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.

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!

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Bulbs and Floral Visitors

Crocus vernus 'Pickwick'
To date, I have had more crocus pest problems this year than any years prior. Deer are the number one problem, particularly with the crocuses, yet slugs are a close second, favoring the nearly opened flowers. You are lucky to see this, it may already be gone. The deer have been particularly famished this year (apparently), and I am ready for a family of cougars to come clear my garden of the bastards. Black-tailed deer (Odocoileus hemionus columbianus) prefer the forest edges, which happens to be where my garden is, and thus like to sample every plant in my garden. If they don't like it, they spitefully pull the plant out and leave it on the ground, like a used contraceptive, especially fond of leaving the chewed-up nearly-developed flower bud there for me to discover. So enjoy the flower, while you can.

Crocus tommasinianus
Crocus tommasinians is the species most notable for use in the lawn, particularly for the late developing leaves. The leaves don't fully elongate until the flowers have faded, thus are well adapted for mowing (surely evolution had lawn mowers in mind). Other species, like C. vernus, have leaves that can grow in excess of ten inches, if not longer where there are high levels of nitrogen, an obvious disadvantage to a well kept lawn (which mine is not).

Crocus chrysanthus
This is apparently very tasty to slugs, because they've eaten most of these early bloomers. Enter Sodium Ferric Ethylenediaminetetraacetate. Exit slugs.

Crocus chrysanthus 'Prins Clause'
This is a fine selection of C. chrysanthus planted near my beehives. It is speculated to be a sterile variety, no seed has been set by me or anyone I know, though it does reproduce vegetatively as evident by the small bunch of plants here, knowing that I only planted these as single corms (easier to do without disturbing large areas of soil and existing vegetation).

Crocus vernus 'Pickwick' attracts a small dance fly (Family Empididae)
Dance flies aka dagger flies of various genera have been attracted to the crocuses for pollen, and perhaps nectar. These depend on moist undisturbed soils to grow into adults, and will hunt other Diptera (flies) as adults. This naturally occurring biological pest control is something to be encouraged. By curbing our instincts as gardeners to fork and turn soils before planting, we are encouraging microbes of various types (bacteria, fungi, protozoa, etc.) as well as arthropods (including fly larvae) to flourish and improve soil structure. The result of not disturbing our soils is improved nutrient cycling without the use of fertilizers, and proliferation of many types of beneficial predatory and parasitic insects.

Where there are flies, there are spiders
Spiders, regardless of whether you are afraid of them or not, are indeed very beneficial. In most instances, they are more likely to run from you or not care than they are to attack. Compared to the estimated number of spiders in an average chemical-free garden (gotta be in the hundreds, though you'd see very few), very few bites occur, and the rate of bites in the US must be incredibly low compared to the total number of spiders. Personally, I prefer the spiders to the masses of pest insects. Even if the spiders are attacking beneficial species, their presence is a sign that prey insects are in good supply. High biodiversity is a good thing, helping to prevent population explosions of any one pest that could otherwise destroy a garden/farm.

A male cluster fly (Pollenia sp.) on C. vernus 'Pickwick'
The genus Pollenia have a fascinating, and yet highly disturbing life cycle. They have clearly been highly attracted to the crocuses, and must contyribute significantly to pollination since the weather has been unfavorable for bees (too cold and wet). Strangely, I have seen only a single bumblebee this year, although in past years I have seen bumblebee queens as early as January. Peculiar.

A quote from last year's post A Year of Pollinators: Flies!:
The genus Pollenia feed mostly on plant products (fruit) and their secretions (nectar, sap), as well as feces and meat [thus are beneficial recyclers as well as pollinators]. The larvae, once hatched on the ground under dense vegetation where humidity is high, proceed to seek out earthworms by following the natural pores in the soil. After finding one, they burrow inside and feed on its insides before pupating.

Scilla siberica
A single Siberian squill is far beyond the rest, flowering before the others have even emerged from the soil. These are valuable flowers, blooming over a long period, and ignored by pests. I have yet to assess whether or not the bulbs are truly pest resistant, as voles plowed through the bulb beds last year after they went into dormancy. Along with related species and genera Chionodoxa and Puschkinia, they are typically touted as resistant to herbivores in literature, yet I have learned over the past few years of observations that literature is often regionally specific. I suspect that most of what is written in books about hardiness, pollinators, and pest resistance is in fact true wherever the author(s) live or grow, yet not so everywhere. Another reason most herbivore lists claim plants are resistant to deer (squirrels, etc.) and not deer proof.

Iris reticulata
A good deer resistant bulb, the reticulated irises do quite well here growing where the ground dries out and gets figuratively sun-baked in the Summer. Deer seem to ignore them, though they may occasionally browse, yet it seems voles will eat them if they are planted where the soil is friable.

A honeybee is suckered into visiting a daffodil
Typically considered deer-proof, Narcissus are occasionally "sampled" by deer with bad memories of the foul taste and toxicity (hopefully resulting in some gastric distress). They are rarely, however, "sampled" by honeybees. There are a number of surprising things going on here. First, there is but a single daffodil blooming now, honeybees typically prefer many flowers in bloom at once of a single species to be attracted to it. Second, they typically avoid Narcissus even when blooming en masse. It has been speculated that they simply don't like Narcissus pollen, or perhaps like some Ranunculus the pollen contains toxic constituents like the rest of the plant. I will be exploring the pollination of Narcissus (backed with a whole lot of research) in a future post, pending more observations this year as more of them bloom.

For now, please enjoy this brief recording I made of a honeybee in a daffodil:

Note that after the bee exits the corona, it cannot figure out how to get back in. Before she found her way in, she struggled for like five minutes trying to access the nectar from outside the corona, much to my amusement. She found the entrance, no help from the apparently misleading perianth, and attained some pollen. She then packed it into her corbicula, and went on her way. The apparent confusion of the bee is perplexing, chiefly because trumpet/large cupped daffodils are known to be pollinated specifically by bees (short cupped Narcissus pollinated by moths/butterflies). More on that later, stay tuned!

Cynoglossum grande
Not really a bulb, but worthy of mention due to its ephemeral nature, the Pacific hound's tongue (Boraginaceae) grows from a very long and very deep woody black taproot. In some years, it is the first native wildflower to bloom. It grows where there is deep leaf litter, and incidentally where there are a lot of trees. It is primarily bumblebee pollinated, the pollen requiring mechanical removal in the form of sharp vibration (accomplished by the vibrating flight muscles of bumblebees). They had emerged much earlier last year, no doubt in response to the cold winter we had this year and the extremely mild winter we had last year.

Erythronium hendersonii in bud
The local fawn lily is here at last, easily one of my favorite wildflowers. Growing from a bulb, it is situated much deeper than one would suspect to a depth exceeding ten inches. I find this species superior to many other species, perhaps in result of some personal pride that they grow in my backyard, but more so because they have deeply mottled leaves, delicately intricate flower colors, and a lot of variability which is apparently regional. To me, this species nearly equally beautiful in all stages of growth, including the dry seed capsules.

Dodecatheon (Primula) hendersonii
In my view these are allied with Erythronium hendersonii due to their occasionally overlapping bloom periods, and very distant superficial similarity (both have purplish reflexed petals, best compared with blurred vision). Dodecatheon hendersonii, or rather Primula hendersonii, exhibit a very wide range of variables including petal shape, height, bloom period, and color.

Dodecatheon bud detail

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Planting for Bees and Microbes at the Workplace

Continuing to share the progress of my side project at work, I have received a fairly constant flow of compliments from my fellow associates at the cabinet factory. For those just tuning in, I had brought the idea of bringing in pollinator-friendly drought-tolerant plants to the landscaping, formerly a sorry sight with a lot of bare compacted clay. I was allowed to remain on the clock, and they even supplied me some money to purchase plants. Some of the plants came from me, I had an overabundance of some such as Stachys byzantina which is easily divided by division. Also planted here is Yucca filamentosa, various ThymusEuphorbia × martini, and a few bearded irises. There are more Crocus to come, the ones blooming now are mostly C. sieberi and C. chrysanthus. Honeybees had been interested in these flowers yet I haven't seen any since last week.

Crocus chrysanthus growing out of a rock crevice
I have also been amending the "soil" (or more appropriately dead lifeless compacted clay). By adding sand and organic material, as well as inoculating the roots of the plants before I plant them, I am creating a more hospitable environment for plants to grow in. Mostly, I have been inspired by the book Teaming with Microbes: The Organic Gardener's Guide to the Soil Food Web (Revised Edition) by Jeff Lowenfels and Wayne Lewis (Timber Press, 2010). Get it. By adding beneficial microbes such as bacteria and fungi to the soil, I hope that a soil food web can develop which can benefit the plants in a variety of ways. Plants, in turn, benefit soil life with root exudates (exuded molecules of various substances such as sugars, polysaccharides, and most importantly, carbon) which are a food source for many beneficial microbes that live right around or in the roots (aka the rhizosphere).

Crocus growing out of a corner of a curbed parking island
With a healthy soil food web, good soil structure is formed, and nutrients are continuously made available to the plants without the need for fertilizer (synthetic fertilizers actually harm soil life). As the microbes (bacteria, fungi, protozoa, nematodes, microarthropods, etc.) eat and are eaten themselves (it's a vicious world down there), they are constantly releasing nitrogen and other trace elements that would otherwise be in forms that are useless to plants. A soil which is teaming with a diversity of microbial activity can out compete pathogens, too. Also important in this planting, beneficially parasitic mycorrhizal fungi can reach far beyond the roots extent to supply the plant with out of reach moisture and nutrients.

Rock garden, South side
 On the other side of the office, this is a hotter location which receives radiant heat from the metal walls and direct afternoon sun. Interestingly, the same amount of Crocus were planted here yet there are fewer blooming. Like the other planting, there are a variety of plants here that will be of use to bees, all inoculated with mycorrhizae, other fungi, and beneficial bacteria. In essence, the soil microbes will be benefiting pollinators when they allow the plants to take up more nutrients and moisture, enabling improved nectar production. They are all connected, through plants.

Rocks create microclimates
The soil here was amended by layering organic mulch with sand, sharp decomposed granite, and pea gravel. The rocks create microclimates, offering some shade and perhaps some residual moisture since the rocks block or delay evaporation. Some plants, like the Sedum reflexum barely seen shaded against the large rock in the foreground, do better with some afternoon shade in this climate (USDA zone 7b)


Sunday, February 7, 2016

Early Bee Plants

A honeybee visits Crocus sieberi
Spring is nearly upon us, and a few days of relative warmth have shown that bees and other organisms are ready to go. Crocus are popping up everywhere, both at home (nevermind they are being knocked down by turkeys and eaten by deer) and at work, where last year I spent a lot of time improving the dead industrial landscape in front of my workplace's main office.

A honeybee squeezes inside a closing Crocus chrysanthus
The first of the Crocus to bloom are C. chrysanthus and C. sieberi, both readily available and easy to please, both being partial to a quite dry Summer rest so they may not be restricted by the reaches of your irrigation system. Crocus produce both pollen and nectar, though the latter is only available on warm[ish] days when it is produced in quantity and able to ascend up the floral tube (which extends underground, the true stem only breaches the surface to jettison the seeds), arising to a level that is within reach of a bees' proboscis. Pollen is collected due to it's high protein content to feed developing bees, the rich food source is required to grow healthy bees. Carbohydrates, found in the sugary nectar, are required by adult bees who expend a lot of energy flying and taking care of their colony.

Nectar is a complex substance composed of a large variety of complex sugars. Water is absorbed by the plant, and pushed through a membrane in the flower (the nectary) which combines the sugars with a variety of other plant-specific constituents. Honeybees, as well as some other bees, cannot digest nectar as it is, so they collect it in a crop (the honey stomach, they have two stomachs) and regurgitate it into cells in the hive, now with added microbes and enzymes from their crop, which transform the complex sugars into simple, easily digestible sugars. Once the moisture content drops below 20% (it's a mystery how honeybees know this), they cap the comb and save it for whenever they need it.

A fungus gnat (family Mycetophilidae) is attracted to the Crocus
Other insects have been attracted to the Crocus flowers, including fungus gnats and tiny Chalcidae wasps. They could be attracted for a variety of reasons. First, seemingly most obvious, id the bright color. The purpose of brightly colored flowers, after all, is to attract insects. Many flowers also have markings not within the spectrum that humans can see (there's a lot of information on this). Second is the scent. Most flowers have a scent, even if they aren't detectable by human noses. Aside from the fragrance of the nectar, the petals of many flowers exude fragrances that are intriguing to pollinators. The last attractant is solar radiance, meaning flowers trap and reflect a small amount of heat from the sun (also helps activate fragrances) which alone can be alluring to insects seeking to bask.

Part of the landscaping at my work (designed and implemented by me)
A wide view of part of my redesigned landscape at work. Ignore the white sign and the reflector, they were necessary as there are those who apparently have no idea that something changed and continue to walk through and on the plants (Muggles!). Aside from that, the effort has been highly praised by a large number of my fellow associates and management. Of course, I hope it benefits pollinators and in time creates a thriving micro-environment for insects and perhaps birds.

A variety of pollinator plants at work, surviving the trampling of careless goons
Crocus are everywhere, along with Sedum album, Stachys byzantina, and a freshly planted Yucca, the latter of which I hope will eventually deter people from straying off the clearly marked sidewalk and gravel path. Next up will be some poison oak transplants and blackberry, mulched with thumbtacks and live mousetraps. Something has got to work, so long as I don't have to put up a fence. That would look bad.

Erysimum × 'Walfrastar' (aka 'Fragrant Star')
A perennial wallflower, I have never tried this plant or even this genus. It was a suggestion by a knowledgeable nurserywoman based on the criterion: drought, bees, possible trampling by a herd of animals, heat. The Winter colors are quite stunning! I was told it is not eaten by deer, but this is something I've heard before.

On the hot south side, a variety of plants grow among rocks (including Cardamine hirsuta)
On the opposite side of the front office, the hottest part of the landscape, amended with organic matter, sharp sand, gravel, and a topdressing of pea gravel is host to many Crocus and a few other heat-tolerant plants. There are people who walk through this part of the landscape too, something about a bunch of rock obstacles and flowering plants says "walk on me," I guess. Most of the Crocus are planted directly around the edges of the rocks, so luckily none have been walked on so far.

A bad bay for bees, a great day for photos!
Far far away from work, it is beautiful yet cold and wet. Most days, admittedly, are not bee-friendly at this time, although there is warm weather forecast for the days to come. I caught this scene on my way home, the clouds themselves were at rest between the hills and the air was silent. It was serene, cold, and I hoped to capture that in this image.

Corylus sp., male catkins have protective bracts
Around the rivers and streams, there are a number of trees in bloom, many are worked by bees and are probably the source of the pollen that my bees have been bringing in. In my region, trees are the first wildflowers to bloom. Corylus (hazel) are some of the first to bloom along with Alnus (alder). In flower, the two are very similar but there are some notable differences. First take into account the male catkins. In Corylus, each floret is covered by a protective bract, while male Alnus florets are unprotected (seen below).

Alnus sp., female flowers are cones
The female manifestations of flowers also differ greatly between Corylus and Alnus. In Corylus, the female flowers are produced at intervals along the young branches from axil to branch tips, with exerted pistils similar to Acer rubrum (see below). Alnus has female florets produces in <1" cones (like compressed catkins; the female florets are partially concealed by bracts).

Male Alnus catkins have no bracts, unlike Corylus
Both Alnus and Corylus are fairly common alongside the creeks and rivers at low elevations. Their early bloom means they are probable a valuable resource for early emerging bees, though they are potentially wind pollinated as well. As mentioned a week ago, my bees were bringing in pollen from an unknown source, most likely Alnus or Corylus.

Acer rubrum, female flowers (pistils, no anthers)
Acer rubrum is an early blooming maple, now in bloom. It is often referenced as a good tree for bees, though I cannot attest to actually observing this myself. True to name, many parts of these maples are red; from the new twigs to the flowers and of course the red leaves in Autumn. The trees are interesting from a botanical point of view because of their flowers. Some trees have entirely male flowers, while some have entirely female flowers, this is defined as dioecious. However, some individuals have perfect flowers (functioning male and female structures in each flower) as well as having a gradient of both male and female flowers. This has been dubbed "polygamodioecious" and "polygamomonoecious" [1] and surely other made up names to describe this. There is some significance when pollinators are considered, mainly because female flowers are much less valuable to bees at this time of year than the pollen-producing male florets. A single mostly-female tree would probably not be a big draw for pollinators, I suspect.

Chlorogalum pomeridianum, the wavy-leafed soap plant
And now I have come full circle, showing plants reminiscent of my very first post to this site. Here it is. It is interesting to note that last year flowers and other new growth emerged earlier, a result of the oddly mild Winter we had experienced. This Winter, conversely, was much colder (though not too cold) and in my opinion was very nice. We had snow (!), but unlike two years prior we did not experience the bitter cold and ice that remained on the roads for months. And this year tops the rest because we are expecting our second child within the month! That will be two daughters, twice the fun, twice the stress, and perhaps two more nature observers and stewards of the land.