July 29, 2011

It Had to Start Somewhere- Paphiopedilum Species;
The Husky Group  

P. rothschildianum
The King of the Genus
with flowers over 10 inches across

In this blog I will look at the largest species in the genus, most of which are from Borneo and the Philippines. One species in particular, sanderianum, was essentially lost in cultivation, then re-introduced about 25 years ago. The species can now be purchased at a fairly reasonable sum, somewhat less than the price of a small car, as was the case 20 years ago.  Some of these species make impressive hybrids, and are easy enough to grow if you understand their needs. Many of these species are rock or tree dwellers, in fairly high light levels. This means that these plants like bright light and a well-drained potting mix in cultivation. They can be grown in subtropical or tropical areas in hanging baskets or hanging pots, providing the plants with plenty of air movement. At Pinecrest Gardens, I grow plants of this group in clay pots in a Cattleya mix, in the same area as the Brazilian Cattleyas. The plants receive about 4000 foot candles of light throughout the day. The plants are strong, with solid, upright flowers stems, both indicators of good growth.     

P. sanderianum
this plant is about 4 feet tall !
The Queen of the Genus
can have petals over 2 feet long 
This group of plants contains many interesting species, most of which grow large, but grow slowly. As such, the plants tend to be fairly expensive if you buy them at flowering size. Small seedlings less than 6 inches leaf span can take 4-6 years to grow to flowering size. The reward is a stunning flower with unique characters and a typically long flower stem. Some of the largest hybrids, using P. kolopakingii, can have flower stems over 4 feet tall ! 

P. kolopakingii
one of the giants of the genus

P. 'St. Swithin', a robust and easy-to-grow hybrid

 For those who have some experience with orchid growing, try a few of these. There are numerous new hybrids coming in from Taiwan and Southeast Asia, so the prices are dropping. At the local shows and sales in South Florida, one can now buy a nice Paph. St. Swithin in bud for around $ 50, a plant that would have been $ 200 or more a few decades ago. The hybrids tend to grow faster than the species do, although there is a simmering debate over whether a hybrid or a species is "more attractive". Judge for yourself at the next orchid show......

P. stonei, one of the early "big" species
Craig Morell
Pinecrest Gardens

July 27, 2011

It Had to Start Somewhere- Paphiopedilum Species:
the Height Challenged Group

P. bellatulum
I am an unabashed orchidholic, primarily because there is an unending array of plants to be grown, climate and facilities permitting, of course. The Asian Ladyslippers, usually abbreviated as "Paphs" to avoid the tongue-twisting name of Paphiopedilum , have captured imaginations of orchid fanciers for a century and a half. The unique flower shapes, art-deco colors, and dazzling mixtures of spots, bars, hairs and long lasting flowers makes these plants a real treat in a plant family that often has so few of these traits. There are a lot of myths and misconceptions in this group which add to their cachet of being royalty. I do not have the conditions to grow this group just yet; my conditions lend more toward growing Cattleya and Dendrobiums.

I have a few of the larger multi-floral Paph. types, since they like a lot of light and less water. Yet I know of local growers who have great success with this group outdoors, and I hope you will attempt some of the robust yet petite species in your collection. Once you see a mature plant of P. bellatulum at an orchid show with its gorgeous flower spots on a plant only 4 inches tall, you might be hooked as well.   

One of the most fascinating of their aspects is that Paphs cannot be effectively tissue cultured. This leads to a slower turn in plant availability from seed-grown plants, and as such, prices remain higher. Some of the champion plants demand several thousand dollars per division, and have done so for many decades. The plants are being grown for the mass-market and I see them show up at garden retailers, but the plants are still more expensive than Dendrobiums or Phalaenopsis.

There are several breeding groups in the Asian Ladyslipper. Loosely categorized by the growing public as the "bellatulum" group seen here, the "Maudiae" group ( next blog), and the "multifloral" group, often containing the largest species of all in the genus, ( coming soon to a blog near you). There are numerous inter-section hybrids, and the names of the sections change names regularly, but these are the 3 largest groups I know of. Naturally, hybridizers like to cross widely diverse species to see what will happen, with some fascinating results.

P. concolor

In speaking programs I often talk about the analogies of orchid breeding to animal breeding. There are "mule" orchid hybrids, meaning they are sterile, as well as improbable hybrids on both sides. Some hybrids are impossible naturally, for instance a Great Dane /Terrier mix would be akin to Paph. 'Gloria Naugle', a hybrid whose parents are over 1000 miles apart, as well as being a giant species crossed to a micro-species. In both cases the results are interesting and fun to look at. The big question, whether animal or plant, is whether the hybrid inherited any of the bad habits of the parents. Some wide-cross hybrids have some strange habits, especially if the parents come from opposing climates or opposite hemispheres ! 

For the casual grower, Paphs have some predictable growing habits. In most cases, a well-drained and moisture-retentive potting mix will suit most of the species you are likely to grow. In the case of the species seen here, bright light without direct sunlight ( about 1500-2000 foot-candles of light) will produce good solid plants. Many growers have reported that adding ground bone meal to the potting mix makes for a stronger plant with solid roots. I have found that any mix that works well for Cymbidiums in your area will do well for this group of Paphs.       

P. micranthum

Some of these "newer" species such as armeniacum and micranthum require broad, shallow pots to allow their rhizomatous root system to grow out from the parent plant. These species are fun to grow, since you  can end up with a small "suburb" of a plant with many flowers over a fairly large area. There are dozens of species to work with, suitable for every climate and even indoor culture. Look into these species, especially for the windowsill grower or space-challenged grower. There are rich colors and wonderful leaf patterns to see as well as a veritable United Nations of origins.

Craig Morell
Pinecrest Gardens.  

'Gloria Naugle"
micranthum x rothchildianum

P. armeniacum

July 25, 2011

It Had to Start Somewhere- Vanda Species

V. sanderiana

Vanda species and hybrids have a roller-coaster ride of popularity. Every few years they seem to become
fashionable again, and I often wonder if the attraction is linked to a nursery's availability of the plants......

I recall the first time I saw a really blue Vanda
rothschildiana ( sanderiana x coerulea) at an orchid show in Milwaukee. I was smitten from the first second I saw it. If I had known that I would some day live in Miami, where Vandas grow almost without care, I would not have tried so hard to grow it in a greenhouse in the chilly northern states.

I saw some of the terete and semi-terete hybrids as well, such as V. Nellie Morley and V. Josephine Van Brero.  Their round flowers with such solid texture were a far cry from the open, thin-textured flowers of some of the species.

In the last 30 years or so, there have been some revelations in Vanda breeding, largely due to growers in the Miami / Homestead area, as well as a number of Hawaiian growers. Amongst other growers, RF Orchids, Motes Orchids, Ruben in Orchids, and several private growers in both states have been instrumental in bringing new hybrids to the shows and sales for consumers to ogle. These newer hybrids use a number of smaller species, suitable for growing in smaller greenhouses and collections. While I like the big V. sanderiana hybrids, they need to be rather sizable before they flower, whereas V. denisoniana makes a more compact hybrid. For this blog, I'll focus on the older "stud" hybrids and the species which made them.

V. coerulea

There are 2 basic groups in Vanda breeding- the strap leaf group and the terete group. The most important parents for large-flowered hybrids are V. coerulea, V. tricolor and V. sanderiana.  There seems to be a running debate about where Vanda hybrids were first made, but I believe Asia had the first programs via the Singapore Botanical Garden, as well as private hybridizers. Hawaii and Florida came into the game in the last 40 years or so.  

V. Rothchildiana
( coerulea x sanderiana)

In the world of terete hybrids, there are rather few species with which to make hybrids that perform as we need them to. For this group, V. ( now Papilionanthe) teres and V. hookeriana were the important parents.The plants grow vigorously, but need a LOT of light to flower well. This trait makes them suitable for only the warmest areas of the US, but highly suitable for  humid and rainy tropical areas. We are lucky in the South Florida regions where we can grow such a vast array of orchids outdoors so easily. I fear that we take the climate for granted, and lose touch with the giant diversity available to us.

Craig Morell
Pinecrest Gardens 

V. teres

V. hookeriana

V. tricolor

V. 'Miss Joaquin'
( teres x hookeriana)
one of the most famous and
successful of all hybrids

July 22, 2011

There Really Are Good Reference Books....

One of the best of the modern reference books

Like many gardeners, I have read a LOT of books about plants. Many books have conflicting information about the same topics and plants. One of my primary complaints about plant books has been that since so many are written for a national audience, the information is so generalized that it doesn't really help subtropical gardeners. .

A massive tome of plant pictures and information

I can understand the concept; in order to make a book saleable in 48 states, it needs to appeal to a wide audience. A book about coconut palms would sell a few hundred or few thousand copies locally, but a book about herb gardening can be written for a national audience and might sell tens of thousands of copies. If, however, you are interested in reading greater detail about a tropical plant, there are rather few books written that can help us sub-tropical gardeners, and fewer still for the Zone 10 warm areas of South Florida. This is a quandary, since books written in the wet tropics don't apply to our area, and books written for the Zone 8 subtropics won't apply here either. Here are a few of my book choices for the avid gardener.

An excellent reference for beginner and professional
As gardeners graduate from novice to advanced, they need more information. In my position here at the Gardens, I need a LOT of information about some plants in order to grow them well or find out why they have not grown well. Photo books are great, but sometimes something more technical is needed. On my reference desk, I have a well-used copy of Hortus 3, a hefty volume of plants written by taxonomists. Unlike many such books, the volume is arranged alphabetically by genus name, not by Family name. This makes it easy to locate a plant fast, if one knows the genus name. There are myriad technical books which outline the highly refined taxonomic aspects of plants, but Hortus gives a bit of location and cultural information as well as being well stocked with plant names. I find it very useful, and I bought a good used copy online. I would not recommend you read it bed, though; it might crack your ribs.

one of the most definitive books on plants ever produced

  Every reader has his favorite books. I have accumulated a sizable, (and heavy), collection of books, many of which have outgrown their usefulness. I refined my collection to the most useful and most used volumes, some are shown here. These references tend to be a bit pricey, but on-line used-book sellers are competitively priced. For an avid plantsman or advanced gardener, they make great gifts as well as good references. I recommend them highly in order to advance your plant knowledge, one of my most frequent preachings.

Craig Morell
Pinecrest Gardens


July 18, 2011

It Had to Start Somewhere - Cattleya Species

An extraordinary form of Cattleya skinneri

As an avowed and recovering orchid addict, I have grown a huge array of orchids, always trying to learn how to grow them and about the myriad flower types available in the orchid family. I am especially partial to large flowered Cattleyas; in my mind it is the quintessential "orchid". There are thousands of hybrids, in a kaleidoscope of colors, shapes, textures and fragrances. I have an old-fashioned hybrid called Lc. Crispin Rosales, and when it is in flower, I never miss a chance to inhale the fragrance until I get dizzy. Its rich, clove-spice-gardenia fragrance is irresistible.

After growing hybrids for many years, I discovered the simple elegance of several of the species in the genus, and 2 of the species have accounted for more hybrids than any others. The trends in orchid breeding are interestingly cyclic; there is a trend toward species, then primary hybrids, then miniatures, then allied species, and then back again to the start. Each "cycle" runs for a few years, then a new set of articles will arise in an orchid journal, or a leading orchid company will promote a new line of breeding. 
C. skinneri 'Heiti Jacobs' AM/AOS

C. trianae
an excellent selection with round flowers
and great overall shape

As with all plant breeding, the wild species start the process. As plant breeding goes, orchids are fairly recent in the hybridizing world, starting actively in the late 1800s. Modern orchid breeding really got going in the 1960s, and has accelerated ever since. The Royal Horticultural Society diligently records orchid hybrids and the latest tally of orchid hybrids numbers over 100,000, with some estimates as high as 200,000 hybrids ! All this started with wild species; yet they produced a conservative estimate of  4000 Cattleya hybrids. The species pictured here account for the bulk of the modern hybrids, although C. trianae and C. mossiae are the acknowledged studs of the Cattleya world.               

Many plant enthusiasts rail that modern hybrids are an abomination of the wild species. To a point, I agree, but only if you are an avid grower of species. But, the analog to that idea is that modern life is an abomination of the "good old days". Should we all drive Model T automobiles, live without electricity, indoor plumbing or anything of the digital age ? Is a modern car not just an evolution of what consumers want ? I feel the same is true of many modern-day aspects, wherein producers create what consumers want.Such is true of orchids; hybridizers refine and create characteristics in plants to suit consumer needs and wants.  

I happen to like growing species orchids and their primary hybrids to show the range of "what was and what is". I don't feel modern hybrids are an abomination; they are just another range of plants available to collectors and growers. In the end analysis, many hybrids are made to make money for the grower so he can continue growing plants. Whether the grower's work starts out as a hobbyist or as a commercial grower, many people breed plants to make a change or make an improvement on a species by line-breeding it to make a larger, fuller flower, or by using the best aspects of each parent to produce better progeny. Many Cattleya species flower just once a year, with thin-textured flowers and short bloom life . Some are notoriously hard to grow or need specialized conditions. Modern hybrids have largely alleviated these problems, yielding plants with great vigor, repeat flowering habits and durable flowers that can last for weeks. One of the best things I like about some of the species is their vigorous growing habits and durability in our outdoor conditions. The same can be said of many wild plant species, and one friend said that some orchids  are equivalent to horses; wild horses are tough, durable, and long lived, whereas their thoroughbred cousins are not, not, and not.

C. warscewiczii

Whether you wish to grow wild species orchids or "thoroughbred" hybrid orchids, there is a plant for your needs, tastes, garden style and budget. I always counsel people to learn about what they grow. Knowing about plants helps reduce plant losses as well as increase your enjoyment of growing them.

Craig Morell
Pinecrest Gardens 

Lc. Crispin Rosales

July 11, 2011

It Had to Start Somewhere- Phalaenopsis species

P. amboinensis

Over the last 40 years that I have grown orchids, I have seen a lot of changes in both species and hybrids. I can remember looking at a Shaffer Orchids Catalog in the early 1980s, and marveling at one of the first modern yellow Phalaenopsis hybrids, using P. venosa as a parent. The flower was fairly small by today's standards, with an open form and low flower count, but it was yellow. This was really new stuff decades ago, was fairly expensive, and you got a small plant shipped in the mail. Nowadays, you can buy top-grade blooming, yellow Phalaenopsis  plants at a big-box garden center for the price of lunch. The same goes for pink or lavender or spotted or multifloral plants. In the middle 1980s, I recall swooning over the first pictures of what was called the "French Spot" Phalaenopsis hybrids, popularized by the French firm Vacherot and Lecoufle. They were rather weak growers but had radical, spotted flowers borne in branched flower spikes. They were expensive, and only the best growers could grow them. Today, you can find the robust descendants of such plants at Kmart in many cities. 

P. stuartiana

20 years ago, an orchid friend postulated that soon we would see a 'Volksorchid', i.e. a People's Orchid, in the same vein as the Volkswagen was the People's Car. Orchids would be "cheap and readily available everywhere", he said. "You're a fool", I said, yet he was indeed right. Where did all these new hybrids come from, and how did it happen so fast ? There are some easy answers and a few that are more subtle.

The parents of most of our modern Phalaenopsis hybrids stem from a small group of species, namely P. amabilis for white hybrids, P. venosa and P. amboinensis for yellow hybrids, P. sanderiana for pink hybrids and P. stuartiana for spotted hybrids. These are fairly small flowers with the genetics to pass their colors on to future generations without too many other bad traits. Only a few of the species make  good parents unless one was breeding novelty hybrids for collectors.

One of the notable 'problem' species, is P. gigantea, which can make wonderful hybrids with  great flower texture, high flower count, and beautiful spots. The problems are that the parent plant is, at best, a challenge to grow well, imparts giantism to its progeny, the progeny tend to have pendant flower spikes, and the progeny often have cupped flowers, albeit a cloud of them. Consequently, the species is rarely used in hybridizing. Many plant breeders would ask the same question of this species: Is the color and flower count worth all the extra baggage that the parent tags onto its progeny ? 

One of the real advancements in Phalaenopsis breeding has been the influence of the Asian growers, who have perfected not only amazing tissue culture techniques to grow flowering plants in record time, but their growing techniques as well. Many of the best Phalaenopsis hybrids come from China or Taiwan, where the plants have attained stupendous dimensions under expert culture, in nearly perfect greenhouse climates. The combination of great growing and tissue culture techniques have allowed  growers to select the best parents and offspring, tissue culture them, and bring the plants to market in half the time as opposed  to the days when I started growing orchids. Such short growth-cycle times allow growers to select fantastic clones of species and hybrids in a short amount of time, then line-breed them to attain even better progeny.  

P. amabilis, the progenitor of thousands of
modern hybrids
 As with all modern plant breeding, there have to be wild species to start the breeding process. The wild species have themselves gone from small, open flowers on small plants to improved versions with fuller-formed flowers on vigorous plants. One theoretical questions has always been " are we getting away from the natural shape of the flowers, in favor of an artificial flower standard ?" The same could be said of many things, including people ! Personally I'd rather spend my money on improved plants that have a good chance of living and growing well for me, than a wild-collected plant that will  have trouble getting established. Of course, there is a mindset of some growers who want the "old" varieties to see what Nature started with before we adulterated the plant to an unreasonable standard.

P. venosa

Fortunately, for anyone who wants such species, the prices have dropped to the point where good quality plants can be purchased for a fraction of what they cost 30 years ago. It is indeed an education to see the disparity between what the native species and the modern hybrids which arose from them. The same could be said of grandparents looking at their modern grandchildren.

There is certainly a place for those who wish to grow the species, with their particular growth quirks. We all need to remember that it was the wild species which were the start of all this "modern" breeding.

P. sanderiana

Craig Morell
Pinecrest Gardens

July 8, 2011

'Allo, 'Allo...Aloe.....What's This...?

Aloe marlothii
growing at Kirstenbosch, S. Africa
courtesy of Plantzafrica

Every few years I seem to see a group of plants in a new way, even if I have seen them for years. Occasionally I'll visit a nursery or private garden, and see plants displayed in new ways which reinforces, or perhaps more correctly, refreshes my interest in a group. Such is the case with Aloe species, and the myriad forms they come in. Pinecrest Gardens has the mixed blessing of having an arid-plant garden, in which we have several species of Aloe, especially Aloe barbadensis, one of the "Aloe vera" group, which seems to have several species in it.

flowers of Aloe marlothii
courtesy of Plantzafrica
 There is a feeling that in South Florida, succulents are tough to grow, and this is untrue. I would say that many succulents are unhappy about being plunked into a rich potting soil, outside in the back yard in a mixed landscape. Most succulents I've grown preferred a well-drained gravel-based mixture, in pots or in raised beds, and with plants of similar growing requirements. While most succulents I know can tolerate all-day sunshine and some species require it, many smaller plants like Echeveria seem to like a bit of afternoon shade. Such is true with Aloe species, which like a lot of direct sunlight, and very good drainage. The larger tree-like Aloe species like all day sunshine, and may prefer pot culture to in-ground culture here, especially in rainy weather. Pots will drain and dry out faster than in-ground soil will. Many Aloe species make great candidates for container gardens, and not all of them are very spiny. There are some species with soft teeth that won't bite back when you try to handle the plant.

some species are very petite

The iconic "vera" type is likely Aloe barbadensis, an easy-to-grow and very forgiving houseplant with wonderfully medicinal uses. The fresh juicy tissue inside the leaves can be applied to scrapes, scratches, rashes and minor cuts, with very worthwhile consequences. The wounds will heal quite nicely if fresh leaf tissue is applied twice a day, and the wound area is bandaged so that the Aloe remains in contact with the affected area. The sap will stain clothing, so be careful when handling the cut leaves. This is one plant wherein the myriad myths about a plant's medicinal powers have some truth about them. I have doctored many of my garden wounds with cut Aloe leaves and a pressure bandage, with zero scar tissue to show after a few weeks.

Aloe barbadensis
one of the commercial "vera" types
with spotted juvenile and green adult leaves

Aloe 'Cynthia Giddy'

 The species of this genus range in size from petite plants a few inches across to trees 25 feet tall. For our needs and conditions in South Florida, the spotted-leaf varieties such A. vera and A. barbadensis grow quite well as landscape plants, and even some of the larger species such as A. 'Cynthia Giddy' and A. marlothii will grow in very well-drained soils. Some of the really impressive species from South Africa really need a Mediterranean or coastal South California climate to grow best; our wet Florida summers and high humidity will set the plants back quickly. There are a number of easy-growing Aloe species for this area, and worth growing in a low-irrigation garden. Given the impending water restrictions, Aloes are once again looking like an attractive group to plant !

Craig Morell
Pinecrest Gardens

Aloe thraskii

Aloe ferox

July 5, 2011

  The Rise and Fall of Coconut Palms in South Florida

Dawn at Key Biscayne, Florida

Many years ago South Florida was a palm paradise, with a tall, dense canopy of palms swaying in the prevailing southeasterly winds. The legendary tales of the thousands upon thousands of tall coconut palms in the lower coastal areas gave rise to visions of paradises lost from the Pacific. Innumerable business and real estate and restaurant and hotel names sprang from the palm's namesake. The brilliant yellow coconuts, set against a rich canopy of 20 foot emerald fronds, set atop trunks as tall as 70 feet, made Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale, Miami and nearby cities a grand attraction.

Then, in the late 1960s, something awful happened. A disease called Lethal Yellowing started in the Florida Keys, which spread and raged through the lower part of the state like a slow forest fire, killing thousands upon thousands of coconuts and other palms. The disease is still here, but there are rather few coconuts for it to infect compared to the 1960s or earlier. There is now a certain nervousness about planting coconuts, even the "disease resistant" ones.  This is a textbook case of a pest destroying a monoculture, wherein far too many of a single type of plants was grown in a defined area. This was the case with Dutch Elm Disease destroying its primary host, likewise with whiteflies destroying Poinsettias, and so on. The moral of this story is that planting large numbers of the same thing is asking for trouble, and usually trouble arrives sooner than you expect.

Death from Lethal Yellowing

How can we alleviate or prevent the problem ? The answers seem simple, but have deeper difficulties embedded in them. Let's look at some of the "clear" answers, and see why they have not been employed as best they could be.

The obvious answer is to plant trees which are resistant to diseases and pests. This is easier said than done, since many commercial nurseries have large inventories of "old classic" mature palms they need to sell before they can re-stock with resistant species. Another reason that disease-resistant plants are not grown as commonly as they could alludes to the lower supply of disease-resistant coconuts. These resistant species often have higher price tags and growers are already looking at increased costs for almost everything as it is, much less having to pay for improved plant stock that may not sell.

Many growers state that native plant species are automatically disease-resistant, to which I say that the plants from your local area, soil type, and weather are usually durable. On the other hand, though, the wrong plant in the wrong exposure can be fairly weak and disease prone. There is little exact science that would allow growers to state that a chosen variety of palm is , for instance, 90% resistant to Lethal Yellowing. It becomes a game of statistics, that fewer coconuts will die if you plant lots of Malayan Golden Dwarf  coconuts than if you plant Atlantic Tall coconuts. A good case could be made for planting alternative species that are disease-resistant, but many landscape architects will specify coconuts in a design and many homeowners or businesses will ask for coconuts. There are numerous palms that bear a resemblance to coconuts that have a higher resistance to Lethal Yellowing, but the supply is shorter, and the prices are usually higher. For large commercial installations, coconuts can be acquired in large numbers, exactly according to specifications, whereas an allied species like Archontophoenix or Beccariophoenix may not be so easy to find.

The highly disease-resistant
'Fiji Dwarf' coconut, in limited release 

With growers looking at tough economic times, many of them wish to sell what they have, and may not be interested to re-stock the "improved" varieties. Landscape architects may not be as current as they could be in knowing about new varieties, or even aware that coconuts are still risky for some installations such as pool islands in a courtyard. The supply of newer, more disease-resistant varieties like Red Spicata , Red Malayan and Fiji Dwarf is remarkably small, and the prices are higher than the old fashioned, fast-growing Panama Tall or Maypan. The look of the newer varieties is different, too, than the grand and majestic Panama Tall or Jamaica Tall, with their giant coconuts and 30 foot diameter crowns. The Malayan varieties also need more water and fertilizer in our coral soils than do the older tall varieties.  There are choices to be made:
  • whether we need to re-assess our devotion to coconuts by replanting with other palms,
  • whether we should choose disease resistant varieties that need more care and cost more than older varieties,
  • or skip the use of palms altogether.                        

'Red Spicata' Coconut,
moderately disease resistant
 As with all facets of horticulture and its integration into modern life, there are lots of choices, and lots of information about those choices. I preach the gospel of "being informed in being enlightened". There is a lot of accurate information about this disease and the effective management of coconuts in the landscape. Do some research !

Craig Morell
Pinecrest Gardens