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Fingers Well and Truly Crossed

Tony King, Romford, Essex, UK
Chamaerops No. 46, published online 18-03-2003

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2002 has been an interesting year for me in terms of Botanical events both within my collection and the plant world as a whole.

Let's start in the closing months of 2001, in my garden, with Musa basjoo.
My current clump of this species is descended from a plant purchased from Architectural plants around 11 years ago. The proprietor of the nursery, Angus White, had discovered a lone clump of this banana growing outside at RHS Garden, Wisley. He realised that it must be hardier than had generally been supposed for this species. Until this time the 'hardy banana' had been one of those inspiring and tantalising myths, only occasionally available as offsets from a few Cornish gardens and not the easily obtained plant we know today. For the first time, Angus's micro-propagation from the Wisley specimen put them in reach of a wider audience, eagerly awaiting a chance to try. Could we really grow a banana in the UK outside of the 'balmy' climate of south-west England?

Over succeeding years my plant has slowly spread. Sometimes I would protect the trunks over winter, but as this became more cumbersome and when I noticed that unprotected trunks grew back from winter damage to impressive sizes I stopped taking such precautions. As autumn 2001 approached my clump consisted of three large, (8 ft. +), trunks around five years old and two smaller ones. One of the tall plants began to produce ever-smaller leaves and the top of the stem took on a fat and bud- like appearance. Could this be my first bunch of bananas?? The tip, now a swollen bud, began to bend over but one thing was spoiling this moment for me... it was October! With the temperatures falling there was no way it would fruit for me before the frosts arrived and just how could I try and protect such an awkward sized plant? As the weeks moved on the bud stopped developing and I made a feeble attempt to try and protect the trunk. This proved almost impossible given its size and, with a curved tip, its shape. I applied some wrapping as best I could but really it would be down to the plant and just how bad a winter we would get.

Fingers were well and truly crossed and although we had a couple of close calls, frosts were short lived and, amazingly, the trunk and its bud remained standing come the spring. With the arrival of warmer weather the bud continued to develop from where it had left off the following autumn. To my astonishment, another of the three taller trunks also began to produce a bud, much fatter and longer than the first. The third trunk pushed out new leaves. During the summer both fruiting trunks produced their amazing flowers in an ever elongating, droopy spike, with yellow male flowers at the tip, but only around four layers of small, green bananas at the top of the inflorescence. Not quite the spectacle of a bunch of bananas I was expecting but a thrill none the less! What is it that caused them to flower now when trunks of a similar age and size have never done so before, I cannot say.

As I write, September 2002, the third large trunk is still producing enormous leaves to be shredded in the wind. I wonder what sort of winter awaits this year!

Like many of you, my plant interests span many groups besides palms, such as orchids, bulbs and succulents. It is from the bulb and succulent part of my collection that two other firsts took place during the year. The first of these was the wonderful blooming of a South African bulb, Haemanthus humilis hirsutus. Haemanthus are a wonderful group of bulbous plants that produce large and showy heads of flowers, usually during the autumn, in response to the arrival of winter rains. They follow this with the production of two, large, flat leaves that in some species can reach the size of dinner plates. In the case of the species mentioned, after some five years of cultivation it produced a lovely head of white fluffy flowers during the summer, which lasted almost two weeks! This floral extravaganza was followed by the production of its customary two thick, fleshy leaves, covered on the underside by thick, soft, downy hairs! (hence the name 'hirsutus')

The succulent flowering required even more patience than was needed for the Musa but was equally unexpected. First, let me set the scene. Just over twenty years ago, when I first started to visit Kew Gardens, I was intrigued by a plant that grew in the cactus and succulent house, a glasshouse that was demolished to make way for the mighty Princes of Wales Conservatory you see today. This plant was one of the Sansevieria family, known as mother-in-law's tongue in the UK where the widely grown houseplant variety is S. trifasciata v. laurentii with its yellow edged leaves.

The plant I admired, however, was unlike the familiar houseplant. It had wide, spreading leaves that were 'crinkled' along the edges. The background colour of the foliage was almost black, overlaid with silvery patterns and a 'coppery' almost metallic sheen. I tried hard to track down this resident of the arid lands of Eastern Africa, Sansevieria kirkii var. pulchra. After some months of enquiry a supplier was located, in Hawaii! An order was placed and I subsequently received the section of rhizome with two attached leaves. This plant has grown slowly and steadily on a sunny windowsill ever since. In July it started to produce a flower spike! This developed over a couple of weeks and gave a head of long, narrow, tubular white flowers which had a slight perfume. I had expected a stronger scent as I had read reports of sweetly fragranced blooms of other species in this family. The overall effect of the flower was like a firework on the end of stick, somewhat like a sparkler! The blooms lasted but a day individually and overall the inflorescence continued for about a week. Not spectacular I grant but an unexpected novelty!

My final and most exciting event is just starting to take place as I write. One of two plants of the cycad Dioon edule that I have is beginning to produce a cone! The first cycad I have ever had to do so and very unexpected! I bought the two plants as seedlings some 16 years ago and never dreamed that such a slow growing cycad would ever cone for me. The plant in question failed to make new growth this year, but during August the stem began to swell. I thought I might be about to get a flush of new foliage but as the tip of the stem started to open out I could see the white of the cone emerging like an egg! You can imagine how excited I feel as the plant is far from being a large one, which is what I thought would have been needed for coning to take place; it still lives in a 3 litre deep pot!

Away from my collection, what turned out to be probably the biggest floral spectacle in more ways than one happened at Kew Gardens. One of the plants that initially fired my imagination for the world of plants is Amorphophallus titanum. Descriptions of its history, difficulty of cultivation, sheer size and air of mystery make it one of those amazing plants you can't believe is for real.

Whilst I have been able to appreciate the enormous single leaf this plant produces, like a small tree, I had yet to see one in bloom. In the summer of 1996 one did so at Kew but as I was due to leave for the IPS Biennial in the USA that year I only got to see the plant before the inflorescence opened. I was excited this year to learn that Kew had the possibility of not one but three plants coming into bloom! By experimentation and re-thinking the cultivation regime, they had grown the tubers to the huge size required for flowering in record time, around 75 kg in weight!

During May I tracked the progress of the developing bud of the first plant daily via the website. Timing when these huge blooms open is next to impossible to guess and this one did so mid-week. Being at work I had to wait until the weekend to visit. The bloom only stays fully open for but a couple of days and by my visit on the Saturday it was closing up! I was lucky, though, to have arrived in the morning when viewing was quite straightforward, the only uncomfortable thing being the heat and humidity of the conservatory. By the afternoon, when I fancied a final look, the queues were just amazing, stretching out from the Princes of Wales Conservatory and around into the rock garden next to it! Police were being used to 'control' the crowd, so efficient had the media publicity machine been for this flowering of a Titan! So I had now seen the before and after but not the moment of full bloom!

My opportunity for this came with plant number two! This I also tracked daily with a will it/won't it open today apprehension. On the Saturday morning of June 1st I logged on to see the mighty bloom had opened over night. Standing 2.4 m tall, it had developed from a bud that had been 0.8 m high on 17 May. Quickly packing my camera, I dashed over to Kew. It was truly amazing! I spent ages taking photos, sweltering in the heat. The famous bad smell was not too unbearable; I think it had passed its peak and now just came in occasional waves. As an aroid lover I had smelt worse! The lack of publicity for this bloom meant no police and no crowds so viewing was perfect. I revisited it later in the day to take even more photos, as who knows when I would see another? A long ambition had been fulfilled.

The third plant, the smallest tuber of them all, also subsequently produced an inflorescence but didn't quite have the energy reserves to actually open it up! I hope the techniques being perfected at Kew mean that a flowering Titan becomes a more regular event, as it is certainly one of the awesome sights of the plant world.

Lastly, a new discovery! I wonder how many of you grow or have grown the houseplant Clivia miniata with its glossy, neat foliage and heads of orange blooms in the spring? I love Clivia, which have been bred to produce many forms, some highly sought after, such as those with yellow flowers or variegated foliage. They are revered, and widely grown in China and Japan where good specimens sell for huge sums of money and special selections are given variety names. As a Clivia collector I have a few different selections, mostly seedlings, as well as an example from each of the other three species which occur in the wild across South Africa's Eastern Cape province. All of them are forest understory plants, lovers of filtered light and shady conditions. Imagine, then, the excitement this year when a new species was discovered, not from the forests, but growing in the area of Nieuwoudtville in the Northern Cape separated by 800 km of semidesert from its closest relations. Not only is this species geographically separated from all other known Clivia populations, it grows fully exposed to scorching sun and chilly nights, making it as far removed from its woodland cousins as you can get!

With a bulky, fleshy root system to hold onto any moisture, it hangs to cliff edges, a fan of stiff green leaves each carrying a distinctive stripe along the mid-rib, its pendulous blooms an orange red. Befitting its miraculous discovery, it has been named C. mirabilis. Such a plant brings all sorts of exciting possibilities for the introduction of new characteristics into the many Clivia breeding programmes taking place around the world. The 'new' plants are not widely distributed, their habitat forming part of a reserve. I understand that the South African nature authorities are considering a sustainable seed collecting and distribution programme which will be a good way to get this plant into cultivation and begin to satisfy the inevitable demand that will be seen.

It just shows how many plants await discovery as these would have been seen by many people who walk in the reserve and nobody realised what they were or how significant a discovery they represent in the world of Clivia!

So, all in all, 2002 has been an eventful year in the plant world!


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