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.