Starting in September, the population of imported fire ants (Solenopsis invicta) explode around the garden. The ant population dramatically increases in fall, with mounds rising several inches overnight, especially after heavy rains. The US Department of Agriculture estimates that there are currently a shocking 13,475 million tons of fire ants living illegally in the US.
Fire ants spread during mating flights, where they can rise as high as 300′ in the air. This allows the ant infestation to move up to 9 miles every year. Not only can fire ants kill plants where they build a mound, they are attracted to electricity, and are well-known for getting into underground wiring and shorting out electrical boxes.
To beat them back as much as possible, we feed the ants a bait, which the workers take into the mounds. Often within an hour, it renders the mounds inactive. Below, you can actually see them moving the bait into the mound.
We stumbled on this convention (or orgy) of the native green June beetles recently. We’ve long been fascinated with this amazing type of scarab beetle. They really don’t cause any significant garden damage…unless your garden is seriously stressed and you’re slow to pick your soft, sweet fruit like ripe figs.
In June and July, the beetles emerge from below ground, where they’ve been munching on grass roots for up to five years. As you can imagine, they’re a bit lonely…and horny. They immediately begin looking for a mate, and something to eat other than grass roots. From the look of these fellows below, they’ve found plenty of mates.
Green June Beetles actually make a great food for a variety of critters including an array of skunks, racoons, insects, birds, and even humans. Estimates of their protein content is an impressive 40-50%! No wonder some Native American tribes fire roast them to eat. On-line recipes include baking them into biscuits and wrapping them with cheese and bacon. I’m not making this up! Instead of reaching for the sprayer, perhaps we could find more sustainable ways to recycle your June beetles.
A few weeks ago, we posted images of the flower spike of our Agave ovatifolia ‘Vanzie’ just beginning to spike. Now, the giant beast is in full flower. The first photo below is the plant with its full expanded stalk in full bud, just prior to opening. After that, each image shows the progression of the flower development.
Agaves are monocarpic, so those species like Agave ovatifolia that do not make offsets will die after flowering. Agave ovatifolia is, however, one of a handful of species that usually forms baby plantlets on the tip of flowers stalk after seed set.
First flowers just beginning to open
We set up our Little Giant ladder, which allows us to climb up, collect pollen and to make crosses with other agaves.
The lower flower clusters open first and flowering continues to progress each day moving higher up the stalk.
Climbing the ladder gives you a bird’s eye view of the amazing buds as they are ready to open…usually 200-300 per panicle.
Below is a half-open flower panicle. The pollen is ripe before the stigma is ready to receive pollen, so pollen can be easily gathered without worry of self pollination.
Below is a fully open flower panicle. Each panicle weighs 5-10 pounds. No wonder the stalk needs to be so sturdy. Once the temperature warms in the morning, the flowers are abuzz with pollinators…mostly bees.
Looking down from above the flower panicle makes a pretty crazy photo
Our intern Zoe is working with our volunteer agave curator, Vince Schneider to gather pollen and make crosses with other previously gathered agave pollen
I usually don’t climb this high…a fear of heights, but this photo opportunity was just too good to resist
Back in the early 2000s, I printed out every exchange from the International Bulb Society email list that discussed the bulb genus, hymenocallis (spider lilies). Most conversations originated with Victor Lambou, who was obviously an authority on the genus. It’s now been years since the Bulb Society went defunct and I had lost track of Vic and his work. I, and others assumed that Victor had passed away and his plant collection had vanished, as is usually the case with keen specialty plant collectors, whose families don’t share the same passion or have an appreciation of the importance of their collections.
I was on the road visiting nurseries in late March, when I received a phone call that could best be described as horticulturally shocking. A friend from the American Iris Society was calling to share that they had been contacted to gauge their interest in the iris collection of a Florida plantsman, Victor Lambou, who was in declining health. “Had I ever heard of Vic”, they asked. That call set in motion a series of events that would culminate in a massive plant rescue this September.
Victor Lambou, 92, of Tallahassee, Florida (no relation to Curly Lambeau of the better-known Lambeau Field) is a well-known, retired Environmental Aquatic Biologist, who had a career with the EPA as a fish specialist. In his latter years, Victor became interested in native aquatic plants, primarily in the genus Iris and Hymenocallis. His career travels through swamps and bogs allowed him to locate and rescue several rare and significant plant species, as well as numerous variants within those species. His work in cultivating and later breeding these plants resulted in a botanically significant world class collection that is quite worthy of preservation.
Due to his advanced age, Victor had been unable to maintain his collection since 2017, and is now living in an assisted living facility. In August, after five months of working through the court system, the Florida Court system, with the approval of the trustee and Victor, granted us ownership of his entire plant collection.
The next step was a one-day scouting trip in late August to access what actually remained, the condition of the plants, and if a rescue was feasible. Not only were the plants still in great shape, but the project was much larger than I could possibly have imagined. The highlight, of course, was a chance to finally meet Victor in person and chat about his collection.
Victor’s plant collection consisted of approximately 2000 tubs of plants. Our visual rough estimate put the plant count to be between 30-40,000. Because of the aquatic nature of Victor’s plant collection, all plants were all grown in sealed-bottom tubs of mud, each weighing 60-100 lbs. Plants were meticulously arranged by block, row, and then position within the row. Victor’s last plant inventory in 2017, showed 617 unique plant taxa (taxa = genetically distinct individual). Were it not for Victor’s containerized system of growing plants aquatically, it’s doubtful that anything would have survived four years of neglect.
Victor’s list included 407 taxa of hymenocallis, 138 taxa of iris, and 44 taxa of crinum, and a few assorted other plant genera. To put Victor’s hymenocallis collection in perspective, the Botanic Gardens Conservation International (BGCI), which maintains the world’s only global database of living plant collections in botanic gardens, only lists 118 hymenocallis taxa preserved in collections worldwide. In other words, Victor had almost 3.4 times the worlds entire collection of hymenocallis is his backyard.
My initial assessment was followed by a full-fledged rescue in early September. JLBG staff members Amanda Wilkins (garden curator), and Zac Hill (plant records/taxonomist), and JC Raulston Arboretum director, Mark Weathington joined me for the 9 hour drive to Tallahassee, stopping briefly to pick up a 15′ U-Haul once we arrived in Florida.
We also extended invitations to 25 gardens/plant collectors. Of that group, 10 were able to participate. The botanical gardens/staff who participated and will be housing plants from Victor’s collections include:
Hayes Jackson Longleaf Botanical Garden, AL
Pat Lynch Bok Tower Gardens, FL
Mark Weathington JC Raulston Arboretum, NC
Andy Cabe Riverbanks Botanical Garden, SC
Todd Lasseigne Bellingrath Gardens, AL
Once we began the site rescue, we discovered that approximately 10% of the collections were no longer alive, leaving approximately 555 living taxa. Our rescue efforts were not focused on named cultivars of plant species that were already established in commerce (approximately 93 taxa), or un-identified taxa (approximately 24 taxa), or open pollinated seedlings (approximately 10 taxa). Consequently, rescue efforts were aimed at the 428 most important taxa.
None of the tubs were labeled, but thankfully Victor had extensive bed maps, which the trustee made available. Without these, the plant collection would be botanically worthless. Two full days were spent extracting plants from the muddy tubs. We tried an array of extraction methods, but finally found it best to employ the back-breaking task of upturning each container and sift through the muck to extract the plants.
Small quantities of some varieties were labeled and stored in Ziploc bags, while larger quantities were stored in community pots.
Not only were the plants interesting, but Victor also had one of the larger collections of Lubber grasshoppers that I’ve ever encountered. These voracious critters seem to love the plants as much as we did. Of course, these protein filled insects reduced the need for frequent snack breaks. I’d always heard the slogan that Virginia is For Lovers, but little did I know that Florida is for Lubbers.
The rescue became slower and more challenging, when unbeknownst to us, Tropical Storm Mindy had formed virtually on top of us, during our second day of rescue. Consequently, there wasn’t a dry eye…or anything else in the place when we finished and loaded the U-Haul for the return trip.
Rescue team/plant relocations
The next phase of the rescue operation is scheduled for Sept 20, 2021. This will involve the Louisiana Iris Society Historical Preservation Group. This subgroup of the American Iris Society has species conservation stewards who will each house a replicated collection of Victor’s iris. Of the 138 Iris taxa in Victor’s collection, there are 24 different taxa of the southeast native Iris hexagona. Currently, the Iris Preservation Network only has 6 taxa, so these are extremely valuable for conservation purposes. Juniper Level Botanic Garden also has a duplicate collection of Victor’s iris.
When the final phase of the rescue is complete, Victor’s plants will have been distributed to 9 botanical gardens and 5 private collectors gardens. We have instructed these gardens to share with other gardens in appropriate climatic zones, so we feel confident that Victor’s collections will continue to be shared and conserved even more widely.
JLBG spent 392 labor hours on the rescue, including 76 hours on site at Victor’s garden. Our team from Juniper Level Botanic Garden was able to rescue 291 taxa. Taxa that were too tender to live outdoors in our Zone 7b, were sent to gardens in warmer climates. The total number of plants rescued and now housed at JLBG is 5000 plants. This does not include the additional collections which are housed at our sister institution, the JC Raulston Arboretum.
We were able to rescue 19 hymenocallis that Victor has selected and named, along with 3 of his named/selected Iris. Victor’s collection consisted of over 123 of his hymenocallis hybrids which are still in need of evaluation. These were rescued and have been planted in our research area here at JLBG. Any of these that prove to be distinct and exceptional will be propagated and introduced to the horticultural world, via our nursery division, Plant Delights Nursery.
Before the Lambou rescue, JLBG already grew 42 taxa of hymenocallis, which number has now swelled to 263, making it almost certainly the most extensive collection of hymenocallis taxa in the world.
We hope that this will be a model for the future for Botanical Gardens to collaborate to preserve these vitally important ex-situ private plant collections.