Fairy Slipper Orchid, Calypso bulbosa

The cold woodlands of the northern hemisphere are the dwelling place of a tiny, delicate orchid, Calypso bulbosa, aptly named after the Greek nymph. When you first see it in person you are immediately taken back by its seductive beauty and elusive stature. This diminutive plant, also known as the fairy slipper, can be found from cold temperate regions across the northern US, up through the boreal forests of Canada and Alaska, straight across the taiga of Russia, into Scandinavia, and south through the mountains of western China, Korea and northern Japan. It is nowhere truly common, and is often overlooked.

C. bulbosa, as the name indicates, grows from a single oval subterranean bulb no bigger than the average fingernail. In the winter months a single broad, lightly pleated leaf arises just above the forest floor, only to wither in the summer months during the plant’s dormancy. It regrows again in the fall, just before the snows of winter hit. The flower stalk, occasionally up to 15 cm tall, but often much shorter, begins growth once the cold of winter has abated. Depending on exposure, as well as altitude and latitude, plants are in flower from April to June. The flowers are borne singly at the apex of the flower stalk, and are accompanied by a whitish, translucent floral bract at the pinnacle of the stalk.

fairy-slipper adult plant
Adult plants of Calypso bulbuosa typically are no more than hand high.

Despite being quite small, the flowers are startlingly beautiful, though you’ll have to get on your belly to really appreciate them. Five of the flower parts are nearly identical in size and shape, two petals and three sepals, splayed out in a star-like pattern. The lip is slipper-like, similar to a lady slipper (genus Cypripedium), but more elongated with a frilled front plate with upward curling margins. At the front of the mouth of the lip are a number of hairy bristles. At the base of the lip, sometimes extending a fairly long distance beyond the lip proper (especially in v. speciosa) are two horn-like projections. Overall flower color is pink-purple. The column is held horizontal to the ground, is relatively long and has a broad hood.

The lip is striated with white and various shades of darker purple, or purple brown veins and spots. Variety americana is known for a bright yellow patch in around the area where the bristles protrude, making it perhaps the most attractive of the four known varieties. Pure white alba flowers, as well as pale “semi-alba” types are also known. Occasionally, two flowers can be found on one stalk. Seed pods develop in an upward standing position.

Calypso bulbosa flowers
A pair of Calypso bulbosa v. occidentalis growing in a coniferous forest in East Sooke Park, Vancouver Island, Canada.

There are currently four accepted varieties of C. bulbosa:

C. bulbosa v. bulbosa – a denizen of northern Eurasia from Scandinavia and extending across the boreal forest regions of Russia to the Korean Peninsula and northern Japan. This was the first variety to be described by the father of binomial nomenclature, Linnaeus, in 1753.

C. bulbosa v. speciosa – confined to the high mountains of western China, parts of inner Mongolia and central Japan (limited to high elevations of the Southern Japanese Alps; Yamanashi, Nagano, Shizuoka, and Saitama Prefectures). Somewhat of an enigma, it is not completely certain that Chinese and Japanese plants are of the same type. In China and Japan it is found in subalpine coniferous forest up to 3,200 m (~10,500’) elevation.

C. bulbosa v. americana – found across the entire boreal region of North America from the Atlantic to Pacific, as well as the mountainous regions of the western US (in Canada it is widespread in forested regions, in the US from northern Maine, Vermont, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, South Dakota (Black Hills), Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Washington, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Alaska; historically N.Y. (last seen in 1969) and New Hampshire. Known for growing into large, clumping colonies and having yellow crested lips. Largely restricted to northern white cedar (Thuja occidentalis) and balsam fir (Abies balsamea) swamps east of the Mississippi River, but occasionally found on drier sites in mixed coniferous/deciduous forest often over limestone bedrock. In Michigan it can be found in swales between old lakeside dunes in jack pine forest (Pinus banksiana) alongside Cypripedium arietinum. In the western US it is found at mid-elevation coniferous forest in the northern Rocky Mountains, and up to 3,000 m (10,000’) in Arizona, its southernmost distribution. In Canada it is found from Labrador to British Columbia, and northward to the Northwest Territories, typically in coniferous forest.

C. bulbosa v. occidentalis – confined to western North America from California to Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, British Columbia, and Alaska. In the south it is found exclusively in cool, “fog-belt” coastal forests, and further north (Idaho and Montana and northward) it can be seen in moister inland mid-elevation mountains as well. It is a characteristic plant of the Pacific Northwest rain forest belt often seen near sea level, and flowering earlier than most other varieties.

Calypso bulbosa leaves flower buds
The leaves of Calypso bulbosa grow in the fall, persist through the winter months and go dormant after flowering in the spring. In this photo you can also see the flower buds have formed and they too overwinter, so care must be taken to protect these if you are growing the plant.

My first encounter with this species was in the high mountains of Colorado near Rocky Mountain National Park. I was there in the early fall and so did not see them in flower, but their distinctive leaves gave them away. Years later I saw large colonies in the mountains around Bozeman, Montana, again in the fall. It wasn’t until I finally made a trip to the Victoria, British Columbia area in May 2019 that I finally got to see v. occidentalis in flower, growing in Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) and western red cedar forest (Thuja plicata) just above the pounding waves of the Salish Sea. It was a magical experience for me, and upon seeing them I was immediately convinced that both Calypso and fairy slipper are very apt names for this little jewel.

Calypso bulbosa, though widely distributed, is becoming increasingly rare, particularly in the southern end of its range. It is considered rare in the lower 48 states except in a handful of states, and in the northeast it is either vulnerable, endangered or extinct. Populations in Minnesota as well as the northern Rockies and Pacific coast appear secure for now, and likely Canadian populations are by and large in pretty good shape, too. In Japan plants are in danger due to climate change since populations are confined to high mountain forests that are undergoing rapid warming. Populations in Europe are considered near threatened by the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature). In all regions where urbanization is occurring (for instance around Victoria, B.C.) populations are being adversely effected by development and increased human disturbance. In various places it is also subject to over collection for the horticultural trade, for example, in the Japanese Southern Alps and the Pacific Northwest of North America.

Calypso bulbosa alba flower
All varieties of Calypso bulbosa have individuals that are either true pure white “alba” flowers, or very pale ones like this “semi-alba” flower.

First and foremost, this is a plant of cool to cold forests, hence if you want to grow it, you need to keep this in mind. It likely will not endure temperatures above 26 C (80 F) for long periods of time. The main reason it lives either at high altitude or in cedar bogs at the southern end of its range is due to the cool conditions these environments provide. Another important point is that this species does not live in soil, but rather in the thin layer of humus overlaying forest soils, or moss covered humus of bog environments. Third, this orchid appears to have a dependency on mycorrhizal fungi even throughout adulthood. For all these reasons it will be a challenge to maintain in most typical garden settings, particularly in areas that experience heat spells for more than say a few days.

Another issue in growing them is their diminutive size. They can be harmed by foot traffic, either human or animal made, very easily either through mechanical damage or the compacting of the growing medium. Snails and slugs are another bane of this plant, and unless diligently controlled, will be the end of them in short order. Rodents as well need to be kept away. Mice, voles, pika, marmots, rats and the like can make an easy snack out of a Calypso in just a few bites. Likewise, moles and burrowing animals need to be controlled lest the thin roots and tiny bulbs are damaged or exposed to the air. Finally, these plants are so small that they cannot endure much competition from neighboring plants including grasses, any type of ground cover, spreading bushes, or indeed even vigorously growing mosses.

If all that weren’t enough, something like 99.9% of the plants that you might find for sale are for certain wild collected. While that may not actually be a legal issue, and in truth this species is considered globally secure for the time being, it may give you an ethical pause. In this world of online auctions and on demand next day delivery, one can easily see that all collectable plants are more at risk than ever before. Yes, this species has been produced artificially, but only by a handful of knowledgeable enthusiasts, and certainly not on a commercial scale. So, as with all terrestrial orchid sales, buyer beware.

With all that in mind, if you still desire to grow C. bulbosa, and have access to healthy plants and proper fungal symbionts (best acquired by getting humus or conifer duff from a known habitat), then you may succeed with this species. It should be grown in shady conditions, never in direct sun. The compost needs to remain moist during the growth phase extending from fall until late spring. In summer some drying is tolerated, but droughty conditions are not recommended. Never use chlorinated water or high mineral water or you will kill them quick. Keep the growing compost cool at all times, even if the air temperatures exceed the mid 20s C (above 80 F). A northern exposure is recommended rather than southern to prevent overheating.

Grow the plants in a thin layer of partially decomposed conifer duff no more than 5 cm (2”) deep over a continuously moist layer of neutral to slightly acidic inorganic material such as river sand, perlite, Turface, small size pumice or the like. The point is that you don’t want this layer to modify the conifer duff layer chemically or mechanically, say from earthworms or soil burrowing insects. Companion plants need to be completely noncompetitive or absent altogether. A layer of moss is OK as long as it doesn’t overgrow the orchids (that’s one way they are overwhelmed even in the wild), and in fact the plants will do better by themselves. If you have a native forest, or forest-like condition in the outside garden, and you live near natural populations, you may try this one in the open garden. Otherwise I recommend growing them in containers and keeping these well protected throughout the season in an outdoor shade house or the like. Refrain from using fertilizer of any kind, even at weak dilution rates.

Calypso bulbosa flowers in nature
A group of Calypso bulbosa v. occidentalis in their full glory, East Sooke Park, Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada.

So, there you have it: a tiny little jewel of a plant better suited to being appreciated in nature than in a garden setting. Let’s hope this lovely little orchid continues to grace the far flung woods of the north county for many years to come.

The staghorn fern, Platycerium bifurcatum, a cold hardy subtropical fern

Platycerium bifurcatum, commonly known as the staghorn fern or elkhorn fern, is a modestly cold hardy subtropical epiphyte native to eastern Australia and parts of the the East Indies. Though no species of the genus Platycerium can be called truly cold hardy, this species is capable of handling temperatures down to 27 F (-3 C) with minimal damage. This article chronicles a plant I’ve grown in my yard in southern Japan for the last 11 years – a climate that has tested the boundary of its cold resistance many times.

P. bifurcatum is without a doubt the most commonly propagated member of this relatively small genus of epiphytic ferns (~18 known species). Like many ferns, these grow two types of fronds, fertile and infertile. The fertile fronds are elongate, leaf-like and bear spores, while the infertile fronds (also called shield fronds because of their flat, spreading habit) have no spores. In P. bifurcatum the fertile fronds are forked (bifurcate), looking like a deer’s antlers. The shield fronds grow more or less flat against whatever they are mounted on, and are roughly circular in shape. In time plants can form formidable clumps, spreading by “pups”, or offshoots that grow off small stems (called rhizomes), just below the shield fronds. Large clumps can grow to nearly the size of a small car!

Platycerium bifurcatum
Platycerium bifurcatum growing my garden in southern Japan, on the island of Kyushu.

P. bifurcatum is the most commonly available cold hardy staghorn fern. Only one other species is perhaps even more cold hardy, that being P. veitchii, which is said to handle 25 F (-4 C) without suffering. P. bifurcatum is reliably cold hardy down to 27 F provided that any given frost event is not terribly long, and the following summer is long and warm enough to allow it to recover fully. It can even take down to 24 F (-4.5 C), but events like this must be very sporadic, or the plant will not be able to recover.

I moved to my current house in the fall of 2004. It is situated on the edge of some moderately tall mountains (up to 3000 ft, or 900 m elevation), and is approximately 3 miles (~5 km) from the sea. The region rarely sees below 27 F, but can get down to 23 F (-5 C) on occasion. Winters are relatively short, starting in earnest by mid to late December, and finishing by late February. During this time frosts are frequent, but usually last no more than a day. Average temperatures during this period normally are 43-45 F (6-7 C) overall, with highs around 48 F (9 C) and lows just above freezing. Winter rain is frequent, but usually light to moderate. Snow is also common, but short lived, normally melting within a few hours of accumulating.

By contrast, both spring and fall are long and mild. The frost free months extend from early April through late November or early December. Spring is followed by a strong summer monsoon, lasting from early June to late July. Temperatures during this period are warm, averaging around 77 F (25 C), and most days are cloudy with at least some rain. From late July through mid September is the real heat, with daily highs averaging between 90-93 F (32-34 C), and lows only down to 79-83 F (26-28 C). This is a time of true tropical heat.

I mention all of this to give a context for describing how P. bifurcatum has performed in my garden over the last decade. Based on my results, you can get an idea of whether your climate will be suitable to try this one outdoors or not. I will add that my plant has received no special winter protection, not even from snow. So lets see how it has progressed through the years, and what setbacks it has also endured.
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Cultivating Paphiopedilum armeniacum, the cold hardy Chinese yellow slipper orchid

In the summer of 2013 I bought a nice flowering division of the cold hardy Chinese slipper orchid, Paphiopedilum armeniacum. I’d tried this species before, but always started with a rather weak plant, and looking back, they probably were all wild collected. The new plant was healthy, with very strong roots and a flower that lasted a long time – a good sign a plant is happy.

This species is known for growing long stolons between growths, unlike most other Paphiopedilums, making it difficult to keep in a traditional pot for very long. I’d seen masterfully grown plants in big flat trays and hanging baskets, and instantly wanted to try my hand at growing this species that way too. Check out this link to see the grower that inspired me to try this method: Paphiopedilum armeniacum basket culture success story.

The first season I let the plant grow in the small pot it came in, but in March of 2014, I planted it into a standard hanging basket with a coconut fiber shell (figure 1). I punctured the dense fibers of the coconut liner to allow water and the stolons of the plant to easy pass through. The growing mix was pretty standard for this species, a mix of large diameter perlite and pumice gravel, fine bark and chunks of charcoal. The plant was kept in a semi-shaded area hanging from a sasanqua bush, Camellia sasanqua, where it received plenty of summer rain and was fertilized regularly.

Paphiopedilum armeniacum 2014
Figure 1: Paphiopedilum armeniacum in March 2014.

The plant was taken in during the worst winter weather even though this species is known for enduring repeated frost. In winter watering was held to a bare minimum, but humidity levels were maintained over 50%. By the spring of 2016 the plant had grown steadily, increasing from one main growth and three smaller ones, to three adult growths and two slightly smaller ones (figure 2). Though I was encouraged that it grew fairly well, something seemed not quite right, so I decided to replant it into fresh medium.

Paphiopedilum armeniacum summer 2016
Figure 2: The same plant two years later. It looks good, but not quite thriving.

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Cycads in my home garden, July 2016

Growing cycads is a labor of love that takes a lot of patience, and failure is common. That is particularly true if try to grow species from around the world since they have a wide range of needs and tolerances. In my home garden here in southern Japan I grow species from the Americas, Africa, Australia and Asia. My success has been, not surprisingly, variable. I grow all of my collection in pots since my garden is quite small and I rent the house.

Here’s what’s going on in my cycad collection this summer, 2016.

Lepidozamia peroffskyana (right foreground), Encephalartos ferox (center), Dioon spinulosum (left back), and Zamia dressleri (pink flushed plant) – all of these plants have flushed new leaves this season except E. ferox. When growing cycads you get used to plants skipping a season for new frond growth.
Dioon spinulosum and Zamia dressleri – both plants have newly flushed growth. The Dioon has a lovely soft blue green color and the Zamia pink-bronze. Both will harden off and mature to dark green.
Zamia dressleri – his species has been really hard to keep here in southern Japan, mostly because of the colder winter conditions, even in the relative warmth of a grow room which occasionally goes down to 5 C – not to its liking. It is said this species also needs a particular mycorrhizal fungus to remain healthy long term. I can only guess this plant was inoculated with the fungus when I got it five years ago.

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The loquat tree, Eriobotrya japonica, the Japanese biwa fruit tree

The loquat tree, Eriobotrya japonica, is an evergreen broad leaf tree or shrub originally native to south-central China, being most famous for its sweet, succulent fruit. Through the years it has been established in subtropical to southern temperate regions across the world and has naturalized in many places. It’s species epithet, japonica, is in truth a misnomer since it was first encountered by a westerner, the botanist Thunberg, in that country. Regardless, the plant has gained notoriety across the globe as an ornamental tree, for its fruit products, as tea (loquat leaf tea) and to a lesser extent, as a medicinal herb.

Eriobotrya japonica is a tree or large shrub of low subtropical mountain forests, attaining a maximum height of about 10 meters. Usually single stemmed, the bark is grey-brown, with smaller branches typically covered in a rusty to grey colored “wool” (a condition known as tomentose).

Loquat Fruits
The ripe fruits of the loquat tree are produced in clusters and typically are bright orange.

The broad crown is densely branched and rounded in form. The tree’s rigid, evergreen leaves are simple, broad, serrated, and deeply veined, each growing from 10-25 centimeters long. New leaves are fully tomentose and light green. They turn dark green and shiny as they age, but remain tomentose on their undersides when mature.

The flowers are borne in loose to tight clusters from late fall into early winter, and are quite aromatic. They are small, no more than 2 centimeters across, with five white petals surrounding a yellow center. The buds as well are tomentose. The flowers are pollinated in the depths of the winter months, and by spring mature into clusters of simple, round and slightly elongated fruits, brilliant orange in color and typically no more than 5 centimeters in length. These as well are have a slight fuzz to the outer skin, but inside are fleshy, juicy and sweet. Loquat seeds, usually numbering 2-4 per fruit (though there can be up to 10), account for much of the fruit’s mass, perhaps up to one third of their total weight.

The loquat is originally native to subtropical forests of southeastern Sichuan and adjacent areas of Hubei Province in south-central China. Since ancient times it has been cultivated over much of southern China, Indochina, Taiwan, and Japan. Readily spreading from seed, it naturalized in these same areas centuries ago, effectively becoming part of the native flora. In more recent years it has been naturalized throughout the world in appropriate climates stretching from India to the Middle East, throughout the Mediterranean region, parts of eastern and southern Africa, the southern USA, throughout Central America and into South America (where it grows in the cooler highlands), Australia, New Zealand, and numerous island chains including Hawaii, Bermuda, and Réunion.

loquat tree new growth
New growth on loquat trees is light green in color and very fuzzy. This growth also contains high levels of toxins and should never be consumed.

This species is considered an invasive weed in eastern Australia (Queensland and New South Wales), throughout the southern USA, New Zealand, South Africa and on many islands throughout the world (for example, Lord Howe Island, Norfolk Island, Easter Island, The Galapagos, Hawaii, Réunion and Tonga).

E. japonica probably was first cultivated for its fruit. Like many other fruit trees, typical wild forms do not usually produce desirable fruit, so selective breeding was needed. Loquat trees are thought to have been cultivated in China for over a thousand years. This tree (known as biwa in Japanese) made its appearance as a cultivated plant during the late Edo Period in Japan (1603-1868), though wild forms with undesirable fruit likely had been brought centuries earlier. Loquats were first cultivated in Europe as early as the 1700’s. It is believed that Chinese immigrants brought the tree to the Hawaiian Islands in the late 1700’s.
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The tree dahlia, Dahlia imperialis, king of the dahlias

While many gardeners grow dahlias, few even know of the tree dahlia, Dahlia imperialis, the largest of them all. Though it can attain tree size, like other dahlias it is an herbaceous plant that dies down to the ground in cold weather. A native of Central America’s highlands, it nevertheless can be grown in fairly cold winter climates. Beyond the plant’s amazing size, the flowers are the main drawn in the garden, and they couldn’t come at a more novel time – just before the first frosts of winter hit.

Tree dahlia flowers
The flowers of the tree dahlia, D. imperialis, are borne in generous clusters just before the frosts of winter hit.

D. imperialis is a large herbaceous plant standing typically between 2-6 meters tall, with extra vigorous specimens reported to top out at 9 meters. The fleshy stems grow singly or in clumps, starting out vertical, but eventually bend in a gentle arc by flowering time. They are segmented with nodes around 30 centimeters apart, giving them a superficial bamboo-like appearance. The leaves are compound in structure and are borne in opposing pairs. They look much an elderberry leaf (Sambucus sp.), with broad leaflets that are rich green in color. Underground thickened stems form clumps of elongate tubers with relatively few wiry roots.

The flower heads form rapidly late in the season, with flowering starting in early November. Each growth can hold multiple heads of flowers, bearing 2-20 pale purple flowers 10-15 cm across. Flower color is variable, ranging from mauve (most common) to pale pink and even pure white. The flower center is orange-yellow. Double flower forms also exist, both pure white and pink.

The tree dahlia is a plant of relatively high mountains, being found above 1500 meters elevation from Mexico’s central ranges, and southward to Guatemala and Panama (some sources report them from Columbia as well). These are plants of open, sunny environments growing in well drained, yet rich moist soils. In their native range some frost can be expected, hence their adaptation of going dormant in winter.

Tree dahlia plant
By early September the rapidly growing plant slows down a bit and gets almost bushy – then in October it rockets upward again in preparation for flowering.

Growth begins relatively late, even here in southern Japan, usually not before mid May. In cooler maritime climates they may start even later. This is not a problem since they explode into growth during warm, wet weather. I’ve noticed that plants will grow up to around 2-3 meters tall by August and then they seem to slow down, becoming almost bushy at the top end. Then sometime in October they continue their rocket upward, growing another 2 or more meters higher, rapidly forming their flower heads which typically bloom around the second week of November.

One issue with this plant is its late flowering period. It seems to flower after most plants have died down and with winter just around the corner. If you live in an area where the first frosts don’t come before December, then flowering will commence normally. If however frosts hit in October or November, you’ll never see your plants flower, even if they grow normally and overwinter well. This seems to be a common complaint with plants being grown in the UK and the eastern USA in cold hardiness zones below zone 8, where early season frosts are common.
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The rain lily, genus Zephyranthes, AKA zephyr lily

The genus Zephyranthes (commonly called rain lily, zephyr lily, and fairy lily) is a group of New World bulbs more closely related to Amaryllis than the true lilies, genus Lilium. In nature these plants are native to warm temperate, subtropical, and tropical regions ranging from the southeastern USA through Central America and into South America. Due to their great beauty and vigor, several have become established throughout the warmer climates of the world including parts of Africa, Asia, Australia and even many south Pacific Islands.

In this article we’ll be looking at three commonly grown rain lilies: Zephyranthes candida, carinata, and citrina. What makes these a perfect trio is their relative cold hardiness, ease of cultivation, and variation in color – white, pink and yellow, respectively. What’s more, they are so popular that all three are easily obtained from normal garden centers, big box stores, as well as specialty nurseries.

Rain lily bulbs
Rain lilies grow from tunicate type bulbs and have grass-like leaves. These plants are Zephyranthes carinata.

Rain lily bulbs are tunicate type bulbs, similar to Narcissus, Amaryllis, and Lycoris, usually not more than 2-3 centimeters in diameter. They readily form new bulbs by offsets, which are of course genetically identical. Many also easily germinate from seed, thus they can form large, clumping colonies, sometimes carpeting the ground. Their leaves are grass-like and quite short, usually not more than 30 cm long. They are typically evergreen, but during cold snaps they can go fully dormant.

Flowers are borne singly, held in an upright position, are relatively large and showy, and have a variety of colors ranging from white to pink and yellow. Petals are uniform, broad, prominently veined, concolor, and six in number. The center of the flower is dominated by six large, elongate anthers, typically yellow to orange in color. Flowers are held just above the leaves on relatively short, fleshy scapes. Flowering ranges from spring through early autumn. Many flower most abundantly after significant rains, hence their common name, rain lily.

The following are descriptions of the three above mentioned species, focusing on their distributions (both native and naturalized ranges), habit, and specific information about each.

Z. candida – a species originally from southern South America – Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, and southern Brazil, having become naturalized over much of the world from the southeastern USA, the West Indies, southern Africa, southern Asia including China, Korea, Japan, as well as Australia (Queensland), and a number of south Pacific Islands. It is perhaps one of the easiest in the genus to keep happy, withstanding both fairly heavy frosts to scorching hot summers.

The flowers are pure white (sometimes blushed with pink) with a green center, bright yellow-orange stamens, and are up to 5 centimeters across. The petals are relatively narrow and pointed, giving the flower a star-like quality. The flowers commonly open en mass after heavy rains, giving quite a show. The leaves are rather thick and curled inward, giving the overall impression of a sedge or rush – another interesting feature of this species, and possibly the reason why it is relatively cold hardy.
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The windmill palm, Trachycarpus fortunei, king of the cold hardy palms

The windmill palm, Trachycarpus fortunei, is the most cold hardy of the arborescent palms found anywhere in the world – at least as far as we know. Originating from central China and adjacent parts of southeast Asia, it is grown in far flung parts of the world these days, withstanding surprising amounts of cold, wintry weather. If you’ve seen a picture of a palm tree with snow covering it, most likely it was a T. fortunei.

It has become such a common feature in “tropicalesque” temperate gardens that having one is no longer a big deal nowadays. In nature it lives in humid continental climates that range from cool to hot in summer, and quite frosty in winter. For this reason it can be grown in both hot and cool summer areas, provided winter lows don’t get too cold.

Trachycarpus fortunei pair
Trachycarpus fortunei, the windmill palm, is the most cold hardy of all arborescent palm trees.

Trachycarpus fortunei is a single stemmed, arborescent palm of relatively cool mountain forests. The trunk typically attains heights up to 10 meters (~30 feet), however vigorous ones can go 13 meters or more (a little over 40 feet). It’s trunk is quite narrow, no more than 30 centimeters in diameter, and usually covered by a thick layer of old leaf bases that look exactly like a fibrous plant husk. Some older trees have clear trunks that are grey in color.

The fronds are palmate, meaning they have a long leaf stem (petiole) that ends in a fan-like frond composed of fused leaflets. These grow up to 2 meters long, are very regular in appearance, are normally dark green, and very nearly round, hence the common name windmill palm. The petioles are nearly bare except for a two rows of small spines, and can be up to a meter long. The fan is composed of 30 to 50 leaflets, each up to 90 cm long. They can be held straight out in some trees, forming a true fan shape, or droop considerably in others (much like the leaflets of Livistona chinesis). These characteristics are consistent within a tree, and so are due to genetic rather than environmental factors.

Windmill palm trunk
The trunk of the windmill palm is literally covered by fibrous old leaf bases. These have been used in Asia as a material for fabrics.

Flowering commences in mid spring. Clusters of flowers (called spadices) emerge and elongate into downward arcing scapes up to a meter long and carry hundreds of flowers each. This palm is dioecious, meaning trees either carry female or male flowers. Flower color is creamy yellow, though the female flowers are bit more green. Male trees can also have spadices that have hermaphroditic flowers (having both female and male parts) and these can set viable seed. The kidney shaped seeds mature to a blue-black color by late fall and winter.
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Pindo palm, Butia capitata, AKA the jelly palm

The genus Butia, the so called pindo palms, are native to the grasslands of southern Brazil into Uruguay, Paraguay, and Argentina. They also are known as jelly palms since their large yellow-orange fruits can be used to make reasonably good tasting jams. They have the added benefit of being some of the more cold tolerant palm trees, taking several degrees of frost before showing signs of distress.

Perhaps the most celebrated of the genus is B. capitata, a palm that has a long history of cultivation in western gardens. This species is a pinnate palm, often called “feather palms”, since their fronds are long feather-like affairs with a central leaf axis (known as the rachis) supporting rows of long, simple leaflets (known as pinnae) extending down its length. As with many commonly grown plants however, its story is quite a bit more complicated than what one would first imagine.

Pindo Palm tree
Pindo palms have a very distinctive look due to their highly recurved, blue-grey fronds. This large specimen is growing next to a public building in Sasaguri Town in Fukuoka Prefecture, Kyushu, Japan.

The pindo palm typically grows between 3.5-4.5 meters tall, but can reach 6 meters or more in vigorous specimens. Its trunk is singular and thick, typically between 30-50 centimeters in girth, and very often covered with old petiole bases (leaf stalks) that can persist for years. Clear trunks are grey in color and patterned with old leaf scars, giving it a horizontally banded look.

The fronds are pinnate in form, growing between 1.5 and 3 meters long, and arch in a recurved shape back towards the trunk, giving this palm it’s signature look. Their overall color is commonly blue-grey, but can be light green depending on environmental and genetic factors. The rachis supports opposing rows of regularly arranged pinnae up to 75 cm long each, the longest being mid-frond, and held in a pronounced “v” shape. The petioles are armed with abundant, long teeth, as can be seen in the persistent leaf stalks. Plants grown in poor soils or more sun tend to be more compact than average specimens.

Flowering normally commences in late spring to early summer. The yellow-cream flowers grow in large, stalked bundles which can be up to a meter long with many side branches. The ovate to rounded, brilliant orange fruits are borne generously in tight clusters from late summer into fall. They average between 2-3 cm across.

The “true” Butia capitata is native to a very confined area in the coastal states of Bahia and Minas Gerais in central Brazil. Now for that aforementioned complexity about this palm. Apparently most of them cultivated around the world are NOT B. capitata, but rather are a different species, the most probable candidate being the recently named B. odorata, a native of the coastal areas of Uruguay and the adjacent state of Brazil, Rio Grande do Sul. To complicate matters more, several species of Butia from the surrounding region, notably B. eriospatha (confined to southern Brazil), B. paraguayensis (a dwarf widespread species), and B. yatay (a taller growing palm with a thicker trunk) are being grown as well. Butia species readily hybridize, so it is also possible that the great range of variation seen in cultivated plants is in fact an artifact of interbreeding. Go figure.

Pindo palm frond
The fronds of pindo palms are composed of opposing pairs of long leaflets known as pinnae arranged along a central leaf stem. This appearance has given this type of palm the common name, “feather palms”. Butia species are one of the most cold hardy of this group.

All Butia species are native to grasslands and dry open forests ranging from southeastern Brazil, into Uruguay, Paraguay, and northeastern Argentina from near sea level to over 1000 meters elevation. They can be found in the Cerrado region of Brazil (an area comprised of various types of savanna where woody species are plentiful), sandy-soil grasslands, pasturelands, the restingias ecoregion (dry coastal forests of the Atlantic coast) and campos (grassy plains with few trees). Species growing in the inland/upland areas are subject to fairly severe frosts with little protection, and so can be assumed to be far more cold tolerant than coastal populations.

If it is true that most pindo palms in cultivation are derived from B. odorata stock, a species found only in the restingias of coastal Uruguay and Brazil, one would expect these plants to be rather frost tender. Remarkably however, most sources consider typical plants in the trade to be cold hardy to at least -10 C (14 F) without any winter protection. With some protective measures, plants have been grown in far colder climates, apparently being rather commonly seen on the eastern coastal plain of the USA as far north as North Carolina with outlying specimens being grown even up to Washington, D.C., New Jersey and Long Island, in New York State.
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Neofinetia falcata, the wind orchid, in the “wilds” of Japan

Neofinetia falcata (now considered by most authorities to fall under the genus Vanda), is a small epiphytic orchid hailing from southeastern China, South Korea, and Japan. Throughout its range in Japan it is now considered either critically endangered, endangered, or vulnerable by Japan’s Ministry of the Environment. That includes the area I live, Fukuoka Prefecture, on Kyushu’s northwest coast. What follows is an account of my wife, Yumi, discovering a semi-wild population on the very eves of the largest city in southern Japan, Fukuoka.

A little background information first. I have hunted the woods around Fukuoka City for over 10 years now and have found out first-hand just how rare most orchid species have become over the centuries. For perspective, realize that Fukuoka itself has a population of nearly 1.5 million people, and the greater metropolitan area has many more – about 5.6 million. It ranks as Japan’s 6th largest city. Impressive.

Wild Neofinetia falcata
Here is the small budded plant of Neofinetia falcata my wife found under a large ginkgo tree.

Such large human populations have a huge impact on the environment. Virtually no lowland native plant communities yet survive, except as remnants on hills scattered here and there in and around urbanized areas and on sea islands that dot the coastline. Virtually all of these are biologically impoverished from centuries of human impact. The remaining land has been in agricultural use for centuries, and the rivers all contained within massive earthen dikes. Urban rivers and smaller streams are as a rule bound by concrete walls. The hills and mountains themselves remain mostly forested, but on average more than 50% of native forest has been replaced by either hinoki (Chamaecyparis obtusa) or sugi (Cryptomeria japonica) plantations – poor habitat for most orchid species. Remnant old growth forest can be found here and there, usually in the immediate vicinity of temples or shrines, occasionally along river courses or streams, and on the very topmost parts of mountain ridges. It is here that one finds Kyushu’s remaining populations of unusual plants.

Japan is famous for its “happy Monday” holidays and one falls right around my birthday every July, umi-no-hi (directly translating as “sea day” or “marine day”), a tribute to Japan’s rich seas. My wife got the idea to get up early and go to a small river in a little valley just north of the city. She had gone there the previous week on a class trip with her children (she’s a preschool teacher) and had found a really odd looking fungus that I’d not seen before. Based on her description and memory, I figured it to be some kind of stinkhorn mushroom. A quick search on the web and I found the likely candidate, Clathrus archeri, the octopus stinkhorn. I’d seen stinkhorns before, but nothing like this one. So we packed up the car with camp chairs, photo equipment, and fresh coffee and biscotti for a morning picnic.

Wild fuuran
This lovely clump of Neofinetia falcata is growing about 10 meters above a small river in a large ginkgo tree, Hisayama Town, Fukuoka Prefecture, Kyushu, Japan.

We quickly found a nice spot in the shade along a curve of the river. Toes in the cool water, sitting comfortably in our chairs, sipping coffee and gnashing on biscotti… can life get much better? After a while I got the cameras ready to get photos and video of the fungus. I found them quickly and realized they were indeed C. archeri, a stinkhorn native to Australia and Tasmania that has now naturalized over much of the northern hemisphere. After some intense photography I returned to the river. Yumi was sitting and enjoying the river, watching an older gentleman play with his dog in the rapids. Then she went for a stroll of her own.
Continue reading “Neofinetia falcata, the wind orchid, in the “wilds” of Japan”