Monday, November 21, 2022

Picking Saffron

See those orange threads in the centers of the these flowers? Those orange threads, when separated from the rest of the flower, spread out and dried, are the spice Saffron! It turns out growing Saffron is not that hard. Picking it is a bit different, especially in our yard where it isn't gardening or farming, it is "feeding the deer" far too often. The critters in the forest really love almost everything we plant, so fencing becomes important. Saffron is actually a crocus that flowers in the Fall. These small bulbs are from the eastern shore of the Mediterranean sea, where the Summers are hot and rainless, and the Winters are mild and have some rain. To grow them in California, we plant the bulbs about 4" deep on a well drained sandy slope (thin soil over sandstone). The slope aims west, to the sunsets. There are tall trees to the east, so there is little early sun. There are small shrubs and the ones that do best are right under the driplines of the shrubs. This may be because it is harder for the deer to get their faces into the place to eat the leaves.
They flower in November for us on the San Francisco penninsula, with the leaves coming up with the flowers or just after them. The leaves persist until late Spring, often into early June. Then they want no water at all over the long, hot Summer. This is both a permaculture crop (plant once, harvest many years) and a dryland farming crop. The first commercial Saffron farm in the area is just down by the coast from us. We just grow saffron for our own use. Saffron is a great plant for California as it works on rainfall alone - we do not irrigate our Saffron. In drier years it may not flower as abundantly, though it will still flower.

Monday, September 6, 2021

Biarum carratracense subterranean seed development

You know that feeling of anticipation when a small package that is long awaited arrives from far away? Someone in our household recently got a taste of that with the arrival of a new species of Biarum from afar (well, Oregon). This one contained a new to our garden species of Biarum!
If you've never heard of Biarum, that is because they are a pretty obscure bunch of plants found largely around the Mediterranean. The tallest ones are barely one foot tall in leaf, and they can be so inconspicuous that you can be walking through a field full of them and have the greatest trouble actually finding one. That is, if you nose is clogged or they aren't in flower. These are fly pollinated miniature relatives of the famous Corpse Flower (Amorphophallus titanum which has the largest flower structure of any plant). The flowers range through quite a range of intricate forms, from the jellyfish-vase-something-else shaped flowers of Biarum davisii
to the more conventionally shaped flowers of Biarum carratracense.
Both the photos above show plants in pots that are 2.825" wide at the top - so these are not large flowers! In fact, here is a photo of a Biarum flower just about to open (emerging from the small pot sitting inside the large pot) for scale next to a well-past-it's-prime flowering specimen of Amorphophallus konjac standing a bit more than four feet tall.
These plants tend to flower before or after the leaves have grown, so the flowers tend to emerge from bare ground. Most of the flower is below ground, and the seeds develop underground until they are ripe. In this way they resemble the completely unrelated genus Gethyllis from South Africa. This is the view down into one of the flowers of Biarum zelebourii earlier this year.
The seeds develop completely underground as a cluster of berries. The berries contain a single seed each. Clusters of berries are pushed above ground when they ripen, though the creatures that the berries are intended for are not well documented. Normally these in-development berries are hidden underground, and hence cannot be seen. While repotting Biarums recently that I expected to be fully dormant, I discovered this one with both root growth for the new year and developing berries:
If you want to try growing Biarum, there are very few commercial sources. These are some of the ones we have been able to get tubers from recently (we have used these sources, have no ties to them, and have no monetary or other kickbacks, affiliate programs, etc... with them for making the recommendations):

The Pacific Bulb Society - a nonprofit that has seed and bulb exchanges available to members several times a year, must be a member to participate

Rare Plants Nursery, United Kingdom Shipping is expensive, the plants are as advertised and always arrived for us in excellent condition

Illahe Rare Bulbs This one is tricky - they offer their catalog once a year, in late July into August, for a few weeks only. Often have excellent prices, quality is spectacular, and Mark is communicative if you need support or have questions. The old catalogs are posted for archival purposes - and the blog format to find the catalogs when posted is confusing, at least to me.

Seeds of Peace - Oron Perri runs this seed and bulb farm in Israel. He generally grows everything - the seeds and the bulbs. Often has several species unobtainable elswere. Quality I've received is excellent uniformly, seeds arrive in a week or two typically.

Telos Rare Bulbs - a California operation, catalog lists items when available, so order right then if you see something. Diana has always shipped me very high quality plants. One of my longest running an favorite rare bulb sources!

LIBERTO’s SEEDS AND BULBS Eleftherios Dariotis growing bulbs near Athens, Greece - I've always had excellent interactions and high quality materials from him. He sells on eBay sometimes, and directly other times. He also produces an annual catalog he emails out in Summer. You have to email him at eldaebay at to get on his email list. Ask him about Biarum - he may have some not in his catalog due to small quantities being available.

If you know other sources, please make a comment and I'll update this list.

To obtain a "Permit to Import Plants and Plant ProductsRegulated by 7 CFR 319 Subpart - Plants for Planting" from the US Department of Agriculture go here and apply - they are free and enable legal importation of foreign plants (PPQ 587 is the form you are looking for): for overview of the permit process> for a blank permit form you can fill out in your browser and print to send in. If you are going to do a lot of permits, you can get put into the online system for applying for and managing permits - you have to take your passport into the USDA and make an appointment and all that.

It all begins with a flower... or is it a seed... which comes first, the flower or the seed? Er, yes, the seed came first, perhaps by a hundred million years. Happy gardening!

Thursday, April 1, 2021

Biarum zelebourii flowering for us for the first time

Biarum zelebourii flowering

This is a distant relative of the Calla Lily. It is found in Syria - this one came, in a roundabout fashion, from seeds collected outside Qalaat Majm in 1991. We purchased a tuber from a grower in the UK last year (their listing for the species is here). I am unable to find a single photo of this species on the web, so decided to put up at least one photo!


Biarum zelebourii

Biarum consists of about 21 currently recognized species. They grow around the Mediterranean and into the Middle East, none of them like snow or freezing temperatures, and all are dormant over the long, dry summer months.

Most species bloom in the Fall, with a few odd ones deciding to flower in the Spring after the leaves have died down.

I've been interested in Biarum for about 30 years, and have grown them before only to discover squirrels seem to delight in digging these up and eating them. Last year our son, BD, was looking through a catalog of unusual bulbs with me and fell in love with another species, Biarum davisii, immediately. He decided to do things to collect enough money so he could have his very own. Unfortunately, we ordered a bit too late and they were sold out. Thus began a quest across three continents via the internet, it having been 2020, to find and acquire his first Biarum.

We finally had success in Greece, where many of the species are native. A note about buying plants outside the USA - you will want to take a minute to apply for an import permit with the USDA so customs doesn't just take your plant. Use the PPQ Form 587 to apply for your permit. Expect it to take about two weeks to issue, and there are more rules that have to be followed (a phytosanitary certificate is needed, for example). Then you can safely bring in your plants from overseas.

One of the really neat things about these plants is how they are pollinated - they emit heat (there are "warm blooded" plants!?!) and trap flies (they smell like rotting things, much like their larger kin, the Amorphophallus or Titan Arums). Unlike them, the smell is very localized. The spadix (the large "tongue" emerging from the flower) appears to be something insects can crawl into the flower on. Once there, they encounter obstacles that force them past pollen bearing structures and the female parts of the flower, in some species trapping the bugs until the next morning.

For comparison, here is our Amorphophallus konjac finishing flowering (about four feet tall) alongside our son's Biarum zelebourii in bud:

Amorphophallus konjac flower and Biarum zelebourii flower for scale comparison

We grow these in our standard "desert bulb" soil mix (1 part coir fiber by volume, 1 part pearlite by volume, 1 part agricultural grade pumice by volume, and some slow release organic bulb food, and generally some garnet sand) in deep but small pots (the pot for the Biarum in the above photos is 3" wide and 7" tall).

Thursday, March 11, 2021

Fires in the Western United States, 2020

Watching the planet from the various instruments that are available in orbit offers some really clear insights into just how unusual the fires of 2020 were - not just in California, but across the West, including in Oregon, Colorado, and Washington. I screen captured (from the NASA firms system) one-week integrations of all the points on the ground that registered as "on fire" in the infrared and stitched them into a short movie.

At the beginning of the year, the fires are almost all in agricultural lands of the Central Valley. Fire pixels tend to be isolated or in very small groups, representing the burning of individual or groups of fields. This is from the week spanning February 5th through 11th, 2020.

By the end of October, the fires are mostly in the wildlands, and once again are small and distributed widely. Notice the large organized fires in the Sierra Nevada Mountains just below picture center - this is the end of on of the massive fires.

Compare either of the above photos with this one from the week of September 9th through 15th, 2020 - look at the numerous large fires that are crossing the Cascades, North Coast Ranges, Sierra Nevada, and San Gabriel Mountains.


Having just one of these mesoscale fires is unusual, having a dozen or more is unprecedented. These are burning concurrently, not just in the fire prone areas of Southern California, but in the Redwood forests of the Northern California coast and completely crossing several of the largest mountain ranges in North America.

The reasons for this are numerous and complex, and the topic of my next post.

Saturday, February 27, 2021

Eigendecor using Brunsvigia littoralis seed heads and Clip Leads

Both my spouse and I went to a Science and Engineering university. A side effect is that various mathematical terminology now gets warped and bent to our needs.

Allow us to introduce EigenDecor!

And who said Botany, Horticulture, Geometry, Electronics, and Home Decorating could not beneficially mix?

What you see is the seed head from a South African tumbleweed, Brunsvigia littoralis, jauntily perched on the light in the corner of the living room, and being used to organize our electronic test clip leads. Viola!

The Brunsvigia littoralis are enormous South African bulbs related to the Belladonna Lilies of Southern California (actually from South Africa) and the Dutch Amaryllis sold around the holidays. We have to hand pollinate them (see to even get seed set. Once we have seeds we plant them, these take about ten to fifteen years to reach flowering size. Not the fastest plants to grow... We recently evacuated from the SCZ Complex fire, and we brought these with us, providing a rare reason to dig up our mature bulbs. The one shown below is just beginning to push up its flower bud, and is sitting on a sheet of 8.5x11" paper.

This particular bulb came to us via the University of California Botanic Garden (the one in Berkeley) semi-annual plant sale and rare plant auction in 2000. It has grown and flowered reliably for me ever since, and eventually produced a single offset bulb about five years ago.

The clip leads are not specifically interesting, though they came from a recently  defunct chain of electronics and eclectica stores called Fry's Electronics. While Fry's had been declining for some time being faced with fierce competition from online retailers, the eccentricity of the early Dot-com era remained visible in their thematic stores and interior decor. For example, the Burbank store contained scenes like this inside:

I am glad to have been able to have shown my son these eccentric and fun stores before they passed into memory. We did both enjoy them.

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

A genus that no longer exists, of plants that stop cell division at metaphase

Animals eat plants. Plants seem to generally object in their varied ways. Over the few hundred million years this has been happening, plants have gotten clever about fighting back. The thorns of the rose are one example of the results of this long running battle between the herbs and the herbivores.

Androcymbium is a genus that no longer stands as valid - it is now part of the genus Colchicum. Like many plants and animals that have been grouped together by morphological taxonomists in decades and centuries past, the groupings have proven to be correct in some ways, and grievously in error in other ways. Those errors started becoming visible when people started sequencing the genomes of these organisms. Molecular phylogenetics has reworked hundreds of years of looking at plants and comparing their features to understand how they are related to each other. Sometimes this has upended what had appeared to be well understood groups.


Androcymbium ciliolatum has a new name, Colchicum capense subsp. ciliolatum. My plants came from a Garden Club meeting at the Los Angeles County Arboretum in 1986. I've grown them ever since. This is the first year I've convinced these natives of Namaqualand, South Africa to flower.

This plant has flowers that are actually not the flowers (the same is true of Poinsettia, where the colored "petals" are actually specialized leaves called bracts in some cases. The true flowers hide in the center of these white-green desert chalices.

There is a single flower hiding down in there, with six petaloid filaments ringing the three carpels and styles.

What does this have to do with defenses? 

Androcymbium are poisonous plants if ingested. Their toxin, Colchicine, is a strange one, as it is used in taking photographs of chromosomes. Colchicine is an alkaloid that stops cell division at metaphase. That is the part of cell division where all the chromosomes are lined up in pairs preparing to separate to two new cells. 

Careful use of Colchicine on the growing tips of plants can cause a kind of error in copying the chromosomes. They fail to separate. Then the cell proceeds to go on to more ordinary affairs as if it had divided. The cell now has twice the number of chromosomes that it had prior to its encounter with colchicine. This is how tetraploid plants are made from diploids. Tetraploids are often larger and more vigorous than the diploid plants that they once were.

This same treatment does not work with animals. In animals, the chromosomes line up and do not separate, but the cells do not restart the cycle normally. Often, they die. Sometimes they wait until the colchicine clears the system, then try the cell division again. Generally the more complex the animal, the worse the effects of colchicine. Hence large herbivores that survive taste testing the plant often avoid it for the rest of their lives. Hence the plants are left a bit more alone to grow and reproduce.

This species is native to Namaqualand, an amazing and wonderous part of South Africa - a subtropical humid desert. The same place the "living stones" of the genus Lithops are found. There is little vegetation, and lots of animals looking for a meal. Few bother the Androcymbiums.

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Medlars, Australian Finger Limes, and Chinottos Oh My! Harvest Season is here!

Medlars embody the exotic and wonderful fruit time of Autumn! This year we are still processing (and picking) three of the fruits I had to grow myself just to have the opportunity to taste them.

Even in a year such as this one, the plants have managed to follow the flow of the seasons and do what they do so well - grow amazing fruits.

The Medlar


The Medlar is still a minor enigma to me - five hundred years ago in England this was one of the most popular Winter fruits. Admittedly, that is a pretty sparse competitive space, yet these mild flavored and strange to ripen fruits are a delight. The golden foliage of Autumn even looks wonderful on a murky, smokey day:

The enigma comes from my trying to adapt recipes for other fruits to the Medlar. It needs its own recipes, its is not an apple, nor a pear, nor a persimmon, all of which it has been compared to in some way or another. 

Medlars are picked when the leaves turn, while still essentially hard as rocks. My son eats them like this and enjoys them - I certainly can eat them like this, though they are much crunchier than I really prefer and the flavor has not fully developed.

Then, Medlars must be bletted. This is essentially over-ripening them until they are soft. Experimentally, I've determined this is hard to get the timing exactly right on, so instead of setting them on shelves in a single layer to slowly soften, I put them in a large pot, cover them with water, and bring to a simmer for about an hour until they are soft. 

At this point, skins need peeled off, and the soft pulp pushed through a strainer or collander to separate it from the large seeds in the center of the fruit. Collect the paste, and freeze it until you need it.

Australian Finger Limes

What is fantastic about the rainforests of Australia? Lots! In that list near the top, at least for me, is the Australian Finger Lime. It almost makes up for the very existence of things like Arboreal Leeches in the same forests...

Australian Finger Limes actually come in a wide range of fruit and juice sack colors, though I've only got one that is green (pink when very ripe). They also have kin in the area, like Blood Limes.

Something I did not appreciate when I planted these trees is exactly how spiny they are - picking the fruit is work, mostly because of the effort to deal with the long, sharp thorns these trees bear abundantly. Still, there is room to be creative, especially when my son helps invent prickle-free picking tools.

One problem I faced in previous years is a short harvest season starting around the beginning of October and only lasting through December. This year, we are experimenting with freezing whole finger limes. To use them, take them out of the freezer and allow them to thaw for about an hour. Then cut open and allow the juice sacks to come out just like in the fresh fruit. I wish I'd run across this idea a few years ago!

The Chinotto

This is how Switzerland lays claim to being a Citrus-growing nation! It is also part of the flavor of an Italian drink of the same name, and can be candied, juiced, or the rind grated into dishes to add a rather distinct flavor not too far from Oil of Bergamot.

This is a ridiculously slow growing tree. Ours is five feet tall and wide, and nearly twenty years old. Still, it bears glowing orange-yellow fruits on the ends of the branches, on display for many months, and holding well on the tree right through the Winter, snowfall and all.

I'll  be honest - aside from candied and as a really lovely bush for the Winter (and a spectacular source of Vitamin C), I don't really know what to do with these fruits yet. I feel there is more to them than I've yet coaxed from them. 

Now the rains have finally started, the next event will be Mushrooms!