Friday, January 26, 2018

Pilbara Plants: wet season flowers defy heat

I was fortunate to have some excellent mentors in my early Pilbara botanical years, one of whom was a passionate botanist, Kaye Glennon.

During the 1980s she contributed a regular article highlighting native plants to what was then the Hamersley News and later the Karratha Guardian.

When she left town in the late 1980s I said I would continue her column. It has taken me 30 years to do so but "a voice from the spinifex" is talking plants again.

It's 41C outside and I wonder how any plant, let alone any flower, can survive. Yet on the Yaburara Heritage Trail this morning I saw my favourite Bonamia media (summer hillslope bonamia).

This ground plant has tiny protective whitish hairs on its small spear-shaped leaves and stems, usually no more than 10-15cm, that bear beautiful pale blue funnel-shaped flowers with five petals.

I love this tiny plant that lies flat on the searing rocks but flowers throughout the hottest summer months. It is one of the Convolvulaceae family (from the Latin convolvo, to twine).

This plant is too small to twine but its closest relatives, the morning glory vines, do. One of these is rock morning glory (Ipomoea costata).

As you drive to Dampier or Hearson's Cove, its large purple trumpet-shaped flowers are obvious.

Their somewhat woody tubers are the well-known "bush potato", a favourite of Aboriginal people.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Carpinteria still rosy after California wildfires spare flower farms

The owner of Rose Story Farm in the seaside city of Carpinteria saw her trampled roses and avocados and felled citrus trees as "small prices" to pay to ensure her farm did not suffer more than the scorching it received on Tuesday from the Thomas Fire, one of the state's largest ever wildfires.

"We know we live in a desert climate and are prone to wildfires, but I don't think anyone could expect the scope of this," she said by telephone this week.

The tale of Rose Story Farm was repeated at farms and nurseries across the Carpinteria Valley, a region state officials tout as the "flower basket of the United States" because more cut flowers are grown there than anywhere else in the nation.

Imported flowers from Colombia and other South American countries make up 80 percent of the U.S. cut flower market, but the majority of the U.S. supply comes from California, state officials said. And most of that comes from the more than 40 farms and nurseries in the Carpinteria region that grow blooms including roses, Gerbera daisies, orchids and lilies.

Industry officials consider the singeing of Rose Story Farm, lower output from other farms because staff could not get to work and possible ash damage as a better-than-expected outcome compared with their worst fears.

"We've been pretty fortunate," Kasey Cronquist, chief executive of the California Cut Flower Commission, which promotes the state's flower farmers, said by phone while visiting the fire-damaged area.

The Thomas Fire has claimed the life of one firefighter and burned down more than 700 homes. Strong winds in the mountains near Santa Barbara could cause flare-ups in the coming days.

But the region's flower growers, who employ almost 800 people and generate a daily economic impact of more than $2.1 million according to Cronquist, have dodged serious damage much to the delight of florists and brides-to-be everywhere.


However, they have not escaped unscathed: Rose Flower Farm lost almost a week of deliveries in an industry where the product is shipped daily.

"These aren't crops that can just hang on trees and wait until this thing passes," Cronquist said. "It's a very perishable product that just needs to keep moving."

Carpinteria's West Orchids Inc, founded by one of four Dutch families who moved to the valley in the late 1960s to grow flowers, saw the flames advance to within a half-mile of the 30-acre farm, keeping workers away.

Its marketing director, David Van Wingerden, figured he will have to pay a lot of overtime as staff catch up, and he worried the ash covering his greenhouses could slow flower growth.

"The impact is going to be yet to come," he said. "We'll have to see if we have any quality issues."

Hahn said the 200 rose stems she lost to firefighting efforts were nothing compared to the 25,000 roses and property they saved. Hann and her husband Bill charge $45 for 10 stems.

She recalled the 50-foot flames approaching her 15-acre farm and the relief she felt when the firefighters' plan to create a gap with a second blaze snuffed out the approaching danger.

"You could feel it. You could hear it," she said of the heat and flames.

People further afield were also affected. Liz Griffith, owner of Siloh Floral Artistry in Denver, has a destination wedding on the Big Island of Hawaii on Saturday. She had ordered 100 stems from Rose Story Farm but knew Monday they wouldn't arrive.

Griffith arranged for 50 roses from another supplier and filled in with other flowers. Having had other weddings she served affected by a tsunami or ravenous insects, she took the news in stride.

"The world of flowers is pretty much unpredictable because we can't control nature," Griffith said.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Column: Flower power

A friend of mine lives near a large nursery, and every May the nursery puts out an enormous spread of mums, the sprouts in May just piercing the pots' soil. Yet as the spring turns to summer, the plants grow and mature until late August, early September when they are in full bloom. He has dubbed it in May – "the field of sorrow and sadness" – in that when the plants are yellow and pink and dark purple, the summer is over, and it is back to school, back to the tasks at hand, back to the everyday schedules that give structure to our daily lives.

And while we don't necessarily equate flowers with the direction of the year — I think in many ways we rely on perhaps the trees or what people are wearing — flowers in many ways are the perfect indices of where we are, what month it is. They point to our next seasonal destinations.

For me, in a corner of the yard where we didn't pitch the snow to clear the driveway and sidewalks, in late January there were snowdrops: tiny white flowers resembling stars, balancing on slender green stalks, appearing from beneath the leaves and other late fall debris. Low to the ground as well are the crocuses that follow in February, those purple flowers bursting through what appear to be impossible odds, such fragile things making their way up through the cold earth. They are fearless in the face of winter. If you touch a flower's petals, it is hard to understand how this weightless material has overcome the snow and cold.

Then, of course, come all those wonderful spring flowers: the daffodils, tulips, jonquils; the annuals we can plant because we're too eager to wait for all the flowers to bloom, so there are pansies in urns by the front door, beds of impatiens bringing light and color to the shady areas. The irises, although lasting but a week, are the most amazing flowers to behold in late May. How did they come to evolve? The deep purple buds suddenly explode into these flowers, their structures an engineering feat of nature. Some petals face up, others arc downward, some seem to be painted with the thinnest, finest brushes of color.

Along the roadsides and winding pathways up and down New England are meadows and marshlands, filled for much of the summer with goldenrod, Queen Anne's lace, purple loosestrife, set many times against a background of cattails or field grasses. These steadfast summertime wildflowers are the staple of fields, swales and waysides leading to beaches and headlands.

I know that the Fourth of July is near when the bright orange day lilies bloom, their strong stalks and stripped green leaves long ago appearing in late April. If you walk near any open field, you'll find red clover, thistle, and field buttercups, all straining for sunlight. In gardens, phlox, salvia, Russian sage, and lavender are in full bloom.

By August into September there are asters and black-eyed Susans, blooming zinnias and cone flowers, all brilliant harbingers of fall itself, with their showy colors of red, coral, deep yellows and ochers. You might plant additional spring bulbs before the first frost. Being a gardener requires faith.

Then come late November and early December, when the first below-freezing nights have shattered gardens, yet you can still find the meadows alive with seed heads, the last red berries of bittersweet, the tomato-colored hips of sea roses clinging on along a hedgerow.

Yes, there is a certain sadness equated with summer's end, and the appearance of mums in the containers that once held pansies. Yet there is also that one night or late afternoon by the harbor: you are walking the dog, and you notice off in the small cove you are passing, someone has positioned a tree on a raft in the harbor, decorated with twinkle lights, and you smile and think about all the flowers now dormant beneath your feet, thinking of springtime and when they will make their next appearance.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Some flowers create blue halo to say hello to foraging bees

NEW YORK — Some flowers have found a nifty way to get the blues.

They create a blue halo, apparently to attract the bees they need for pollination, scientists reported Wednesday. Bees are drawn to the color blue, but it's hard for flowers to make that color in their petals.

Instead, some flowers use a trick of physics. They produce a blue halo when sunlight strikes a series of tiny ridges in their thin waxy surfaces. The ridges alter how the light bounces back, which affects the color that one sees.

The halos appear over pigmented areas of a flower, and people can see them over darkly colored areas if they look from certain angles.

The halo trick is uncommon among flowers. But many tulip species, along with some kinds of daisy and peony, are among those that can do it, said Edwige Moyroud of Cambridge University in England.

In a study published Wednesday by the journal Nature, Moyroud and others analyze the flower surfaces and used artificial flowers to show that bumblebees can see the halos.

An accompanying commentary said the paper shows how flowers that aren't blue can still use that color to attract bees. Further work should see whether the halo also attracts other insects, wrote Dimitri Deheyn of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California.