.

At one point on the path I found these large, rather fleshy red flowers. I searched in vain for their source for several moments, until finally I looked straight up at the tree overhanging the path and spotted more of these unusual flowers hanging from long, dangling stems.

One of the most unusual sights in the Tropical House was the African sausage tree, Kigelia africana. The fruits, which can grow up to three feet long and weigh as much as 22 pounds, hang from the branches on flexible stems that can be up to 20 feet long! None of the fruits or stems were nearly that size on this tree, the largest being perhaps half that size hanging on a stem of 6-8 feet or so. I was a little too intimidated to get exact measurements

Can I get one of these rock walls in my apartment? Complete with tropical vegetation?

Look out! That Brachiosaurus is going after the traveler palm! Good thing it's just a baby. If Mama was around that palm would be toast.

Looking more closely at the top of the traveler's palm (Ravenala madagascariensis) a tracery of creeping fig creates a cross-hatching pattern with the leaf bases of the palm.

Another glorious blaze of color is provided by this heliconia.

There was so much more to see than I've shown here, but by this time we were all feeling hungry and overwhelmed by the wealth of plants around us. We left to eat and digest all that we had seen before coming back for a couple presentations at the orchid show and a tour of the desert house. To my great shame, I left my camera in my friend's truck and was too lazy to go back for it. I know at least one person who will be disappointed not to see the Desert House. Guess I'll have to make another trip to The Domes so I can make up for my oversight.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Milwaukee Orchid Show, Part 2

After making several rounds of the sales area, and seeing something new to tempt us each time, we made it to the actual show. This dome is called the Exhibit Dome, and is used for shows like this.


An excellent red Phragmipedium hybrid. I was so struck by the flowers I forgot to look at the label! The color of the bud at the top matches the Pennisetum in the background.

Some of the displays went for a more "natural" look, with foliage plants mixed in with the orchids.

Other exhibitors chose to display their orchids against black cloth. This display was especially full.

Another floriferous example of a Phragmipedium. I enjoy the alien appearance of these strangely beautiful flowers.


This cute little slipper orchid is Paphiopedilum henryi, one of my favorite species. The spotted dorsal is almost golden, even with a bit of metallic sheen. Many clones of this species are reportedly difficult to bloom, though a few more vigorous selections are available. I didn't look closely enough to see if this was one such.

I love the dark-colored Paphiopedilum hybrids, known as vinicolors. This is not the darkest I've seen, but the brilliant red-violet dorsal simply glows.

Here we have a a multifloral (multiple flowers per stem) hybrid Paphiopedilum. Love those spots!

One of the cutest species, Paphiopedilum helenae is only about 5 inches tall in bloom, but the flower is a rich yellow and the pouch can be yellow, pink, or mahogany. It's on my wishlist, despite the plain green leaves. The flowers are just too beautiful and it can be quite floriferous.

A cheery yellow complex hybrid Paphiopedilum. It's called a complex hybrid because it's so far from the original parent species that it's developed a complex. Har har.


I absolutely love all of the slipper orchids in this photo! Particularly the one at the top left and the Paph. henryi hybrid in the center.

It's worth knowing that not all orchids have boring leaves. Habaneria carnea has spectacular, star-strewn leaves. Now if only it didn't have pastel, almost fleshy-pink flowers, but maybe that isn't a problem for most people.

Maybe it was the placement. Here you can see the flesh-colored flowers of the orchid above with bright yellows in the background. Not a good combo, to my eye.

Now here are colors I like! Hot reds and oranges!

But don't forget pristine, cool white. These flowers, belonging to Angraecum Cloud's Christmas Candle, were probably 5-6" across and most likely fragrant, though I couldn't get close enough to give them a sniff.


Cleisocentron merillianum is one of the few orchids whose flowers can reasonably be called blue. The otherworldly color may range from a pale sky blue, to teal, to nearly cerulean. Unfortunately, this diva requires high humidity and constant moisture along with good air circulation. Only suitable for a large orchid terrarium or greenhouse. Maybe someday when I have my dream house complete with enclosed courtyard conservatory, eh?

This Dendrobium species was a delightful bundle of narrow green leaves and pristine white flowers with steel-blue columns in the center.

While I congratulate this exhibitor on their many ribbons, I would have liked to appreciate the many tiny orchids without the distraction of the relatively large awards.

That concludes the orchid-centric portion of our visit to The Domes. Next time we'll focus on the many other wonderful plants growing in these amazing conservatories.

Have I mentioned how happy I am to be blogging again? Now I just need to find something to really sink my teeth into and do some serious writing. Pictures are fun to look at, but I want to do a bit more. I have a few ideas for topics, but nothing has quite solidified just yet.

Thanks so much for taking the time to leave a comment! I love hearing what readers think and answering questions. I also welcome suggestions for improvement!