Thursday, February 28, 2013

A whale of a time

This is a rather unorthodox blog for me, but I'm still busy trying to sort out my Dominican pics to find all the plant pictures interspersed with typical traveler pictures ("is that a lizard?! LET'S TAKE 500 PICTURES OF THE PRETTY LITTLE LIZARD!!!!!").

Since I didn't want to leave my blog high and dry for two whole weeks, I figured I would post a blog that has nothing to do with plants. This is also a celebration of 10,000 page views of my blog. TEN THOUSAND! I'm finding it hard to believe that my blog could be interesting enough to get 10,000 people to read it (or maybe just 10 people visiting it 1,000 times each...still impressive since this is only blog post 228!). From the bottom of my crusty little heart, thank you immensely. I hope you'll all continue to read, and enjoy it for many months (and hopefully years) to come!

And now, some animal pictures. Yes, this is not a blog about animals. Yes, I generally have an aversion to "teaching" about animals only because people seem to value them so much higher than plants. Yes, they're cute when they're babies, but aren't plants cute when they're seedlings, too?! Animals get a lot of press because they display behaviours; mating behaviours, anger behaviours, loving behaviours, grooming behaviours, mourning behaviours, and happiness behaviours. These are all things that we attribute to be inherently human, and when an animal does it we're all fascinated by it. Do I think we spend too much time teaching people about animals? No. I think it's great that so many people want to learn all about different kinds of animals and why they do what they do (and even try to apply it to humans, which is neat and exciting). Plants deserve a lot more attention than they get, hence why I started my blog. But every so often an animal comes along that is just so gosh darn cool that I get excited about seeing them. And so I present to you...


Species name: Megaptera novaeangliae

Common name: Humpback whale

Location: Dominican Republic

Every year during the winter months, humpback whales travel from their summer feeding grounds near Greenland, Iceland and Newfoundland in Canada to their winter breeding grounds in the Bay of Samana in the Dominican Republic. There, they frolic in the incredibly warm (trust me, I was drenched by the end of the whale watching trip), very deep water for three months before starting their return trip north. Based on anecdotal evidence, it takes about a month for humpbacks to travel from the Dominican Republic back up to Newfoundland, and probably quite a bit longer than that to finish the trip to Greenland (probably getting distracted along the way by all of the food that they come across; their winter grounds are notably lacking in food sources).

In the Bay of Samana the males perform their courtship behaviours to try to impress females (pictured above is the same male displaying over and over again; he was either pretty desperate by this point or just flaunting what he's got), they mate, and the babies are born. We didn't see any baby whales while we were out on the water; apparently they are very easy to spot because they cannot hold their breath as long as the adult whales (5 minutes for a baby versus 30 minutes for an adult whale) so you see mom and baby surfacing often. The captain of our boat stayed with this whale for almost thirty minutes before we had to go back to the dock; I think even the captain and the guide were impressed with the number of times we caught this over-exuberant male displaying.

Humpbacks were once a critically endangered species because of over-hunting, which has been banned worldwide since 1986. The population of humpbacks worldwide has now ballooned to almost 80,000 whales, and they have now been removed from the endangered species list. A great success story about how conservation efforts and public education can save a species if we start early and get the information out quickly.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Stay away from this plant!

BLOG UPDATE: Starting tomorrow, I will be on a long-awaited internet-less vacation until February 25th, so no blog posts during that time. I'll be back with some awesome plant pictures (and hopefully some pictures of fungi, too!) from the Dominican Republic, so expect some more tropical species when I return! I'll also go out and take some photos of sticks when I get back on a nice day and do the promised series about "winter tree identification using sticks". Cheers! Enjoy the week!

Species name: Solanum pyracanthon

Common name: porcupine tomato

Location: UWO Greenhouse

The porcupine tomato, a close relative of the edible tomato, is native to Madagascar and, like many species there, is at risk due to the enormous amount of deforestation that has occurred there. The plant is still very common in some areas where it grows like a weed, but in others (where it was once common) it is completely absent. The plant has been introduced as an ornamental species to Europe and North America where it has the ability to escape under certain circumstances (usually if planted in gardens in the southernmost regions of both continents). For most that have this plant as an ornamental, there is very little risk of it escaping because it is very frost-sensitive. It is still best, however, to make sure you pick the fruit off the bush before the seeds have a chance to disperse (the fruit really does look identical to a tomato!), as the seedlings almost immediately produce the bright orange thorns which are full of toxins and make the plant very difficult to remove.

Like most species in the tomato family (the Solanaceae), the porcupine tomato produce a class of chemicals called the tropane alkaloids which, depending on the chemical composition of these alkaloids, can prove deadly if consumed. Belladonna, Jimsonweed, henbane and mandrake are all other examples of plants with high concentrations of these tropane alkaloids. Extreme care should be exerted should you choose to grow this plant as an ornamental species; if you happen to prick yourself with a thorn and the thorn breaks in your skin, a flux of these tropane alkaloids will be released directly into your blood stream and it can make you seriously ill. It certainly won't kill you with that small amount, but flu-like symptoms are almost guaranteed. Since the fruits look so much like tomatoes, it is strongly suggested that this plant never, under any circumstances, be exposed to small children as that could have disastrous consequences; a child eating one small fruit will almost certainly die as a result.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Botanical Chinese Lanterns

Species name: Abutilon megapotamicum

Common name: trailing abutilon, Chinese lanterns

Location: UWO Greenhouse

When I first saw this plant (unlabelled in the greenhouse) I thought "what a neat plant! They look like little Chinese lanterns. I'm going to call this the Chinese lantern plant!" Turns out I'm just as good at naming plants with common names as those who have come before me decades (even centuries) before; one of the common names of this plant is indeed the Chinese lantern plant! Contrary to what you might think from the name, it is not native to China, or anywhere in Asia for that matter. It is native to South America, in the tropical forests of Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina. I'm not sure of the status of this species in its native range, but if it's going through what every other plant native to the Amazon is going through it will be at risk of becoming threatened if the rate of deforestation doesn't drastically decrease.

The way that this plant flowers is completely backwards from what you would guess based on the images, and completely backwards from what I thought in my mind. I thought that I could blog about how the fruit of this species was especially cool because they have paper-thin walls, and the walls of the fruit either are shaken open in the wind when the fruit is mature or they are auto-digested in order to release the seeds. In fact, that red fruit-like structure is the immature flower before it has opened up. Those red "fruit walls" are actually sepals, the bract-like structures that cover the developing flower in order to protect it. What I thought was the spent flower, the picture at the bottom, that was turning into the fruit is actually the flower growing out of the protecting bracts and eventually it will unfurl and be a bright yellow-orange. The plant sure stumped me! I was thinking it was very closely related to the bladder cherry (also called the Chinese lantern plant), but they're not at all related and not used at all for the same reasons. The bladder cherry is sometimes used as an edible plant, but I've only ever heard of it being used as a decorative plant. In fact, one of the uses my supervisor told me about the lantern plant I'm sure you can do with this one, too: literally turn them into lanterns. During the summer when these are ready to bloom, go out and catch lightning bugs (or fireflies; whatever you called them when you were a kid!). Gently squeeze the sides of the red sepals until they start to split open at the bottom. Stuff some lightning bugs in, and voila! Glowing botanical lanterns. Just remember to let the bugs back out after you've taken some photos.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Happy Chinese New Year!

Since yesterday was Chinese New Year, I figured I would do a post about the flowers (and entire plants) traditionally incorporated into a Chinese New Year celebration. I had no idea there were so many, and that each one had its own meaning! So here we go, a brief walk through the plants of the Chinese New Year.

Species name: Prunus mume

Common name: plum blossom, Japanese flowering apricot, Chinese apricot

Location: photos from Dave's Garden (Canadian_flora)

The plum blossom tree is native to China along the Yangtze River basin. It is still incredibly common there, but is also now common in Japan, Korea, and North America where it is grown for its fruit. The fruit is often turned into a syrup and used in traditional Korean, Japanese and Chinese cooking. It is also grown, especially in North America, for its very attractive flowers that have a very strong, sweet scent. One of the reasons why this specific species was chosen as one of the plants for Chinese New Year is because of its flowering time. Granted, where I live it's still -7 Celsius and we have a foot of snow, but the area that this tree is native to is starting to warm up, and the tree flowers in February and March. Perfect timing for a celebration in February! The plant is used to decorate the house because it is seen to be a sign of luck.

The Chinese apricot is also a plant that is important in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) as a treatment of stomach problems and oral infections. Interestingly, the effectiveness of this plant was studied in a clinical trial in the United States and it was found that extracts of the leaves and stems of the plant are effective in reducing the number of bacteria in the mouth (but not just "bad" bacteria; it also reduces the bacteria in your mouth that control the number of yeast in your mouth. Removing these can lead to an oral fungal infection commonly known as "thrush"), and also is moderately effective in the treatment of gastritis and gastric ulcers. There is also some suggestion that extracts of the fruit may help in increasing the amount of oxygen in muscle tissue, but this effect has only been shown to date in mice.

Species name: Fortunella japonica

Common name: kumquat

Location: photos from Dave's Garden (henryr10)

The kumquat is native to Japan and China, and is a popular edible fruit. Recently it has been introduced to North American supermarkets where it is slowly gaining popularity. We bought a container of them about 10 years ago and I thought they were a lot of work to peel for a fruit that tasted an awful lot like a mix between a clementine and a lemon! I've tried growing them indoors and they seem to not like either the pot and the soil they're in (more than likely), or the fact that I'm trying to grow a tropical fruit tree in a pot in North America (also more than likely). Either way, I'm about to give up on them! By reading about them just now I figured out that I was eating them wrong, and they're actually eaten backwards from every other citrus fruit. Usually only the rind is consumed, which is sweet, and the centre of the fruit is either eaten with the skin still intact or thrown away (it is very sour). They produce a very sweet-and-sour jelly, and so are often used to make preserves or marmalades. The Chinese use them around the Chinese New Year to represent prosperity.

Other than their edible value, kumquats are rarely grown for any other use. Based on the chemical composition of the skin and the fruit there has been the suggestion that they might play a role in preventing cancer, but to date that has never been tested.

Species name: Narcissus sp.

Common name: Narcissus, daffodil

Location: photos from Dave's Garden (kniphofia)

The daffodil is native to Europe, western Asia and northern Africa, depending on the species. The daffodil is such a popular flower that there are over 1,000 cultivars of this plant alone, and they are revered in different parts of the world during the spring. In North America they are sometimes associated with Easter because of their very early flowering time, but also associated with various festivals and cultural or religious events around the world. It is even the national flower of Wales. It is believed that the name comes from the Ancient Greeks, who appreciated the flowers for their beauty but feared the bulbs for their toxins (more about that later). This follows the legend of Narcissus, the man who was so vain and appreciated his own beauty so much that he drowned while admiring himself in a pool of water. The Chinese have a story that a very poor but very happy man was made very wealthy by selling and trading daffodil bulbs, and so the daffodil is now a symbol of prosperity for the Chinese New Year. It is said that if your daffodils flower on the day of the Chinese New Year you will be extra prosperous that year.

It has been known for many centuries that the bulbs of daffodils are highly toxic (one of the contributing reasons why onions were shunned by the Europeans for centuries before they were willing to consume them; they also knew very well that tulip bulbs were also toxic). The bulbs contain the alkaloid lycorine which can cause severe illness when only small amounts are ingested, and can cause death if large amounts of daffodil bulbs are consumed. It also has large amounts of calcium oxalate (oxalic acid) in the sap, which can cause contact dermatitis (often referred to as "daffodil itch"). The Japanese historically used this plant in kampo, a version of TCM adapted by Japanese practitioners sometime between the 7th and 9th centuries. It was used as a paste with wheat flour on open wounds, presumably as a means of preventing infection. It is more likely that patients suffered horribly because of the calcium oxalate and lycorine, and it is no longer included in the list of herbs of traditional kampo.

Species name: Phyllostachys sp.

Common name: bamboo

Location: photos from Dave's Garden (growin)

The word "bamboo" actually applies to a tribe of plants in the grass family which all have the same general morphology of very large, wood-like, hollow stems. Some species grow taller than others, but all of them are very difficult to distinguish unless you're a bamboo expert (there are a few exceptions, but there wouldn't be bamboo experts in the world if it were easy to distinguish them!). The fastest growing species have been used (and are still used in some places) as a building material, and houses are even currently being constructed entirely from bamboo to demonstrate its ability to be used as more environmentally friendly alternative to wood. There are some species that are incredibly invasive, so if you choose to plant bamboo in your yard, make sure you're planting a species that will not destroy the local flora. There is also the legend that the Chinese, Korean, and Japanese armies used growing, living bamboo as a torture device to obtain information from prisoners, with the threats that if the information was not given in an appropriate amount of time, the bamboo would grow up through the prisoner, effectively killing them in an incredibly unusual and painful manner. You can imagine this is a pretty awesome urban legend, and I thought so, too...until I saw it on Myth Busters. They tied a dead pig on a wood-slatted bed, planted bamboo under it and left it alone for a week. When they came back, the pig had been impaled by the growing bamboo, and the bamboo was growing completely unimpeded through the animal. Pretty amazing when you think about the strength that some plants have when growing! To many cultures, bamboo is a sign of luck and the Chinese are no exception. Young bamboo shoots are eaten (if you've never tried some you should; they're fantastic!) after being lightly fried, and young bamboo shoots are also used as a decoration to bring luck during the year to come.

Bamboo is an incredible plant, and not just because of its growth rate. All species of bamboo display something called a "mass flowering," where all individuals of the same original stock flower at exactly the same time (I'm talking within hours of each other, regardless of whether or not they're even on the same continent!). This flowering could take place anywhere from 65 to 130 years after it was planted, depending on the species. Once the flowering is over and the seeds have been dispersed, the bamboo dies. For a plant to have some sort of flowering "alarm clock" that can be accurate to within a few hours after 130 years is mind-blowing. If you didn't think plants were cool before, I hope you do now!

Species name: Helianthus annuus

Common name: sunflower

Location: photos from Dave's Garden (Noell_swfl)

The sunflower is native to eastern North America, right around the Great Lake States and New England, stretching upwards just into Ontario. It is an annual plant, meaning it completes its life cycle in one year, so the fact that it can grow to be almost the height of a one-storey house in a single summer is impressive. The young flowers, often portrayed in native Mexican and southern American art as the sun, follow the path of the sun during the day and return to their starting position at night. Older flowers do not portray this; instead all of the flower heads are fixed in an easterly direction and so if you see them in the morning you might think they're facing the sun (when they're actually facing that direction all day). The seeds, a popular food for birds and small mammals in the wild, were used by early native North Americans as a source of food and also as a source of cooking oil. Seeds of the sunflower were brought over to Europe by the early conquistadors, where they became very popular with the Russian Orthodox church since they produced one of the only cooking oils allowed during the fasting of lent. I'm not sure where the Chinese adopted the flowers, but they are associated with a good year and so are used in decorating doorways and the dinner table.

One of my favourite days of the year is May 1st. Why, you ask? Well, because it's International Sunflower Guerilla Gardening Day, of course! You can sign up on the website to participate in this day of spreading flowering cheer by agreeing to distribute sunflower seeds in neglected flower beds, in ditches along roadsides, in neglected planters, and any other neglected dirt-filled space. Just make sure you're not planting them in peoples' gardens! They might not like that. :)

Species name: Solanum melongena var. esculentum

Common name: eggplant

Location: photos from Dave's Garden (NovKate)

The eggplant is a member of the nightshade family, a family of not only deadly toxic plants (such as Belladonna) but also many of our most popular edible plants (like tomatoes, potatoes and bell peppers). They are native to India, whereas most of their edible family members are native to the Andes in South America. Eggplants, also known as aubergines in Europe, come in many different shapes, sizes and colours, but the most popular are the traditional large, purple, egg-shaped fruit sold in North American grocery stores. The Chinese often grow plants that produce much longer fruits that are much more narrow, and can have colouration from a deep purple to almost white, and the fruits are often vertically striped or with an "ombre" effect (dark towards the tip of the fruit and a much lighter purple towards the end where it attaches to the stem).

There is an anecdotal study that reports that some people can have an allergic reaction to handling eggplants, which should come as no surprise based on its closest relatives. These allergies usually manifest themselves as a rash on the skin, but some people report nausea or upset stomach as a result of eating it. This usually only occurs in people who show a hypersensitivity to chemicals on their skin, but atropine, a chemical present in small quantities in eggplant and other species in the genus Solanum, can make skin photosensitive (meaning the rash is intensified in bright sunlight). The Chinese have used eggplant leaf extract in a paste-like form for centuries as part of TCM; it is believed that it can heal wounds quickly. It is used during Chinese New Year as a symbol of healing. It is also rumoured to be effective as a weight loss aid after the effect was demonstrated in rabbits; since then a few clinical trials have attempted to reproduce this effect in humans to no success; it was significantly less effective at causing weight loss than diet and exercise (either of these alone or combined).

Species name: Sandersonia aurantiaca

Common name: Chom mon plant, Chinese lantern lily

Location: photos from Dave's Garden (bonitin)

The last plant associated with Chinese New Year is the Chinese lantern lily (known only by that name in North America and Europe), or the Chom mon plant. It is native to South Africa and also flowers right around this time, and so lends itself to use as a decoration during the most important Chinese celebration of the year. The flowers, resembling Chinese lanterns, are symbols of tranquility. It is now incredibly rare in the wild in its natural habitat, often seen only on nature reserves and never in commonly visited locations. If you choose to purchase one of these plants, make sure your seller is reputable and does not obtain their stock (most commonly grown from tubers but sometimes by seed) from the wild.

The Chom mon plant has been associated with TCM for centuries (as well as traditional Zulu medicine in Africa) as an aphrodisiac, although now has been abandoned as a plant with any medicinal value. This is because the entire plant contains high levels of the chemical colchicine, an alkaloid that can cause death, having effects that closely mimic arsenic poisoning. Despite this, it is still used as a remedy for arthritic gout, and has been rumoured to be an effective cancer treatment. There are some clinical trials underway on non-human animals about the effectiveness of colchicine in treating (or preventing) cancer, and so far the results have been far from positive. Unless colchicine is prescribed for you by your doctor, I would absolutely steer clear from it!

To all of my blog readers: Happy Chinese New Year! Gong Hey Fat Choy!

Saturday, February 9, 2013

In Congo, parrots are flowers

Species name: Impatiens niamniamensis

Common name: parrot plant, congo cockatoo

Location: UWO Greenhouse

The parrot plant, as its other common name may suggest, is native to Central Africa in the very small remains of what used to be a vast tropical rainforest. There haven't been any biodiversity studies recently that examine this species, but due to the rate of deforestation and the spreading drought in the area, I can imagine this species is probably at risk in its native range. Fortunately, this plant is readily propagated in the greenhouse so if rehabilitation studies were ever performed there is a genetic bank from which to select plants to recolonize the area. Due to its seed dispersal mechanism it may become invasive in some areas.

Like in the touch-me-nots (which are in the same genus; you can read all about them HERE), the seed pods of this species are like little seed grenades. When mature, even the lightest touch will cause the seed pods to explode and seeds go flying in all directions. An excellent dispersal mechanism, especially because these plants thrive in tropical climates. Here, the soil very quickly loses its organic nutrients in the top layers of soil and so plants need to disperse great distances from the mother plant in order to be able to successfully root and grow in the soil. Most greenhouses that propagate and sell the parrot plant don't even bother collecting the seeds, since the plant is so easily propagated from cuttings. When you do a cutting of a plant, usually you need to dip the exposed cut into a rooting compound which is full of plant hormones that signal the maturation of root cells from the plant's stem cells (in plants we call these meristematic cells). The plants are then placed in a soil substitute that is very porous, allowing for easy extraction of the plant from the medium to be planted in soil once the roots start to develop. This plant is even easier than that: cut a small piece off the end of a stem, put it in a cup of water and wait a few days. Sometimes it also helps to place a clear plastic bag upside down over the plant; this causes the environment around the plant to be very humid and warm, but air can very easily enter and exit through the bottom of the bag. After a few days, you'll start to see small roots form at the bottom of the stem. Put the stem in some soil, and there you go. A new plant! This is the way that one of my former students gave me my parrot plant about 4 years ago. I still have it, and while sometimes it just looks like a stick in the ground, it produces a new flush of flowers a couple of times a year. I have yet to see one of the fruit grenades produced, though.

The flowers of this plant are very well protected from predation, while at the same time attracting all different kinds of pollinators. Butterflies, bees and hummingbirds will be attracted to the flowers which produce a huge amount of nectar, as well as insects that have the ability to chew through the walls of the flower; since it's difficult for them to reach the bottom of the flower via the opening, they just bite through the outside and get their nectar reward by cheating. The protection of the flowers doesn't actually come from the flowers themselves, but from the stem of the plant while the flowers are developing. The plant produces large amounts of oxalic acid that are stored in crystals on specialized hairs on the stem right above the developing flowers. If a herbivore tries to come along and chew off one of the flowers, they will be instead rewarded with a mouthful of calcium oxalate crystals that will completely destroy their digestive system. Cats and dogs seem to have some sort of ability to sense this toxin produced by plants; I've never heard of a cat trying to eat through rhubarb leaves which have the same oxalic acid. Small children aren't so smart! It won't greatly harm a small child, but it will destroy your sense of taste for a good couple of days, as well as potentially making your mouth bleed quite a bit so parents of small children beware. The flowers of this plant can be interpreted as candy by small children so this plant shouldn't be within arms' reach.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

(one of) The real jade plant(s)

Species name: Crassula ovata (formerly Crassula argentea)

Common name: jade plant

Location: UWO Greenhouse

This plant is a wonderful example of taxonomy and taxonomic rules. A few days ago I profiled the trumpet jade, which is a variety of the jade plant selected for its morphologically messed-up leaves (you can read all about it HERE). It is native to South Africa, and has (to my knowledge) never been evaluated for its species status. It is likely very secure (meaning there are many individuals left in the wild that readily reproduce), but since I've never been to South Africa I'm definitely not one to comment first-hand.

Historically, the jade plant was divided into two different species based on flowers; the pink-flowered plants were placed in Crassula ovata and the white-flowered plants belonged in Crassula argentea. There is also a correlation between colours of flowers and the general shape of the leaves; the leaves of the pink-flowered plants often have longer and more oval leaves, while the white-flowered plants have shorter, slightly rounder leaves. Unfortunately, this was just smoke and mirrors and a great example of how plants confuse botanists. The "rules" that were made up for how to tell C. ovata from C. argentea were 100% artificial, and it turns out they're both the same species. The colour of the flower is controlled by a single gene and there can be gene copies for white flowers or pink flowers. Depending on whether the plant has white genes or pink genes, the flowers can be more white, more pink, or somewhere in between. Leaf shape is probably more controlled by level of maturation and environmental conditions than anything else; leaves produced in very dry conditions and high amounts of sunlight will be smaller and more ovate than ones produced when lots of water is available and the temperature is cooler.

So once a species has two names, what do we do? In the naming of any kind of biological organism, there is a rule called the "Rule of Priority". Whatever name was validly published and applied to the organism first is the name that stays. There are some ways to make exceptions to this rule (especially in animals...zoologists are terrible with following rules of taxonomy!), but I won't get into that. If I don't get to bend the rules with my thesis when I'm naming species, no one else should :)

This jade plant has been masterfully cared for. How do I know this? Look at all the flowers! I've seen the odd flower or inflorescence group on a jade plant before, but nothing like this. One thing that you often have to be careful of when it comes to flowering plants (and some non-flowering plants that are gymnosperms) is that when they "moult" because their health is suffering, it's often mistaken for a sign of great health and prosperity. Some trees are known to do this: the tree somehow knows that it is infected with some kind of disease (insect, fungal, bacterial or viral), produces significantly more seeds than it would under normal conditions, then dies pretty quickly after the big seed flush. Oak trees also do this on an incredibly predictable cycle, which is off-set with population booms of squirrels. When the squirrel population is high, the oak trees need to produce an over-abundance of acorns just to keep up. They moult and over-produce acorns in an effort to overwhelm the squirrels and hopefully reproduce instead of being completely eaten. The results of this effort can sound like it's literally raining acorns. This effort seems to be incredibly successful, since most species of oak aren't at risk of becoming endangered due to squirrel predation any time soon. The moulting of oak trees depends on the species; red oaks are on a 4-5 year cycle and white oaks a 5-7 year cycle. Is this jade plant at risk of keeling over after this flush of flowers? I'm guessing not, but I'm really not sure. If it's mysteriously absent from the greenhouse in 8-12 months, then I think I know why! If it's still there, then its just a well-loved jade plant.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

It's not Christmas, but here's a Cactus!

Species name: Schlumbergera truncata

Common name: Christmas cactus

Location: UWO Greenhouse

I was pondering saving this blog for sometime around Christmas next year, but when I saw how the last picture turned out I wanted to brag about it right away. Doesn't it look like it's illuminated from the inside?! One of my proudest moments, and I have no idea how to re-create it. :)

This species of Christmas cactus (there is more than one, and most of the Christmas cacti sold in store around Christmas are actually hybrids) is native to a very small area in Brazil, in the Amazon jungle near Rio de Janeiro. It was once severely over-harvested in the wild due to the ornamental plant trade, and so European species of the same genus were purposely introduced into the wild to prevent over-harvesting of the native species. Since then, quite a bit of hybridization has occurred between the two species (both in the wild and in greenhouses), and so most that are sold in stores are not a "true" species. The Christmas cactus is an epiphyte, living on standing tree trunks or off of tree branches. It also has the ability to grow on the surface of rocks in very humid areas, this is called an epilythic plant. There are a few plants I've already blogged about that are also notorious lithophytes: the monkey pitcher plant (read about it HERE), paph orchids (read about them HERE), staghorn ferns (read about them HERE or HERE), and other more "regular" species of ferns (read about one HERE). There are also very close relatives of the pineapple that grow on rock faces in the tropics, and can even grow (and commonly do) on telephone and electrical wires!

There are very few pests of Christmas cactuses, but they can suffer from all of the same diseases and pests that any greenhouse plant can (aphids, mealybugs, and Fusarium vascular wilt; all very common in greenhouses). It does have a unique disease: Christmas Cactus X virus. Like with the Hosta X virus, there is no known solution to infection once it is visible in the plant, and so it is strongly suggested that plants be destroyed once symptoms are noticed (usually a yellowing around the vascular system of the plant, the "veins", and the infection can jump from section to section in the stem).