Saturday, May 28, 2011

A handy hint for growing Albany pitcher plants

The Albany pitcher plant (Cephalotus follicularis) is an amazing and curious little plant endemic to south-western Western Australia. The appeal of this plant lies (of course) in its cute pitchers which are perfectly adapted to capturing ants and other small, crawing insects. Interestingly, it also produces flat phyllodes during winter that are not carnivorous.
Amazing as this plant is, it has a bad reputation for being tough to grow, beeing liable to die with little or no warning. The reason why these plants do this is now becoming known - they hate wet, stagnant roots. This more or less rules out using the tray method for watering the plant, but makes it difficult to provide consistent moisture to the roots. There is, however, an unbelievably easy way to grow this species.

Yep, that's it - self watering pots! The pots I use are the 27 cm square troughs sold by Bunnings. These pots work by capillary watering - they have a reservoir of water in the base and a false pot bottom that allows ample water to be drawn up through the soil to the roots as it is needed. It does not allow the roots to stay so wet that they rot. This system also allows plenty of air to penetrate the soil, while the size of the pot moderates soil temperature. All you need to do is keep some water in the reservoir to keep the soil consistently moist.

These pots have allowed me to grow Cephalotus successfully here in Canberra, including temperature extremes between -6*C in winter and 40*C in summer. I don't let frost form on them, though, and my plants are put in an unheated but frost-free greenhouse for the winter. Except for the self watering pots, my plants are grown under identical conditions to my Sarracenia - full sun and a soil mix of equal parts peat, sand and coarse perlite. The sand in the photos above is simply top dressing to stop the peat splashing over the plants and to keep the top of the pots as free from as much competition as possible. The only plants I let grow with them are pygmy Drosera, most of which are now gemmae waiting to sprout. I propogate all my plants from leaf pullings. As Cephalotus hate root disturbance, I strike all cuttings in cardboard or peat pots that break down in the soil and can be planted straight into a new pot without annoying the roots.

I grow two clones of Cephalotus at the moment, with another clone striking from leaf pullings. They can be slow to establish even in the self-watering pots, but once they are, they grow quite quickly. As evidence, the above plant has not put on much growth since I put it in the self watering pot last year. It is a Cephalotus that produces burgundy to almost black pitchers, so this might have something to do with its poor growth to date. The other, more green, clone has grown much more quickly.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Drosera peltata ex Grampians

Although this blog is supposed to be about Sarracenia, I have found myself posting about Drosera peltata more and more over the past few weeks! Although I find it often enough in the wild, the truth is I only grow one clone of this marvelous plant, and it is one from the Grampians in Victoria.

This clone is excellent because (i.) it is a huge plant, growing to 30-40 cm, (ii.) its golden colour is magnificent, (iii.) it will not rot if you leave it sitting in a Sarracenia water tray while dormant, (iv.) it is self-fertile, sowing itself through Sarracenia pots on its own and (v). even seedlings will take -6*C without  burning. This clone is apparantly widely grown by members of the VCPS, one of whom gave me an established pot last year. It is now coming up all through my Sarracenia collection unassisted. I am hopeful that it will become the weed Drosera of my collection - I am in the final throws of eradicating Drosera capensis. Why? Look below...

Drosera capensis unfortunately catch and kill these guys. This rather ornate little bug (as in true bug or Hemiptera) is an undescribed species of Setocoris, the sundew bug genus. Setocoris are rather enigmatic, in that there are three named species, another 150 species with unpublished manuscript names and an additional 75 species that are not yet well enough known to be named. My colony live on Drosera binata and orginated from a collector living very near wild D. binata in the Blue Mountains. A lot of people call Setocoris Assassin bugs, which is entomological heresy! Assassin bugs (family Reduviidae), although similar in appearance, are distant relatives of Setocoris, which belong to the Mirid bug family (Miridae). Sundew bugs as a name is far more descriptive. In term of ecology, they very probably act as a surrogate stomach to their parent plants, much in the same was as Pameridia bugs do for Roridula in South Africa. However, Setocoris also suck sap from their parent plants. As evidence, the D. binata my Setocoris live on was covered in small 'sting' marks consistent with Hemiptera feeding damage I have seen on a variety of fruits. Setocoris living on D. binata var. multifida 'extrema' in the wild on Stradbroke Island have also been observed to drink sap by a Queensland Museum entomologist, but this record was unfortunately published in a relatively obscure text on Australian insect ecology that no-one else seems to have referred to.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Drosera peltata at Simmo's Beach, Ingleburn, NSW

Simmo's Beach is a small reserve squeezed between the western Sydney suburb of Ingleburn and the George's River. It is quite popular for many people because it is a nice, peaceful patch of forest with two BBQ areas, some walking paths and a sandy 'beach' on a very tranquil, almost non-moving section of George's River. I like the area because it has two species each of Drosera and Stylidium, all of which can be relatively easily accessed. There are also large populations of D. peltata in adjacent reserves, where there are also significant populations of the endangered Sydney plains greenhood, Pterostylis saxicola. Populations of the latter are fortunately not easy to access. I've been visiting this reserve for a number of years now, and continue to visit there regularly, so I will aim to provide regular updates of these plants' progress over the course of their growing season.

Drosera peltata are widely distributed in the Eucalpyt forests here, but I like a small site on the side of the road because the plants here are surrounded by small herbs, making for interesting photos. Elsewhere, they tend to be more obscured with dead Eucalypt leaves, making photography a bit of a challenge. Unfortunately, someone seems to have lit a small fire that burned out much of the adjacent bush, which is busily regenerating. Fire is an important part of many Australian ecosystems, and the plants in particular are generally well adapted to this distiurbance. As a case in point, note the new growth of a Eucalyptus coming up from its rootstock.

As it is still Autumn, I found only a very few D. peltata breaking dormancy. All were in the rosetted stage and had not made any progress towards making a climbing stolon yet. This form of D. peltata is very different to the truly alpine form here in Canberra (f. gracilis) and the one in south-eastern Queensland (f. nipponica).

Just as a teaser, here is a landscape shot of D. peltata in full cry elsewhere in the George's River reserve. Now I have a dedicated macro lens, expect better shots than this in a few months (this was taken with a point-and-shoot on a very clumsy 'manual' focus mode)!

There are a lot of other nice plants in the bush here - growing right above the now rosetted D. peltata was a Banksia, which had a beautiful flower only recently opened.

Another feature of the bush here are Pultenaea, the so-called bacon-and-egg flower. They are of course a member of the pea family (Fabaceae). Their lovely yellow and red flowers are borne on racemes and make a dazzling display. The plant itself is a small scrambler.

And of course there are Pterostylis saxicola. I won't let on where these photos were taken, but they are currently in rosette form. I really like the crystalline-looking 'rivers' that run through the plants' leaves; I assume they allow the plant to make better use of dappled sunlight in the same way some Begonia do in the tropics. I have never quite managed to hit these plants in flower, but will hopefully have better luck this year. Other orchids in this area include at least one more Pterostylis species and the mosquito orchids (Acianthus spp.).

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

First snow of the year at the Drosera peltata habitat, Brindabella Ranges

The first snow of this year has fallen in the Brindabella Ranges! I managed to spend an hour up at the Drosera peltata site at Smokers Gap (1240 meters) and took the following photos. The snowfall was admittedly very light - it is still a bit too early for anything substantial. Even so, the ACT parks service close any road as soon as snow starts to settle, so it was light snow or nothing! Being originally from a part of Australia where snow is an impossibility, any sort of snow is a novelty and not to be missed.

When I arrived, it was alternating between light snow and sleet, but some snow was lying on the ground - most of it on the hummocks of Sphagnum cristatum. The ground is still too warm to form drifts, except in very sheltered spots and of course on the Sphagnum hummocks.

I was very surprised to see that a small number of Drosera peltata were still in active growth, despite it being close to freezing. Most of them were very small seedlings; the larger ones for the most part had died back to their tubers. The plants that were still around were all thoroughly wetted from the snowfall, but not burned from the cold. There had also been frost earlier in the week, including where we live at Tuggeranong (800 meters), so these plants are apparantly quite cold tolerant.

These were the largest plants I saw. They were growing in a rivulet sheltered by a fallen log from the 2003 bushfires, an awful position light-wise for photography. That I had the wrong lens on (105mm macro) did not help either. Again, these plants had been thoroughly wetted by the snow but were not burned by the cold. I will pay this site a few more visits this winter to see if there are plants growing throughout the winter. Remember, this form of D. peltata was also growing prolifically during the height of summer.

One obvious difference from the site during summer was how wet the soil was. Compare this photo with the same bank during summer.

Just as I headed back to the car, it resumed snowing. Again, it was only relatively light (and therefore not so easy to catch with a macro lens!), but nice to see nonetheless. Being a more tropical creature, snow of any kind never looses its novelty.

I swapped out the 105mm macro for an 18-55mm zoom, and set off down the road to where I had seen Stylidium graminifolium. At this site, the falling snow soon gave way to rather large, almost hail-like, sleet. But it was here where I found the best snow drifts, which were up to a few centimeters deep.

The only sign of the Stylidium were a few leaves poking out of Poa labilliardei tussocks. See if you can find the two Stylidium plants in the top photo. Snow and lichen covered dead branches of a Leptospermum immediately above where I found the Stylidium

Finally, I capped of the visit by driving to the end of the Corin Forest road to Corin dam. The dam itself is only at 970 meters, while the Drosera and Stylidium grow higher up at about 1240 meters. It was sleeting here, but it had snowed earlier; I saw small drifts of snow in grass alongside the road at this altitude. It was snowing higher up as well. This was the view up to the foothills below where the Ginini Flats Sphagnum heath is. I could glipmse a lot of snow on Mount Ginini further back up the road, but the only places with a clear view were on sharp corners or where there was no safe parking, so I could not photograph it.

As I was writing this, it was still snowing up in the Brindabellas. I don't doubt these sites will get a much better coverage of snow overnight. Unfortunately, the reserve is closed when snow drifts start to form on the roads, so I probably won't get a chance to photograph the Drosera habitat under a full compliment of snow.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

How the windows on a Cobra Lilly actually work!

The Cobra Lilly (Darlingtonia californica) is a truly unique plant endemic to the western United States of America (northern California and Oregon). It is closely allied to the Sarracenia pitcher plants, with both belonging to the same family (Sarraecniaceae). What makes it unique is its pitcher lid, which has been modified into a large, hollow hood. The opening is underneath the hood, immediately behind a spectacular fish-tail or forked-tongue structure. Looking at the pitcher from the front, it bears a striking similarity to a cobra reared up to strike.

The top of the hood is covered in many small windows that are almost clear (not white, like those of a Sarracenia minor for example). These windows are believed to serve a special function: disorientate insects once they enter the hood so they (i.) don't escape and (ii.) are more likely to tumble into the pitcher.

But do the windows actually work? I was out with the camera a few weeks back and happened to see a Polistine paper wasp trapped inside the hood. The below .gif animation is the result of photos taken at nearly 4 frames per second.

They windows do indeed seem to disorientate insects once they are inside the hood! I was first aware that something was inside the Darlingtonia pitcher because I could hear the scrabbling of it trying to escape. These photos clearly show the wasp trying to scrabble free of the pitcher through the hood where it is most strongly illuminated by the windows. However, in this instance, the wasp was a little too big, and it eventually managed to reverse out of the hole and escaped. You can see the wings of the wasp protrude from the mouth of the pitcher if you look closely.

I will take some decent photos of my Darlingtonia setup shortly and describe completely how I grow and propogate them.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Drosera pygmaea, Tathra, NSW

A few weeks back, I spent the weekend at a lovely beachside town called Tathra (pronounced "Tarthra"). Of course, I took some time to look for CPs and was not disappointed. A few kilometers out of town, I found some Drosera pygmaea growing underneath powerlines. Finding them was pure fluke - I stoppd the car within a few meters of them - but on exploring the easement, I found the plants were restricted to only a few square meters! I was actually expecting to find D. spathulata or the ubiquitous D. peltata/D.auriculata, so D. pygmaea was a really nice surprise indeed!

The soil the plants were growing in was rather a heavy grey-black clay. The area had been mowed and was dominated by grasses with very few herbs. The easement had been cut into Eucalyptus dominated coastal forest. Only a small area of the powerline easement was damp enough to support the Drosera. But looking at the site on Google Earth, I saw that if I had walked a few hundred meters more, I would have come to a waterlilly-encrusted lagoon. There probably would have been more plants, and possibly D. spathulata, growing there.

In some parts of the colony, the plants were growing very close together. They are probably clonal, resulting from gemmae scattered by rain or similar.

For some scale of these plants' size, here are some growing in a sandy patch.

 A very few plants were producing gemmae (photos taken early March). I will likely be back, so I'll pay the site another visit and see if I can find other CPs.

Drosera peltata at Caloundra, Queensland

Some more Drosera in the wild. Drosera peltata again, but this time from Caloundra on Queensland's Sunshine Coast. These photos were taken in mid-summer (early January 2011 to be precise), showing that not all tuberous Drosera in Australia are winter specialists. These plants are also quite large, scrambling to over 20 cm in some instances. The habitat here was Leptospermum and Eucalyptus dominated woodland adjacent to a clearing. Wallum (sandy low heath) was not far away, with both Drosera burmannii and D. spathulata growing there.

In this Queensland form of D. peltata, the sepals are atypical in being glabrous (ie. non hairy). However, they can still be distinguished from D. auriculata because the apex of the sepals are acute (ie. pointy; they are obtuse in D. auriculata). The Flora of Australia (Volume 8) provides a comprehensive list of characters separating these two species.

New photos added to Tuggeranong Drosera post...

After a long absence, I found some time to update the Drosera peltata 'Tuggeranong' post with photos of plants in habitat. Except I missed some:

Drosera peltata var. gracilis flower (note hairy sepals). Smoker's Gap, Brindabella Range, ACT.
Ca. 1400 meters.

  Stylidium graminifolium, Corin Forest, Brindabella Ranges, ACT, 1400 meters elevation. Note glandular hairs shown in the photo at left.