Monday, October 19, 2015

Still here...

It has been a while since my last update. I'm still alive, as are most of the plants. A move of house - which we now own rather than rent - moving the green house and a change of jobs has rather cut into my "free time"; my orchid exploits - and this blog in particular - have suffered as a result.

Speaking of moving, Senior Management and two of our friends nearly died moving the greenhouse in about 7 pieces back in February - the roof in one giant section was a particular challenge, as it had to be taken around the house on its side, making it rather unwieldy (no photographic evidence, as all hands were needed elsewhere!). Fortunately, we only had to walk it a grand total of a single property line over. A massive ivy "fence" was demolished between the properties, and a precast wall put in its place; we took advantage of that activity to move the greenhouse and plants without going "the long way around". I bought a modular greenhouse in part because of being a renter - I hadn't expected to move less than a year after putting up a greenhouse, but the rent became unreasonable and a good offer to buy came up... Still, moving a greenhouse is quite an operation!

The orchids spent several months under deep shade, being very infrequently watered whilst the greenhouse was moved, and the basic connections were hooked up (power, water), and the backlog of "most urgent" DIY for human habitation was completed. Once the greenhouse was more or less up, I neglected to erect adequate shading, and some of the plants have really taken some strain lately (particularly things like Phalaenopsis that do not enjoy full sun as we move towards spring/summer down here). I predict some casualties. Another more minor "catastrophe" was hooking up misting without fans in place; some plants rotted away seemingly overnight. It's surprising what just a few days of changed weather, neglect or poor cultural conditions can do to a plant. (On the other hand, it's impressive how tough some other plants are!). Usually, it's too much of something that seems to kill orchids; they're seemingly often naturally quite resilient to shortages.

I've also been encountering more pests. Things are wholesale eating my plants, or chunks of them; for example, my Onc. Sharry Baby has had its latest pseudobulb firmly chomped, but it's still soldiering on (it's just started to spike); the Laelia sincorana f. coerulea which I have waited for YEARS (since March 2011) to flower threw out a spike this month (clearly it enjoyed the massive increase in light and neglect). Something ATE IT. I strongly suspect molluscan activities (slugs and snails) and must deploy counter-measures!
Onc.Sharry Baby 'Sweet Fragrance' with slug/snail damage.
Laelia sincorana f. coerulea - first bloom - EATEN!
It's not all bad news of course; some things have quite enjoyed life; our Vanda flowered for only the second time, and some other light-loving plants have also put on quite a show.
Vanda Manuvadee "Blue" - second flowering; October 2015.
This won the first prize in the "Other" orchid category at the recent
Grahamstown Flower Festival Facebook (but not best orchid on show).
Having slowly learnt a little of what orchid judges look for,
I can see the "faults" (compare it to a really flat, round Vanda like one of the
"Roberts Delight" range). It's an old hybrid, so a lot has happened since. 
It's grown quite a lot since I first got it.
Compare the size when it was bought and when it last flowered
Going through my cellphone camera gallery, there are quite a lot of stories to come! Watch this space...

Monday, February 10, 2014

Stanhopea whittenii - first blooms

Back in October 2011, I received three small Stanhopea plants as part of an order from Plantae. They've been quietly growing away for the past couple of years. One of them has finally decided to do something "useful" and put out some flowers!

The particular species that has assented to put on a show is Stanhopea whittenii, which is apparently fairly closely related to Stanhopea oculata. Primary differences are in the number of flowers (2-3 as opposed to many more), the shape of the flower and the scent. It was only described just over a decade ago, in 2002.

Speaking of scent, ours (to my nose) smells like menthol-vanilla, particularly heavy on the vanilla, perhaps with a touch of cinnamon. It's mounted quite far above head height, so I've only caught whiffs of it here and there, rather than my usual method which involves a deep inhale right into the flower!

Stanhopea are all very fragrant orchids. Their scent is a cunning ploy to attract their pollinators, a group of tropical bees called Euglossine bees, sometimes commonly known as "orchid bees" for this behaviour. The males of these bees seek out various strongly scented substances to impress their females - I guess it's the bee equivalent of a nice Eau de Cologne, except instead of buying a bottle, you have to zoom around the forest gathering your own essential oils first! These mostly solitary bees are generally spectacular metallic colours, in green, blue and gold livery; they also commonly visit Catasetum, which I covered briefly in my previous post. These chemicals are, for the most part (but not always), quite pleasant to humans too, and Stanhopea generally produce them in copious, room-filling abundance. Almost all of these orchids flower by sending a spike downwards (through the potting medium); for this reason, they're almost always grown in baskets of various sorts, or mounted, so this flowering habit can be accommodated. If you have the room, and suitable cultural conditions, they're well worth the effort.

In terms of cultural conditions, apparently they like "breezy" conditions, and [very (>3000 foot candles, no direct sun)] bright light - perhaps the move outdoors into severe winds covered the "breezy" part of their cultural preferences, and the light certainly increased; being outdoors, I tend to water more - and moisture is a key part of their cultural needs... Sadly, the flowers are typically short lived (typically in the region of only three all too short days) but in that time they certainly pump out some fragrance!

The best article I found on this species is here, and covers its discovery and naming and has various additional pictures and information on distribution; IOSPE has a page too as does Wikipedia. The genus Stanhopea and the derivation of its name is extensively covered here. Cultural information is covered here and here. Essence of Stanhopea is an orchid blog from Australia that covers this genus extensively.

Pictures, I hear you cry? Certainly!

Stanhopea whittenii plant and buds
Stanhopea whittenii buds, 5/2/2014
You can see it gets some morning sun, but is protected for the rest of the day by the roof and garage.
Stanhopea whittenii buds
Stanhopea whittenii buds - two days later (7/2/2014)
Stanhopea whittenii flowers
Stanhopea whittenii
Two days later they opened
(this is from today [10/2/2014], the day after they first opened) 
Stanhopea whittenii flowers
Stanhopea whittenii
You can clearly see the big black blotches that might have confused people into classifying these as Stanhopea oculata.
Stanhopea whittenii flowers
Stanhopea whittenii
View from underneath
Stanhopea are sometimes known as "upside down" orchids as their flowers usually face downwards
Stanhopea whittenii flowers
Stanhopea whittenii
lateral view
Pictures from cellphone camera.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Darwin and the Lost Art of the Naturalist - and Orchids

Earlier this week, I had a "guest post" published on the travel/ocean science blog Moving Sushi, entitled "Darwin and the Lost Art of the Naturalist", in which I briefly sketch out some of the problems with modern science and how we need to cultivate not only excellent science communicators, but a new skill-set that allows us to draw together and interpret all the many scientific discoveries and ongoing monitoring to deliver meaningful knowledge to society at large. Or is it really the return of an old skill-set - the naturalist? You can read it over at Moving Sushi; it's a little shorter than I might have liked (they gave me a word limit to stick to!).

In it, I rather briefly mention Darwin's interest in orchids. Seeing as I have a blog on that subject, I thought it might make an interesting post...

Darwin devoted significant research to this group of plants, as you can see over at Darwin Online, which freely publishes much of Darwin's work online in electronic format. In particular, his interest was in how orchids are fertilised (in the wild), which is indeed a fascinating topic. He spent around 10 months of his time absorbed solely by that subject, which ultimately culminated in a book, On the various contrivances by which British and foreign orchids are fertilised by insects, and on the good effects of intercrossing, which was published after his most famous work. In it, he adds further weight to his concepts around the necessity for sexual reproduction to maintain "fitness" -  remember, he made these intellectual connections without any knowledge of genes or DNA:
"THE object of the following work is to show that the contrivances by which Orchids are fertilised, are as varied and almost as perfect as any of the most beautiful adaptations in the animal kingdom; and, secondly, to show that these contrivances have for their main object the fertilisation of each flower. In my volume 'On the Origin of Species' I have given only general reasons for my belief that it is apparently a universal law of nature that organic beings require an occasional cross with another individual; or, which is almost the same thing, that no hermaphrodite fertilises itself for a perpetuity of generations. Having been blamed for propounding this doctrine without giving ample facts, for which I had not, in that work, sufficient space, I wish to show that I have not spoken without having gone into details.

I have been led to publish this little treatise separately, as it has become inconveniently large to be incorporated with the rest of the discussion on the same subject. And I have thought, that, as Orchids are universally acknowledged to rank amongst the most singular and most modified forms in the vegetable kingdom, the facts to be presently given might lead some observers to look more curiously into the habits of our several native species. An examination of their many beautiful contrivances will exalt the whole vegetable kingdom in most persons' estimation. I fear, however, that the necessary details will be too minute and complex for any one who has not a strong taste for Natural History. This treatise affords me also an opportunity of attempting to show that the study of organic beings may be as interesting to an observer who is fully convinced that the structure of each is due to secondary laws, as to one who views every trifling detail of structure as the result of the direct interposition of the Creator."
Charles Darwin (1862)  On the various contrivances by which British and foreign orchids are fertilised by insects, and on the good effects of intercrossing. London: John Murray pp1-2.

In particular, he was taken in by the extraordinary flowers of the Catasetinae, which to those who are not "orchid geeks" might be unfamiliar - they possess remarkable "hair trigger" mechanisms which effectively "shoot" the pollinator with their polinnia after they touch the mechanism. It's really quite amazing:

Another of the key findings in the book was a prediction - a hallmark of good science:
"I fear that the reader will be wearied, but I must say a few words on the Angræcum sesquipedale, of which the large six-rayed flowers, like stars formed of snow-white wax, have excited the admiration of travellers in Madagascar. A whip-like green nectary of astonishing length hangs down beneath the labellum. In several flowers sent me by Mr. Bateman I found the nectaries eleven and a half inches long, with only the lower inch and a half filled with very sweet nectar. What can be the use, it may be asked, of a nectary of such disproportional length? We shall, I think, see that the fertilisation of the plant depends on this length and on nectar being contained only within the lower and attenuated extremity. It is, however, surprising that any insect should be able to reach the nectar: our English sphinxes have probosces as long as their bodies: but in Madagascar there must be moths with probosces capable of extension to a length of between ten and eleven inches!"
Emphasis is mine. Indeed, some time later (1903), this very beast was discovered, initially named Xanthopan morgani praedicta Rothschild & Jordan, 1903. Indeed, fellow "co-inventor" (whose letter on the subject spurred Darwin to get around to publishing his most famous work) of the theory of evolution, and entomologist extraordinare, Alfred Russel Wallace, suggested that it would be a hawkmoth, noting the existence of a moth with a proboscis almost long enough in East Africa; this species and the one from Madagascar are currently considered the same species Xanthopan morgani (Walker 1856). Wikipedia has an article on the beast. And there's also this video:
Darwin also made an interesting observation that such tightly co-evolved species ultimately depend on each other:
"If such great moths were to become extinct in Madagascar, assuredly the Angræcum would become extinct. "
And indeed, this is a great threat for many such co-dependent species, and one of the many reasons in situ conservation is (wherever possible) always better than captive breeding of the last few of some endangered rarity. 

We have an Angraecum sesquipedale - it nearly flowered once... Angraecum longicalcar (which we don't yet have) has an even longer spur - up to 40cm. Somewhere out there in Madagascar must be a moth with an even more impressive "business end"! These interesting relationships are further explored in a 1991 paper by Gene Kritsky, published in American Entomologist, available here.

I won't cover the rest of the book - if this has piqued your interest, you can of course read it yourself!

Friday, February 7, 2014

Not so much "balcony" any more... and other tales.

At the end of November last year, Senior Management and I moved home, from flat-with-a-balcony to house-with-a-garden. This now somewhat negates the title of this blog, but I don't see why that can't just be the name of the blog anyway - it's where this madness started - so I'm keeping it! :)

Orchids... in a garden.
So, for the last two months, the orchids have been slumming it in temporary accommodation along the side of the garage. The first few days were certainly a learning experience. Strong winds and neighbourhood cats took their toll on the potted plants, with plenty found on the ground looking very sad. Fortunately, there have been very few casualties from the move so far, and some of the plants seem to have responded quite well to their more "natural" environment, increased air movement and of course, more light.

We addressed the cats and wind with a combination of hastily erected shadecloth windbreaks, tying pots to shelves with gardening "twist ties" or wire and repotting into heavier (clay) pots with rocks at the bottom. So far it seems to be working.
Orchids in a garden (well, along a wall next to a garden, anyway)
The contraption to the left with all the mounts is an old folding clothes horse used for drying clothes, we re-purposed it for orchids by hanging it from a pole above the roofing beams. Cable ties!
Note the piles of potting mix scattered here and there...
The shadecloth windbreak barriers can be seen to the left and right (white "cloth").

One of the nice "pluses" of this particular home is that it has a 1,500l rainwater tank in the back garden, which cuts right back on the number of trips I do every week to buy R/O water for the plants (and fish) to make up for the terrible quality of the local municipal water.

Of course, this little town in Africa gets a bit chilly for most of our plants, so we've been turning our attention to what will happen in a month or two when the weather takes a turn toward the chilly. Senior Management decreed that a greenhouse was the best solution, and I'm not arguing that point!

So, we've bought a greenhouse from Easy Greenhouses, a 8'x12' (about 2.59x3.83 meters) Rion plastic affair; Easy Greenhouses calls the model they sell a "Grand Gardener 46", but it seems to be a sort of hybrid between Rion's "Prestige" and "Grand Gardener" range in terms of features. The extra vents this model offers over some of the less costly models will certainly make a difference under that hot African sun!

Senior Management ponders the future spot for the greenhouse.
The amount of digging involved will be... painful.
Of course, installing this thing will now take quite some preparation to get into the ground and erected, and the appropriate services (particularly power) safely out to the spot where we'll erect it. There's currently a massive pile of boxes in our garage, pending clearing out the "vegetable patch" where it will live, levelling of the ground and installation of the plastic foundation. And of course, the construction of a suitable trench and laying of suitable conduit to carry power and some low voltage electronics (aka ethernet cables and security system cables) down there (in separate conduits for the mains and low voltage stuff, naturally!). Because, really, how can a greenhouse not have 1) power 2) internets 3) the option to not have all your plants going "walkies"?
Well, quite a few boxes...
The serious purpose for the ethernet is monitoring conditions in the greenhouse with the InterSeptor. I haven't decided whether I'll put the main body down there or just the sensor - in any case, because pulling cables is a major pain, I'll have two ethernet cables going down there anyway. (One of the many things I do at work is networking, and I know how to do structured cabling for LANs. Of course, I'd love the outside link to be fiber, but that's a bit over the top). I'm leaning more toward leaving the main body in the house as it's then going to be on the UPS.

I'll be sure to keep you all updated on the progress of the greenhouse build, and I should really do some updates on the status of some of the plants...!

Pictures from cellphone camera.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Orchid Flask Review

Last week, fellow South African orchid blogger David Vaughan, who blogs at, offered to send me a flask of Dendrobium crystallinum to review. I did point out that I was quite inexperienced at deflasking, but he still insisted it was a good idea... Never one to say no to plants, I quickly agreed. David enjoys growing orchids from seed, a topic I am intrigued by, but have never gone through the effort of doing, due to the difficulties of creating the sterile growing conditions and meeting the other requirements (like space...!) for successful in vitro germination and propagation of orchids.

If you're not particularly familiar with the topic, orchid seeds are mostly almost microscopic and dust-like, with little if any "food" in them (compared to the larger seeds of other plants, which have the embryo and a parcel of "food" to give it a head start in life). Orchids take a slightly different strategy - they make millions, even billions of tiny seeds that are little more than embryos without any "food" stored away. So in nature, they have to be really lucky to grow up. What happens with most orchids is a few of the seeds happen to settle somewhere where the right kind of fungus (called an "orchid mycorrhiza") just happens to be growing, and the orchid baby then basically germinates and then steals nutrients from the fungus, which is where it gets the energy to grow big enough to start producing its own sugars from photosynthesis; in some cases the orchid may ultimately give something back to the fungi, but I believe most orchids are quite "selfish" in this relationship, and many seem to keep leaning on the fungus throughout life to supplement their food supply; a few orchids don't photosynthesize at all (so-called "achlorophyllous" orchids) and get all their nutrients from fungi [many plants have fungal partners (mycorrhizae), which they give sugars in return for micronutrients and water; some plants "root systems" end up being mostly fungi; many garden plants will benefit from such fungi and you can buy cultures of them]. Interestingly, the kinds of fungi orchids "team up" with are often pathogenic (cause disease) in other plants. Really young orchid "seedlings" are made up of strange "lumps" of cells called "protocorms" - they look quite unlike any seedling you've ever seen. A little later in their development, the "protocorms" differentiate and produce roots and shoots.

Obviously, growing orchids this way (using fungi) is mostly really hit or miss, so several decades ago, people came up with the idea of giving the orchid embryos everything they need to develop in a sterile "petri dish" (known as a "flask"). Of course, if you put something in a rich nutrient broth, other things are also going to take advantage (bacteria and fungi) so you have to ensure not a single one makes it into the flask with the orchid - which is perhaps the hardest part of the process (of course, getting the growth media right is an art and science in itself...).

Anyway, after that little diversion about orchid seeds, germination and fungi, on to the flask itself!

I asked David to randomly select one of the flasks he'd prepared to send to me. As David asked me to independently "review" the flask, I'll split this up into a couple of sub-sections.

The flask was very well packed, nestled in bubble wrap and packing "peanuts" and arrived the day after he sent it. Once unpacked, the flask was nicely labelled with a picture of the flower of the adult plant, along with the name, and on the back, useful unflasking instructions and of course records of when the plants had sown and been put (replated) into the current flask on the lid. The lid is also well sealed with tape, which should help prevent too much inadvertent contamination, or horror-of-horrors the flask opening in transit. Perhaps it's no coincidence that as someone who cares for living things as a profession (when not mucking about with orchids, he's an aquarist specialising in fish health) David is evidently well versed in how to pack living things for travel!

I took a couple of quick shots when I unpacked on Friday (28 June) last week:
Well packed!
Under the "peanuts" was a nifty construction of bubblewrap
that suspended the flask in transit
Helpful labelling.
Name of plant and picture of flower of this species, Dendrobium crystallinum.
Why, postman, why?
Of course, the post office completely ignored the "this way up at all times" stickers, and the box was handed over to me on its side. I suspect the flask spent some of its journey in the wrong orientation, as the "plug" of medium in which the seedlings are growing was lying at about 45 degrees across the container (it still is as I haven't really had the heart to slam the flask hard enough to dislodge it back into place). The plants seemed unscathed, and the agar wasn't too shaken up. Of course, there is little the sender can do to prevent this sort of thing in transit; I've seen parcels make it through the South African post and even deliveries by courier companies looking like a herd of elephants has used the packaging as a trampoline, so this was relatively pristine! Pictures below are immediately after unpacking.

Dislodged plants and medium - not too bad!
Dislodged plants and medium, other side
I've had the flask in my possession for a week now, and everything still looks great; the flask has been sitting on a seed germination/propagation "heat mat"/germinator (supposedly should keep them at 19) as it is midwinter here, and David suggested they'd prefer being kept more around 18 degrees or above than suffering through the 10 degrees or so the balcony is currently experiencing at night.

The seedlings all look very healthy to me; they seem large enough to make it through the "deflasking" process, and the leaves and roots seem well formed. They'll still be happy in the medium for a little while; I'd like to only deflask when I get to try out a product (AgriSil) I cover below under "tips".

Some shots from today (Saturday 6 July):
Good roots.
Strong, healthy shoots
Healthy baby orchids
It is quite hard to take good macros through slightly cloudy plastic which is all fogged up!

A few of the plants around the edges were looking a little "ragged" - this is either from transport damage or from where they ended up sitting in a "puddle" of water - I've since tipped the flask at an angle to stop this from happening; the damage is quite minor however - and no fault of David's. 

Some tips from David
I discussed the difficulties I'd had with deflasking, most notably with fungi, and David recommended trying a supplement rich in silica to help "harden off" the fragile seedlings; this is a fairly unusual supplement that doesn't seem to have yet made its way into the general gardening realm in South Africa, so is only really availble from agricultural suppliers, who tend to sell it in large volumes. It's not particularly expensive, but the courier costs I was quoted for delivery were outrageous (in the region of 5 times the cost of 5 litres of the product), so I have yet to acquire any. The supplement is called AgriSil K50, manufactured by Plant Health Products, and distributed in South Africa by Madumbi. They also do some very interesting looking "bioweapons" for plant health! The product he mentioned, AgriSil, is basically a solution of Potassium Silicate. Plants use silica to build stronger cell walls - essentially out of glass - and that helps keep out invaders like bacteria and fungi. The dose he recommends is 2.5ml of AgriSil per litre of water adjusted down to pH 6.5 (AgriSil starts at pH 11!); the rinsed seedlings (roots only) are then soaked in this for 12 hours before being potted up in a community pot ("compot").

I'm quite keen to try out this approach, as it makes sense to me. Armour coating an orchid in glass from the inside? I'm in! 

He also noted he'd experienced more success deflasking into (small!) bark chips than any other medium, as he'd also found media that retain a lot of water (like sphagnum) tend to encourage problems with fungi and bacteria. My previous deflasking trials lead to the complete loss of all the cattleyas in pure moss, and I only got 4 out of the one which was mixed moss/bark (bacteria and fungi). Later on some scale moved in and started wreaking some havoc...It's possible I also was too cautious in maintaining high humidity for too long - I left the propagator lids on the plants for many weeks; typical "hardening off" times are apparently more like a fortnight.

David currently has flasks of Dendrobium crystallinum available for sale (presumably only within South Africa due to shipping complications with orchids across international borders), with several other species and hybrids close to being ready. He keeps a list of what is available on his blog at Each flask is about R175 plus postage, and contains roughly 30 plants. It will probably take several years before you see your baby orchid flower, but it's quite rewarding, and if you want lots of one plant (or maybe some spares to share/sell) it's a good way of getting plants, and often a great way of getting unusual plants.Given the sample of this species I've received, I can't say I have any hesitation whatsoever in saying that if he has something you're interested in acquiring, you should get hold of him! It's also often quite interested to raise a bunch of the "same" plant up and notice how much variation there can be in a species or especially a single hybrid cross, particularly in the flowers.

If you'd like to follow these seeds from their "birth", check out these two posts from his blog:

Deflasking seedlings is an interesting additional "angle" to growing orchids; it's not quite as easy as growing many "normal" plants from seed, but most of the hard work is out of the way when you get a flask of seedlings that are ready to be de-flasked and potted up. Give it a go!