Abies balsamea 'Nana'

Abies balsamea 'Nana'

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

What Caught My Eye in the Desert Dome

In my last post I gave you a broad tour of the Desert Dome at the Mitchell Park Conservatory. In this post, I'm focusing in on a selection of plants that caught my attention more than others. 

Some of the plants were decorated with ornaments for the holidays. I thought the decorated jade plant was a bit crass... (And thus ensued a whole train of thought involving progressively more terrible puns about Crassula ovata.)

Actually I liked the combination of blue and white. Who says you need a conifer to have Christmas?

More winter merriment ensuing on this Mediterranean fan palm (Chamaerops humilis). Would you look at the trunks on that Chamaerops? Can I have one like that?!

This aloe looks a little more like a traditional Christmas tree or, perhaps more accurately, a modern interpretation of Charlie Brown's Christmas tree. Actually, I'd say this is an improvement over that poor specimen. Plus you could keep enjoying it after the holidays!

Remember the Encephalartos horridus growing at the base of the Furcraea selloa var. marginata? Here's a close-up shot of the two together. I love the contrast of the blue cycad against the green and yellow Furcraea. Both of these plants are definitely two of my favorites in the dome, but the cycad wins by a hair because of that silvery blue color and more compact size. It could potentially be grown in a container if one was not fortunate enough to live in a climate where it can grow outdoors permanently. The Furcraea would be a little more cumbersome.

One of many plants in the conservatory either lacking labels or having only a small metal circle with a number embossed into it, I believe this is Aloe deltoideodonta. I just love the wide, elegantly curving shape of the leaves. It's the same reason I love Agave attenuata, graceful curves.

Another favorite of mine in the conservatory is Alluaudia ascendens, of which there are several specimens in the Madagascar section. I like to describe certain plants as "tentacular". This is one of them. The long shoots cloaked in branches remind me of furry tentacles reaching up from the ground.

Another native of Madagascar, Pachypodium geayi has longer leaves of a more grey color than the more commonly seen Madagascar palm (Pachypodium lamerei). My mind is apparently still on tentacles. Looking at this Pachypodium makes me think of some wicked sea anemone that's evolved a body armored with spines to protect its arms when they retract. There's definitely a reason succulent "seascapes" were once the latest hot design.

Cycads are definitely a collection I need to develop. I've spent enough time drooling over them lately on the internet. Here's Encephalartos ferox, from South Africa.

I wanted to show you a closer view of the big euphorbia near the dragon tree. See how some of the branches spiral? It's probably the result of branches bending down to the side and growing back up, over and over, but it makes a cool effect. Unfortunately I couldn't find quite the right perspective in closer views, so I chose this mid-range shot to let you find your own twists and turns. Certain sections reminded me of M. C. Escher's Relativity.

Not labelled, but I think this is Sansevieria trifasciata 'Golden Flame', a highly variable variegated selection of mother-in-law's tongue. I've been tempted before by pictures, but seeing this specimen in person made it rise in priority on my wishlist.

From a distance, I swore this was a remarkably upright and symmetrical opuntia. The joke was on me. When I zoomed in to take this picture, I noticed the identical black marks around the perimeter of each pad, the even semi-glossy finish, and the sheer impossibility of an opuntia growing this upright and this symmetrically. It is, however, an impressively realistic facsimile of a prickly pear cactus that I could see adapted as a screening wall, or a single layer of pads on a garden gate, in the gardens of certain individuals.

It's not really a special picture and the plant may not even look that interesting, but I had to admire this mass of Puya that had grown to obscure its label. I absolutely adore terrestrial bromeliads and would have filled my parents' garden with them if the climate allowed.

I wouldn't want to tangle with one of these Echinocereus grusonii, or golden barrel cactus, but they certainly do impress me whenever I see a grouping like this.

These flowers belong to Fouquieria fasciculata, a native of Mexico. Most people who have an interest in desert plants, or claim the American southwest as home, are probably familiar with the beautiful red flowers of its relative, Fouquieria splendens, also called ocotillo. The white flowers of Fouquieria fasciculata are not as flashy as ocotillo, but this species has another feature that makes it one of my top favorites in the entire desert dome.

Look at that caudex! I love the pattern of green and tan on the branches and caudex of this species. Features like this last all year, whereas flowers are relatively brief. I could stare at those patterns happily for some time, but I need to finish this blog post. Stop distracting me, Fouquieria!

 Another terrestrial bromeliad, Hechtia argentia, from central Mexico. Darn, Mexico has a lot of cool plants. This bromeliad is so intimidatingly spiny that I'd do my best to make sure it grew in a spot where nothing ever fell into it, or else invest in a good pair of forceps or extra-long tweezers.

It's not all prickles, though. See the little tufts of white on the leading edge of each spine? Even this barbed bromeliad has a soft and fuzzy side. You just have to look a little harder to find it, like with some people.

No label, but I believe this is Furcraea foetida 'Variegata'. Not nearly as large or imposing as the Furcraea selloa var. marginata on the other side of the dome, but the variegation is simply stunning! Can I have one?

A pair of old men (Cephalocereus senilis, aka: old man cactus) heckling the Dasylirion wheeleri. Hey, Dasy, it's not easy being blue-green, is it? Extra points if you read that in the voices of the Hecklers from The Muppets, followed by their characteristic laugh. What, you're expecting A-grade material? I'm a horticulturist, not a comedian.

Aloe arborescens made a beautiful display of radiating leaves lined with spines. Another slightly tentacular plant, the glaucous leaves are a lovely complement to the fiery orange flowers, which were backlit by the sun.

Green-tipped flowers of Aloe arborescens made a pretty picture glowing from the sun behind them.

And there's a smattering of close-ups from the Desert Dome at the Mitchell Park Conservatory. The Domes may turn out to be my go-to escape from the Midwest winter, though tomorrow I get a brief reprieve to visit my family in Washington.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Wide Shots: Mitchell Park Conservatory, the Desert Dome

A while ago I promised a friend that I'd return to The Domes to redress my unfortunate omission of the Desert Dome when I first visited. This weekend I finally made it back, so here it is. I'm doing a couple posts on this dome because I took so many pictures. Starting off, then, here are some wide shots so you can get a feel for the Desert Dome at the Mitchell Park Conservatory.

Entering the Desert Dome from the Exhibition Dome, you walk into a collection of desert regions from around the world. First up is Madagascar and Africa. you look out at aloes, haworthias, cycads, euphorbias, and other genera from the deserts of these regions in the foreground. Looking to the right, you are surprised to see what you are fairly sure is a large Furcraea selloa var. marginata, a native of Mexico, with an Encephalartos horridus from Africa growing at its base. Perhaps it is a remnant from before the Desert Dome was organized by region of origin that was too large to move. Maybe someone wanted to add to the authenticity, since some Furcraea and other agave relatives have become invasive in southern Africa. You shrug and decide to simply admire the long, gilt-edged spears of the Furcraea contrasting with the glaucous blue of most of the other plants.

Panning left, you look out across the dome, gazing at towering euphorbias and date palms.

While looking out past an arborescent aloe, you are distracted by a big blue ball hung incongruously from the apex of the dome. It must be a super-sized version of the smaller holiday decorations hung here and there on the plants.

You decide to ignore the big blue ball and any inappropriate jokes that may have come to mind and go back to enjoying the many fascinating plants in the dome.

 Moving down the path from the entrance, you look down towards the oasis, bracketed from this angle by two date palm trunks. You are once more distracted. Thankfully this time the distraction is a plant. You look to the right to examine the candelabra-like structure.

It reminds you of a nightmarish spinning carnival ride, where all the seats have flown off during a catastrophic accident, leaving just the arms radiating out in silent testimony. (You realize this is a little dark for a blog post and quickly move on before you give your readers nightmares.) Continuing to look at the arid splendor around you, you forget to read the label of the carnival ride euphorbia when you finally reach it.

Looking ahead now, you see the twisted arms of another tree-sized euphorbia with twisting branches. Below it is a dragon tree (Dracaena draco) full of fruit.

 You look down and to your right at an intimate tableau of Sansevieria kirkii, Kalanchoe, Aloe arborescens, and Gasteria. You wish Sansevieria kirkii didn't grow so slowly, so that your small plant could look like this patch sooner.

Rounding the corner past the dragon tree, the path takes you back towards the Furcraea. You see Euphorbia, cacti, cycads, and Puya all growing in the same area and realize this patch of prickles must not have been planted by area of origin like most of the dome is. Grinning ruefully at your slightly flippant observations earlier, you continue more humbly and return to enjoying the warmth and sunlight streaming into the dome.

 On the other side of the oasis, you turn back to gain a new perspective on those date palms and an entirely new scene is revealed. You turn around again and move forward towards the North and South American deserts.


After passing the oasis, you became entirely too engrossed in looking at individual plants to remember to look around at the bigger picture, until you reach the doors at the other end of the path. You then turn around for a final view of the desert dome, brightly lit by the sun on a clear winter day.

 I hope you enjoyed your tour. I'll focus in on individual plants more on the next post, or maybe two. I wish I could have just stayed in the Desert Dome. Seems so much nicer than the upper midwest, right now. Weather forecasts are calling for lows in the low teens and single digits this week. Brrr!

Monday, December 22, 2014

Martha's Vineyard, a parting look

This post is the last in my photographic trip back to Martha's Vineyard off the coast of Massachusetts. If memory serves, most of these pictures are from the Long Point Wildlife Refuge, but to tell the truth I'm not completely sure.

This was possibly my favorite part of the trip, even more than visiting the gardens. Here there was unadulterated, wild, natural beauty. The vicious mosquitoes were not a part of that beauty. I enjoy nature, but I'm not one of those "love all creatures" types. But the mons- I mean mosquitoes fell away once we broke through the trees and were shielded by the breeze off the ocean.

Martha's Vineyard offers many expansive views, from the high points...

and the lows.

Extensive flats and marshy areas provide ample habitat for wildlife.

I call this one: Shades of Green. Haha. Not really, but the three levels of vegetation, each a different shade of green, did make for an interesting effect.

Speaking of interesting effects, coastal winds always produce such beautiful, twisted branches on the trees. Before visiting Martha's Vineyard, I had really only seen this effect in the shore pines, salal, Pacific wax-myrtle, and other mostly evergreen species on the coasts of Oregon and Washington. Walking under this canopy of twisted limbs, with the light shining through the leaves, was a very different and beautiful experience.

Someone, at some time, made these small cairns of stone on the larger rocks along the beach. It made a nice scene, a beautiful beach with just a tiny human touch.

So many beautiful scenes can be found on this island.

And lots of cool plants. The evergreen ground cover growing over this weathered stump is Epigaea repens, a beautiful native of the East Coast. The pink, fragrant flowers fade to white, and bare some resemblance to a small azalea flower. In fact, Epigaea is a member of the same family, Ericaceae. The state flower of Massachusetts, Epigaea repens, or Mayflower, grows slowly and requires conditions similar to many other members of the Ericaceae family, namely moist and acidic.

The contorted, dwarfed oak woodlands of the island were endlessly fascinating. So many scenes caught my eye that my shutter finger proved rather itchy. The following is a small selection of the photos I took.



Oh look! Swans! Well, I do occasionally notice things besides plants. I had never actually seen wild swans before. The parents were so graceful, gliding across the water and guiding their rather fluffier young.

The channel the swans were traveling down led all the way out to the Atlantic.

The oak woodland broke up gradually. Eventually the oaks were reduced to islands in a sea of low, windswept shrubs and grasses, and then the shrubs gave way almost entirely to the grasses.

By far the most spectacular bloom to human eyes on the island was the native Lilium philadelphicum, or wood lily. We found these growing near the edge of the oak woodlands and continuing out into the meadows. The fiery, up-facing flowers on this compact species are the equal of any modern hybrid for sheer beauty.

But to insect senses, this Pycnanthemum (P. verticillatum, I think) was far more attractive. Swaths of this plant literally vibrated with buzzing bees and wasps of all kinds. Personally, I love Pycnanthemum for the scented foliage, minty but also with a hint of woodsy or pine-like scent.

We also drove out to the Gay Head Lighthouse. Built in 1796, it may be smaller than most of the lighthouses I've seen on the West Coast, but it certainly has a much longer history. Once there was a whole set of other buildings around the lighthouse, but today only this venerable beacon remains.

The Gay Head Lighthouse was built to warn ships about the underwater rocks known as the Devil's Bridge off the western tip of Martha's Vineyard. The bluff is quite beautiful and this, our last day on Martha's Vineyard, was a gorgeous sunny day, a nice send-off to end a great trip.

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