Thursday, November 28, 2013

Calandrinia mirabilis - a spectacular, recently described species

This species is certainly not new to horticulture, as it has been known to plant enthusiasts since at least 1997. Seed of the species was sold by Nindethana Seed Service in Western Australia for many years as "Calandrinia polyandra". I purchased the seed from their catalogue in 1998-1999 and successfully propagated and grew a large number of plants during the summer of 1999-2000. Here are my original photos from that time.

Flowers on my plants of Calandrinia mirabilis
(syn. Calandrinia sp. 'Landor Station' 3442)
 ex. Nindethana Seed Service in 1999-2000.

As soon as my plants flowered I realized that this species was probably not C. polyandra but a different species entirely. I requested the provenance details from Nindethana and they informed me the seed had been collected from 'Landor Station' in Western Australia.

I sent scans of the photos (shown above) with the location details to a small number of Australian experts for an identification, including the authors of this paper. Unfortunately on this occasion the lines of communication must have conspired against me.

I made up my own putative name for it, based on the information I had received from Nindethana and their catalogue number. I labelled my plants Calandrinia sp. 'Landor Station' 3442.

The new owner of Nindethana Seed Service has just informed me that the previous owner, Peter Luscombe, was in fact the collector of one of the seed batches that I had purchased all those years ago.

Nindethana are one of only a few licensed seed merchants supplying rare and unusual arid zone flora to Australia and the world. They supply seed in small or bulk quantities to private enthusiasts, botanical gardens and nurseries. The owner advises that they first made collections of this Calandrinia species in 1997, with a single 5 gram sale made that year. They made no further sales until 1999, which is when the species first appeared on their catalogue. From 2000-2002 they recorded sales of this species to nurseries, another seed trader, and a botanic gardens in Australia. They did not retain the details of "small packet" sales during that same period, however these have always been very popular.

Several years ago I heard on the grapevine that a new species of Calandrinia from Western Australia was being described. I was unable to confirm if this was the same species until a friend alerted me to the following paper.

Journal of the Adelaide Botanic Garden Volume 26, Part 4 (2013: 71-102)

My only criticism of the paper is that the name chosen for the plant was perhaps a bit conservative and boring for such a dazzling and vibrant species. But I am at least glad that this beautiful species has finally been described. I grew these spectacular plants for a couple of seasons and coined a common name "Clown flowers" to refer to them, as the bright and frilly patterns brought back childhood memories of circus clowns.

My own experiences with these plants in cultivation were a mix of pleasure and disappointment. I recall the seed germinated in a few days and the plants grew rapidly in a sandy mix during the hot, dry summer months. They did not mind an ample supply of water while the weather was hot. However they stopped flowering and began to shrivel towards the end of summer. I reduced watering to a minimum, as I found that additional moisture at this time promoted rotting. The plants were evidently very susceptible to fungal diseases and also succumbed to infestations of mealy bugs in their weakened state. In an effort to stave off the inevitable, I sprayed a few plants with a commercial "two in one" rose fungicide/insecticide. Those plants lingered a month or so longer before expiring. Most of my attempts at producing new plants from cuttings also failed.

I retained numerous seed from my plants, but only a few germinated the following season. The plants grew poorly and only flowered a few times before fading away. The poor viability and lack of vigour was surprising because native bees had actively visited the flowers throughout the previous summer. I lost my last plant in early 2002.

It is possible that the seed may require a period of stratification, given the unpredictable nature of their arid, tropical climate.

This is certainly a worthwhile species to grow, but don't expect to keep it for more than a few seasons. People who live in western districts, well away from all the fungal and insect diseases that plague the eastern seaboard, may have more success.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Portulaca dubia, the "lost" or "dubious" species of Johan Gottlieb and John William Tepper

I am often intrigued by historical plant "types" that have languished in herbarium collections for over a century or more because of their insufficiency or ambiguity and, as such, are no longer generally recognized today. In some cases the pressed material was scanty or poorly pressed, but still considered interesting or unique enough to retain for future reference. The process of naming a new species based on "one-off", incomplete and even infertile specimens is unheard of today. But up until about the 1950s/60s many such specimens were named and dutifully described.

Portulaca dubia Teller ex Poelln. (MEL 58509) is one such "species", the epithet of which in Latin is nominative singular feminine and means "doubtful", "dubious", "undetermined", "difficult", "critical", "precarious", "uncertain" or "subject to change". The epithet "dubia" turns up mainly in older botanical treatises to highlight the fact that the plant specimen on which the name is based was insufficient or could not be separated from other species with any degree of certainty at the time.

The case for Portulaca dubia would have been a  Prima facie / Causa termina for me if not for the addition of the remarkable words by Ferdinand von Mueller on the description: "Different from all known species"! These words induce two nagging questions in me: "Why did von Mueller consider it to be different?" and "Why was he so certain that it was different?"

The description for Portulaca dubia Tepper appears in Karl von Poellnitz treatment of the Portulaca genus "Versuch einer Monographie der Gattung Portulaca L" (p. 295), in Feddes Repertorium Specierum Novarum Regni Vegetabilis 37 1934: 240-320.

58. Portulaca dubia J. G. O. Tepper in Transact. a. Proc. Roy. Soc. S. Austr. XVII (1893) 16.
Perhaps annual, herbaceous, spreading, 7 1/2 - 10 cm high, many branched. Leaves alternate or opposite, narrowly ovate, or oblong, usually obovate, 6-18 mm long, mature leaves soon deciduous, juvenile leaves crowded together into the tips of branches. Axillary hairs numerous, short, persistent. Flowers terminal, sessile, solitary, encircled by 4 or more false involucral leaves. Involucral leaves around 6 mm long, broadly ovate. Tepals 12 mm long or longer, wide, not persisting (?), Pink? Style, stigmatic lobes, the capsule, seeds?
Western Australia: Roebuck Bay, Jan. 1890, J. W. O. Tepper. — "Different from all known species" (F. Mueller). — Insufficiently described!
The original description by Tepper appears in the account "The Flora of Roebuck Bay, West Australia." by J. G. O. Tepper. F.L.S. (Transact. a. Proc. Roy. Soc. S. Austr. XVII, 1893, 17: 16-20). A copy is available online (link following).

In the foreword to the book the author writes that the specimens were "collected by my son (J. W. O. Tepper) during the exceptionally dry years 1889 to the close of 1891. They were submitted to Baron Sir Ferd. von Mueller, F.R.S., for identification; many of them were kindly determined by him; of the rest the genera only were indicated." This entry suggests that the specimen may have been drought-affected at the time of collection.

Below: The location of Roebuck Bay on Google Earth.

View Larger Map

The description of Portulaca dubia Tepper from the book follows here.
— sp. January, 1890. "Different from all known forms."— F. r. M.  
 A low spreading herb, probably annual, 3 to 4 inches, branches  numerous, opposite or alternate, basal leaves soon lost, stipular hairs numerous, very short, more persistent than the leaves;  leaves opposite or alternate, narrow oval, oblong or almost obovate, 1/4 to 3/4 inch, in the specimens nearly all crowded at and near the apex of the branchlets.  Flowers terminal, solitary, sessile between four or more floral leaves. Sepal broadly ovate,  about 1/4 inch. Petals pink (?), 1/2 inch or more, broad, fugacious.  Capsule and seed not seen. The provisional name, P. dubia, is suggested.
By the description alone, this provisional species would seem closest to Portulaca pilosa L. or perhaps even Portulaca amilis Speg. The early collection date and location suggest it may be a native species. However the material recognized today as P. pilosa is considered naturalized, as it is consistently similar throughout its range of distribution in Australia. The lack of variation suggests that it may have spread rapidly from a single introduction or from several introductions which had the same geographical origin. The assumption is that if the taxon had been here all along, we should expect to see significant variation across the range of habitat types and climate zone of its distribution.

However this lack of variation could also indicate that it was a pre-existing species, perhaps rare or restricted originally, and its rapid spread was only initiated when Europeans introduced widespread environmental disturbances. It may have rapidly colonized roadsides and cleared areas, following in the wake of the new settlers. The steady movement of humans and horse drawn vehicles across the landscape would have helped to spread it far and wide in a relatively short space of time.

The "pilosa complex" is characterized by the presence of rather narrow leaves, numerous stipular hairs at the leaf axils, and pink/purple flowers. The Australian material appears intermediate in its characters to the species P. pilosa L. and P. amilis Speg. of the Americas. Admittedly these species are closely related and are in fact treated as synonymous by some authors. They are also quite variable there, and some authors have split off different varieties and species, including P. mundula I. M. Johnst. But it is also worth considering that in Africa there are similar species to P. pilosa L. that are endemic there, such as P. kermesina N.E.Br.. This raises the possibility that Australia might also have at least one representative species of its own in this vast pan-tropical complex.

The specimen at MEL is out on loan, however the curators of the New South Wales Herbarium kindly supplied me with a scan of the specimen sheet. The sheet contains two entire plants (one lacking roots) that are well pressed and surprisingly well preserved for their age. The sheet also includes a number of fragments.

Type specimen of Portuaca dubia Tepper ex Poelln. (MEL 58509).
Reproduced with permission from the National Herbarium of Victoria (MEL),
 Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne.

I was surprised by the specimens, firstly because they are clearly not Portulaca pilosa, and secondly because they appear different to most other Australian Portulaca that I have seen. The specimens do not appear to be allied to P. filifolia, P. decipiens, P. napiformis, or P. australis. The broadly ovate sepals, broad petals, broader leaves, and shorter stems all rule out P. filifolia. The persistent and numerous stipular hairs surely rule out P. oleraceaP. australis, P. intraterranea, and P. napiformis. It is a pity that the pink colour of the petals had not been noted with absolute certainty, as none of the other species mentioned have pink flowers. The author Urs Eglli places P. dubia tentatively as a synonym of P. pilosa subsp. pilosa, and cites Matthews et. al. (1992). This is clearly incorrect. The only characters that the specimens have in common with P. pilosa are the fibrous root system and the prominent stipular hairs in the axils.

In terms of leaf characters and growth habit, Portulaca dubia is most like P. oleracea or P. intraterranea but is atypical in a number of ways. There are no capsules on the specimens, however there are a number of prominent terminal buds present. The buds are larger than those on P. oleracea and a different shape. They are not laterally compressed but more rounded and the apex is not carinated to form a keel; instead the buds appear to be remarkably conical, and are acute or acuminate in outline. Some even appear to possess a slightly curved apical mucro, but this may have resulted from their positioning during the original pressing process.

The variations in leaf size and shape, from narrowly oblong to obovate and around 2-3 mm to 6-18 mm long is intriguing, as some branches have only leaves that are consistently small, while other branches have leaves that are, for the most part, consistently large. There is multiple branching from each internode and this character alone distinguishes it from the P. oleracea / intraterranea clade. This manner of branching is most commonly seen in Portulaca digyna, and it is to this species that P. dubia may be allied. The specimens present as an abnormally large form of P. digyna. However it is difficult to understand if the specimens may simply be this way due to environmental factors, such as the prevailing drought conditions at the time, grazing livestock, a saline habitat, or disease. In the absence of additional collections the influences of such environmental factors cannot be ruled out.

Except for the multiple branching at the internodes, the species P. dubia may also be similar to the "Portulaca sp. affin intraterranea (or sp. affin. australis?)" that I wrote about in a previous blog entry. Click here to open.

The specimens on the sheet appear to have some flowers, including one which looks fully intact, yet Tepper questions the pink colour of the petals in his description. This implies that he may have written the description at a later time, and the pink colour was based on the recollections of his son who had collected and pressed the specimens. The petals may have indeed been pink, but it is also possible that the flowers were actually yellow or pale yellow but with bright pink or reddish petal bases or stamens. We should consider too that yellow flowers sometimes appear pinkish after pressing and drying.

Portulaca sp. affin intraterranea (or sp. affin. australis?).
This interesting species was photographed on Cape York.
When not in flower it resembles P. australis, except for the more
spreading branches. Photo courtesy of Jill Newland and Roger Fryer.

A biography of Johann Gottlieb Otto Tepper appears on the following page, if you scroll about half way down. [Source: BCSA Inc.]

Biography of Dr Karl von Poellnitz (1896-1945)

The German botanist Dr Karl von Poellnitz is renowned for his detailed taxonomic work on many of the larger species of succulents in Asphodelaceae (Allooideae). He is in fact something of a legend to succulent enthusiasts the world over. An entire genus has even been named after him. The names he gave many of the species that he described in intricate detail are still in use. His work on many of the smaller species of succulents, in families such as Portulacaceae and Crassulaceae, was equally groundbreaking, but is generally not as well known in horticultural circles today. Nevertheless, he diligently named and described many new species in these plant families from all over the world. I encounter his name frequently whenever I do research on the Portulaca genus.

I found myself wanting to learn more about this prominent botanist. My knowledge up to this point had been limited to what others had told me and the little snippets I had picked up while reading various botanical texts. I had been told that he was a member of the German nobility and had died tragically towards the end of the war. But this was really all I had known about him.

To my great surprise there were very few complete biographies of von Poellnitz online. The information is there but scattered, and I later realized that one of the pages contained several inaccuracies. I decided to rectify this by compiling a more detailed biography of the botanist here on my blog. If anyone can contribute more information, I would be most grateful. I am especially indebted to Mr. Heinz Staude for helping fill in some of the gaps in my information and for providing several of the rare photographs which he kindly allowed me to reproduce.

Dr. Baron Karl Leopold Joseph Arndt von Poellnitz (b. May 4th 1896, d. February 15th 1945) was a German botanist, researcher and agronomist. He was an Honourary Member of the "Naturforschenden Gesellschaft des Osterlandes zu Altenburg".

During his early school years he contracted scarlet fever followed by poliomyelitis, which left him partially paralyzed and with impaired speech. He also suffered disturbances of vision and hearing. He regained use of his legs and could eventually walk again with the aid of a cane. Those who knew him respected him greatly for his kindness, patience, candour, and wit. In 1916 he attended university where he studied natural sciences and agriculture, earning his doctorate in the winter of 1920-21. He married Margarethe Lange on the 8th September 1921. They had studied Natural Science together at the university. 

Instead of immediately pursuing a professional career, he devoted himself increasingly to his father's estate, the Schloss und Rittergut von Oberlödla in Altenburg. The estate had been purchased by his direct ancestors in 1783 and it comprised more than 400 acres of farming land. He inherited this estate on the death of his father, Arndt, in September, 1921.

 The Schloss und Rittergut von Oberlödla. Some six generations of
the family von Poellnitz lived there between 1783 and 1945.
Photo courtesy of Mr Heinz Staude.

Apart from managing the estate, he developed a passionate interest in leaf succulents. He kept a greenhouse full of exotic plants and spent a great deal of time with them. He soon became renowned for his very specific and systematic approach to taxonomy on many plant species that had been previously neglected by science. He was unfortunately prevented from travelling due to his poor health, however he maintained a close network of friends, botanical explorers and other naturalists who kept him supplied with interesting plant material for study.

His particular area of work and research was given to the Liliaceae, Asphodelaceae (Allooideae), Crassulaceae, and Portulacaceae and he actively encouraged the collecting of these plant families in their home countries. He is remembered particularly for his work on the species of the genus Haworthia. His revisions and key to Haworthia were ground breaking and clarified many of the former ambiguities within the genus. His keys, descriptions, specimens and photographs are still frequently referenced to this day. He also worked extensively on the genera Adromischus, Anacampseros, Echeveria, Pachyphytum, and Portulaca. From 1929 to 1945 he published (either as author or co-author) 215 new plant names, 175 of which were new taxa and 40 were new combinations. 

Dr Karl von Poellnitz in 1940
Photo courtesy of Mr Heinz Staude.
He died tragically with his wife, his 9 year old daughter Friederun, and 33 villagers while sheltering in the castle basement during an Allied bombing raid (part of "Operation Thunderclap") on 14th February 1945. The SW corner of the castle was hit and all perished under the fallen cross vault of the building. A thousand bombs rained that day on Oberlödla and the nearby villages of Schelditz and Rositz. Nearly 80 percent of the buildings were destroyed and 115 people were killed. It was not the first time that the district had been affected by bombing raids, but it was certainly the worst.

The von Poellnitz family at one time consisted of 3 sons and 1 daughter. The youngest son, Lutz, died in a farming accident at harvest time. The eldest son Arndt and his younger brother Heinrich survived the war. Following their detainment by the Russians they were initially released, but were then arrested and sent to work as forced labour in the brown coal mine. However they managed to escape and successfully fled to West Germany. Arndt was tragically killed in an Allied passenger transport accident in Bad Salzuflen in 1947. Heinrich von Poellnitz still lives in Germany with his daughter.

People inevitably ask the question, why was the tiny rural village of Oberlödla bombed so heavily? From my research it would appear that the bombing was mainly an unfortunate consequence of its proximity to the coal-oil refineries at Schelditz. The large lignite deposits in west Thuringia supplied brown coal briquettes which the Schelditz plant turned into smoldering tar to make (among other things) electrode coke and fuel oil/diesel. The refinery in Schelditz was located only several kilometres west-north-west of the von Poellnitz estate at Oberlödla

War time reconnaissance photos shows the von Poellnitz estate in April 1945, the castle in ruins and the surrounding landscape heavily cratered. The same RAF sortie took photos of the large lignite mine nearby and the devastated chemical oil refinery at Schelditz. They had clearly been of great interest to the allied forces. Schelditz was nearly wiped off the map as a consequence of the bombing. It was later incorporated with Rositz by municipality reform on 5 July 1950.

"Operation Thunderclap" dropped some of the heaviest bombs of the war (up to 4000 pounds) and employed the tactic of saturation bombing. The goal of the operation was to disrupt the rear supply areas of the German Eastern Front lines, destroy the morale of factory workers, and aid the Soviet advance. The von Poellnitz estate was most likely bombed by accident as a consequence of the widespread saturation bombing in the district. Some people believe the estate may have been mistaken for a military site and deliberately targeted. In either case, the size and prominence of the castle and manor (compared to other buildings in the landscape) would have undoubtedly contributed to its downfall. Whether it was targeted mistakenly or hit purely by accident is speculative. Perhaps the truth is still buried somewhere in Allied archives.

The following paragraphs were translated from the Community of Rositz page: "Gelditz in alten Zeiten"  © 2013  (
 "The time of the Second World War counts as the darkest chapter in Schelditz long history. It brought a lot of suffering, misery and distress on the Schelditzer citizens. In 1944 the DEA mineral oil works were often the target of the Allied Air Force.
 "Already in the first attack on 16 August 1944 were destroyed 70 percent of the plants. Forced labourers were used mostly to repair the damage. In and around Rositz eight forced labour camps were built. The largest of these labour camps was in the local area of Schelditz (now home to the old Autohaus in the outskirts). It was officially under the Organisation Todt. See:  The prisoners were supervised by the Gestapo, SS and Dutch older guards. [Some of the old DEA buildings still exist today along the Straße der Chemiearbeiter ("Street of Chemical Workers").]
 "The 800 inmates were used for the heaviest physical labour in the DEA. Due to the proximity to the DEA, Schelditz also suffered particularly from the bombing. Time and again, when the sirens wailed, the Schelditzer citizens sought refuge in an air raid shelter named Pflaumenberg ("Plum Mountain"). The most devastating air attack for Schelditz was dated 14 February 1945. Then 1,000 bombs were dropped by the Anglo-American airmen over the DEA. The plant was ablaze, the sky turned bright red and the black clouds of smoke covered the surrounding villages. The pool, many of the farm buildings and houses were severely damaged, the freehold, completely razed apart from an outbuilding. 18 people were found dead. The neighboring Gut Quaas, heutige Talstraße 1 (the "Valley Road 1"), paid for in 1931 by Bruno Markscheffel, was strongly impacted; house and barn were destroyed, the barn was razed to the ground."

The following is a direct copy of an entry from Martin Middlebrook's publication, The Bomber Command War Diaries An Operational Reference Book 1939-1945, Midland Publishing, 1995. The entry is very telling, as it outlines how the accuracy of these raids could be compromised by poor weather conditions. 
14/15 February 1945
Operation Thunderclap

Chemnitz: 499 Lancasters and 218 Halifaxes of Nos 1, 3,4,6 and 8 Groups to continue Operation Thunderclap. 8 Lancasters and 5 Halifaxes lost. This raid took place in two phases, 3 hours apart. A very elaborate diversion plan succeeded in keeping bomber casualties down but Chemnitz - now called Karl-Marx-Stadt - was also spared from the worst effects of its first major RAF raid. Both parts of the bomber force found the target area covered by cloud and only skymarking could be employed. Post-raid reconnaissance showed that many parts of the city were hit but that most of the bombing was in open country.

224 Lancasters and 8 Mosquitos of No 5 Group attacked the oil refinery in Rositz near Leipzig. 4 Lancasters were lost. Damage was caused to the southern part of the oil plant.

Diversionary and 95 aircraft of No 3 Group and of Heavy Conversion Units on a sweep into the Heligoland Bight, 46 Mosquitos to Berlin, 19 to Mainz, 14 to Dessau, 12 to Duisburg, 11 to Nuremberg and 8 to Frankfurt, 21 RCM sorties, 87 Mosquito patrols, 30 Lancasters and 24 Halifaxes minelaying in the Kadet Channel. 5 Halifaxes and 1 Lancaster lost from the minelaying force.

Total effort for the night: 1,316 sorties, 23 aircraft (1.7 per cent) lost.
The crews of Bomber Command were understandably fulfilling a vital role in the war effort in conditions that could only be described as atrocious. On the night of the 14th February, the bombing raids were substantially off target due to the persistent cloud cover. The Allies thoroughly documented the on-ground successes and failures of every mission by follow-up aerial reconnaissance. One such sortie on 14th March, 1945 (exactly one month after the bombing raid) captured the von Poellnitz estate in mid-frame. The image shows that many of the bombs intended for the Schelditz refinery had fallen well short of their mark. They had landed some distance to the south, on open countryside or on the adjoining village of Oberlödla. The craters that are clearly evident in the nearby open fields vary in size from around 8 to almost 20 metres in diameter (based on the 1 : 10,000 scale of the photo).

By the end of 1948 almost the entire manor complex on the von Poellnitz estate had been demolished. Today only the original arched entrance and gateway to the estate remains intact and is evidently still in use. The northern outer wall of the main building with its arched window openings still stands next to a large pile of rubble. Most of the outlying farm buildings are gone, but sections of the outer walls of the estate grounds still remain. The neighbouring church survived, although it too was damaged by bombing. It was renovated in 1949/1951.

Recent photos of these historical features can be viewed at the following website.

Above: The remains of the outer walls of the von Poellnitz
estate in May 2010. Click thumbnail for full size image.
Photo © Mr Heinz Staude.

Fortunately, von Poellnitz had sent most of his plant specimens to the Botanical Museum of Berlin-Dahlem, where they were photographed and preserved. But there too most of the preserved specimens were destroyed by bombing during the Second World War, but at least the photographs survived. In addition, von Poellnitz had also taken his own photographs of his plants. His collection of photos came into the care of Prof. Werdermann who forwarded them to the museum in 1948. The photographs of his plants have generally not been recognized by many botanists, except M.B. Bayer who designated a few as lectotypes in 1971.

In September 1999, researchers discovered several Haworthia specimens preserved in alcohol during a review of material in the herbarium of the Botanical Museum Berlin-Dahlem. The labels on the jars clearly showed that the specimens had been prepared by von Poellnitz himself, between 1930 and 1933. The jars had escaped the destruction of holotypes during the Second World War, because they had fortunately been housed in a part of the building not destroyed in 1943.

As stated on the BGBM website,
 "Around the beginning of 1943 a sorting out of types and other authentic material was begun. Unfortunately, this effort was not finished when the Herbarium building was destroyed by fire in a bombing raid on the night of March 1-2, 1943."
 ""The loss of the Berlin herbarium is a catastrophe of major proportions to world botany" wrote Merrill (1943), who continued: "This herbarium, one of the largest and most important in the world, . . . contained the basic historical collections of Germany outside of those at Munich. Scores of thousands of type specimens from all parts of the world were thus destroyed". "
Fortunately again, perhaps due to the perceived risks associated with housing specimens in Berlin, the type specimen of Portulaca terrae-reginae had been returned promptly to Stockholm after being described by von Poellnitz. The photographic plate on the duplicate sheet clearly depicts the same specimens that exist today on the type sheet in Stockholm. It is difficult to ascertain if the fragments on the duplicate sheet in Berlin-Dahlem represent the remains of specimens that survived the war, or if these fragments were complemented more recently from the type sheet in Stockholm. Considering that there are several complete specimens on the type sheet, we can assume that von Poellnitz would have included at least one whole specimen on the duplicate sheet. It is therefore likely that the fragments on the duplicate sheet are all that survived the 1943 bombing.

Above: Damage to the herbarium at Berlin-Dahlem following
an Allied air raid in 1943. A high explosive bomb and several
phosphorus canisters struck the Botanical Museum on the
night of March 1, killing the senior preparator and wounding
two further people. The subsequent fire in the herbarium
wing almost completely destroyed the herbarium and library.
© Archiv, Botanischer Garten und Botanisches Museum
Berlin-Dahlem, Freie Universität Berlin.

War destroys many innocent lives and there is little sympathy in the machinations of megalomaniacal dictators for plants or, for that matter, those who appreciate or study plants. So much that is destroyed by war is irreplaceable and therefore priceless.

The Reich Ministry for Science, Education and Culture granted the Botanical Museum of Berlin-Dahlem immediate funds of one million Reichsmarks for repairs, along with an annual grant of 50,000 Reichsmarks. Such a generous payment in the closing years of the war seems unbelievable, but was nevertheless true!

The cynic in me suspects that the immediate availability of funds was little more than a propaganda tool and "face-saving" exercise, considering that the Third Reich was by that time massively in debt. The funds were probably intended to show the British and American forces that all was still well in Berlin and Germany's cultural heritage would be quickly restored, no matter what the Allies dropped on them. Regardless of the underlying political motives, the funds were at least very opportune.

The herbarium used some of the money to shift books and specimens all over Germany into relative "safe havens", including the tunnels of the Bleicherode Ost potash mine near Nordhausen in the Harz mountains, which was in von Poellnitz's home state of Thuringia. Most were lost and never returned, however the Bleicherode collection did survive, only to fall into the hands of the Russians after the war. Part of the collection was returned in 1948 (and the rest much later) following "difficult negotiations". [Source: Botanic Garden and Botanical Museum Berlin-Dahlem, Freie Universität Berlin website, 18 August 2010 and].

Mr Ingo Breuer published the collection of von Poellnitz photographs of Haworthia species with a discussion of their typification in 1999.

The estate of von Poellnitz contained an area of broken, timbered country known as the "Lödlaer Bruch". The Lödlaer Bruch together with the Schlauditzer Holz was gazetted a Nature Reserve (NSG 184) in 1961/67. Opencast mining in the distant past had created a water-filled hole and partially damp or wet locations. These are surrounded mostly by low ridges of linden, rich English oak-hornbeam forest, and bird cherry-alder-ash forest, through to open areas of dry grassland. The 33.2 ha provides valuable habitat for a wide diversity of species. For example, the Large wasp spider is at home there.

Due to the radical change in the political ideology of Soviet-occupied East Germany, the von Poellnitz family received no acknowledgement for their previous role in the management of the land that was once a part of their estate. This was despite their stewardship of the land for 6 generations. As was the case throughout East Germany, local communities were forbidden from publicly honouring the memory of anyone of noble birth in relation to their former material assets. The Soviets on their arrival in July 1945 immediately introduced reforms to dismantle all traces of an (already long past) "agrarian feudal system". By September/October some of the land was redistributed in very small lots to former estate workers, while all of the timbered areas, including the Lödlaer Bruch, were expropriated as the "property of the nation". Most of the buildings on the former estate were dismantled to supply building materials for the new farms and the repair of the nearby villages. This took place regardless of the cultural, heritage, and economic worth of the rural estates. Building materials were in very short supply following the war. However, the villagers did not dismantle the only wall of the castle that remained standing. Such was their great respect and admiration for the family who had lived and died there.

A plaque or monument has never been placed at the site of the former estate to connect it to its history. Only a sign exists there today in the thickening regrowth, which reads "Ruin. Entry forbidden. Parents are responsible for their children." Although very little physical evidence has been preserved to connect the von Poellnitz family to this once extensive property, the older residents of Oberlödla still remember the family with great fondness and respect.

In the more enlightened times in which we live today, the role of history in the landscape can again be studied and appreciated. For instance, the Lödlaer Bruch Nature Reserve could (despite the tragic set of historical circumstances which produced it) be observed as a fitting tribute to a gentle and peaceful man who gave so much to the study of our natural world.

The von Poellnitz family Friedhof in the town contains the well tended graves of this greatly respected botanist, his family and close relatives. The family plot forms part of the tranquil, garden-like setting of the village cemetery, and upon it the aptly planted mossy succulent, Sedum album, grows all around.


The following links are provided solely for research purposes and with the intention of providing historical context. Copyright remains with the owners of the respective images and webpages.

> Period photos of the von Poellnitz Rittergut and Schloss (manor and castle):

> Photo of the restored MarienKirche (Church of St. Mary), as it exists today.

> The church, sections of the outer walls, and the ruins of the main building as they appear today.

> A painting of the Oberlödla estate hangs in the foyer of the church. (Thank you to Mr Heinz Staude for kindly supplying this photo):

> Original lithograph of the Oberlödla estate by W. Wegener von I.. H. Kretzschau in 1835.

> Google Earth location of the former von Poellnitz manor and castle (WGS84 map datum).

Decimal degrees: 50.996100N, 12.386143E
Lat/Long: 50° 59' 45.96"N, 12° 23' 10.11"E

View Larger Map

> Heavy carpet bombing evident in aerial sortie images of Schelditz and Unterlödla taken on 10 April 1945. (Only thumbnail images are available, but for 15 GBP you can purchase the right to zoom in!)

The von Poellnitz estate at Oberlödla is close to the centre bottom of this photo.

The estate is close to the bottom right of the next photo.

> The estate of von Poellnitz at Oberlödla through time.

1802 map superimposed on to a 2009 aerial photo.
1802 map superimposed on to a 2009 aerial photo.
Click on thumbnail to zoom.

1945 aerial photo superimposed on 2009 aerial photo.
14 Apr 1945 aerial superimposed on 2009 aerial.
Click on thumbnail to zoom.

2009 aerial photo (without overlay).
2009 aerial photo (without historical overlay).
Click on thumbnail to zoom.

> The aftermath of the bombing in Schelditz on the fateful night of 14th February, 1945.

> The von Poellnitz Familie Friedhof in Oberlödla

> The significance of the Lödlaer Bruch Naturschutzgebiet (Nature Reserve) near Oberlödla

> Newsletter of the Botanic Garden Berlin-Dahlem 1943-1944.

PDF file for download:

Viewable online:

> Lack, H. Walter (Hrsg.). Humboldts Grüne Erben Der Botanische Garten und das Botanische Museum in Dahlem 1910 bis 2010. Botanisches Museum Berlin-Dahlem, Berlin, 2010.

PDF file for download:

Further Reading:

Bayer, M. B. The New Haworthia Handbook. National Botanic Gardens of South Africa. Kirstenbosch, Cape Town, 1982.

Breuer, Ingo. Haworthia photographs used to typify taxa described by Dr. Karl von Poellnitz. Ingo Breuer and Arbeitskreis für Mammillarienfreunde e.V., Heinsberg, 1999.

Bullock, A. A. Flora of Southern Africa: A. Bibliography of South African Botany (up to 1951). Dept. of Agriculture Technical Services, Republic of South Africa, 1978.

Kessler, Hans Joachim; Mende, Reinhard. Altenburger Land: Streifzüge entlang der Blauen Flut, der Pleisse, Sprotte, Schnauder und Wiera. Altenburg: DZA-Verlag für Kultur und Wissenschaft, 1996.

Lack, H. Walter (Hrsg.). Humboldts Grüne Erben Der Botanische Garten und das Botanische Museum in Dahlem 1910 bis 2010. Botanisches Museum Berlin-Dahlem, Berlin, 2010.

Middlebrook, Martin. The Bomber Command War Diaries An Operational Reference Book 1939-1945, Midland Publishing, 1995.

Nienhold, Christiane et. al. ... und nachmittags fuhren wir nach Nöbdenitz segeln! Rittergüter im Altenburger Land und ihre Gärten. Museum Burg Posterstein 2007.

Poellnitz, Gisela von. Die Familie von Poellnitz (Pölnitz) in Ostthüringen. In: "Burgen, Schlösser, Gutshäuser in Thüringen". Hrsg. Bruno J. Sobotka und Jürgen Strauss. Theiss-Verlag, Stuttgart 1994. S. 202-206.

Poellnitz, Heinrich von. 1945 - Schicksalsjahr für Oberlödla. In: Die Altenburger Geschichts- und Hauskalender. Vol. 3, 1994, p. 48.

Poellnitz, Heinrich von. 825 Jahre Oberlödla: das Rittergut Oberlödla. In: Die Altenburger Geschichts- und Hauskalender. Vol. 16, 2007,  pp. 121-124.

Poellnitz/Steudemann. 825 Jahre Oberlödla Heinrich von Poellnitz & Günter Steudemann. In: Die Altenburger Geschichts- und Hauskalender. Vol. 16, 2007, p. 121.

Poellnitz, Karl von. Anacampseros meyeri. In: Monatsschrift der Deutschen Kakteen-Gesellschaft. 3: 218, 1931.

Poellnitz, Karl von. Zur Kenntnis der Gattung Talinum Adans. Berichte der Deutschen Botanischen Gesellschaft. 51: 112-127, 1933.

Poellnitz, Karl von. Mongraphie der Gattung Talinum Adans. In: Feddes Repertorium Specierum Novarum Regni Vegetabilis. 35: 1-34, 1934.

Poellnitz, Karl von. Anacampseros L. Versuch einer Monographie. Botanische Jahrbücher für Systematik Pflanzengeschichte und Pflanzengeographie. 65: 382-448, 1932-1933; Addendum, Feddes Repert. 33: 72-73 (1933); Ibid. 35: 46-48 (1934).

Poellnitz, Karl von. Zurr Kenntnis der Gattung Anacampseros L. I-IV. In: Feddes Repertorium Specierum Novarum Regni Vegetabilis. 26: 242-249 (1929); Ibid. 27: 129-132 (1929); Ibid. 28: 27-32, 97-100 (1930); Addendum I, Ibid. 33: 72-73 (1933); Addendum II, Ibid. 35: 46-48 (1934).

Poellnitz, Karl von. Versuch einer Monographie der Gattung Portulaca L.. In: Feddes Repertorium Specierum Novarum Regni Vegetabilis. 37: 240-320, 1934.

Poellnitz, Karl von. New Species of Portulaca from Southeastern Polynesia. In: Volume 6 of Mangarevan expedition publication. Occasional papers of the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum of Polynesian Ethnology and Natural History. Volume 12, Issue 9. The Bishop Museum, 1936, pp. 1-6.

Poellnitz, Karl von. The Portulacaceae East Africa. In: Boletim Sociedade da Broteriana, Coimbra, page 22, 1940.

Poellnitz, Karl von. Die Portulacaceae Deutsch-Südwest-Africas (Portulaca, Talinum, Anacampseros). In:  Feddes Repertorium Specierum Novarum Regni Vegetabilis. 48: 215-224, 1940

Poellnitz, Karl von. Zwei neue Portulaca-Arten. In: Repertorium novarum specierum regni vegetabilis (RSN) 48(4-11): 117-118, 20 May 1940.

Poellnitz, Karl von. Die Portulacaceen in Africa. In: Boletim Sociedade da Broteriana, Coimbra, 2(15): 149-158), 1941.

Smith, Gideon F. Taxonomic History of Poellnitzia Uitewaal. A Unispecific Genus of Alooideae (Asphodelaceae). In: Haseltonia, No. 2, 1994, pp. 74-78.

Stafleu, Frans A. and Cowan, Richard S. Taxonomic Literature: A selective guide to botanical publications and collections with dates, commentaries and types. Volume IV: P-Sak. 2nd Edition. Bohn, Scheltema & Holkema, Utrecht/Antwerpen dr. W. Junk b.v., Publishers, The Hague/Boston, 1983.

Staude, Heinz. All re: Dr. Karl von Poellnitz to Poellnitzia rubiflora and Haworthia poellnitziana. In Spinette, Journal of the Cactus and Succulent Society. Dec., 2011, pp. 4-8.

Strassmann, Ingolf. NSDAP / SA Sturmabteilung Altenburg Nationalsozialsmus 3.Reich
Ingolf Strassmann: Altenburg in Thuringia. Town and Country in the Third Reich 1933-1945. Altenburg 2003.

Zantner, Alfred. Dr. Karl von Poellnitz. In: Sukkulentenkunde - yearbooks of the Swiss Cactus Society, 1948, p. 63.

Wikipedia pages:ödlaödla

Rediscovering Portulaca terrae-reginae Poelln.

While browsing through a CD of photos sent to me by Attila Kapitany, I came across several photos of Portulaca plants that Attila had placed in a separate folder named "Portulaca unknown". Attila tells me that he photographed the plants in Litchfield National Park in the Northern Territory. The photos are date stamped 25th February 2003. 

The plants in the images were interesting from a botanical point of view. They looked rather like depauperate specimens of the common Portulaca oleracea, and it was to this species that I casually dismissed them on first glance. However, the photos began to intrigue me over the course of the next few months.

One day while browsing Urs Eglli's book, Illustrated Handbook of Succulent Plants: Dicotyledons, I came across an entry for a poorly known taxon, Portulaca terrae-reginae Poelln.. The fact that the plant had been collected from Australia and described by von Poellnitz caught my eye. I could not find the description online so asked about its availability at the Queensland Herbarium. Dr Paul Forster kindly sent me a scanned copy. Much to my chagrin I later chanced upon the online version that had previously eluded me! 

The description begins with a brief summary in Latin (which, incidentally, is the same as the entry in Eggli). This is followed by a more detailed German description. 

I soon realized that the taxon described by von Poellnitz was similar, if not identical, to the plants in Attila's photos. The only difference is that the leaves on the plants in Attila's photos are slightly narrower than the latter and perhaps a little more oblong. However the sparse, mostly opposite leaves and the manner of branching are generally the same as that described by von Poellnitz. The leaf shape still fits within the broad limits of the description.

In herbaria there exists only a single sheet of specimens and a duplicate sheet of Portulaca terrae-reginae Poelln. The type sheet comprises five complete specimens, a branch, and a couple dozen fragments. The duplicate sheet comprises a photographic reproduction of the Type sheet and several pressed plant fragments. The type sheet resides in the herbarium collection of  the Swedish Museum of Natural History (S). The duplicate resides in the herbarium of the Botanical Museum Berlin-Dahlem (B).

The botanist Dr. Karl von Poellnitz had described the taxon from specimens collected by "C. Fristedt" in Cardwell on 18 July, 1889. The detailed description of the taxon was published as a spec. nova. by von Poellnitz in 1940, even though the pressed specimens were lacking flowers and he never saw the live plants. His description concludes with the implication that this species may be most closely allied to P. intraterranea J.M. Black. It is possible that the similar epithet “terrae-reginae” was intended to allude to this connection.

As an interesting side note, the "C. Fristedt" who collected the specimen was the Swedish naturalist explorer Conrad Fristedt (1860-1940), who, in the following year, ventured much further north to study the Aboriginal people on Cape York.

I had originally dismissed the plants in Attila's photos as just depauperate specimens of P. oleracea, and indeed Urs Eggli in Illustrated Handbook of Succulent Plants: Dicotyledon (2001) states that P. terrae-reginae is "probably only a form of P. oleracea". However, the plants do differ quite markedly in their morphology.

The plants in Attila's photos can be described as small (around 10-15 cm high at most), tardy, with a noticeably arching growth habit; long, slender, slightly thickened taproot; one or two lower branches that are shorter than the stem yet significantly longer than the upper branches; leaves sparse and small, ovate-cuneate to narrow-elliptic, mostly opposite; stems red; flowers small, presumably yellow or dark yellow(?); capsules dehiscing below middle; seed not seen.

Attila's photos from Litchfield NP are as follows:

Attila Kapitany's photos of a Portulaca sp. that he photographed
in Litchfield National Park in tropical Queensland. The plants
resemble P. oleracea but are generally smaller and more upright
and have sparse, opposite leaves on short lateral branches.

The specimen sheet from which von Poellnitz described the species can be viewed online at:

[Source: Swedish Museum of Natural History website.]

The duplicate sheet can be viewed online (although I sometimes find this website can be a bit "sticky"!):

[Source: Röpert, D. (Ed.) 2000- (continuously updated): Digital specimen images at the Herbarium Berolinense. - Published on the Internet: (Barcode: B 10 0295254 / ImageId: 286677).]

The description by von Poellnitz was published in "Zwei neue Portulaca-Arten". In Repertorium novarum specierum regni vegetabilis (RSN) 48(4-11): 117-118, 20 May 1940. It appears online, but was published only in Latin and German, and the Latin description is too short to be useful.

I wish to thank Hellmut Toelken and Neville Scarlett for their kind help with the following translation:

Portulaca terrae-reginae Poelln. 1940

Annual, with long, very narrow turnip-shaped main root, provided with short secondary (lateral) roots. Stems erect or spreading, to 15 cm long, branched; lower branches spreading up to 8 cm long; lower internodes to 5 cm long, upper shorter. Leaves not numerous, opposite or nearly so, rarely a little alternate, obovate or almost an inverted egg shape (i.e. ovate-cuneate), broadly rounded above or rarely almost truncated, without a point, at the base with a 1 mm to almost 2 mm long petiole, flat, dried very thin, thus certainly not very fleshy, glabrous, 1 1/2 — 2 cm long, half to three-quarters as wide as long. Axillary hair inconspicuous (to a) few, barely up to 1 mm long, white, dried not or hardly curly. Flowers few together, terminal, surrounded by some false involucral leaves, which are very similar to the foliage leaves, but usually smaller, and membranous, ovate, long and somewhat abruptly pointed, 3 - 4 mm long bracts, with approximately 5 mm long, broadly ovate, acute or acuminate involucral leaves, otherwise unknown. Below the terminal inflorescence there are two lateral inflorescences similar to the former and often or perhaps mostly on 1 - 1 1/2 cm long, two lateral side branches, their branches somewhat thickened upward, located on the main branch directly under the main inflorescence or slightly below, arranged opposite or alternate. Capsule yellowish or brownish, thin-walled, covered by the withered corolla, ovoid-conical, the lower part 1 1/2 to about 2 mm long, the top not much broadened and here 2 1/2 - 3 mm wide; the lid 3 mm long, obovoid-conical, surmounted by the style base. Seeds several, to more than three, about spherical (roundish), laterally slightly compressed, black, very glossy, 3/4 mm in diameter, with mostly elongated, uneven, forming-towards-the-margins, very-often-slightly-projecting, star cells.

Australia: Cardwell in Queensland, in July 1889, C. Fristedt without No.!, Type in Bot. Museum Stockholm —
 Our species must be compared because of their large, broad leaves with the insufficiently described P. dubia Tepper and with P. intraterranea J. M. Black. - P. dubia has differently shaped leaves, which certainly are comparatively narrower, and numerous axillary hairs; P. intraterranea has only rarely opposite leaves, which are also morphologically different and are comparatively narrower, and the seeds having a different surface sculpturing. - P. digyna F. Muell. ruled out because of significantly smaller, morphologically different leaves, a capsule not covered by the withered corolla, and because of their few, slightly larger seeds, which have a different surface sculpturing, for purposes of comparison. - P. oleracea L. cannot be used to compare, since it all too often has alternate leaves and a capsule which opens in the middle. 
We can presume that von Poellnitz would have been very familiar with Portulaca oleracea, given his years spent in agronomy on a rural estate, and the fact that the species is a common agricultural weed in Europe. He seemed convinced that Fristedt’s specimens represented a unique species and he even states categorically that P. oleracea “cannot be used to compare”. He suggests that his species may be more closely allied to P. intraterranea J.M. Black. It is likely that he chose the similar epithet “terrae-reginae” in order to allude to this connection. He points to the slender, turnip-like taproot, sparsely leafy, upright stems, much shorter branches, and mostly opposite leaves; as well as the capsules which dehisce below mid-way. He was perhaps being a little too prescriptive, given that he never saw the full range of material that occurs in Australia, so P. terrae-reginae may be more suitably ranked as a “microspecies” within what is now known to be a large, very widespread, and highly variable species complex.

Fristedt’s specimens of P. terrae-reginae from Cardwell are intriguing and do warrant further study by modern botanists. The type specimens appear to show tiny granules of sand still clinging on the roots, which suggests the material had been collected from a sandy environment. The town of Cardwell is situated immediately adjacent to the beach and the surrounding countryside is also very sandy. The specimens may simply represent a localized population of salinity-affected individuals, but it is difficult to know for sure as the precise habitat details were never recorded. Additional field work in the Cardwell area may help to answer these questions.

If plants matching the type specimen can be rediscovered at the type location, they may also help to shed some light on other enigmatic yet unresolved taxons in Queensland, such as Portulaca sp. "Blackall" (G.Le Gros AQ101965) and others in the "Q1" folder at BRI.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

The History of Portulaca umbraticola in Cultivation

Photo Source: Copyright foto76
Stock Photo - image ID: 100136414,

From time to time I hope to broaden the perspective of this blog by writing about some of the exotic cultivars that are commonly found in Australian gardens and nurseries.

Cultivars of the exotic Portulaca umbraticola are common summer garden plants that are sold throughout the world. They have been in the nursery trade in Australia ever since the early 1980s. The plants are frequently mislabeled as Portulaca oleracea or P. grandiflora, or as hybrids of these species.

The cultivars are frequently sold in nurseries during spring and summer as flowering punnets. Each punnet generally consists of several distinct phenotypes (based on flower colour). Apart from the different flower colours, the plants look pretty much homogeneous. Each plant flowers uniformly and consistently according to its particular phenotype. The plants are remontant and the showy flowers are often produced in abundance throughout summer. The plants can be long-lived providing they are regularly supplied with adequate light, moisture, and nutrients. They can also be successfully "overwintered" if kept on the dry side and out of the frosts.

I purchased my first punnet of these attractive plants from a hardware store some years ago. The reverse side of the label identified the plants as "Portulaca oleracea", which the botanical side of my brain soon began to query. I could not understand how a common, cosmopolitan weed with rather small, yellow flowers and comparatively few stamens could have ever been involved in the development of these cultivars. The leaves, stems and growth habit of the plants showed only a superficial resemblance to P. oleracea. I realized that the species name on the label could not be correct.

Some detective work was of course inevitable, as I then resolved to discover their true identity. The wholesale nurseries that I emailed were very helpful, but they ultimately just confirmed the name that their original suppliers had used. One of the companies checked their sources and believed the plants to be a hybrid cultivar of P. grandiflora or a hybrid between that species and P. oleracea. This is a reasonable presumption, considering that the vegetative parts of the plants look similar to P. oleracea and the floral parts look similar to P. grandiflora.

The use of the botanical name in Australia had clearly been reproduced in good faith from their international suppliers. A subsequent Google search soon revealed that the majority of American nursery sites were still using the name P. oleracea for these plants. A lesser number were using the name P. grandiflora, while a few (mainly horticultural sites) were vaguely classifying them as hybrids between P. grandiflora and P. oleracea.

I contacted Mr David Ferguson at the Rio Grande Botanic Garden in Albuquerque. Dave has an exceptional knowledge of cacti and succulents, based on his many years of experience as a curator and research botanist. It turns out that Dave not only knew the true identity of the cultivars, but he had also brought the mistake to the attention of the horticultural industry some 20-25 years ago! Here is what he told me:

"Usually (until about 18 years ago), all the Portulaca cultivars with flattish leaves were sold here as Portulaca oleracea.  All the ones with cylindrical leaves were P. grandiflora. And they were often confused with one another, even though several species are really involved, and P. oleracea is only sold as something of a novelty herb. I don't know if you've ever seen the "Sunset Garden Books" that they sell in the U.S.? (It use to be the "Western Garden Book", but they added "National" and "Southern Living" versions for a larger audience.) It is something of a "bible" for gardeners looking up commonly cultivated plants. They list a lot of plants, and if they list it, it sort of becomes horticultural dogma here, regardless if correct or not. They listed the cultivars of "Purslane" as Portulaca oleracea.  I wrote them a note pointing out a few misidentifications, including this one, and amazingly they researched it, sent me back an appreciative thank you note, and updated the next version.  Since then all "Purslanes" with big pretty flowers are being called P. umbraticola. The average person just doesn't seem to really notice the differences."

In a later email, Dave confirmed for me that there is no mention of Portulaca umbraticola in the 5th edition of the Sunset Western Garden Book (October 1988), but by the 6th edition (March 1995) the entry describing the 'Wildfire' strain has been edited. Here is the quote from the book:  "A strain called 'Wildfire' has been offered both as P. grandiflora and P. oleracea.  It is actually a strain of P. umbraticola and is popular in the Southwest and Deep South. ...... ".

For the rest of this blog article I will outline the true identity and origins of the Portulaca umbraticola cultivars and provide a detailed history of their development and introduction.

I should first of all stress that these cultivars are technically not true hybrids in the sense that they resulted from the crossing of different species. Only one species with a broad natural distribution was ever involved. The cultivars were most likely produced by way of intra-varietal hybridization and from then on were continued vegetatively by cuttings. In this sense they are essentially cultivars of a species, not "hybrid strains".

When grown from seed, these cultivars are recessive. This means that subsequent generations raised from seed will produce successively fewer fertile seeds. Also the flower colour frequently reverts to plain yellow in the offspring and I suspect the size and number of flowers may also diminish over a number of generations.

The author Urs Eggli places these plants correctly as cultivars of P. umbraticola subsp. umbraticola in the book Illustrated Handbook of Succulent Plants: Dicotyledon. (2001).

The correct naming of the cultivar is prescribed by the Rules and Recommendations of the International Code of Nomenclature for Cultivated Plants. So convention dictates that the name should appear as Portulaca umbraticola subsp. umbraticola 'Cultivar Name' or as Portulaca umbraticola subsp. umbraticola Group Name. The latter may show the Group Name enclosed in brackets and followed by the Cultivar Name enclosed in single quotes.

Eggli states of P. umbraticola : "This species is unique by virtue of the membranous wing ('corona') surrounding the basis of the capsule" and further writes: "A horticultural selection is available as a cultivar 'Wildfire Mixed'."

The wing around the fruit has not been observed in any other species in the genera. It is illustrated clearly in the following link:

P. umbraticola capsules (winged and with small "pimple" in centre). [Source: T. Beth Kinsey.]

Compare this with P. oleracea buds (flattened as if pinched and capsules never winged). [Source: Herbarium of the L. H. Bailey Hortorium, Cornell University.]

The original 'Wildfire Mixed' series was released in the US in 1982-83 by the Pan American Seed company. It is interesting that the intitial releases were packeted seed rather than live plants.

The Ball Seed Company (a subsidiary of Panam) first marketed the seed in 1982 under the name 'Wildfire Mixture'. The Ball Annual Seed Catalogue for that year outlined three colours - yellow, rose, and orange - and provided a photo of a yellow-flowering plant. Their 1983 catalogue contained an identical entry and a photo of 'Wildfire Mixture' which showed the full range of colours available at that time.

Photos of the original 'Wildfire Mixture' in Ball  Seed
Company catalogues from 1982 and 1983.
Source: Ball Horticultural Company archives.

A paper which talks about the development of this first Portulaca umbraticola series is Matthews, J.F., D.W. Ketron and S.F. Zane.1992. "Portulaca umbraticola Kunth.(Portulacaceae) in the United States." Castanea 57: 202-208. (Please click on the following thumbnail).

The segment implies that the original plants used to produce the 'Wildfire' cultivars may have involved a smaller-flowered P. umbraticola subspecies that occurs naturally in the southeastern United States. However the 'Wildfire' series was most likely bred from plants originating in South America, because the flowers of the subspecies found there are much larger, with richer tones and have much greater colour diversity. It is reasonable to presume that the progenitors of the 'Wildfire' series were South American plants that were selectively grown by native plant enthusiasts in the US, who perhaps viewed them as showy and longer-lived "substitutes" for the two native subspecies of P. umbraticola.

The two subspecies that are native to the United States are P. umbraticola subsp. coronata (which is found on granite and sandstone rock outcrops in South Carolina and Georgia and has small, pure yellow flowers), and P. umbraticola subsp. lanceolata (which grows on rock outcrops and sand in southern USA, west of the Mississippi, and has small, yellow flowers tipped with coppery red). Both of the subspecies native to the USA are short-lived annuals with small flowers and have little colour variation in the petals. It seems unlikely that they were ever used to breed the original 'Wildfire' series.

In their revision of the genus Portulaca in Brazil [Acta bot. bras. 24(3): 655-670. 2010], the botanists Alexa Coelho and Anna Maria Giulietti provide the following information: The petal colour of Portulaca umbraticola in South America is found naturally in yellow, white, pink, purple, or orange tones. They add that the variation in flower colour was reported by Legrand (1962), who noted that the variations related to geographical distribution. In South America, pink and orange are most common in Mexico, purple is most common in Argentina, yellow in the Antilles and Guianas, and pink or yellow in Brazil. In Brazil most plants have yellow flowers. They also state that the "styles and stigmas may also vary in colour, being yellow when the petals are yellow, or pink when the petals are pink".

Erica Vale Australia were probably the first horticultural company to import the 'Wildfire' series to Australia. They released it as part of their Simplicity Collection in the Spring of 1983. The details appear in this Sydney Morning Herald article in 1986. The company most likely imported hand-pollinated seed, rather than cuttings, and germinated these to produce their own F1 series. I am not sure if they sold only seed or plants, or both. Note what the article says about the plant's proper identification!

The original 'Wildfire' series was apparently never patented, so other people actively "extended" the series. The new generations of purslane cultivars are essentially the same as the original series, but some have greater flower abundance, larger flowers, and/or improved colour tones, while others are said to be longer lived.

Some of the newer cultivar series names for Portulaca umbraticola include 'Sun Jewels', 'Hot Spots', 'Carnaval', 'Cupcake', 'Pazzazz', 'Yubi', 'Summer Joy', 'Jumbo', 'Sundance' (not to be confused with 'Sundancer' which is a P. grandiflora line), 'Giganthes', 'Rio', and 'Toucan'... and many, many others. They are sold under different names throughout the world, but are all essentially the same plants.

Some of these are being sold in the Australian nursery trade, and are either extensions of the original 'Wildfire Mixed' lineage, or (more likely) have been imported more recently as tissue-cultured clones. As far as I know there have never been any attempts to breed new lines here in Australia. Most of the breeding of new cultivars takes place in America, or, in more recent times, Japan.

As most of the plants are cutting-grown, they are best regarded as individual cultivars rather than as true strains. The word "strain" implies that the plants have been grown as a batch and from seed. The original 'Wildfire' series were recessive when grown from seed. After only one or two generations, fewer viable seeds are produced as sterility returns. There is also a tendency for seedlings to revert to a plain yellow flower form, rather than repeat the parental type. The only way to reliably produce a new batch from seed is to start from scratch and this involves cross-pollinating the original wild selection by hand. This will produce a new batch of F1 intra-varietal cultivars, but unless different stock plants are chosen, the resulting group of F1 cultivars may appear rather similar to previous groups.

It is possible that some lines may be improved and extended by out-crossing F1 hybrids from different breeding lines, particularly if different parent stock has been used to develop each line. It may also be possible to back-cross offspring with F1 plants or the original parent stock. These may be the only choices available to a plant breeder who must work within the limits of recessive genes. New lines of cultivars will ultimately be produced, considering that the gene pool is now global. However one limiting factor to this might be the availability of good, fertile breeding stock, which is in all likelihood highly coveted by a very small number of professional plant breeders and larger companies.

The problem of recessive genes means that the chances of extending a lineage through further breeding becomes very limited. In a regular garden situation, where the potential for inbreeding is high, only chance "sports" will occasionally be found which can then be continued by cuttings.

Some of the wholesale nurseries claim to be using "tissue culture" to multiply their plants for the retail market, but I suspect they may be using this term rather loosely, considering that the plants are generally very easy to grow from small cuttings. Clearly the most commercially-viable way to introduce new lines into Australia is to import flasks of tissue-cultured clones, rather than import cuttings or potentially unreliable seeds.

Dave has pointed out to me that there are a couple of "strains" that do seem to be trending towards new lineages, but it is difficult to know how much selective breeding (as opposed to chance) was actually involved in their development. It is also difficult to predict if these lineages can ever be expanded in future, given the problem of recessive genes and increasing sterility in the F2 and F3 generations.

One of these new "strains" focuses on broken flower color [the 'Duet' series]. Another has focused on flowers with deformed petaloid stamens that make the flower look semi-double [the 'Fairytail' series]. I have heard that another series is being developed in Japan which have corollas that are apically fringed, so that the flowers resemble small carnations.

Above: One of the popular phenotypes from the 'Fairytale"
series of cultivars. Clipart source:

These so-called "strains" mostly consist of random individuals which suggests that they may actually be "sports". They are possibly spontaneous in origin (i.e. they were arrived at by chance) and may be either F2 or F3 generational hybrids, rather than F1. The individual sport is multiplied by vegetative propagation (i.e. it is "cloned" by striking cuttings or by way of tissue culture). It is generally trialed for a period of time to test it for vigour and disease resistance, before being released as a new cultivar name.

An F1, F2, or F3 cultivar can never be reliably replicated from the seed that it produces. Even a selfing is unlikely to produce an identical copy of the parent. A higher success rate might be achieved by crossing different F1 lines, or back-crossing cultivars with the original parent stock. Such crossings could explore the full potential of the gene pool and result in interesting and unexpected variation in the offspring. I have incidentally seen photos of a very weird mutation that was arrived at by the selfing of a 'Fairytale' cultivar. The flowers on this offspring lacked any petals and only have deformed petaloid stamens, loosely arranged in the centre.

Above: The 'Duet' series of P. umbraticola cultivars.
Photo source: Stock photo ID POR028C,

An important point in closing is that the original Pan American series was called 'Wildfire' and the original plan had been to market this series as packeted seed rather than as live plants. However the name was dropped in favour of 'Wildfire Mixed', because the developers found that flower colour was too unpredictable in seed grown plants.

In more recent times the Pan American Seed Company has moved on to the "Toucan" range under their "Hot Summer Survivors" banner. I note that they are selling seed of select colour forms, these being 'Mixed', 'Yellow', 'Fushia', and 'Scarlet'.

I wonder if this means they have finally resolved the problem of unstable flower colour that had plagued the original 'Wildfire' series? I would be interested to hear from anyone who has experience with growing these seeds. I would like to know if the plants have reproduced reliably according to the designated flower colours.

Oddly (and frustratingly) the company are still using the incorrect name "Portulaca oleracea", even though the name had been corrected by the 6th edition of the Sunset Western Garden Book.

Sadly many plant breeders and companies in the nursery trade continue to use the misapplied name to this day.

The mislabeling of horticultural plants is really nothing new. In fact it should not be surprising to anyone who has been involved in the nursery trade for any length of time, especially if they also enjoy the pursuits of botany and horticulture. Erroneous labelling is really just par for the course and basic human error is inevitable. The problem is that once a name has been used incorrectly in horticulture for a long enough period of time, the name becomes ingrained. If a name appears in print, such as on a company plant label or in a photo caption published in a reputable book, the name takes on a certain aura of authenticity and authority. Given enough time and frequency of use, the name can become extremely difficult to extricate from a plant.

The confusion surrounding the use of common names is probably what caused the original P. umbraticola cultivars to be mislabelled as P. oleracea. There is a traditional misconception in the horticultural trade that all of the Portulaca cultivars with flat leaves should be called "purslane", while all of the cultivars with cylindrical or terete leaves should be called "portulaca". The problem is that P. oleracea is also called "purslane" whenever it is sold or grown deliberately as a herb or salad vegetable (e.g. we can buy seeds and punnets of 'Green Purslane' and 'Golden Purslane'). Some food aficionados prefer to use the far more polite and cultured name "Verdolaga" to refer to selected food strains of this species. Yet it does not matter if the plants be wild or cultivated, they all acquire the derogatory name "pigweed" as soon as they run rampant in our gardens or wheat fields! Other genera such as Calandrinia are also sometimes called "purslane", and many gardeners refer to ALL Portulaca species and cultivars as "pigweeds" or "portulacas" generally. To really add to the confusion, some entirely unrelated Amaranthus spp. are also called "pigweed"!

The lesson to be learnt from this is we should never presume that a common name is legitimately and inextricably linked to a single botanical name. The correct botanical name of a plant should always take priority from the outset, and this rule should apply as much to plant breeding as it does to botany.