You can subscribe to this blog

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Adam's Laburnum, +Laburnocytisus adami, Fabaceae

In 1825 a French nurseryman called Monsieur Adam grafted a purple-flowered specimen of broom Chamaecytisus purpureus onto a yellow laburnum Laburnum anagyroides stem, hoping to create the broom equivalent of a standard rose. Instead he created a strange graft chimaera - a tree with the tissues of both parents intermingled, that produces three different kinds of flowers.  The core of the tree is laburnum, sheathed in layers of broom cells, and the whole arrangement is unstable. In the picture above you can see what appears to be a broom bush sprouting from the branch of the tree, looking like an unusually colourful mistletoe.

This picture, and the one below, show the profusion of purple broom flowers on slender, pliable stems......

... and is probably quite close to what Adam had in mind when he started his experiment, except that he would have hoped to produce this head of flowers on top of a single straight stem.

The whole tree, which looks like a rather lax, poorly growing laburnum in general shape, produces a second form of inflorescence .....

.... that looks like a dangling salmon-pink laburnum blossom - a blend of flower colours of both parents.
Look closely and you can see a hint of laburnum yellow towards the rear of these flowers ....

... but higher up on the tree, amongst the pink blooms, it also produces occasional pure yellow, typical laburnum flowers....
... which you can see here.

This example, of what is a rather rare tree, is currently flowering in Durham University Botanic Garden

In graft hybrids like this the cells of both parents coexist as separate genetic entities in a single organism. You could, at least theoretically, extract cells of each component, put them through sterile tissue culture and recover the two original parents. A similar graft hybrid between hawthorn and medlar, +Crataegomespilus, has also been produced but is rarely found in collections. The + before the Latin name indicates that the plant is a blend of cells from two parents that maintain their independent genetic identity, rather than being the result of sexual hybridisation.

Grafting, which has been most often used in viticulture, fruit tree and rose production was once viewed by many as being a very unnatural practice, comparable with the way many view genetic engineering today. In his poem The Mower, Against Gardens, Andrew Marvell (1621-1678) wrote:

Another world was searched through oceans new,

To find the marvel of Peru;
And yet these rarities might be allowed
To man, that sovereign thing and proud, Had he not dealt between the bark and tree,
Forbidden mixtures there to see.
No plant now knew the stock from which it came ;
He grafts upon the wild the tame,
That the uncertain and adulterate fruit
Might put the palate in dispute.

Genetic engineering has yet to produce anything in the horticultural world that's as extraordinary as Adam's Laburnum.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Aeonium arboreum,Crassulaceae

I can't remember how long I've had this Aeonium - it must be a decade at least - and throughout that time it has produced nothing but these geometrically attractive spiral whorls of succulent leaves on a woody stem that.....

... bears a spiral pattern of leaf scars left by the old leaves that die and fall off.

This year it has finally switched into flowering mode and produced a spectacular inflorescence. The whole plant is about a metre tall.

This will be its final hurrah - like some bamboos and the century plant Agave americana, Aeonium arboreum is monocarpic , gradually accumulating the stored energy required to produce its flowers and seeds and then dying.

Botanical trivia: Aeonium is the only genus I can think of that contains all five vowels in a single name - useful to contemplate, maybe, if you are compiling quiz questions for your gardening club?

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Sundew, Drosera binata, Droseraceae

I've had this specimen of fork-leaved sundew Drosera binata for about a decade and it now fills a 10 inch pot and carries about 200 sticky-tentacled leaves. It's a death-trap for flies and would be quite capable of catching bumblebees if it had access to them.

Sundews face a dilemma - the need to capture and digest flies to supplement the meagre supplies of nitrogen in the soils in which they grow, while simultaneously using the services of insects to pollinate their flowers. The solution, as in many insectivorous plants, is to separate flowers and lethal leaves with a long flower stalk. It works pretty well in this case - the plant always sets plenty of dust-like seeds that germinate easily in surrounding flower pots in the conservatory, provided their soil surface is wet.

I particularly like the way the forked leaves unfurl - it's a bit like rolling out a deadly red carpet for passing insects ....

... and there is an air of menace about it in the final stages - like raised arms with clenched fists.  The common name of the plant is especially apt - it looks stunning when it catches the first rays of sun in the morning, when all those drops of mucilage sparkle like dew-drops.

Sundews were amongst Charles Darwin's favourite plants and he experimented with them in great detail, demonstrating that they released digestive enzymes when presented with animal protein (egg albumen in his experiments).

He noted that when a few tentacles captured a fly the surrounding ones responded by curling towards and then over it, often followed by the whole leaf folding over the prey, creating what he referred to as a 'vegetable stomach'. You can see how some of the longer hairs are curling towards this fly within a couple of minutes of it becoming stuck.

Each sticky-tipped hair is a complex strucure, with a glandular head that secretes mucilage (which is remarkably resistant to being washed away) and then enzymes that digest the prey after it dies of exhaustion during its struggle to escape. The products of digestion are transported down the stalk to the leaf in a double layer of cells in the hair stalk that pass the digestion products from cell to cell.

Darwin's book Insectivorous Plants contains detailed accounts of his experiments with this plant and can be downloaded here.