Saturday, November 30, 2013

South African Spiny Cucumber

The family Cucurbitaceae is a diverse family with many well known agricultural crops including gourds, squash and cucumbers. The genus Cucumis is probably known most for the delicious cucumber fruits of Cucumis sativa. However this genus has many other very interesting species one of which, Cucumis metuliferus, yields spiny edible fruits. The much less known Cucumis zeyheri, which I will be focusing on in this article, is a native to Africa. It is known as the South African Spiny Cucumber and can be found growing wild in some areas of South Africa. The plant vines profusely and grows well on the ground or climbing on fences or trellises. Although bitter the fruits can be eaten raw or pickled, but they may be better purposed as medicine. Because of their bitterness, the fruits may be used to induce vomiting, and they may contain compounds with medicinal properties. 

I've tried my hand at eating these fruits, and I'm rather dissatisfied. The fruits are indeed very bitter, plus they have a thick wall and many seeds. Waiting until the fruits are yellowed and fully ripened may reduce the bitterness. I find that growing the plants for ornamental value is more rewarding, and because they are native to a dry warm climate they grow very well in my backyard. Propagation by seed is very easy, and is identical to growing cucumbers or any melon by seed. Simply sow the seeds in spring about 1/4cm deep in soil and water periodically. It should be treated as an annual, growing quickly and setting fruit in a single season. I have found that this plant is relatively drought and pest tolerant, making it low maintenance. 

The purpose of making this article isn't to exhibit this plant's edibility, rather to showcase it as a potential candidate for crossing and breeding programs. In today's world water is very scarce and any drought tolerant plants should be examined as potential building blocks for the crops of the future. Additionally, its close relation to the agricultural cucumber makes this plant, and all others in the genus potential targets for crossing experiments. If this is your interest there is abundant literature and research done on this genus, and detailed information about previous crossing experiments and sexual boundaries exist.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Batumi Botanical Gardens

Nearly 10 kilometers north of Batumi, Georgia is a massive 111 hectare botanical gardens called the Batumi Botanical Gardens. This is the most developed botanical gardens in Georgia and it deserves world recognition. The gardens have many historical buildings, some of which house the families of workers, and others house offices of botanists and directors. The gardens have a small herbarium that houses a few thousand specimens from around Batumi and others collected from the gardens. The Soviet Union provided much funding for the gardens in the past, and since the fall of the USSR, private investment has continued to fund development and maintenance of the park. The gardens are currently building many new greenhouses to replace the older outdated greenhouses.The grounds are quite expansive with many roads and trails. Everyone says that seeing the gardens in a single day is impossible, but you can at least see the areas that interest you.

Pictured above is the first map of the gardens. The left side shows the Lower Park in detail with numbers highlighting specific plants. On the right is a map of the whole garden, which comprises of 21 different "parks" or sections.

This thick foamy bark may not look so familiar but in fact you are looking at the Cork Oak (Quercus suber), the source of cork for wine bottles.

Above are some kiwi vines that I found engrossing a tree's lower branches.

A lush view from the Gardens looking down to the Black Sea.

A banana flower from a Musa basjoo plant. This is known as the Japanese Fiber Banana because it is commonly used as a source of banana textiles and cloth in Japan. Unfortunately the fruits aren't edible.

This is an example of the Bamboo forests at the garden. The type of bamboo is Phyllostachys edulis. This bamboo can grow a hundred feet tall and yields edible shoots. The thick and sturdy stems have many uses, and I assume that it's from these stems that vendors in Batumi make their souvenir bamboo creations.

This tree (Liriodendron tulipifera) fell during a strong storm and created a walkway between two paths in the gardens. The tree survived despite the shock and new shoots began to grow out of the fallen trunk. Now the tree has many trunks and is quite an interesting specimen, and it's still a functional bridge.

An unripe Japanese Persimmon (Diospyros kaki) from one of many such trees in the gardens.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Plants of Armenia

Recently I was in Armenia for a collection trip and I thought it would be a good opportunity to highlight the fruits of Armenia. Due to Armenia's geography and lack of a coast, there are no tropical regions, therefore they do not cultivate tropical plants outdoors. However, Armenia does have some sub-tropics type regions in which some nice and unusual fruits are cultivated. Many common and popular fruits in Armenia include pears, apples, figs, apricots, peaches, grapes, and pomegranates. It is thought that Armenia was the origin of cultivation of grapes leading to the production of the world's first wine! Therefore grapes have an important place in Armenia's history and are still cultivated in many areas across the country.

Across the country apricots are plentiful and it is Armenia's national fruit. It's not surprising that Armenian's are crazy about apricots; Armenians pride themselves with their quality apricots which are absolutely delicious. In addition to apricots, Armenians favor the pomegranate. In Armenia there is much myth and lore surrounding pomegranates, and they are used as a symbol of fertility. The Armenians are also known for making a sweet pomegranate wine.

This is just one example of the many fresh fruit stands that are abundant across the country. During the summer the most common fruits are apricots, apples, pears and figs.

Armenia is host to many wild populations of Rosaceae, and many in the genus Rosa. Rose hips are also cultivated in Armenia, and although these fruits are excellent in a variety of culinary uses, I think I like them best fresh off the bush! This species (Rosa hemisphaerica) is unusual in having bright orange hips, which are especially delicious.

Armenia's Institute of Botany and Botanical Gardens in Yerevan has suffered since the collapse of the Soviet Union, as has the whole country. The garden still seeks financial aid and investment from foreign resources, but it is not enough to repair some of it's crumbling infrastructure.
The greenhouse at Armenia's Botanical Gardens in Yerevan is still functional to a certain extent, although many windows are missing and the structure is in need of repair.

The greenhouse has many interesting specimens including members of the family Juglandaceae. These are a couple of walnut fruits from the genus Juglans.

Although the institutes main greenhouse is in poor shape, there are other greenhouses at the gardens. This greenhouse contains many tropical houseplants and fruit trees in addition to cacti and succulents.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Plants of Turkey

I will be experimenting with a new type of article as I am currently traveling around Turkey for plant collections. I traveled from the capital, Ankara, to areas in central Turkey and finally along the Mediterranean and up along the Aegean sea to Istanbul. I have found that Turkey cultivates a wide range of edible plants as crops, many of which I did not expect. There are also a good deal of wild varieties of common edible plants as well (i.e. Peas, Pyrus, Malus). Turkey is a country diverse in climates and habitats, in some areas Tobacco and Tea are cultivated, and in other places even Kiwis are cultivated!

Some of the interesting plants of Turkey I have come across include temperate crops, tropical fruits, and spices. To list a few: Cicer, Apple, Pear, Pomegranite, Apricot, Peach, Poppies and Anise, among many more common crops. I was surprised though to see a wide range of tropical plants being cultivated in the Mediterranean region of southern Turkey. The land that is very close to the Mediterranean sea is capable of supporting many tropical fruit trees. There are some people in this region that grow Jackfruit, Durian, Papaya, Bananas, Oranges and other tropical plants. I would assume that many types of tropical fruit could survive in this region because it is consistently hot and humid with no freezes. Turkish farmers have taken advantage of this climate and built countless greenhouses near coastlines in order to cultivate tropical fruits, especially bananas. There are many open-air banana farms as well, with many street vendors selling bananas and other fruits, especially oranges. Street vendors in the rest of Turkey are mainly restricted to selling melons and other temperate crops.

Poppy crops are not a common sight in the Turkish country side but occasionally in some areas you will find large fields filled with poppies that are cultivated for bread seed and spice.

This picture was taken from the road to Antalya. Banana farms such as these are extremely prevalent in a close proximity to the Mediterranean sea.

Along the Mediterranean there is also a very large number of greenhouses that are used to cultivate many crops. My best understanding is that many of these are used to cultivate bananas, but I am curious to know what other plants are cultivated in these greenhouses.

Monday, June 3, 2013

How to: Propagate Starfruit

The Carambola aka Starfruit is a geometrically stunning, tender sweet fruit that comes from the Averrhoa carambola plant. This plant is in the Oxalidaceae plant family from which wood sorrels come from, as well as some rather nasty weedy species that tend to overrun my greenhouse! There are many varieties of Starfruit and the diversity is a novelty in itself, but in general there are two types of Starfruits, the sweet and the sour ones.

Averrhoa carambola has a tree-like growth form and can grow quite tall in tropical regions. In
greenhouses it typically maintains a smaller, bushy growth habit; Perfect for grabbing those low hanging fruits. The flowers appear in dense infloresences that provide much color and often hundreds of flowers. Most of these flowers will not succeed in becoming fruits, likely due to the fact that the plant can only expend so much energy in fruit production. It has several blooming cycles throughout the year, which are probably dependent on conditions like temperature and water/nutrient availability.

Propagation of Starfruit trees is similar to most woody tropical plants, in that they can be effectively propagated by seeds and cloned by cuttings. In the case of growing Starfruit trees, growing by cutting or by air-layering would be ideal. I have no experience in propagating Starfruit trees this way because I don't have access to any live starfruit trees. If you live in a tropical region and have a nearby nursery or friend that owns a starfruit tree then your best option may be to propagate vegetatively through cuttings. For all others propagation by seed may be your only option. Starfruits can be purchased in specialty grocers and a single fruit can yield a dozen seeds. If you are unable to find a Starfruit you could try buying seeds on the internet. It is important to get seeds that are fresh as these will have the highest rate of germination; therefore plant your seeds as soon as you get them. 

Growing Starfruit trees by seed: I have experience growing starfruit seeds from the internet and from fresh fruits. The key is to keep the seeds moist and warm. This was easy for me in my greenhouse as it is constantly moist and warm, I simply sowed the seeds about 1/4 inch in soil. Alternatively you could place the seeds in a moist paper towel in a plastic bag and place them in a warm dark place in your house (On top of the refrigerator). In optimal conditions the seeds may germinate in a week but I find that germination is typically closer to 3-4 weeks.

Growing Starfruit trees is tricky, even in tropical greenhouses. Seedlings often grow very tall with minimal branching making them prone to falling over or severing the stem. This may be caused by too little sunlight (they grow best in full sun) or by early application of fertilizers. You should wait until your starfruit is a few years old before you fertilize it. If you find that your Starfruit tree is getting too tall and is not branching you should cut the top off (The small growing bud at the top of the plant = apical mersitem); by topping the plant you force the plant to grow axillary branches and assume a bushy growth form. Starfruit trees grow best in slightly acidic soil that drains well. Overwatering can be a problem for Starfruit trees and you should not water the soil if it is already very damp.