Tuesday 21 December 2010

Distichous by any other name

As if it is not hard enough to spell and remember plant names there are also certain terms that are commonly used that add to any dyslexic's problems.  Distichous is one of those, meaning have leaves arranged in two vertical rows, off a stem.  No matter how many times I use it, it never rolls off my tongue when I have to think of it.

The topic came up when discussing my favourite aloes (or trying to at least narrow the list down).  Just in case you are wondering current list stands as:
  • Aloe striatula as the hardy aloe with a good flower
  • Aloe polyphylla, as it is almost hardy and more interesting than striatula
  • Aloe pink blush for the decorative small aloe or aloe suprafoliata for its colour
  • Aloe speciosa for probably the best flower
  • Aloe hercules for the plant I want to get hold of and representing the tree aloes.
Aloe suprafoliata
This list changes on a hourly bases but it was in respect to aloe suprafoliata that distichous came up.   This is a lovely aloe and exhibits strange behaviour in that it is distichous for the first part of its life, usually until it flowers for the first time, after which it starts to spiral. Many people prefer it in its early form and are sad when it flowers and starts to spiral. I got mine in its mature form so never saw it the distichous form, but I love the spiral and can't understand who wouldn't. The blue colour is not bad either and this one is most definitely on the A list (the lucky plants that get brought inside and displayed over winter).

Almost all aloes start life with distichous growth, which lasts for various lengths of time. Most tend to grow out of it fairly quickly, these first year aloe greatheadii seedlings were all growing more normally the following year.

Aloe greatheadii var davyana
Some like aloe suprafoliata continue until they flower.  Then you have a few which continue; aloe plicatilis being the most common in cultivation. Also called the fan aloe, as it never stops being distichous.  It does branch, which gives it a tree shape, but each stem stays with its leaves growing in two vertical rows.

Aloe plicatilis
You could probably form a nice little collection of purely distichous plants and maybe after this I'll be able to remember the term, if nothing else I'll know where to look to find it!

Sunday 19 December 2010

A snowy cycad

Our heaviest snow fall this winter, only 4 - 5 inches but it is enough to weigh down all the frond on this cycad revoluta. I have 3 of these from a small one bought on a DIY shop,  up to this larger one.

While I wouldn't say they thrive unprotected with me,  they do survive and push out new flushes every other year. There is a definite knack to getting them to flush, watering at the right time and lots of nitrogen seems to be trick most people use.

This one is due to flush this year so fingers crossed I'll be posting pictures of it come early summer.

Saturday 18 December 2010


I must confess to being a bit of a geek, this takes many forms in my spiky addiction.

Clues that you are spiky obsessed No. 3: You keep a list of all the plants you buy.

I would guess many people have lists, surely there is nothing geeky about it. Well I may have taken this a tiny bit further than most people, setting up a database with all the plants, when and where I bought them, if it is a species or hybrid and anything else I feel is useful.  I also take photos of most plants in spring and again in autumn so I can follow their growth.  It is fun especially at this time of year to sit and look through them.

A small selection of the 120 pots I ended up with on this trial
Probably the main way my geekiness shows up is in the experiments on my poor plants. One of my biggest so far was a seed germination trial.  As I have always learnt by trial and error, I wanted to see what effect planting medium and heat made. Between having 5 different aloes, 3 planting mediums and 4 different heat settings you can probably guess where this is going, I ended up with a LOT of pots and with my poor OH looking on in despair.

Then of course I ended up with around 60 - 80 seedlings of each aloe  and I started trying to kill these.  I am sure I'm not the only one to put small pots out of the way and then forget about them.  Who would have thought this would not be the best way to ensure maximum growth rates.

The plant on the left was given good care,  the ones on the left were left to get on with it.
You would think this would be enough for the poor plants, but come winter I then got to try different hardiness tests.  Which was not pretty and I will not traumatize you with photos! A couple of years later and I am down to about 5 of each variety.  I am pleased to say I have given a lot away and it is not purely me killing them.

I doubt I will ever stop my experiments,   but my OH is hoping that in the future they involve a lot less pots.

Friday 17 December 2010

The spiky snowflake

It is snowing again and seeing the snowflakes made me think of this photo my OH took at Kew. Sadly apart from being a cactus I have no idea what it is (I will have to find a name on my next visit).

Monday 13 December 2010

Blowing away the cobwebs

Took advantage of it warming up a bit to head to Kew for a plant fix.  It seems not even they are not immune to problems in heating their green houses. Some plants in the large temperate house were looking cold damaged  and there were some huge air pipes running though the windows to emergency heaters. It looks like their heating failed at exactly the wrong time.

The only succulent I wanted to check on in this house, is the bulbine latifolia.  As you can see it is now in full flower.  This was the final thing I needed to check the name,  and they have got it labeled wrong.  Their label has it as bulbinella latifolia ssp latifolia,  you would think they would be able to tell the difference.

Thankfully the rest of the succulents are in a different house.  The aloes are no almost all either in flower or just starting,  the aloe vacilans flowers are out.


As are the variegated aloe arborescens.  I have never seen this one in flower so it was good to finally see it.  Even if it was doing its best to hide.

Finally the bromeliad section was also coming into flower,  the log has developed even in a small time since my last visit.

Friday 10 December 2010

Echeveria after snow

After the first cold spell of the winter it is always worrying looking around for damage. With some succulents like the agaves it is rare to see any damage at this early stage  and even at the end of winter they can look fine only to keel over a month later due to rot.  Other plants like aeoniums damage is instant, you can walk out after one night to find the entire plant has melted and there is a pile of mush where the plant used to be.

Echeverias fall in the middle of this, some melt and some look to be fine until they suddenly collapse. Given that very few cope unprotected in the UK, I only ever have a few out as tests.  Last year I had echeveria afterglow under a rain cover and while it wasn't unaffected it survived without any real problems.  This year I left one planted unprotected and as you can see from the photo the results have not been so good.  One day covered in snow and a low of -5 was enough to do serious damage.

Thankfully this is the only damage so far and it was an experiment anyway.  Comparing to the reports of damage from other parts of the country I have been lucky so far.  Long may it stay that way.

Monday 6 December 2010

A smashing interlude

The cold has returned with more snow and it doesn't show any signs of letting up this week. As a distraction from the cold weather I was looking through old photos and found some of the pinatas my OH and I have made.

We started a few years back making this octopus for my nephew.  Strangely they spent longer trying to knock the legs off than they did trying to crack it open. When they finally do smash open it is quite scary as the kids pile on top of each in a mad scrabble to get as many sweets as possible. We keep threatening to fill it with homework one year, we thought it would be funny to see their faces when little pieces of paper fell out with maths problems. We would however have to have a second one ready as I wouldn't fancy having to fight off the pack of disappointed kids especially as at least one would be holding a baseball bat!

Obviously having made one we now have to make them for all my nieces and nephews. This year we made a penguin, he sat in this chair for about a week and I got used to looking over and seeing him sitting there.

Looking back, with the penguin, and the party being at a ski slope, maybe the omens were already pointing to a bad winter!

But my person favourite has to be this little fella. Again we hadn't really thought the idea through before we started, and it was only as we rolled up all the cones that would form the spines that we worked out we would have to attach them all as well.

I have been trying to persuade my OH that it would be fun to make mini ones of these using different coloured paper but for some reason she never seems that keen.

Right now I could do with a few of these around the house to hit each time I get frustrated about the weather.

Sunday 5 December 2010


The snow has melted but it is still to cold to go outside, so I am limited to enjoying the plants inside. Many of those that manage to sneak in over winter are variegated, of which I am very fond.  These are lovely plants and some of the most commented on in my collection, especially plants like echeveria 'compton carousel'

And haworthia limifolia variegata

Recently I have been looking at more unusual variegation. Plants like this haworthia are pure white and have no chorolphyll.  It has to stay connected to the other plant or it will die.

This second one started with normal variegation but over time has become more variegated until now each leaf is entirely yellow.  I know some collectors manage to keep yellow plants alive as they still have some chlorophyll, but I am not brave enough to risk it and have left it connected to the other plants.

This aloe saponaria hasn't quite made up its mind what it is going to do.  Currently it is very lop-sided but each leaf is getting whiter and I have a feeling it could end up totally white.

This agave filifera has taken it even further with one side not being variegated at all.

I am still not really sure about this one (although don't tell the OH or it will be out on its ear).  It is more of an experiment than anything else and even I will admit it is not the best looking plant.  With these lop-sided variegates it is the possibilities of what they may produce that is of interest. When they offset (I use the term "when" as I will be doing everything possible to ensure it does) the variegation of the offset will depend on where it comes off the plant.  So the plant above could produce all green or all yellow pups and any combination in between.

So while not as neat as the standard variegation I like the excitement of not knowing what you are going to end up with.

Thursday 2 December 2010

The wrong type of snow

Winter has arrived early in the UK this year. While it has been cold, up until today I had managed to avoid the snow. This morning however I woke up to a white world. The agave bracteosa and yucca 'bright star' are just managing to poke out of the snow.

The little domes are covering the echeverias which need more protection.

I am sure anyone form out side the UK will be saying "you call that snow!" but we vary rarely get more than this in London. As it is, there is total chaos here when it snows (have a quick look at any UK news at the moment to see what I mean) and it is not just the infrastructure that can not cope; for some reason many succulents really suffer with UK snow.  Last year we had a two week period like this and it decimated plants that had never been touched before.  Talking to others I discovered it was because of the snow we get in the UK.  In a similar snow fall a few years back British Rail announced that they had to cancel all trains due to "the wrong type of snow".  This caused much amusement (among those that did not have to travel) and much disgust (among those that did). But it seems it is true we really do have the wrong type of snow,  it is very wet  and tends to freeze, melt, re-freeze and it is this that does the damage.

So this year I am trying a new winter protection for my agaves and just covering them with fleece whenever snow is forecast.  (You can see it in the photo).

I do not worry about the temperatures I get, most of the plants will shrug off -8C (my lows) without any problems at all. But it is snow in the crown that causes the problem and this is where the fleece comes in.  As well as keep the snow off the plants I can go out remove the fleece and the area is clear so I will not get the melting and re-freezing problem. Once no more snow is forecast,  the fleece will be put away until next time.

I am hoping that this will allow the agaves to get through even a bad winter without any problems. We shall see if it works.

Tuesday 30 November 2010

An oddity amoung oddities

When it comes to cristate plants there is no sitting on the fence. I have a few now and have my eye on a few more, so no prizes for guessing which side I sit on. One of my favourites is aeonium sunburst,  here is the plant when I first got it in 2008.

As you can see it was growing normally when I bought it. Here is is earlier in the year,  it has formed a really wide trunk that is getting better every day.

The only question is how long can it go before the narrow part to the trunk snaps?

What makes this one of my favourites is that it has a really strange habit that I will never truly understand. Normally if a cristate plant grows a normal head and you remove it at some point it will revert to being cristate (there is something in the genes) but with aeonium sunburst if you take a normal head off that is how it stays and it does not revert.  As if that is not strange enough, you may be wondering where all the cristate versions come from, well plants like mine that are seed grown will almost always turn cristate!

So to get a cristate plant you start with a normal one, and to get a normal plant you start with a cristate one. Isn't nature great!

Sunday 28 November 2010

A flower for all seasons

One of the misconceptions of succulent gardens is that there are no flowers. I have already shown the spectacular agave flower spike,  and the glorious yucca flowers and there is nothing brighter than a green house full of cacti flowering. There is pretty much something in flower ever day of the year and one of the best plants for this are echeverias.

Apart form the different shapes, sizes and colours I have mentioned in previous posts, another unusual aspect of these plants is that they flower at different times; so you have spring, summer, autumn and winter flowers. In fact this year I have had at least one plant in flower on every single day and despite being so cold outside, I still have many varieties flowering both inside and out. 

I have to start with echeveria blue prince, simply because it started flowering in July and is still going today. I can't think of many plant that have open flowers for 5 months! I have had to move it inside as I don't want to risk it, so it is now hanging up in our porch.

One of the plants that is worth trying outside is echeveria black prince, smaller than e. blue prince but it's hardiness makes it a welcome addition to dry beds.  It also flowers very late and is just starting to get into it's stride.  Sadly heavy snow normally kills the main plant and flower so it is always a race to see if it can get its flower out and over before the first heavy snow.  I have some under simple plastic cloches and they get through my winters without problems at all.

For people who like the larger frilly plants echeveria mauna loa is one of the best.  Sadly it is not hardy and is in fact one of the more tender ones.  I lost mine last year as I just left it under my rain shelter. This year as I have back ups my main plant is in a cold frame and we shall see if that gives it enough protection tot get it through.  It flowers very later and is at it's best right now,  Whenever possible I take the lid off to let the flower stretch out a bit.  The pant flowering in the front row is echeveria blonde as you can see another later flowerer.

The shed where I over winter a lot of my plants is full of little flower spikes at various stages of development. Echeveria FO-76 has a pretty yellow flower.  More often than not you will find this one sold as echeveria sachez-mejoradae, which it is not, but for some reason no-one ever bothers to change it's name (including me). When I was sold mine it was sold as "The plant that is not echeveria sachez-mejoradae".

One I have been trying to cross for a while is echeveria john catlin.  It is probably the echeveria most people ask if I have spares of, which I have never understood, as I don't think it is as nice of many of the other white ones. But it is very hard to find and I guess that may be the attraction. Long flower stalks with pale pink flowers which are just past their best now.

Finally one that is just starting to flower echeveria difractens, also known as the shattering echeveria due to the ease its leaves fall off.  This one flowers twice a year for me, which I can not believe is normal.  Every year it's flowers get better and as you can see it is now a pot of  snaking flower spikes.

So no matter how cold or grey it gets  there is also a little bit of colour to brighten up my days.

Tuesday 23 November 2010

No yuk in yucca

I love yuccas: they cope with our winters without problems, they give a bit of height to a dry bed and of course they flower (even when you don't want them to!).  There are of course lots to choose from many readily available, and being hardy this is one plant I do not need to sneak past the OH under my jumper. Recently there have been a few variegates turning up: one of the best has to be yucca gloriosa bright star.  Photos do not do this plant justice, in reality it is very sunny yellow.

I'm not so sure about yucca recurvifolia banana split, I keep feeling it is a bit too fluffy and I have been conned by the name.

To make up for it there is also yucca whipplei, this definitely fits into the spiky category with lethal spines.  Thankfully it is out of the way and so not one you walk past or get caught on too often.

Another unusual one is yucca baccata, thick leaves with little filaments.  It should form a trunk but given mine has only grown about 1 leaf this year  I think I may be waiting some time for that.

But out of all the ones I have yucca rostrata is my favourite.  When I got this plant it looked a bit like Worzel Gummidge, with its old leaves all wrapped up.

A quick hair cut and it looked much better, or I think so.  Some people prefer to leave the old leaves but I like them to look nice and trim.

Since being planted it has filled out and now has a friend to keep it company.

There are still a couple I want to get hold of, but I am going to have to find more room first!

Monday 22 November 2010

Back to where it started

There seems to be a theme at the moment that plants I don't want to flower do and plants that I want to keep small grow.  I got this aeonium bronze medal when it was a single headed cutting.  This was it in 2008.

In 2009 it branched to produce a lovely little bushy plant. I was very pleased with the way it had grown and how it had stayed compact. One of the problems with aeomiums is that many can get leggy and constantly need to be cut up to keep them under control.  This is it at the end end of 2009

I'm not sure if it was winter growth or the wet summer but it lost the nice compact look and is becoming a bit leggy. Here is is a couple of weeks back as I was packing things away.

I am now thinking of cutting it up to start again to get that nice compact look back.  My OH is always torn when I cut things up; at first she thinks one less large plant.  But then it dawns on her that I may not get rid of all the spares and she may be stuck with several plants instead of just one. As if I would use it as an opportunity to get a few spares!

Sunday 21 November 2010

Unwanted flower

I mentioned in a previous post, that despite having several yuccas I have yet to have one flower.  Well I finally have my first yucca flowering and typically it is the one plant I did not want to flower!

I rescued a yucca gloriosa variegata from my parents house towards the end of the summer.  It has a 3 - 4 foot trunk but the head is in terrible condition having flowered in previous years.  They wanted to get rid of it,  so I dug it up and have been carefully nursing it back to life.  Checking on it the other day I found this:

Flowers can seriously set yuccas back,  they put so much energy into the flower that it can take years to get back into full growth. Given that I have been trying to nurse this one back to full health,  the last thing I wanted was for it to flower. How come I have all these other plants that I have been desperate to flower and nothing and now just when you don't want a flower along it comes.

Tuesday 16 November 2010

Name this plant.

In an earlier post I showed a few echeverias which are one of my favourite groups of plants. Alongside propagating through offsets and leaves, I have been experimenting with growing them from seeds.  They are easy to propagate this way the only problem is knowing exactly what the other parent is as they will hybridize very easily.

Taking advantage of this every summer I play cupid and using a small paint brush take the pollen from one plant and spread it inside the flower of a second.  For my first attempt there were a few varieties in flower at the same time, so I choose two of my favourites, echeveria pulidonis and echeveria rosea.

Echeveria pulidonis is a very neat compact plant, which offsets well and has pretty little yellow flowers. While not being totally hardy,  it does have some tolerance of cold.

Echeveria rosea is a more bushy plant which for much of the year can look a little messy.  However come winter the whole plant turns red and then from very early spring the end of each stem becomes a flower spike the biggest of any variety.  It also has the distinct advantage of being by far the best suited for growth in the UK and can be left outside unprotected in many parts of the country.

To be honest as a first attempt I didn't expect it to work, so was amazed when one of the seed pods opened to reveal tiny seeds.  I thought there was no harm in seeing if they would germinate,  and again was surprised when after a couple of weeks the tray was covered in new seedlings.  I mentioned yesterday that my skills at killing seedlings is unmatched and as usual I I did kill a fair amount but some made it through.

But what chances they would be anything different?  At first they looked similar to e. pulidonis, but by the end of last summer they were already starting to show differences,  the leaves seemed longer and the rosette looser.  To test the hardiness I left a few in various places, although only small they all survived despite our terrible winter.  At the start of spring they looked like this:

 As the summer progressed they grew and I'm not sure what I was feeding them but their growth rate was much quicker than normal, by July it was a fine plant and was obviously something special and had started to offset.

I am particularly pleased that it has kept its blue colour.  At this stage it was about the size that pulidonis normally gets to, but this one carried on and had to be repotted.  It now looks like this:

It is about 20cm across and has loads of offsets forming. A monster by plain e. pulidonis standards, I will be watching it closely next spring to see if it can get any bigger! I have also left a few outside to again test the hardiness.  While I love it, it has now raised a new problem of what to call it.  I have already been asked for offsets by a couple of nurseries and so I have to think of a name to stamp my mark on it.  Originally I had thought of combining the two parents; something like "pulosia"  or "pulidosia"  but was recently informed that this is not allowed.

So what to call it?  Any suggestions?

Monday 15 November 2010

Out of danger at last

One of the plants I always check in on when I visit Kew is Bulbine latifolia.  This plant is from South Africa and resembles a red hot poker. Be careful not to get this confused with Bulbinella latifolia ssp latifolia which is a bulb also from South Africa of which there are two forms.  Apart from the shape of the plant one of the things I like about it is that it is always in flower, I don't think I have ever visited when it has not been flowering, (although I do not think this is normal).

Having decided I wanted it,  I started trying to track one down and managed to find some seeds.  There are now a few suppliers who sell seeds of both varieties so hopefully it will become more common in a few years.  As usual I had no problem getting the seeds to germinate, and then had a very anxious wait while one by one I managed to kill the seedlings before they developed into young plants.  Keeping seedlings alive is something I am really not very good at.  I know the theory but some how either manage to over or under water them.

Anyway I was left with one plant and this was just getting going when to my horror it got attacked by some bug and lost its growing point. You can imagine my disappointment at seeing the damage, but I didn't give up and sure enough a month later it was pushing out two new growth points.  I have been watching it determined not let this one slip away and I think we are finally out of the woods.  The plant is now into full growth and shows no signs of being weekend by my shoddy early care.

Hopefully in 1 - 2 years I will be posting pictures of the plant in flower (or 3 - 4 years if I ordered the wrong seeds)!