August 29, 2011

Monster Malaysian Monkey-Eating Vine !

Nepenthes rajah
one of the largest of all pitcher vines
courtesy of the Colorado Carnivorous Plant Society

Well..... not really. I am sure that there were headlines to this effect perhaps a century ago in Victorian England. The truth is, as is so often the case, much more tame. The Asian Pitcher vines of the genus Nepenthes have fired up plant growers' imaginations for 200 years. Most of the species are curious or odd, but some are downright impressive. One of the newest species is named after famed explorer and celebrity Sir David Attenborough, and boasts an amazing pitcher large enough to "eat" a rat or mouse. In several cases, vertebrate bones have been found in the pitchers of Nepenthes vines, but likely the bones belonged to a small rodent, not anything as large as a monkey. One report long ago stated that tarsier bones had been found in a pitcher, which was promptly translated to "primate", and thence onward to "monkey".

The pitchers passively trap insects, frogs, and anything else that drowns in the liquid pooled up in the bottom of the traps. The rim of the pitcher as well as the inside walls of the pitcher are extremely smooth and slippery, allowing any curious creature to easily fall into the Pool of Death.  

N. ventricosa 'Red'
widely available in retail garden centers

Nepenthes attenboroughii
not widely available anywhere

In the last decade. several plant tissue culture companies have released varieties of pitcher vines which growers have produced for the retail gardening market. Although they are robust varieties of pitcher vines,  most of them will fail slowly over a few years' time due to poor water quality and rotted potting mix. The vines are really quite easy to grow once they get good quality water and an open, orchid-style potting mix. The vines need ample water, but great aeration at the roots. Hanging pots or baskets are the usual ways to grow these plants, since the vines can get many meters long. The vines are often trained on a trellis or wound around the plant hanger to allow maximum light exposure to the vine leaves. Usually the domain of public garden conservatories or advanced collectors, the vines can grow well wherever orchids can be grown well.     

N. bicalcarata 'Red'
with soft "fangs"

Nepenthes with giant 
"commodious pitcher" 

If you have a great well-water source of acid, calcium-free water, these plants are easy and fun to grow. Unlike the "real" pitcher plants, the flowers on these vines are inconspicuous. The pitchers on these modified leaves are the real reason for the show. The plants don't need to be fertilized very much, but if you do, go very lightly at 1/10 the normal strength of usual houseplant fertilizing. The plants like direct sunlight in the morning, high humidity and warm temperatures. Dry, cold wind will usually spell doom for the vines, and they won't likely recover as will the terrestrial pitchers. If you want to grow something interesting, and have the conditions for them, Nepenthes are always a good conversation pieces. Just keep pets away from them...........     

Craig Morell
Pinecrest Gardens

August 26, 2011

WAY Off the Beaten Path............

I read so many blogs about Impatiens and Wax Begonias and annual plants, but we live in a great spot in the country where we can grow something really DIFFERENT. I see thousands of unimaginative houses with equally unimaginative landscapes, yet once in a while I see some really cool and unusual tree on someone's property. I want to knock on the owner's door and ask a few questions, including "what inspiration made you plant THAT ? And where did you get it ? Thanks for doing something different. !"

One such tree is Gustavia, rare in most any place, but occasionally available at plant and tree sales. Seed has become available from Asian and  South American sources. Until recently, the rare-plant people said it was hard to grow, and that it needed to be planted in a swamp. I know the tree comes from flooded areas in South America, but the tree can be grown successfully as a "regular" landscape plant. There are sizable trees at Fairchild Tropical Garden growing in the coral rock we are cursed with, and there are several trees here at Pinecrest Gardens growing in varying landscape situations. Our best specimen is only a few years old, but is growing happily in a small sink-hole that is always wet.  

This is, in any analysis, an unusual tree with the unwelcome common name of Stinkwood. I know several plant collectors who have smelled the cut wood of this tree, and they report no good reason for the common name. The genus belongs to the highly ornamental and fascinating Brazil Nut family, the Lecythidaceae. There are numerous interesting plants in this family, including one of my most favored trees, the Cannonball Tree, Couroupita guianensis. There are several Gustavia species, all of which are ornamental to some degree, but G. superba  is the most common. The trees enjoy a lot of sunlight, warm or hot weather, and plenty of water. The only problem I experienced in growing this genus of plants is that they like a lot of iron in their fertilizer. This is an easy problem to fix, using any chelated iron product, applied every 2 or 3 months as a soil drench. 

On occasions, mail order companies sell this plant. It is a true tropical, and needs a greenhouse or conservatory to grow it well outside of South Florida. I have heard that it can be grown as a container plant for several years, but most of the species will get to several meters in height, necessitating in-ground culture. In flower, the tree's 3 inch flowers will always stop visitors, who marvel at the color and complexity of the flowers, sometimes buried under 2 foot long glossy leaves. ! It is a tree of both grace and grandeur, with an enchanting fragrance, and a fascinating heritage. 

Craig Morell
Pinecrest Gardens       

August 23, 2011

From WAY Over There-
Madagascar Trees-
Royal Poinciana


An impressive yellow Royal Poinciana

Yellow D. regia

One of the grandest flowering trees in existence, the Royal Poinciana is a statement in the landscape no matter where it is grown. Now fairly rare in its native country, it is possible that there are more Poincianas in the USA and some subtropical countries than in Madagascar. I saw the first Royal Flamboyant 28 years ago in Fort Myers, Florida as a horticulture student. It was hard to stop staring at its mantle of brilliant flowers. I had no idea then that different varieties existed, much less  varieties of varieties. There are several different color forms of the species regia.  I have seen 8 or 10 distinct color variants in Miami, most notably the 3 different yellow varieties, in addition to the 'Smathers Orange' just across the road from Pinecrest gardens, and a brilliant vermilion variety.

This tree grows naturally to grand dimensions, but can be grown in a fairly compact area if it gets trimmed back every few years. It will easily get to 40 feet across and equally tall if allowed to. I have some majestic specimens close to 90 feet across and 60 feet tall. Like many Legume-family flowering trees, it likes a lot of sunshine and good soil drainage, with virtually no water or fertilizer in the dry months. Some of the best-flowered trees are in communities or parks with no irrigation or fertilizer at all, just our native wet-dry climate. The trees look scruffy and misshapen, but when they flower they are covered with a blanket of gorgeous flowers. These trees need a seasonal dry period to initiate flowering, and our South Florida climate is nearly perfect for their needs.

'Smathers Orange'

bright red Royal Poinciana

There are lots of variations in any plant that propagates by seed, and the Royal Poinciana is no exception. The flower colors can vary with weather to a degree as well. While a red poinciana will not change to a yellow one if the weather is very warm, I have seen particular trees have richer colors after a cool and very dry winter. Within the southeast coast of Florida, I wonder what we could see  from an airplane on a good Poinciana year ? The range of colors would be striking, and a glorious sight in any definition. These are marvelous and valuable trees when planted in the right place, tended for a few years when establishing in a new site, and allowed to grow to full adult size.Use this tree where is can be seen and enjoyed from a distance, and enjoyed by many. 

Craig Morell
Pinecrest Gardens 

August 19, 2011

Better Hedge Choices for
South Florida

Chrysobalanus icaco
Redtip Cocoplum
Florida Native
can be grown in either dry soil or wet soil 

It is a perennial question : "what kind of hedge should I install to block out my neighbors?" There is a surprising number of answers, but the most strenuous one is " NOT FICUS". Planting a Ficus hedge is a grand example of short-term returns and long-term headaches. I marvel at people who believe their landscaper when he says he can install a hedge for $ 5 per linear foot, it will grow to 6 or 8 feet tall quickly, and your screening problems are over. It seems that the homeowners feel the hedge will stop growing at a certain height on command. What the owners don't realize is that a Ficus hedge will cost them a great deal of money to keep it trimmed, the roots will out-compete even turfgrass for fertilizer , and the plants suck up egregious amounts of water. The hedge will be cheap at installation time, but will cost thousands of dollars over the next decade for trimming and disposal.   

Nashia inaguensis
Bahama Berry
Caribbean Native
What if, on the other hand, we had an informed homeowner who looked at the longer time frame and chose a hedge that grows more modestly, requiring far less water and fertilizer than its fast-growing relatives ? There are hedges to meet that need, but they do cost more at installation time, and will take several times longer to grow densely to 6 feet or more. Consider the idea that most hedge plants are actually small trees, grown closely together, and sheared to a hedge shape. Ficus will easily grow to 40 feet tall, and have the root system to do just that, yet we grumble about how fast the hedge grows.

I ask, "Whose fault is that ? The plant's ? Who chose the plant ?" If a landscaper showed a homeowner the costs over the next 5 or 10 years of a slow-grower versus a speed-freak type, the homeowner might make the informed decision. We would collectively save millions of gallons of water, thousands of pounds of fertilizer, and the list of benefits goes on. We should also consider the vast volumes of cut branches thrown away every year from hedge cutters. It will take a groundswell effort to start using lower-resource-demand hedges and trees and flowers to make a difference in resource usage. We are running low on water supplies for the near future, and we need to be more considerate in our landscape's needs for such. One of the biggest complaints from landscapers and homeowners is that native plants are hard to find and expensive. This really is not the case; the nursery availability of such plants is very good, and prices are dropping. 

Mycianthes fragrans
Simspon Stopper
Florida native

Randia aculeata
White Indigoberry
Florida native
( courtesy Plant Creations Nursery, Homestead, FL)

One of the biggest mistakes homeowners make is to look at the short term appearance of their new landscapes and neglect the long term costs of maintenance, even if someone else is doing the work. Coupled with the general lack of plant knowledge of so many discount landscapers, this "waterfall" of  reduced information and penchant for profit-driven overplanting makes for an expensive long term headache.

My advice to remedy these issues is three-fold: 

1. to become knowledgeable of lower-maintenance plant choices available in your area,( no matter where you are),
2. avail yourself of the expertise around you from plant societies and great gardeners, 
3. look at the long term costs of future maintenance as you consider which plants to install now. Using a slower-growing plant that costs more at installation may save you thousand so of maintenance dollars in the next decade than saving a few hundred dollars now. 
As always, I advise that there are numerous plant choices to fill every landscape need. There is abundant good advice from University Extension Service personnel, wizened gardeners, and numerous plant societies. As my father used to say when I puzzled over a problem "use your options !"

Craig Morell
Pinecrest Gardens       

August 16, 2011

From WAY Over There-
Madagascar Trees -

Colvillea racemosa

This is the first installment of a short series on trees from one of the most interesting countries in the world- Madagascar. There are hundreds, if not thousands of interesting plants in this country-continent. A hefty series of textbooks could be written on just the tree and palm flora of the country, much less the extraordinary fauna, insects and smaller plants. This would be one of the areas so often called The Land That Time Forgot. This blog, unlike most of my blogs, is dedicated to just one extraordinary species, the Colville's Glory Tree. It has a lot to say in its favor, and a few things to watch out for, too. 

There is only species in the genus, C. racemosa, which in taxonomy circles is called a monotypic genus. The tree can be grown any place where a Royal Poinciana could be grown, and they bear a resemblance to each other (both are from Madagascar). Whereas Poinciana tree have a much more lateral aspect to their habit, Colville's Glory tends to grow much more vertical, up to 50 feet tall and 20-25 feet across . The trees have similar foliage and similar growing conditions, preferring well-drained soil and all-day sunshine to grow best. Poinciana trees and their close relatives usually bloom in Spring or Summer, Colvillea trees bloom around Halloween, fitting for its glowing orange-red inflorescences. 

Unquestionably, this tree is flashy and well worth the effort to grow it. It is undemanding in its needs, but is has some interesting quirks about it. One of the quirks is that the tree may be leafless much of the Summer, then leaf out in August, bloom in October, and stay in foliage until January. The same tree may lose its leaves in winter in a different year, then get a new set of leaves in March, and carry on as a normal tree. A second quirk is that the trees root very slowly into their new environment, taking as much as 3  years to get well established. A third quirk is that the trees are rather hard to find in nurseries. Small trees pop up at flowering tree sales occasionally, but without regularity. We have a number of these at Pinecrest Gardens, buying them as soon as they came available at Richard Lyons' Nursery, a local Miami nursery specializing in flowering trees.   

flower heads on Colville's Glory
courtesy of Dave's Garden

This is one of Madagascar's great treasures, amongst a trove of others. In the next blog installments, I'll select a few trees worth mentioning, and hope that I can inspire others to broaden their scope of interests.    

Craig Morell
Pinecrest Gardens      

August 12, 2011

Resplendent Plumerias

'Jeanne Moragne'
a substantial flower over 4" across in Miami conditions

If you have never grown and flowered a Plumeria, you are missing some of the greatest fragrances and colors in the flowering tree world. If you are a Northerner in addition to being new to this genus, you're in for a double treat, since no northern tree does anything like a Plumeria. Most of the species in this genus have brilliant flowers on hefty, statuesque trees. The major complaint people have is that the trees go leafless at some part of the short days of the year. Some Floridians call this period "winter". I call it the best time of year for people to tend their gardens. In any language, this is a great group of plants, with a lot of advantages and a few quirks, as with so many plants. Plus, there are numerous websites and societies to help with your new plants.

Plumeria species are succulents, mostly from very dry climates in Central America. While they grow quite well as "regular" landscape plants in South Florida and southern California and south Texas, a hard frost will cause major damage. They need well-drained soil, and as much sunshine as they can get. Their ideal growing conditions is an all-day sun position, in a raised bed with excellent drainage, and occasional irrigation in the driest parts of the summer. A dose of slow-release fertilizer such as Dynamite 13-13-13 or Sierrablen or Osmocote placed in the rootzone will keep them growing all through the warm months. The plants are undemanding of special fertilizer care.
One of the greatest attributes of this genus is its ability to root from cuttings, although they can also be grafted. It used to be commonplace to buy a leafless "stick" with a paraffin wax coating on one end from a mail order firm. You could remove the wax, plant it in a sunny area in a pot, and the stick would sprout leaves, then a bouquet of flowers of rich color and the trademark fragrance. As landscape plants, prune them back to 12 inch branch lengths to induce a compact and well-branched canopy. At each pruned cut, the stems will branch into either 3 or 5 new shoots, each of which will produce a flower head.

Plumeria cutting, dipped in rooting powder
courtesy of Just West Nursery

Most hybrids of the genus have wonderful fragrances, reminiscent of coconut, mango, and occasionally citrus. The most frequent comment is that Plumeria flowers smell like coconut suntan oil. ( perhaps the memory related to a trip to Hawaii long ago...). 

A number of sources sell Plumerias, mostly from cuttings. Florida Colors Nursery in Homestead, FL sells grafted plants as well as cuttings. They also have a substantial web site with a blizzard of varieties featured at The primary reason for grafting these plants is that some of the varieties grow slowly or are weak growers. Grafting them onto strong rootstocks boosts the plant's vigor, and the grafted plants grow better than the scion would by itself. There are so many varieties and fragrances that the biggest problem I face is the lack of space in which to grow them ! 


'Lemon Drop'
In recent years I have grown fond of growing the dwarf varieties in pots at my apartment. There are a number of dwarf cultivars, and even the larger standard types can be pruned using some bonsai techniques to keep them in the size range I want. With so many colors to choose from, I have a series of tiered benches outside my front door on which I grow just Plumerias, enjoying the fragrances every day when I leave for work.    

'Scott Pratt'
 One cautionary note, though. The flower sizes quoted by many Hawaiian and Asian sources can be a bit misleading. A plant growing in the perfect climate of Hawaii on the Big Island or in southern India may indeed produce 6 inch flowers, but would produce a 3 inch flower in the drier, somewhat cooler annual climate of central Florida or coastal California.

an evergreen standard tree to 30 feet tall,
flowering most of the year
Even in conservatories and sunny windows of northern states, Plumerias can be grown successfully. The colors are dazzling, well worth the effort. If cactus and succulents can be grown well in your growing climate, so can these beauties of the tropics.

Craig Morell
Pinecrest Gardens

'Gold Cup'
courtesy of Florida Colors Nursery
Homestead, FL

August 9, 2011

Butterfly Gardens for Beginners:
Some Thoughts from a Beginner

Green Malachite
Butterfly Gardening is one of the most popular garden topics right now. As a horticulturist at a public garden, it is almost expected that we would put in a butterfly section, and many homeowners have done so as well. As a beginner at building such gardens, but as a lifelong gardener, I was curious about the techniques and travails of building a garden to attract a specific sector of wildlife. Herewith are some observations about making a butterfly garden in the subtropics.

The first observation I made is that many butterflies like to feed on weeds, such as Spanish Needles ( Bidens). The second observation is that butterflies have not read any books about what they are supposed  to feed on, and will feed on anything they happen to like. In other words, buying a book on attracting butterflies will not guarantee success, but it helps to do so. Be observant and see what butterflies feed on in your garden. The third observation is that it is better to build a butterfly habitat than a butterfly garden. To be really successful with attracting these living, flying works of art,  remember they like sunlight, water, diverse food supplies, and nearby shelter.

They like a wide variety of plants on which to feed, and plenty of  protection from predators. Planting 6 attractive plants does not constitute a butterfly garden. I see people who plant one native plant or one Pentas, then sit and wait for butterflies to arrive. ( There can be a very long wait). The better idea is to plant groups of plants in long, curving rows, intermixed with varying heights of shade trees ( which might also double-duty as larval plants). Make sure there is fresh water available, if only in a shallow bowl that might get some spray from a sprinkler.

Rotten fruit make excellent food sources for many insects as well as attracting a range of butterflies. Citrus, banana, and other juicy fruits are full of sugars which appeal to butterflies. I often get the question about how to attract the rare Green Malachite Butterfly in Miami. My response is to plant a large grove of mixed fruit trees such as mango, avocado, lychee and citrus, let the weeds grow several feet tall, and leave all the rotten fruit on the ground. These same people read a book saying that the Green Malachite feeds on white shrimp plant, then avidly try to find one, thinking that the butterflies feed on just one plant. Few nurseries stock this species since it is such a weed.             

Giant Swallowtail
 Butterflies also like a lot of sunlight, and are essentially solar-powered insects. Bright, open areas mixed with shade plants works well. Plant species with lots of brightly colored small flowers such as Pentas, Lantana, Salvia, Milkweed, Cone Flower and a long list of others. Provide an entire habitat, perhaps connected to a small tree area or grove and the butterflies will come. Reading extensively on the species in your area will help, but there are local experts in any area who will readily help with such projects. The big decision to make is how much effort and commitment you are willing to make in keeping such a garden alive and healthy. 

Craig Morell
Orange Julia
 Pinecrest Gardens


Pentas 'Ruby Red'

August 5, 2011

New World Ladyslippers-the Phragmipediums:
--Rubies, Whiskers and Moss--

P. besseae
an exceptional clone

This is the last installment of the tropical Ladyslipper orchid series, outlining Phragmipediums,  the New World version of the genus Paphiopedilum. These plants have many similar characters to their Old World brethren, but with some unique differences. Many of the species in this genus come from a fairly small area of South America, mostly in wet areas of Peru, Ecuador, and Colombia. Some species come from moss-covered rocks near waterfalls, where they are bathed in rainwater mist, while enjoying a brisk breeze at a temperature that is mostly constant around the year, roughly 80 F or a bit less. ( How difficult could it be to grow those species ? ) Curiously, "phrags" are considered moderately easy to grow, once the conditions are met. The conditions in which these species grow best are well-aerated mixes containing an inert spongy rock such as diatomaceous earth or pumice, plus sphagnum moss, plus fir bark, all of which are kept rather wet, but in extremely well-ventilated pots. One neat trick is to use a clay pot, with long slits in the sides, placed in a dish of water. This is one group that would definitely appreciate distilled or rainwater as their water source.

P. Beaumont
The plants enjoy bright light without direct sun, and have proven fairly unhappy as outdoor plants. So much of this genus comes from slight to moderate altitudes, so cooler air is appreciated rather than warmer. Some growers I've met grow these in climate-moderated greenhouses or indoors in fluorescent light gardens.  The results of good growing are shown in sequentially-flowering bloom stems, and fairly vigorous growth.

eye-popping flowers of
P. kovachii, a plant with a fascinating
tale of international intrigue and legal wrangling

These plants are still a bit expensive, although prices are dropping. I remember when P. besseae was first discovered 30 years ago, and the scramble was on to get the plants at any price. Small plants fetched a whopping $ 500 each. You can now buy respectably large plants of this species under $ 100, and hybrids which look like the besseae parent for half that amount. The raspberry-pink kovachii is getting more reasonably priced, too, with prices around $ 200-$300 for near flowering sized plants. It is, however, not easy to grow well unless you have experience in growing this group. 

P. caudatum
with petals over 24 inches long

Many of the members of the genus have moss-green flowers, and these seem to be the "easy" ones, from lower altitudes. The really flashy pink or red or raspberry species are higher altitude plants, and are consequently more demanding in their culture for most people. Overall it seems that consistent culture is the key to success, and water quality is also a big part of growing these species well. To that end, rainwater or distilled or reverse-osmosis water is key to successful Phrag culture. With few exceptions, these are tropical rainforest or cloud forest plants, often growing on moss-covered rocks. An open / porous medium kept rather wet and with a consistent supply of highly purified water are needed to grow this group of plants.

As with so many orchids, the primary hybrids show more vigor and ease of growth than the species do. The hybrids grow faster, and are often cheaper than the species. Further, the species are increasingly hard to find from vendors. With a robust red-orange hybrid like P. Beaumont,   some might ask why we should try to grow  the fairly fussy besseae species.   


P. schlimii

There are so many species and hybrids in the Orchid family that a grower could spend a lifetime experimenting and growing and learning about them. With well over 100,000 hybrids, the orchid family is the largest plant family by a large margin. There are plants for every budget, skill level, and climate.  Experiment with a few plants outside of your usual growing conditions, and you'll be rewarded with some of the most interesting flowers in the plant world. 

Craig Morell
Pinecrest Gardens

P. caricinum

August 2, 2011

It Had to Start Somewhere- Paphiopedilum Species:
The Checkerboard Group

This is the last of the three major groups in this genus to write about, and for lack of a better term, we'll call it the checkerboard group. This is a rare instance in which some of these species are gorgeous foliage plants, and the flowers are an added bonus. It is this group of species which produced the famous "Maudiae" line of breeding which so many people have grown over the last century or so.

P. Maudiae
( callosum x lawrenceanum)
using the alba forms of both species
A great many of the species in this group are shade-and heat-loving plants, and tend to be less well suited for outdoor culture. The plants are fairly petite, rarely growing over eight inches tall, with flower stems  12-18 inches tall. There are, as with much of this genus, inter-section hybrids which have excellent qualities of long lasting flowers, repeat flowering on one stem, and dazzling colors. They can be grown very successfully under lights or in windowsills even in cold climates.

P. callosum

P. sukhakulii 

P. lawrenceanum


foliage of P. lawrenceanum

I recall growing these plants on a windowsill in Milwaukee with a fluorescent light over the plants, and they grew beautifully. I know there are indoor-gardening clubs and websites, refining the finer aspects of limited space gardening. This group tends to grow faster than the big 'Roth" group. They can be seen at local garden centers and orchid sales for $20-$30 each. These species like the same growing conditions as ferns or African Violets do, and in some cases, the same soil-less potting media can be used, often mixed with orchid fir bark and coarse perlite to aid drainage.
The plants forgive some neglect too. 

a vinicolor hybrid

P. 'Alma Gavaert'
one of the best 'Maudiae' hybrids
This group of species and hybrids makes a good choice for beginners to work with, and there is plenty of good advice to get about how to succeed with them. Most local orchid societies anywhere in the country have some growers who grow this group of plants, and the members are readily willing to offer counsel to novice and experienced growers alike.

Craig Morell
Pinecrest Gardens