Friday, February 25, 2011

Vanilla claviculata, an orchid species endemic to the Greater Antilles

Only a single flower is open at a time
The lip is waxy and heavily hairy and sculpted
Side view of the flower, note the dense undergrowth where this plant grows
A weak inflorescence in the middle of a landslide area where the substrate is bare rock

Flower buds in various stages of develpment

A  seed pod which is known in horticulture as a bean

Vanilla claviculata is found naturally in the wild only in the Greater Antilles.  In Puerto Rico I have unequivocally identified it only in Maricao.  Unfortunately I can’t say where I have seen this plant aside from the spot where I found the plant with flowers because I am not familiar with the characteristics that distinguish one species of leafless Vanilla from another.   To makes things worse this species occurs simpatrically with another species of leafless Vanilla, and they sometimes hybridize giving rise to plants with flowers with intermediate characteristics.
The plants I found in flower were blooming in the summer.  For me one of the most vexing things about local Vanilla orchids is the difficulty of finding plants with flowers.  I have walked many hours through forests in Aguadilla, Guajataca, Maricao, Rio Abajo and Susua where Vanilla grow wild and seen areas literally carpeted with Vanilla vines which also draped trees nearby tree and any supporting object, but there wasn’t even a single flower in evidence anywhere.  From time to time I would find the odd spent inflorescence and in even fewer occasions the bean, but finding plants in bloom has been a thing that has mostly eluded me.  I have on occasion seen plants high up in the canopy that might have flowers but the height of the trees precluded any access to the flowers if they were present.
In local forests it can difficult to predict where Vanilla can be found.  I have seen them growing with the same gusto in intact primeval forest and in landslides where the forest was ripped down to the bedrock.  However those species with leaves seem to be confined to relatively intact primeval or secondary forest while those without leaves seem to be much less fastidious on where they grow.
In Maricao I have seen the leafless type grow from the edge of the forest into landslide areas that consists of little more than exposed rock.  As a result you can see vines that extends for dozens of feet into a bare area.  In spite their poor appearance they seem to be surviving quite well in this very sunny environment.  One good place to see this is the road that crosses the Maricao forest.  But don’t expect to see flowers.
The flowers are light green with a massive lip and measure between one and half and two inches.  The lip is waxy, hard and brittle, considering the texture of the lip you would have expected this flower to be longer lasting.  But as other Vanilla these flowers only last one or two days days in good condition.  In the place where I found the flowers there were many inflorescences a reversal of the usual situation.  But most of the inflorescences were confined to an area where the floor of the forest was carpeted with water holding bromeliads.  I don’t know if the presence of the bromeliads is significant or just a coincidence but there may be a clue there that might help with blooming this species.  The patch were the flowers were found had another interesting characteristic, it was chock full of other orchid genera, growing cheek by jowl in this small area.  There are in the area plants of Eltroplectis, Epidendrum, Pleurothallis, Polystachia, Prosthechea, Oncidium and Vanilla.
This plant produces seed pods that can be used to produce vanilla.  However the vanilla from this species is considered of inferior quality to that produced by pompona.  Seedpods in this species are produced rarely but they are way easier to find than flowers and you can occasionally spy them in one or twos hanging from the spent inflorescences.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Epidendrum anceps, a green flowered native orchid of Puerto Rico

Bottoms up look of the inflorescence

A secondary inflorescence 

Flowers with a greenish yellowish tinge
A plant in situ

Epidendrum anceps is a epiphytic and lithophytic orchid that is native of Puerto Rico.  It has a vast geographical distribution that goes from Florida in North America to the West Indies and tropical South America.  It has been reported from several of the Virgin Islands.

 I have seen this plant in the wild in forests in Maricao and in Rio Grande.  In Maricao I have seen it growing on gravelly soil under low bushes that protect it from full sunlight.  In Rio Grande I have found it growing low on the trunk of a tree that bordered an area that had been cleared by man of its forest cover.

The plants I have seen in the wild follow a growing and blooming schedule that is coordinated with the wet and dry seasons.  In the wet seasons all the plants I have found are growing, not a single one was blooming although it is reported that they bloom year round.  I is said to smell like vegetables that are starting to rot.  

The plants I have found blooming have had an inflorescence that is hanging downwards and presents the flowers in a short dense cylinder called a raceme.  Some inflorescences are shorter and dome shaped.  Some plants can rebloom from axillary buds in the year’s inflorescence.  The flowers I have seen in PR have been green and yellowish but else where they can be bicolored with the lip being purple and the rest of the flower muddy brown, in a plant that was apparently photographed in Japan the flowers had red over the margins of the petals and lip. 
Although this flower is not as showy as many other orchids it does have its followers and it can be seen with some regularity at orchid shows that feature local orchids.  I have seen some plants in captivity over the years but most local orchidists are not interested in this plant.  It seems to adapt well to captivity and those plants that I have seen were big and bushy.  Unfortunately the fact that the flowers are very small in comparison to the plant that produces than and that they are an unremarkable green color militates against this plant becoming a popular horticultural subject.

I have never cultivated this plant so I can’t give any tips on its culture in captivity.  In the wild it seems to prefer places that get plenty of rain during the wet season and are not severely affected by drought in the dry season.  The largest and healthiest plants I have ever seen were in Maricao in an area where there were many of the bromeliads known as “water tank” bromeliads growing in the ground.  The water stores of these ground dwelling bromeliads help to maintain a high level of environmental humidity around them even when there has been no rain for a while.

There have been some confusion over the years about the proper name of this plant.  I think this quote from Dr. Ackermann book on the orchids of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands can be very illuminating in this respect.  From Ackermann’s book, “ Garay and Sweet (1974) and Liogier and Martorell (1982) listed this species as 
Epidendrum secundum, but this is a misapplication of the name caused by confusion over typification.  Subsequently the problem has been resolved: the Committee for Spermathophyta of the I.A.P.T.  declared that Jacquin names should be typified by Jacquin specimens (Brummitt, 1978; see also Dressler and Williams, 1975, 1982; Hagsater 1993.”   In  October 2009 Kew Gardens in England released a name list that sunk Epidendrum galleotianum into the Epi. anceps name.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Oncidium altissimum, a native orchid with very long inflorescences and small yellow flowersl

Around the base of the lip there are some sharp pointed protuberances that form two groups of five
 around a central "tooth" 

A slightly different colored flower, however the flash and a degree of back lighting accentuate the difference with the flower on the top photo

The inflorescence is branched among most of its lenght, but the tip has two rows of flowers

A plant blooming in the wild, notice the many old inflorescences
This bottom view of a wild plant shows the root basket
These plants were attached to the trunk of a large Teak tree.  They bloomed riotously but due to the flaky nature of the bark of the teak tree they eventually lost their grip and fell.  Note the many old inflorescences.

Oncidium altissimum is an orchid whose geographical distribution includes Puerto Rico and the lesser Antilles.  In favorable habitats its relatively common and sometimes large specimen plants can be found growing on the trunks of tall trees.  I have seen this plant in the forests of the Northern part of Puerto Rico and into the mountainous interior of the Island.   When I started learning about orchids there were few orchid books that covered the orchids of Puerto Rico, the ones that were available were taxonomic treatises that were difficult to digest due to the obscure taxonomic terms and my own lack of familiarity with the characteristics of the orchids.  For years I didn’t know if the yellow flowered Oncidium that I saw in the forest was Onc. altissimun, Onc. wydleri or Onc. baueri.    Eventually this question was settled and with the books on orchids of Puerto Rico authored by Ackermann learning about the local orchid became much easier.
 This orchid is remarkably indiscriminate about its growing substrate.  I have seen it growing on rocks, on the leaf litter of a gravelly slope, on small understory trees and on the top branches of the largest forest trees.  There is however one thing that this species doesn’t tolerate and that is deep shade.  I recall finding a plant in 1999 in the Rio Abajo forest that was blooming gloriously and growing with great vigor because hurricane Georges had opened the canopy over its growing spot and it was getting lots of sunshine.  But as the forest canopy healed and the amount of light began to diminish the plant started weakening and dying.  Now in 2011 what remain of the huge plant are a few small scattered pseudobulbs that are bidding their time until the canopy opens again.
Unlike most Puerto Rican orchids Onc. antissimun makes itself quite a home in captivity and will thrive as long as a few precautions are taken that are generally the same as one would use with any other epiphytic orchid.  This orchid is intolerant of decayed, anoxic, tightly packed media, it needs an airy mix and under my care has accepted a wide variety of growing media such as coconut, bark and stones.   When the new growth has achieved a few inches in height the plant will start producing many slender roots that will grip the media and literally engulf it in a mass of roots.  This tendency to produce a plethora of roots results in the wild in the formation of a root basket that surrounds the trunk or branch of the tree that hosts the orchid.  Sometimes these roots baskets can become large, but this can spell the doom of the plant, as the new pseudobulbs become separated from the trunk and more attached to the root basket the new roots may not reach all the way to the trunk.  The result is that if the part of the root basket that is in contact with the trunk decays a portion, or most of the orchid might fall from the tree to the forest floor.   It is not rare, if a storm hits Puerto Rico during the hurricane season, to find pieces of this orchid in the forest floor along with branches and other debris.
I no longer grow this plant because it would be like going to the bother of having a refrigerator in Antartica.  They are everywhere in Rio Abajo and many plants can be seen growing in the trees that surround my house.  You can also see this orchid in the gardens of local people where they grow quite well.   One of the most distinctive characteristics of this orchid is the length of its inflorescences, they can reach a length of ten feet although most are shorter than this.  A mature plant often has many old inflorescences in various stages of decay hanging from it.  The pseudobulbs can reach six inches tall in the largest and most vigorous specimens.
This plant is rarely seen in orchid shows, it makes its appearance mainly when someone makes a educative exhibition that features native orchids.  This orchid was relatively common in orchid collection in previous decades but it has been totally superseded in the local orchid grower tastes by new hybrids that feature much larger flowers with shorter and denser displays of flowers.  As far as I know it is not subjected to systematic collection in the wild although it is not rare for visitors to the forest to carry home plants found fallen in the forest floor, but his doesn’t seem to make a dent in the wild populations.
I have an interesting anecdote about this orchid.  When I was in college I visited the home of a fellow student that lived in the metropolitan area.  His mother was proud of her plant collection and we spent some time in the garden talking about her plants.  As we walked through the garden she pointed to me an orchid and declared it her greatest disappointment, in spite of much fussing and devoted care the plant had never produced a single flower.  The said plant was an Onc. altissimum specimen about two feet across with dozens of large pseudobulbs.  Mystified by her assertion I examined the plant and to my surprise found the remains of inflorescences in practically every bulb.  Nevertheless, she insisted the plant had never bloomed.  Baffled I asked her if she had noticed the inflorescences, she answered that yes, she had waged a continuous battle against the vines that kept invading the pot of her precious orchid.  She thought the inflorescences were the expression of an invading weedy vine!  No wonder she had never seen a flower!  I educated her about the plant and next year she enjoyed a massive blooming showfrom her plant as many years of frustration was poured on an exceptional flower display.
The plants in Rio Abajo bloom in the early summer around June.  In spite of the many plants that bloom together seed capsules are not common and I have yet to find one in the many wild plants I have found in the wild.  It is said that these plant are pollinated by bees but I have yet to see any bee visit or even hang around the flowers.  The proposed method for pollination for these orchids is called pseudoantagonism.  The proposed mechanism for pollination is that when aggressive territorial bees see the flowers, they attack the flowers head on, taking them for territorial rivals.  In the process of this attacks the pollinia of the flowers is transferred from flower to flower.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Tolumnia (Oncidium) variegata, a native orchid locally known as angel of the coffee plantation

Tolumnia variegata from Rio Abajo

Note the large and prominent callus at the center of the flower

Two flowers from a Rio Abajo plant

This fan of four leaves produced an inflorescence that is astonishly disproportionate to the size of the plant.  It can be seen the lower two pictures.  This is a Rio Abajo plant.

The several feet long inflorescence carried the flowers high over the host bush
Tolumnia hybrid

Tolumnia hybrid

The previous Tolumnia hybrid flower produced after the plant was grown in high light conditions in my garden

A Rodricidium hybrid that has Tolumnia in his ancestry

This little orchid is among the most widespread species of orchid native of the island of Puerto Rico.   I have seen it in many places in the island, from the moist forests of the Northern part of the Karst area to the dry scrub in the south west.   I have also seen this orchid in the island of Hispaniola in Santo Domingo.  The carefully manicured shrubs in the area of the Japanese Garden in the world famous Jardin Botanico of the capital of Santo Domingo have in their branches a dense population of this orchid.  The density of plants I saw among the branches of some of the shrubs in the Japanese Garden is among the greatest I have seen in any epiphytic orchid, the plants were tiny, had four fat and short leaves and were blooming abundantly at the time of my visit.  I have also seen this plant in coffee plantations that are at middle elevations in the central mountainous area of Puerto Rico as well as in coastal forest that is still reasonably intact.
This plant has an equitant arrangement of the leaves, this means the leaves are arranged in a flattened fan shape.  One of the peculiarities of this species is that plant size varies wildly even in areas where you would think all plants would be closely related.  In an area of less than one acre in the forest of Rio Abajo in Puerto Rico you can find small plants with four short and thick leaves that produce two of three flowers and larger plants with longer leaves that produce disproportionally huge inflorescences with dozens of flowers.  The largest plant of this species that I have ever seen was growing in the Guanica dry forest.  I saw it when I was walking through a small ravine in the forest where conditions were slightly moister than in the surrounding forest.  Growing in the understory, among the slender branches of a tall bush the plant I saw had long and slender leaves about four or five inches long.  The plant was growing with its roots spreading in the air in all directions, unattached to anything, the plant was tangled in the branches by its long stolon which joined the newest fan with the remains of older leave fans.  It could have been that the plant had fallen from a high branch, gotten tangled in the low branches and had kept growing unfazed by its new circumstances.
But no matter the size and shape of the leaves the flowers of all the plants are nearly identical.  There some plants that have a pronounced lilac coloring in the lip and floral segments, but I have seen those only in photos, I have never seen one of this type growing in the wild.  The flowers are constant in size with the flowers produced by the tiniest plants being only slightly smaller than those produced by the largest ones.
I have seen plants of this species in bloom in March sometimes in good numbers in favorable habitats.  However they can be common in highly modified habitats such coffee plantations and I have found from time to time plants growing in trees and bushes in urban areas and even in a tree in the central plaza of a small town.
People often collect these plants and they are seen from time to time at local orchid shows with relative frequency. Any time somebody makes a display of native orchids in an orchid show that falls on their blooming season this orchid is almost sure to be a present.  Puzzlingly, in spite of this being a common orchid, it seems few people are adept at keeping them alive in a long term basis.  The very few that I have found to be successful with this orchid, were growing them in their native haunts in conditions that closely resemble what they experience in nature.  I have observed a few plants growing in the wild and the lifespan seems to be relatively short.  None of the plants I have observed lasted more than five years from the time I found them and some disappeared after only two years of blooming activity.
Tolumnia hybrids made with other species of Tolumnia are highly valued by orchid growers and are relatively inexpensive and easy to find.  The flowers of the hybrids are often vividly colored and sometime feature lurid color combinations arranged in stripes and spots in ways seldom seen in other similarly sized flowers.
I have kept many hybrids of Tolumnia and a few have survived for a significant period of time under my care.  All have eventually died, mainly of root loss but also from what appears to be fungal/bacterial infections.  My guess is that there is a key feature of their habitat that I have failed to replicate in a consistent manner.  Of those the plants growing in the wild that I had have the opportunity to observe over several years, the plants that survive the longest are those growing among the leaves of the shrubs in the top part of the shrub where they get bright light filtered through the leaves most of the day and probably a bit of full sun at midday when sunlight is striking the shrubs at its most vertical.   I suspect that the leaves of the host shrubs also provide a microclimate of higher environmental humidity that insulates the plants against desiccation.
Few orchidists locally cultivate this species, probably because it is just too drab when compared with the hybrids and the fact that they are neither prestigiously rare nor difficult to replace.  Most of those that keep these orchids do so by dint of cutting a branch of the shrub tree where they are growing in the wild and bringing it into their collections.  Many of the plants collected this way survive happily, at least for a time, in captivity.
If you want to try to grow this plant in the Island of Puerto Rico I would advice to grow it inside a leafy bush that still allows a significant amount of light to sift through its leaves.  A particularly good host is the Higuera tree.  But please don’t go stripping our State Forests of this orchids, there are probably plenty growing in private lands and in coffee plantations.  Owners of coffee plantations have been known to rip out these plants from the coffee bushes in the mistaken belief that they are parasitic and drain the coffee bush of vigor.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Dendrobium anosmum and its relatives, the rest period as a tool to promote abundant blooming

Dendrobium primulinum stems at the tail end of the growing season

The same plant as above after two months of no water or fertilizer and exposure
to bright light.
Dendrobium Adrastra blooming from leaveless canes

A properly rested plant of Den, anosmum with more than forty buds in a single cane.  Note the blooms are produced all along the lenght of the stem and not just near the tip
A relatively young Den. primulinum plant, note that stems are plump and still have the remains of a few leaves.  See below the plant in full bloom.

Giving your Dendrobium a rest period can be the difference between an impressive and abundant floral display and one that produces just a few blooms.  Species of Dendrobium of the group that includes  anosmun, primulinum, cucullatum, nobile and parishii among others flower best when given a rest period that mimics the seasonal conditions that are the trigger for blooming in their native haunts.
What is the nature of the seasonal rest period in this particular group of orchids?  These Dendrobium live in the south east of Asia and in parts of India.  In these regions they are subjected to the monsoon weather system.  In the summer there is abundant rains that fuel the growth of their long pendent canes.  But as winter approaches the rain diminishes considerably and eventually ceases for some months.  The constant cloudiness of the monsoon season is then substituted by clear sunny skies.   As the rain ceases the trees lose their leaves and the Dendrobium are exposed to high levels of sunlight.  Finally as the dry season starts the Dendrobium lose their leaves and enter the dry season as a bundle of stems that not in the least resemble their lush rainy season appearance.
Generally, but not in every geographical region, the dry season is also a season of lower temperatures.  The combination of high light conditions, drought and low temperatures is said to prime the buds of the stem of many Dendrobium for flowering. That means that the seasonal change is the cue that makes the vegetative buds that are all along the stems turn into flower buds.   When orchidists talk about giving their plants a rest period they are referring to the set of circumstances in the natural habitat of the Dendrobium that I have outlined in the preceding paragraphs.
Personally I stop all fertilizing and watering in November.  This means that the media of some of my plants will become bone dry and stay that way sometimes for several weeks.  All my pendent Dendrobium tolerate these lengthy dry spells with little complain, probably because even thought they are not getting any water the environmental humidity is high enough to prevent severe shriveling of the canes.  However I do have to confess that if I see a plant becoming excessively wrinkled from desiccation I do water it lightly.
 Although these conditions might seem severe and some of these pendent Dendrobium will flower quite well without experiencing the most severe rigors of the rest season other species will not produce flowers if not given a distinct rest period.  The best example of an orchid of this group that grows very well and yet blooms poor in the tropics is Dendrobium nobile.  If maintained under constant warm conditions, fertilized all year and kept under shady conditions most nobile will bloom poorly and may not bloom at all.  
Some orchidist just can’t resist the urge to water and give fertilizer to their plants year round. These orchidists generally have a tough time getting blooms out of them.  I have seen massive nobile specimens that have never produced a single flower.  I once brought a large plant for the ridiculous amount of $15.00 because the garden store owner had become tired of waiting for it to bloom and felt the plant was taking too much space and not bringing any profit.   I gave this plant a proper rest period and the plant responded by producing 150 large and fragrant flowers in about twenty canes.  All those canes that had accumulated without blooming for years produced flowers all at the same time.
I know some people keep watering their plants even in the rest period and that some of those plants bloom from canes that have kept their leaves.  But so far I have not seen a plant that has kept its leaves bloom as abundantly as one that has lost all its leaves due to the stress of the rest period.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Adelpha gelania arecosa, a butterfly endemic of Puerto Rico

Top view
side view

Many years ago somebody told me never to leave my camera behind because you never knew when the opportunity to take an amazing, beautiful, odd or strange photo would arise.  I took this advice to heart and now I rarely go anywhere without my camera.  The photos of this butterfly are an example of an unexpected find.  I just by chance happened to be in the right place to take these photos.
Adelpha gelania arecosa is a butterfly that has been reported in Puerto Rico and Hispaniola.  Subspecies arecosa is endemic of Puerto Rico. These butterflies were photographed in Quebradillas, it is also found in Cambalache, Maricao and Toro Negro.

Dendrobium harveyanum, an orchid with canary yellow flowers and unique fringed petals

A freshly opened flower

Front and side view of the flowers

A fully expanded flower
An inflorescence with fully expanded flowers, the inflorescence is wet due to a hard rain 
A cute little species with unique flowers
                Dendrobium harveyanum Rchb. f. is a small statured species that produces canary yellow flowers with densely fringed petals.  The fringed petals are a salient characteristic of this species and make it unique in the Dendrobium group.  Many species have fringed, hairy lips, but with the exception of rare cultivars of Rhyncholaelia digbyana that have slightly fringed petals, no other species has petals like Den. harveyanum. 
                 When I first became aware of this species owning it seemed like an impossible, unrealizable dream.  It is found in the wild in Burma, Thailand, Vietnam and China and all sources agree that it is a rare in the wild.  Even in cultivation the plant didn’t seem to be plentiful and in those pre-Internet days even photos of it were not often seen.  But those few photos that I found convinced me that this species was well worth the effort of cultivating if it ever became available.
                In 2006 a US orchid vendor announced the availability of seedlings of this species and I promptly ordered three.  When I received the plants they had canes of two to three inches of height.  The height of mature canes of this plant is between six and nine inches to it could be said that even though the plants seemed small they were already well developed for their species.
                I planted the seedlings in wire baskets three inches wide by four inches deep.  The potting media was small sized bark.  Growing these plants in wire baskets ensured that the roots would get plenty of access to air.  Giving the roots access to oxygen a critical factor in the culture of many Dendrobium which tend to deteriorate and die in cultivation because they are intolerant of deeply packed and poorly ventilated media.
                The plants are grown outdoors in an open terrace that receives full sun for two or three hours between eight and eleven am.  After that it gets sunlight filtered through the trees.  New leaves in my plants display a pleasing wine coloring when they are developing probably in response to the high light levels of the early morning.
                Local temperatures fluctuate between 85 F and 75 F at the height of summer and 75 F to 65 F in the coldest part of winter.   For a few weeks in summer temperatures can go over 85 and even into the nineties. For a few weeks in winter temperatures can go under 65F but this plant doesn’t seem to be bothered in the least by either the hot or the cold end of the temperature spectrum.
                The plants were watered daily when they were producing new canes and fertilized with a high nitrogen fertilizer once a week.   When the canes were almost fully grown the applications of fertilizer are stopped.  No fertilizer is given when the plant is not producing new canes.  Local humidity varies with the seasons, it fluctuates between 40% and 90% during the day in the dry season but in the wet season it always stays over 70% and in particularly rainy parts of the wet season it can get close to a 100% nightly for many weeks.
                In Puerto Rico, which is in the tropics, we have a dry season that lasts from January to April.  During this time of the year I water the plants lightly once a week to mimic the effects of the rest period they would get in their native forests.  The canes of the plant become furrowed but otherwise the plants seem little affected by the decrease in watering frequency.  I start watering and fertilizing as soon as I notice new canes growing from the base of the previous year canes.
My experience growing this plant has been complex due to the different way the three plants I brought fared under my care.  The three plants were small seedlings when they I received them.  One of them started growing vigorously and quickly reached a height of six inches which is the maximum size they have attained under my care.  Another plant has produced canes of about four inches in height but no bigger.  One plant grew weakly became infected with a bacterial or fungus rot and almost died, it has remained small with canes about two inches tall.  All of the plants have bloomed, even the tiny one.  The only one that blooms every year is the tallest.
I know this orchid can reach sizes larger than those of my plants but there seem to be some local factor that is constraining their growth.  At the moment it is not clear what this factor is but my suspicion is that that the local conditions are a bit on the hot side for this species, and that it would fare better if it didn’t have to endure the high, into the nineties, temperatures of the local summer.
To my surprise one of my plants has produced keikis, something that is not often seen in this type of Dendrobium.  The keiki formed in a cane whose base rotted away.  They are growing quite well on bark and are treated the same way as the adult plants.  The tiny canes of the keikis are fat and short, not so similar to the adult cane.  In my other Dendrobium of a similar cane configuration I have never seen a single keiki even when every bud at the base of the cane has died.
This Dendrobium is a wondeful miniature that will amaze and delight friends and visitors with its beautiful and peculiar flowers.  The flowers are unfortunately short lived, they last a week at most under my conditions, and perhaps it’s the high local temperatures that shorten the lifespan of the flowers.  I advice protecting the flowers from rain as hard rain can give these fuzzy flowers a bad hair day and spoil somewhat their “hairdo”.  The flowers have a honey fragrance.
Sometimes when you see a plant labeled as “rare” you think it might be difficult to cultivate and reluctant to bloom, but in this case this has not been true.   Local insects have not bothered my plants and, with the exception of the rot that attacked the smaller plant and one of the old canes, the plants don’t seem to be too vulnerable to the local bacteria and fungus. 

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Heraclides pelaus puertoricensis, a black butterfly endemic of Puerto Rico

Heraclides pelaus puertoricensis

This butterfly, Heraclides pelaus puertoricensis (in some places its named portoricensis, perhaps it was named in the Porto Rico era) is endemic of Puerto Rico and is common in some of our forests.  Getting close enough to one to be able to take a good photo of this species is not that common an ocurrence.  For some unknown reason this butterfly was amazingly indifferent to my proximity which allowed me to get very close to it.  In the Rio Abajo forest you can often see these butterflies flying around blooming trees and shrubs.  However they are always alert and react quickly to any attempt to get close to them by flying away.  My guess is that this butterfly was doing was a display to attract the attention of other butterflies.  When I touched it lightly it flew away with no sign of infirmity, and its wing were in good condition which dispels the possibility that it was ill.  

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Two native butterflies in a mating dance, Heraclides androgeus epidaurus

These Heraclides androgeus epidaurus were brought to my garden by the massive flowering of an ice cream bean tree. Normally it is very difficult to photograph this courtship behaviour since it normally occurs high in the canopy but in this case the incredible abundance of food and the large number of other butterflies in the area seem to have made these ones throw caution to the winds. Getting a photo of these fast flying butterflies showing their courtship behavior was an stunning stroke of luck. The male is the yellow one.

These large butteflies are not particularly rare but since they normally live on forested areas few Puerto Ricans ever get to see them this close.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Dendrobium Adastra a hybrid of anosmum and cucullatum

I brought this plant many years ago in a Puerto Rico Orchid Society show at el Coliseito Pedrin Zorrilla.  When I brought the plant it didn’t have an ID but given its distinct flowers it was easy to identify it using the sources available over the Internet.  This orchid is a hybrid of Dendrobium anosmum and Dendrobium cucullatum (pierardii).  I have seen a number of plants of this hybrid and there is a certain degree of variation on flower size, the color has been the same in all the flowers.  The plants I have seen fall into two broad types, the ones that favor the flower size of the anosmum parent and the ones that are on the cucullatum parent side of the spectrum.  The plants that have flowers that are more similar in size to anosmum tend to produce less flowers that the ones that favor cucullatum, which has smaller flowers.  I personally like the type that produces the smaller flowers.  None of the plants I have seen have had any fragrance that I could detect. 
This plant is a vigorous grower under my local climatic conditions and the care it receives is the same that my anosmum plants are given
To my surprise I have found that my clone of this plant is less tolerant of exposure to full sun than the clones I have of the parental species.  Plants grown with an exposure to a few hours of morning sun are smaller and weaker that those that are under shadier conditions.  It is unclear whether this is a result of an endemic susceptibility of this hybrid or a particularity of my clone.
My plant produces flowers that are brightly colored when they open but that become lighter in color as they age.  As a result the plants are at their most beautiful in the first few days after the flowers open.  My clone of this hybrid produces canes that are shorter than those of most anosmum and cucullatum clones I have even though it is grown under the same conditions that they are.   Since some of my cucullatum and anosmum plants can produce six feet long canes I can only surmise the plants that were used as parents for this hybrid were of a smaller stature. This plant produces keikis fairly frequently in older canes and the keikis grow well with routine care.  Sometimes the base of the older canes succumbs to rot but the rest of the cane stays alive.  When this happens I put the cane in a shady and humid area and very often the cane will produce one or more keikis.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Cattleya Hardyana, a beautiful and fragrant unifoliate Cattleya hybrid

A semi alba form of Hardyana
A four flowered inflorescence sadly marred by damage inflicted by birds
The flowering growth in its initial stages of development

The media in this basket has decayed to the point that it hold enough water to sustain the growth of mosses, ferns and even fig seedlings.  This plant will be repotted after it blooms, when the new pseudobulbs start sending out roots
A different semi alba clone with smaller flowers

Particularly strong plants can produce five flowers in an inflorescence.  Unfortunately this inflorescence was not groomed or trained and the flowers became all bunched.
Cattleya Hardyana is a hybrid of two of the most outstanding species in the Cattleya Alliance.  It is hybrid of Catt. warscewiczii and Cattleya dowiana.  Unlike the vast majority of orchid hybrids in cultivation this plant is known as a natural hybrid and has been found many times in nature.  Given the fact that this orchid is a hybrid between two species, one would expect that the plants would be relatively uniformly in appearance, but this is not necessarily true for the plants collected from the wild.  In the wild not only the parent species cross, the hybrid sometimes also crosses with itself and back with the parental species.  All this promiscuous introgression produces a syngameon in which you can find flowers that range from those almost indistinguishable from the parental species to those that are significantly distinct from both the parents.  As a result of all this genetic exchange and sorting in the wild, in the previous two centuries a number of forms of this plant were found and described.  It used to be a very popular orchid and it was present in most collections.  But for some reason the popularity of this plant started to wane toward the end of the twenty century.  Withner in his book Cattleyas and its relatives Vol 1, says that this plant used to be common in collections but that by the time he was writing the book (middle eighties) it had become rare.
In my experience this plant was indeed pretty uncommon until a few years ago, I never saw one in flower until my own plants bloomed.  Nowadays this hybrid has been recreated by a few orchid vendors and small seedlings can be found at quite reasonable prices.     Unlike some of the wild collected Hardyanas of yore, today plants are the result of a single crossing between the pure species.   
I heartily recommend this plant to all Cattleya fanatics.  This plant has many merits not the least of which is the fact that acquiring a plant of this hybrid won’t cost you a fortune.   If you a want a top of the line Catt. warscewiczii, the cost of such a plant might be in the thousands of dollars.  It has the wonderful virtue of being much easier to culture than the Catt. dowiana parent which I have found to be a difficult plant to keep in good shape.  Another important detail is that the new incarnations of this plant are being made with select forms which means they are probably better that those produced by a chance combination of wild plants.  In this case my personal experience can be illustrative, I brought three seedlings and to my delight all of them came out as semi-albas instead of the typical lilac color that I was expecting.  I now have two more seedlings made using the dowiana var. Rosita as a parent so I expect these seedlings to be different from my older plants.
Culturing this plant has proven to be simple and problem free as long as one follows certain simple guidelines.  My plants seem to be less sensitive to variations in their growing conditions that some of the fancier Cattleya hybrids that I have.  However there seems to be some slight differences in vigor between the seedlings I have grown.
This is what I have learned from years of cultivating this plant:
Media: Large chunks of decay resistant material seem to be the best media to use with this plant although my plants have tolerated relatively compacted decayed media.  But my plants are all growing in wire baskets which guarantee that the roots will have access to oxygen even in a mildly compacted media.  The most important thing here is that the media in which the plant is growing has to provide perfect drainage and not allow for pockets of anoxic media.

Potting: Three of my plants are in custom made wire baskets, two are in pots with just enough chucky media to prevent them from wobbling in the pot.  The plants seem to be doing equally well although the ones in the baskets have smaller root systems.
Watering:  Once or twice a week in the dry season, the plants are soaked and then allowed to dry before being watered again.  In the summer, because I live in a place that has the tropical rain pattern, the plants get heavy rain in the afternoon every single day.  This means they experience a soaking wet to dry cycle every day for several months .

Fertilizing: 20-20-20 every week during the growing season.  Feeding this plant conscientiously during its growing season is the key for producing the large pseudobulbs that are the key to blooming in this species.   My Hardyana plants sometimes produce a non blooming growth after the summer, I give this pseudobulbs the same care that the winter-spring pseudobulbs get.  A very strong plant sometime produces two lead growths. 

Light: Full morning sun, light shade after midday, The plants which receive the higher light level bloom best.

Temperature: From 95F high during the day in summer to 60F during the night in winter. 
A characteristic of this orchid that I think greatly enhances its appeal is its wonderful fragrance.  Even a single plant can fill the garden with its fragrance, which is stronger around midmorning.  To me is more reminiscent of the fragrance of the warscewiczii parent than that of the dowiana parent.   The exquisite fragrance of dowiana is in a league of its own, but I digress.   
In my experience the only things that can bring the death of this plant are the hard brown scale and root loss caused by a waterlogged anoxic media.  Getting rid of the scales can be a frustrating endeavor as it can be difficult to get kill all of them even after several treatments.
Once a plant has lost its roots the remains of the stem can succumb to a host of other diseases that hardly ever bother healthy plants.  When this happens to Hardyana, one needs to offer the pseudobulbs that survive a humid environment until they are able to regenerate the root system.  Some Cattleya plants can sulk for years before showing signs of improvement.