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.