Austin's Weird Orchids.
Where better to spend a Saturday morning than crouching in a forest, braving through mosquitos and ants, and finding a rare, myco-heterotrophic orchid with no chlorophyll? After taking the public bus past downtown towards St. Edward's University in Austin's South Congress neighborhoods, I passed fancy boutiques, restaurants, and bars. Soon, I was in a more residential area as I approached the university, and spotted the small stretch of woods that lined the edge of campus. Hearing the drone of crickets under the steadily warming sun, I began my hunt, crossing the grassy field before the forest.
Soon, I came across some of the more famous Texan wildflowers, as recognizable as Matthew McConaughey to any Texan. From left to right, Oenothera speciosa (Pinkladies), Gaillardia pulchella (Indian Blanket), and Lupinus texensis (Texas Bluebonnet). All of these wildflowers can be seen on any Texas roadside, and bring a bit of color to the rows and rows of concrete lanes.
Below are some more interesting plants. On the left are Convolvulus equitans, a morning glory species that gracefully climbs along other plants. It's common name is Texas Bindweed, which is misleading because it's neither a noxious climber nor will anything particularly interesting happen when you try to smoke it. On the right is Diaperia prolifera, a silvery herb covered in a dense layer of pubescence found in open, dry area.
Eventually, I began approaching the forest. The types of plants began changing as well, with small shrubs and other shade loving species becoming more prevalent. The mosquitoes also increased their assault, and I found myself swatting myself frequently.
Some of the more interesting plants that I found in this more canopied area included Mimosa nuttallii (left), a plant that closes it's leaves when touched, and a relative of the closely related and more famous M. pudica. Pictured in the middle is a species of Symphyotrichum, but since I suck at identifying asters and half of them look the same, I can only narrow it down to genus. On the right is Schoenocaulon texanum , a bulbous, grass-like perrennial found in shrubby woodlands and rocky fields.
The ground soon changed from grass to a thick layer of dead leaves as I entered the forest. I knew the orchids would be difficult to spot, with their drab, brown color rendering them virtually invisible against the litter.
However, soon I stumbled across a small patch of thin, alien like stalks reminiscent of asparagus rising from the ground. I knew I had found what I was looking for, the immature flower stalks of the rare crested coralroot orchid, or Bletia (Hexalectris) spicata. Several stalks were emerging from the ground in varying stages of maturity, but none were open.
It seemed like finding the first population had trained my eyes to home in on more. Soon, I began spotting numerous other clumps, even coming across a singular stalk that did begin flowering. The plants themselves have no leaves or chlorophyll, instead rising from underground coral-shaped structures, hence their common name coralroots (not to be confused with another native Orchid, Corallorhiza). Instead of photosynthesizing to produce sugar like normal plants, these orchids take nutrients from fungi in the ground, effectively parasitizing them. Often found near trees, it's believed the specific fungi are mycorrhizae associated with oaks. However odd they may be, the flowers are characteristic of any orchid, with three sepals, three petals, with one of the petals being exaggerated and forming the "lip". A closer look reveals they're actually quite beautiful, with the ruffled purple lip contrasting with the drab, brown stripes of the petals and sepals.
What was most exciting (and one of the main reasons I had chosen this site) was an odd, yellow flowered form of the species that seemed to lack anthocyanin, or plant pigment. The entire plant was a bright, buttercup yellow, while the lip was a bright white color that was devoid of any of the striking purple veins. The most I could find online about this form was the name H. spicata forma lutea, but I'm not sure about the validity of this taxon.
There were two populations of this odd yellow form, and unfortunately one of them was destroyed by what I'm guessing was a foraging animal. The second clump that was untouched did not have any open flowers, and I will definitely be returning in a few weeks to photograph the ghostly flowers.
Most people aren't aware of such an botanically rich area nestled in the heart of Austin, and even less are aware that a beautiful, parasitic, and enigmatic orchid lives beneath their feet. Keep Austin weird y'all.
(Failed) Trip to Canton
Canton is a small town in east Texas with a population of just a few thousand, most famous for it's First Monday Trade Days, the US's largest flea market. Thousands flock to this event in hopes of snagging rare antiques, handmade goods, or discount products. However, my journey to this little town on December 16th, 2021 was for a different kind of treasure, namely the dwarf sundew Drosera brevifolia. One of two species of sundew native to Texas (the other being D. capillaris), this species inhabits the seasonally wet/dry lands of east Texas. Often dying down to roots and seed during the hot summers, these plants return in winter and resume blooming in spring.
Canton is found in Van Zandt county, on the edge of what's considered east Texas and the great plains of north Texas. Most, if not all online databases list Van Zandt county as not having this species, but many fellow growers in the area have reported populations of Drosera brevifolia inhabiting Cherry Creek Park in Canton.
Canton is about an hour and a half away from Plano. After taking a short lunch break in Forney, I finally arrived in Cherry Creek Park. The first thing I noticed was the extremely sandy soil, a far cry from the thick, clay soil of Plano (Houston Black Clay). It's interesting how an hour;s drive can turn into vastly different ecosystems.
I was informed that the populations of Drosera brevifolia were found near where the grass meets the trees. The area was covered in a thick layer of leaves, and after scouring the area, no sundews were found. However, lots of mosses and other plants that grow sympatrically with Drosera were found. A nice gentleman even stopped to ask if I was looking for deer tracks, as I was kneeling down and inspecting the ground every few feet or so.
Initially, I was confused. I've seen pictures of D. brevifolia popping up everywhere in places like Houston, Corpus, and deep east Texas around this time. My current working theory is that due to Van Zandt county being both more northerly and westerly, the temperatures are still too low and weather still too dry for any of the seeds scattered in fall to sprout. I'll return back in spring to collect herbarium specimens for the UT Austin collection, and potentially collect some seeds to introduce to cultivation. Hopefully, the next trip turns out fruitful, as the most rewarding part of this one was the delicious Popeye's Spicy Chicken Sanwhich I had for lunch.
Bougie Inorganic Media for Pings
Pinguicula seem to be the latest craze in the carnivore world. I mean, to be fair, they are compact, colorful, variable, easy to grow, and propagate well. Native to the forests of Mexico and Central America, these sticky carnivores are often found growing not in peaty bogs like their less impressive (sorry!) US counterparts, but up on trees, rock faces, and mosses. While most literature suggests using a peat based mixed but with higher proportions of perlite or sand, many growers have turned to using completely inorganic mixes for their Pinguciula, namely various mixes of lava rock, perlite, sand, crushed coral, turface, vermiculite, akadama/kanuma. I've even seen kitty litter being used, showing the tolerance of these plants and the lengths people will go to not use normal potting materials. I thought I'd give it a try, as reportedly these mixes last virtually forever, reduce the risk of rot and the dreaded browning heart disease, as well as providing the slightly alkaline conditions these plants prefer. My new inorganic mix consist of equal ratios of perlite, vermiculite, and crushed coral.
Perlite is a white, soft rock that is mostly consisted of silicon dioxide and aluminum dioxide. It's slightly basic on the pH scale. lightweight, high permeability, and retains a small amount of moisture. This all combines into a material that is perfect for Pinguicula, by keeping the media well aerated and preventing stagnant air and water. Just be careful not to breathe in the dust.
This component is somewhat controversial in that different growers either seem to love it or hate it. Vermiculite is the mineral mica that has been superheated until it expands. It has much of the same properties as perlite stated above, but holds quite a bit more water. I use it as an inorganic replacement for peat that holds slightly less water. The issue stems from the fact that when vermiculite is kept constantly wet, it tends to break down into mush that compacts and is no better than pure peat. I've avoided this issue by not letting my plants stand in water. I still use vermiculite rather than not, as I tend to underwater my Pinguicula and the little bit of moisture is lifesaving.
Crushed Coral (Aragonite)
This additive is a relatively new development in the Pinguicula growing world. Crushed coral is often sold to fish hobbyists as a substrate for their tanks, acting as a pH buffer and adding calcium to the water. Since many Pinguicula are found on limestone cliffs, this increase in pH and calcium is welcome by many plants. I picked up a 10 pound bag of this stuff at my local pet store, and the consistency is like that of coarse sand. It doesn't seem to hold water particularly well, and I imagine it plays the same role as coarse silica sand. However, Pinguicula seem to appreciate the slightly alkaline pH of the media, especially if you're using peat.
Other Media Additives
Turface seems to be a very popular media for Pinguicula, given it's neutral pH, ability to absorb water, and it's coarse nature. This is one addiitive I plan to try out soon, especially given it's cheap price and some species' need for a coarse, well draining mix (looking at you, immaculata).
Akadama/Kanuma is a popular heated clay rock that's used for bonsai. Recently, growers have been using it for the likes of Heliamphora, Drosera, and ultramafic Nepenthes. (N. pervelii seems to prefer this media over traditional sphagnum). It has much of the same properties as turface and perlite, as well as being exceptionally high in quality and price. It's also slightly acidic, so due to that fact and the price tag, I'll stick to using this on Nepenthes.
Lava Rock and Pumice are two closely related rock additives that offer the same benefits of perlite or turface. It can be hard to fine grain sizes small enough to use for Pings, as garden centers usually sell them in the sizes of large grapes. However, these larger rocks are perfect for mounting pings onto them, and creating a breathtaking display. The only species I have mounted is my ugly, no good P. laxifolia, which only grows hanging off of rock faces in the wild.
I'll update the progress of these newly potted plants in the future, and if all looks good, I'll be transitioning almost all of the pings into inorganic. However, it's important to note that several species, namely P. gigantea/Alfred Lau 13 and P. emarginata grow relatively damp, and may appreciate the addition of peat or vermiculite. Species like P. mesophytica (which if anyone has, please snendn) prefer a mossy mix with sphagnum. Stay tuned for more blog posts, and until next time!