Sunday, February 11, 2018

Bulbine bruynsii and its Relatives

Bulbine bruynsii, greenhouse-grown in Connecticut, January.

Bulbine is a genus of about 80 species in the family Xanthorrhoeaceae (which, as currently circumscribed, also includes aloes and Haworthia). Bulbines are a varied assemblage, including geophytic species, weedy annuals and a few small shrubs. The arid, winter-rainfall climatic zones of South Africa and Namibia are home to numerous tuberous species of Bulbine with succulent leaves; some of these are window plants or form haworthia-like rosettes, though surely the strangest and most horticulturally intriguing species is Bulbine bruynsii

Bulbine bruynsii in flower, mid-winter.
 Mature B. bruynsii plants consist of a small subterranean tuber, from which radiate thickened, yellowish roots that can sprout additional plantlets, so that a clonal colony is eventually established. The plants are totally dormant in the warmer months, with no above-ground growth. In the autumn, mature tubers send up a pair of leaves (sometimes three or four leaves in coddled cultivated plants), and then a raceme of bright yellow flowers in mid-winter. The leaves are highly succulent, more or less the size and shape of small cucumbers, supported by incongruously skinny stalks formed by the leaf bases. The foliage of B. bruynsii is marked by lumpy horizontal bands, which are red below and translucent on their upper surfaces. The translucent patches presumably allow sunlight to diffuse into the interior of the leaves for photosynthesis; B. bruynsii is sort of a multistory high rise window plant.

In its native habitat, B. bruynsii is confined to a small range on the edge of the coastal plain west of Bitterfontein, South Africa, where it grows in open areas among larger succulents and scrubby vegetation. In cultivation, it seems to be unfortunately finicky, requiring a cool winter growth period with very high light intensity, on the edge of what it is possible for me to provide in New England, even with a sunny greenhouse. Root rot is a problem, especially during the summer dormancy. A loose, completely mineral soil with lots of sharp sand, pumice and perlite seems to be beneficial.

Plants do form clumps from root-borne sprouts, but this takes years, so seed is probably the most practical method of propagation. The seeds are reluctant to sprout, though, much more so than with other bulbines that I have grown. Seeds sometimes germinate in old pots, a year or more after sowing, which suggests that the seed coat might need to be broken down. The next time I have some seed, I'll try lightly scarifying it by rubbing it around the palm of my hand with a little sand. One further complication: B. bruynsii is not self-fertile, so cross pollinating two different individuals is required for seed production.

Bulbine diphylla, material from east of Bitterfontein, Western Cape Province, RSA.
 Several other species of winter-growing Bulbine seem to be close relatives of B. bruynsii, with similar midwinter flowers and stalked gherkin leaves, though lacking the windowed bumps. Bulbine diphylla is a relatively common species around the Knersvlakte region of South Africa, from Vanrhynsdorp in the south, north to Bitterfontein. Where I have seen it, it doesn't occur in the characteristic Knersvlakte open quartz flats, but instead among more lush, scrubby vegetation on loamy soil outside of quartz patches. In the veld and under glass, B. diphylla seems to be a more vigorous plant that B. bruynsii, forming thick stands of plants from root sprouts.

Bulbine dactylopsoides, cultivated material via Lifestyle Seeds.
Bulbine dactylopsoides is another related species from the Knersvlakte area. Like its namesake, Dactylopsis, the hitchhiker plant (family Aizoaceae), it is a denizen of quartz flats. It is generally similar to B. diphylla, but with waxier, stubbier leaves; plants in habitat in particular have almost barrel-shaped foliage. Immature plants have single leaves that are rounded and lie very close to the soil, closely resembling the probably only distantly related B. mesembryanthemoides. Flowering sized specimens develop the paired leaves held up above the soil on a thin stalk that are characteristic of the B. diphylla group.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Holiday Flowers: Crassula ovata

Windowsill-grown Crassula ovata, December 25, 2017. 
Crassula ovata, the Jade Plant, is a familiar windowsill succulent, but it seems to be pretty unusual to have one flower as well as my plant has this winter. I'm not quite sure what I did to bring on this display, which is much better than I've ever achieved before with C. ovata as a houseplant. It spent the summer outdoors in quite a sunny spot (after adjusting to life out of the house for a week or two under a tree in dappled shade), and then stayed out late into autumn. By the time it came in, around Halloween, there had been a little light frost, and the flower buds were just starting to appear. Abundant sun and an autumn chill may have helped; it also probably got a bit more fertilizer than usual over the summer (just the usual balanced water-soluble houseplant food).

This Jade Plant is not tremendously old, about six years from a cutting from a landscape plant in southern California. It has flowered before, but nothing like this year's show. Another member of the Connecticut Cactus and Succulent Society also reported excellent flowering in his C. ovata plants this month, so it's possible that the weather this year was particularly favorable. It was a relatively mild and sunny fall.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Mystery Stone Structures in Connecticut

Fieldstone cairns at the Werge Easement, Thompson, Ct. November 4, 2017

 Much of the landscape of Connecticut is pretty abundantly supplied with rocks. During the nineteenth century, after the primordial forests were for all intents and purposes completely cut, farmers clearing fields for crops or grazing would use the stones for walls and foundations. 150 year old stone walls are a ubiquitous feature of the Connecticut woods today. The eastern part of the state is also famous in certain circles for other, more puzzling fieldstone structures: cairns, piles, small towers, niches and even a few underground chambers, old but no one knows exactly how old, built by unknown people for dubious purposes. I recently got out for a tour of one of these "lithic sites," organized by The Last Green Valley and led by Joe Iamartino of the Thompson Historical Society, who tempted hikers with a quote from researcher J.P. Whittal: "There are more unexplained crude stone monuments in Thompson than anywhere in New England."
Hillside with about 10 cairns visible among the trees.
 After a slide show at the old Thompson town hall, a group of about 40 adjourned to the Werge Easement, a tract of private land set aside for conservation purposes and not normally accessible to the public. Anyone who has spent much time at all in the Connecticut woods has come across piles of loose rocks, in addition to the usual stone walls, in situations where it seems likely that a farmer was just disposing of stones picked from a field. The cairns in Thompson definitely looked more purposeful than that, more carefully put-together, and there were dozens of them dotting a ridge and an adjacent valley. I haven't run across anything remotely like it before.

Somewhat tumbledown stone pile with a niche at ground level.
 Several of the structures have niches in their bases, but nothing large enough for a person to get into. These seem like they might have been used to store something, but what isn't clear. Colonial records indicate that the native Americans built root cellars and underground sweat lodges, which could explain some of the larger stone chambers found elsewhere in New England, but not these dorm-fridge-sized cubbyholes. Cairns in the area have been excavated (often by looters and treasure hunters, unfortunately), but it seems that very little in the way of artifacts have ever been recovered.

A small stone tower
 There is one stone tower on the site, or perhaps a particularly tightly-constructed, skinny cairn. This was only about five feet tall, but another locality in the area has several towers of similar construction, but twice as high.

The "whale," an immobile boulder or bedrock outcrop with piled stones trailing behind it.
 A few of the structures, perhaps somewhat fancifully, might be said to represent animals, possibly turtles or whales. This struck me as a bit of a stretch.

Stone pile in poor condition, with trees growing out of it.
 A mature White Oak growing on top of a fallen-over cairn provides some indication of the age of the lithic site. I'd guess that the tree sprouted more than a century ago and could be 150 years old. The cairn, which looked like it was being overgrown by the tree's roots and not simply piled up against an existing trunk, should be older than that at a minimum. One New England stone chamber has reportedly been determined to be at least 800 years old, based on carbon dating of material found within, but in the absence of any surviving organic artifacts like bone, charcoal or wood, it would not be possible to carbon date the Werge Easement structures.

Stone pile arranged atop a large glacial erratic (the whale stone is in the background).
The majority of the crude stone monuments seemed to built on open ground, but a few were constructed on top of large boulders, the boulders being of such a size that they themselves probably were never moved. There were only two or three cairns built like this, out of the dozens that I saw on the walk.
The smaller boat-shaped stone structure at the Werge Easement.
The site has two examples of another type of mysterious stone structure: boat-shaped mounds, the size of mobile homes, with larger stones piled to make walls around the perimeter and the interior filled with a mix of smaller stones, creating a level, raised platform, three or four feet high. The two "stone boat" platforms, one large and one smaller, are fairly close to each other, but on a different part of the property than the majority of the cairn-type constructions. 

The "prow" of the larger boat-shaped platform.
As to what the Thompson lithic sites actually are, when they were built and by whom, that seems to be very much up in the air, without much indication that definite answers might be forthcoming. Our guides favored the theory that they are largely or entirely the work of Native Americans (the Nipmucs), and date to before European contact or the earliest colonial times. In this interpretation, the cairns are ritual objects or memorial markers, and may indicate the location of deaths in battle or other notable events. Some Native American tribes apparently had a tradition of marking the location of the death of an ancestor with a pile of stones, which subsequent generations would add to when they were in the area. The stone platforms could also be ritual sites, or they might be the foundations of raised wigwams. 
The view across the "deck" of the larger platform.
Another explanation that is maybe not as romantic, but at least as viable, is that the site is a sort of rustic art installation constructed by bored Yankee farmers, less than 200 years ago. Farming in New England is a difficult business and early efforts at cultivating fields or improving pastures involved a lot of moving rocks out of the way. In general, fieldstone was used to make walls, or sometimes thrown into heaps in out of the way spots or at property lines. But, there wouldn't be anything stopping a farmer with a more creative disposition from sequestering his extra rocks in neat little cairns and towers around his property.

 It is interesting to note that the Werge cairns and platforms occur in the neighborhood of perfectly ordinary stone walls from the 1800s, and sometimes the walls and the mysterious lithic structures are practically on top of each other, separated by just a few yards. So, if one contends that the lithic site is an ancient survival from pre-contact times, one also has to reckon with generations of nineteenth century Connecticut sheep farmers carefully working around the old monuments, and not deconstructing them for wall material or to get them out of the way. Which is entirely possible, but maybe not much more probable than imagining a farmer with a funny aesthetic sense building the stone monuments himself.

A Thompson, Ct lake in late autumn.
Lots of what might charitably be called exotic theories exist for Connecticut lithic sites, of course: they were built by wandering Celts on ley lines, or they were left by Vikings and the boat-shaped platforms are symbolic long-boat burials, or they're evidence of Phoenician sailors navigating the Quinebaug River. I'm not sure if anyone has claimed that they're the ruins of Sasquatch encampments, but that would probably be at about the same level of likelihood.

Ultimately, much of the interpretation of the Thompson stone monuments depends on their age, but there doesn't seem to be any obvious way of telling how old they are. I vaguely suspect that the structures are not ancient (multiple centuries or millennia old), or if they are ancient they received ongoing maintenance and reconstruction. The cairns look like they would be fairly fragile over the long term in a heavily wooded environment such as has existed for most of the past thousand years in southern New England; sooner or later they would have an oak grow up inside them and break them apart, or a three-foot diameter chestnut trunk would fall on them, or frost and ice would push the stones out of place. In the absence of human intervention, the structures would have a half-life, and if I had to guess I would put that half-life at much closer to 100 years than to 1,000 years. But for now at least, that is only a guess, and there seems to be a good amount of real mystery surrounding the lithic sites of Connecticut.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Carnivorous Plant Show

Nepenthes edwardsiana at the New England Carnivorous Plant Society Show.
The New England Carnivorous Plant Society held its annual show this past weekend, and as usual the membership displayed and sold a fantastic array of plants. Attendance was excellent, as well, with something around 1500 visitors on Saturday alone. The show took place at Tower Hill Botanical Garden in Massachusetts, Worcester County Horticultural Society's immaculately maintained complex in the Worcester suburbs. In earlier phases of the NECPS's existence, the show was held at Roger Williams Park in Providence (and one time at the University of Rhode Island), but the event has become a popular autumn tradition at Tower Hill over the past couple of years.

Visitors to the carnivorous plant show, Saturday Morning.

The American Pitcher Plant (Sarracenia) table was packed solid with plants.

Emmi K's comprehensive collection of the bladderworts (Utricularia) of New England. Emmi and some friends travel around to swamps and bogs in the summer, collecting bladderwort specimens, then use the plants to create an educational display.

A big pot of a giant Venus' Flytrap cultivar, Dionaea muscipula 'B52'. The name B52 apparently derives from a label code in Henning Von Schmeling's flytrap breeding program, and has nothing to do with the bomber (or the band).

The very rare and almost shrub-like South American pitcher plant Heliamphora tatei.

Another "Sun Pitcher" species that is almost never seen in cultivation, Heliamphora sarracenioides.

An art installation made of woven saplings on the Tower Hill grounds: "Wild Rumpus" by Patrick Dougherty.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

The Great American Eclipse of 2017

Total solar eclipse, August 21, 2017, from Greer, SC.
Various circumstances came together this week, so that I was able to drive south and stay in the Asheville, NC area, within easy striking distance of the path of totality through South Carolina for Monday's solar eclipse. I headed to Greer, SC, where there was an eclipse viewing event in the city park.
Some of the crowds at Greer City Park.
Traffic getting down to the Carolinas from the Northeast on Sunday was pretty heavy, though a couple of hours added onto a 15 hour drive wasn't a huge deal. On the state roads to Greer Monday morning, there were quite a few cars heading into the path of totality, but things moved along and there wasn't too much trouble finding parking. The parks department had some entertainment going and was handing out eclipse guides and solar viewing glasses. The area near the food trucks and such was crowded, with lawn chairs and picnic blankets packed into every patch of shade, so I headed for another section of the park that was pretty lightly populated.

My cheesy projection system.
In addition to the solar glasses, I had some pinhole viewers, which worked but made kind of small, pale images. I also jury-rigged a projector with binoculars tied with string to a tripod, which made nice, bright images that included smaller details like sunspots that were invisible with the glasses, but which was unstable and needed a lot of fiddling to keep working. I should have put in more preparation: if the binoculars were firmly affixed to the tripod and there was a shade blocking the sun around the lenses, it would have been much more useful.
Getting darker, near the bandstand. I think the camera didn't really know what to do with the exposure at this point.
There were scattered clouds around in the morning, but as the eclipse progressed they got thinner and finally pretty much disappeared for the main event. This is a fortunate effect of the weakening of solar heating of the air, causing atmospheric convection to dissipate, as the moon blocks more and more light.

A photo through solar glasses, with some thin remaining clouds over the sun.
During the darker phases of the three hours of the eclipse, the air temperature noticeably cooled. It was quite a pleasant change from what had started out as a hot, steamy morning with scorching sun. People starting moving out from under the trees and out onto the open lawns.

Crescent images of the sun under a tree.
One of the well-known eclipse lighting effects is that splotches of sunlight under trees take on the shape of the crescent sun. Actually, dappled light under trees always includes images of the sun focused by diffraction between leaves, but these are normally round and unchanging, and go generally unnoticed as just part of the way the natural world always looks. Especially as totality is getting near, shadows get weirdly sharp, and include little crescent shapes along their edges.

Clouds disperse and the parks lights flicker on as totality gets close.
About 15 minutes on either side of totality, it was dark enough that street lights came on. Animal life started reacting, too, and some kind of loud nocturnal insect (a southern katydid?) started singing from the trees.
The sky is getting dark and a crow flies overhead.
Birds were affected as well. In particular, I noticed crows flying singly and in small groups, all on the same course, the way they normally do in the evening when they are heading to their roost. In the final seconds before totality, the "shadow bands" effect was visible on the sidewalk, with stripes of light and dark rapidly running across the landscape

The park at totality, with sunset-like light all around the horizon.
Totality itself was as amazing as promised. One astronomer I caught on NPR on the drive down said something to the effect of "seeing a 99% eclipse is like taking a family trip 99% of the way to Disney Land," and I'd guess that's probably about right. The million-degree plasma of the corona is sort of a ghostly grey-blue-violet that doesn't really occur elsewhere, and even pro photographs don't do it justice, let alone my quick snapshot at the top of the post. That contrasts with the outline of the moon, which looks, at least in comparison, to be an absolute dead black. Some other celestial objects were theoretically visible at totality, but the only one that I noticed was a blue point, almost within the corona, that was apparently the star Regulus. Venus must have been easily visible, but I wasn't aware of it because I was focused so intently on the eclipse. Totality lasted about 1.5 minutes in Greer, but it seemed like it was over in about 10 seconds to me. The big show finished with a supremely brilliant "diamond ring" effect as a tiny point of the sun's surface reappeared.

The shadow bands had started up again when I turned away from the sun, with the bands running in a different direction than they had been moving before totality. I waited around Greer for a bit after the eclipse, while people cleared out, but there was still a certain amount of traffic even on the back roads returning to North Carolina. That evening I thought to check out the traffic function on Google Maps, and there was an obvious wave of traffic jams spreading out on the highways from the midline of the eclipse, all across the country.

A wild ginger, probably Asarum arifolium.
I hung around the foothills of the Smokey Mountains for another couple of days, and did get a chance to get out into the woods a bit. In steep, damp ravines I saw some interesting smooth-leaved wild gingers, not the familiar Asarum virginicum.

Kudzu, Pueraria montana, the vine that ate the South.
I flew back north on Wednesday, and there were still others traveling who had been in the area eclipse-watching, carrying tripods and talking about the wonders of totality. The lines at the smallish Spartanburg airport were probably considerably longer than they normally are in the middle of the week, but I got through security with time to spare and was back in Connecticut in time for dinner.