Monday, August 22, 2005

Propagating the Exotic

Spring is coming.
Well, Ok, so there's winter to go through yet, but next spring is just around the corner, and if you haven’t started planning your garden yet, it’s high time you got started.
But what are you going to grow next summer that will be different from this year? Got anything exciting lined up? Marigolds? Daisies? Pansies? More chrysanthemums? Boring, boring, boring. Why not try some jojoba this summer? Or some rauwolfia? And when was the last time you wandered through your garden and stopped to smell the camphor? Growing exotic plants may well become one of the hot gardening fads of the new millennium, and if it does, I will be on stem-cutting edge of it.
It started a few years ago when a friend of mine gave me a eucalyptus early in the spring. It was small and very pretty, and the leaves smelled like – well, like eucalyptus. And it grew. It grew very big, very quickly. To learn something about the care and feeding on my little plant, I looked up “eucalyptus” in an encyclopedia, and found the following: “Next to the Douglas fir and the giant redwoods of the American West, the tallest tree in the world is the giant gum (Eucalyptus regnans) of Australia, which grows to more than 300 feet (90 meters) high”
Tallest tree in the world??
My friend hadn’t said anything about little eucalyptus plants turning into giant trees! I have eight foot ceilings! And at the rate the plant was growing, I’d be putting a tree-house in it before winter.
The encyclopedia also said something about koalas, and how they are attracted to these trees because the bears eat nothing by eucalyptus leaves. But I had already told the kids that more pets was out of the question.
As it turned out, I wouldn’t have to worry about cutting holes in my roof or picking up bags of koala chow or koala litter. What the encyclopedia unfortunately didn’t tell me was that big as the eucalyptus plant might become, it hates being transplanted. As soon as the “little” eucalyptus reached six feet – about a week after I got it – I decided to transplant it into a bigger pot, and the thing curled up and died faster than you can say “root shock”.
But in the course of rummaging around on the Internet searching for ways to look after eucalyptus trees, and what to feed visiting koalas, I came across a place that sent odd and exotic plants and seeds through the mail. I ordered myself a quinine plant.
The reason I ordered a quinine is not so much that I am afraid of getting malaria; the chances of me getting malaria while in-line skating on the bike paths down by the river are slim. But the plant name reminded me of my grandfather who had traveled the world, and had some first-hand experience with the disease. He once told me that quinine can cure malaria, which may have explained his inordinate fondness for gin and tonic, given that there is quinine in the tonic. What he didn’t tell me was exactly how to get the quinine out of the plant, but I guess it really doesn’t matter since, if I ever should get malaria, I plan to take my quinine as my grandfather did, rather than chew on bark.
But for now that doesn’t matter. What matters is that the quinine is a very slow grower and will neither need to be transplanted in the near future, nor is it likely to attract koala bears.
The upshot of all this is that I got the “exotic plant” bug. I have successfully grown bay laurel, failed miserably at cultivating Vietnamese rau om, and killed enough jasmine to keep me in potpourri for some time to come. My castor bean plant looks like a maple tree - I have no idea what it is supposed to look like - and there are seeds in my freezer which have to be frozen before they will germinate, although having lost the package they came in, I can’t remember what they are.
I am not sure what my new-found hobby has cost me so far – plants that grow in to the tallest trees in the world are not exactly cheap – but I am learning a lot about things such as scarifying seeds, grafting, budding, root division, stem layering, air layering, shoot cuttings, root cuttings, cloning, micro propagation, vegetative propagation, asexual propagation; sexual propagation; seed production, bulb production, sprig production, spore production, mycelium production, not to mention sowing, drilling, planting, replanting, transplanting, potting, etc.
So I can hardly wait for summer. It looks like it will be a particularly good year for moleplant.
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