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.