Sunday, February 28, 2016

Bulb Seedlings

Mixed Crocus species at my work, flower density and quantity make this group likely to set a lot of seed.
As many of my readers are already be overly informed, I am growing a lot of bulbs and bulb-like plants from seed. There are so many reasons to do this, even though it can take years to see the first flowers of some species. Some of these plants are not readily available for sale anywhere but through mail-order from specialty suppliers, and the cost can often be prohibitive. Seed, however, is often quite cheap, if not similarly hard to come by. Much of my seed comes from two sources, the first being the Pacific Bulb Society seed exchange, and the second being sparingly-collected wild seed.* Native plants are best propagated by seed, because some species are hardly available for purchase from nurseries, or anywhere. As the name implies, the PBS seed exchange works by member-submitted seed donations, then purchased by other members at something like $2-3 a share. Quite a bargain for, say, Erythronium which can be sold for around a few dollars per bulb, or more.

Other reasons to grow from seed is that what survives is better adapted to the particular garden, the less adapted individuals die off. This is a benefit of open pollinated seed, where the genetics of each seedling will vary slightly. This could also transcend to pest or disease resistance, some being more vigorous in a particular climate. This is a superior trait when compared with clones, genetically identical offsets of a mother bulb, which might be resistant to some ailments but wiped out completely by others. This is referred to as vertical resistance, where all individuals are resistant to- and susceptible to the same things. Horizontal resistance, however, involves many unique individuals with varying resistances and susceptibilities, lessening the likelihood that they will all be lost in a single wave of disease, etc.

Lastly, I grow from seed because I love learning about how these plants grow and develop. It is almost like having a baby and watching them grow to adulthood (my daughter is 2, we've got some time). I love watching the plants develop, and to find the best routes to success. This does involve some failure, something I experienced with Xerophyllum tenax, whose seeds require inoculation with bacterial and fungal microbes (which I failed to do), and whose seedlings need protection from rain drops (which killed most of them right off the bat). Maybe I'll try that one again sometime, next time with better success. Failure is not truly failure if there is something to be learned.

*I say "sparingly-collected because I never take all the seed of a population, rather only some of the seed from few of the plants. It is unethical to dig wild plants, particularly bulbs, and is likewise unethical to collect all of the seed from a given population. Instead, it is better to collect a small portion of the seed, casually dropping some of it in situ, and leaving most on the plants.

Delphinium nuttallianum
The native larkspur, Delphinium nuttallianum, or upland larkspur, is a fairly short and ephemeral species mostly native east of the Cascades, while the superficially similar D. menziesii grows west of the Cascades where there is higher rainfall. The two species, D. nuttallianum and D. menziesii, are quite similar and easily confused, particularly when distributions intersect and hybrid progeny are produced. D. nuttallianum can be identified by having sepals that are slightly more reflexed and a shorter spur, ½", while D. menziesii can have a ¾" long spur. Similar to some bulbs, this plant exhibits a marked dormancy when Spring rains cease, and quickly disappears until early Spring the following year. This trait is echoed even as seedlings. I will be expecting flowers in a year or two, I'd be surprised to see them this year.

Allium hollandicum young bulbs
These young bulbs were repotted last year, and planted in a gallon pot along with some fresh seed. The parent bulb (only one flowered), and the other A. hollandicum bulbs I had purchased had dwindled, and I'm not even sure they will even come up this year. These can take several years to reach flowering size, but perhaps they will do better than their predecessors and perform better in my garden. I will continue to feed them with kelp meal and hope for the best.

Colchicum
Last year I collected seed from Colchicum cilicicum and C. speciosum (I have one corm of each), and tried my luck sowing it. I have had zero success with Colchicum seed in the past, having attempted C. autumnale from seed with no success. This time around I sowed the seed about a half inch below the soil and covered it with grit. If this is C. cilicicum, I am delighted because of the few Colchicum plants I have, C. cilicicum is by far the best performer, flowering for a long period, and doing so reliably two years in a row. Also, all parts of the plant is toxic which means that nothing will eat it!

Brodiaea elegans
It is always interesting for me to learn how a species germinates, and how it grows when it does. Some bulbs, like many Allium and related species, send up their first leaves with the seed husk on the tip. I would have expected that from Brodiaea, being closely related to Dichelostemma, and somewhat related to Allium. Yet it grew like this, pointy-end first, suggesting that it could withstand a deeper sowing. This species is the last of the Brodiaea-complex (Dichelostemma, Triteleia, and Brodiaea) to bloom in this region, and also has the largest individual flowers. At this time, mature plants are sending up their thin linear leaves, nearly indistinguishable from grass, barely identified by a slight reddish hue at the tip. No doubt, this group of species has evolved ways to hide from herbivores.

Dichelostemma capitatum
Unlike the above mentioned Brodiaea, Dichelostemma is seemingly very close to Allium and requires surface sowing to germ. This is evident by the weak cotyledon, emerging from the seed bent and thus not strong enough to push through too much soil. These were sown on the surface and topped with just enough grit to keep the very light seed from floating. Left uncovered in the elements, the seeds are bound to be splashed into adjacent pots where they will germinate, causing me some confusion down the line.

Triteleia crocea
This is a yellow shade loving Triteleia, seed of which collected from a few plants growing wild in my wife's parents back yard. Similar to the other Brodiaea-complex species, they were surface sown and covered with grit.

Erythronium hendersonii
Nearly all of my Erythronium pots are showing signs of life, the native E. hendersonii being the strongest performer. The seeds of all my Erythronium were soaked in a bag of water overnight, then sown the following day (back in October, I think). This was a suggestion by long time Erythronium grower Ian Young, noting that soaking the seeds increased first year germ rates drastically. The other Erythronium species I am growing are also germinating, but not as enthusiastically as the local ecotype.

Erythronium oregonum
Erythronium revolutum
Erythronium grandiflorum
The slowest to germinate, Erythronium grandiflorum finally lurches into action.

Allium bolanderi var mirabile
A tiny native Allium, this species is so easy to miss, I walked by it literally hundreds if not thousands of times before seeing it on the side of our shared gravel driveway. What it lacks in showiness it makes up for in charm. This one is probably not for everyone.

Acis autumnalis
This autumn blooming bulb is related to Narcissus and Amaryllis, so hopefully equally toxic and able to avoid herbivory. I had planted a few small bulbs of this species last fall, but they have not appeared. The intense vole activity in the bed they were planted in makes me think they are likely goners, but maybe not. I'm not sure how easy these are to establish, so seed is my best option. This single seedling appeared only after I took the pot from under protection under lights out into the garden with the other hardy seed pots. The seed was sown at a shallow depth, similar to Narcissus.

Fritillaria affinis
My first Fritillaria, F. affinis is a widespread and variable species, so a natural choice. It was sown on the surface of the potting soil and topped with grit to keep it in good contact with the soil. It only germinated after it was brought out in the open garden, along with the Acis.

Pseudomuscari azureum
My favorite grape hyacinth, this tiny species seems slow to increase vegetatively so seed was the next best option. It was surface sown, and left outside.

Iris chrysophylla
The native, and abundant, Iris chrysophylla! These seedlings are so cute, like miniatures of their parents. These are very useful, a species which I wish was utilized more in landscaping in the region. First of all, they are extremely drought tolerant, something which may be aided by a mycorrhizal mutualism, and/or an extensive root system. They are durable, survive mowing and being walked on, and are ignored by deer and voles. But when is the best time to transplant them?

Kniphofia, first seed grown specimen to bud!
Of the dozen or so Kniphofia I grew from seed, this is the first to bud! This is at my current job, a factory, where I improved the landscaping with bee-friendly drought-tolerant plants. This is a happy plant!

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