Monday, January 26, 2009

Cymbidium Flying Comet

Last September I wrote a blog on Cymbidium Kusuda Shining and Friends. In one of the two blogs on the subject the hybrid between C. Kusuda Shining and C. virescens was discussed and various forms illustrated. This was before my photography lessons. At that point it was pretty much point and click and hope for the best. My photography teacher has brainwashed me into thinking that pointing and clicking is not good enough. Well, in all honesty I would have to agree with her.

Just to recap on the story of KS and friends. Andy Easton made the wonderful hybrid Kusuda Shining many years ago. This hybrid has proved to be a great parent to a wide range of colourful and interesting hybrids. Since the writing of that blog the hybrid between KS and virescens has been named by Andy. The formal name is now Cymbidium Flying Comet. A very appropriate name really. Some of the cultivar names we have tentatively put on our seedlings before it was named were 'Stella', 'Cosmo' and 'Super Nova'. We must have all seen the same thing in the offspring. Pictures of the parents of C. Flying Comet appear below. The picture of C. goeringii (virescens) is several years old and was taken with a happy-snap camera.

Cymbidium Kusuda Shining

Cymbidium goeringii (virescens)

One of the runts of the litter my orchid grower friend named 'Randall's Gem' as a bit of a joke. He saw this plant as the ugly little brother to the more grand and colourful siblings. I liked it. Actually, my initial impression was not all that great but I took a picture of it anyway. It was not until the photo was downloaded to my computer and projected onto the monitor that the potential of 'Randall's Gem' became evident to me. I called my friend back and ask if I could buy the plant. He was going to sell it off as an no-name pot plant at a local mall! Thankfully, it was saved from a fate worse than death.

I came home and took several pictures of it. None of them all that great.

Since taking that original shot, C. Flying Comet 'Randall's Gem' has come into flower for the second time. This is good as I get a chance to redeem myself and take a better picture. Interestingly, the second flowering of the plant is much better than the first. I like to tease my professional grower friend that the reason the second flowering is so much better is that I am a much better grower than he is. We both know this is not true so we can laugh about it.

What has changed over the past year is that the plant has matured a bit and has been growing in much cooler conditions. I grow it in a shadehouse completely exposed to the elements, except sun of course. I do not push my plants as much with fertilizer either. They tend not to flower themselves to death like my friends plants and tend to be a bit more graceful.

Below in the first picture is C. Flying Comet 'Randall's Gem' on it's first flowering in 2008. The mug shot style is fairly typical of my photographs. One day my photography teacher will knock the police photographer out of me. The second and third photos were taken this morning at about 8:00 am as the sun was shining through the trees. Photograph four was taken at 8:30 pm tonight after the intensity of the sun had dimmed a bit. All four photos are the same plant just taken in different styles, with different camera settings and lighting arrangements. Photograph four is nearly spot on for colour of the flower. It is actually hard to get the colour correct. Green overlaid with pink on the petals and sepals and white with magenta red and yellow on the lip is a real challenge. Too dark and the green bleeds into the pink and makes it browny-red. Too light and the yellow and white of the lip flares and the magenta red turns faded red. Hopefully, I hit some sort of happy medium.

To see larger versions of any of the pictures just click on the photo. It will magically appear twice as big before your very eyes! Hope you enjoy them.

Cymbidium Flying Comet 'Randall's Gem'
(f stop 11, natural light, in shade)

Cymbidium Flying Comet 'Randall's Gem'
(f stop 22, backlit, morning sun, black background)

Cymbidium Flying Comet 'Randall's Gem'
(f stop 22, backlit, morning sun, forest background)

Cymbidium Flying Comet 'Randall's Gem'
(f stop 22, front lit, late evening direct sun, black background)

Friday, January 23, 2009

Cymbidium floribundum or pumilum

When you make collections of plants strange things can happen. If you collect a genus of plants, like Cymbidium, there are several tacks that you can take. Many people collect hybrids. Collecting hybrids provides you with a never-ending source of new plants. If you are a follower of plant fashions or if you suffer from Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder you can constantly replace the old with new. While this can be satisfying it is also expensive. The newest hybrids are the most expensive. If you try to keep at the cutting edge you eventually find yourself buying unflowered hybrids on speculation. If you guess correctly you could be on a winner. If you get it wrong you just wasted a few years of time, effort and expense. At least you may be able to recoup a bit of money by selling your culls off to an unsuspecting 'amateur' or fashion blinded 'novice'. There are literally thousands and thousands of people who support an extensive industry supplying their needs.

Since the rise of environmentalism in the 1960's and 70's there has been a shift away from hybrids to species for the serious collector. The shallowness of fashion was eschewed for the 'connection with the earth' and 'naturalness' implicit in the growing of wild species. Granted, species have always been grown but came close to being completely wiped from collections in the 1950's. The prevailing attitude in the 50's, with vestiges of it persisting until today, is that hybrids are easier to grow and have hybrid vigour. What tosh! Most Cymbidiums are easier to grow than almost any plant. This is attested by the numerous plants sitting on back porches and patios throughout Australia and California. They barely get water, almost never get repotted and inevitably are sunburnt beyond belief but flower happily every year.

Species collectors need to get every species of a genus and usually several forms of each. In a genus like Cymbidium collecting all the species, varieties and forms is fairly straight forward. With under 50 species it is a small genus by world standards. A collection of just species and forms of Cymbidium would be modest, at least as far as collections go.

A slight variation on the species collection is the conservation collection. While the outcome is similar to the species collection, each plant comes from a known location in the wild. This type of collection is usually reserved for botanic gardens, universities and those truly concerned with the conservation of genetic diversity. Occasionally, a rogue collector uses the excuse of conservation to import cheap wild-collected plants from a developing country. I remember clearly in the early 80's, while studying orchids in the Pacific islands, the depredations of unscrupulous orchid collectors. I was taken to get photographs and herbarium specimens of a species orchid. Unbeknownst to me, an American collector had found out where I was going and the subject of my study. He had paid the local villagers what amounted to a huge salary to collect all of the plants of this species they could find. They simply followed me and my guide into the forest and stripped every plant they could find. Hundreds of them. There was absolutely nothing I could do except put my pack on top of several plants and stand in front of another group until they left, satisfied they had gotten every plant. I felt sick.

Believe it or not there is one even more extreme form of collector! This is the type that collects every slight variation there is within a species! This type of collector is not prevalent in the west, at least in Cymbidium. In Asia, particularly in China, single species Cymbidium collecting has a history at least 1,500 years old. Part of the reason for this is that people could only draw on the local species for their collections. To introduce novelty they had to collect all the variations they could from the local populations. In China, Taiwan, Korea and Japan this is the normal style of collection, or at least it was until recently.

One of the main plants that has been the focus of attention for single species collections is the plant we know as Cymbidium floribundum, or alternatively and erroneously as C. pumilum. This plant was originally named as C. floribundum in 1833 by Lindley but for some reason this name was not recognised by Rolfe when he described and named Cymbidium pumilum in 1907. This oversight and renaming of an already named species was recognise and corrected as long ago as the 1960's but people still insist on using the name C. pumilum.

In Australia there is an incredible diversity of groups of people from various countries, including from China, Japan, Taiwan, Korea and Thailand. It is within these groups of people that you find the tradition of single species collections. Although this type of collecting has diminished through the availability of other plants, some people maintain the traditions they grew up with.

Until fairly recently, most of the forms of Cymbidium floribundum, that were widely available in the west, were fairly non-descript browns with a pale edge or a supposed 'Alba'. This 'Alba' form is actually just a greenish form and not an albino at all. It is betrayed by the red spots on the underside of the column! There are reputedly true albinos of C. floribundum but as Andy Easton says 'there is no proof there is a true albino pumilum'. Buyer beware! Fortunately, a full range of interesting forms of this species are appearing on the market. There is even one commercial grower here that specialises in forms of C. floribundum. He rarely sells his plants and when he does the good quality ones start at Aus. $150.00. Thankfully, he makes a living from selling plants other than C. floribundum.

Over the years a dozen or so forms of C. floribundum have crept into my collection. I didn't purposely collect them. To be totally blunt, C. floribundum is not one of my favourite species. The flowers are generally short-lived, indifferent in colour (for most of them), not fragrant and every bug and its brother loves to eat the flowers. What it does have going for it is that it is easy to grow, clumping up into a specimen plant fast. There are 2N and 4N forms and those with pendulous, arching or upright flower spikes. Plants can range in size from 10 to 30cm tall when fully grown. The best thing is that a fully mature plant will live happily and flower profusely in a 6 inch pot.

While it would have been nice to include pictures of all the forms that I have, to be honest, most of the flowers look identical or much of a muchness. The main variation in most of these forms not being colour but ploidy level, plant size, disposition of the flower spike and number of flowers on the spike. The three I have chosen are three of my favourites and are the most distinct.

The first of these plants is 'Sina'. This plant has particularly dark and narrow petals and sepals with a clearly marked lip. The flower spike is arching and carries upward of 30 well-spaced flowers. This is the first form to bloom in spring. The leaves are also narrower than normal. Overall, the plant is very gracile and delicate to look at. It is actually very tough and a strong grower. This plant was imported from china and is probably a selection of a wild plant. It is a diploid.

Cymbidium floribundum 'Sina'

Cymbidium floribundum 'Pale Face' came to me with Japanese characters on the label. I asked my friend Bin at school to translate for me. It translated to 'The young woman with the pale face'. That number of words would not fit on the label so it got the name 'Pale Face'. It has the most delicate pink spots on the lip that complements the white and contrast in an interesting manner with the green of the petals and sepals. This is a robust grower with nearly upright flower spikes of 25-30 flowers. It is a tetraploid.

Cymbidium floribundum 'Pale Face'

Cymbidium floribundum 'Pale Face'

The final selection is one of the most expensive plants in my collection. You don't need to know how much was paid for it. If you did know the cost you might tell my partner, who would not be happy! There are much more important things to do with money!!! Well C. floribundum 'Tokiwa' epitomises everything that the Koreans find attractive in C. floribundum. First and foremost, variegated leaves. 'Tokiwa' has very strongly variegated leaves. It is a white variegation, the most highly prized type. The flowers are very special as well. Unlike most C. floribundums, the petals of this species are fairly wide and the flower is more widely spreading than normal. The colour is simply beautiful. You can see for yourself. The flower spikes are strongly upwardly arching and although they have only 15-20 flowers they are much showier than most other forms. 'Tokiwa' is a tetraploid. One further interesting point with this plant is that the flowers last twice as long as every other form that I grow. This is a real winner of plant. Great leaves, great flowers, and all on an easy to grow compact plant. The Koreans got this one absolutely right.

Cymbidium floribundum 'Tokiwa'

Cymbidium floribundum 'Tokiwa'

Cymbidium floribundum 'Tokiwa'

The final plant is not a Cymidium floribundum at all. It is a hybrid made with C. floribundum as one of its parents. Cymbidium Little Aussie 'Justin'. There is another clone of this hybrid that is even more spectacular called 'Honey'. 'Honey' and 'Justin' may in fact be the same plant, just purchased from different growers, variations of intensity of flower colour can vary depending on growing conditions. The other parent of this hybrid is C. Sussex Dawn. It has inherited all the best features of the species; compact plant, easy grower, prolific spiking with lots of flowers, and interesting colours. This plant, by coincidence, is called Little Aussie. It is really appropriate to put this plant on this post. I am writing this blog on the Australia Day long weekend! My friend bred this plant. You will have to agree that he did a great job! Thanks JC.

Cymbidium Little Aussie 'Justin'

Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Hidden Crown - Cryptostephanus vansonii

When it comes to growing classy plants there are few that can match up to the genus Clivia. Everything about them is refined. They are of modest size and modest in their growth rate. The leaves are broad, dark-green straps that in the best forms sit neatly in a fan, one stacked on top of the next, in the form of an open book. The flowers arise from the centre of the plant on a long stalk forming a head of up to 25 or so flowers that nestles just at leaf height or slightly above it. The flowers are not subtle, being bright orange, yellow, red or a combination of these and varying in intensity. The flowers, however, are very regular in shape, at least in the most popular Clivia miniata. The plant in flower looks like an artificial plant. The genus even has royal connections, being named after Lady Charlotte Florentia Clive the duchess of Northumberland. The name of the genus is therefore pronounced Clive-e-a, recognizing the name of the person the plant is named after, not Cliv-e-a!

My first experience of Clivia was at Longwood Gardens just outside of Philadelphia. This huge display garden was set up by Pierre S. DuPont and is carried on today by a committee of management. Longwood is one of the worlds premier gardens. A major feature at Longwood is the the huge set of conservatories. These are large enough to support trees and lawns and expansive beds of ever-changing displays of stunning plants. Each season there is a different set of plants to brighten up the conservatories. In one of the conservatories there is a huge water display, including fountains set amongst landscaped gardens. At one end of this conservatory is a large terrace on which to sit and admire the scenery. On either side of the entrance door there are two huge earthenware pots imported from China and tastefully decorated with patterns. In each of these pots is a creamy-yellow form of Clivia miniata. I might add that the pots are about one metre across and the leaves of the plant arch out over the edge of the pots by about 1/2 metre. These are seriously impressive plants, attractive even when not in flower. When in flower they are breathtaking. The individual cultivar grown at Longwood Gardens is one of the most sought after cultivars of Clivia miniata. A division of this plant sold for US$2200 at the Longwood Gardens Rare Plant Auction held by the Professional Gardener Alumni Association in 2000.

East Conservatory November 2007
The white pyramid at the far end is a trained Chrysanthemum

East Conservatory February 2007

West Conservatory November 2007
Amazingly trained Chrysanthemums

West Conservatory and Fern Floor (in distance) November 2007
My cousin Haydon is in middle of path. The yellow, white and orange flowers are Chrysanthemums!

It was not until several years ago that I actually aquired several plants of Clivia. About 10 years or so ago, Clivia started to flood onto the market here in Melbourne. They became the new fashion in gardens. They became so common that you could buy them in nearly every outlet that sold plants, including supermarkets! Shortly after the first flush of poor quality Clivias hit the market, better forms started coming from more reputable growers. Cultivars such as 'Twins', 'Monk', 'Painted Face and others had wider, shorter and neater leaves and larger, well-shaped orange flowers. Some clever dick predicted the trend for novelty and flooded the market with seedling grown yellow cultivars. These commanded seriously high prices and still do. A seedling with 6 leaves and about 30cm high cost approximately $40. Most of these were several years off flowering. I wonder how many of them actually lived to flower? Yes, I bought one.

My other purchases were several cultivars imported from Japan by a specialist. These were bought as seed for $10 each! Thankfully, Clivia seed is very easy to raise as long as you have the patience. These Japanese Clivias are now 10 years old and have yet to flower. One lives in hope. I might add here that the Japanese and Taiwanese grow Clivia primarily for their leaves and not their flowers. This may explain why I have such beautiful plants and no flowers.

My friend Rob, who is a mad Clivia grower, belongs to a Clivia club. Yes, there are clubs devoted just to growing Clivia. These people are even more seriously weird than that orchid people. They see differences where most people don't. They also have bizarre interpretations of what various colours are. I have yet to see a white or pink Clivia that is not truly yellow or orange. Oh well, maybe if their hope is strong enough they will actually believe their plants are white and pink!

About 8 years ago, Rob went on a trip to New South Wales to do the rounds of his Clivia friends. He always drives so that he can bring back a carload of plants. I told him before he left if he found any dwarf cultivars could he pick me up a seedling or so. Two weeks later one seedling appeared. Woo Hoo! My Clivia collection was up to 6 plants. Being a collection of only six plants means that they get more attention than the collections that have more numerous members. This little seedling was put in a 6-inch pot, watered and fed. I didn't expect flowers for many years.

The following spring I noticed two side growths coming off this very small plant and a flower spike forming in the centre of the plant. It was great! Not only had Rob found me a dwarf plant he found a micro-mini! Seriously, this plant was only 8 inches tall with 6 leaves on the main growth. I moved it to the greenhouse bench to keep it away from slugs and rabbits. This plant was going to bloom come hell or high water. Well, it did bloom but it wasn't a Clivia. The flowers were small and whitish pink. I called Rob asking if he knew what it was. He then called his friend, but as his friend was suffering from dementia he didn't remember Rob and couldn't remember that he actually grew Clivias. No luck there. Well, at least it was in the family Amaryllidaceae. That was a good start.

After a few unsuccessful tries I had luck. It was a Cryptostephanus. Great. Only three species in Cryptostephanus, thank goodness. Corona 6 segments, nope. Corona 12 segments, yep. Flowers darkly pigmented, purple to black, nope. Flowers pale, white to pastel pink, yep, C. vansonii!!!!! Easy. The species was only described in 1943. It is a narrow endemic that occurs in the Bvumba and southern Chimanimani Mountains of Zimbabwe. It grows as a lithophyte or a forest floor plants. The roots are very thick and covered with velamen (a spongy covering that holds water). The roots don't really penetrate into the soil but creep laterally through the leaf litter and mosses of its preferred habitat.

The Cryptostephanus species range in colour from white through pinks and purples to black-purples. It was originally thought that Cryptostephanus would breed with Clivia. The hybridizers hoped to introduce new colours into Clivia especially purples, pinks and whites. Well, it didn't work. They may be closely related according to the taxonomists and they even look it to the average Joe but obviously the plants can tell the difference. Until now there have been no successful hybrids. Avoiding the hand of the hybridist is not a bad thing. Maybe this is the way that Cryptostephanus thumbs its nose at we mere mortals!

One nice thing about this plant is that it has avoided recognition in the horticultural press and nearly every botanical work. This is surprising because it has very beautiful flowers followed by dense clusters of orange-red berries that hang on the plant until it flowers the following year. Flowering last for months, much longer than Clivia. I feel privileged that through a mistake this plant found its way into my collection. The original collector has gotten several crops of seeds from the plant he accidentally gave away. So has Rob. I saved several last year and sowed them around the parent plant. It took them 10 months but there are three baby Cryptostephanus coming up in the pot.

The picture below is what this plant looked like when it flowered this spring. Did I mention they are slightly fragrant? The whole plant is only about 30cm high and grows happily in a 8 inch pot. I can grow 6 of them in the space one Clivia takes up. As they say in California 'this is a keeper'.

BTW, the name Cryptostephanus means Hidden Crown, literally Crypto - hidden and Stepanus - Crown. The names Stephen, Steve, Stefan and Stephanie all come from the same derivation. The name refers to the small corona (petal appendages) at the summit of the tube of the flower. You can see them as little yellow or dark pink 'teeth' at the point where the petals form a tube in the flowers below.

Cryptostephanus vansonii
Flowering October 2008

Cryptostephanus vansonii
September 2009
(Same inflorescence as above)

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Cymbidium Maureen Carter

The internet is a wonderful thing. It has allowed me to communicate with people all over the world that share my interests. Mostly, this communication has been with plant people. Over the past couple of years I have been involved with a forum that deals exclusively with the plant genus Cymbidium. Believe it or not there of several of these forums but the one that I belong to is the one for advanced growers and breeders of these wonderful plants. I used to belong to the general forum for cymbidiums. Can you actually have a general forum for a specific topic? Well, you can. In the general forum there were a lot of people who were just getting into growing and would ask questions that most of us in our 'advanced' forum dealt with 25 or 30 years ago. It can get a bit tedious in a general forum when you really want to get into some seriously challenging discussion.

Over the period of involvement in the Cymbidium forumI have developed some serious pen friends. It is amazing how much you can get to know about certain aspects of people by communicating with them nearly daily, even if it is on the net. We even get to the point of teasing each other about our tastes in plants. Last week one of the guys on the net, (I have actually known this guy for nearly 30 years) mentioned that a plant was very 'Chuckish'. He was referring to my taste in reference to the general form of a Cymbidium flower that was inferred from my various postings on the forum. A couple of days later one of the other members posted a picture of a plant that he labelled 'Ultra Chuckish'. I had been turned into an adjective!!!

The summary of my taste in plants created a good laugh for me. Here I am going along thinking that there is some sort of protection and anonymity on the net. Well after two years of posting they know everything! The good thing about this 'knowledge' is that people actually alert you to certain plants that you may like, based on what they think you will like, gleaned from your postings. Interestingly, nearly 100% of the time they are absolutely correct.

My friend, who lives near me and who drops into the forum as a guest once-in-awhile, gave me some plants several years ago that fit the category of 'Ultra Chuckish'. One of the characteristics of Chuckish is spidery flowers. These types of flowers are not much appreciated in the western countries but are greatly appreciated in Asia. Another characteristic, again shared between myself and the Asian growers, is fragrance. Large, boofy perfectly rounded flowers with no fragrance are not for me. I like my orchids to look like orchids, not artificial, highly bred, showbench plants. The plants I grow will probably never end up with an award. To me though, they are stunning. This is why I grow the plants, for my pleasure, not awards.

Back to the plant my friend gave me. It is called Cymbidium Maureen Carter. It is a beautiful creamy white albino, with spidery flowers produced on bolt upright spikes. The plant is very free flowering and is a really strong grower. I loved it before I knew its history. Oh, it is also fragrant. This is where the net comes in. The plant was bred by my friend Andy Easton, who also bred the wonderful Cymbidium Kusuda Shining (the subject of an earlier post). Andy is one of the mainstays of the forum and has been a greater or lesser part of my life for longer than I would like to admit. Cymbidium Maureen Carter is named after my friend Cliffs Aunt. Cliff is also a mainstay of the forum. How do these men know each other? Well they both used to live in New Zealand and they were friends there. They are back together again on the forum even though Andy lives in the USA and Cliff in Australia.

So how did this plant come about and why when I look at other peoples plants of Maureen Carter do they look so different? The original plant was made with an albino Cymbidium sinense and Sleeping Beauty, itself an albino. So the plants would all come out albino and should be pretty consistant? Well it all depends on the type of albino you use. There are white, green and yellow albino forms of C. sinense. There are also diploid and tetraploids of most of them. Sleeping Beauty also comes in diploid and tetraploid forms and although generally pure white there are forms with pale yellow on the labellum (they are still albino though).

One of the difficulties with registration of orchids is that only the original grex name applies for registration purposes. There is no way to know what form of a plant has been used. For all we know C. Maureen Carter could be made with a dark brown form of C. sinense and a white and yellow albino of Sleeping Beauty. Thankfully, we do know what the original plant was bred from. The sinense used was a white albino and the Sleeping Beauty was also a pure white albino. As is the case in any breeding you can get slight throwbacks and a bit of yellow does show up in the newly opened flowers of C. Maureen Carter. Interestingly, both of the parents were diploid which means that the offspring were also diploid and fertile.

As is the case when something wonderful is created, someone else wants to have it. If they can't get hold of the original plant they remake the hybrid. This is where the skill and knowledge of the breeder comes to the fore. When this hybrid was remade, and it was remade several times, various yellow and green albino C. sinense were used and only the diploid forms. The tetraploids forms of sinense are very rare and exceedingly expensive, those who have them don't let just anyone have them. Unfortunately, the tetraploid forms of sleeping beauty were used in the remake. The result was a mishmash of yellows and greens with indifferent shape and poor coloration. Another real bummer was that all of the seedlings of these diploid X tetraploid crosses were triploid and sterile. Dead ends for breeding!

If you do a google search, for Cymbidium Maureen Carter you will see some of the products of these low quality crossings. Only one picture will come up that is close to the original and that is on the Santa Barbara Orchid Estate website. This last plant is closest to the original that was used by Cliff when he registered the cross. Cliff used C. Maureen Carter 'His and Hers' for registration of the cross. The SBOE plant looks as though it is probably from the original cross. A proper assay would have to be carried out to see if it is a diploid, triploid or tetraploid and therefor capable of breeding. There are a couple of yellowish-green Maureen Carters with the cultivar names 'Dafon' and 'Orchis'. There is even a lurid yellow cultivar called 'Fragrant Princess'. This last one has none of the charm of the original cross and also has a story that goes with it that does not bear repeating in polite company.

The photos are not of the best quality and my photography teacher has given me a 'Could do better' on my report card. Oh well, they were taken before I was getting lessons. I promise never to use a brown sheet as a backdrop for a white/cream flower ever again. and I will improve the light! I must thank Andy and Cliff and my friends on the forum for encouraging me to keep writing these stories. Undoubtedly, they will correct any of my factual errors before you read this post!

Cymbidium Maureen Carter 'Chichester'

Cymbidium Maureen Carter 'Chichester'

Friday, January 16, 2009

Pretty Pelargoniums

Pelargonium X ardens

One of the real pleasures of lining in a Mediterranean-type climate is the ability to grow a huge range of plants from some of the most botanically rich regions of the world. This type of climate occurs in the Mediterranean (of course), parts of South Africa, Southern Australia and most of California. Temperature variations are much less pronounced in these climates than in the cool temperate and continental climates. The summers may be hot but it rarely truly freezes in the winter, so no need for long-johns here! Winter days, at least in my area, rarely drop below 12-15C even though night temps may drop down close to 0C. The differential between day and night temperatures in both winter and summer can actually be relatively large, 10-15C differentials not being uncommon with occasional larger gaps. Rainfall is relatively modest (620mm per year at my home) with a uneven distribution over the year, heavier and winter/early spring and very little in summer/early autumn.

The climate of my adopted home could not be farther from the northern temperate zone in which I grew up. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA or 'Philly' has summers that are hot and steamy, more like the tropics but maybe a bit warmer. Summer nights, while slightly cooler than the days are still hot and steamy. Winters are cold with frozen ground and snow. The only way I could grow most of the Mediterranean-type plants was to put them outside in summer and in the basement, heated frames or greenhouse during the winter. For the majority of these plants this was a totally unsuitable arrangement. Being predominantly winter-growing plants, the hot, wet summers rotted most of them off when they were trying to rest. winter wasn't much better, either being cooped up in a dark, dank nearly sunless spot or in an enclosed, humid environment with not much more light than the basement in temperatures more like the tropics. where were the cool, damp winters and hot dry summers?

One plant genus we did successfully grow in Philadelphia was Pelargonium. The common species cultivated were mostly species in the section Ciconium, the normal Garden and Ivy-leaved Geraniums and the section Pelargonium, the Scented Geraniums and Regal Pelargoniums (in the USA they call Regal Pelargoniums, Martha Washington Geraniums). These are just two small sections in a huge genus of plants that contains hundreds of species ranging from those a few centimetres tall to large imposing shrubs to 2m tall. Some are geophytes, producing large underground tubers, others thich woody or succulent stems. While most produce 'normal' leaves, others have leaves so finely divided that all that is left of the leaf surface are the veins while others have lost their leaves altogether.

Plant fragrance is a notable characteristic in Pelargonium. The leaves of many have strong fragrances reminiscent of Apples, Oranges, Limes, Lemons, Coconuts, Mints, Roses, Anise, Celery, Camphor or Balm. Some combine the above scents, like lemon-rose, Camphor-rose and mint-rose. While many are pleasantly fragrant, several smell like insecticide or burning hair or plastic. The flowers, while generally not fragrant, occasionally surprise the flower by emitting powerful fragrances. One species in particular, Pelargonium gibbosum, the Gouty Pelargonium (so named because of the lumpy 'swollen joints' of the stem) has the most remarkable fragrance of them all. The flowers lack the showy colours of many of its relatives, being mainly green, sometimes with indistinct brown or reddish dots at the base of the petals. The drabness of the flowers is made up for just before dusk during the flowering season (late spring through autumn). You may not even realise the plant is in flower until you get home late from work one night and smell bananas. That's right, bananas! Remember those banana marshmallow candies in the 1960's and 70's? Dense marshmallow, artificially flavoured banana and molded into the shape of little bananas about 3 inches long. the flowers of Gouty Pelargonium have the exact frangrance of these retro-candies and extremely strong to boot! The flowers of this fascinating plants are pictured below.

By far what attracts most people to these beautiful plants are the colours of the flowers. the range is truly amazing. While mauves, pinks and whites are the predominant colours, greens, yellows, browns, oranges, reds and vivid purples are also in the colour palate. The only colour that does not exist in Pelargonium is a true blue. You need to go to the related genera Erodium and Geranium for true blue. Interestingly, most Pelargoniums have flowers that combine a range of colours in the same flower. It is not unusual to get red, yellow and white in one flower, or white pink and red, or oange and pink, or green and red, the list goes on.

One of the most interesting things about Pelargoniums and the Geraniaceae in general, is the way that they are pollinated. A few are bird pollinated, like Pelargonium fulgidum. but this is rare and pretty much limited to the red-flowered species. A hybrid of P. fulgidum (P. Scarlet Unique) exhibits the qualities of a bird-pollinated Pelargonium. The brilliant red flower with a wide open gap in the the middle of the flower. This bright green gap screams out to the bird 'put your beak here!'. A few of the species are moth pollinated, having white or green flowers and emitting their fragrance at night (P. Gobbosum). Most of the Geranium family are, however, pollinated by bees or flower wasps. The bee/wasp pollinated species for the most part are not fragrant but do provide a nectar reward to the insect. Nothing spectacular there you say? Well, Pelargoniums, Geraniums, Sarcocaulon and Erodium leave nothing to chance when ensuring that the insects know exactly where the nectar reward is and how to enter the flower to get it.

The highly successful Geraniaceae, employ what are called nectar guides. You can clearly see them in most of the pictures below. These nectar quides appear as solid or spotted lines generally on the upper petals of Pelargonium but commonly on all the petals in the genera with regular flowers, Geranium, Sarcocaulon and Erodium. By the way, one of the ways to distinguish Pelargonium ffrom these other genera is by the construction of the flowers - they are zygomorphic. Zygomorphic simply means that the flowers can only be cut in half one way to get two even halves. In Pelargonium this is usually vertically through the centre of the flower. There are five petals in the flower, two produced north of the flowers equator, three below. While the nectar guides are clearly visible to the human eye what must they look like to a colour-blind bee? Thankfully, this has been studied and here are some wonderful infra-red pictures of Geraniaceae on the 'net. These pictures clearly show how stunningly distinct these nectar guides are to a bee!

The orchid flowers around the house are a bit sparse on the ground at the moment so I thought I would turn to the Pelargoniums for a bit of camera fun. Instead of taking pictures of full plants, it was more fun for me to take close-ups of the flowers. The colours are wonderul and provide a real challenge to the photographer to capture them accurately. What is not immediately evident is that even in the plants that do not appear to have nectar guides, like Pelargonium 'The Boar', have veins a different colur to the base colour of the flower which under infrared light stand out as strongly as the nectar guides that are obvious to our eyes.

The majority of Pelargonium species come from Africa, with the greatest concentration in southern Africa. A couple occur in the Mediterranean and a dozen or so are from Australia. Africa and Australia share many Families, Genera and species of plants. From a biogeography point of view this is fascinating and maybe should be the subject of a post? Below is just a small selection of Pelargoniums that are flowering in my garden. These photos were taken on the 11th of January (our mid-summer).

Pelargonium tetragonum

Pelargonium viscossissimum

Pelargonium 'The Boar'

Pelargonium 'Splendide'

Pelargonium 'Scarlet Unique'

Pelargonium rodneyanum (Australian Native)

Pelargonium quercifolium 'Royal Oak'

Pelargonium 'Prince of Orange'

Pelargonium havlasae (Australian Native)

Pelargonium gibbosum (Gouty Pelargonium)

Pelargonium 'Distinction'

Pelargonium australe (Australian Native)