February 20, 2020

Spectacular Bark, Medicinal Tree

Image by Mauro Guanandi

Calycophyllum spruceanum, a species with a number of common names, is a large tree found in the Amazon basin region of Brasil, Peru, Colombia, Ecuador, and Bolivia.
Calycophyllum growing between a Strangler Fig in flooded forest
Image by Gunther Eichhorn
It grows in primary lowland rainforest as well as areas of secondary forest that are subject to seasonal flooding when rivers overflow in the rainy season. Calycophyllum is a member of the Coffee Family, Rubiaceae. In habitat it is logged for its moderately strong wood.
Image by GreenMorpho.Org
Its colorful pealing bark, used in traditional medicine, contains compounds associated with antiseptic and anti-aging properties. The tree has a striking and graceful appearance, and is occasionally planted as a landscape ornamental in its native countries.
Popular names for the species, such as Capirona Negra and Mulateiro reflect its distinctive, dark red, orange, golden, or chocolate-brown bark color.
Image by Myriam
It’s thought that the bark undergoes color changes and sloughs off to rid the tree of potential pests and epiphytes. Perhaps the high concentrations of antiseptic compounds also inhibit disease organisms.
Image by Project Noah

February 13, 2020

Palms that Branch

Doum Palm, Hyphaene thebaica, Samburu National Park, Kenya
Image by Harvey Bernstein
Palms are not usually considered branching plants, although individuals occasionally develop crowns due to injury or disease. Most species that branch do so at the base of the original stem. A few species exhibit aerial branching, growing multiple crowns from a single trunk. Genera may include species that branch basally, aerially, or both. The genera Hyphaene, Nannorrhops, and Nypa include palms that display this atypical growth form.
Hyphaene is a genus of approximately ten species widely distributed across Africa, coastal Arabia, and the west coast of India. Some species of Hyphaene develop multiple trunks that are considered basal branches; others branch more conventionally. 
Painting by Marianne North, 1880
Hyphaene thebaica, Doum Palm, is the branching palm depicted in classic views of Egyptian life along the Nile. Hyphaene dichotoma is an Indian species that is threatened with habitat loss. Where they naturally occur, Hyphaene are used for thatch, timber, fuel, and to make palm wine.
Nannorrhops ritchiana, Mazari Palm, belongs to a monotypic (single species) genus found in Arabia, Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan in semi-desert areas. Typical mature individuals branch both basally and aerially. Nannorrhops exhibits a dichotomous, monocarpic branching pattern. Twin branches fork at the top of an erect trunk. One branch develops a single terminal inflorescence and then dies back. The second eventually develops in own inflorescence. Nannorrhops is used for thatch, fiber, and fuel in its native range.
Mazari Palm, Nannorrhops ritcheana, in Pakistan
Image by Naeem Javid Muhammad Hassani
The peculiar monotypic genus Nypa, the Mangrove Palm, displays non-basal trunk branching, but the very short trunks are recumbent and hidden beneath the mud. Nypa occurs along rivers and in estuaries of tropical Asia and Northern Australia.
Mangrove palm, Nypa fruticans
Image by Cun Cun


February 10, 2020

Two Beautiful Trees

Golden Penda, Xanthostemon chrycanthus
Image by Tatters
Two flowering trees that are relatively unknown to American gardeners are the Golden Penda, Xanthostemon chrycanthus, and the Golden Bouquet Tree, Deplanchea tetraphylla. These Australian natives come from tropical Queensland and can be grown in South Florida and Hawaii. In South Florida, at least, many other Australian plants that are popular in Hawaii and California are impossible to grow due to soil type or heavy summer rainfall coupled with heat and high humidity.
Golden Penda grows in primary and secondary rainforest. Sometimes a fairly large tree in habitat, it seldom grows larger than 40 feet in cultivation. It’s thought that sudden drops in temperature, however slight, can initiate flowering. Well grown garden and street plantings tend to frequently bloom, making the species quite desirable for display. Many creatures are attracted to the flowers, including insects, nectar-feeding birds and marsupials.
Rainbow Lorikeet on Golden Penda
Image by Annettenoosa
Lorikeet on Golden Bouquet, Deplanchea tetraphylla
Image by Russell Cumming
Golden Bouquet grows in coastal forests and at the edge of rainforests in Queensland, New Guinea, and the Aru Islands of eastern Indonesia. It’s a medium-sized, somewhat gaunt-looking tree with large leaves and coarse bark. 
Golden Bouquet
Image by melbournian
The yellow blossoms, produced in spectacular terminal corymbs, are structurally designed to accommodate bird pollinators.  They drip large quantities of nectar that attracts lorikeets and other birds. Wallabies like to consume the fallen flowers. 
Image by Russell Cumming
Image by Guy Verkroost

February 3, 2020

Ball Moss, Bunch Moss, No Moss

Image  by Azuolve
 Tillandsia recurvata, Ball Moss or Bunch Moss, is widely distributed and common in the Southeastern U.S. It’s not a moss, but a small bromeliad species that grows epiphytically as an “air plant” on trees, shrubs, and other suitable surfaces in clusters.
Image by Davis Filipec
It sometimes forms large colonies and can give trees a furry appearance.
Image by Texas Native Plant Society
A frequent misperception is that the plants parasitize their hosts. What Ball Moss gets from the relationship is a suitable attachment surface in a good growing environment of light, moisture, and rain-borne nutrients from the support trees. Like many other Tillandsias, Ball Moss leaves are covered with silvery-grey hairs known as trichomes that absorb water and nutrients; their roots are only used as holdfasts.

Ball Moss is an adaptable species that has a broad distribution throughout the Americas, from South Carolina to New Mexico south to Northern Argentina and Chile. Of course it has particular requirements for sunlight and rain, especially when germinating and as seedlings, but the plants are remarkable for the variety of surfaces that support colonies, from cacti to utility wires.  

Image by Cody H

Image by D.L. Nickrent


January 21, 2020

Of Porcupine Palms and Bears

Image by Bigfish

Needle Palm, Rhapidophyllum hystrix, is an interesting species patchily distributed in the Southeastern U.S. The sole member of the genus, it’s generally found in river floodplains and moist bottomlands. It’s scarce or endangered throughout most of its range. In Florida, where numerous populations occur, it can often be found on moist riverbanks, growing above water-loving Dwarf Palmetto, Sabal minor, and below Saw Palmetto, Serenoa repens, which thrive on higher, drier sites. Of course, “higher” when referring to topography in the Sunshine State, is a subtle descriptor.
Image by Bigfish
Needle Palm develops stubby, clustering trunks; highly dissected palmate leaves arise from stems that are armed with long black spines. 
Unripe fruit
Image by Alan Cressler
Its flowers and musty or foul-smelling fruit are a formidable deterrent to larger creatures that might consume them. It seems that the species isn’t very good at reproducing. 
Male inflorescence
Seedlings tend to germinate too close to the mother plants, thus most don’t thrive. Needle Palm is considered a relictual species, one whose ancestors were more widespread. It’s possible that extinct plant-feeders, such as giant ground sloths, were its primary seed-dispersers. Black Bears currently fill that ecological function.
 Characteristic of Needle Palms in habitat is the quantity of leaf litter that is in the dense spines. Perhaps this trait has evolved primarily to funnel nutrients to the plants’ roots as the debris decomposes.
Seedlings and debris trapped in spines
Image by Bigfish
Maybe physical protection is a secondary effect. The spines don’t stop bears from consuming the ripe fruit; probably Giant Ground Sloths weren’t discouraged, either.  
Giant Ground Sloths were peaceful foragers except when surprised

January 8, 2020

The Queen of the Andes

The biggest species, the tallest inflorescence, the longest-lived, perhaps the most dangerous? Puya raimondii is the leviathan of bromeliads, plants in the family Bromeliaceae. As an imposing organism growing in dramatic habitat, it’s an attention-getting member of a relatively unloved genus.

The species is native to the high Andes of Peru and Bolivia, found on rocky slopes between 9,800-15,700 feet. Exposed to harsh sun and extreme levels of ultraviolet light, freezing cold, and desiccating wind, the plants grow to 15 feet tall. When in flower, their spike-shaped inflorescences reach up to 50 feet.  

Huascaran National Park, Peru
Image by Urrola

Puya raimondii is well-adapted to its challenging environment. The slow-growing plants retain their dead fibrous leaves as an insulating skirt for their woody stems.Leaf edges are fiercely armed with sharp, hooked teeth that catch and resist releasing any vulnerable creature that attempts to investigate the plants.

Perhaps due to the hazard they might pose to livestock, or maybe just for amusement, the plants are often burned by locals. Increasingly intensive anthropogenic land use and long term climatological warming and drying is resulting in an overall decline of the species’ fragile populations. Most surviving populations are small and isolated, although a community of several hundred thousand plants is protected in Peru’s Hauascaran National Park.

Puya raimondii can take 80-100 years to bloom. After the hummingbird-pollinated flowers produce many thousands of seeds, the plants die.

Conditions in habitat are only occasionally favorable for germination and seedling survival. Although successful in a specific, challenging environment, its remarkably low level of genetic variation doesn’t bode well for adaptation to a changing world.
image by Wilmer