Thursday, August 31, 2023

Strange Surprises in the Garden

It must have been an exciting time for botanists when they were first exploring the rainforests and mountain valleys of the world. At every turn, they’d discover something that had only ever been seen by the Indigenous people of the area. Alas, I must stick to exploring my own garden, staying away when mosquitos are about, and retreating to air conditioning when it’s too hot to putter.

Yet I can sense a little of that excitement when a new plant in my garden finally flowers, and I didn’t have to trek through a distant rainforest to discover it. It’s usually something I found at a nursery or grew from seed, a plant that anyone could grow. But occasionally, purely by chance something unique appears, something so unusual few have seen it, something that can’t be reproduced, at least not outside a lab.

I have had plants with strange flowerheads, mostly ones deformed by fasciation. Grow enough plants and it will show up. I’ve seen it cause flattened spires on Veronica and contorted echinacea flowers. Fasciation can be due to a virus or bacteria, a genetic mutation, or simply damage to the plant. The exact cause is difficult to determine. Sometimes the appearance is unsightly, but it would be rare for the whole plant to be infected. Another cause of deformed flowers is a viral-like disease called Aster yellows. It happens thanks to an organism spread by a leaf hopper, and it's more likely to occur during cool, wet summers, certainly not this one.

These aren’t common, but then something truly unusual appears, a once in a lifetime event, at least in my lifetime. A few years ago, a calla lily threw up a beautiful work of art, a perfectly formed twin flower, joined at the stem. I do keep the same tubers from year to year and I hoped it would occur again, or in subsequent years, but it’s never happened, at least not yet. It so impressed a friend when she saw it, that it inspired her to incorporate the image into one of her works. It’s now represented in a painting by artist Elizabeth Dailey. She calls the acrylic painting Lily Lily and feels it represents everyone's duality, like the Roman god, Janus.

Another floral surprise has occurred twice on a waterlily in my pond, about three years ago and again this year; however, it’s not as rare as I first thought. The plant is a cultivar named Wanvisa, an award winner that won the best new water lily of the year in 2010. I’ve had it in my pond since 2013 where it flowers reliably every summer. It has lovely peachy-pink blooms with yellow speckles, and it has a reputation for occasionally reverting in places to the bright yellow of one of the parents. This can happen on hybrid plants. Sometimes it’s welcomed, or not when the breeder’s intention is to produce a reliable plant that blooms with consistent features.

This was acceptable with Wanvisa because it contributed to an exceptional plant. Mostly, the changes are slight variations in colour, but sometimes it results in a few pure yellow petals or parts of petals that contrast oddly with the rest of the flower. The first time this happened on mine I was fascinated. The reversion occurred perfectly across the centre of the flower, a true two tone. More recently the reversion hasn’t been so precise, but it is exciting to see. It could be considered a Chimera, a genetic change when the cells of distinct species are mixed.

If you discover an odd plant in your garden, value it as you may never see it again. Unique holes from chewing insects don’t count.

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