Gardening with Georgia

Archive - July 2009

« Back to front

Saving a Cycad Isn't Easy

Mon, Jul 27, 2009 at 03:37:27 PM

Microcycas calocoma is the handsome dark green cycad in the
 center of this photo. It is complimented with bromeliads.


Surrounded by a bevy of big bromeliads, this beautiful Microcycas calocoma is just south of the Visitors Center.  A native of the province Pinar del Rio in western Cuba, this genus has only one species, and is extremely limited in its natural range, according to Loran Whitelock’s The Cycads.  As late as 1998, there were believed to be about 1,000 left, with reproductive female cycads being extremely rare.  But in 2004, that number jumped to about 6,000 in 69 colonies discovered by explorers in the mogotes and rugged hilly habitats in which the cycads are found. The beetles that pollinate them, however, are few and far between, so seedlings seldom are evident.

Fairchild has both the male and female plants.  Horticulture supervisor Christie Jones Leiva says she has just finished collecting seed from the female plants after hand pollination. But for the last few years, there has been a problem with seed fertilization, as well as a fungus that attacks the embryo. Two seedlings from 2,000 seeds have been successfully grown in the last four years. Leiva said she expected 1 to 2 percent of the seeds to be viable this year. Michael Calonje, cycad biologist at Montgomery Botanical Center, has sent off samples of the fungus to the University of Florida in hopes of discovering what it is and how to treat it. That center has 24 seedlings, ranging in age from one to 13 years old, he said.

 The single stem of Microcycas has a corky texture, and the leaves are dark green. When visiting the National Botanical Garden of Havana some years ago, I was told that the cycad is pollinated using a tire pump to whoosh pollen into female cones.The cycad commonly is called the cork palm in that country. Ramiro Chaves and Yuriet Ferrer, Cuban botanists, believe the word corcho, or cork, is used in their country to mean a hollow trunk that is used for a beehive. They have found eight old Microcycas plants occupied by wild bees.

Fairchild’s first specimen of Microcycas came from Robert Montgomery, who founded Fairchild. Montgomery bought two from Charles Deering in 1938. They already were five and eight feet tall and evidently wild-collected, wrote Calonje in The Cycad Newsletter of December 2007. In 1959, Fairchild’s superintendent, Stanley Kiem, went to Cuba to try and collect seeds of Cuban palms and cycads, but couldn’t find Microcycas seed, and brought back some cuttings, three suckers and a small plant as well as a wild-collected seedling given to him as a gift.

It took 15 years for a male plant to develop a cone and 17 years for a female plant to produce a cone. Seeds of those plants are now adults at both Fairchild and Montgomery. It is these cycads that horticulturists now are attempting to fertilize to obtain seed. Back in the late 1970s, Fairchild’s Mary Collins hand-pollinated the cycads twice a day when the female cones were ready. Some 700 seeds were produced and distributed to botanical gardens in the United States and to foreign gardens.

 The showy bromeliads that accent this cycad are Portea petropolitana, with the blue and red inflorescence, and Aechmea blanchetiana, with orange/yellow flower spikes. 



Stamp of Approval

Mon, Jul 27, 2009 at 03:12:50 PM


Fort Jefferson's light will
shine on your letters.

Our very own Fort Jefferson Lighthouse in Dry Tortugas National Park has its very own stamp now, with the first day issue ceremony held last week at the Key West Post Office in Key West. The lighthouse also is called the Garden Key Harbor Light. The original was built in 1825. The existing light is a hexagonal wrought iron tower, although the light no longer is an active aid to navigation. The first day of issue postmark is a pen and ink drawing by Ann Shaver of a sooty tern. Fort Jefferson is 70 miles west of Key West.


90 Miles south of Florida: Orchids of Cuba

Tue, Jul 21, 2009 at 07:13:20 PM


Betty Eber

Betty Eber, a long-time Coral Gables orchid grower and teacher of orchid culture, spoke about Cuban orchids Monday night at the Coalition for Orchid Species meeting at Fairchild. Betty’s map of Cuba also featured a purple star near the town of Cienfuegos, with the notation: Betty’s Birthplace.

Orchids of Cuba are generally small and many tend to grow in coastal scrub. Some, however, are high mountain denizens. Some also have wonderful color, such as the intense yellow Tolumnia calochila, or they may produce intoxicating aromas, such as Encyclia phoenicea, known as the chocolate orchid for its cocoa smell.

Broughtonia cubensis, with rusty sepals and petals and lavender-rose lip, is one of the country’s most endangered, she said. Barrett’s ghost orchid, Dendrophylax barrettiae, (now Campylocentrum ariza-juliae) is found widely throughout the islands of the Caribbean. Some of Cuba’s orchids are found in Florida, such as the mule orchid, Cyrtopodium punctatum, Epidendrum floridense and Epidendrum nocturnum. Encyclia bipapularis  hails only from western Cuba; Encyclia acutifolia comes from eastern Cuba, and Brassia caudata, or the spider orchid, grows naturally in the center of the island.

In all, 40% to 50% of Cuba’s 7,940 plants are endemic, or found nowhere else than the main island, the Isle of Youth and the 4,000 islets that make up the country. And new orchids are being discovered al the time, Betty said, including as-yet unnamed species of Lepanthes and Polystachya. At least one orchid, Phaius tankervilleae or the nun’s orchid from Southeast Asia and the Pacific, has made itself right at home on the island and become naturalized.

For the members’ show and tell portion of the meeting, Betty brought in a beautiful specimen of Polystachya concreta (sometimes still called Polystachya flavescens).

Mirta Russis-Heineman

Mirta Russis-Heineman, a past president of COS, brought in several plants, but was thrilled most by the first blooming of her green-flowering Grammatophyllum scriptum  ‘Citrinum,’ she said. She has five specimens of the same plant, and this was the first to flower for her. So when she saw it, she kissed it. Now that’s a true orchidophile.




Happy Campers at Fairchild's Farm

Mon, Jul 20, 2009 at 02:26:13 PM

Summer camp at the Fairchild Farm is underway, and on the day I stopped in, the kids were studying worms. Worms! Noris Ledesma had collected earthworms so that each child could have his or her own worm and learn how to tell the head from the tail. Once they got over the shivers just looking at the worms, the children found they could handle them, dangle them in the air and even use them as face decoration.

Elizabeth Garcia, 7, knew why it’s important to have worms in the garden: “So plants can breathe better’’ she told Noris. And plants breathe better because worms provide air in the soil by moving through it. They increase water movement and make room for roots to grow.  They eat decaying matter and turn it into castings, or a kind of fertilizer.

Because worms don’t like light, the first worms studied were carefully tucked into the soil of the Farm’s herb garden before the next project – making lunch for worms to be grown in a worm bed. Lunch would consist of leaves, peelings and paper.

Ivan Castro and Nathaniel Padilla took pails to gather leaves; Emily Castor, Samantha Barthelemy, Marlene and Elizabeth Garcia were on the team that cut up peelings, leftover pasta, canistel, and even eggshells. Nelson Davis and Jordan Barthelemy tore old newspapers into tiny bits. Then, the ingredients were layered in a bin: paper, peelings, leaves; paper, peelings, leaves. Some 60 worms were gently places on top, and quickly wiggled out of sight. Water was carefully added. Next week, Noris told them, the leaf-peel-paper mix would look like dirt.

As I left, campers were reading, “There’s a Hair in My Dirt, A Worm’s Story’’ by Gary Larson.

Upcoming for the campers are days devoted to birds, turtles, frogs, chickens. A family of Miccosukee Indians will come and tell how they live in the Everglades, and the meanings of the colors and shapes of the cloth they sew into clothing.  Noris plans to have the kids plant a cactus garden as ell as a water garden to compare the way these two ecosystems affect plants. On health day, they will collect eggs from the farm’s chickens and make lunch (with an invited chef) from what grows at the farm this time of year, including herbs and avocados.

The month-long camp is being held in a gazebo made especially for these activities. There were 15 scholarships made available this summer. (For more informaiton, visit and search for summer camp.)

My only question: When can adults have a turn?

Jordan Barthelemy and friend.

Ivan Castro 6, uses a magnifying glass to
find  his  earthworm. l

Noris Ledesma, right, helps the girls cut up
fruit peels to make lunch for the worms.

Nathaniel Padilla puts a worm in the
herb garden to live happily ever after.


Savoring summer's best fruit

Sat, Jul 11, 2009 at 12:04:11 PM

A perfect mango morning: hot and sunny with flavors ranging from spicy to sweet. At the 17th International Mango Festival, Saturday’s crowds found what they’ve waited all year for: mangos to sample, to taste and trees to buy.

Lines of taste-testers were busy sipping sugar and spice on toothpicks as they ranked their favorite mango flavors. Ann Parsons, director of The Kampong, found her favorite among the samples: Keitt. After that, she liked the Fairchild Emerald, then Osteen. Volunteer and photographer Lynda LaRocca put the Fairchild Emerald at the top of her list. 

In the Garden House, where 200 of the Fairchild Farm’s 450 mango cultivars are on display like gems in a jeweler’s case, Frank Neumann from North Miami Beach was busy taking photos of them. He bought a Jean Ellen mango tree to add to his collection, which includes Van Dyke (“tastes like syrup”), Nam Doc Mai, the San Felipe from Cuba, Tommy Atkins, Julie and Carrie. “Everything’s in pots,” he said. “I have a normal size yard.’’

His girlfriend Joan Waters grows Mallika on her Beach condo balcony.

Tinthu Lee and her son Shaiming Lee were toting mangos to take home while looking over the displays in the Garden House. Tinthu as come to the auction for the last two years, and she was checking out this year’s offerings. From Myanmar, Tinthu pointed out the Shwethinta mango from her native land. “It has a combination of fruit flavors,’’ she said.

Betty Eber remembered how, as a child in Cuba, she would take tiny, fiber-filled mangos and roll them around on a hard surface to soften them and make them juicy. Then, she said, she and her friends would cut off one end and squeeze out the juice right into their mouth. 

Senior fruit curator Richard Campbell and his brother Rob were among the experts answering questions in the Garden House. Most often asked: ‘What is this mango?’ Followed by ‘Why didn’t my mango fruit?’ And, says Rob, ‘Is this one stringy?’

 So, why didn’t your mango fruit?  Too much water and fertilizer, says Richard. Tough love means better mangos, says the expert.       

Ann Parsons, director of The Kampong,
tasted her favorite -- a Keitt!


Perfect mango morning on a
hot summer day.